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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

excerpt: Elia Kazan on acting, from "Elia Kazan: A Life" auditions, technique

“When I came into the theater, the saying went: “You either have it or you don’t.” Acting couldn’t be taught, it was said; stage deportment, speech, dialects, singing, dancing, fencing, gymnastics, yes, but not the central thing, not the art of acting. There were the gifted few and those less fortunate. The completely unfortunate carried spears.  I, it was quickly judged, was of that hopeless fraternity. So I had to believe, did I not? [Having been hailed by the critics in 1935]—that talent grows unsuspected, underground, and may be found in these likely places. And I had to believe that the essential art, the core thing, had a technique, one that could be learned, and I could learn it. Looking back, it seems to me that my outstanding asset was my persistence in the face of rejection.

Arthur Hopkins, the director of Barrymore’s Hamlet was casting, I waited an hour in line outside the Plymouth Theater. I finally came close and watched as each actor arrived before Mr. Hopkins, who raised his face, glanced quickly at the candidate, then, saying not a word, shook his head and dropped it again. That was what he did to me.  I considered myself fortunate to have seen the great man.  Perhaps he had seen too many anxious faces, one after another, and made a mistake. I stood in line again and was rejected again.

Another humiliation I remember going through more than once was a “reading.” Invariably this took place in a bare stage, and the person who read with me was the stage manager, who had read with twenty other applicants and who was understandably sated. The auditorium was usually dark, or, if illuminated, lit by a naked thousand-watt bulb overhead, which caused people out front to slouch in what seemed to be attitudes of indifference, their hats shielding their faces.  The vocal response from out front, when its tone was friendly, tended to be “put on.” it isn’t possible for someone to be that cordial hour after hour. When I was finished, I might hear, “Thank you,” meaning, “You’re dismissed.” Sometimes I heard whispering out front or low laughter; probably it had nothing to do with what I’d done or not done—but how could I be sure? I remember my cheeks burning. Often I had no idea who was out there. Was it the playwright (and his agent)? The director (and his girlfriend)? Or the director’s assistant assigned to sort out candidates for the small parts? I never knew what he or they had thought. Or even if they’d paid attention. (A gopher had come down and aisle during my reading, with coffee and Danish) I read, I was rejected and left. But it didn’t take long before I was ready to try again.

Such was the professional life of the actor when I came down from New Haven.  [1934].  Year after year, the actors waited for an eventuality over which they had no control—a part, a play, a film, an interest, a friend in a high place (usually an older man with an itch for a young actress.) How do they take the penury, the uncertainty, the scorn, and the rejection, season after season without becoming cynics or drunkards or (now) coke heads, or getting into terrible fights, or becoming some variety of criminal or a compulsive gambler? Pride would seem to demand a violent reaction. But they endure it all and, on the whole, maintain an extraordinary grace and generosity of spirit as well as a true love for the theater while, with increasing desperation, but with idealism undiminished, they try to shoulder their way into the work they want. There is no category in the theater—or for that matter in our society—as gallant or as loveable. Year after year they continue to believe the illusion by which they live: that someday soon the part will come their way, the one that will “make” them, as a part made Brando (did it? a part?) or Dean, or Julie Harris, Paul Newman, Bobby De Niro, Lee Remick, Jason Robards, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino—their heroes who “made it.”

Despite whatever dignity and confidence actors have managed to win for themselves over the years, they are still today the people in the theater who have to please everyone—the producer and his partners, the playwright and his agent, the director and his agent, the star and his manager, the moneymen and their wives, as well as the audiences when they come and the tv commentators, the newspaper critics, the gossip columnists, and the mudslingers. No wonder that members of the theatre’s first profession fill up with anxiety and, its opposite face, unreleased anger. I did, fill up with both.

With everything else Harold (Clurman) and Lee (Strasberg) accomplished, they also brought dignity to the actor. They restored him to a position of some standing and his art to a level shoulder-to-shoulder with the other crafts in the theater. The honorable position of the actor—all of us, not just stars—was affirmed. Now an actor, even one who isn’t anything near a star, will take the risk of being thought arrogant and ask what the character he’s being asked to read for is all about. It is a question that embarrasses many directors.

Today, when I am consulted by an eager newcomer about whom to “go to for help,” I generally answer that I can’t offer advice unless and until I know more about him—which I make damned sure I don’t have time to do. I shudder at the thought of giving quick counsel on the Art of the Theater, on what will “get you there.” Yes, the experience of other actors and directors can be communicated and does help, but on the whole it’s better for a young actor, driven by a strong desire, to stumble, fall, pick up, come on again, and so find his way. What I do sometimes say is that choosing a teacher is like settling on a lover; one size doesn’t fit all.

I do have differences with my old friends and associates. No one who came out of the Group and now teaches does it precisely the same way or with the same emphasis. Acting teachers tend to disparage each other’s methods. As in other human endeavor, there is fascinating variety. But despite that, the teachers (Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, Lee Srasberg, Robert Lewis, Paul Mann)make the same basic emphasis, which is fundamental: Experience on the stage must be actual, not suggested by external imitation; the actor must be going through what the character he’s playing is going through; the emotion must be real, not pretended; it must be happening, not indicated.

