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What is Dramatic Theory, Part III

PART III: What is Dramatic Theory, and why you need it?

What is an audience? Let’s deal with one at a time – an audient.

Stories – ones that are not bold-faced, social propaganda of any ilk, are tales; told in a way that bring a listener, or viewer, to a place where they can abstract the emotional and cultural elements of an experience from a very shortened version. Anna Karenina by Tolstoy is encyclopedic. A reader is someone who has willingly exposed their subconscious mind to a series of visual, tactile and/or auditory ‘images’, for the purpose of being entertained, amused or emotionally informed at some level. In the presentation of filmed drama or comedy, the viewer collects these images, in the order that they are revealed in the writing – building, reconstructing, reformulating – and at last, at the end of the 22, 44, or 90 minutes, a completed image in time and space – called a story – is completed in the mind of the willing participant. And that story is completed in the subconscious mind of each and every single audient.

Dramatic Theory is: we have to know what the effect upon the audience is intended to be so that the thrust of the material and our efforts are unified. We need to know if the writer’s intention is for the audience to have a good, hearty, ironic laugh; or a shock, or a surprise, or a spiritual challenge. Being able to put a name on a scene – even upon a beat – qualifies the purpose of the writing so that we can have it mind as we work.

As an actor we are not the ‘character’ – we cannot pretend we are not in a dramatic or comedic contrivance intended to have a desired emotional effect upon the audience. No, we are much more than that. We are understanding artists, who, when married to the original intent of the writing, are THE integral propelling force in the delivery of the essential aspects of the piece.

Astronaut: Where are we going?

NASA: That’s on a ‘need to know’ basis.

Astronaut: I’m not feeling good about this mission.

For the actor, the ‘mission statement’ is right there on the page in front of you: flight path, fuel levels, intended altitude and range, and every aspect of the intended effect of reaching the destination. It’s all right there, but we have to know how to READ the instructions. This is what Dramatic Theory gives us, the skills to be able to read the instructions and map to the intended destination to the bulls eye of the drama or comedy.

We put appropriate names on things. Why?

Guy: Heard you went out huntin’ today. What’d you git?

Hunter: Oh, you know, one a them runnin’ things.

Guy: What do you mean, ‘one a them runnin’ things?

Hunter: Oh, you know, with the four legs?

Guy: You shot my dog?!

When all of our acting and directing skills are then devoted to the map, the plan, the blueprint – there is a very high likelihood of our arriving there.

This why we learn the rules of reading the map – the script – in our hands: Circumstances, Issues, The Doings, the Rules of Two, Script Evaluation, Objectivity, Actable /Perceivable and all the other Vital Elements that give us a consistent platform upon which to stage the material so that it CAN have the desired effect upon our viewing audience.

This is why good actors want good dramatic theory.

 

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What is Dramatic Theory, Part II

PART II: What is Dramatic Theory, and why you need it?

After more than thirty years living in Los Angeles, I now live on a mountain in the desert. Just a bit ago, a rather hungry looking roadrunner hopped up on my wall, looking for baby quail to eat.  I’ve been giving those quail a little additional food and watching them grow for weeks, now. I don’t particularly want to think of them as roadrunner vittles. So, yes I have sympathy for the baby quail and their incredibly assiduous parents. I ‘feel’ for them. I also ‘feel’ for the roadrunner. It isn’t easy being one, I am quite sure. I want them to survive, too. But when he jumped up on that wall, that action got me out of my chair, out the front door, and eye to eye with that raptor, the two of us having a short, but mutually wide-eyed communication. His action prompted my action. His feeling hungry did not prompt my action, and my feelings for the quail family notwithstanding, did not prompt my getting up out of my chair. That I move from my chair for the little birds is EVIDENCE I have feelings for them. Extant feelings of “protective” became the action of “protecting” because a threat had arisen. So you see, the process – psychologically speaking, is spontaneous: extant feelings + threat (stimuli) = action. There is no process of “an arousal of feeling which generates an action” but rather “existing feeling + external action = personal action.

