The Thespian Ten Commandments: Part 1
There are hundreds of "rules" to which an actor must adhere when performing. For sake of clarity and space,
let's narrow it down to ten, the first five of which we will explore this month
(and the second five next month):
1. Apply To Your Craft What You Know From Real Life - And Conserve And Reserve Your Energy For
We've all experienced good and bad times in our lives. Some, more bad. Some, more good. Yet, what
better opportunity for the actor then to take these horrific and golden experiences, and apply
them to our interpretation and/or performance of the character we have been chosen to play, or
for the scene we choose to employ as an optimum audition piece.
Let's say you've won the role of Blanche Dubois in a Broadway revival of A Street
Car Named Desire. Blanche has several mental issues, and she is a very sad character.
If you've suffered a major romantic breakup, either from the recent or distant past, this
is the time to recall the strong emotional turmoil you experienced (especially if you
were the one who did NOT initiate the break-up). Conversely, if you're an incredibly happy
person (which we all ultimately should be), who has been fortunate enough to live a privileged
life - free from the kings and queens of pain and misery - then you'll be forced to contact
one of your sad friends if you could dip into their treasury trove of trauma and remembrance,
and ask them to share their saddest hours.
Which brings up to the second part of the first thespian Commandment: Conserve and reserve your
energy for performance implementation. Essentially, we must not let the trauma (that today's
stress-ridden life almost encourages) to poison our systems to the point that we find ourselves
taking drugs to relieve ourselves of the medicine that we initially were prescribed to coat the
inaugural depression (from failed relationships, death of family members or friends, or financial
Save that screaming, kicking, hating, pouting, sobbing, anger, etc. for the stage,
big screen and TV - and make it work for you there. Don't let it destroy you off-
camera. Just don't tax yourself with reliving the negative emotions in real life, but rather
channel them for your reel life, on the small or big screen. If you're lucky (though I
really don't believe in luck, I believe in love), you'll be cast as a manically loud
character for a stage play, and be able to shout out those emotions loud and clear on stage
for an-honest-to-goodness live theatrical performance every night for months on end
(if the play's a good run).
As to the happy emotions and life experiences? Shoot. You can never overuse
those. In fact, they're life-inducing. The joys and triumphs of everyday living may be
applied to the present from any previous past turmoil, on stage - or off.
2. Be It, Don't Act It:
One of the surest signs of theatrical immaturity rears its ugly head when an actor makes
it so painfully obvious that he is acting instead of being. I could point out about
ten very successful actors who have done this (and continue to do so), but I won't.
Instead, I'll just explain to you what not to do.
For example, if your character is directed to cry (either by the script or the director),
don't show that you're crying or that you're sad. Just cry and be sad.
Don't raise your hand to your forehead as if you were acting in a silent movie. Don't
display emotions, feel emotions - and whatever you do, don't be conscious of the
camera or the audience.
The worst thing you could do when, say you are cast as the lead character in a stage comedy, is
to react - and interact - with pride every time the audience laughs at one of yours or the
character's humorous antics.
Or, let's say you are Rance Dedlow, the coolest new actor in town - and you're cast in
Hotties and Studs, the hottest new daytime soap. After a few days of rehearsal, the
director calls you over for a few notes and says, "Rance - you're too conscious
of the camera."
You're like, "Uh?"
"I don't see you playing your character Rance. I see you playing Rance Dedlow playing
your character. We have to get Rance out of the way, and just show the character
that you're playing."
That's right, Rance - you're mugging for the camera. You know the camera's on you, and you're
fixing your hair ever so slightly, and using those jaw-bone moves in your cheeks (upper), because
you know they look sexy (especially after you've just had your wisdom teeth removed).
"Rance," the director continues. "Your character is too happy a human being to employ
his cheek bone muscles that way. You should laugh and smile as wide as you can. And if
your dimples show, well, then that's okay. But keep those cheek bone muscles in check."
This type of immature performing just doesn't happen on TV. I should know.
For a college production of Stagedoor, in which I played Keith Burgess - a
very arrogant, self-absorbed character, my acting professor once chided me after one
performance. I was looking too much into a teensy-weensy mirror that happened to be
positioned on the stage - one at which he never directed me to gaze.
I was already aggravating him because I continued to debut as Keith under a different
guise every night. "Herbie J," he would tell me. "What are you doing? Last night you
were Herbie J playing Marlon Brando playing Keith Burgess, and tonight you're
Herbie J playing Laurence Olivier playing Keith Burgess. Be consistent.
And stop looking into that damned mirror."
As arrogant as Keith Burgess was in this production, he no way near would have checked
his hair as much as I did during those performances. I'm surprised my director didn't
check me out of the production, and inset an understudy.
3. Skim Milk That Pause:
Pausing between lines is a very risky business. You have to know just when to do it, and
when not to do it. Let's reference Goldielocks and the three Bears
You know the scene about the porridge? One is cold, the other is hot, and the final
one is just right. That's how your pausing between lines should be: Just right.
Not too long, and not too short. But just right.
Here's the deal: In the 9th Season of Friends, Jennifer Aniston - in a temporary fit
of insanity, decides not to continue her $1 million dollar an episode contract - just
as her character, Rachel Greene, is about to tell her beloved Ross Gellar
(David Schwimmer) that she's pregnant. So you're called in to replace her as the
second Rachel (just like Dick Sargent replaced Dick York as the second Darrin
on Bewitched. Well, kinda. Anyway, you're now playing Rachel, and she
has to tell Ross that she's expecting their child. And the line is, "Ross,
I'm pregnant." Are you going to whip that out, speed-queenie, without any pause?
