by Carolyn Roark
Ron Marasco has said that acting is “as close as I get to religion in terms of a quest of understanding other forces besides one’s self” (Nash par. 11). So one can easily see why he might be preoccupied with the spiritual dimensions of acting as an artistic practice. His new book, Notes to An Actor: Practical Advice Shaped to the Way Actors Work, bills itself as a utilitarian guide for both stage and screen techniques. Concise, wry, and informal, it offers tips and techniques for rehearsal and performance, specific thoughts about both comedy and Shakespeare, and insight on the differences between live and recorded media. But his writing also demonstrates a preoccupation with bigger existential issues, such as talent, greatness, fame, failure, and maintaining a healthy perspective on the relation of art to life.
Much of the book is based on Marasco’s own experience as an actor, director, and teacher (he is currently the chair of the Theatre department at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles); underscoring his comments on how to give the best possible performance in every dramatic moment is a narrative of the author’s own search for a kind of creative transcendence. In the Introduction, he explains: “It’s when inspiration hits you, and a force that is greater than yourself seems to take the wheel from you and propels you to a higher level of work” (10). In my initial reading of the text, I noticed a consistent resonance with the concerns of this journal. Its vocabulary has a number of parallels with the language of religion and spirituality: discipline, mystery, epiphany, grace, truth, mystical, self, selflessness, belief. Our conversation on his methodology, which appears below, began with a shared sense that acting—any creative endeavor, really—requires attention to spiritual discipline. It demands a commitment to something greater than oneself, be it the Kingdom of God or a compelling story, and a belief in some form of larger truth. At its most profound level, art can evoke a kind of revelation analogous to a religious experience, and carries the same potential for great reward and serious personal risk. Many a prophet has been destroyed in the process of revelation, and Marasco sees the same threat as an inherent part of creative success. Nevertheless, he encourages actors to open themselves as conduits to a larger force as the source of creative inspiration. “[…]assume that the truth of the play is more profound than your own personal experience,” he says, “Rather than take great dramatic material and shrink it down to fit into your own scope, try instead to extend yourself into the larger truths that good material gives you the opportunity to experience” (17-18).
Carolyn Roark: I’d like to start in the middle of the book, actually, with emotion and awkwardness. What’s at the heart of the human problem you call awkwardness? And how is the actor’s work related to it?
Ron Marasco: People don’t talk about our fear of awkwardness very much, but I think it plays a big part in our emotional lives and, I think, fear of awkwardness can be a big impediment to spiritual development. Most people would rather be physically hurt than embarrassed or forced to experience that feeling of awkwardness. A couple of times I’ve asked my classes this question: “Would you rather have someone slap you across the face, or would you rather trip at graduation when you’re going to get your diploma and fall on your face in front of all your friends?” It’s always unanimous—students would rather get slapped in the face. But I think our terror of simple awkwardness can prevent a lot of important human interactions. Here’s how this applies to the subject of acting. When the “awkwardness alarm” goes off inside of an actor, it’s telling them something. It means there is strong feeling there. People tend to be awkward about things we can’t control, emotions so strong they swamp us and we can’t handle them. So I always tell actors “Go to the awkward.” Because that’s where the strongest, almost uncontrollable feelings are hiding. In many people’s lives—actors included—the inability to weather simple awkwardness prevents an awful lot of emotional revelation from taking place. Things remain unsaid, conversations unengaged, all because the fear of that simple “fingernailson- chalkboard-feeling” of awkwardness. And that’s a shame. But awkwardness is a great acting tool. And the great actors use it. Brilliant performances will often be right at the cusp of awkwardness. Take Al Pacino. Occasionally he will really go over the line and the performance will be too awkward, but when he’s in a sweet spot, when he’s really “on” there’s a quality of sublime awkwardness that I think his acting—like all great acting—has. Real emotion in life has an awkwardness to it. Strong feeling isn’t as ever tidy as it is in movies, and it isn’t as tidy as it is—language-wise—in plays. In real-life, the glasses fly off, or someone’s crying and a booger ends up on their cheek—that kind of thing happens with real feelings. Actors are always looking for ways to find more emotion in themselves. So if you are an actor, I say—go to the awkward. Set aside the solipsism and narcissism, and search out what you feel awkward about. There’s a wealth of feeling hidden just underneath it.
