Life and acting : technique for the actor

in "The soul of the american actor" (summer 2006)

It took close to a half century of teaching acting and directing before I had the courage to write this book. Much had to occur: vicissitudes in my early training as an actor, discovering in myself an innate ability to recognize a true spontaneity in the work of actors, while searching over the years for the means to instigate that intuitive process in them and in myself. I made a determined effort to grasp the causes of why at times I evoked effective performances while failing at other times to achieve an equivalent result.

To this day, through teaching, I uncover fresh insights towards the attainment of a truthful living performance. Should that evolution ever stop, I would most likely stop teaching. The great puzzle of how to bring a character set down on paper to life on stage through my being, began for me at age seventeen when I won a scholarship to enter Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop.

The school was famed for its graduate students: Marlon Brando, Mel Brooks, Beatrice Arthur, Elaine Stritch, Gene Saks, who were beginning to make reputations for themselves. Our teachers described these ex-students as gifted, and whose talents they proudly stated the school was first to recognize. Some had even appeared in Piscator’s visually innovative school productions. As to the processes of these graduates, their unique abilities, these were never touched on by our instructors.

My classmates, the then unknown Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, Harry Belafonte, Rod Steiger, later to be joined by Ben Gazzara, Michael Gazzo, and our teachers heaped praise on those of us whose acting was considered moving or funny. The general conclusion was that one was more talented than another, that success in a role was due to how close the actor’s nature was to the part. Yes, there was loud criticism if the playing failed to affect the onlookers and violent condemnation for overacting with a vehement outcry of ‘be simple.’ The reason, motive for overplaying or dullness in a performance was never defined.

By the year of my graduation, New York had become the center of extraordinary playwriting. “A Streetcar Named Desire” had opened, followed a year and a half later by “Death of a Salesman.” It was also a defining moment for acting. The Actors Studio was founded with an unprecedented concept for the development of the experienced actor, side by side with the growth of the talented new corner.

The perform­ances by Brando, Jessica Tandy - their replacements, Uta Hagen, Anthony Quinn and Karl Malden in “Streetcar,” and the work by Lee J. Cobb, Arthur Kennedy, and Mildred Dunnock in “Death of a Salesman” were for me the ultimate achievement of acting in contemporary plays.

I scanned the reviews, seized whatever interviews these actors gave to try to apprehend the means they used to accomplish their astonishing creations. There wasn’t a word on the subject.

Three years after the establishment of The Actors Studio, Lee Strasberg was invited to join as a moderator. I had studied directing with him a few years earlier. After reading a review comparing the acting in a television show I directed to the early poetic realism of The Group Theatre and seeing an off-Broadway staging of mine of Dumas’ “Camille,” he accepted my application to attend The Studio as a director.

I have always been fascinated and excited to study the preparatory sketches of prominent painters, to survey the scribbling corrections of outstanding authors on their manuscript, proofs and compare them to the final work. It made me feel present at the moment of their creativity. I derived the same thrill, elation every Tuesday and Friday from 11 A.M. to 1 P.M. at The Actors Studio as I observed a stream of unknown actors: Paul Newman, James Dean, Joanne Woodward, Eva Marie Saint, Pat Hingle, Carroll Baker, Geraldine Page, including some of my former classmates Rod Steiger, Ben Gazzara, Albert Salmi, Anthony Franciosa, Arthur Storch, alongside the now well-known Eli Wallach, Maureen Stapleton, Kim Stanley, Patricia Neal, Ann Jackson, Michael Strong and Mildred Dunrock reach for something deep in themselves to come up to the demands of scenes they chose to present on those mornings. Their selections ranged from the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, Moliêre, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Schnitzler - to an array of contemporary writers and episodes taken from novels. The failures were as engrossing, illuminating as the successful achievements.

Although unable to define the processes great actors of the past used to achieve brilliance in their work, Strasberg, nevertheless was a master at depicting how actors through a gesture, an intonation illuminated the works of eminent playwrights, or added a dimension to characters in lesser plays by ordinary writers.

That knowledge instilled in us a vision of the astonishing potential acting could have on a play. It also gave us a necessary arrogance about the actor’s work.