“I never liked the guy. He shoved me from behind, and called my sister a bad name. I hit him.” There is no process here of having to “dislike” the guy – the extant feeling – for a punch to be thrown – that state already exists. Had there been no shove from behind – the action – the state would have likely gone on for infinity, which would have given us: “You know it’s been twenty years, I don’t remember that guy’s name, but I never liked him. We never said so much as ‘hello’. ”

We can let anatomy, psychology, biology, metaphysics and bingo decide where one element intersects the other – but for dramatic purposes – feelings exist before the fact or they do not exist before the fact. As an audience, we know before the fact that they exist, or we find out after the fact that they’ve existed all along.  But in the human experience, they are all one – a simultaneous event, either based on previous experience or upon present necessity – both of which involve existing or newly generated feelings. This real human experience is the cause of a real effect upon the audience, and understanding how to actualize it in our work is essential to providing the audience the platform upon which this effect will take place.

Which means we must discuss the essential components of the audience – we who witness the dramatic and comedic events.

 

PART I: What is Dramatic Theory, and why do you need it?

 

It is predictable that so many of us in front of the camera tend to think of things solely from the standpoint of the actor: “What is my character thinking?” “What is my character feeling?” “What should I be ‘experiencing’ – suffering, enduring, enjoying, loathing. “What is my viewpoint? What is my character’s viewpoint?” All of these are interesting and, often, valuable questions to consider.

But what is the value of dramatic introspection without a meaningful understanding of the effect of all that ‘interior’ work? What is entertainment? Who gets value out of it? What is its value? Why do we provide it? Is entertainment a valid value? Does an audience deserve to be entertained?  What is drama? Who is it for? What does the actor get out of it?

Most actors, it can be asserted, get involved in entertainment because early on they discover it’s something they are pretty good at, and maybe – just maybe – a living could be made doing it. If you get the role of Jiminy Cricket in the school play when you are eight years old, and your rendition of ‘Give a Little Whistle’ gets a rousing ovation from the SRO gymnasium audience, well…let’s just say Algebra will always come in second. So there was always a strong connection for many in entertainment for the ego-self – that which identifies with recognition and affirmation. And after all, a bit of ego and really thick skin are prerequisites for being able to handle the hardships necessarily to be endured in the performing arts – all of them. Musicians, dancers, singers – none of them get off easy. It’s also true for the actor, writers, creators, producers and directors of photography, designers and grips in the film and television industry. Life is as dicey for those behind the camera as it is for those in front of it. Have you ever seen a focus-puller’s hand? It’s the one that’s shaking.

But there is a purpose to all of this: entertainment. Humans have, since before recorded history (were they able to stop running from wild men and animals long enough to build a fire) – taken time to tell stories and support their relationships with song, dance and ceremony: cultural codes that established priorities, protocols and authority. These gave the members of the tribe respite and perspective into their own lives – and a sense of safety and belonging. In these fireside songs, dances and stories, they gave themselves over to an experience – a very special experience – one that we still practice today. It is an experience I like to call the Dramatic Event.

In this experience, something wonderfully magical happens: we surrender to our subconscious mind, for a period of time, participation in a fully-immersed experience which is more than vicarious; an experience that is actually a representation of an alternate reality – which if performed truthfully – seduces and intoxicates our senses into accepting what we are seeing and hearing as essentially real. What a ride! This is an old model, and I would not doubt, when research is done, that monkeys, too, daydream – that they, too, enjoy basically the same event.

This willful, voluntary – and in our case – premeditated event (we change the channel, we buy the ticket) – has become essential to the rest and recuperation of the human spirit. It has been realized over the ages in ceremony, extravaganzas, opera, plays, musicals, concerts, dances and chorales, in film and television – and as profoundly and perfectly as in a good novel. Reading Tolstoy, after all, is not an intellectual experience, it is an epic film in our heads – unfolding one scene at a time. If we are then gob-smacked at a turn of phrase or a descriptive passage, then that may be an intellectual revelation, but even this soon turns to emotional awe and astonished admiration.

That’s entertainment!