Maybe, because - due to the pace of this particular show, that just may be the right
thing to do. Or, will you take it a little slower, with some pause, say, in between
"Ross" and "I'm pregnant?" Or will you place the pause between "Ross, I'm"
In this particular instance, each one of these choices may work. But the point
is to measure very carefully that choice. Especially if your character is offering
a major revelation in the way of storyline or character.
4. Remain Likable:
This is one of the most important of The Thespian Ten Commandments,
and one of the least understood aspects of acting.
I don't care how unlikable the character is that you're playing, as long as your
performance is likable, you will succeed in bringing your character to life, and
ultimate acceptance by the audience.
The best example of an optimum likable performance by an actor playing an unlikable
character is Larry Hagman's iconic performance as JR Ewing on TV's classic night-time
soap, Dallas. JR cheated on his wife (Sue Ellen played to the hilt by Linda Gray) and
swindled his dear brother Bobby (the affable Patrick Duffy), and went on to hurt and/or
manipulate everyone who he ever loved or hated. Clearly, he was evil and highly unlikable
character. But Hagman's performance as JR is unstoppable. In rerun heaven forever, the
viewers continue to enjoy disliking JR while equally embracing Hagman's astounding
interpretation. (While watching him play JR on Dallas, you don't even think of him
as Major Tony Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie.)
Quite simply, you love to hate JR Ewing, because you love Larry Hagman in the role.
Unfortunately, the gang at Seinfeld did not follow the same path. And listen, no one
is a bigger Seinfeld fan than me. I watched it from the minute it hit the air as only
a pilot in the Summer of 1989 (when it was called The Seinfeld Chronicles).
Originally, the characters of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer were unlikable - and
the performances by Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael
Richards started out to be likable. Early on, all was well in the unlikable
character/likable performance world of The Thespian Ten Commandments. That is, until
around the 6th season, when something strange started happening to show.
The actor's starting breaking many of the Commandments. Soon, they became overly
conscious of the camera. The show itself was no longer a Woody-Allen-esque sophisticated
half-hour film every week. It became loud, obnoxious, literally unbelievable, unwatchable
and, at times - and unfortunately - unfunny. Clearly, the worst thing that
could happen to a comedy.
The main reason? Well, besides the fact that the actors began to break Commandment
Number 2, Be it Don't Act, by becoming way too conscious of the camera, their performances
became way more unlikable than the unlikable characters they were playing. As the show
went on, everyone was always yelling all the time, screaming at the top of their lungs - a
stint that was initiated by George's parents, played by Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris.
It worked okay for them, as recurring characters. But to then have the entire cast
always yelling, every week, all the time? Uh - no.
5. Speak Clearly Without A Big Stick:
Because this Commandment has to do with pacing and being heard, it's kind of a
tributary conversation to Commandment Number 3, Skim Milk That Pause.
Basically, what we're talking about here is: taking your time: Nothing less, and
nothing more. And I do mean nothing is more annoying than watching a film or TV
show - and gosh forbid - a stageplay, and not being able to hear or understand what
the heck the actors are saying.
For example, this happened an awful lot on a show like Sabrina, the Teenage-Witch.
Listen - Melissa Joan Hart was adorable in the role. But she ran around that series,
slurring her words, talking a mile a minute, and as much as I tried, I couldn't
understand one dang thing the chick was saying.
So, as that great Disco Song of the early '80s commands so well, "Baby, you can
do it, take your time, do it right. You can do it, Baby. Do it tonight!"
Well, you get the idea.
Herbie J Pilato was born to Frances Mary Turri and Pompeii Pilato in
Rochester, New York, on Erie Street, in the historic High Falls
District across from where now stands Frontier Field. He graduated
with a B.A. Degree in Theatre Arts from Nazareth College of Rochester,
moved to Los Angeles, where he studied Television and Film at UCLA,
and served his Internship in Television at NBC-TV in Burbank. As an
actor, he's appeared on television shows such as "Highway to
Heaven" and "The Golden Girls," as well as daytime serials like
"The Bold and the Beautiful" and "General Hospital." As a
director, Herbie J has guided live stage productions of Leonard
Malfi's Birdbath, Christopher Frye's "A Phoenix Too Frequent," and
"Little Shop of Horrors." Herbie J is also the author of a number
of media tie-in books, including "The Bewitched Book," "The Kung Fu
Book of Caine," "The Kung Fu Book of Wisdom," "Bewitched
Forever," "The Bionic Book," "NBC & ME: My Life As A Page In A
Book," and "Life Story - The Book of Life Goes On: TV's First And
Best Family Show of Challenge." As a producer, he's worked on
Bravo's hit five-part series, "The 100 Greatest TV Characters,"
TLC's "Behind the Fame" specials (about "The Mary Tyler Moore
Show," "The Bob Newhart Show," "L.A. Law" and "Hill Street
Blues"), A&E's "Biography "(for segments on Elizabeth Montgomery
and Lee Majors), and the SyFy Channel's "Sciography" series (the
latter for which he also directed). Herbie J has also served as a
consultant and on-screen commentator for the classic TV DVD releases
of "Bewitched," "Kung Fu" and "CHiPs" - as well as an Editor for
numerous websites (including MediaVillage.com, TV-Now.com and the
family-oriented PAXTV.com). Also too, he's contributed to many
magazines, including Starlog, Sci-Fi Entertainment, Sci-Fi Universe,
Retro Vision, Classic TV and CinemaRetro. Herbie J presently has
several films and TV shows in development, and is is the Founder and
Executive Director of the Classic TV Preservation Society, a nonprofit
organization dedicated to closing the gap between positive popular TV
and education. For more information, log on to
To contact Herbie J Pilato, email: ClassicTVPS@gmail.com.
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