My notes from reading the book. This is a continuation from The Actor’s Art and Craft (see my notes from that) and is a description of a fictionalised second year of Esper’s teaching of the Meisner technique (see my notes on Meisner’s book).
It’s good, easy to read, and full of useful tips. Some of the descriptions of how much effort and commitment these fictionalised students put into their work are a bit daunting, and make me feel like a half-hearted amateur.
Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are attributed to Bill Esper in the book, things he says. All emphases are from the book.
5. The first year of work, in the previous book, lays a foundation of skills.
These include how to listen and respond from your own sense of truth. How to generate a rich and compelling inner life. How to work unerringly off the other person. How to do nothing unless otherwise someone or something causes you to do it. How to source your work from your own experience. How to pin down the requirements of a role so you can freely improvise within a framework you’ve created.
But in all these exercises the actors were playing themselves, in order to explore their true-life reactions.
7. The things that happen to people in many plays happen to them because of their character, not the plot. So to play those people you can’t just react truthfully as yourself in a situation from that plot.
1. Welcome back — and back to work
19-20. Bill and the students summarising what they learned the previous year: “The reality of doing”; “Acting is really an improvisation”; Your attention should always be “on your partner. Or on your activity”; “Don’t do anything unless someone or sighing else makes you do it.”; “Everything must be personal. … You can only work from things that really and truly motivate you. Like daydreams…”; “Be specific. Never be general. … Things that are specific have meaning, whereas general things do not.”; “Vulnerability, it’s everything when you’re acting”; “Leave your objective alone”.
2. Gimps, limps, and lisps: physical impediments
41-2. “The quality of your performance with any Physical Impediment always boils down to how specific your crafting is.” e.g. if you’re playing a deaf person, how long have you been deaf, how does that affect your speech, can you read lips, how well?
Any adjustment that interferes with the actor’s ability to communicate can trigger intense reactions. … by adopting only one specific addition to your normal behaviour and playing straight, focusing on what’s happening in the contact between partners, a complete character can begin to emerge, if you allow it to happen.
3. How being in intense pain can actually help your work
50. When playing pain (e.g. a migraine or hangover) choose specific symptoms that the audience will recognise, to “produce the illusion of a hangover”.
“Keep the number of symptoms to three or four at most.” Or else your behaviour gets muddy.
“Though you may be playing three or four Impediments at once, you must nonetheless act each one specifically.”
“Remember to stay relaxed.” Actors tend to tense their bodies when playing pain but you need to be loose in order to respond to your partner and let your emotions flow freely.
53. “The experience of the pain functions like an Independent Activity in that it involves your attention and affects the contact you maintain with your partner.”
57. “…work through a Physical Impediment … For instance, a person with a badly sprained ankle tries not to put any pressure on that leg.” They don’t keep using it as normal, but scream each time they put weight on it.
4. How to explore drugs and alcohol without rehab, prison, or death
63-6. Specify the symptoms of the drug. e.g. for alcohol: inability to walk in a straight line; inability to see clearly; slurred speech. This is the physical side. Also delve into why the character started drinking in the first place, to get to their emotional life. “Whatever the reason a person starts drinking, the alcohol tends to reinforce and amplify it.” How does alcohol make this character behave? “The trick, as when creating pain, will be to maintain contact with your partner through the obstacles the drug would create.”
73-4. Don’t play the Impairment, or the effects of drugs and alcohol, play the effort of trying to surmount them. A drunk isn’t trying to stagger, he’s trying to walk in a straight line. “…to capture the reality of being on drugs and alcohol, you should often try to pass as sober.”
74. “If acting is doing, then character acting is how you do what you do.” “Even the wildest parts you play, the ones that hear no resemblance to your everyday behaviour — they’re always you at the core. You must simply turn up the volume on parts of yourself that are normally quiet.”
5. Imitation and point of view
The Imitation exercise. Choose a person you know, or someone you see in the street etc, practice imitating them, and do a scene (Independent Activity, knock at the door) with that imitation.
84. American acting styles work “from the inside out, meaning that you cultivate your inner life through imagination and experience, then allow that inner life to grow until it fills you and becomes your performance. But there’s another way of working which can also be very effective: working from the outside in. Stanislavsky spoke of this. He compared it to building a barrel and filling it.” It’s more common for “the majority of British actors [to] work exclusively from the outside in”.
We use Imitations as a springboard to inspire our individual responses, and to expand our range as actors. In terms of character acting, any idea is a good idea of it changes your straight behaviour.
90. Actors should be able to adopt any point of view and find reasons why they believe that. Go through reasons until you find at least one that activates you. You can create a character just by taking on a Point of View that’s not your own, but it’s only one tool and shouldn’t be overemphasized.
