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From Balthazar Gracian

Now once again, from our favorite sage who wasn’t an actor, with another invaluable word on Acting:

“Drain nothing to the dregs, neither good nor bad. A sage once reduced all virtue to the golden mean. Push right to the extreme and it becomes wrong, press all the juice from an orange and it becomes bitter. Even in enjoyment, never go to extremes. Thought too subtle is dull. If you milk a cow too much, you draw blood, not milk.”                                        Balthazar Gracian

We see that the modest performance is the one that is truest to life. Of course, we all take risks from time to time – some calculated, some not. Everyone gets a bold streak on occasion, and there may be a hero in each of us. As Goethe put it, “boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

But in great part, and on a daily basis, we humans tend to walk the middle way, on the lookout for where we MAY be bold – and survive. Those who do not – tend to catch mother nature’s roving eye. And while they may indeed find a shiny gold coin off the beaten track, they may also be eaten by a lion, or run over by a bus.

Therefore you will see most people, most of the time, engage the world and the people in it with a certain modesty. It is the most authentic thing, and therefore a most valuable thing to be adhered to by the fine actor. If your character is meant to be bold, where and when will certainly be found in the script. The actor, on the other hand, takes the giant risk of being modest in the work, trusting that truth and clarity are in themselves, dramatic.

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The First Time, Read It Aloud !

I am not a scientist, but I have tried these many years to be observant in our various laboratories of human behavior and emotion. If there is one thing that is predictable about how actors approach new material – either doing a scene in a class or in an audition – it is that the first time they read the material they will read it silently to themselves.

Makes sense, right? One doesn’t go about blurting out lines without knowing what you are doing – you might act badly, get the emphasis wrong, mispronounce a word, stumble over the narration, or worse – not understand what the heck is in front of you on the page! And make no mistake – we’re not talking about when you are vulnerable among others – we are talking about when you are all by yourself! It’s as if we don’t want to risk embarrassing ourselves.

Musicians can’t get away with that, you know. Okay, if you’re on an electric piano with headphones you can get away with it – but not with any other instrument.  Singers cannot sing in silence. Painters can imagine a scene, but soon they have to put it out in front to understand what’s brewing inside. Choreographers dance out loud – sure the concept is born in a vision – but the particulars are worked out in dance shoes and warm leggings.

We’ve noticed, in our own private teaching lab over these many years, that there is a critical element necessary for excellence in reading comprehension that has been increasingly disdained in Education since the early 1960’s: in teaching the written word, we have found  that  excellent comprehension can be tracked to the reader ‘hearing his/her own voice’ as he or she reads.

It turns out this is a critical component in the process of integration and application of written material.  It is also a formative element in the creation of high self-esteem and public performance confidence – one that makes a viable home for individualism. This is in stark contrast to the external socialization model of forced silent reading ( quite literally: your individual voice is not important) especially in the early years of linguistic development.  There would be no need for Toast Masters if we all read aloud throughout high school, both frequently and robustly.

Does this contradict the forcing of seven and eight-year-olds to learn to read silently? Strictly speaking no….but it does suggest that this should only be done when the student has made the magical connection between his/her own voice and the information on the page. And we have found that this is especially true of material that is to be performed. It turns out that the old model of ‘recitation’ is extremely beneficial to the individual, as the wisdom of ages past knew so well. Never underestimate the truth in the meaning of the expression “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” as it relates to things cultural.  We make historical mistakes because we forget the mistakes of history!

As to the nature of the connection, we aren’t sure why this is, but we have shown that performers learn faster and better when the initial reading of ‘to be performed’ material is read aloud – without concern to the quality of performance. Naturally, then, the best scenario for the first reading should be while you are alone and free to make all the mistakes one may make.

We think it all has to do with the processes of Subconscious Mind. When we read  performance material for the first time silently, we are actually participating in a protected scenario (the one of our own ego-self ) rather than one of a more precarious ‘first take’ of the material. When we read for the first time aloud, we are reading unprotected: vulnerable, out on a life raft of the words – and a greater force tends to come to the forefront, and frequently to the rescue (see: necessity is the mother of invention).

