An Acting Lesson from Peter Coyote

From the Whole Earth Review, Summer 1993
Interview with Stewart Brand
Subject: Radio Public Speaking Techniques

Peter Coyote:
I really like that piece. Okay. I can see three areas where you might want to play a little bit. In the first place, it's good prose, but it hasn't been written to be read aloud. So all those little places where you stumbled and laughed, you should look at those as object lessons. Let's go through it sentence by sentence, and find what's a literary sentence and what's an oral sentence.

"It seems that architects as a profession are becoming almost as despised as lawyers and doctors." All right. That seems pretty straightforward. Maybe you don't even need "as a profession" or "it seems": "Architects are becoming almost as despised as lawyers and doctors." That's a conversational sentence to me. Now this one. "Architects tend to focus primarily on questions of style, while those of us who have to use buildings are so insensitive that all we care about is whether the building works." To me, that's a literary sentence.

I would try the superfluous-word exercise. I'm not saying this to correct the prose; I'm just saying that all of these shadings and nuances which the voice carries, we abandon when we write prose. "Tend," "questions of," "are so insensitive." You're a complicated person, so you're making a delicate joke here. But you've made the joke in a literary fashion instead of in a verbal fashion. Do you agree?

Stewart Brand: Yeah. If I can't do it with my voice, what's the point?

Coyote: I would give each sentence the reading test, and when you stumble or you find that you're strained or you're reading through too quickly, I would try to simplify it. Most newscasters and most commentators on the radio write like you did. It's witty, it's elegant, and most of the puns and jokes are literary. It doesn't sound like spoken speech.

Another thing: We hear in images. We don't hear in words. So it wasn't until you got into things like "The doors don't work right, the hallways are too narrow, the central heating and cooling don't work" that I could really follow you. I think that every time that you can use a good noun and a good verb, you've hooked the listener. Your second problem was related to the first problem, and it was a pronunciation problem. You gave yourself tongue-twisters like "an environmental."

Brand: I actually wrote "gloved display hand" in one of these things. Impossible to say aloud. I have a feeling that one would not naturally speak words like that because your voice won't let you do it.

Coyote: Do you know the great singing-bad exercise? You get someone in acting class and tell them, "I'd like you to sing this song now, as badly as you can." And then they do it and you say, "No, no, you can do worse than that. I'm sure you can do worse than that." Until finally they have let it all go, and we've displaced the question of vanity in the acting class. The truth is that we all try to be good in what we do, and so we all try to be smart, we all try to be witty, and we all try to be talented. Especially guys like us.

I think it's smarter to know when to be dumb. Everybody knows you're smart, everybody knows you're on the cutting edge of all this technology. So, if you can come out and sound like Senator Sam Ervin, you know, or like your dry, laconic style on The WELL - you always knock me out; I run twelve paragraphs, and you find the one tersest way of countering - that's your voice. I think you ought to bring that voice to these commentaries, and the more accurately you write that voice, and it reflects your inner sentiments, the more easily you'll read it.

Now, you're reading quickly, and the sentences run on and are not broken into conversational bites. Conversation is organized by the breath, just like bebop. Breath, and now I organize a series of thoughts or images between those breaths, take another breath, and I do another one. That's what bop prosody is, with Allen Ginsberg and the beat poets. That's what Charlie Parker did, and that's what human beings do.

One more thing. When you were reading, you were fronting an oddity, which leads me to question the persona who's reading. Every good comedian, every good clown, develops a persona that they speak through. Charlie Chaplin: case in point. It's not necessary unless you're going to be an artist. It's useful sometimes, but it's also limiting. Geniuses develop personas that don't limit them.

Brand: I'd like to develop a good verbal persona.

Coyote: Why?

Brand: It's a. . . well . . . I want to say bottleneck. The function of a bottleneck is to keep you from getting all wet when you're drinking. It slows down the material and organizes

Coyote: Okay. Let me give you another way to think about it. I'm not going to counter that and say it's a bad idea, but I think there's a more guts-ball way to do it. I'm going to give you the parable on acting. You know [famous actress's] acting? Did you see [movie about a famous woman]?

Brand: Yes.

Coyote: Perfect example of completely uninteresting acting. And the reason it was uninteresting is because [the actress] herself was always judging the character. She was always standing back, as the puppet master, showing you, the audience, what was going
on. And as such she was always in the bottleneck. So when [the character] was sad, [the actress] showed you sadness. And when she was intent, she showed you intentness. And she always showed you one fucking thing at a time. Right? Boring.

Now, to counter that is someone like Meryl Streep. Who is like right there. When a character has an accent, you just learn the accent. If it has dark hair, you just make your hair dark. You take care of all the physical stuff, just get it out of the way. But what you're left with then are the sensibilities of the artist in the moment. And the more fully they bring themselves into that moment, the braver, and the more honest, and the more complicated they are.

Bob Duvall once said to me, "Hey, if I'm sitting at a table and I'm watching a fly on the sugar bowl, am I watching or is the character watching?" Who cares? As long as you're really there watching. The script says you're a doctor, or a Mafia lawyer. You can't watch a fly like a Mafia lawyer, right? All you can do is watch a fly.