There is nothing easy about being in the entertainment business, so whether you do it for self-satisfaction, self-survival or because you want to ‘make a difference’ and change the world, there is still the necessity to be a contributing part of something that has some sort of value for the people who fill the seats and pay the tickets – whether in a movie house or in front of a large screen television. All of our favorite shows are part of a subscription service, after all, which is the ticket price. So, we do provide content for a paying audience who will, in one way or another, “report their findings” to the producers, studios and networks – whether the product is frilly mean-nothing or top-of-the-line social propaganda.

Drama is from the Greek: Miriam Webster says:

A: a composition in verse or prose intended to portray life or character or to tell a story usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue and typically designed for theatrical performance:

B: a movie or television production with characteristics (as conflict) of a serious play; broadly :  a play, movie, or television production with a serious tone or subject

Late Latin dramat-, drama, from Greek, deed, drama, from dran to do, act

So direct from the Greek, we see that the headwaters of drama is the deed. The Doing. The Action.

And, for the record – all comedy is drama, and all drama is comedy.

Therefore, if we are going to place our boat in the original stream of dramatic waters – in order to better understand what we are doing – we have to place it in a river called Action, not in the downstream delta called Feeling. So now, we engage in the dialectic of the Acting vs Feeling genesis. Which came first, the feeling or the action? Well, that truly is the chicken and egg. “He threw weeds over my fence, which made me feel bad, so I threw manure over his, which made him feel bad.  I think he originally felt badly because I didn’t invite him to my daughter’s wedding.” So we see the genesis is always the deed. The action – and the result is then – feeling. How does this relate to the question “What is Drama?”

Getting The Most Out Of Your Imagination Part I

I begin this post with a social criticism, and a mild rebuke to younger generations who, through no direct fault of their own, were born in a highly virtual age – one where the 3-dimensional world is diminishing in cultural influence, and the virtual world begins its own trek into the future. Where it will lead we truly cannot know. The comments here are for the actor primarily, and for the director and writer secondarily, but for them not far behind. While the context is sociological in nature, the issue here is your performance on stage, screen and television. I love the Modern Age, but…

Having myself been born when my parents could barely afford to buy a black and white television (I don’t think we even had one until I was five or six), raised in a lower-middle class part of town, surrounded by others who, for the most part, were in the same financial situation – we had to ‘make do’ with our ‘play’. Personally, I didn’t get an electronic toy (I think it was a battery-operated fighter jet cockpit that had two or three toots and whistles that offered literally minutes of entertainment value) until I was nine.

My favorite first toy was a Civil War set, with dozens of wonderfully molded Yankees and Confederates drawn in all manner of combat. It even included an Abraham Lincoln figure, several cannon which managed to spring-fire tiny paper wads, a spring-loaded ‘exploding bridge’, some fences, tents and other fabulous odds and ends.  Alone, often in the presence of my mother, father and three older brothers, I played for hours on end. I made hills and mountains with blankets and area rugs, creek beds were creases in an old brown towel, and trees were – well – various vegetation from outside. I became very, very good at war sounds – of every kind.

Keep in mind that my father, who had grown up in abject poverty in Vicksburg, Mississippi and was seven years old in 1920, had witnessed aged, battle-worn amputees and war-wounded Confederate veterans on the streets of that hilly town throughout his youth.  The past was the present, and there was no bionic mitigation for the physically devastated, no antibiotics (his first girlfriend died over a three day weekend from a goiter in her neck that cropped up, and nothing for it) no private phones, no internet, no commercial airplanes and no frozen food. The Birdseye family of Chicago were just getting started on their flash freezing work as commercial compressors were invented. No one had freezers yet, only ice boxes. In the West, much of the ice for these were cut from fresh water lakes in the High Sierras, then railed down to San Francisco and beyond.

My point is this: from the time my Daddy was born to the time I graduated high school there were living Civil War veterans, commercial flight, penicillin, long distance phone, two World Wars, the Polio vaccine, COMPUTERS, THE MOON, and NOW – THE INTERNET, the Hubble telescope, Mars – and Beyond! Historically speaking, every Age has its challenges, disasters, catastrophes and upheavals. The last hundred years have been – in no uncertain terms – phenomenally accelerated in every aspect. It’s as though we were part of an actual time warp.