It is now Universal Consciousness that leads us . The material is flowing from an Open Source, rather than from a secretive  identity – that of our ego self. Yes, this sounds counter-intuitive to the notion that recitation begets individualism, but it’s not. Individualism is far-more connected to our ability to relate to what is, than to create from what is not. The collective is a dreamer. The individual takes the position of realist – artist and artisan alike.

Certainly, as we rehearse, our ego-identity will  find its way into the performance: each of us is, after all, the one performing. But the initial airing of the material stands to expose some truly remarkable insight if revealed in the 3rd person of common consciousness, rather than in the 1st person consciousness of the second-thought performer.

In addition, we believe that there is a crucial connection between hearing and speech to be made within each individual – one that lasts a lifetime. Perhaps it’s a neurological function – perhaps it’s a virtual or spiritual connection, who knows.

But the subconscious mind makes immediate decisions about where this voice -now  your voice – is going, when reading something aloud for the first time.  It may make the right decision, in which case we are rewarded for having concluded correctly.  Or it may make the wrong decision, in which case it then makes a safe assessment of what has been misjudged. Learning and reward are joined together in one process. Further, the subconscious is operating from Carl Jung’s Collective Unconscious – applying the gained knowledge of countless centuries to our guesswork – when we allow it. And we can only allow it when we give it the first reading. Then we give the second reading to Reason – and some of course, to our Ego.

Read the material out loud the very first time , all by yourself – every role – all the way through. You will find the wisdom of the ages informing everything thing you read and say.

Stanislavski In Rehearsal

In the wonderful book by Vasily Toporkov “Stanislavski in Rehearsal”, which relates some of the amazing experiences he and other students of acting and directing had at the Moscow Art Theatre with the one and only ‘Konstantin Sergeyevich’, Toporkov related a conversation between the master teacher and himself about a line in a scene they were rehearsing.

Stanislavski begins in the following brief excerpt:

“Where is the stress in this sentence? Which single word would be enough for the scene to be understood?…The answer is already in the sentence itself!…You even say that will not leave this place, until…what?”                                                                                                                                                                                 “Until I receive…”


“The decision.”

“Yes, that is the main accented word. You must give the single stress in the whole sentence on that one word.”

I say the line, trying to give it only one stress.

“But why do you jumble the rest of the words? You don’t have to hurry or mumble them, just don’t stress them. Well, then…”

Again, I say it.

“Why so much emphasis on the last word? ”

“What do you mean ‘so much emphasis’?”

“Why do you push de-ci-sion?”

“But the accent is on that!”

“Yes, but not so strong. You only need to take the emphasis from all the rest, then the single accent will remain. Well, now…”

When the uninitiated were present at such especially difficult moments during Stanislavski’s rehearsals, it often seemed to them grotesque…”Really. It is too much to harass people so. Where is the personal creativity? Such torture of an actor cannot lead to anything good, it only confuses him.”

Later, on the contrary, the meaning of the sentences and words becomes especially clear. Having gone through such “purifying fire” you begin to regard the sentences into which you have put so much effort with a special respect.You will not mumble it, nor will you clutter it with unnecessary stresses. It becomes musical and effective.

End of excerpt.

In my new book, Comprehensive Contemporary Acting,  I quote the famous tenor Placido Domingo – now artistic director of the LA Opera – from an NPR radio interview some years back.  I heard it, immediately dropped what I was doing,  and ran to get a pen to write it down: “And if you can insert yourself without disturbing anything”, he said, “then you are musical.”

Naturally, I draw the same conclusion. If you can insert yourself without disturbing anything, then you are dramatic (or comedic – and in comedy it is much more difficult to not disturb anything, which is why it is so tricky).

Even back then, at the Moscow Arts Theatre, the actors were frustrated with what initially felt to them like their creativity was being held in check. But then they came to realize that the constant attention to detail – understanding the Circumstances, the exact physicality, the proper emphasis, and the inclusion of everything that must be included – is what freed their natural creativity to shine through their very persons.

It is none of it – arbitrary.

Other Actors

There is no way, long or short term, to know the core dynamics of another person, if they don’t want you to. Profiles are only accurate when based upon significant behavioral events. We can guess all we want, but in the end, it’s just a guess. Further, it’s none of our business.

