Acting, Attitude, and Administration – these are the broad areas of my teaching. Acting is of course the craft, the technique, the process by which you create your work. By Attitude I mean the viewpoint and feeling of the artist towards his life, towards himself and what he creates, towards his fellow artists and all of the people in his life. Administration – this is the area where the actor, through specific choices and specific actions that are then carried out, puts this talent and attitude effectively into the world, and so moves his or her career forward. I believe that in order to create a complete actor, a real artist who can function well for the long haul in this business, each of these three areas, inextricably linked to one other, must be cooking. A long-term career is a constant dance between the three. Let me dive in a bit further on each:
When I was a young boy, my father said to me, “Know thyself.” It sounds even better in Greek, and more imposing when you have a guy like my father standing over you as you hear it. I think acting affords you the best opportunity to know yourself. Acting is a noble and respected field of the arts, and in my opinion the most personal. It gives you the opportunity to understand your fellow man through the depiction and experience of living even a fraction of his life. There are essentially two ways actors go about this journey – two different intentions: One is that of the poser, the indicator, the phony, and the other is that of the honest actor who tries in his or her own way to live the experience of the character. My approach is geared to the latter, toward helping that honest actor develop a very personal experience.
There are many choices an actor can make to create a very personal connection, including using his imagination. But I’m really interested in the Greek actor in ancient times about whom I read – he had to play a scene, and this actor brought an urn to the amphitheatre and placed it on the altar onstage – an urn filled with the ashes of his own son who had died. In an unflinching way, he brought to his acting one of the most personal and painful objects in his life, to help fire him up as an actor. That certainly turns me on as a teacher, that quest for a personal connection to the role.
It’s easy to look at Marlon Brando’s work and identify it as acting I’m interested in – I truly believe his work is a high mark in the field of acting – always human, personal, always intelligent, and often filled with unexpected humor.
The unexpected. I like that in an actor. I generally prefer sports to acting, because in sports you just never know what is really going to happen. In any sport, no matter the odds, there is always the possibility of an upset, the last second shot, the hail-Mary pass, a wild play that leads to the unexpected failure of the better team, the underdog comes out ahead – these possibilities keep me glued to a good game. A fine basketball player will discover the open man at the last second – that split-second discovery is key to the excitement. So part of my approach is to give the actor tools for creating an acting experience filled with discovery, spontaneity, surprise, and freshness.
If I were to bottom-line it, I would say that I want the acting to be real. I want its foundation at the very least to represent life as we know it. When an actor is doing something on stage, I want him really to be doing it, or at least a damned good likeness of it. If an actor is on the telephone, I want to feel that the particular character to whom he’s talking is on the other end. Specifically. If he’s playing a butcher, he should know how to carve the meat so that any butcher in the audience believes him. If the characters are in love, I want to feel the intense affinity and feverishness that love can inspire. And not the cornball fake swooning stuff – I mean the real deal, so that I believe they’re really in love. Shakespeare said love is a disease, and I want to see that – if it’s the kind of love that the Bard is talking about, where obsession rules, let’s experience it – go for it.
But simple reality isn’t always enough. It’s the foundation – and without it you’re going to have real problems most of the time. But moving past a baseline reality, we come to the imagination of the actor, an expressiveness, an intelligence, the unexpected moment, the use of irony and humor to deal with difficult situations. Definitely humor, so that even those naturalistic coffee-shop scenes are elevated to a new level – as in When Harry Met Sally. Or the way Cary Grant cracked me up – even in the tense Hitchcock dramas, he maintained that charm and irony. Look, I admire Lucille Ball and what she did on that television show. It was hilarious, madcap, but had at the root of it a reality, the reality of her relationship with Desi Arnaz. Maybe there are not a lot of people who would put Marlon Brando and Lucille Ball in the same sentence, but both of them interest me and I like both of their work. So I’m not just about serious acting. I love to entertain, and be entertained. I’ve assigned some of my most talented and serious students to do some pretty madcap stuff in class.