Still, we adjust. But HOW have we adjusted? I wouldn’t dare to posit the whole of the meaning, disposition and parabolas of the ramifications. But I can observe how it has had an effect upon one of the Arts – that of Acting. And the effects are profound.

Over the course of playing as a child on my own for years, I made pirate ships out of old shoe boxes, sent astronaut figurines into space on a gantry made of stacked, plastic strawberry baskets, fought Germans, Indians, Santa Anna at the Alamo, and British regulars in just about every war there had ever been on the continent. Our neighborhood kids fought wars in holes we dug, lived in villages made of January’s Christmas trees, defended castle walls of hurricane fence, and sailed the Seven Seas in the spindly tree trunks clustered behind my house.

Albert Einstein is famous for having said that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. My mother, sensing early on that I would not qualify as a scientist, once gave me a bookmark with that quote on it. I still have and treasure it. But what does it mean? And what does it mean to you, the actor?

Times have changed, certainly. My folks would be irritated if they had to yell for me to hear their dinner call. I’d be out ‘pretending’ by myself, for hours. Or, I would be with neighborhood kids playing war, or football, or some weird game we’d make up. Parents always have an ear out, but back then they were only marginally worried about something ‘bad’ happening to their children from strangers. What they didn’t do is let me or my brothers have bicycles, because they didn’t want us to get run over by a car. Bicycles, by the way, are much safer than walking across a street, head down, with ear buds at top volume, while texting in the virtual world. That, my friends, is called ‘only a matter of time’.

But okay, there is no getting it back – not even in gated communities. It’s all gone. Gone with the wind, as Margaret Mitchell famously put it. We shall weep together and perhaps, at some point, try to figure out what happened. And, if and why it had to. But for now – we ask ‘what has the change from the actual life to the virtual life brought to the young actor who is feeling the tug, the tow, the desire to act  in television and film’?

Continued in Part II

Getting The Most Out Of Your Imagination Part II

Why, so frequently, is the modern young actor seemingly at a loss to swiftly and accurately perceive the depth and dimensions of the emotional components of a scene? When, for all we had were wooden swords, tents made from blankets, spaceships fashioned from cardboard, ships masts of tree trunks, dolls and doll houses and tea sets and nurses with ribbon stethoscopes – we had to use our imaginations. Now, what is the imagination of the artist? It is the ability to conceive and express ‘what might be’.

To further extend the process for the actor: what could be, what would be, what will be, what may be, what might have been, what would have been, what could have been, what will have been, what may have been. And within each of these is the exact emotional component that comes when the subconscious mind is engaged in a creditable and plausibly imagined scenario.

As we have seen, the subconscious mind believes as REAL and TRUE anything emotionally or repeatedly impressed upon it. In the pretending world of a life where one HAD to project possibilities – for virtual reality was not there to ‘fill in the blanks’ – the imagination was improved, built upon, practiced, engaged, nourished and compelled into the fore front of the natural way of seeing things and of perceiving them – imagination was the principal process of engagement with reality! In other words, in the world of imagination one’s reality was processed through one’s imagination. In today’s virtual world, reality is processed through – well, virtual reality.

And example would be: in the World of Imagination an upcoming job promotion is processed very quickly through a bank of possibilities, resulting in the subject seeing a potential reality next to potential possibilities. In the World of Virtual Reality, a promotion in a job is processed very quickly through a presentation of realities, resulting in the subject seeing a potential reality next to other potential realities. Possibilities are more ‘possible’ to the subconscious mind than are realities. Reality is carved in stone. Reality cannot be a possibility, because it is already a reality. It’s the difference between looking down one road that may be very nice and certain, but ends in a lovely cul de sac; while the other may be less certain, but continues to engage the mind – and I would say spirit – in a search for the greatest potential outcome versus the greatest actual outcome.

The ARTIST – for our purposes, the actor – is dealing in a world of ideas, a world of possibilities – not in a world of certainties! Why? Because ‘certainty’ is not dramatic. Remember here, that we are all about what is dramatic.  So, even in the instances where certainty comes at the ‘end of the play’, it can not have been the journey of the play.