The actors in The Studio in those days, did not want to be cast in a play or a film for its own sake. Nor did they want to be used exclusively for their personal charm or looks. They wished to be engaged for an inner sensibility, their ability to humanize to bring a living experience to their roles. Karl Malden best expressed the prevailing spirit: “I am not a job actor.”

I was galvanized to utilize the methods used by The Studio actors in a new full length play, “End as a Man.” It was the first such undertaking in The Studio. There was no thought of a future commercial production. The aim was to implement what we called the work on an entire play. The work in Studio parlance, meant there would be no pre-conditioned interpretation of the characters. We would have unlimited rehearsals without a set date of presentation. The use of an inordinate amount of improvisations until we found the behavior that truly reflected the psychology of the characters.

I cast the play with newcomers to the Studio: Ben Gazzara, William Smithers, Pat Hingle, Arthur Storch, Albert Salmi and James Dean. Since most of us had daytime jobs, rehearsals were held at night, sometimes until 3 A.M. Having set the so-called work conditions, rehearsals at times resembled a séance. To our amazement, under that particular set-up, the characters began to emerge in the actors as if by their own volition.

Trusting our instincts that we achieved a true depiction of the events in the play, we decided to present the work to Studio members and Lee Strasberg. They praised us for the application of the work in creating living characters and the ensemble work. Producers became interested in presenting the play to the public, but insisted on replacing the actors with ‘names.’ I refused. Finally the entire company, except for Dean, opened in the play Off-Broadway. Acclaimed for its individual performances as well as the cohesive playing of the company, the production moved to Broadway. Stark Young described the playing as superior to that of The Group Theatre, a landmark achievement of acting in America twenty years earlier. The transfer from workshop to Off-Broadway to Broadway was the first such move of a production. It set a precedent going on to this day for hundreds of plays and musicals to follow but, without the same intention. Except for “A Hatful of Rain,” (even there, the actress from The Studio was replaced by a star) the purpose seems to be to test, improve a play, a musical, not the development of the actors’ contribution.

The experience on that play made me more sensitive to the truthfulness of the actor’s work. I could create conditions for creativity in actors through various means to stimulate their imagination and to bring about an effortlessness in their playing. It would take me many years to learn the elements contained in the methods I used. Stanislavsky’s books had some answers to these riddles but, except for praise of the original Moscow Art Theater productions, its actors, the Russian master’s work on playing was hardly mentioned by Strasberg and on some occasions he did so disparagingly. His derisive viewpoint changed toward the end of his life.

On stage, I basically guide the actor toward a per-formance that finally must be totally under the actor’s command at the playing in front of the public. In film, I am more like a painter with the amalgamation of performance, image, sound, music, editing in my hands to juggle as I see fit for the final outcome. As a film director, I realized it was imperative to know the possibilities of all those elements. Particularly important, I discovered, is the knowledge of how to elicit a specific emotion and behavior from non-actors. Under precise direction, ordinary people with the inherent right personal qualities for a role, are capable of acquitting themselves remarkably well in film.

Copying actuality will not cause creativity in an actor’s work. Imitation of reality will never reveal the real. Neither is it of use as evocation of a significant existence. It is only involuntary memory, the magician in ourselves, the work of latent consciousness that is capable of grasping the experience of another. The conscious road toward stimulating that arduous unruly part of ourselves is a harsh, painful process for actors. It requires immersion, a descent into oneself to recognize and bring the actor close, through his senses, to another’s experience, feelings and behavior.


Excerpts from the preface to a new book: Life and Acting: Technique for the Actor. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

JACK GARFEIN made his Broadway debut as a director with “End as a Man” with Ben Gazzara. On Broadway he also directed “The Shadow of a Gunman,” “The Sin of Pat Muldoon,” and “Girls of Summer.” Off-Broadway he directed “The Lesson” and “Rommel’s Garden.” Mr. Garfein produced Arthur Miller’s “The Price” and “The American Clock on Broadway” He directed the French premiere of “Master Harold and the Boys” in Paris, the world premiere of Beckett’s “Nacht Und Raume” in Austria. His documentary “The Journey Back” chronicles his return to Auchwitz. His two films include “The Strange One” and “Something Wild.” He created The Harold Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row in New York City. Mr. Garfein founded the Actors and Directors Lab/Los Angeles/NY and the Founder of The Actors Studio West/Los Angeles. He currently teaches in Paris.

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