The Name of Action

 

I studied acting with the great Earle Gister some years back. He was a brilliant man, and his way of teaching and speaking about acting resonated deeply with me. It felt, at the time, like the missing piece of my equipment as an actor. After working with Earle, I still had plenty left to learn as an actor—I don’t think we ever get to the end of that particular road—but I felt somehow complete in a way I hadn’t before. In every acting job A.E. (After Earle), I knew what to do. It’s not that I was never lost or confused. I was, of course. (If you’re never lost or confused in rehearsal, you’re probably not doing your job!) But I was able to be productively lost and confused, and I always knew how to deal with it and what to do next. It was liberating.

Another way in which it was liberating: Earle gave me back my head. I had spent years—all the way through high school, college, drama school, and even after—being told to get out of my head, not to use my intelligence. This was good advice, to a point. What all those teachers and directors were really telling me, of course, was to get and stay present; to listen, act, and react in the moment rather than from ideas or preconceived notions about the character or moment. I spent years learning how to do this, but along the way somewhere I made the mistake of coming to think that being present and alive to the moment meant not being able to apply critical intelligence to acting at all. Or, at the very least, to be extremely cautious about any such endeavor. Earle, a ferociously intelligent man, gave me permission to use my head again. It was an extraordinary gift, and I find it nearly impossible to describe how freeing it was for me.

I find deep and resonant analogues between Earle’s work and KTS. To my profound regret, I never had a chance to really talk them through with Dudley. In lieu of that never-to-be-had conversation, perhaps we can have a little one here. I know there are others out there who have studied with both Earle and with Dudley and Phil. Joe Alberti, who took Experiencing Speech and Experiencing Accents in Irvine this past summer, has even written a book about his teaching!

Deep resonance #1: Earle and Dudley were both profoundly intelligent men, and visionaries in their fields. (They were also both brilliant actors in their own rights.) They both saw the inconsistencies and inadequacies in what everyone around them was teaching, and ended up by completely breaking with prevailing methods and orthodoxies. They both started over from scratch, from first principles, and found their way to cohesive, coherent approaches that revolutionized the training of actors, Earle in acting and Dudley in speech and accents.

Deep resonance #2: In both Earle’s work and KTS, the primary impulse is towards description. What is it that is going on here?, both ask. What is it, exactly, at the most fundamental level? How accurately can we perceive it and describe it?

We know where this led with KTS. This deep questioning and granular observation is at the very heart of the work, both in its genesis and in its practice. It is a, perhaps the, central value, and one that we try to infuse into our students, into every class and every exercise we teach.

In Earle’s work, the investigation had a very specific focus. What is it that we’re doing, he asked, when we’re acting well? What is it that great actors are actually doing when they’re practicing their craft at the highest level? His answer mostly had to do with a precise and particular definition of action, which I’ll have more to say about in a minute. For now, though, I just want to note that for me, as for a great many of Earle’s students, his answer was entirely persuasive. I really believe that he captured an essential, bedrock truth about acting. It’s for that reason I don’t really like to refer to his work as a technique or a method. It is those things, of course, but it’s also simply a truth. It’s a systematic description of what it is that actors are doing when everything is working the way it’s supposed to. It doesn’t matter if they studied with Earle or not, or if they’ve even studied acting! They can have never even heard the word action used in the Stanislavskian sense. It doesn’t matter. If they’re acting well, they’re doing what Earle described and taught.

This seems to me to mesh perfectly with Dudley’s project. His abiding interest, it seems to me—and the spirit that suffuses the work—was in what things actually are. He wasn’t interested in some sort of ideal form, or in what things are supposed to be. What, at the deepest, most fundamental level, is this thing?

Take the ‘concept’ of oral posture (or vocal tract posture, if you prefer!). Oral posture is a contribution of enormous significance. (And Phil shares credit with Dudley, certainly, for its genesis and development, as I’ve written previously.) Others have taken stabs at something similar, both before and after Dudley and Phil got there. David Alan Stern, notably, was writing and teaching something called “tone focus” from early days. But like other similar efforts, it was a bit vague, and not terribly well-defined.* And in phonetics, Dudley and Phil drew on the work of John Laver, in particular, and what he called “articulatory setting.” But with typical curiosity, perspicacity, rigor, and humor, Dudley and Phil wrestled oral/vocal tract posture into its current form—a vital and powerful tool of accent teaching and learning. And here’s the thing—you might never have heard of oral posture. You might never have thought about it in any conscious way. But if you speak another language well (phonetically-speaking) or do any accent well, you have found the oral posture of that language or accent. Oral posture is, in other words, so useful and effective because it’s a description of something that’s actually happening. It is, in that way, just like Earle’s ‘theory’ of acting. A potent tool of teaching and learning, of effing the ineffable, as it were, whose power stems from deep observation and rigorous description of an actually occurring phenomenon.