That is our word for heresy: To indicate is the cardinal sin in acting. Yet, even this is open to question. Some great actors imitate the outside and “work” in from there. Laurence Olivier for one. Larry needs to know first of all how the person he’s to play walks, stands, sits, dresses; he has to hear in his memory’s ear the voice of the man whom he’s going to imitate. I lived across the street from him at the time I was directing his wife, Vivien Leigh in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire, and would often drop over to see him. Larry was working with Willy Wyler on Sister Carrie and, as ever, concentrating on what might seem to “us" to be insignificant aspects of his characterization. I remember pausing outside a window late one Sunday morning and, undetected, watching Larry go through the pantomime of offering a visitor a chair. He’d try it this way, then that, looking at the guest, then at the chair, doing it with a host’s flourish, doing it with a graceless gesture, then thrusting it brusquely forward, never satisfied, always seeking the most revealing way to do what would be a quickly passing bit of stage business for any other actor. Including for us, of the Group. We would work on the actor’s disposition at the time of the visit, what the character feels toward his guest and what he wants to accomplish in the scene that’s to follow. Having determined these---no, I’ll put it correctly: Having experienced these, that is to say, having found them within ourselves, we’d trust that the detail of how the chair is offered would take care of itself.

Does it? Not always. Which way is better? As in all art, both. There is content and there is form. The artistry is in the passion; it is equally in the way the passion is expressed. Perhaps the problem we have to deal with is how to create an expressive form within which the spontaneous life, the one that yields the unexpected, the dazzling surprise, is free to work.  The greatest actors are known for giving the same performance a little differently each night—but it is the same performance in all essentials. Both techniques are important: turning your emotional resources on and off, this way and that, while at the same time directing the cunning of your body to the most telling external behavior.

The technique of exhuming intense buried passion by arousing associations, what is known as “emotional recall,” is no longer esoteric. We are familiar with the glandular behavior of Pavlov’s dog. To believe that true acting centers around that psychological trick—a teacher’s delight in showing off, because it never fails to impress beginners—tends to make acting a competition as to which actor can produce the greatest emotional show. That is not important, nor is it the Method, which is concerned with the reason the character is on stage and what he wants to—is able to—do there within the given circumstances of the scene.

The problem of form is still the problem and applies as much to the insides as it does to the externals. Emotions differ; they have different qualities; they are part of a characterization; they are specific. We don’t feel alike, nor do we all always feel at top pitch. “In life” most of us conceal our feelings, don’t want them to be seen. Many actors I know brandish these emotions as if they were the true measure of talent. The basic problem of artistic control is the problem of having the emotion and giving it its most appropriate expression. This problem cannot be slighted any more in acting than it can be in painting or music. The great Russian directors of their classic period—before the revolution feel to earth—Vakhtangov, Meyerhold, and even, at the end of his days, Stanislavski, were dealing with this problem: form.

One final word on this subject. There is a power the actual experience genuinely felt by an actor has that, when merely simulated or cleverly suggested, it does not have. You can see it in the greatest performances: Raimu, who, in The Baker’s Wife, looked less like an actor than a baker, but whose enacted humiliations, those an aging man will encounter when he’s in love with a young woman, were so truly felt, they shook me. Garbo in Camille, unsurpassable. What is her mystery? Her self. Judy Garland, at the end of her life, giving you flashes of her own life’s pain when she sang the pop blues. Caruso and Callas, he with great theatric voice, hers with one often criticized, both offering depth that made you forget any flaw. Bessie Smith, who made a league of all the down-and-outers in our society, sang for them all. Brando, naked of soul in On the Waterfront, the best performance I’ve ever seen by a man in films because it had all the tenderness and delicacy in love scenes that you could not have expected.
All those others: Michael Chekhov, Walter Huston in the Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Takashi Shimura in Kurosawa’s To Live. Those are some of the treasures of my life, you would name others. Now ask yourself why these performances—or your own list—live on in your memory, and others, equally praised, do not.

My own opinion is that they do because the actors—whether by technique or by accident—gave you pieces of their lives, which is certainly the ultimate generosity of the artist, and they did it unabashed. You were the witness to a final intimacy. These artists spoke to your secret self, the one you hide. They offered you more than cleverness or technique: they gave you the genuine thing, the thing that hurt you as it thrilled you.  What made these distilled experiences awesome and unforgettable is that in these cases, a kind of fear is aroused, you find yourself unsure of what is going to happen next—or in the end. Will they last it out, will they come through? As in life, there are likely going to be surprises that discomfort you. All leading men and women should have something unpredictable and dangerous about them. You should be anxious about what they might do, it could get out of hand. Didn’t Bogart have this? And Bette Davis? Will the leading man make love to his leading lady or will he strike her—James Cagney. Who can plumb the mystery of Greta Garbo? She doesn’t yield. She doesn’t make friends, she’s not after your approval, not ever. Yes, there should be a persisting menace, even in heroes. They should be the opposite of housebroken, only partly tamed, not quite civilized.

Sitting out front or before your screen, you realize you’re witnessing a real event, one more real than life, for in “life” there are the limits of civilization—the police, for instance. In art, there should be none. You should not know what the outcome will be. You watch apprehensively—as you did Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, which Bobby De Niro played. In the company of those performers, you should not feel safe, any more than you do in a dark street at night, or driving over an African savannah in an open jeep as the sun sets and the predators begin to stir. You feel the immediacy that you experience when you watch a terrible encounter in life or read the first act of Richard III. You wish for the best, but you’re not sure it will come to pass. You hope, as you do when you enter Lear, that this greatest of the old men of the world will come out of his daze, even for a flash at the end—as Lear does—and for that instant see his life and the world clearly. When that happens, your own life has grown, What’s happened to people on stage or on the screen has happened to you.

This is the kind of acting to which I aspired.

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