A blog about imaginative learning
Recently, I spoke to a young aspiring actor about how they prepared for their role in a classic comedy. I asked him: did you watch the movie? He said, “No, I didn’t want the actor’s interpretation to affect my own idea of the role. And the director told us not to watch it.”
I’ve had the chance to direct many plays, and have so enjoyed the opportunity to help young actors expand their imaginations and enter into stories and characters in deep ways. When I heard this fellow say this I must say I was shocked. I know this is a common approach by many directors with young actors, but I think it is not only a huge disservice, but also a faulty understanding of the actor’s craft and the director’s role in nurturing young actors.
Imitation is the greatest flattery they say. And then there’s the old adage that good artists borrow, great artists steal. But I think there is something deep here to consider. There is something at the heart of imitation and an actor’s preparation that reveal a deep reality of the creative process and the director’s role in theater.
I once worked with a theatre director who had very strong ideas about acting preparation. And yet if you happened to ask him about the latest production he saw, there was nothing there. He no longer was watching theatrical productions-outside of the ones he directed. I found this incredibly strange. How could you direct plays and not watch them?
This reminds me of something I see in the realm of songwriting. It is often the case that the young, once exposed to playing music, start to write their own songs (which is great), but they do not know many covers. This is a bad idea-just to speak bluntly. One of The greatest songwriting teams of the modern age is the Beatles. More hit songs than any other band. And yet, they began playing tons of gigs in Hamburg and England, and they mastered playing many many covers before they mastered creative songwriting.
There is an old discussion amongst actors about memory and imagination. Do you plumb the depths of your life experience and emotional memory when taking on a role, or do you use your imagination to enter into the life of a character even though you do not have the exact memories that relate to this character? Most agree it is a mix of the two, because you can never escape your memory, in fact there is an intimate relationship between memory and imagination that is inseparable. But it is the case that both approaches are necessary for all actors.
The main point I want to make in this piece is that all actors, directors, songwriters, writers, need to continually be listening, watching, and experiencing the masters of their craft. Wynton Marsalis, the great jazz musician and cultural historiographer, often speaks on the theme of respect for a tradition and trailblazing creativity. One important point he makes is that great jazz musicians know so many songs, licks, melodies, chord progressions, that at any moment they can pull from their memory and with imagination find ways to reinvent song, in an instant. There is not only a careful study of the craft but an in the moment spontaneity-a convergence of music memory and an inspired new creation, where the songwriter’s soul-a unique voice-meets tradition.
Now, to get back to acting. And I do admit there is room for disagreement here of course, and that I’m taking a certain stance on this. When a young actor is given a role in a classic play, why would a director tell him or her not to watch other actors’ interpretation of this character? The normal reply to this question is: because I don’t want him to just imitate that actor, but rather come up with a unique approach to the role.
Now, I think this is half right, but half wrong as well. I believe it is a massive disservice to dissuade a young actor from watching master craftsman interpret a classic role they are taking on. Why? It is similar to why it is vital for a musician to play tons of songs as they are writing their own. The inner world of an actor’s imagination is a complicated and mysterious realm, just as the imagination and memory of any person is utterly unique. The actor from the richness of his imagination and memory can become another character, and play that character in a way only that actor could do it. This is because artists each have a unique voice that can bring classic characters to life in a great variety of ways. However, in order to approach any role, an actor must do a lot of research and prep. It is not merely a going within and then expressing the role without any reference to the cultural legacy of the role.
Michael Caine once said that he was “the biggest movie fan and actor fan.” He was getting at the idea that he watches tons of actors, not only because he loves to watch them, and loves the artistic medium, but he knows that in order to figure out this acting thing-and the roles he must play, he needs to watch how other actors have done it. There is a great humility in opening oneself up to the wide world of a particular craft, knowing that the expertise and talent can be awe inspiring, and frightening. But it is necessary.
Imitation is vital for young actors. It begins when you are a child. We watch others-their expressions of emotion, we hear their annunciations, emphasis, inflection, we see their reactions, their physical gestures, the way they look when they are mad, excited, afraid, in love. And we reenact life. We re-present these scenes of life, these utterly unique characters, yet people with commonalities and cliche behaviors for sure.
But what if we never met a Captain Hook type, or a Joker, or an Ahab, or an Ace Ventura, a Mortimer Brewster...etc? Where do we turn to become those characters? It is the case that certain actors are not meant to play certain roles of course-and directors and producers are involved of course with discerning that. But my point here is that it can be the case that an actor must turn to their imagination for most roles-and memory will play a part at times, and not a part at other times-or it’s just a mix of the two. And then there’s the whole world of reacting to the other actors, to engaging in creative conversation with the director about the role and the story. Every actor worth his or her salt knows that reacting and listening are almost as important skills as the deep prep and imagination part.
But to get back to the main gist of this piece. Why on earth would a director tell a young actor not to watch the master actors who have played the character they now have to become? I think it is the false conception that the creative act must stand on its own, apart from influence. There is a
Fear that the actor’s performance won’t be totally unique, and yet imitating at a young age is key to mastering any craft. This is not to say that a young actor should merely imitate. I think they should definitely find their own version, their own unique expression of a character. But please, watch those who have gone before you. Learn, imitate, then add your own voice. Anyone involved in the creative arts, especially theater should be a huge fan of theatre, of actors, etc…
Last example: I often ask young musicians who they listen to for fun. For instance, I once asked a young clarinetist who liked jazz if he had listened to Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, or Sidney Bechet. He said no. I’m not sure who his teacher was, but man, that would be the first thing to do!! Tell the lad to listen to the greats! And so I say to young actors; watch, listen, imitate, learn, then and you will find your voice along the baffling journey of a creative artist and actor.