So, last POV, we heard from LA-based acting coach Mara Casey about an actor's focus. This time out, NY-based acting coach Anthony Abeson covers quite a few topics, including the actor's DNA, "look" over talent, and how he feels US-based actors can win back roles that have been going to international actors.
Magical, Prehistoric Tribe Discovered Living in 21st Century
Want to meet one of them? Look in the mirror. If you're the kind of actor that's driven, salmon-like against the current to perform, then you're a carrier of precious, ancient, performance DNA. Back when the human race lived in and painted caves, they acted out the hunt gone well, so that it would, and if it did, they re-enacted how. Now most of the clan was content to sit and watch, but a precious few (even then we must have seemed a little odd to our fellows) were impelled to perform. One put on the skin of the animal, another picked up the spear, and together they performed "The Hunt." At other times, the Winter Solstice, for example, when it seemed the Sun was dying, we danced and sang the sunlight back and planted hope, an evergreen in people's hearts. And down though the ages, as our particular strand of DNA survived, we've lent our talent in service to the people, ensuring the survival of the race.
This thing we carry inside of us is two-fold: the tendency to perform and to become other people. Not just to get up in front of the clan, but to put on the mammoth skin as well. And yet today, more and more of our actors are using that ancient and magical tendency less and less. Duse is still revered today for her ability to transform. It was said of her that when by a brook, uncannily, she would ripple. When her lover spied her walking over a hill with some Russian wolfhounds, for a moment he couldn't tell them apart. It wasn't about her "look," but rather about who she became. Now it's about what we already look like. And this emphasis on type over talent has consequences.
We're Devouring Our Young
Our young actors are a national resource which is being squandered through over-use of "look" and under-development of talent. Much has been written about the increasing amount of sexuality of film and television and its effect on the public, particularly the young. But what about what it's doing to the young actors who are increasingly being led to perceive their "hotness" as the route to success? This "route," however, does not lead to renewable resources. Consider the ever-faster cycle of gobble 'em up and spit 'em out by which the industry feeds its insatiable hunger for "hotties." While there will always be an endless supply of pretty boys and girls to be used, the valuation of talent as a precious resource to be developed, is shrinking like the Arctic ice-sheets.
The cycle is self-perpetuating, mutually provocative. The more cable channels, the more need for more "hotties," who--internalizing the dominance of type over talent in their drive for fame--try to market their looks right into employment without any training at all. Why should they train? The culture beguiles them with another path. Either way, undeveloped talent, used, is talent used up. The dragon eats its tail. And what are the consequences of undeveloped talent being used? The constant repetition of whatever personality traits and/or looks resulted in "success" in the first place will be milked unceasingly until one or the other gives out, and a replacement is found. The discard is then abandoned to the tender mercies of the market place, ill-equipped to repackage itself because the talent's been fused into a self-portrait that's no longer marketable. This tendency to paint-self-portraits has already begun to damage our craft.
Q. What do Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Richard Nixon, and Elvis all have in common?
A: They were all played by actors from the UK.
There were no American actors to play these major roles of American icons? What does that say about us? That we don't have the size, the stature to play these larger-than-life parts? Something's amiss, and it flows directly, logically from the increasing tendency to paint self-portraits based on type rather than talent. But our job's not to display ourselves but to reveal the truth (or, as Stanislavski said, "the life of the human spirit"). While we must, inevitably, start from ourselves, we shouldn't end with ourselves. We do this in life. Are we not different with our friends than we are with our parents? Different with our parents than we are with our lovers? Different with them than we are with our teachers? It's still us, but different aspects of us evoked by different partners and circumstances. Self-portraiture denies that basic human truth and deprives us of what Stanislavski called the joy of "the complete and utter transformation into another human being; a kind of reincarnation." Yet many of us persist, while complaining about the lack of depth in the breakdowns. But in order to avoid having our talent used narrowly, we must develop it widely. It's up to us to use the breakdowns as trampolines, not mirrors; not to achieve self-portraits at the expense of our characters, nor pasted-on external characters at the expense of our souls, but a third as-yet-unknown possibility: characters written by the author, animated by us, and different from anyone else's portrayal because of our uniqueness.
The industry will never see us as right for all the different parts we'd like to book unless we balance their perception of what we look like with an awareness of who we can become; unless and until we demonstrate that although we might be narrowly marketable by virtue of our type, we are infinitely usable by virtue of our talent. By succumbing to the primacy of type over talent, we've allowed the transformation strand of our ancient performance DNA to wither, and left the impression that all we can paint are self-portraits. And that's why they go to the UK to cast Elvis.
While I agree that actors must honor their talent, I also feel that it is imperative that an actor know his or her type and market accordingly. Sure, the talent is primary, but without landing on the radar of the "buyers" (who are going to judge you first by type, then by talent--I mean, they won't necessarily watch your work without first knowing you're the right type for the role), your opportunity to show that talent, woven into your very DNA, is eliminated. In the end, it's all about balance. And that's a happy thing, however you slice it.
About Anthony Abeson
Anthony Abeson has been conducting group acting classes and private coaching for actors for over 25 years in New York City. Many of his students have gone on to successful careers in film and television, including Jennifer Aniston, Ellen Pompeo, Ian Somerhalder, Esai Morales, Lisa Vidal, Cedric Sanders, and a host of others. Anthony Abeson's actor-training is an amalgam of his work with Peter Brook at the Centre International du Recherche Theatrale, Paris; Jerzy Grotowski at the Instytut Aktora, Wroclaw and Brzezinka, Poland and the Centre Dramatique National du Sud-Est, Aix-en-Provence, France; Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman as a member of the Directors Unit of the Actors Studio; and Stella Adler at the Stella Adler Conservatory, New York. For more information on Anthony Abeson, please visit www.anthonyabeson.com.
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