Guest Post by Laura Blackburn
People sometimes laugh at me when I tell them that I have learned more about acting from a cult television show than an Academy Award winning motion picture. However, I have found that studying the techniques of actors who must convey a sense of realism in spite of fantastic subject matter has made me a better actor in every sense. This is why I use the television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as my inspiration when taking on a new role.
Anyone who has watched or even heard of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” knows that the meat of the series is the writing and directing from Joss Whedon and his team. Likewise, any screenwriter knows that excellent acting is required from all involved to make a script come alive. A good actor can make a superbly written script enjoyable. A great actor can create a series that continues to awe and inspire decades after its inception.
Supporting characters are often mean to give the lead a sense of purpose. They also often offer a chance for exposition, serving as the audience’s stand-in. These characters ask the important questions, helping to further the plot of a story. Excellent actors take these roles and turn them into something more than a plot device. This was the case for much of the supporting cast on “Buffy.”
One of the most difficult supporting roles on the series was that of Xander Harris, portrayed by the underrated Nicholas Brendon. In a series that was filled with witches, werewolves, demons and, of course, vampires, Brendon was the everyman who had to hold his own in an other-worldly atmosphere. The actor was given lines that were largely meant to serve as comic relief. However, his ability to add depth and meaning to simple one-liners made his character an integral part of the show. Watching Brendon, I have learned not to take any lines for granted.
Some actors were so adept at their roles on “Buffy” that their bit parts were expanded into multiple episodes, some even becoming mainstays on the series. Seth Green, who portrayed the werewolf Oz, was meant to depart in the same season that he appeared. Treating his character with unexpected sensitivity, he made the viewing audience fall in love with both the man and the monster. As an actor, Green could convey more in an eyebrow raise than some other, lesser actors might be able to do with an entire page of dialog. Green has taught me to try new angles with my characters; to explore the unknown.
Julie Benz’s character, Darla, was originally meant to be killed during the second the episode in the series. Instead, her presence was thought to add a needed layer to the romance between Buffy and her vampire boyfriend, Angel. Benz’s approach to her portrayal as a vampire was a combination of old-school horror and girl next door. She was at times soft spoken and sensual, and at other times terrifying. Benz would go on to appear in many more episodes of “Buffy” while also playing a crucial role in the spin-off series “Angel.” What she has taught me is to remember that every role can and should be multidimensional.
For the uninitiated, “Buffy” ran for seven seasons. Each season had an over-arching story that appeared throughout the series, culminating with an ultimate face-off with the Big Bad. Buffy and her gang fought many other monsters along the way. Some of the most memorable of these lesser monsters include The Gentleman, a gang of mute, heart-stealing demons who communicated through gestures rather than language; Gnarl, a parasitic flesh-eater with a sing-songy style of speech; and the Turok-Han, the ultimate vampire. Interestingly, all of these monsters were played by the same actor: Camden Toy.
Toy’s movements can be considered their own form of art. He is able to convey any type of emotion he wishes with or without a script. His episodes can be studied by anyone who wishes to be more physical with a performance. Acting is much more than the spoken word. Toy encompasses this in each of his roles.
It can be extremely difficult to visibly portray emotion when covered in prosthetics, which are required for many of the monsters on the show. The Master, played by Mark Metcalf, was a creepy vampire who was adored and feared by other under worldly creatures. With a face completely disguised throughout his run on “Buffy,” Metcalf used his gestures and voice alone to give viewers an almost sensual fright. Considering the versatility needed for these roles, the Big Bads of “Buffy” have taught me to never rely on one facet of my craft. Rather, I should hone all aspects of my acting ability to create a truly meaningful character.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Playing a superhero is never a simple task, but it was one that was made for Sarah Michelle Gellar. She chose to play Buffy Summers as a typical girl who just happened to also have super powers. Anyone could relate to Buffy’s daily struggles. She had boy problems. She worried about her hair and clothes. She had difficulty relating to her mother and studying for her SATs. Because Gellar was so able to encompass these everyday traits of her character, she was able to show the viewer a superhero that could almost be real. She was as adept at displaying physical power when fighting a monster twice her size as she was at showing extreme grief when handling the death of her mother. Gellar could play funny, frightened, determined and even bored, all in the same scene. She has taught me to never give up.
The ninth video in the series. How an actor should prepare for his/her role? Elizabeth encourages students to explore their personal fantasy lives. Some people act from a point of power, some out of joy or sexual desire – it’s all about your personal fantasy life.
The eighth video in the series. Repetition is changed by improvisation on the text. We continue into the second trial.
Our Fitmaurice Voicework Summer Session is now enrolling!
- June 22nd – July 18th
- Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7PM to 10PM
Held twice weekly, our Fitzmaurice Voice Class taught by Michael Yurchak has been a favorite among our LA acting students for years.
It is a physical process that is designed to promote an awareness of the body, spontaneous and free breathing, and healthy vocal expression. It is a helpful tool for actors to find their impulses and to expand their imaginative potential.
The workshop will use text to learn how structure can enhance the vocal freedom and provide clarity and connection to text. All students will be required to bring in 16-20 lines of memorized Shakespeare.
To Read More about the class Click Here!
