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June 15, 2005

Mike Hill on Acting

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I love checking in with Sluggo Needs a Nap, Mike Hill's blog. Mike offers a very agreeable and fun-to-attend-to combo: he's well-seasoned and skeptical, but an interested and curious free-thinker too.

It's a treat too that -- as a writer and former actor -- Mike brings a lot of culture and experience to the table. I like spritzing about acting, but my rants are informed by little more than a couple of years of acting class and a bunch of friendships with actors. Mike's been there and done that many times over. When he talks and writes about acting, he's doing it from the inside out. Being able to do so intelligibly is a rare gift -- as anyone who's spent time watching "Inside the Actors Studio" knows all too well.

I recently swapped notes with Mike about acting's relationship to story. I found Mike's observations and thoughts really interesting, so I was pleased when he told me that I could reprint them here.

Here's Mike Hill:

One of the reasons I love 2Blowhards is that whatever the topic -- architecture, graphic design or nude modeling -- much of the discussion centers around story, plot and character, the basic communicative tools we dragged out of the caves. The Blowhards and their commenters seem just as obsessed with how we communicate as they are with what and why. I was an actor for more than 25 years and I haven't been one for more than 10. This is the corner of the discussion I know a little about.

Obviously, an actor is professionally interested in story and action. If a character's development has been badly imagined or constructed by the playwright or the overall narrative line is flawed, one notices; simply because if it's done well it's easy, and if it's not it's well-nigh impossible. The patches and pastework needed to invent a logic from A to B may get you through, but it's like running over the same speedbump every night, two inches higher than your clearance.

People do astonishing things and people use their lives in the most outrageous ways, so the word "logic" in terms of character does not mean "reasonable."

When you're moving characters from one set of circumstances to another the test of the choices you have your characters make is not "have you ever heard of such a thing?" It's what happens after they make the choice.

In other words, it's like scoring a spare in bowling. You'll get credit for the most unbelievable event in a character's life to the extent, in the next frame, the character adjusts to the event in a recognizably human way. It's not the boom, but the echoes that make characters live.

What, exactly, is a talent for plot? I know I can write prose all day, sometimes very well. But if you read my novel on my site you'd see that I'm not strong there.

I think of poetry and physics as young person's games because they're essentially associative acts -- making thunderous connections across vast tracts of the mind between elements whose relationship may never have been noticed before. It's possible only because there's a talent for holding innumerable objects in the mind at once and spinning them. Some people can do that and they're usually very smart young people with supple minds.

Playwrights also tend to burn out early, or at least earlier than novelists. While they must be attentive to plot, the narrative is stripped down to people talking, which makes that art more akin to poetry than longer forms.

But what is the talent for telling stories? I don't know, which is why it interests me. I do have a feeling, though, that it may have something to do with associative powers running linearly rather than in three dimensions, as with poetry. You set the story in motion and at the point of attack all things in the universe are possible. The broader your understanding of naked apes and the deeper your sympathy with the things that can go wrong in life and the wider your aspirations for experience determines the array you have to choose from for the next moment.

I'm just being circular now, because the talent really is in making that choice. If you have two good things to choose from, then that's obviously better than 200 dumb things.

Different people work different ways, of course. But, to me as an actor, the task was not to find a line through a scene or a play, but to find the character and let him loose through the groove provided by the playwright.

What the person does and what he says is provided for you. Who he is may have several plausible answers. You're asking the questions: What kind of a person would say and do these things, and why? Using tools that really don't vary that much from acting school to acting school you construct that person and try and run him through the action of the play. The characterization, if successful, will find the line. If not, you've got problems.

Initially, I never interpret the playwright's meaning, his message. Only the character's function. If you think you know what the play's about everything you do will be servicing your interpretation. And you could well be wrong.

So you take your little character and set him off on the road. It usually doesn't work. There are occasions when you own a role from day one and you play a lot of bridge and feel a little guilty about getting paid. But that doesn't happen often. Instead, you recalibrate your assumptions, you tweak this and that, add an animal, abandon a sense memory, speed up, slow down. You put things in his way to see what he'll do. Finally, when doing the play is easy, you've got it.

All this applies to working on good scripts. Working on bad plays is just a Rube Goldberg horror, and some people are better at it than others. But even good writers are sometimes wrong. The character really wouldn't, or couldn't, say or do what he has them saying or doing. If it's just a moment or two you can't back away from what you constructed for the rest of the play because people are like that, too. Inexplicable, surprising, contradictory. A little of that helps, rather than hinders.

But what a task! Inventing even two people, much less ten or twenty. Inventing their whole lives and relationships and flaws and buttons and having them together in one place when something awful or wonderful happens. Making that believable and dramatic and identifiable is a tough, tough chore.

Yes, actors do make good test pilots. If an actor you trust can't make a scene you wrote work, you-the-writer are almost certainly the problem.

But to answer your first question, No. At least for me, the ontogeny of the actor does not recapitulate the phylogeny of the playwright. He's God. I'm the first white man on this river.

Let me rewind and repeat one particular passage:

To me as an actor, the task was not to find a line through a scene or a play, but to find the character and let him loose through the groove provided by the playwright. What the person does and what he says is provided for you. Who he is may have several plausible answers.

As far as I'm concerned, that's pure art-zen, as well as ultra-helpful. Not easy to get these things into words.

Mike's excellent blog is here. Mike's private-eye mystery novel, "Asbury Park" -- which I haven't yet read but am looking forward to -- can be downloaded here.

BTW, Mike is recommending "The Comeback," a new HBO series:

Did you see the premier of the new HBO series "The Comeback"? It's got some problems, but, man, it's as graphic an illustration as exists of what we were talking about concerning the "specialness" and "difficulties" of performers.

It's a little difficult to watch because there isn't a moment when Lisa Kudrow isn't a micron away from losing it, but my wife, who has tons of experience in Hollywood as opposed to my none, says that the portrait of the process and the players are all deadly accurate.

Many thanks to Mike Hill.



posted by Michael at June 15, 2005


That was very entertaining. I'll have to check out Mr. Hill's blog more often.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 16, 2005 7:23 PM

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