But if you held my feet over the fire and insisted I succinctly describe my approach to acting, I’d say I come at it like the director I am. I ask all sorts of questions. What’s the story? What do people do when dealing with events like these? How do they respond? What’s their behavior? I want a real-person, real-place, real-behavior approach to the work, not a sketch, not a skit, not a glib attempt – I want the real deal. And then of course, imagination, humor, surprises, irony, intelligence – the whole enchilada.
So how do I get actors to do this kind of work? I’m sure the question goes around the acting community – what kind of teacher is he? Is he a Meisner guy, a Strasbergian, an Adlerite, a Hagenist…? I’ve been fortunate enough to work with and closely observe all those very talented teachers, as well as apprenticing as a young director with Josh Logan and Elia Kazan. I’ve observed the masters, and I’ve worked with actors myself for almost half a century. Through all that, I’ve developed my own way of teaching, but it derives a lot from my career as a director. As a director I frankly don’t care how the actor does it. I have limited time, limited money, the sun is going down, we’re losing our light, and we have to shoot, we have to get film in the can. If I discover that an actor does a fabulous job every time he jumps rope before a scene, then I’m buying that guy a rope every time. I don’t care what thoughts he has in his trailer, what exercises he is doing or not doing in his dressing room. The star working opposite that guy may have her own way of working, quite different from the other actor, and I need to understand that and communicate to her differently – she doesn’t jump rope and buying her a rope will do nothing for her. That’s directing. My job is to find out how to communicate to this actor in front of me, discover the language that will best help each individual understand and believe in my vision of the story.
In teaching, it’s still very individual. I look at the particular actor in front of me, and try to deduce what he or she needs, try to find the language and images that will lead them to understand acting better. It’s very individual. I have certain exercises you will read about, and different actors may need to work with them in different ways. But across the board, I would say I look at this individual actor, and when working on a script – whether a play or film – I try to get them to understand the story. What events are associated with this story, what is the specific nature of this character, what happened to them before this scene, what is the behavior associated with the scene, and how can this particular actor, with all his or her uniqueness, bring it all to life in an organic, personal, human way? What would a real person do in this given circumstance? Those are the things I emphasize to the actor. It’s simple. It’s hard sometimes to see the simplicity in acting, and the actor often wants to make it complex, which then makes acting more difficult. So I try to keep it simple, and clear.
I’ve found over the years that attitude monitors talent, just as the aperture on a camera lens monitors light. A small aperture – marked by attitudes like hostility, a chip on the shoulder, the monotonous whining sound of a victim, a spoiled “I don’t wanna work” viewpoint – allows very little of the light, namely, your talent, to come through. And so a negative attitude can very much affect your performances, your auditions, your relations with the people important to moving your acting career forward. But open up that lens with a good attitude – enthusiastic, willing to learn, cooperative, charming, full of self-esteem – this will affect every moment of your life, and let more of your acting talent come through. This is why you observe the phenomenon that actors who may not be the most talented in the world, but who have a great attitude, a wide lens opening, often can have very rewarding careers, while those with the most talent, but with a bad attitude, a small lens opening, can become embittered and seemingly stuck.
There are, of course, innumerable reasons why any person can have a negative attitude of one kind or another. In instances where I can spot it, I will try as best I can to help the actor deal with the attitude, get them to realize they can change it for the better. I try to listen, get their point of view, and then use charm, humor, toughness, whatever is needed to help them make that change. But I can’t always be there to help in this way, and my job is to train actors to do it for themselves – the acting work, the attitude, everything. My real interest is in persuading my students not to use their psychological problems as an excuse for not working at the top of their game. I learned this from the great director Josh Logan when I worked for him. He described to me an experience he had with Janet Blair, who was getting ready to star in the road company of South Pacific, in the role that Mary Martin had originated on Broadway. Martin was the be-all and end-all of musical comedy performers, and Janet was intimidated by her, and it was affecting her ability to bring the role to life. Josh told me how he went to her room and simply spoke to her about her talent, asked about her life, her family. He said she was soundly changed by the conversation, felt more confident, and that this became evident in her performance. And that was when I realized that properly assessing and dealing with the attitude of the actor was an important aspect of being a director. That hadn’t been covered in university.
