"It's Not a Song Without the Music"

by Anthony Abeson

Can you imagine going to a concert and having the band only recite the lyrics of the songs while playing none of the music? Wouldn't you feel ripped off? You'd demand your money back, and rightly so, because without the music it wasn't a concert, it was only a lot of talk. Far-fetched as this example is, it's analogous to what I'm encountering more and more, both directly and anecdotally, in my work with actors. Rewrite that first sentence to read: "Can you imagine watching a play/film/TV show and having the actors only recite the lines of their parts while playing with none of the life?" and the parallel is exact (except for the "demand your money back" part, since audiences seem more and more willing to accept lifeless recitation as a substitute for acting as long as the actors are hot.)

Allow me to share some examples that have led me to this inflammatory conclusion. A short while ago a student of mine went on an audition and was given a monologue to prepare. After he did it the first time, he was given this direction: "Now I want you to do it again, but this time create a situation. I don't care what the situation is. Just create one. You can do whatever you want." My student, I'm happy to say, did exactly that, after which the director said: "Wow. I don't know if I should tell you this, but I'm gonna tell you anyway," and he went on to say that he had seen close to a hundred people and had given them all the same monologue and same direction, and that every single one of them did the monologue in basically the same way with only a change of accent or inflection.

This is an example of how crippled we're becoming by our slavery to the words, and how the industry really sits up and takes notice when you bring something to the table that's not just more or different talk. And it is shocking to me how we are treating our work as literary, when it's meant to be living. Our actors' birthright, which is encoded in our DNA, is the tendency to create life, not words; even when we were kids, what we played we made exciting not by our talk but by our actions. How'd it come to this?

More examples. Again and again I have seen improvs, which are meant to discover the life of the scene, reduced to exercises in clever remarks while nothing is lived or experienced. My student E went to an audition where the actors were divided into groups of 4 and given the situation that they were on a doomed plane. Immediately the other three began screaming - not doing anything, just yelling and screaming. E took out her cell phone and called her mother, to say goodbye. Who do you think got the callback?

This tendency to let talk take the place of action, of doing, is apparent in many of the actors who audition for me and something we struggle with in my classes. It's deeply ingrained, producing a kind of "from the neck up" acting which can't engage us totally because the actor is divided. It was for this reason Stanislavski coined the term "the muscles of the tongue" - the words, whether on the page or in the memory exert a pressure on the actor to "Say me! Say me!" He likened it to the pressure to put the needle down on a spinning record. We can trace the roots of this problem back through Meyerhold, who reminded us that "the words are woven on the fabric of the action," and Artaud, who urged us "to break through language in order to touch life," all the way to Shakespeare, who wisely cautioned us to "Suit the action to the word and the word to the action." Clearly this has been with us for a long while, and yet, from my perspective, it's growing worse, to the point where we don't even notice when our lines take a wild jump to something apparently random; we just keep on babbling.

For example, in one scene two people are flirting, during war time, and after the man sketches the wonderful date they'll have after the war, including "making love in the soft, New Orleans night air," she replies: "All on our first date, huh?" He says "And it won't be the last." And then, seemingly out of nowhere, she says: "Do you really think we'll live to see it?" She goes, in one line, from flirtation to the fear of death, and yet so many actresses, carried along in a rush of words by the muscles of the tongue, don't even notice that huge shift, and just keep flirting when clearly the "music" of the scene has changed. (He then reminds her that the Lieutenant said "everybody gets out alive" to which she replies "Would you hold me, please?")

In real life we are constantly aware of non-sequiturs, instantly reacting with phrases whose familiarity attests to the frequency of this phenomenon, like "Where did that come from?" and "That was random." But as Stanislavski said: "Real life crumbles on the stage." Clearly a choice has to be made by the actress that will shift her that suddenly; she could experience something that brings her back to the reality of the war they're in. But first she'd have to stop those muscles of the tongue, and notice the shift that's required. In a new twist on "Can't get a word in edgewise,"we now have actors who can't get a choice in edgewise between the words. This deprives the scene of a change in mood, and the actress of the opportunity to reflect another characteristic they're looking for.

How has it come to pass that we now have many actors who are intently focused on how they look, clear about what they're saying, and clueless about what they're doing? While I'm sure many factors have contributed to this, my suspicion falls most heavily on the role of technology. Not so long ago there were many forms of entertainment that required the active participation of the audience's imagination, for example reading and radio dramas. Now they're losing ground to film and television where nothing is left to the imagination and all the sex and gore is vividly thrust at us in high def and Dolby. As a result, people's imaginations, that used to actively augment the words with images, have atrophied, rendering their relation to material passive. Nowhere is this more evident than in the toll it has taken on actors. Where once they would picture the life embedded in a line, now they're content to memorize and recite it.

In addition, we're increasingly dependent on our ability to read screens, not eyes ("the windows to the soul") or voices ("the organ of the soul" according to Longfellow.) This results in an antiseptic form of communication whose soullessness is revealed in the terms used to describe it: "texting," "IM-ing," "e-mailing," and so on. And this, in turn, has resulted in a generation of actors who are more attuned to reading screens than reacting to humans.

What to do? Let's take inspiration from the professional athletes who hold thousands riveted without uttering a word, through the sheer excitement of their actions which, we're told, "speak louder than words." What if we adopted a different way of looking at text: sight-reading like musicians who see black and white notes on the page and hear music? Why not have actors see black and white words on the page and picture behavior, actions, life? Somehow we must cut the loop of "in through the eyes, out through the mouth" that served us well "reading aloud" in third grade, but which now prevents us from making the invisible visible.

Let's remember to ask ourselves "What do I want and what am I doing with these lines to get it?" And then we have to go ahead and do it, even if we have to stay in the chair, the frame, or on the mark. If your answer's purely verbal ("I'm saying this" or "telling him that") your work is going to have that "blah blah blah" 2-dimensional, talking-head quality that doesn't pop, no matter how hot you are, because talk is, indeed, cheap. Just as you can't get blood from a stone, you can't squeeze life from a line. Lift up the stone and behold the life teeming just beneath the surface.

Isn't it "Lights. Camera. Action?"

St. James said it best. "Beloved, be doers of the word."


Anthony Abeson, who has conducted group acting classes and private coaching for actors for over 25 years, was a breakthrough coach to such now famous actors as Jennifer Aniston, Esai Morales (NYPD Blue and Jericho), Ellen Pompeo (Grey's Anatomy), Ian Somerhalder (Lost), Lisa Vidal (Numb3rs), Cedric Sanders (The Ten) and many others.

Mr.Abeson, who teaches in Manhattan, studied with all the greats, including 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.

Mr. Abeson's website is at:
E-mail: aabeson@ptd.net