The working relationship is obvious: people tell you what they want to tell you. You won’t know anything they don’t want you to know. You’ll only know what you know is true about everyone: some actors are wonderful, some are not. Some are confident, some are not confident. Some are very confident in their work, but not in themselves. Some are pretty relaxed, others nervous. Still other appear relaxed, and are hiding worry and anxiety. All this we know.

At the core of discomfort is, of course, fear. We forget that Production is much more fearful than the individual actor could ever be. Fearful that the roles – roles in which so much has been invested, reputations on the line – will not be well cast. Casting worries about it, producers worry about it, directors worry about it, studios worry about it. And why not. A lot is riding on the actors’ performances, their ability to perform well over an extended period of time, and on them being someone that Production, Studio and the Cast finds agreeable to work with.

Indeed, even a very fine actor will find producers unwilling to take the chance on him or her, if it is felt by enough people that the real ‘who’ of the actor is being obfuscated in some way. This is not to say that we need to ‘tell all’ to anyone – and certainly no one wants to hear it, fascinating as it may be. But if we cannot be trusted to be the entity we purport to be, then other human beings will not be able to place their confidence in us – we who are an important element in an incredibly expensive and potentially very lucrative enterprise.

So, in working with other actors it is pointless to try to identify ‘things you are getting’ from them. The things you are getting are known. and they are: ‘I want to keep this job’, ‘my husband says we need the money’, ‘my agent is on my back to get asked back’, ‘my wife will kill me if it’s only one episode’, ‘I think you’re taking too many liberties in this scene’, ‘why are you working so big’, ‘why are you working so small’, ‘why are you being so quiet’, ‘why are you being so loud’, ‘do you know the director or the producer personally’, ‘are they paying you above scale’, you seem so detached’, ‘you seem so aggressive’, ‘you’re not giving me anything’, ‘you’re not looking at me’, ‘you’re leaning into my light’, ‘I really need to make that lunch meeting’, ‘I hope we get out of here before 8’, ‘this writing sucks apples’, ‘why don’t they turn the air conditioning on’, – and the list goes on – and not one of these things is based in anything other than fear.

I’m reminded of that one actor in every play’s cast who embraces you like his very, very best new friend in the world – when all he wants is to get the scoop on you and to find out what has to be done to marginalize you in his bosses eyes. Yes, he’s there, too. But you can’t change him, either. The Scorpion and the Frog.

Do your work, don’t worry about the rest. Desire to know what the director is communicating to you, and if it is unclear – reach out. Make a joke, smile, tie your shoe, break the spell of the fear-driven false directive of ‘needing to know everything’ (you can’t and you won’t – only Hair, Make-Up and Wardrobe know everything, because you have a big mouth!) and shift effortlessly to the human condition of the ‘acceptance of not knowing’ what we are not intended or tasked to know. Let the Editor find the good work in your performance and integrate it with the story, she’s very good at that.

In our world of entertainment we create illusions, and in a world of illusions – ignorance is bliss.  Johnny Depp is right – it’s none of your business what anybody thinks of you.  You can care about what they think, but it’s none of your business. Because even if it isn’t what you’d like – and it never is – there is nothing you could ever do about it with your magic wand or your magical charm. 

If the world admires us it’s because of what’s cranking between our ears, the quality of our work, the examples we set, and the company we keep. If there is nothing admirable in these things, then they will not admire us. They will merely pretend to. And that will be something else we already know.

Besides, if you’re not the star, they’re not looking at you anyway. That’s just vanity. They’re watching to see if you are interfering with the story being told; and if you are not interfering with the story being told – and your nose isn’t dripping  – you’re good to go. And then one day, you may be a star.

Archetypes in Audition Sides, Continued…

Andrew Vogel had a very good evaluation of the previous blog post regarding the sides I chose to discuss your audition sides for the archetypal role of the ‘Security Guard’.

“I think realistically the security wouldn’t communicate that “If you don’t listen to me, the three of us will destroy you” because he wouldn’t want to threaten a gang and put his life or other people’s lives in danger. But rather, he would communicate something like “There’s no reason for you to be here right now other than to cause trouble, and you don’t want to start trouble at a public event like this. So just turn around and handle your business elsewhere so we can all move on.”

