Sunday, September 23, 2012

Clooney It!

I've been doing improvisation since the early 1980's and if there is one thing I've noticed in workshops and performances (with probably at this point, hundreds of people) is that most improv actors have a hard time with over-talking.   There are actually two types of over-talking - one type is actually talking over another person so you have two or more people speaking at the same time.  The second one is simply talking too much.   Actors and particularly improv actors really hate the sound of silence.   I can see if you are doing a play and there is silence for more than a few seconds because then everyone thinks you've forgotten your line.  But in improvisation there are not scripts so silence can be organic to the scene and a way to draw the audience in.  In my experience when you try to pause for comic or dramatic effect, it gets treated like a cardinal sin by your fellow actor, like you are bringing the scene to a screeching halt.   The result is that your scene partner tries to over compensate - the scene becomes very frenetic, unfocused and hard to follow.   Over-talking is a note I've given a lot over the years to the members of the OTC Comedy Troupe.   So a few weeks ago, I decided to develop an exercise where we would "Clooney it" or communicate without really talking too much in the scene to see what happens.   This exercise was named after the master of the pause - George Clooney.   I love George Clooney for a number of reasons (okay ladies, I know we all have our own ideas about why we love him, but stay with me and stop thinking like that with the kids around!).  I love that he's not afraid to let his characters think before they act or reflect afterwards.   It's a cinematic way of acting that can actually benefit stage actors  and non-performers if they just give it a try. 

The Clooney Method (I've coined this term without his permission but he's welcome to call me anytime to discuss it) in my mind centers around a basic concept of film acting which is to "just think it."   I've seen him use it since his earliest days on ER which allows the audience to see how you feel without having to tell them how you feel.   It's a smart way to act but it's not an easy way to perform.   It's nerve wracking to experiment with silence in a live performance.  What if the audience thinks you are boring or you just forgot what you are going to say?   However, if you do it with intention, it's a very intriguing choice.  The thing I like most about pausing is the feedback you get from the audience.  They tell you how much liked it because they could interject their own interpretation into what was going on during the scene rather than having it spoon fed to them.   That's what makes George Clooney such a great actor - he respects his audience and their ability to get what he's doing.   He doesn't have to do it all for them.   The ending of Michael Clayton is a perfect example of this.   After exposing Tilda Swinton's character for the evil lying bitch she is - the last three minutes of the movie have just a couple of lines and a reaction close up in a taxi of Clooney contemplating what he's just done and what he's been through as the ending credits role.  It's a ballsy shot because it gives the audience a chance to think with the character in real time about what's just happened.   It's just one example from a whole range of movies in which his characters take their time to react to things. 

In Fantastic Mr. Fox, Clooney is the voice for a fast talking red fox who tries to stop stealing from three farmers that he's been victimizing for years so he can raise a family.  But despite his wife's pleas, he goes back to trying to get that one last big score.  Think Ocean's 11 but with cute little possums, badgers and foxes.   What makes this stop action animation movie so good is that the characters are not jumping around or singing but will pause to look at each other and blink before they say anything.   It's those moments of silence that are pure comedy gold.   He's perfected it in other movies like The Descendants, Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, Up in the Air and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (which was his directing debut.)   The "Pause" is something I've tried to incorporate more into my own acting and improv workshops.   It gives the actor a higher status and the audience a chance to reflect on what has just happened.

 In the Clooney improv exercise, I ask my actors to start the scene doing an activity and to not talk to each other right away.  I explain that 90% of human communication is non-verbal in real life and we need to explore how a character is at just being rather than forcing a scene to be funny.    So the actors will be doing something like packing and really exploring their surroundings and their physicality.   They need to show a physical reaction to each other without words.   At first it was hard for some of the actors to do - they could go maybe 20 to 30 seconds without speaking.   But as we did the exercise more and made people wait longer and longer to talk, something really interesting happened.   The pausing made the scenes really funny.  What wasn't said and implied physically was more comical then any one-liner we could think up.   The scenes had a new maturity to them and taking our time to respond just made the lines that were said with a straight face hilarious.    The players watching noticed that the scenes were actually easier to follow since there was not all the usual over-talking to distract from the scene - having the option to "Clooney it" gives the actors a wider range of techniques to pull from during the course of a show. 

