"Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances." -- Sanford Meisner

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Monday, October 20, 2014

The Problem With ‘Less Is More’ and Other Acting Instructions

This is a useful article written by Paul Barry, an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher, that  I read on Backstage.com. Reproduced here with permission. 

As a director, my job is to collaborate with actors in guiding the audiences’ attention to what’s important, and away from distractions that may obscure the story. It is not to teach them to act.
As a teacher, my job is to create self-sufficient performers, capable of working with directors who may not know how to adhere to my first point. It is not to direct them.

The two jobs are quite different, but the common denominator of all great teachers and directors is their ability to use an acting vocabulary that is doable

Aphorisms such as “less is more,” “just feel it,” “sit back into it,” and “really connect” do nothing to help you become self-sufficient. Less what is more what? At best, such generalities foster dependence on the apparently omniscient instruction-giver, and at worst cause distrust in all future instructors’ advice, because such suggestions—without the fortification of reliable technique—are ultimately indefinable and therefore unplayable.

Good acting teachers will help you understand the mechanics of translating generalized direction into specific, doable action, and good directors will speak only in such terms. Anything else, though often well intentioned, perpetuates the myth that acting is probably an unlearnable art; that it is mystical, ephemeral, and can only be mastered through closing one’s eyes, rolling the dice, and praying not to land snake eyes.

Aside from being a fundamentally flawed strategy, this line of thinking disempowers all who see it as normal.

Unproven dicta, such as “just listen,” “build the chemistry” and “it’s all in the eyes” are additional clich├ęs eroding actors’ common sense understanding that acting is not a guessing game, that it should be doable, and that doing is everything. None of the above suggestions can be done, and certainly not to a point where everyone would agree on the actual result. Even listening has sub-considerations, such as “What do you want?” “What is your opinion of what you just heard in that moment?” and “Are you getting closer to/further away from your objective as a result?” Reactions and feelings in the moment are the reflexive result of things being done by us, and done to us.

Doing is everything.

It is very easy to hear sounds and make facial expressions indicating that you have been affected, but knowing what you want, and having opinions of everything you hear makes listening more real for your scene partner, more engaging to the audience, and of paramount importance, more doable by you.   

A great director may inadvertently teach you a tremendous amount about acting. A great teacher may inadvertently give you a stellar direction in a scene. But it is incumbent upon neither to do the other person’s job whilst attempting to do their own. The fact that many teachers and directors are confused on this point is evident in much of the advice offered to actors these days, from both fields.

The terrific advice of Sanford Meisner, that acting is “living truthfully in imaginary circumstances” is useless without the specific exercises he taught to ensure that such a generalization could actually produce the “truth” he so passionately advocated. Stanislavsky’s assertion that, “The person you are is a thousand times more interesting than the best actor you could ever hope to be,” is icing on the cake of his “system” designed to help you do, through techniques such as objectives, given circumstances, and sense memory. David Mamet and William H. Macy’s method of script analysis though Practical Aesthetics repeatedly emphasizes viewing the work stoically and finding the achievable action in order to provide a foundation for Mamet’s advice in “True and False” to “invent nothing, deny nothing, speak up, stand up, stay out of school,” which would otherwise be a catchy quotable sound bite, but ultimately hollow, useless advice.

Declan Donnellan in “The Actor and the Target” coined the term “unuseful truths,” and suggested that when viewed as the garnish rather than the meal, there is nothing wrong with hearing, or even repeating them. Treating such truisms as some kind of panacea for what ails your acting though is incredibly dangerous, since each one seems to promise that its pat and pithy structure holds a deeper meaning. Yet with no clear instruction on how to actually enact them, we are left worse off than we were before they entered our ear. Much like someone advising that, “Happiness is simply a matter of being true to oneself,” it draws our attention to an ideal we now have no idea how to personally attain, due to the advice’s lack of specifics.

The antidote to such deceptive sound bites in acting is the kind of specific instruction one can easily understand, successfully interpret, and finally, competently do.

Next time you hear a teacher or director describe acting in generalized terms, make it easy on yourself and ask instead: “What am I doing?” If you can’t say it, you’re certainly not doing it. The problem is not that you haven’t “dropped it in,” “kicked it up a notch,” or “really opened up.” The problem is that you don’t know what to do.

Work out what to do, and then do it.  Doing is everything.

Like this advice? Read more from our Backstage Experts!
Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher and Backstage Expert. For more information, check out Barry’s full bio!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Unite Against Corruption

Producer/Director: Michael Chua, Script: Michael Chua/Phil Gruber, DOP: Mark Song.

Our entry for CPIB's (Corrupt Practice Investigation Bureau Singapore) "Unite Against Corruption" Video Competition has won the Merit Award for the Open category. (Shouldn't it be called the "Meritorious Award"?)

Our main message is that if corruption goes unchecked,  ultimately everyone gets screwed. The challenge was to have the video suggestive enough and yet not judgmental or crude.  I think we got the balance just about right to get the message through.

This is the first video I have produced, directed, scripted and acted in. All in one go!!! :) 

Production went quite smoothly. We had difficulty getting a pair of handcuffs, as it is illegal to do so, so we made do with a toy version, but sand papered the gloss down to make it look metallic and real. The Lady-In-Red scene was captured in Joo Chiat, amid the sleazy bars and Vietnamese streetwalkers, to some degree of awkwardness. lol. But all in the name of fighting corruption and for a good cause!! :)

The prize presentation will be held on Saturday, 13 December 2014 during CPIB’s Roadshow at HDB Hub Mall.