What I mean to say, is that over the years I have seen young actors wanting from a loss of a nourished and practiced imagination. For this is the imagination that can perceive the depths of the emotional intentions of the writing, the emotional potential of the acting, and the potential of the emotional engagement of the audience – who we so very much wish to draw into the story. It takes years of ‘imaginative training’ to be able to be very, very good at deeply, accurately and quickly sensing what something ‘would be like’. It cannot be gained in a suddenly concocted and arbitrary ‘history’ of ‘your character’. The subconscious mind simply doesn’t work like that. It needs repetition and emotion – practice! It might help to do all sorts of exercises and histories and all manner of research. But nothing can replace the seasoned imagination for a deep and abiding understanding of TRUTH. The nasty kid from down the block who hit me in the face with the rock he threw taught me nothing of truth – he merely informed me of reality.

So what can the young actor who has been trained and nourished in the virtual world, the world of instant gratification, information and realization do – to regain this value that only the well-cured imagination can provide?

She can play. He can play. He and she can do the unthinkable in this world of answers and robots and soon-to-be virtual vacations: they can go out on the hiking path and pretend to be an intrepid explorer. They can sit in front of a fan and pretend they are flying – in a plane or like a bird. They can stroll up a street that they ‘own’, or slink down one they are forbidden to trod. They can start a great debate, or a passionate love affair, or perform a daunting surgery in an operating arena. As you can see there is no limit – none – to what can be used as the wormhole for the subconscious mind to explore the universe of human experience.

And I am not talking about theater games. Theater games are fine! These group activities can point to the the kind of thing the actor must do to upgrade, reboot or install an imagination that will change the very nature and value of his or her work. But the actor must do the work on his or her OWN – in the privacy of his own room, silently and out loud, physically and emotionally. And if you look hard enough you will find the one place you most like to go – your secret door the scenario you most love to pretend exists and engage in.  And there your subconscious mind will tap into a vibration called The Truth, and it will permeate all things – especially one’s artistic offerings. Do it while walking, cooking, bathing, dressing, cleaning, gardening – anything – and use what you are really doing as the action, the physical platform and scenario of your imaginative improvisation.

Doing so will – over time – regain for you the World of Imagination, and provide the emotional content the young actor needs to reach the depths of understanding that make a speech, a line, a look – a single word –  the real deal, the deepest ‘real’, and one that is full to the brim of possibilities – for both you and the audience.

Think about it.

Wishing You the Very Best

Getting The Most Out of Acting Class

Having taught acting for several decades it becomes apparent that sometimes, despite certain improvement, an actor can sense when he or she is not getting everything desired in a class. In my experience, all acting classes – which is to say, each acting class – has its own personality. Naturally, the class personality, in large part, reflects upon the teacher, his or her philosophy of acting (and of life), and the teacher’s goals and intentions. It also depends a great deal on the individual actor’s goals and intentions. You’ll want to be matched up with the right class in order to get the most out of it. Now what you consider ‘getting the most out of it’, and what the teacher and the others in class consider ‘getting the most out of it’ may well be very different things. How so?

There are elements to professional acting classes that include, but are not limited to: ego, reputation, class standing, agency and management affiliations, competition, personal jealousy or even envy, cost and community clout. Add to these a teacher who has become to the majority of students a personal guru, more than a trusted mentor, and you have a lot on your plate as an actor.

Having a thick skin is one of the necessary things an actor has to have in order to get through the ‘slings and arrows’ of a life in the arts, as there are always people who look at the business as a personal competition with others, rather than as an artistic journey. They just came out that way. And that’s cool. Each to his won – I mean ‘own’.

This is not to say that booking a lead or supporting role in a film or television series is not a wonderful and enriching thing. But I can tell you from experience that the finest actors I have worked with over the years – stars and costars in film and television and Emmy winners and nominees – were never really competing with anyone else. They were competing with their own sense of personal and artistic accomplishment. In fact, while obviously knowing who was and who was not ‘up’ for the same role, only passing thought was ever given to ‘winning’ a role. It had much more to do with getting an acting job and then doing it well – and for as long as possible. One wants to be a winning person, after all.

