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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Playwright Nicky Silver talks to me about acting

Nicky Silver interview 9/20/16

Corey: When you are auditioning actors, what do you see (good habits/ bad habits)?

Nicky: I think the biggest mistake that actors make in auditions is doing too much.  I am the writer, and this is my point of view, but when you do too much, it feels like you don’t trust the words, you don’t just trust the material.

I am looking for someone who is emotionally available, technically skilled, and trusts the material.

It comes down to ‘what is acting?’ 95% of acting is believing what you are saying. It’s being present and believing what you are saying. And when you’re doing a whole lot, it sends the message to me that you don’t believe what you are saying. You have to create a whole mishugas, a whole bunch of stuff instead of just believing these words. That’s what acting is, finding a way to believe these words. 

By the way, a very small, technical thing is that you are always asked in an audition whether you have any questions before you begin.  Or 9 times out of 10 you are asked that.  When actors ask, “How angry am I?” “How this am I? How that am I?” Well, that’s unanswerable. You can only answer it in comparison to something else…“UH, 7! You’re anger is a 7!” It doesn’t mean anything.

It’s fine to say, “Look, I wasn’t sure how angry, so if I’m off on the wrong track, stop me and correct me.” But to ask in advance, “How sad am I? How angry am I?” “How much do I hate this person?”
“Uhh…B! You hate them B!” I mean, how do you answer that question?

Corey: When you get to callbacks, you’ve narrowed it down, what is that like for you? What does it come down to for you when you’re watching callbacks?

Nicky: Callbacks are usually, 9 times out of 10, callbacks are about two things. Consistency, that they can do what they did the first time.  And 2, we are usually looking for another color in callbacks. Most of the time we will have them do another scene. The scene they did and a second scene. I actually have a callbacks tomorrow and we’re adding a scene. The first scene is a scene of lashing out and the second scene is a much quieter scene. So we’re looking to see another quality of the person. And you want to make sure, it’s not about taking the adjustment ‘correctly.’ Because it may take a long time for the actor and the director to find a language that they speak in common. But it is about taking adjustments. Can it change and the actor still be present and real and believable and funny-if that’s what you’re looking for.

It has happened more than one would like that somebody comes in who has just got the script comes in and they nail it at the audition because they are flying by the seat of their pants. Then, given overnight time to think about it, they make a lot of  “decisions” and then it’s not very good. You can tell. There is a line in a scene in this play that we’re auditioning now and I’ve probably heard it, I don’t know…100 times, and the cue is, “We never go anywhere.” And the response is: “Where do I go?”  Well, you can tell when an actor has overthought it, because they say: “Where do I go?”  Well, no, that’s not human speech! Nobody would say, “Where do I go?” They would say, “Where do I go?” So you’re looking for, ‘are they over-thinking it?’ I don’t sit there and go, “they overthought it.” I sit there and go, “”Well that doesn’t sound like a person.” These are actors with a lot of credits and some of them are very very good.

I directed a play six years ago at NYU, and I auditioned for five parts over a thousand students. I was so distressed by how they approached the auditions that I then taught a seminar (I ended up teaching at NYU, but first I just taught a seminar) on auditions. And the first thing an actor has to do is know what kind of play it is. And that requires some knowledge and education. 

Because if you go in-you might be the most wonderful actor in the world-but if you come in to audition for a play by me and you are quiet and moody and you’re acting between the words instead of on the words and you’re really pause-y, because your aesthetic is just really William Inge or Annie Baker, well then the notes I write to myself are going to be—‘somewhere there is a production of The Seagull that is dying for this actor.’

And likewise if you are going in to audition for an Annie Baker play and you’re really snappy and everything, well…So have some sense of what you think the world of the play is, and maybe you’re dead wrong, but if you’re dead wrong you’re not going to get the job and it’s probably for the best. But, have some sense of what the world of the play is and identify what your actions and objectives are from the most basic point of view and just play them. Just trust the language and play them.