6. Come, sit at the table: the essence of the character
94. Laurette Taylor was one of the greatest actors of the early 20th century. Her essay ‘The Quality Most Needed’ “is something every actor should read”.
95-6. Taylor didn’t learn her lines until just before the show opened; during rehearsals she always carried her script, but put her entire attention on the other actors until she had a line. Paul Muni turned up for rehearsals having learned all his lines, so he can focus on the other actor and let himself get interested in something about them, “that’s where the work begins, he said.” Very different ways “to get the text out of the way so they could listen to and work of the other actor.”
You play a game of ping-pong with your impulses while the words of the script just ride on top like a boat traveling down a river. The boat’s not in charge, the river is. Your job is to jump on the river and get carried along by the flow. … Working this way, from unanticipated moment to unanticipated moment, means that every line you speak is the last line before the curtain comes down… But then something else happens and that becomes the last line.
96-7. “The actor’s job is not to speak the lines, it’s to find the reason why those lines need to be spoken.”
104-5. Elia Kazan said, “Acting is the ability to turn psychology into behaviour.”
*A character is not a complicated series of circumstances and life history and so on, it’s one thing. One concrete idea. That’s how the character lives in the writer’s mind.” Bill’s impression is that Lee Strasberg “thought that, in order for something to be profound, it had to be complicated. Sandy disagreed with that. … I believe that in order for something to be truly profound, it has to be truly simple.”
106. “In the end, you must distill everything you know about your character into a single word or short phrase which is the defining trait of the person you are playing. It’s what I call the Essence of the Character.” e.g. he’s a perfectionist, he’s a brownnoser, he’s a nice guy, he’s insanely optimistic, etc.
“Michael Chekhov once said: ‘An actor’s intelligence sits in his head like a murderer, ready to kill any sign of life.’”
106-7. Magnify specific elements in yourself that reflect that essence. Empathise with the character to find something that resonates with you.
Allow yourself to experience the central issue of your character in daydreams. You must make the character’s major issue your major issue. The more time you spend doing that, the more you’ll find that your character begins to inhabit you.
111-2. Play heat like any other Physical Impediment, practice until it becomes second nature. Look at the symptoms. “Always begin by isolating some part of your body that’s warmer than the rest of you. Close your eyes and place your full concentration on that area and imagine it’s spreading throughout your body.” Then add the external symptoms.
7. Still at the table: actions and super objectives
121-2. There are a finite number of Actions, and they’re universal, recognisable across our species. e.g. tying shoes, making coffee, writing cheques to pay the bills, making love, walk the dog, wonder where your life is going.
124. At first we worked on only doing what our partner made us do, and really doing it. Now you, as the actor, must know what you are doing at every single moment in your script. And whatever that Action is, you must execute it accurately, and never merely pretend to do it.
124-5. Actions should be specific. Not “call my doctor” but “call my doctor to plead for help”. Not “share” but “share the innermost secrets of my heart”.
126. Don’t “externalise your character” by referring to them in the third person, “He would speak like this.” Esper: “The Brits talk like that all the time. … Talk from ‘me’ or ‘I’.”
128-9. ”General verbs make good objectives, not Actions,” and we’re trying to come up with Actions. You might know it’s an objective because you’ll ask how to achieve it. e.g. “Persuade You to Give Up Acting” is an objective.
129. “Once you’ve determined what your Action is at any given point in the scene, isolate that Action and practice doing it away from the script, using your own words or perhaps no words at all, depending on the Action. Do that until the doing of the Action becomes a comfortable habit.” Then bring it back to the work. “You should use the words of the script to help you execute the Action.”
129-130. During the scene, “you won’t be thinking about your Actions, you’ll have worked those out ahead of time. … put your attention on your partner. … You’ll still work unanticipated moment to unanticipated moment. Only this time the Actions you’ve chosen and practiced will guide your responses to what your fellow actor brings you.”
130. There are three categories of Actions.
Physical Actions. e.g. Sweeping the Floor, or Learning to Juggle. No dialogue required.
Interpersonal Actions. e.g. Share a Dark Secret, or Toot Our Own Horn. The broadest category.
Inner Actions. e.g. Take Someone In, or Figure Something Out.
The Super Objective organises these Actions into a logical pattern or structure. Once you understand what your role’s Super Objective is, you can confidently select Actions that best illuminate your character.
You cannot act a Super Objective. Super Objectives are big, general statements, and therefore impossible to act. To Gain Financial Freedom. To Live a Happy Life. To Marry the Girl of My Dreams. …it helps you understand the logic behind [the character’s] behaviour.
