Theater Conservatory Confidential: Practical Aesthetics

NYU freshman Elijah Diamond continues to chronicle his first year away from the Bay Area, learning the tricks of the industry actor trade.

To put it bluntly, studio has ruined my social life. With nonstop classes from 8:30 to 6:30 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, I have literally no time to do anything except wake up, eat, and sleep. The rest of my day, as you may expect, is devoted to the Studio. Most of “my friends”, the people I met during the first week, have all but dropped off the face of the earth save for two notable exceptions. They’ve been replaced, slowly but surely, by people from my studio, a ragtag group of people, most notable of which being my scene partner, Reina.

That’s right, I said “Scene partner”. Not even four weeks in and already I’m supposed to be performing two scenes. I hoped to have some interesting details on what it was like working on this scene in class, but unfortunately, our scenes been postponed til next Thursday. So if you want to hear interesting details on how Atlantic runs scene-work, or my scene, from Oleanna, you’re out of luck. For now however, I think it’s time for me to describe Practical Aesthetics, the technique Mamet runs.

Practical Aesthetics runs off of one key principle “Think before you act, so you can act before you think”. There are other anecdotes that influence the technique, such as “You are what you are, and that’s all you need to be”. Most of the technique revolves around you being the most “you” that you can be. The technique does not want you to give anything more than yourself; no faked emotions here. In order to fulfill both of these statements, the technique has four major steps.

Literal: What is the character literally doing in the scene? Figure out what he’s doing without any form of interpretation whatsoever. An example: in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, there’s a conversation about selling the flat which really represents the relationship. You would not talk about the relationship, just that they were talking about selling the flat.

Want: What does the the character want? What does the character desire? And what is his goal? This delves more into the subtext of the scene, and less on the literal.

Action: What is the essential nature of the scene to you? Note that we’ are not talking about the character anymore. The focus of the scene instead has turned to you as a person. Actions include “To put someone in their place”, “to wake someone up to reality”, etc. The only rules for the action is that it has to be something you want the other person to do, it has to be specific, and it has to have a “cap”, an endpoint.

As-if: Here’s where Practical Aesthetics really shines for me. You apply the action to your own life, find something that you want/need to do in your regular life, and use it to stir up your viscera to reach the emotional level you need to be at for the scene. The as-if helps make the scene spontaneous, helping to fight off any possible tedium that may eventually occur in the scene.

So yeah, that’s Practical Aesthetics, a technique created by David Mamet and William H. Macy. Hopefully next time, I’ll be able to tell you what it’s like to work on a scene in this environment.

Check back in two weeks for the latest on Elijah Diamond’s navigation of the Atlantic. Get it? 

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