What the persona does is, it becomes like a mask; it reduces the amount of presence that you can actually bring to bear. It's a kind of protection. It gives you control, it gives you a feeling of distinction and difference from the audience and lets you feel like an artist. What it never is, is complex and contradictory - unless you're in the realm of real genius.

So, my suggestion to you would be to try the following exercises. Instead of offering an attitude - and this is the way I work as an actor - take a breath, let it out, and whatever feeling you find at the bottom of the breath, read that in the line. Maybe the feeling will come from the line. [Coyote reads a bad line from the essay with surprising warmth.] I'm not saying this is great drama. But what it is is one-to-one with what I'm feeling. I'm not putting forth an attitude. Therefore, whatever I'm feeling can come out. I noticed that when you were reading, you were putting out this sort of wise-guy persona, and I didn't like it. You reminded me of a movie critic - these guys that stand back and they're always kind of showing you how smart they are.

What's interesting to me about you as a human being is that you are extraordinarily unjudgmental and extraordinarily curious. You look at the world in a very phenomenological way and you don't judge it. You just kind of experience what it is and you go into it, and you're also enthusiastic. So, why not be that in front of an audience? Why not be that naked and give them the benefit of the doubt that they'll respond to you just like I do and just like your friends do?

I'm suggesting that the persona is a self-conscious response that we all do - we all have little tricks that we run when we get insecure. But behind those tricks is a self-judgment, is a self-derogation, that somehow who we are is not worthy. This is what Carlos Castaneda was getting at when he said, "The self just presents itself." You've spent a lifetime at it and Stewart Brand leaks out of everything you do. Effortlessly. Now, if you try to cover that with something or superimpose it with something, (a) we're going to see that it's a superimposition and (b) it's going to be less interesting, because you're going to have less of your complexity around.

That's why I try taking a breath and letting it out and reading a line. And if I don't like what I find, I take another breath and I let it out and I find another feeling. Because that's an infinite well down there. That's never going to dry up on me, ever ever ever. The only thing you don't ever want to do is give up the gifts of your imagination, and the way that you give up the gifts of your imagination and the way that we all invalidate them is, we censor them. You get an impulse to laugh during a marriage proposal, and you censor it. You feel it's inappropriate. Where in fact if you laughed it might open up some well. You might burst into tears the next moment.

Remember, tape is cheap; you can always redo it if they don't like it. I try to train myself never to refuse a gift of the imagination. Sometimes it makes me inappropriate, sometimes it embarrasses me, but my livelihood and my sense of being in the front of the train, looking forward, as opposed to in the caboose looking backwards, depends on honoring those impulses. And I would suggest that whoever you are is what you bring on that day. If you have a bellyache, the bellyache will read. If in that moment you're sort of lassitudinous and start there, you'll never be able to stay there through the whole reading, but if you honor that, maybe by the end of the first take you'll have come to a completely different place and you'll be completely synchronous and integrated with it. And I think that you will not feel judgmental about yourself, you will not feel self-conscious, you'll just feel present and absorbed the same way you do when you get interested in virtual reality or are sharpening your knife.

Brand: I'd love to do that, to get real on the radio. I wonder how much one can read with long pauses on the radio.

Coyote: As much as you want. If the pause is full. If you' re thinking, we know it.

Brand: But that would be artificial naturalness, in a way, because a lot of the pauses in real talk are thinking what to say next. But I've got a script. I've already thought what to say next. I can sort of reproduce that process, maybe?

Coyote: You can't do that. The only place that you should pause is if, as you're reading a line, something occurs to you. Think about it. Because it probably occurred to the audience. And if you meander too far, go back. Or say what you thought of. Never fake it. If you find something wonderful on a first take, don't try to repeat it on the second take. Just trust that if you go back in there new, something else will come. Something will always come. The trick is to stay on the front of the train. That's where the jazz is. You don't have to be a salesman. If you turn on the radio, every once in a while you'll hear some guy say, "You know . . . I woke up this morning . . . and I walked to my refrigerator . . . I opened it up . . . I poured a glass of orange juice that you . . . couldn't . . . believe."

I have you, right? Because I'm seeing it. And if you see the images and you leave time, you're giving the audience time. Let them remember. You say, "The doors don't work... "How won't they work?

Brand: My favorite is: at the front of the restaurant there's two doors. One opens. The other doesn't. And they don't tell you which one.

Coyote: See, now that's great. That's a perfect sentence. That's the way you talk. When you've got five minutes, two minutes of that could be pauses. If they're good pauses, nobody's going to care. They're going to appreciate the contrast with the usual freneticism on the radio. Say it simply, say it conversationally, and say it graphically. And if you want to listen, start listening to rap music; it's the most interesting music on the radio. It's the street newspaper. It's what black people are using to communicate with each other, through MTV. Or turn on a Sunday morning black church service, and listen to how oral speakers organize: "Ah woke up this mornin' !" "Mmhmm." "I'm sayin' ah woke up! Got mahself outta the bed." "Mm-hmm!" I mean, it's chunks. Jesse Jackson speaks for an oral audience - puns, little things that delight the ear. Your essay delights the mind and the eye, but it's not written for speech.