A good attitude is really about enthusiasm, which at its Greek roots means “energy from the Gods.” Actors can often be a notoriously moody bunch, full of insecurities, hostility, and 31 other dubious flavors of negativity, and I for one want to change that whenever I see it. I’m looking to rehabilitate that energy of the gods. An actor with a good attitude has the ability to handle his fellows, solve problems, using a positive manner to make every set and stage they’re on a better place to be for everyone. I feel attitude is a crucial component in the actor’s overall health and potential for success – many actors have been hired and re-hired simply because it’s a pleasure to have them around for the strenuous and lengthy hours of work that are demanded by theatre and film projects.
An actor in tune with his administration is an effective, proactive artist who makes smart choices to enhance his career and its potential for development, as well as his very life, and sees to it that these choices are carried out. I believe the actor is the true manager, the true administrator of his or her career. Skilled and dedicated agents and managers can help along the way for sure, but my observation is that too many actors take a back seat when driving their own car. So once I have an actor on my hands who I believe does consistently good work, and whose attitude is aligned with that talent, my next question is: What choices are you making about your career, and are these choices moving it forward? Are you taking the actions you need to put your talent and your good attitude into the world? Do you write letters to directors whom you admire, congratulating them on their latest project, or keeping-in-touch notes to people you’ve auditioned for or worked with in the past? Are you up to date on the tools for promoting yourself on the internet? As I’ve written in my book Dreams Into Action, administration can also include having a clean, bright happy place to live, a real desk of your own where you can work, and handling your finances so you aren’t stressed by that issue. It includes the actions you take in the real world to keep your attitude in check – if you know a morning workout puts you in a better frame of mind for the day ahead, then that is part of your administration. “Admin,” as it is referred to by my students, includes the scheduling of your busy life to ensure you make your rehearsals on time, getting enough sleep, doing well at your day jobs. It’s knowing about fashion, looking good, not using drugs and alcohol, going to art galleries, deepening your knowledge as an artist and a person. All of these choices are just about being smart, doing the right thing for your life and your career. More artists have screwed themselves up by lack of administration than by lack of talent. Unlike composers, writers and painters, the actor cannot be discovered after he dies. So I want you all to be working actors now, and administration plays a key role.
In my classes you will find that actors have formed “support groups” or “admin groups” – wherein 5-10 actors will get together once a week outside class to check on one another, if necessary to inspire and cajole one another, regarding completing actions for their career. It has been a very successful tool – it gives the students a group of peers to whom they are accountable, and they inspire one another to make the right choices for their career.
So we have these three areas of work – Acting, Attitude and Administration. I meet up against them in class every day. Over there is an actor full of hostility, a chip on his shoulder the size of Colorado, but I’ll try to charm him, befriend him, get him to smile, and just talk to him about the acting. For him, I feel the answer is that personal connection, and the craft – getting detailed, and real with the work itself. Next to that guy is a young actress whose talent is unbelievable, but she’s withdrawn and insecure, and if she could just lighten up and be more charming and believe in herself a bit more, the talent would explode – and with her I do talk about that attitude issue. And behind her is the dark horse, the underdog, the one you would never think could be successful, but he quietly writes a great letter to a known director, gets a meeting from that, and lands a part – he passes all the other students on the freeway from administration alone. That’s how I did it.
But I don’t want you to think the class itself is 33.3% Acting, 33.3% Attitude, and 33.3% Administration. The foremost emphasis is acting – the development of the craft, the technique, the ability and creativity of the actor. I speak of attitude and administration only to facilitate and enhance the power of a skilled actor to do his or her work and get it out there into the world. All the attitude and administration in the world will be for naught if we don’t have actors who know what they are doing. In the end, the craft, the work – that’s what’s most important.
**Excerpted from the Beverly Hills Playhouse Acting Class book, Acting Class: Take A Seat. Copyright 2008: Milton Katselas. All Rights Reserved.