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Acting & Directing in the Age of COVID-19 with Abigail Zealey Bess

Professor Abigail Zealey, of the NYU Tisch Film & TV Graduate Program, shares her approach to effectively use Zoom to work with actors and directors. In short, it involves Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Black Mirror, and even improvisation.

In business and in art, mindset dictates all outcomes. So, how can we stay positive and find opportunities to create with the tools we have access to? We don’t have all the answers, but we hope this episode will inspire you to keep exploring. Do you use Zoom in your work? Share what you’ve discovered with us by texting +1 (646) 229-3423.

Follow Abigail on Twitter @AZBess
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Jump directly to what interests you

00:00 Welcome

01:20: Using Zoom as a platform for actors and directors 

07:30: How Abigail’s students are exercising their vulnerability in virtual classes

12:30: Why the best directors nurture their actors’ to get positive results

15:00: Abigail on showing emotion, character, and personality through voice

20:40: Technical tips for changing the sound of your voice

23:30: Why great acting is about being a good listener

24:50: The difference between acting and simply reading lines

Transcript

ABIGAIL

You know, because at first you’re kind of thinking, “Oh my god, what on Earth are we going to do?” But as soon as you opened up your mind to looking at how you could make this work and how you could make it actually very viable, amazing work comes out of these conversations. It was strangely moving because suddenly you realize that everyone was going through exactly the same thing.

HADRIEN

You might have recognized the voice you just heard. It’s Professor Abigail Zealey Bess. She’s a professor at the prestigious NYU film program, same program where Professor Spike Lee is teaching and same program that has seen generations of legendary filmmakers come from. Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee, Cary Fukunaga, and many, many more. But most important, you know her from interpreting the character Dr. Thayer in Crypto-Z and I wanted to bring her here, first of all continuing on our journey to discover the skill and the craft behind the making of Crypto-Z, but also because as the pandemic rages again, we artists, creators, actors, filmmakers, podcasters have to keep creating.

If that means the only tool we can use right now is Zoom, then what can we learn from it and what can we get out of that platform for actors and directors alike? So, I thought I would bring in the most optimistic person I’ve ever met in my life. Without further ado, here’s Abigail.

ABIGAIL

As I mentioned, using the Zoom platform has become vital to teaching remotely now because we can’t be in the same room. So, a lot of that has involved not only the students thinking outside the box and actors thinking outside the box and directors thinking outside the box, but also educators, is what could we find which still enabled everyone to connect in a way that served a director and an actor working together or an actor really becoming aware now of how to use an audio space and how to use the visual space because now it’s almost an effect like they’re in a box, that they’re in a close up.

A lot of that has been thinking about how can we teach somebody in this process and a lot of that has been using, believe it or not, using improvisation or creating scenes and creating monologues which serve the Zoom platform. That in turn has created other scenes particularly that have worked well, I find, have been scenes which are set in a different reality or if they’re in a different space and really finding places where that can work most effectively.

Of course, you’ve also got the monologues, creating monologues which actually… There’s a beautiful butterfly right outside my window. Is that lucky? Then how does the director direct that and how does the actor respond to that? Because they are now essentially in a close up.

HADRIEN

Right, because the only screen and the only camera they can use is their computer’s webcam and the Zoom video. Basically, what you’re saying is that instead of trying to keep your class going, which is impossible because it’s so much about workshopping actors and directors together in the room and having directors act, you’re just throwing everything away and starting from scratch and inventing a completely new way to teach.

ABIGAIL

In the first semester of the first year, it’s actually acting craft which really focuses on the director being in the actor’s shoes. So, really helping them to understand what it feels like to be an actor and what they have to process in order to get to certain places. I think the more you understand as a director, the more you understand what an actor’s process is, the easier it is to communicate with an actor and help them. Because really most of the time I always say if an actor knows what they’re doing, the best thing a director can do is get out the way. That’s so mean.