A bit more about what that ‘theory’ actually entails: I’m just going to focus on one aspect here, the one I consider to be the most central, as well as the most original. (If you want to know more, read Joe’s book! Or buy me a drink.) In Stanislavski’s analysis of what good acting necessarily entails, in any scene the character must always want something from the other character or characters. This is their objective. The actor/character must then do something to try to get what they want. This is their action. You can’t play an objective, only an action. Legions of acting students dutifully learn to write ‘action’ words in the margins of their scripts. “To persuade,” “to threaten,” “to explain.” These general infinitive verbs lead to generalized acting. Invariably. (It’s quite something, actually. Earle used to say that when we’re acting, we do what we say we’re going to do, and he was right. If you’ve directed or coached actors, you’ve probably had this experience: an actor does a scene or monologue in a very generalized way, with no specific, actual connection to their scene partner. You ask them what it was they were trying to do, and they will inevitably give you very general answers.)

Earle’s insight is that an action is something very particular—it’s always an attempt to make another person feel a particular way. So “to make him feel afraid” is an action. “To make her feel important” is an action. “To make them feel like tiny insects” is an action. “To make her feel explained to” is not an action. You can’t even play it. Go ahead, try it!

This sounds simple. And it is simple, once you work it out and can actually do it. That may take some time, of course. (It’s really a transfer of energy, which is a skill. It does have to leave your body and land on the other person’s. Otherwise you’re not doing it. It has to affect them. That’s why you can feel it in the audience when actors really do it. Those experiences in the theatre when the hair stands up on the back of your neck or you get goose bumps? The actors just successfully and fully sent and received energy—they played actions.)

This may seem like a small thing—this insistence on phrasing actions with “I want to make her feel ____. Isn’t this just semantics? But remember, we do what we say we’re going to do. And when we say to ourselves, in the margin of our script or in our heads before we enter, “I want to make him feel like the hottest thing that ever walked on two legs” (and then actually do it, of course—that part is crucial!), it results in specific, connected acting. Energy is sent. One actor acts on the flesh of the second. She tries to change him, the actor/character, the actual being standing in front of her, right here, right now. Not in theory, not in the abstract, but in the actual, in the here and now. When this happens, when energy is sent, when a specific action is actually played, the other actor can experience it—actually feel the action land on him as an almost physical thing. He can then respond in kind—the natural thing to do when someone actually plays an action on us! The audience feels it, feels like something is actually happening right now, right in front of them. And all of a sudden the thing is alive, and dangerous. Anything can happen.

Another great acting teacher, Jed Diamond, once said that acting is motivated by simple thoughts, deeply taken in. Earle’s ‘theory’ of action is simple, or sounds it, at least (it’s easier said than done). But it is astonishing in its effectiveness when taught to actors. And as a description of what it is that we’re doing when we’re acting well, I find it entirely persuasive. It makes sense to me both from both the inside and the outside, from my own experience as an actor, from my experience as a coach and teacher of acting, and from my experience as an audience member.

A corollary: Earle’s contention was that this is what we do in life, not just when we’re acting. We don’t do it consciously, of course, not for the most part. But we want things from people, and we try to get them by playing actions on them—by trying to make them feel smart, or wrong, or loved, or irresponsible, or guilty, etc. Again, the wellspring is observation of actual, live phenomena—human behavior.

Deep resonance #3: the emphasis in KTS is on the physical actions of speech. It’s not an accident that the same word—action—is at the very heart of both bodies of thought and practice. They have slightly different usages and implications—Earle’s use of action, like Stanislavski’s, is a term of art. But though the basic definition of action, for Earle, was a release of energy, his emphasis was always on the concreteness of the energy. When someone successfully plays an action—releases energy—you can see it. You can feel it. It is a palpable, concrete, specific thing.

It was the same for Dudley. It’s the same for Phil, and for me. More than anything else, I want the actors I teach and coach to feel the specific, in-the-moment, concrete physicality of their speech actions. Term of art or no, action is action. Speech or acting, physical or energetic, action is action. The two senses engage, reflect, intertwine, and embrace. The root is the same. Speech is acting, acting is speech.

Enterprises of great pitch and moment indeed! Let us then, rather than lose the name of action, embody it, embrace it, study it, teach it, own it, define it, challenge it, live it, and be it!

Action!

*Despite this, “tone focus” was far from a useless concept. It was, in fact, a significant contribution in its own right. David Alan Stern was really the first to try to put his finger on this all-important aspect of accent teaching. He was, in every sense, a pioneer. The problem is just that if this idea is applied without rigor, it can lead to oversimplification, stereotype, mystification, and even parody.

 

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