CR: That’s a good segue into the next question. You caution performers to beware of prioritizing their personal experience over the larger truths of the play, or using theatre to “project an identity to the world”—in essence, warning actors against serving themselves exclusively. What then, should they be serving? Is there a greater purpose to acting or the theatre?
RM: There is a greater purpose. A spiritual purpose to acting, I think. Great actors are one half mystics. Of course, they are also one-half scoundrels! And both of these aspects are used to create a performance. Actors have to trick themselves into believing in the deep importance of what they are doing. The “importance” is the mystic part; but the “tricking” is the scoundrel part. I feel that the central thing an actor must have is an ability to make himself or herself care about something. Really care. Which is why actors have always been coupled with people in more licentious professions, because there’s—for a lack of a better term—a sluttiness about the way an actor has to be able to work up passion. For anything! But that’s what good acting does and what the good actor must be able to do. The great moments in acting occur when something goes “click” and—even just for a few seconds—you find yourself, onstage, caring about something or someone other than yourself. That’s why the last night of a show can be a great performance—especially at a college. Everyone’s had a wonderful, meaningful experience together, but now it’s time to leave. So on that last night, there is an emotion about the show, a feeling of “goodbye” that can sometimes make a final performance be amazing. Because everyone is caring about each other instead of their individual selves. But ultimately (scoundrel time, again!) it’s all a trick. You teach yourself to believe in something. That’s an actor—a magician who has learned to believe in his own trick—even though he knows how it’s done! And the essence of that trick is being able to convince yourself to “care.” It’s why you see a lot of great actors who have causes about which they are very passionate. If you think of the top ten actors now, at least six or seven of them would be strongly associated with some cause they care deeply about, whether it’s George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Vanessa Redgrave, who I think is a great, great actress. Or even in New York, theatre actors were at the front-line of the fi ght against AIDS with “Equity Fights AIDS” and “Broadway Cares,” and those kinds of projects. Actors are always there. I think part of the reason is because “being able to care” is a major component of acting talent.
Of course all of this is at odds with so many of the messages actors get (and give) about what acting is. Everyone thinks acting is all about self, self self self! But the paradox is that you tend to act better when you take your attention off of yourself. And, yes, that is meaningful—from a spiritual point of view. Acting—good acting—will help anyone who does it increase their ability to empathize. It’s very simple: you can’t “love your neighbor as yourself” until you have some sense of how your neighbor feels. And the actor is always trying to make that empathic connection. The more you train your mind and your body and your senses and your overall mission to do that, the more you will do the kind of acting as I would define asgreat.
A great performance rarely vain; in fact, it’s the opposite. I think a lot of actors may get into acting for selfi sh reasons—because they like attention, etc., but I think actors stay in acting for generous reasons—because they see and feel the power of being able to lose oneself and have an experience of giving oneself to something. And that brings us back to the realm of the mystic.
CR: So, you affirm the role of the intellect in acting. You mentioned the fact that it seems as though American actors are especially discouraged or made to feel pathological about denying the intellect. What is the proper balance between feeling and thinking?
RM: I think that it was Plato who believed that thinking is done in the brain, and it was Aristotle who believed thinking was actually done in the heart. But I would say a couple things: fi rst of all I think that America is a deeply anti-intellectual culture. It’s only in America that we’re derisive of somebody with a Ph.D, we’re derisive about the academy, derisive about “smarts.” We love plain-spoken people. We distrust eloquence and often think of it as elitist. I certainly think our president right now is not somebody who stands at the forefront of high thought or stellar language. And I think America has a little bit of intellectual insecurity, actually. I think there are reasons for it, and there are deep cultural, mythological roots there. But I personally don’t believe there is that much separation between the intellect and artistic talent. I just don’t. I think that intellect isn’t just about data, it’s about stories; it’s the ability to make connections, and that’s just a dominion of the mind.