Try it for speech: "Last week I heard from a man in Minneapolis. His building's in an uproar because they're trying to install some cabling to link all the personal computers together . . . That sounds like a pretty easy job. Just drill some holes in the floor, run the wires through and connect 'em . . . The problem is, nobody knows where the wires that are already there, are . . ." You say that and let it sit for a second. Imagine that. Nobody knows where the wires are. Some genius built this building. He's got blueprints, he's got plans. They probably paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the plans. And nobody knows where the wires are. "So what do you think they're doing? . . . They're x-raying the building."

You're painting a movie for them. And whatever you're actually feeling about that, feel. And if you're not feeling anything about it, if your way is to be like a Maine storyteller, that's fine too. Absence of feeling would be funny, if the images are graphic. So, I would listen to spoken-word records. Just to start to hear how the ear is addressed differently than the eye and the mind.

Brand: I may have been polluted. I listen to books on tape a lot. Right now I'm listening to I, Claudius, and of course I'm listening to written prose.

Coyote: That's right. I think I would listen to theater on tape.

Brand: I did listen to some Winston Churchill speeches. Churchill is amazing. He wrote these long sentences, and he spoke them slow, with his rolling delivery. Each sentence would have meaning that would take three turns, or four, to come to the conclusion, and you're with him the whole way. God-damnedest thing I ever heard.

Coyote: Think of the confidence he had to just assume that you're going with him. There's a wonderful term in acting; it's called "leaking." Leaking is when an actor lets a feeling slip that he's net controlling. For instance, when you see somebody who's on stage and you know they're really frightened, that's leaking. And the reason it's a disaster is because it shakes your confidence. You don't want to watch real panic, you don't want to watch a real person be humiliated, so you don't want to be engaged. You'll watch anything if there's no leak.

So, the way to confidence is, you have to psyche yourself that you're already interesting and that the audience is going to come with you, and if they don't, that's their problem. But you can't run after them. Because it's only your mastery and your confidence that will give them the confidence that will give them the confidence to trust you.

Brand: That's interesting. Speaking to a live audience I have no problem. But what you're talking about happened to me on the Dick Cavett Show. There was a studio audience, but they were nothing, behind a huge cloud of machinery. I was thinking of the cosmic television audience -- with my mother in it! And her friends! I froze. I stumbled through it, but I froze on Dick Cavett.

Coyote: Well, let me give you an exercise I gave to the poet Michael McClure once, which ended his self-consciousness, his stage fright. You go back to some situation like Dick Cavett. You pick the person in the audience, the mental image that's cowing you. That's step one. Step two is to ascertain the age of that person. Let's say, if it's your mother, how old is she?

Brand: Then, she was 65.

Coyote: No, no, no. How old was she in your image?

Brand: That's interesting. Fifty-something.

Coyote: Okay. Then what you have to do is, you have to look at how old you were when she was that age. In Michael's case it was easy, because his mother was about 35, and all of a sudden he realized that he was about eight or ten. Then what you have to do is you have to fast forward that person up till they're their contemporary age, and then you have to see, does that power dynamic still work? Do you still feel cowed if you're facing that person? Then if you do, there are a whole host of ways to manipulate your mental image of the event. One way is to make them very, very tiny and put them in black and white in the corner of a color picture.

I prefer to put myself on stage and I put that person in the audience, and I run myself through the event mentally and I try to contact that feeling. Now I back up, or go forward, and I change that person's seat. I put them way in the back of the room, I make them very small, really insignificant, and I run through the scene again, and then that particular valence is just gone.

One thing to do is to get in touch with your mental pets and find out who you've groomed in there that you're giving the power to make you insecure - what audience you're performing for psychically. A guy who is always being observed by a critical father is going to walk into a room very differently than a guy who is being observed by his adoring mother, or his loving baby sister, or whoever it is. You have to find who's inhabiting your psyche in there, and disenfranchise them.

Brand: Are there good audiences to imagine or to pick out?

Coyote: Yeah. You pick a someone that makes you feel powerful and confident and comfortable. The best one I've found is Lucky. Because I think that we perceive our own personal power as a feeling of luck, and when I feel lucky I'm at my most powerful. And then, yes, you construct them as an audience, and you invoke them before you read, or you ask them mentally to come to the taping, and you talk to them.

Brand: There's a downside to pregnant pauses. It can be horrible when you pause a long pause, like there's a great word coming, and it's not a great word.

Coyote: A friend of mine who is an acting coach said something brilliant once. He said, you know, it's the second moment that makes' you a dishonest person. In conversation we all reach for something sometimes and miss, or we go over the top, or our enthusiasm is childish and stupid. It happens to all of us. If you try to cover it up, that's what makes you a dishonest person. If you somehow acknowledge that you did that - a shrug or a gesture or a self-deprecating smile, whatever it is - you have our confidence. Because we've all seen it. We've all seen you go over the top, and now we either see you try to cover it and take control back again, or we see you cop to it, and we trust you. That's a formidable observation, because it means that you can be totally fearless.


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