Here’s how to get the most out of your acting class – Part 1.

Focus: Concentrate on the task at hand in each class – you are paying a lot of money, and are paying for the privilege of paying full attention. It’s not all about you – and even if it is, then make it all about you. Take in everything of value that you can get. I have, many times, seen talented actors checking a text while in class and miss a moment being acted by a fellow student, which – if emulated  – would have changed the observer’s work, and maybe their career. When you are observing others work, become the ‘teacher / director’ in your own mind – surrender your identity as ‘actor’ when observing other actors work. Your own acting will improve exponentially, and your criticisms – whether voiced or not – will take on a miraculously objective dimension.

Be Discriminating: Classes are potential quicksand for your ego. Remember you are participating by and for your own purposes, do not allow yourself to be lost in a quagmire of contention. Even exchanges you witness between the teacher and other students (or between students) should be of observable value to you – as ‘ropes to climb’ – and ‘ropes to skip’ as well.

Start From Where You Are: Some of the most wonderful and successful actors are people who were not ‘made over’ in their acting classes. They are ‘as you see them’. There is a fungible authenticity to you that is not able to be substituted with any other model. This doesn’t mean that the actor should eschew good technique. All professionals who excel have great technique – regardless of the profession, please know this. But if you do wish to be ‘made over’, go to a qualified psychologist and start there. They have a license.

From our favorite non-actor, the philosopher Balthazar Gracian:

“Know how to rely on yourself. In great crises there is no better companion than a bold heart, and if it becomes weak, it must be strengthened from the neighboring parts. Worries die away for the person who asserts himself.”

Best to You – Always

Shawn

visit shawnnelsonacting.com for new material, Face Time and Skype rates, blogs and downloads.

contact: shawnnelsonusa@yahoo.com, shawnnelsonacting@ymail.com for Face Time and Skype or to talk to Shawn on the phone, 818-521-0363.

More Acting Wisdom From Balthasar Gracian

Here yet again, from our favorite non-actor with words for the dramatically inclined:

“Be expressive. This depends not only on the clearness but also on the vivacity of your thoughts. Some have an easy conception but a hard labor,  for without clarity the children of the mind – thoughts and judgments – cannot be brought into the world.   Many have a capacity like that of vessels with a large mouth and a small vent…how will the audience understand someone who does not connect any definite idea with what he is talking about?”

Once again, our Medieval mentor strikes at the heart of the matter, and while Gracian is here talking about larger matters of the whole of the world, his words ring true for the actor in stage or in film.

The glue that joins matter to the mind in life – and therefore in acting – is the application of what is being said to the object of the communication. If I am saying to you that ‘you are late’,  it will not matter or even be understood as to why I am bothering to say so,  unless I include in the communication that there are implications to your being late.  The glue that makes the communication stick to the consciousness of the listener – in life and in drama – is that we are always (except if intentionally not) communicating not facts, but rather the implications of the facts related.

When I say to you, or when my character says to your character that ‘you are late’, I am not communicating a matter of the general relativity of time, I am communicating that you are going to miss an important moment in your life: a meeting, an important arrangement, a ceremony, a date, an appointment; that you will look bad, or inept, or unprofessional.

In life we do not waste the time to first give the fact: you are late – and then to give the implications of the fact: boy, are you in trouble!

In life – and therefore in acting – we go straight to the implications of the communication. The words say: you are late. The message is : this may cost you, big time. The line says: “Where have you been?” The communication is “You’re gonna blow it, now move it, fella!” In acting, we never (did I say ‘never’, yes I think I did – with but rare exception) give information, any more than we do in life. We go straight to the meaning of the information. – unless we are intentionally hiding it (or accidentally on purpose).

So, our friend Balthasar is once again out in front of the pack with his life theory. When he says ‘be expressive’ he means to say what you mean with the facts, for this is the glue that attaches the communication to the listener. It is quite literally – the application. I highly recommend the little book, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, as it is one of the most important books on the craft of acting ever written.