Just think about the amount of detail and information that you know about someone that you love or something you feel passionate about. How much data you have! There is a much more dialecticalrelationship between the mind and the heart than we believe—in either the American academy or the arts. These two aspects are often treated with mutual exclusivity, and pedagogical ghettoization: heartless intellectuals on one side, ditzy artists on the other. But this separation is much less so in other countries. You could, for example, take just about any British actor and have them teach an introductory level Shakespeare course at a college. Just about any British actor would be equipped to do that. They’d be as comfortable with “intellectual” things of Shakespeare like facts, figures, information, and the ability to pull apart a text as they would with getting up and feeling the material. But that is not the case in America. Not because an American isn’t as smart as a Brit, but merely because we have been steeped in the American cultural perception that intellect is happening in the head and feelings are happening in the heart. Furthermore, I think that this unmooring of “feelings” from “intellect” has made for a lot of crappy, sappy, soupy sentiment in our culture. There’s a lot of junk-food feeling, you could call it: feeling that’s easily available and utterly unnourishing—in a spiritual sense. People have a knee-jerk reaction that, if somebody is awash in sentiment, they are somehow more true, and this reaction is extremely American. I always try to get actors to learn more, think more. I consider intellect to be mental empathy. It’s been my experience that the more actors gather intellectual material—stories, pictures, etc.—and make those intellectual connections, it all works its way down into their emotions. Acting teachers are always saying to an actor ‘don’t think.’ But this is a mistaken notion. When an actor is in his or her head they’re not being intellectual, they’re being narcissistic. The problem is that the only thing they are thinking about is themselves and their performance.
CR: You offer “loves” and “fears” as alternative foci to “motivations” and “objectives.” Why?
RM: Well, all this objective stuff can, I think, create a kind of acting that’s overly amped up. And amped-up in a very arbitrary way. It can do to acting what some show-tune singers do to singing, you know, that kind of generic energy—rent-a-force. I also don’t know how much people in real life have a strong objective throughout the day. I think we always know what we love and I think we always know a kind of hierarchy of our fears. But in terms of an “objective,” I’m not so sure. Again, I think that’s a very American thing, having to do with “going forward,” having “ambition,” action, action, action. Only Americans could come up with an expression like “24-7.” You can’t act better by pouring a Red Bull’s worth of action-verbs onto a script! And sometimes this “everything-is-an- action” approach creates a kind of acting that I think does that. You know, emotion comes because something happens to you, it’s not just what you’re doing. But it’s again very American that we are “doers,” rather than people who have things happen to us. People have sections in their—note the word!—DayPlanners that say “goals,” or “to-do list.” This is a very American push, push, push, push, push thing. Again, a little cultural brainwashing that doesn’t exactly square with how the acting mechanism really works. Because feeling comes not when you do something, but when something is done to you. On the other hand, I have found that when you ask people what they love it hits them in a stronger and more personal way. And when you ask them what they fear chances are you’re going to move towards some of that awkwardness I was describing and the powerful emotion that is under it. I think it opens up things in a way that you don’t get with the kind of “what’s my objective” stuff. It’s just not that useful anymore. Now, this is the last thing that most actors figure out, because they’ve all been taught to start out with the almighty “action.” I remember having somebody do a demonstration at my university LMU [Loyola Marymount University] and all they talked about was the action, the objective, saying very tendentious things like “You can never have a negative objective!” and I thought to myself “Well, that person’s never been in a faculty meeting!” As you know, you can have very negative objectives. So I think there’s a lot of that kind of unexamined stuff that’s around in acting training. I want to get actors to be more real, more honest, more raw because I think that’s the domain of the spirit. And I think they’re much more apt to be able to get some of that sort of higher force by going in that direction. I believe it’s the Talmud that says “the reformed sinner is holier than the person who never sinned.” I’m always trying to get actors to get down of the high horse of “acting” and into some of that more “awkward thing” I’ve been talking about. Not because it makes their acting more naturalistic, but because I think it walks into something that has more of a spiritual power to it. I’ve seen it happen.
CR: Can I ask you to expand on your concept of making belief to make believe? How do you define “belief” in the world of the theatre?