And at the same time. The posture of the security guard could communicate “I am prepared to use my weapons as a last resort” (That is, if the security guard is armed which normally would be the case I think)

Another option, that might work even if the security guard isn’t armed, is to be calling for backup on a walkie as the gang approaches. Assuming the gang would see this, the security guard could have confidence in communicating “Look, you shouldn’t be here. You know you shouldn’t be here. So leave now before 30 guards show up and make your day a lot worse.”

I’d say the trap some actors might fall into would be to try and start a conflict with the line as opposed to trying to end a conflict and get the gang out the stadium.”

I think Andrew has given a very cogent evaluation of the important elements of an actor auditioning for the role of ‘Security Guard.’ And the KEY to pulling off this important moment would be the PHYSICALITY  of the guard as the gang members approach the gate. The body language of the guard, male or female, would be to at once caution the bad boys to stay back, without egging them on to do something really stupid. The guard’s free hand is palm out to them, the business hand is either on the gun or the radio. The voice is non-confrontational, but definitively ‘all business’.

The trap is for the actor auditioning for the role to play it like he’s won – or that he’s somehow unassailable – instead of like he/she is in the middle of an unexpected event of an uncertain nature, fraught with potential danger.  The ARCHETYPE is: competent, capable, trained, and dangerous if need be. Then we, as audience, can accept the plausible conclusion that the gang members ‘get it’ , that messing with the guards would, in all likelihood, be more trouble than it is worth to them.

Here is where casting – and the director – often make the mistake of casting an implausibly clumsy or ostentatious blowhard in the role. Were this the case, we – as audience – would not be able to accept the ‘code’ of a meaningful deterrent to the gang – by which we, as audience, accept the premise of the gang’s ‘moving on’ to the next location. If we, as audience, do not accept the premise of the gang moving on to the next location, then our subconscious minds will be stuck there, relegated to defending the plausibility of what we just saw – a conscious event – meanwhile having been pulled out of the subconscious dramatic event in which we had been previously engaged. You see how important the of casting archetypes is?!

With proper casting and performance, we can go on to the next beat in the story, having been coded with the proper dramatic stepping stone by the archetype of the guard. Fun, eh?

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Analyzing the Archetype’s Sides

I’ve just been looking at many dozens of fresh sides, preparing for my bi-annual Film Acting Workshop in Baton Rouge, in a bit over a week from now. This time I concentrated specifically on feature films, as that’s been where my head has been of late. I have a young, star client who is working on a very big film in South Africa, and we work via Skype on his upcoming roles – even while he is shooting the film we worked so hard to get. Certainly, it is elevating and educational to work with a star actor who truly is ‘up’ for every role he goes out on.

Well, first, he has had early-entry into the business, which while not always necessary, can be very helpful – if you don’t burn out. Then he hit on a good role, for his type, on a widely-watched television cable series. And he’s smart, dedicated, driven – and likes to act. You know how he found me? The Internet. God bless the Internet, because working with this actor has been another really satisfying professional relationship – as most of my client/colleague relationships have been over these many years.

I also love to work with late teens – and early-to-mid twenties actors, because they are so amazed and appreciative when they find out ‘the good stuff’ after having heard all the other stuff for so long.

And  I wanted to next discuss (following up on our last post about how we should be looking at the material – philosophically) how to look at the kind of role you will probably play before you ever get to star in a film or television episodic.

And that kind of role is often the Archetype. Now we’ve talked about archetypes before, but let’s look at one example that caught my attention just today, and you can then extrapolate how this extends to your next audition. And this is not just for actors! This is also for Directors, Producers and Casting execs, as well!

The Role: Security Guard

One Line: “Game’s over fellas, keep moving!”

Circumstances: Our lead has been chased by gang dudes who think he stole their drugs. I don’t know if he did or not – but they think he did. So the whole film is about him running from a pack of nasty, drug-dealing gang members. He’d rather be chased by those huge, hand-sized Chinese hornets than these bad boys.

So now the chase has taken him to a sports arena, where a game has just ended. He struggles against an exiting CROWD, and into the turnstiles. An Attendant let’s our breathless lead re-enter the stadium, because “I forgot my jacket”.

The Security Guard  sees the whole gang coming toward he and his two fellow Security Guards, against the crowd. They all, simultaneously, try to slip through the turnstiles, but they are TURNED AWAY  by the guards. and then exit into another shot. One of the gang members watches our lead go down the concourse, determined to continue the chase.