In the show The Office, Steve Carrell, John Krasinski and the rest of the talented cast use the Pause on a regular basis.  In fact, most of the time, John Krasinski's character Jim gets the non-verbal reaction shot which is always priceless.   This sitcom mockumentary on life in a fictional paper company captures some extraordinarily moments between the characters which are unsaid.   Pam and Jim's early relationship and missed chances at love stem largely from their inability to actually speak to each other about how they really feel and those almost moments are the ones that are the most poignant.   I think any actor who wants to learn how to act for the camera needs to watch as many episodes of The Office as possible.   If you actually work in an office, you'll see a wide range of office dynamics and business prototypes that makes the show feel so authentic and the little silences feel real.

Now for those of you who are not actors might be wondering how the gift of the Pause might work for you.   How can learning to "Clooney it" make your life better?   I've applied it strategically in my own life and believe me using silence in a conversation can definitely give you the upper hand, especially in business.   My day job is as a fundraiser and I've been doing it for over 20 years.  At my last job, we had a consulting group come on who definitely had the market on condescension and arrogance.    Each week we needed to meet one-on-one with a consultant who would belittle us because their overpriced consulting was not getting the results they were hoping for.   I used to hate those meetings especially with one of the consultants who was about 15 years younger then me with far less fundraising experience.  She was also the daughter of the woman who owned the firm.   She was toxic and difficult to talk to because she would belittle everything you said - I suppose to deflect her own inexperience. It was demotivating for everyone.   However, she had the power to report to the powers that be that the staff was being uncooperative and that's why the their "methods" were not working.   So after doing an improv workshop where we did a status exercise in which you had one character not speak while another was allowed to speak as much as they wanted - I learned that when you don't talk very much you yield much more power.  I decided to try this theory the next day with the young consultant.   She would ask what I had done that week, I would tell her and she would begin to tear me down.   Rather than becoming defensive as I usually did, I looked her in the eye and didn't say anything.   She would ask me if I understood what she had said and I simply replied "Yes" and maintained eye contact.   The silence was very uncomfortable for her.    She would start to talk, repeating herself extensively and using circular logic.   I would simply reply "That's an interesting point," maintain eye contact and say nothing else.   She would talk more and more stopping only to ask me if I understood which I answered "Yes," still maintaining eye contact.   After an hour of her doing all the talking, I left the meeting knowing that she was exhausted.  I was elated.   It had worked in real life and my nemesis didn't know what had hit her.   Interestingly enough, she requested to meet with me less than the other people in the office.   When we did meet, I looked forward to it  - happy to play that little mind game and wear her out so she went easy on my fellow staff members. 

But silence does not have to be used to manipulate people.   It's also great listening tool.   When I've met with a potential donor and asked them what projects excite them and what they have a passion for - I sit back and listen.   I get great information because it's them and not me doing the talking.  When you are not worried about what you have to say - you flat out become better at understanding where the other person is coming from and it can help meet their needs.   The actor Larry Hagman of I Dream of Jennie and Dallas fame has been taking a "talking fast" one day a week for over 30 years and will not speak for 24 hours.   According to him, it is enormously freeing to not have the pressure to speak and you connect to people on a deeper level.   

So if you're tired of feeling like you talk too much and that gets you into trouble, try to "Clooney it."  Give pausing or hell just not talking for a while a try and see what happens.   It can help your acting, your business and can help you listen better to those that are nearest and dearest.  There is an old adverb, "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."  So try not talking.  It can help you think clearer and rather then being pushed into reactive-defensive traps that keep you from being able to go to the next level.    Take a cue from George Clooney- a silver fox who is not afraid to use silence to get his point across.  

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