RM: Too often actors are not onstage making belief for themselves, but instead trying to manipulate an audience into believing. But the way to make belief for yourself is by having a lot of little things begin to get your brain and your body to believe in what you’re doing onstage. Great actors will always concentrate on that kind of stuff. It’s why you’ve seen great actors be so good with props. Belief starts small. If I can’t get myself to believe that the tea is hot then I’m certainly won’t be able to believe that I’m going to murder you in two pages. So I think you start by these smaller, little things. I always tell directors don’t rehearse the big moments. I did a production of Hamlet and I never once rehearsed the speech “To be or not to be” with the actor playing Hamlet. Never. I told him “here’s where your light will be—now do what you want with it.” I left it undirected. We never talked about it. And the result was very thrilling. My rationale is that the big moment has to be the accumulation of a lot of small moments that get worked-up to speed. When you start to do this, you get yourself believing from the very beginning—when you fi rst walk in the room, sit down, take off your cloak, as Hamlet. I tell actors to pay attention to the smaller things and the bigger things will take care of themselves. And I’ve tried to put my money where my mouth is and not overrehearse the big moments when I direct. It’s all these other things that weave the spell and that lead up to it; those things, those little, tiny moments of belief, are what I think an actor should concentrate on, rather than concentrating on “this is my big speech.”
CR: These “great moments” you discuss, when something special or magical happens to the actor, remind me of what Christians might call grace…
CR: Or a meditating person might call transcendence.
RM: Or a gambler might call “luck.”
CR: Is there a “soul” to acting, a place in the actor that needs to be open to find these moments?
RM: The word soul is problematic…I’m troubled by the fact that the idea of the soul has been so co-opted by religion. It’s come to be a synonym for an afterlife, or in New Age-y-er circles as a sort of catch-all spirit. And it’s a shame, because in the arts and in the academy I’d like for us to be able to talk about the soul without it having some of the baggage attached to it. I actually just picked up this book by George Steiner today who refers to the soul as “real presence.” That’s pretty good. Scott Peck says that the soul is “the part of you that is the most you.” That’s more what I mean by the soul. It’s the deepest, truest core—and perhaps the part that connects us to whatever kind of higher force of nature is beyond us. And I think that “soul” can be in anyone and anything. I think that there are cooks who have it, I think that there are teachers, gardeners who have it. Surely, gamblers. Musicians, absolutely. Scientists. All kinds. Again, it usually comes when you lose yourself and let something deeper—a higher power—take over. Actors can feel when it’s happening. And actor after actor talks about it—they know what it is. Sarah Bernhardt used to say “God was with me tonight.
A very good book to read on the subject is Eva LeGalliene’s Mystic in the Theatre, which is about the work of Eleanora Duse, the actress. Duse put herself into an almost monastic study of mysticism. The paradigm of the mystical journey is this. First, you have an experience of a kind of grace coming through you. You recognize that you can plug into this higher power. But, then it’s common to “lose” that ability for a while because of self consciousness. Ultimately, the true mystic is someone who goes into a time of study that helps hasten the process of self abnegation, of getting out of the way. That’s the key. You are out of the way and leave yourself open to these other forces. Sometimes it happens to people by accident. I’ll give you an example of how it happened to me. I was a college actor. And like all college actors I wanted to have a lot of strong emotion in my performance. I was in a Jacobean play and there it was a scene where I really had to be emotional. And I could kind of work a fake sort of emotion up, but nothing overwhelming. But one night—right before the scene—something happened to the back of my wig while I was on stage. And for a few seconds, I was petrified that my red hair was going to stick out in a way it wasn’t supposed to! I looked away from “my performance” for a second. Then when I came back to it, for some reason, I felt it. Bang—there it was: a wave of overwhelming feeling. An electricity that seemed way beyond the finite “me.” Later, when I thought about it, I said “Ah-ha! That’s it. You have to trick your brain.” Get your brain to look away from yourself for a second. Have a little concentrated moment of the mystic’s self abnegation—let yourself go. If you’ve done your work as an actor, as an artist, and as a thinker and a person, when you get out of the way, that thing will be there.
CR: In your book you say that greatness tends to elude actors who refuse a kind of “surrender to mystery” in their work. Can you expand on that?