Corey: I feel that an actor needs to listen to the rhythm of the play, and if he doesn’t listen to the rhythm, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you’re missing a lot of the information that’s being given to you.

Nicky: A hundred percent. Mark Brokaw, the director I’m working with now (for the third time in a row) He’ll say to me, “This is a good actor but he’s not finding the rhythm…he’s imposing his own rhythm and it’s going to drive you crazy.” So yes, a hundred percent. Now, writers have their own individual rhythms and some writers, I think, are arrhythmic intentionally, so that’s the rhythm, that’s the choice. Its like naturalism is a style, it’s a choice.

My characters, what the character wants-it’s very rare in a play by me that what the character wants is very obscure. My characters fight very hard for what they want. And often, somewhere in the play, they’ll say what they want.  Now, in a play like "Beautiful Child," there’s a long scene in the end of Act One that’s all subtext and it’s up to the actor to figure out what they want. But in Comedy, and I think of my plays as Bleak Comedy, there is less subtext than in Drama. In Farce, there is no subtext. That’s what makes a Farce a Farce, people pursuing things in straight lines, as opposed to curved or circuitous angles.

Corey: Do you feel that the ability to play comedy is something an actor has or doesn’t, or that they can learn?

Nicky: I do think that if you don’t have a natural sense of humor that aligns in some way with the play, then you’re never going to have it. That said, it is absolutely something you can get better at. It’s like drawing. If you cannot draw, no amount of class is going to make you an artist. If you can draw a little, you can get a lot better.  You might never be Nathan Lane, but you can get a lot better.  It is surprisingly technical. Comedy is very very technical business. And you find the technique via instinct. Years and years ago, my first play in New York City, "Pterodactyls," Hope Davis used to get this giant laugh when she shrieked “I’m death!” and one night she came backstage and she said, “My laugh wasn’t as big, do you know why?”  I did, because I watch every single night, and I learn. And I said, “Yes, because on your second word, you were sort of on a major chord and not a minor chord. That’s a very technical thing. It made a giant difference. And I didn’t know it, and she didn’t know it, but I had watched it 60 times. The same thing with Kelly Bishop saying,

 “We’re going to rehearse…” 
“Rehearse what?”
 “The wedding you squid!”

It never got a big laugh. Part of it is subliminal, it had to put you in a world of music and comedy, that is different from an angry world of straight dialogue.

Eve Arden, I will tell students when we’re writing about things, listen to Eve Arden, listen to the opening scene of The Women. The credits of The Women, all music, it doesn’t mean it’s all a joke, it means it’s putting me in a world that’s ready for jokes.

Corey: When you are in auditions or in rehearsal, do you ever see an actor’s technique get in the way of the moment, of the play?

Nicky: Yes. Very much so. Now, I recently watched that Mary Louise Wilson documentary about teaching acting? She’s a brilliant, breath-takingly good actress, though she comes off rather frightening, she seems to suggest that her way is the only way. A young actor says to her ”Well, I can’t feel it every single night.” And she says, “Why not? You can say it every single night.” Well, if that works for her, that’s great. It’s also none of my business as a playwright or as a director. How you get there is none of my business. I was doing a play at Playwrights Horizons, with Dylan McDermott, and he wasn’t paraphrasing, he was actually improvising and he was on the stage and we were doing it and he went off the script and the director stopped him and said, “Those aren’t the words.” And he said, “Who cares about the words, it has to be REAL, man!” And I believe I called out from the back of the empty theater, “They don’t call it ‘Dylan McDermott Horizons.’  If he needs to feel it in order to understand it, more power to him. Not my business. It’s not his job to feel anything, it’s his job to make me feel something.  And I am all for every actor finding the way that allows them to be present. If they have to feel it every night, if they can feel it every night, great! On the other hand, if they never feel it, not my business.  If they’re good enough to make me feel it and fool me. I don’t care. So that’s an example where his technique, the way he approaches acting got in his way, but it also got in the way of the production, because everybody else has to sit around and wait while he feels something.

