Friday, February 26, 2010

Howard Fine's book

Superstar acting teacher and Uta Hagen protege Howard Fine has a book out, called, Fine on Acting A Vision of the Craft. I have to say, there's a lot to like about it. He writes with real sensitivity and thoughtfulness about many of the challenges that actors face and the sandtraps they can fall into. I am going to pay it the highest of compliments and start assigning sections of it in my course curriculum. I am going to list off some of the money quotes below, but I will say first (with some relief, I confess, because that gives me at least one thing that differentiates me from him) that there is one important place where Fine's book falls short. That is in his discussion of objective, or what he calls the "why" question. Let's look at what he says:

...I use the term super objective as smaller and confined within the boundaries of the scene, so that the immediate objectives correspond to the super objective. Think of the overall objective as the spine, throughline or mainline of intent in the scene. Here's an example: You're an actor reading for a producer who is casting a part. But before that, you have to give a great reading, you want to handle the interview well and make a personal connection. Those are smaller objectives that lead you to the overall objective. The overall objective is the thing that really drives us. It can change within the course of the scene, depending on the information you learn, For example, that same producer calls you back and says "By the way, this project is non-union, there is no pay, and there is nudity." Your overall objective may have changed very quickly. So, depending on what happens in the script, your objective can change.

This is a primitive way of looking at objective. My teachers at the Drama School found a way of looking at objective that is much more supple and penetrating than this. In fact it was the problems with the view that Fine describes that motivated the creation of this new way of looking at objective (they say necessity is the mother of the invention ;)) I have written about it previously, and it is a bit involved. You really need a classroom context to make the power of it clear, but I will say a bit about it here.

Look at what Fine says above: when the producer tells you about the conditions attached to the project, he says your objective may change. What he neglects to discuss is WHY it might change. He creates a situation in which the reasons for the change are fairly intuitive, but there are many script situations where the change may not be that obvious. Moreover, when the objective changes, its power as a unifying principle, something that the actor can grab onto and RIDE, is vastly diminished. Consider Strindberg's Miss Julie. The two principal characters play long scenes in which they change frequently from being powerfully drawn to each other to being repulsed by each other. Simply marking these changes is not enough. The actor needs to get in touch with that which REQUIRES her to change what she is pursuing.

So my teachers created a distinction between plot objectives and the underlying objective. Plot objectives are outcomes that you might pursue in the world, like getting the role or extricating yourself from the encounter with the sleazy producer. The underlying objective is the the thing that you will GET FROM achieving either of these outcomes. It must be articulated compellingly and concisely, and is an expression of our universal deep-seated need to situate ourselves in relationships to others of various kinds. Another LA acting teacher, Ivana Chubbuck, attempts to write about this in her book, although her treatment of it is mostly facile and superficial.

What is also immensely important and valuable about this way of working is that the underlying objective is something that the character gets through realizing plot objectives but also at each moment INDEPENDENTLY of the long term plot objectives.

I don't doubt that Fine understands this distinction intuitively; there is much in his book that says he understands that acting has everything to do with getting in touch with the ways in which we CARE for others. But the approach to objective in his technique that he articulates is dated and limited.

Here are some thing he says that I really like:

  • "Your central responsibility as actors is to affect and to be affected by, that is your job. You must affect someone else, and you must be affected by them. Any choices you make that disallow that exchange have taken you down a dead-end."

  • "You must have a body that is responsive to you, that is flexible, and you must start to develop yourself physically to be a great actor. All forms of dance training, martial arts, yoga and especially the Alexander Teachnique are excellent."

  • "The first common mistake that will lead you down a very bad path is judging the character."

  • "Writers are not writing about someone's mundane life. They're writing about the important moments. When you look at a scene and you don't see the crisis that character is in, you have taken out what is actable in the scene."

  • "So much is made of the differences between stage acting and television and film acting. I like to say to my students, "Would you study the violin for film? Would you learn how to play football for television?" Of course not, that would be ludicrous. You learn how to play the violin. You learn how to play football. You learn how to act. You learn the craft itself.

  • "The goal of preparation is spontaneous life."

  • "A developed mind is part of what will become your range as an actor, which means you have to develop your intellect formally through education, or you have to find a way to do it on your own. How will you understand what's going on in a scene, if you have not developed your ability to think?"

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