Tl;dr of Audition, by Shurtleff

The musty paperback classic, Audition, which tells actors how to act so they can get parts.

Still read now, by actors studying the business. Ostensibly it’s a practical book about how to get the audition. And I picked it up because I thought it would address one of the truly hard things about auditioning — you lose most of the time and only rarely win. Many lines of work are like this — entrepreneurship is one, and any other that they say “you’d have to be nuts to go into this business”.

Weirdly, no advice on how to deal with serial, persistent, curt rejection. Really just none!

There are however twelve guideposts, which are sort of thought experiments or processes to apply to a scene that will make you a better actor. They are pretty good. I think you can use them in daily life.
1. Relationship. All relationships are complicated. So they are not just “I’m the boss”. Think this through – what are the other dynamics and pushes/pulls and features of the bare relationship structure.
2. What am I fighting for? What are you trying to achieve and against what default option?
3. The moment before. A scene or a discussion doesn’t start from scratch. Where/what will you/they be thinking or feeling just before? How does that shape everything else?
4. Humor. Not just jokes but a feeling of being alive.
5. Opposites. Flipping between poles reveals new perspectives on a static relationship. The mom who is smothering her kid one minute but then scolding angrily another minute.
6. Discoveries. Something new is happening anytime people get together. What new thing have you observed for the first time?
7. Communication and competition. Life advice: if you send a message, care enough that it is received. Check. And do the same for messages sent to you by others. Life advice 2: try to be great; don’t shy from competition.
8. Importance. Don’t succumb to the everydayness you read in the scene or in your repetition of it. When you miss the subway by a whisker — it matters! If that train was important, so is this moment.
9. Find the events. Stories have events, but scripts don’t always make this clear. If the writer doesn’t, then the actor must.
10. Place. In an audition the stage is blank, but imagine a real place from your life. That feeling of the place will give a whole range of nuance you would otherwise miss. (I imagined walking an empty rental apartment and how differently one behaves there vs at someone’s parents house vs a dentists office.)
11. Role playing. When you are a character in a scene, that character has a role like a role in a game — a teacher has a certain role with respect to students and parents. What’s your character’s role and what patterns are therefore correct for this person?
12. Mystery. After figuring everything out using the 11 points above, then cultivate some sense of the remaining wonder or mystery. There is probably some unexpected stuff left.

Two big bold-lettered points
— Consistency is a horrible thing. Be surprising.
— Simplicity is wonderful. Make the simpler choice when you can.

Some good hacks for bad situations:

  • You are bombing. In your mind, start blaming your partner and get pissed at them. Do something intense in the context of the scene to signal that (yell at them, kiss them…). Reset the scene.
  • Need a motivation fast? Imagine your goal is to make your partner in the scene change (their behaviors, their style, their outlook…”I want you to change”).
  • Friendships look boring. But that’s because you are overlooking a key feature — competition. Friends are friendly rivals, one-upping each other.
  • Another amazing insight about friendship: it’s a peer-like relationship. It’s not a relationship with a big gap — because then you aren’t friends. You are father/son, teacher/student, boss/employee, powerful/weak. Friends strive to maintain a respectful equality.
  • Procedural moves, like saying “What?” In acting apparently they are never procedural – they mean something, you must presume. (In daily life, I suspect you should presume the opposite.)
  • Suffering. People like to suffer and show how much they have suffered. (So when people are complaining…they are actually advertising their suffering. Not asking for a solution.)
  • Fear (for actors before an audition…and in general) works when you don’t know. So write a specific list of what you are afraid of.
  • Interfering with the other character — is a demand to be heard. You don’t just say “do this”, you interfere.
  • Negatives are always written. When you get a complaint or an “I’m leaving”, the motivation is what’s behind it. That is what the actor must consider in presenting the line. Clearly very true in life — if someone is leaving, there is a reason that has been developing for some time.

Strengths and what you know: use those. Forget about what you don’t know. This is pretty good advice in general — like Herb Simon’s 99/9/1 framework or Peter Drucker’s advice in several books to build on your strengths.

It goes on. Virtually every anecdote in the grab-bag is helpful somehow — but I yearned for a theory of the case here.