I remember Irene Worth in "Cherry Orchard" at Lincoln center, with Meryl Streep and Raul Julia and she was the toast of New York. And there’s a scene in "Cherry Orchard" where she tears up the telegram and puts it in the river. Someone in a class asked her and said that was the most beautiful moment, what were you working on? What were you feeling? And I’ll never forget her response, because it says what acting is. She said, “I wasn’t feeling anything. I was trying to sound like water…dripping…in a basin…” And I thought, “Well, there you go. She wasn’t doing a goddamn thing. “ Another actress may do it and feel it every night. And I may not know the difference between the two and I don’t denigrate the actress who feels it nor do I denigrate the actress who doesn’t feel it.  Either is acceptable. Not my business.

Corey: Do you experience working with actors who have not yet learned that the purpose is to serve the play?

Nicky: Dylan McDermott ended up being great in the play, but the production, I believe, suffered, because maybe he wasn’t there to serve the play.

In general, I am not a big deal as a playwright. I am a middling successful…I mean I’ve earned a living, I’m still doing it, I feel like a beginner, but I am well liked by young people, I get a lot of college productions and a lot of email from students. And both myself and my plays have big personalities, to be perfectly honest, and this is handy because if they’re in a play by me they sort of know they’re there to serve the play. That may not be the case if they are in a play by a new playwright or a playwright who doesn’t make quite as loud a noise on paper. Mostly I feel that the actors I work with are there to serve the play. Recently I worked with an actress who was there to serve the play but it was a real struggle for her because she was also judging her own character as being unpleasant. It was very very hard for her to serve the play. She wanted to, she just couldn’t quite divorce herself from her own judgments.

Corey: You travel to London once a year. And you go to the theater there. Can you talk about what you see there in the context of the actors work?

Nicky: I do know that there is this preconceived notion that the Brits are much more technical than Americans. That may be the case. To me, it’s not my business how they get there. I mean my favorite performances of all time, my favorite actors are an equal mix of British and American. Linda Lavin and Maggie Smith. They couldn’t be more opposite in their approach (I’m assuming) to the work, but they both feel completely present, they’re both comic geniuses, they’re both very emotional. So I don’t see any difference, that’s plumbing that isn’t of any interest to anyone but the actor.

I will say that what they think is a brilliant musical performance [in London] would be regarded here as a rather mediocre musical performance.  They don’t have a sense of gigantic musical performances. I don’t think they do. “Follies” directed thirty years ago by Mike Okrent in the West End remains one of my favorite things that I’ve ever seen in my entire life. So I think they have a sense of what a musical is, maybe it’s their reserve or something. But you seldom see someone step up to the plate and knock it out of the park in a big loud way.

Corey: Well, thank you so much. I’m in Memphis and there are young creative people here who struggle, who still live in a way that is similar to the way Tennessee Williams grew up in Mississippi and struggled with being gay and with being sensitive and creative. The gender roles here are still clearly laid out here, and at the Christian private schools, a young guy gets beaten up and ostracized if he even reveals that he is gay.  For me, this blog is a source, it’s meant to be a resource for the creative person from any background, those who may be different, who is looking for a way to express creativity, and the permission to be who they are; and it provides access to this work and this world, which accepts you as being different and unique and allows voices like yours to be heard.

Nicky: Well, it’s probably not very different from growing up where I grew up, 1965-75; I left Philadelphia when I was 16. So it sounds like Philadelphia when I was 16. My advice would be: Get the fuck out! That’s what I did. Just get out. Get out as fast as you can and as far away as you can…and don’t look in that rear view mirror.

Nicky Silver is the author of such celebrated plays as PTERODACTYLS, RAISED IN CAPTIVITY, THE FOOD CHAIN, and most recently at The Vineyard, BEAUTIFUL CHILD and the lab of THE AGONY AND THE AGONY. 

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