RM: In the moments of greatness actors feel like they’re in peril, like they’re falling. And it feels thrilling and scary, but they’re just letting themselves fall. There are many good actors who are very solid in their craft, but they just can’t do that, they can’t get there. An actor who I would say is an example of this—he’s a superb actor and a good movie star—is George Clooney. I don’t ever see George Clooney seem like he’s falling, like he’s really out of control, really being taken over by something else. But there are other actors who do this “falling” thing I’m describing. Even a movie star like Brad Pitt—he does it. I’ve seen him give performances where I really think he’s being “taken over” by something, he’s letting go, falling. To me, to be great…you have to risk something.
You have to do something without a net. And you have to fall in a way that someone else—a non-great actor—is not going to. You know, there’s a thing that they talk about in flamenco dancing, Lorca talked about it a lot, that they call duende. Descriptions of what they mean by “duende” are the same as what I am calling “falling.” I sometimes do this thing I call the duende test. I argue with friends about who does and does not have it. For example, Ella Fitzgerald was a masterful singer—but she didn’t have it. Billy Holiday had it. Tony Bennett doesn’t have it, Frank Sinatra had it. See what I mean, that kind of a thing. Nat King Cole didn’t have it, Louis Armstrong had it. And it’s that thing…you have a sense that the Duende people aren’t watching out for themselves. They’re going to let this thing, this performance take them somewhere, even if it may slam them into a wall! And, indeed, with a lot of great people it does slam them into walls. There are examples of actors for whom it’s just too much and it sort of destroyed them, whatever, this force was. But I think that’s a kind of price you pay for greatness and there are a lot of people who do it, and there are a lot who can’t do it. But the distinguishing feature is this sense of peril they are in when they are really “on.” And when you see it you know the difference between them and those who refuse to fall. It’s a little scary. Somebody talked about filming Al Pacino, a camera man who said there was a tight shot and he literally had to have his arm touching Al Pacino’s knee while Pacino was acting. And he said he could actually feel this electricity coming through Pacino’s body! Because he was allowing himself to be overtaken by some current that was sweeping him off his feet and taking him somewhere. With Vanessa Redgrave it’s the same thing. I saw her do The Year of Magical Thinking, the one person show based on Joan Didion’s memoir. You can see through Redgrave—see past her as a person. She almost disintegrates into this very luminous force. You’ll know it when you see it. Actors who can do this don’t seem to stop with “themselves,” they seem to be an opening to something that’s bigger and stronger and sometimes a little bit scary. In Edward Hirsch’s bookThe Demon and the Angel—a book that talks a lot about duende, he has great quote of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s that describes what I’m talking about here. Emerson called this “thing,” “a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river of electricity.” Best description of what great acting is that I know of. And, of course, Emerson wasn’t talking about acting at all. But, there you have it.
CR: You’ve said that all great individuals have a deep understanding of story. What are the intersections between greatness and story?
RM: Well, first of all, I think great stories aren’t made, they’re found. So you have to be able to sense what is or isn’t an organic story. Great people—great human beings—have a great feel for what is and is not organically true. Really great stories are…it’s almost like they exist beyond the author, there’s a sense that the story is a phenomenon unto its self. A lot of novelists will tell you that it feels almost like they’re channeling sometimes. They just find something. It’s not so much pieced together or constructed with a lot of outlines and stuff, it just comes through them—seemingly independent of them. Many writers say things like “Oh I want to get back to writing because I want to see what’s going to happen” or they say “I had no idea the characters were going to do that.” You know, August Wilson, said, “just listen to them.”