About Michael Yurchak:
Michael Yurchak is an award winning actor, voice over artist and educator. He has taught voice over and acting workshops around the country to all levels of students. In addition to his work with EMAS, Michael serves as a Lead Teaching Artist and Project Faculty Member for The Center Theater Group and Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in LA. He has also worked with the Roundabout Theater Company and The New Victory Theater in New York. He holds a BA from Colgate University and an MA from NYU and is a certified Fitzmaurice Voicework Technique Instructor
The seventh video in our ongoing series. Repetition is substituted by improvising on text. When students get to absorbed in thinking, Elizabeth points out that impulse should come first.
Now Enrolling for Intensive Summer Meisner Technique Classes
The sixth video in a series of 3 minute segments of a Meisner class filmed for the LA Times. Elizabeth encourages students to act from their instincts. Activities get more and more challenging.
Register for our Intensive Summer Meisner Technique Classes because overthinking is not the Meisner way.
The fifth video in a series of 3 minute segments of a Meisner class filmed for the LA Times. Students continue with more challenging tasks while still doing the Repetition Exercise.
Interested? Register for our Intensive Summer Meisner Technique Classes
The body doesn’t know the difference between real life and a fully lived fantasy – Elizabeth Mestnik
Meisner is all about honoring your impulse and being true to your own point of view while tending to the business at hand, including taking in your partner, fighting for what you need, and understanding your circumstances given the the text. Fitzmaurice Voicework aims to release tension and loosen the protective elements we put into place to stop ourselves from feeling or expressing too deeply. The tricky part in both cases is that we, as humans, have learned to protect ourselves from being hurt (physically and emotionally) by modifying or even stifling our impulses, because they would not be appropriate in pedestrian society (what if you burst into tears over a faulty drink order or told your boss what you really think of them?). The point is, we develop an understanding of what works best for us to live our lives as static-free as possible over a lifetime of information gained from our external pedestrian environment. And, it has worked well enough that we’re all still here! So when we, as actors, try to re-train our own bodies and emotional lives to let go of all that and be willing to be vulnerable and fully expressive, it’s no surprise that there is often some internal push-back.
Fitzmaurice Voicework allows an actor to let go of some of the tension, known as emotional armor, through a series of modified yoga poses and other breath and body work. We, as people, have learned to use emotional armor to stop ourselves from feeling the things that might hurt us, or fully expressing the things that might hurt other people. The amygdala is a small organ inside the brain that controls what is sometimes referred to as the “fight or flight response.” Fight or flight is what mammals use to save their lives in the face of danger, whether it be perceived or actual. When pre-historic man (or woman) was faced with a dangerous situation, he or she had two choices: to run for his or her life or to fight for his or her life. Placed in this situation, the amygdala fires and makes the decision for us in a split-second based on the information available. That system for survival has proven effective (again, we’re all here, aren’t we?). Unfortunately it is an antiquated system and is not always suited to today’s human world.
For example, the fear or discomfort one experiences when facing an audience on opening night may fill an actor with anxiety and discomfort. However, the level of danger one is actually in pales in comparison to what cave men faced when a saber tooth tiger was out looking for its supper! Still, in some ways the body doesn’t know the difference, and the feeling of fear and panic one gets can become overblown and shut down one’s ability to make complex choices of expression. That is an uncomfortable place to be. Over time, people build up a defense against such awkwardness: either avoid situations where that feeling of panic might come up at all, or shut down any real emotional availability before the feelings ever happen. This decision to pro-actively suspend the possibility of risk is often taken care of for us by our internal sense of survival (the subconscious mind). What’s more, once the decision is made, it can be quite challenging to reverse it.
So, there is a lot going on in a normal human’s internal make up that would prefer to stop impulses and emotional expression. Then that same human decides to be an actor and is suddenly asked to forget all that. Tough stuff! The good news is that both Meisner and Fitzmaurice are interested in freeing the impulse and allowing true feelings to be shown and expressed through behavior and words. Both techniques do so through carefully constructed exercises taught by instructors with years of experience. Both seek to provide opportunity for the actor to explore honest expression in a safe environment and regain control of what it means to allow such vulnerability.
Full, supported breathing is one way to start the process of allowance. We literally take in information from the environment and people around us. That information travels through the body, passing a series of “thought centers” (aligned with the Chakras), and picking up information along the way. The journey of the breath then reverses, and an honest response is returned to the environment through verbal or behavioral expression. This whole journey takes only a split second (about the same amount of time the amygdala needs to fire the fight or flight response). By becoming familiar with the possibility of allowing true impulse and expression to exist within us, Meisner and Fitzmaurice enhance our comfort and fluidity of function within this space.
A guiding principle of both Meisner and Fitzmaurice is to help actors allow for the vulnerable process of searching the soul and the self for honest feelings and then granting themselves permission to express those feelings with conviction and authenticity. It is an alternative to the fight or flight response, and it is available to anyone brave enough to seek it out. If this sounds interesting to you, come join us in our Meisner and Fitzmaurice classes.
Have any thoughts? Leave a comment !
Michael Yurchak is a doctoral candidate at NYU, a certified teacher of Fitzmaurice Voicework, and a Meisner and technique teacher at EMAS.
The fourth video in a series of 3 minute segments of a Meisner class filmed for the LA Times. Students start doing different tasks while continuing The Repetition Exercise.
VoyageLA recently published another great interview with Elizabeth Mestnik, Founder and Director of our Acting Studio.
It’s a great, in-depth read that spans everything from Elizabeth’s background & influences as an actor to her founding of EMAS and the values and beliefs that shape the way the studio is run.
Check it out the full read on VoyageLA’s site here.