‘Robert Cohen’s book, Acting Power, follows the tradition of his other book, Acting One, and has been the veritable bible for acting teachers for the last quarter century.’ – David Krasner, Emerson College
Robert, the subtitle to your latest book, Acting Power: The 21st Century Edition, goes some way to describing the revisions you have made; how has the book developed since its first inception over 40 years ago?
The main difference between this edition and its predecessor is that when I wrote the 1978 version I was not an actor or an acting teacher – I was a director and I taught directing. We had two acting teachers on my campus. One was Brewster Mason, a longtime star of the Royal Shakespeare Festival, and the other was Curt Conway who, along with Lee Strasberg, Sandy Meisner and Stella Adler, was a veteran of the famous Group Theatre in New York that pioneered in creating what became known as “the Method.” We thought this would do the trick: Brewster would teach diction, style and “performing,” and Curt would teach truthfulness, realism and “being yourself.” I soon realized that their teachings were simply incompatible, however, as each was limited to teaching his individual methods. And so I decided, as chair of the department at that time, to try to find a way to teach acting that aligned realism with style since, in my view, great acting required both. But instead of turning to writings about acting, I studied some of the exciting new discoveries on human behavior by eminent psychologists and sociologists, including Paul Watzlawick’s Pragmatics of Human Communication and Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, and realized that, in real life, we are both performing and being ourselves in just about every moment of our lives. And so I wrote and published Acting Power, which I considered a more or less theoretical discussion of this subject and how it might relate to acting. But I still was not an acting teacher.
The book became popular, however, and I soon began teaching what I had written about. Then I wrote textbooks (Acting One and Acting Two) without a single mention of theory – just exercises that would lead students to be able to align their “real” human behavior with genuinely “theatrical” performances – and help my students understand that “performing” is an important part of “being real.”
Acting Power was clearly on the right track. It was translated into four languages and I have taught it in ten countries. Goffman’s theories became universally known; one scholar praised him in print as “arguably the most original American theorist of the second half of the twentieth century.” But the areas of neuroscience and emotional response have expanded enormously since the publication of the original Acting Power and, after teaching acting for 35 years, I’ve now learned quite a bit about turning theory into practical usages. It was for these reasons that I turned my attention towards a full-scale revision of my Acting Power, and also to the many new actors and directors on the world stage whose observations echo my own.
How is Acting Power different than other acting books?
It is mainly different because its foundation analyses not only what we do onstage but primarily what we do in real life, and with other people. That’s what we’re thinking about for most of our waking hours. Most young actors try to concentrate on “being my character,” while my notion is that they should concentrate on “making other characters do what I want them to.” My basic notion is that acting is interactive, not self-contained or solipsistic.
What do you hope resonates with the reader?
That they study the characters on stage with them more than they focus on themselves. That, while acting in the play, they are thinking what, as characters, they want to achieve in the next few minutes, and what they want to “get” from the characters around them – physically or mentally.
Can you sum up the book in a single sentence?
Great actors create characters who, no matter how weak or stupid they are, want desperately to win what they are searching for – even if they don’t know what it is yet.
Tell us an unusual fact about yourself; where were you when you experienced ‘powerful acting’ from an actor?
I will never forget Earl Hyman’s portrayal of the title role in Mister Johnson, which ran a month on Broadway in 1956. Based on a novel by Joyce Cary, it tells the story of a young and overly enthusiastic black man in British-ruled Nigeria who is thrilled to have achieved the title of “Mister” in the government office where he works, but eventually turns to theft and murder and begs to be executed. My eyes watered up every time I thought of this performance for months afterwards.
Have you ever felt close to this experience in any of your own performances?
I do not consider myself an actor, though I have acted a little, but I certainly felt exhilarated when, as “Marat,” I was carried semi-naked around the insane asylum spouting the politics of the French revolution in Marat/Sade on my campus. I also loved performing on stage with yet-to-be-stars Frank Langella and Stacy Keach at, respectively, the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when I was still in my early 20s.
Read more about Robert Cohen's book or visit his website at robertcohendrama.com.