I had a very strange example of this happen to me. I was talking to a wonderful theatre critic who has since passed away, a man named Dick Hummler who was the theatre critic for Variety. I knew him during my college years. He had just seen Neil Simon’s play Brighton Beach Memoirs, which is the fi rst in that trilogy. There’s a moment in the play where the son asks his mother, “Will you be here later on tonight, Mom?” and she’s cleaning off the table and says, “Of course I’ll be here. Where am I going, to a nightclub?” Not a particularly funny line. But this line really hit Dick Hummler deeply. He was a hardened theatre critic, but he burst into tears talking about this one line. He said “I don’t know, it’s just something about it. You can see that this is a woman who really wanted to go to a nightclub. And the fact that she couldn’t was very devastating to feel in that simple line.” On and on he went, this whole thing on nightclubs. And at the time, I thought it was a bit much. Well, a few years later, Neil Simon wrote the sequel to that play called Broadway Bound. And in it, that same character of the mother has a scene that is all about her going to a nightclub! She talks about this very special night, years before, where she danced with the movie star George Raft. She tells this story to her son, and then her son gets up, puts on music and the two of them dance together. Everybody said it was one of the most moving Neil Simon scenes ever. And Simon wrote it years after the comment that my friend, the theatre critic, made. I thought to myself well, you know, it may sound a little daft, but it’s almost like Dick saw something in that character, in that story, even before the writer got it. Great stories aren’t made; they’re found. Great artists let the phenomenological force of truth be their guide. They said that Brando used to do two or three takes, one that he knew was “magic” and really true, and one that was almost willfully not-so-hot. And he used to do this early on in the movie to see which one the director liked. Because if the director liked the wrong one then Brando knew he was not with a kindred soul, and that the director wasn’t going to be able to spot what Brando was going for: not the made story of the scene—the found one. Great people are able to spot that organic thing and I think great stories are ones that are organic. The non-greats try to shape a story, and they make a sort of Frankensteinean story, taking bits and pieces of life and trying to sew it into some sort of sellable monstrosity. But real stories are…they’re just “out there” in the ether, given to us by a kind of grace of some sort. I think great people see it, notice it, connect to it. While others are looking at something else, the greater artist can put his or her fi nger on the real thing. I think its one of the characteristics of greatness in scholarship, too—the ability of scholars to fi nd “the thing.” And you see it in actors certainly. You see it in writers too. But I think you also see it in politicians and in great spiritual masters, this aptitude for story. The use of gospels, use of examples, use of metaphors—all the tools of story-telling.
CR: As much as your book addresses inspiration, it seems you’re also addressing a number of issues of discipline. Most actors would acknowledge the physical aspects of this—vocal training, keeping fit—but are there also spiritual or emotional disciplines to be practiced? Your comments on learning and losing, for example?
RM: The single most difficult discipline for an actor—or anyone, for that matter—is making sure you are always being honest with yourself. It takes great bravery to do this. To say frankly that “I am not good at thus-and-such,” or “I am fl awed” in some area. But the only way to get better is to start with the truth about yourself. When you are lost and look to a map for help, what’s the first thing you do? You locatewhere you are. You have to know that before you can get to where you want to go. Honesty is about knowing where you are. And being honest with yourself is a kind of discipline. It’s hard to do. But you can’t really learn unless you’re honest with yourself. I quote a line in my book from Shaw to the effect that “when you learn” something, “it feels at first like you lost something.” Before you can get better you must set aside self-delusion and—a biggie!—self-justification. And that takes great personal discipline.
CR: How does your sense of suffering, emptying yourself, failing fit in?
RM: I would define grace as the state of “allowing.” You let something happen of its own accord, naturally, without trying to control it or make demands on it. Grace is preceded by a kind of emptiness—not void or vacuum—but merely room to receive, you might call it. This is a process that all deep religious practitioners go on. But it is also something creative people have to do, this self-emptying.
CR: Is there a place for forgiveness in the actor’s work?
RM: On a technical level, the actor has to be able to forgive some of the little moments that don’t go well, just push past them and don’t—in the words of Babe Ruth—“allow a few strikes to prevent you from hitting a home run.” Every great actor, in the moment of being great, is at the height of self-forgiveness. Insecurity is self-indictment. And people are at their least attractive when they are insecure. Paradoxically, so good acting comes by, on a moment by moment basis—forgiving whatever bad acting you may be doing. But, on a deeper level, the theatre is always about forgiveness. Isn’t it what every play is about? Plays entail revelation, then purgation and a hope that now that “the cat is out of the bag” about “who I really am” there can be some forgiveness. One of my favorite moments in Hamlet is when he essentially says to Laertes—as they both lay dying from wounds each gave to the other, no harm, no foul—all’s even. A nice moment of final forgiveness. Yes, plays are about the process of revelation, but they are always undergirded by the will-to-forgiveness as well.