IN THE SCRIPT, the Security Guard says his – or perhaps ‘her’ line, and the whole gang is turned away.

IN THE SCRIPT, the next shot has our lead slipping into a janitor’s closet. We know that one of the gang members still has a bead on him, but cannot enter past the guards.

IN THE SCRIPT, the Security Guards are not blindfolded, and therefore obviously can SEE that whatever was going on – there are GANG MEMBERS involved.

You have the line “Game’s over fellas, keep movin’.”

Your questions as actor are:

* What would have to be the psychological  and physical posture of the Security detail, in order to persuade a likely knife-and-gun-carrying gang not to over-whelm them at the turnstiles?

What would Security Guard need to communicate to the gang for them to desist.

What would Security Guard need to ‘show’ for the gang to desist.

What would be the proper volume of the Security Guard’s line – based upon the circumstances?

Would the volume require  the Security Guards’s intentional modulation? And why?

Ask these questions, and then visualize how this usually goes WRONG…  for example, production frequently casts a big, tough guy for the one line role – often a stunt man or woman. And that’s fine. But we all know what REAL security guards look like, right? Why would the management have  placed the ‘perfect guard’ to  be there at ‘just the right time’ to refuse these gangbangers? Doesn’t that just ruin the plausibility for the audiences subconscious mind? “Oh, right, perfect tough-guy security guard just happened to be at this turnstile when all this happens.”

Note to Actors, Directors and Writers:  an audience’s conscious mind isn’t always savvy, but their subconscious mind IS – ALWAYS savvy.

Now we have a further problem: The script doesn’t say if the security guards are armed or not? Whoa!

So now we have TWO compelling scenarios to consider for our audition. Our Security Guard being armed, and our Security Guard being unarmed. Huh. Who knew this stuff could be so complicated?!

What would the psychological and physical posture have to be to deter the gang from overrunning the turnstiles if our security guard detail is NOT armed?! Yikes. One thing is for sure – we’ll need to be ready for either possibility when we go in to audition, or when we record it for production to look at.

Care to comment? We’ll discuss the possibilities in our next post!


visit the website: for complimentary audio posts of this blog, and a free download from the first audio session of The Impersonal Actor.

Go to to get the new book Comprehensive Contemporary Acting, by Shawn Nelson.

Comprehensive Contemporary Acting ON SALE NOW  at

About the New Book


In my new book, I have compiled hundreds of powerful tools – and bona fide discoveries – to bring to your acting work a professional credibility and an artistic veracity that is very difficult to attain under normal circumstances. Simply put, I call this book a “companion” because this is precisely what it will be for you!

In case you may not have time to go to to see what’s in my new book COMPREHENSIVE CONTEMPORARY ACTING, (a 21st Century companion for Actors, Directors and Writers in Stage, Television and Film ) – here is just a few SAMPLES of what you will find, that are not in any other book on acting :

*NEW! A detailed account of the 12 human behaviors – and how to act them *NEW! A glossary of over 300 externally-oriented act-ables -(a trans-formative gold mine)  *NEW! 15 essential and frequently-written acting components – and how to pull them off *NEW! 23 behavioral duality models – (a gold mine for actors, directors and writers) *NEW! The 7 types of Love Scenes: how to see them, how to define them – and how to act them + a flow chart to track them throughout a scene!

And there’s more. 

*NEW! Behavioral secrets for handling highly emotional scenes – especially for camera! *NEW! A new model for Spontaneity in the work (and no more craziness). *OLD! Re-discovered 16th Century insights by Kabuki masters for analyzing given circumstances*NEW!Continually applied modern and up-to-date Dramatic Theory  *NEW! Literally hundreds of new practice points (a gold mine for teachers as well *OLD! Dozens of quotations and valuable insights by ancient and modern masters  *NEW! Bullet points and chapter reviews throughout the book! 

I know you’ll be pleasantly surprised by all the usable, proven-to-work material in the book. I think you will find it a real value to you (or anyone in the dramatic arts and film and communication arts) and an important element – going forward – in your work and in your career. Here’s the link below!

Thank you for your time!

Very Best