Thursday, August 25, 2011

MIND THE GAP: How to avoid preconceptions, and bring truth, freshness and spontaneity to your work.

     Austin Pendleton, the wonderful actor, director, author, and teacher at New York’s HB Studio, was directing a reading of a new play. On a break during rehearsal, one of the other actors approached me with a question.
     “Do you know what this means?” she asked, pointing to one of her lines. “I’m not sure I understand what I’m talking about here.”
     “I’m sorry,” I said, so that Austin would hear me, “but I studied with Austin, and he taught me never to read the other actors’ lines before doing a reading, only to read my own. That way I can be surprised by what the other characters are saying.”
     Austin piped up. “I’ve improved upon that technique since you were in my class, Matthew. Now I don’t even read my own lines before a reading. That way I can be surprised by what I’m saying.”
     Of course, we were both kidding. But the joke springs from an idea that we share about how the text is to be approached, and a method that will lead to richness, detail, authenticity and spontaneity. This method requires bringing an open mind to the text and the reading, without preconceived ideas of event or character, and an eye not just to what is said, but also to what is not said.
     I want to give you a practical tool to use in your first rehearsals of a scene with your scene partner. But first, I’m going to get very academic and technical for a couple of paragraphs. Bear with me. I think it will be worth it in the end.

A Theoretical Problem:

     Our moving through life as individuals is a moving through experiences. Our rehearsals or performances of a scene are not only experiences in and of themselves, but also representations of the experiences of the characters, as spelled out by the writer in the text. Each “experience” that we have, and each event that happens in the life of a character, might be termed a “phenomena.” The school of philosophy known as Phenomenology, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “is the study of ‘phenomena’: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience.”
     The German literary scholar Wolfgang Iser applied the perspectives of Phenomenology to literature, discussing what transpires in the act of reading. Iser theorized that there is a gap between each idea and its written or spoken expression. These gaps are a result of the inherent limitations of language. Consequently, when we read, we have to fill these gaps, and we reach into our own experience in order to fill them, to flesh out the text and give it its meaning. That process he calls konkretisation. The result of any single reading is that the text has become konkretisiert, or realized. It is apparent that there are as many realizations of a text as there are readers. More than that, even, because when a reader comes back to a text after a period of time, the reader is a new being with a new perspective, changed by his or her experiences in the intervening time. The reader will then bring new experiences to the reading and create a new konkretisation.
      “How does this apply to acting?” I hear you cry. “I thought we were going to talk about scene work and rehearsals.” We are. The point I want to make is this: The same thing that Iser is describing happens when we are rehearsing. Just as a reader fills in the gaps, so does the actor. Give five actors the same script and have them do five cold readings, and you will see five very different characters, five different “konkretisation.” This is a problem if you are at the very beginning of your rehearsal process. Once we as actors make those choices, we begin to make a “konkretisation,” and the “konkretisation” then becomes, as the name implies, concrete. It starts to become fixed, at a time when we have not yet fully explored the options offered to us by the text.
     This problem of “konkretisation” springs from an excessive eagerness to “act.” Beginning actors, in particular, want to “act” so much that they jump into strong choices before they have fully comprehended the text. We want to get the part. We want to impress the other actors, the director, the creative staff at the first table read. We want to be camera ready. We don’t want to look like fools. So we pick up the text, and we immediately start making choices. These choices, of necessity, reflect our own personalities, our own “default settings.”  Yet how do we know which one of those most serves the text? Of course there is no single correct and objective interpretation of a text. But we do ourselves and the text a disservice if our choices are based on our own default settings, without exploration of the different options afforded us by the words, and the gaps.
     There is another layer to the problem posed by the phenomenological view. When we read a novel for ourselves, for our own pleasure, and we fill in the gaps, we are merely having our own experience. However, when we rehearse or perform a play, we are involved in a collaborative process, and we must look not only to how we would fill in the gaps, but to how the character would fill in the gaps, based on his or her culture and experiences. (See my article Coffee Grounds, Kaleidoscopes and Character.) Moreover, we must also bow to the demands of the production as conceived by the playwright and perceived by the director. Bringing too much of our own perspective, too quickly, can shut us down to the profound richness that can result from remaining open to these questions and these influences.
     So what is the solution to this problem? We have to slow down when we approach a text, so that our own experiences, our own perspectives, don’t overwhelm the experience and perspective offered by text. Of course we are going to use our own perspective and experience to bring depth and truthful emotion to our performance. But when we dive too quickly into performance mode, when we aim from the beginning at a result, then we miss the range of possibilities that exist in the text. These possibilities live in the text not only in the words that are present, and also in the gaps between those words; in what is said, and in what is not said.