A lot of times, the actor will need guidance because they can’t see themselves and really if you’re being true to your craft, you’re in the moment and you’re not looking at yourself. You’re actually right there. Sometimes you need adjustments and a director can be very helpful in guiding you in that way. That is indeed when we bring in actors into the class to work with the director, so the the director gets a sense of what is hands on. 

HADRIEN

Right

ABIGAIL

Now, how that’s changed is because you’re not literally in the same room, so you’re using a whole different set of skills. How can you change that, what you’re doing, what you need from the other person? How can you support the actor to do that? What’s helpful for the actor I think is to find all those adjustments of what they need to do in order to serve the material with this platform, with this amazing box that we’re all now forced to be inside.

HADRIEN

I know and we’re just partly trying to connect and feel and experience things through it. But because your workshop is just so geared towards experiencing and transforming the participants in the moment and in the class, in the workshop, now for it to work, you’re gonna have to understand what can be done, what kind of experiences can we share through the platform.

ABIGAIL

But it’s interesting. I think it’s really interesting. I know we had talked about various different movies which really served that. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a prime example because they’re all in such a different reality and Black Mirror is another one because it’s kind of this weird other fantasy world. All of those different materials are really helping I think forge where we next go. I mean, what I really want to look at, what I’ve been looking at is certain games that we play or exercises we do, how can we do that as a group? Can we find a way to do that as a group? The Exquisite Corpse, I don’t think I ever did that one with you but it’s one I love to use, which is how you… You are passing pieces of paper around. Well, how can you pass a piece of paper around? Unless Zoom becomes such an incredible platform that you can actually start to pass pieces of paper through the screen.

HADRIEN

Right. I remember passing electricity around.

ABIGAIL

That’s right. Definitely. Yeah, the pulse. My God. That was one of the first exercises. You have a great memory.

HADRIEN

Yeah. Well, I remember that your class was especially good for me because we kind of had to be vulnerable and really uncomfortable. I don’t appear like it anymore, but I am a very shy and introverted person, so people who are shy and introverted, there’s one thing they don’t like is to not be in control of the emotion that they let go, that transpires. Unfortunately, that kind of leads to becoming this person that you’re not and not really being your full self. So yeah, that was kind of a life changing experience for me.

So, I’m curious. How are you able to create the opportunities for those participants that are not connected and in their own homes to kind of reach deep inside in order to create that experience that you absolutely need for the transformation to happen?

ABIGAIL

Yeah, I mean I think what’s happening now is either using those specific scenes that I mentioned or, which is even more helpful I think is, especially in the program at NYU because it’s all about being a writer and a director. One of the things that we had done was actually conversations in the age of COVID where I literally gave the directors a set of questions to ask the actor and from the answers they got, which was private on Zoom, and from the answers that they got from the actor, they created a monologue specifically for that person.

I really gave them freedom to do whatever they want, whether they wanted to do a dance or they didn’t have to be a talking head necessarily. Although, it ended up mostly staying that way but it could go anywhere. I know that there’s been other instances where we’ve used improv, improvisation. That was something that was really helpful and interesting, because at first, you’re kind of thinking, “Oh my god, what on Earth are we gonna do?” But then as soon as you kind of opened up your mind to looking at how you could make this work and how you could make it actually very viable, amazing work comes out of these improvs and out of these conversations. It was strangely moving because suddenly you realize that everyone was going through exactly the same thing. Everybody was going through this anxiety and then they were going through this, “What are we gonna do?” and then coping it with it then drinking a lot. A lot of them were drinking a lot especially. 

So, you had all these different, this human condition which was really beautiful, of emotions going on.

HADRIEN

Can you share some of the questions you have them ask the actors?

ABIGAIL

I did about 15 and I actually said to them you can ask them in order, you don’t have to ask them in order at all and you can use as many or little as you want. I kind of started off heavy which was, “What’s the love of your life? Do you have a secret ambition? What have you noticed most about yourself during this situation, during this COVID? Is there anything that you miss?”

HADRIEN

And those were directed at actors, right?

