If you search around for ‘best acting coach’ or ‘famous acting coach,’ Ivana Chubbuck will pop up. For years, she’s coached famous actors in famous movies to win famous awards. Her book, The Power of the Actor is also famous. People read it around the world, actors and non-actors alike.
In this post, I’ll deconstruct Chubbuck’s book to distill two of its unique advantages.
What Chubbuck emphasizes that others don’t
The will to win an objective drives the entirety of Chubbuck’s technique.
She says that, if you want to compel audiences and want those audiences to come back, win. Figure out what your character wants, and pursue that objective with power and drive. Your audience will leave inspired, entertained, and hungry for more.
She says that emotional depth, connection to the other actor, presence, and all the rest should come from the drive to win.
She instructs actors to choose objectives (things to win) that are rooted deep in the psyche. Something Freudian, or from Maslow; something everyone can resonate with. Like the desire for acceptance or love, or the desire to protect a child.
Chubbuck references her work with Halle Berry in ‘Monster’s Ball.’ Berry plays a woman oppressed by tragedy after tragedy. Chubbuck and Berry worked to make the woman a victor rather than victim without changing the script.
At the end of the film, Berry could have played a woman crushed by betrayal, but instead she played a woman victorious. Berry’s objective was ‘to get you to love me.’ She chose to interpret another character’s deception as an act of love — the love her character deeply desired.
At the end of ‘The Insider,‘ Al Pacino’s and Russell Crowe’s characterssuffered major blows. Bergman (Pacino) resigned from 60 Minutes over a conflict of values. Wigand, whose wife left with the kids, who lost his lucrative job, and who suffered psychological and financial terror, became a high school teacher living alone.
Pacino and Crowe could have played victims crushed by the world. Instead, they played victors who won their goals. At the end of the film, both wore expressions of victory and success, rather than defeat and despair, which could have been justified.
Let’s project some potential objectives on the characters that would let them win, rather than lose. Pacino’s Bergman could have the following objectives: to make the truth known, no matter what the cost. And Crowe’s Wigand could have, ‘to protect my reputation, and make Big Tobacco feel my pain.’ Both Bergman and Wigand won. And the audience feels inspired when the credits role.
What her book has that others don’t
Linear, clear instructions
Many acting books are just transcripts of a class and lack explicit instructions. I’ve read a bunch and found them helpful, but I had to infer and project structure onto the text. Chubbuck’s book is very straightforward in comparison.
Here’s an outline of her method straight from The Power of the Actor.
1. OVERALL OBJECTIVE: What does your character want from life more than anything? Finding what your character wants throughout the script.
2. SCENE OBJECTIVE: What your character wants over the course of an entire scene, which supports the character’s OVERALL OBJECTIVE.
3. OBSTACLES: Determining the physical, emotional and mental hurdles that make it difficult for your character to achieve his or her OVERALL and SCENE OBJECTIVE.
4. SUBSTITUTION: Endowing the other actor in the scene with a person from your real life that makes sense to your OVERALL OBJECTIVE and your SCENE OBJECTIVE. For instance, if your character’s SCENE OBJECTIVE is “to get you to love me,” then you find someone from your present life that really makes you need that love— urgently, desperately and completely. This way you have all the diverse layers that a real need from a real person will give you.
5. INNER OBJECTS: The pictures you see in your mind when speaking or hearing about a person, place, thing or event.
6. BEATS and ACTIONS: A BEAT is a thought. Every time there’s a change in thought, there’s a BEAT change. ACTIONS are the mini-OBJECTIVES that are attached to each BEAT that support the SCENE’S OBJECTIVE and, therefore, the OVERALL OBJECTIVE.
7. MOMENT BEFORE: The event that happens before you begin the scene (or before the director yells, “Action!”), which gives you a place to move from, both physically and emotionally.
8. PLACE and FOURTH WALL: Using PLACE and FOURTH WALL means that you endow your character’s physical reality— which, in most cases, is realized on a stage, soundstage, set, classroom or on location— with attributes from a PLACE from your real life. Using PLACE and the FOURTH WALL creates privacy, intimacy, history, meaning, safety and reality. The PLACE/ FOURTH WALL must support and make sense with the choices you’ve made for the other tools.
9. DOINGS: The handling of props, which produces behavior. Brushing your hair while speaking, tying your shoes, drinking, eating, using a knife to chop, etc., are examples of DOINGS.
10. INNER MONOLOGUE: The dialogue that’s going on inside your head that you don’t speak out loud.
11. PREVIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES: Your character’s history. The accumulation of life experiences that determines why and how they operate in the world. And then personalizing the character’s PREVIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES to that of your own so you can truly and soulfully understand the character’s behavior and become and live the role.
12. LET IT GO: While the Chubbuck Technique does use an actor’s intellect, it is not a set of intellectual exercises. This technique is the way to create human behavior so real that it produces the grittiness and rawness of really living a role. In order for you to duplicate the natural flow of life and be spontaneous, you have to get out of your head. To achieve this you have to trust the work you’ve done with the previous eleven tools and LET IT GO. These twelve acting tools create a solid foundation that will keep you present and inspire a raw, profound, dynamic and powerful performance.
Chubbuck, Ivana (2005-08-18). The Power of the Actor (Kindle Locations 155-184). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
And, if you’re interested, here’s my living document with my notes on her twelve steps. I use this document to guide me through script analysis.
The book is worth the read and extremely helpful. I intend to write some follow-up posts with video on her twelve tools. Stay tuned.