A Practical Approach:

     It is easy to say that we have to slow down, but how do we actually do it? Technique, after all, should offer us more than simple platitudes about what we should be able to do. The purpose of technique is to give us concrete methods by which to obtain a goal. An instructor in a cooking class doesn’t just tell you to cut the onion into a very fine dice. You are shown how to do it; what kind of knife to use, how to hold it, what part of the onion to cut off first, and then how to make the two sets of perpendicular slices almost all the through the onion before making slices from a third angle that will produce a dice of the desired size.
     So here is an approach that you might use with a scene partner, whether it is to prepare for class, or when sitting in one of your trailers before shooting a particularly difficult scene.

Preparation: Sit comfortably at a table, facing each other, with your scripts open before you. Look at each other for a few moments. Wait until you can feel that you are both present, calm, connected. Do not rush it.

Step One: Once a connection is established, look down at your scripts. Whoever has the first line, look at it, but only up to the first punctuation.

Step Two: Look back up and reconnect. Do not say your line. Wait. Look at each other and make sure that you and your partner are there, present, attentive.

Step Three: Speak your line, with intention, but without any spin. Say it with its most basic semantic meaning. You should not apply any emotion, attitude or implied meaning that you might initially presume to ascribe to it, but neither should you make it robotic or monotone. If it is a statement, make a statement. If it is a question, ask a question.

Step Four: After you have said the line, stay connected. Do not look back down at your scripts. Let the words sink into each of you, and only after their echo has faded in your minds should you look down to see what the next line is.

Here is piece of script:

So, where will you be headed tomorrow? Or are you still going to be evasive?

I’m not trying to be evasive, I just . . .


I’m not sure what it is I’m looking for. I used to do your job. Lived in Manhattan, had a pulpit at a small congregation just north of the city. Simple. Quiet. Had a framework that had all the answers, or would lead to them, at any rate. Or so I thought.

And what happened?

Life. The unplanned. The paradigm didn’t work anymore. 

Here is how this method should work in practice, applied to this piece of script: Sitting comfortably, the two actors connect. They wait. Then they look down. Kate looks at her line up to the first punctuation, the question mark. They look back up at each other. They wait. They connect. Kate asks the question “So, where will you be headed tomorrow?” She stops speaking, and the two actors stay connected. They let the question resonate. Then they look back down. Kate sees that it is she that continues speaking. The actors look back up. They connect. They wait. When the connection has been fully reestablished, Kate speaks again: “Or are you still going to be evasive?” Again, after the question is asked, neither actor looks back down. They continue to look at each other, keeping the connection alive between them, allowing the question to rest in the air. After a few moments, they look back down, and Aaron will see that it is his turn to speak. They look back up. They wait. They connect. Then, and only then, Aaron speaks: “I’m not trying to be evasive, I just . . .” And so it continues.
     I have described the exercise in such detail because, although it seems incredibly simple, it is very, very hard to do correctly. In fact, every time I describe it in class, students look at me as if I am crazy. They think it I am being pedantic, and that the exercise will be boring and pointless. They interrupt as I am explaining and say “Yeah, yeah, we got it.”  Then they get up to do it, and each time, every one of them fails at the first attempt. They start speaking almost instantaneously when they look up from the script. They put spin on the lines: anger, sweetness, sarcasm, etc. When they finally have the patience and discipline to wait until a connection has been established before they say their line, they then break the connection instantaneously the moment they finish speaking. I have to sit next to them and stop them, coach them through it, making them pause, making them back up and say a line without attitude. Once they have the pattern, I tell them to use the method in their next rehearsal with their scene partners.
     A marvelous thing occurs at the next class. Every student comes back with a look of wonder, telling me that they worked the exercise, and that they finally heard the scene for the first time. What they begin to perceive is that the scene, driven by the text, floats above all the stuff going on in the ocean of meaning underneath. Using this method allows the student to learn this, allows the actor to dive with wonder into these depths of meaning. Even when we are no longer beginners, this exercise is incredibly useful. The pause, the slowness of the pace, allow us to hear the words, divorced from any preconceptions. It allows us to explore the gaps in the text, and to find the many possibilities of meaning in them.