ABIGAIL

Yeah. Some of them kind of went a little dark, I think but the reason being was because… Or not so much dark as personal and obviously it’s completely the actor’s prerogative whether they answer them or not, what they reveal or what they don’t reveal. But I think what’s interesting is what then the director takes away from the material that they’ve been given because they might write something completely that just spurs their imagination which then in turn really gives something back to the actor which is very, very personal and then it’s the combination of those two things. 

Because also, I think what the actors and the directors found was the similarity of what they both were going through in their own way. It became this bonding thing, this bonding conversation which was very moving and very heartfelt.

HADRIEN

Yeah. I mean, I could see how it allows the actors to kind of immediately draw on deep emotions and kind of sculpt that. By the same token, the directors who then are writing the monologues to add to it their own story and their own emotions to it. Is that how you would approach working with actors and allowing this kind of connection between them and the personal self and the characters to serve the story and bring that emotion to the story? Because I could see that being a little bit intimidating to create that kind of relationship over Zoom and considering that every actor is different as well.

ABIGAIL

No, no. I think that’s absolutely true. I always say to you guys and I’m sure I said this to you at one time and I’m sure you’re discovering that for yourself and especially since doing Crypto-Z more than ever because especially what you did which was touching people in all different corners of the world. In a way, you have to be a little bit physic I think because you can’t speak the same way to everybody. Everybody’s different. As we always say, actors aren’t machines with a button you just press and go, “Do that emotion. It was great.” You have to find how can you help that actor go to that place or find that place and feel safe as well and feel very safe in where they are being asked to go.

Because essentially, you’re revealing everything about yourself and that leaves you extremely vulnerable as we know and even more so now, I think people feel incredibly vulnerable because everything’s being stripped away that’s normal. I think you have to be very like a mum or a dad almost. It’s almost like you’re very nurturing and you’re caring and above all, you need the actor to know that you have their back. Whatever happens, you have their back. You know?

That’s my method. Some directors may be very cruel and use all sorts of heinous methods to get them what they want. Is that what you’re like, Hadrien?

HADRIEN

Yes, that’s exactly who I am. Heinous methods are my specialty and you should know because you were in Crypto-Z as well.

ABIGAIL

You were very good.

HADRIEN

You trained me, so you can’t really say it otherwise. Having said that, not to be the devil’s advocate or anything but we’ve seen monstrous and heinous directors get results on the screen as well, to the credit of the actors actually.

ABIGAIL

No, it definitely exists but I think if an actor is… I was gonna say is trained but you can get all sorts of amazing raw talent coming out of untrained actors. As you’ve seen before, directors, all their cast is non-actors and you’ve seen some incredible results. Whether those people stay doing that is a whole other issue of course and it’s specific to that film. But I think most actors, they want to go to where the source is. But it may be sometimes difficult to go to where the source is because it’s a bit like a Pandora’s box, isn’t it?

 Once you open up that drawer, you let that emotion out. You let it out and you can put it back in the drawer and close it but that drawer’s been open now, so you’ll always have access to it, which is a gift but it’s also… You know that they’ve lived it. They lived it to some extent.

HADRIEN

Yeah, I know. They’re amazing. Let’s talk a little bit about the voice because I think if there is one thing that the Zoom platform can still allow is to work with your voice and I knew it was an essential tool before, having gone through making Crypto-Z and hosting this podcast. I realized how powerful the voice is and how much personality and character and emotion and identity come through the voice. Having gone through the experience also of hosting the podcast and hearing my own voice which is a terrifying experience, so I was wondering how one would go about working on that tool specifically to kind of take control of it, either to build their own persona, public face or to work on a character like in an audio drama, for example.

