“Everything I do, every day, every day, whether we’re working on the play, the whole thing, everything has to get to a point where you don’t have to act it — That all you’re doing is going through the thing, and you’re not acting it.
You just know what you’re talking about so much that you don’t have to act it. If you know what you’re saying, you know why you’re saying it and what you’re talking about, and who you’re talking about, and how you feel when you talk about it, then you don’t have to act it.”
– Al Pacino
The way our brains behave is that it’s responsive to change. If something isn’t different from the status quo, we ignore it, or we regard it as boring.
You must have had moments where you were simply mesmerized by a performance — Moments that you wish you could experience for the first time again.
Maybe you felt like a musician was telling you a personal story without any words, with only his musical instrument. Or you felt like you were living in a completely different dimension as you read a novel or a poem. Or you watched a movie and instead of feeling like you were watching a movie, you were watching life unfolding before your eyes — You sympathized with its characters, you were one with them.
You must have also had times when you felt that a performance was just, meh. It felt rigid, emotionless, and heavily scripted, as if a piece of paper was pasted somewhere as the camera was recording.
Unlike the former kind of performances that you could go back to again and again and possibly never grow tired of it, you never think of watching or listening for a second time.
Weaving together similarities from the fields of acting, music, and writing, the greatest performers “give life”, as they say, to their performances by bringing in dashes of spontaneity.
But first, let’s get rid of whatever misunderstanding or negative connotation you may have about spontaneity.
Spontaneity isn’t chaos. It doesn’t mean working without a plan or proper structure. But it’s also that you find the path that leads from that plan as you go, and execute it at the right times and places. Doing so requires that you have a sensitivity towards the flow or musicality of your art — A feel for where you should take things. And this, needless to say, isn’t an easy thing to do. It would mean being on the inside of what you’re doing.
Another misunderstood thing about spontaneity is that it comes from nothing — You just show up with little or no vocabulary and knowledge, throw in whatever you’ve got from thin air, and that’s your performance.
It takes a lot to be able to do things spontaneously and to put on a good show. It takes a lot of experience, a lot of pain from the learning process, a lot of deliberate practice — Working on the hard, uncomfortable, challenging areas. A long, hard road towards achieving what the Germans call “Fingerspitzengefühl” — A Fingertip Feel for your craft. Yeah, the Germans have words for everything.
Too commonly, we buy into the “myth of the artist” — That an artist became as great as she is because she was involved in drug use or in a darker tune, sold her soul to the devil. (Well, Bob Dylan admitted about the latter, but only because he has little tolerance for stupid questions.)
John Coltrane, the famous jazz saxophonist — A giant in a medium known for its spontaneity — In fact said that he did his worst music when he was under the influence of heroine.
Coltrane’s lifelong obsession was about giving voice to powerful emotions. He had a strange way of singing through his instrument — Allowing the listener to feel what he feels, drawing up patterns of emotion that couldn’t be expressed in words.
Everything about Coltrane doesn’t seem so mythical after all once you realize that he was a practice freak. He practiced for hours every day and night, until his family members kicked him out of the house because he just couldn’t stop playing. His saxophone reeds even became red from blood. When he wasn’t practicing like a fiend, he was at the public library listening to classical music, hungrily absorbing whatever knowledge he could derive.
In the art of acting, there’s a concept called “method acting”, where to deliver a more “true to life” performance, the actor would ask himself, “What would motivate me, the actor, to behave in the way the character does?”, bringing to the scene unexpected, improvised lines and actions.
One of the best method actors in history would inarguably be Al Pacino. Pacino has done probably half the number of movies as his peers have, because he treats movies like theater. He doesn’t usually take up roles that aren’t timeless by nature, that don’t offer something of value to the audience. He also makes sure that the roles are ones that really challenge him, that help him grow immensely as an actor. Perhaps the toughest role for him was to portray a blind veteran in Scent of a Woman, for which he earned his Oscar.
You might not expect much from Pacino in his younger days if you were to judge him from the outside. A loner, he preferred the company of himself and didn’t talk much. It took the vision of director Francis Ford Coppola to recognize the unique talent in him. Coppola just couldn’t envision anyone else for the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, even though there were “better options”. It was The Godfather that placed him in the limelight.
What makes Pacino such a great actor to watch is how he amalgates his body language and his speech into the character he’s playing. Other than the many memorable lines (most of them improvised), looking into his eyes, you could feel that the emotions the character is experiencing are somewhat real to him. His performances would have you reminding yourself that you’re only watching a movie, nothing real.
As with many of Pacino’s roles, you’d always end up feeling sorry for the character, because through his acting, you could understand his motivations, his rationale for being who he is or doing what he does.
You might feel disgusted by the brutality of the druglord Tony Montana in Scarface, but maybe you’d sympathize with him a little when you realize that he’s being protective of his loved ones — That he too, has a heart — Especially in the scene where he gets himself in deep trouble for messing up his assigned task, because he couldn’t get himself to kill an innocent mother and her kids — Underneath that calloused shell, there’s still some light.
Also in Dog Day Afternoon, you might think that the character Sonny is just a messed up idiot robbing a bank alongside two other idiots. As the movie goes on, you’d see that Sonny’s problems stem from an unhappy marriage at home. If his wife had treated him better, and if he were happy, he wouldn’t have committed such a crime.
Before Pacino was known for his legendary roles, he had quite a background in acting in Shakespeare plays. A lifelong fan of Shakespeare, he attributes much of his success to his experience of acting in those plays, having to devote to months of practice.
In his words, “The actor learns Shakespeare in another way because he learns it in having to do it, having to spend months with it. So he approaches it in that way and understands it in that way. And the familiarity with the words and the phrases and what the content is, what it’s saying becomes a part of you. And the revelations keep coming long after you’ve closed in a play — You know things and you hear things in a way that you could never if you saw the play, or if you read the play — No.”
Practice — Does it ever get boring — Doing the same things over and over again? “Repetition keeps me green,” he’d say. “It’s in the repetition that the creation comes, that the expression comes.”
So we’ve talked about how a tremendous amount of continuous practice can help us develop a Fingertip Feel for our craft, and in turn, how it can make our work more living.
What can we do now?
Long story short, we should learn the hard stuff — Not just knowing how to do things, but being sure that we do them. Putting things into action and practicing them are a whole different experience from just having knowledge of something.
Say, if you play guitar, for example, don’t be content with only knowing how to play three-chord songs. If you have an ear for rock music, Jimi Hendrix is one of the holy grails of guitar playing that you should study. But that depends on your personal taste, of course. There are many other great guitarists that you could learn from.
If you love classical music, maybe you should learn Bach. You get the point.
The kind of excitement and joy that comes from being able to play tough repertoire changes your life as you grow tremendously, and develop into your own uniqueness.
The feeling that we’re no longer a stranger to our craft is something all of us should definitely strive towards.