© 2011 Matthew Arkin


  1. Really well thought out and well presented, Matthew. Now, where's my scene partner?

    Thank you,

  2. Outstanding. Very insightful and practical beyond the "academic" as promised. Perhaps it is assumed, but in an audition situation isn't the actor compelled to konkretisation? Certainly in the example you give of 5 actors with the same script giving 5 different readings doesn't it behoove the actor to make strong, and necessarily, personal choices?
    Unfortunately in most cold reading audition situations we are not given the opportunity to absorb much from the poor reader, who on the 58th pass through the scene is likely quite bored. At this point konkretisation becomes our friend. :-)
    Good stuff, Mr. Arkin. As they say on HuffPo....fanned and faved.

  3. After I had published this article, I sent it on to Austin Pendleton, to see if he had any feedback on it. His comment, which I think is incredibly insightful (par for the course for Austin) is posted here:
    "My theory, which I may not have yet developed when last you heard me on the subject, is that when actors first try to apply this technique it takes them right back to the most anxious moments of their infancies, when they sent a verbal action to their mother (usually a howl, usually translated as "Food!!!!") and then had to wait for the response, utterly uncertain as to what that response might be. And of course the need to avoid this sort of helplessness may well be one of the root reasons we go into acting to begin with. And of course this sort of helplessness, which this exercise, thanks to Bobby Lewis, puts us in touch with, is the only thing that will finally make us WATCHABLE as actors. So the very thing that might open us up at actors is the thing that plunges us back into the most primal anxiety. So perhaps you can say to your students, "Suck on that."

  4. Hi Matthew,

    I so agree with this technique ... I learned a form of it many years ago at a film acting course taught in LA by a woman who's name escapes me (Laura Somebody?). It is VERY difficult for many to get the hang of initially, we want so much to know "who" we are and "what" we want before we utter a single word. The teacher would hand two actors each copies of an unnamed script. We would sit down facing each other and the only time we could look at the script was to see who spoke first. So, we also had no idea what genre the script was in either. The rest was much as you describe.

    It was a fascinating exercise to do and an even more fascinating one to watch. I think I learned even more watching - seeing the way we struggle to guess how we SHOULD be saying the line instead of just trusting our human nature and saying it and taking it in and listening.

    Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned from it is that our biggest fear is that somehow we'll say it "wrong" and yet, the "wronger" the actors were in guessing where the script was going, the more human and truthful it became. The more mercurial the moments became. It was exciting to watch. Like watching Anna Magnani scaring the hell out of Anthony Quinn in "Wild is the Wind" because he had no idea what the hell she would do next.*

    Anyway, after studying various methods for quite some time on both coasts, that technique was the final key for me in my approach to acting. Now, when I am in performance in film or theater, if the insidious feeling ever comes over me that "Oh, I should be DOING something wonderful now!" - that is now my cue to do nothing. I know now to just settle down, open up and be there. I now know that it rivets the audience as well.

    Thanks for putting it out there so articulately!

    Francesca Rizzo

    * Side-note: At an "Evening with ..." some years ago, I asked the late Mr. Quinn what it was like acting with Magnani, and he said (I paraphrase), "I'm a gentleman so when I am acting with an actress I try to pull back and help her when it's her scenes. When I had to act with Anna Magnani, I was fighting for my life. It was like acting with a man."