ABIGAIL

Well, I think it’s… I think once you start to inhabit a character, you start to think like a character or the person that you’re playing and I think that immediately would take you into a territory which is foreign to yourself, which is not… It’s almost like you step outside your skin to be in the skin, if you know what I mean.  I think as far as technique is concerned, with audio, your voice, you have to use your voice in very different ways. A pause will mean something, an intake of breath will mean something. Not talking too fast, obviously, because I think the minute somebody starts…

And I talk very fast naturally anyway. Maybe too fast. So, to slow that down so that the weight of the words or the weight of the story is allowed to land. That’s all part and parcel of what you go through, I think, when you are playing a particular type of character. Of course, then you have all the different strings of accent or class or creed or whatever this personality comes from, this person comes from, and what they want, what their need is.

All of that has to be transformed through the voice. All that has to be translated and that’s always something that is very interesting, I think. You must have noticed a lot of that when you were… Because you were working with so many different actors and all going through different emotions as well and making sure that sounds right is quite a trick, isn’t it?

HADRIEN

Yeah, I mean I was very fortunate to have great writing and I quickly realized there is two kind of actors, the ones that have figured out how to not only live it but know how it would affect their voice and they’re actually I think able to just listen to themselves and listen to their voice and just translate everything through it. And the ones that may be able to do all the acting work required, finding the source, etc as we talked about but are not able to transform and bring that experience into their voice and therefore, sometimes it breaks and they feel like they’re reading the words and not inhabiting the words.

They may very well live it with their face and their body on camera, having a hard time making that transition to the microphone. That was just fascinating to me because it’s complete magic. I still don’t understand what exactly happens that when I hear my actors just speaking normally and suddenly transforming into the characters even though they don’t necessarily transform their voice or add an accent. They were snapping into character right away and be there and that was such a privilege to witness. It felt like somebody performing magic tricks just for me.

I hope that people can hear it in Crypto-Z and since then I’ve been obsessed with the idea that I want those actors to be recognized for the kind of ability and magic they have, because I feel like maybe they’re under appreciated. How do we help others be able to get there? Because they’re missing out on so much fun because my dream is that people get inspired by Crypto-Z and start going after us and do the same thing even better and make better work than we can. I can’t tell you how much fun it is. I could do it all day and if we find the support and the community and the listeners to keep making those and making sure that everybody is taken care of, this could become a new… I strongly believe this could become a major entertainment form and be part of people’s life is very significant and meaningful ways.

But we’re completely sidetracking here and I totally forgot the question I wanted to ask you. I think I had a very selfish question is do you have any tips for me so I can change my voice and sound like the person I thought I sounded like?

ABIGAIL

I think it’s-

HADRIEN

Clearly I don’t.

ABIGAIL

Don’t ever change, Hadrien. I think a lot of it’s about-

HADRIEN

I want my voice to sound like Morgan Freeman.

ABIGAIL

Well, then yeah, you should definitely lower your register there then. Also, he’s quite a bit older than you, so you know. You might have to wait a bit. He has that very rich, dulcet tone, doesn’t he? My God.

HADRIEN

Yeah. I mean, the reason I mentioned Morgan Freeman is because I know that he had to transform his own voice to sound like this. He wasn’t born with that one and I know you have done the same work for yourself and you had a much higher pitched voice and brought it down.

ABIGAIL

I mean part of my training, and I think this goes to most actors, is when you start going into training, you tend to speak fast because you don’t think you’re interesting enough to hold an audience and you tend to speak too high. Your register is too high, so you’re talking from the top of your head rather than from your stomach. A lot of the training that goes into refining the voice is actually how you speak really from the whole cavity which is your ribcage and your back, so that that immediately grounds the voice and also from your stomach of course, your diaphragm. 

That immediately grounds the voice and because it also lowers the register as well because you’re very aware of lowering the register of your voice, then you never stop learning that either because especially when you’re coming into a new part or you’re studying a new part, you’re nervous. So, your instinct is immediately to rush and the whole point is… Obviously, as you get more experienced, you understand, “No, no, no, I know how to help this. I know how to fix this.”