8. Beats, homework, inner emotional lines, and particularisations
138. In rehearsal, break a scene into sections — Beats — and work the first several times until you’ve got it. Only then move on to the next. “Each Beat is a series of moments that have to do with the same subject.”
141-5. An Inner Emotional Line connects a series of lines/moments and “it persists unless or until something happens to change it.” “Sometimes you can create a character just by identifying that person’s Emotional Line.” e.g. A Depressed Man. A Happy Girl Who’s Deliriously in Love.
148-151. Particularisations are when we find associations between something in a scene and our real life in order to find a deeper meaning. e.g. if someone leaving you in a scene doesn’t affect you then daydream and find something it reminds you of that gives you a feeling.
Particularisations serve one purpose: to clarify anything in the script that’s opaque — those things which you feel you do not completely understand. … for a moment, scene, your relationship with another character, or — sometimes — your entire part. … You could Particularise a moment by leveraging the power of ‘as it’s.’ For example, when your partner says a certain line, it’s as if she’s slapped you in the face. …
A good Particularisation can provide the key to your whole performance in a role. For instance, what if you played your character as if she had a chip on her shoulder? Or as if he had a hole in his heart?”
9. Nursery Rhymes
161-177. Each student takes a nursery rhyme and prepares three or more variations, using it as the text for different believable, emotional scenes.
10. Spoon Rivers
The students have to read Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and pick four to six poems each that they empathise with. They’ll focus on one of these, each student doing a different one.
181-4. Analyse the poem. Go through line by line and figure out what the character’s saying in plain English.
184-6. Pin down the technical points. First, what person or thing are you speaking to, i.e. what is your Acting Object? If it’s not specified, “selecting one becomes a vital decision on the part of the actor. … the actor must capture the reality of trying to communicate with his specific Object. If he doesn’t, he won’t create acting — he’ll be stuck with a mere recitation of text.” If talking to an inanimate object you have to believe it can hear you as keenly as a real person. Your Acting Object should have “real and deep meaning for you”.
186. Figure out what you’re doing; what’s the Action of the piece? Knowing your character’s Point of View will often help you discover their Action.
187-9. Do an actor’s paraphrase of the speech. Think of someone you relate to in the same way as the Action, someone who means something to you. Talk to them in them using your own words, with that Action. You can ignore the text’s character and situation and use your own, or not. [I think…]
190. “Once your paraphrase captures the heart of the character, drip the author’s text back in a little at a time.” Eventually you arrive back at the original text.
191. Finally, add character work.
198. A text can supply information about your character from three principal sources: what your character says and does; what other characters say and do about your character; what the stage directions say about your character.
Spontaneity doesn’t arise from doing no work. It comes when you do all your work beforehand, carve everything out, then forget it.
11. Periods and styles
207-9. Period refers to when a play was written.
210-212. Style refers to both the style of how the writer writes, and the “lifestyle” of the people in the piece. A period piece will have a specific style (in terms of how the characters live and behave). But so will a modern piece set in a specific country, community, etc.
212-4. When working on a period play etc, actors often forget about “doing truthfully under imaginary circumstances” and “get hung up on aping what they feel are the mannerisms of a period or style without sticking to what we know the art of acting truly is.”
215. When faced with a piece based on a specific period or style, start by analysing the bigger picture, e.g. what the whole country was like in that period, before focusing on details specific to your character.
Even the strangest element of lifestyle in a period piece should boil down to an ‘as if’ which you, the actor, understand intimately, and therefore can play.
221-2. e.g. if acting in a Baroque play, as a man bowing before the king, it could be “as if” you were submitting a job application, or auditioning for a show. It stops bowing being a silly affectation and becomes a tactic to get what you want.
222-3. When researching a period style learn the dances of the period, ideally wearing period clothing and footwear, to pick up a lot about a person’s physicality and deportment.
223. A useful book is The Polite World: A Guide to English Manners and Deportment from the Thirteenth to the Nineteenth Century by Joan Wildblood.
12. Periods and styles in practice
225-230. Some period works contain monologues that seem long and slow at first glance to us. You must find the reason your character needs to say every line, find the passion.
In order to play Shaw well — and Shakespeare, too, for that matter — you must act on the line. This is very different from acting, say, in film or television, where acting happens between the lines.
If you’re cast in a period piece, visit the costume shop before rehearsals begin. Women should ask for a corset and fan if those pieces apply. Men should get a swagger stick, a cloak, a hat, or reasonable facsimiles thereof. But regardless of gender, ask for a pair of period shoes and start moving in them right away.
13. Acting in film and TV
249-251. “Proportion your truth to fit the space you’re playing in.” i.e. you don’t need to do so much or talk so loud.
255. On TV and film you can take more time, no need to pick up cues so quickly.