CR: Let’s talk about ethics and acting. On the one hand, you stress the error of objectifying real people for the research, but on the other acknowledge the utility of exposing yourself to another’s pain. Are there ethical choices to be made in pursuing artistic expression?
RM: The ethics of doing research…using real people (e.g. going to a soup kitchen to rehearse for a play in which you play a homeless person.) is an interesting issue. My main caution about doing this kind of fieldwork is that it can become an affectation. You go around telling everyone about your time at the soup kitchen, the director puts in a program note about it, etc. This can sometimes feel to me like a kind of “spiritual showing-off.” And spiritual showing-off is the very worst kind. Here’s my advice. Do all the fieldwork you want, just do not ever talk about it. Do it alone. Do it simply. And keep quiet about it. Keep it sacred, rather than using it as a way to announce how much you care. An actor also has to know that just because they do that kind of fieldwork, it doesn’t mean it will make your work better. You have to use things that stimulate you, that you can relate to, and research can be too justifi ed and not experiential enough. So, instead of doing the look-at-me-at-the-soup kitchen stuff, try this. Don’t eat for a day. That’ll tell you a lot more about being a homeless person than the kind of spiritual tourism that can sometimes happen when you do showy fieldwork.
CR: What about the actor’s treatment of themselves? Is there a point where self-emptying becomes abuse? Or if the exhaustion you describe begins to leak into one’s day-to-day interactions?
RM: For an actor, frustration is always more exhausting than expression of emotion. Real emotion does tire you physically, but it actually revivifies you spiritually. Good acting is tiring physically, but it’s spiritually nourishing. Bad acting, self-conscious acting, is very spiritually exhausting, because you are squeezing your soul hard but nothing much is coming out. On the other hand, I find that bad acting is not that physically exhausting. The person at the cast party who looks tired and spent in a “relaxed” sort of way is the good actor. The one tied up in a knot is the bad actor. And, often, showing off at the cast party. Good acting comes from fl ow. Flow empties you, but it doesn’t damage you. Bad acting happens because of a lack of flow. And lack of flow can hurt you. Thus the word disease: dis-ease.
CR: I’d like to end with Prometheus. What are the symptoms of what you have called the “Prometheus syndrome?” What do you recommend as prevention? What’s the alternative to Prometheus?
RM: The Prometheus syndrome. This is something that can befall many good actors. Actors and other kinds of artists as well. When you are being really creative and are at the top of your game, in a way, you are—like Prometheus—stealing fire from the gods. And that is, in fact, how it feels. Every moment of great inspiration feels “purloined.” You feel like, “Hell, where’d that come from? And “Why’d it come to me?” and “Can I take this and use it as my own, or is some god gonna come ask for it back?” But actors are human, so when they get filled with a level of inspiration that feels “beyond them,” it’s scary. They feel that they are going to have to “pay for it” in some deep way. And, ironically, many begin to subconsciously punish themselves. The latest victim of the Prometheus Syndrome was Heath Ledger. Such a fi ne actor, a real talent. Someone who was able to “fall” as I called it. He had greatness in him. But there was something else in him that—as happened in the Prometheus myth—trapped him and tortured him. The myth has the trap be Prometheus pinioned to a rock and the torture is an eagle gnawing at his liver. Nowadays, no rock and no eagle: the trap is fame and the liver is gnawed at by prescription drugs. But the story is the same: a tale of “revenge” being taken on a fiery talent. In the case of Prometheus—it was the gods. In the case of tragedies like Heath Ledger, it’s an inner demon. But the end is the same, and something for all good actors to be wary of. It’s the occupational hazard of being an artist: your gods and your demons are often interchangeable. And, worse, often indistinguishable from each other. Truman Capote said, “When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation.” In some cases, the bigger the gift, the fiercer the whip. Greatness is dangerous territory, which is why most people shy aware from it. But, occasionally, there are those who dare. Dazzlers who brave the fire.
Nash, Steve. “Ron Marasco: Passing Notes to His Students.” The Two-One-Three.com. 8 December 2007. http://www.the213.net/php/article.php?id=880
Marasco, Ron. Notes to an Actor: Practical Advice Shaped to the Way Actors Work. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007.