But I think that’s part of really giving whatever character your playing some kind of gravitas and the audience listens better because you know if you start something at the top of your range, it’s very hard to listen to someone screaming at the top of their range. But you can hear it really effectively if it’s lower in register and then it builds, builds, builds so that they get to whatever climax they get to. It’s still rich and it’s still anguished and it’s still painful, but it actually translates to a very raw emotion and that’s often what triggers the audience, I think. That’s what triggers people through the voice is to feel emotion and to feel what that character is going through.

HADRIEN

When you’re transforming and grounding yourself into that character and his voice, does it also affect the way that you listen and you listen to the other actor?

ABIGAIL

I think that’s probably the most important thing that you can do as an actor is to listen, because if you don’t, if you just look as if you’re waiting to say your next line, it immediately translates. With audio of course, you have to listen because you can’t see that other person’s face and you’re really very specifically listening to the words of what somebody is saying to you and you hear it better in a weird kind of way. I wonder if we should just make people close their eyes when they talk to each other on the screen, you know? So that they actually learn because that’s actually… It’s more difficult than it sounds which is to be a good listener and you see that…

Morgan Freeman is a great listener. You see everything pass through his face when he’s listening. Alan Rickman was talking about that when he was alive. Obviously not now because he’s dead but he was saying that was one of the most important gifts for an actor is to be able to listen.

HADRIEN

Right. Oh, I remember the question I wanted to ask you. Can we track back to the difference between acting and reading and how the transformation happened and what makes some actors or hosts or speakers, even public speakers, feel like they’re reading and reciting and those who feel like they’re actually living it?

ABIGAIL

Yeah, well actually it is interesting what you say because that’s what we were doing. We didn’t learn the script when we were recording this, because there was no need.

HADRIEN

Right, no. Nobody was. Nobody learned their lines. Everybody was reading. Everybody came in, got their lines, and for some reason, some people just feel like they’re reading and some people don’t.

ABIGAIL

Yeah, again it comes from connecting with who you’re playing to such an extent that suddenly those words become yours. So, it’s as if you’re saying it and you’re not reading it anymore. It’s just you’re feeling it and you’re feeling everything that’s going on in that situation. It’s all about imagination, isn’t it? We all have imagination, but how far can you burst that bubble? 

I think with respect to how can you practice that, I think a good way to do it is there’s all kinds of texts you can take and practice and listen to yourself. There’s a lot of different techniques I think you have to do with your voice so it doesn’t sound flat and the last thing you want is your voice to sound like it’s one flat line.

HADRIEN

Yeah.

ABIGAIL

Because there’s nothing more boring than that or deadly than that. So, it’s a lot of different things I think you can do at home right now. Be quite critical of how you sound. Can you make your voice lighter or even inflection? Inflect up as opposed to down because again, especially with comedy as well, you want to inflect up and not down. Also, driving through to the sentence right to the end so that you don’t lose breath before the end of the sentence. 

You keep the force. You probably found that a lot because there were some long descriptive passages at times where you really needed to be focused, right?

HADRIEN

Yeah, and I think you’re right. I think it’s all about imagination and holding onto it.

ABIGAIL

Yeah, and I think again you can imagine because when you’re actually running up a mountain, on camera, you would be running up that mountain but you’re not. You’re in a sound booth, so you’ve got to put all of that physical energy into your voice and it probably would be too much if you put all that physical energy into your voice on camera. It would look weird or sound weird, but it sounds great because the voice is creating all the imaginary visual for the audience. So, it is very specific and really, it’s its own skill. It’s its own technique and its own skill, which is great to do.

HADRIEN

Well, thank you so much, Abigail. I think we have a lot more we wanna discuss but I think maybe this is a good place to stop for today. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this because I know you’re super busy right now.

ABIGAIL

It’s been my pleasure, Hadrien. It’s been really fantastic to talk to you.

HADRIEN

Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoyed that episode, please let us know by texting us at 646-229-3423. If you know someone that might be interested in learning about the craft of audio drama, please share this episode with them. Don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on your favorite podcatcher.

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