Help us win the Viewer’s Choice Category !!!!!!!

Go to CPIB's Youtube channel and 'Like' our video, click here.



Friday, August 29, 2014


Utter 2013. Penghulu. Adapted from Pak Suleh (from Penghulu) by Suratman Markasan. Director: Lilian Wang.

This was my first gig in Malay, and since then, I had done other such roles in several short films, including one for Utter 2014.

Thankfully, I still remember enough of the language to plod my way with in Malay. My earliest encounter with the language was when I was four years old, when I watched "Bahasa Kenbangsaan" (National Language) on TV, just before the cartoon telecast. In my school days, everyone had to study Malay - our National Language (and still is)! :) Back then, Chinese people mostly spoke Malay to the other races and among themselves, they spoke their own Southern Chinese dialects of Teochew, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese,... etc. Only the folks in Chinese medium schools spoke Mandarin, and then, in its uncorrupted form! 

I am glad to have lived through the era of linguistic diversity in Singapore. There was more character and the different languages curiously relay emotions specific to each ethnic group.

Then in the late 70s, there were grand efforts by the government to standardise the spoken language among the Chinese to Mandarin; while English rapidly moved to centre stage. By 1980, Malay was relegated to be spoken mostly among the Malays.

Today, young Chinese speaks only Mandarin and English (well kinda, more so Singlish). Japanese, Korean and other Asian language dramas are allowed on TV, but not Chinese dialect dramas. Mandarin is now officially my 'mother tongue', though my mother doesn't speak a word of Mandarin. Meanwhile people from China now purportedly speak better mother tongue than I do in my mother country Singapore. Isn't it funny?! lol

The 1970s was also the era when many Singaporeans were evicted from their kampong dwellings of attap huts and patchy agricultural subsistence, to (in comparison) sterile government built apartments that now dots the Singapore skyline. Those were major changes to move from literally living on the ground to living in suspended concrete dwellings in the sky.

"Penghulu" depicts such maladjustments of a village chief, who laments the change and the lost of his familiar casual and happier days in the village. I like the screenplay very much as it captured the slow soothing life of the Penghulu and contrasts it to his mundane and sedate life in the modern apartment.

Nostalgia is sweet, however be careful... as it can also rob us of our present.

Here is the trailer for this year's Singapore Writer's Festival...

If you like to watch some of my Hokkien short films, click here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Production company: Mythopolis Pictures. Producer: Genevieve Woo. Director: Tony Kern.

"Afterimages"  is one of the few Singapore-made horror movies screening this year. 
It will premiere on the 10th of September 2014 in Singapore - just after the Chinese Seventh Month for the Hungry Ghosts.  

I haven't watched them yet, but will do so on the 10th.

A FREE pair of tickets will be given to whoever answers ALL the following 5 questions correctly AND register his/her email address (near the top of page of this blog).

[1] How many 'short stories from Hell' are there in "Afterimages"?

[2] When will "Afterimages" be screened to the public?

[3] Name the famous radio DJ who is in the movie?

[4] Which is the other horror movie Tony Kern directed? 

[5] Which floor did the female character in the movie jumped down from?


This quiz is only opened to people based in Singapore or can make it to the Premiere.

Date: 10th SEP 2014
Time: 9PM
Place: Cathay Cinema, Handy Road, Singapore.
There are only 3 pairs of tickets up for grabs. Hurry!


For more information about the movie, click here.

Monday, August 11, 2014


This is a short story of a taxi driver uncle and his tipsy girlfriend from China, heading for the local "mama shop"; thereafter giving the mama a difficult time and making a mess of his place.

"Mama shops" are the little Indian neighbourhood convenient stalls commonly found in Singapore. "Mama" means 'uncle' in Tamil.

This is a fun 4-minute video, directed by Dylan Tan and Caleb Lee as the DP.

The shop has character, complete with real Indian flower garlands. Nothing there were film props! :)

As luck had it, while we were filming, there was another show going on nearby - a getai - a street concert staged during the Chinese Seventh Month Hungry Ghost Festival. Isn't the cultural diversity wonderful in Singapore? :)

Capturing clean sound was hell though! 

And here is everyone in the team...

I will post the finished works here when it is available. Watch this space. Or you can follow this blog by email and you will be informed of any updates.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Kopi-O Kosong

This a film made under Singapore's Cine65 Mentorship Programme 2014, where four scripts are chosen among many applications. Each group of students is to produce a film that expresses the Singaporean identity, mentored by an industry veteran.

Kopi-O Kosong is a Singaporean term for Black Coffee without milk and sugar. There are plenty of variations as to how you want your coffee to be in Singapore. It is quite involved and complicated and would require a separate post altogether.

Here is the short film...

Thursday, June 26, 2014

My Wine Kaki This Week

Kaki means 'leg' in Malay. However, "Wine Kaki" does not mean 'Wine Leg', but 'Wine Buddy'. Similarly, "Hentak Kaki" does not mean 'Shock Leg', but about one 'hitting the glass ceiling'. Wine making is my other love next to acting and film making. :)

This week, I share my grape wine with my friend Gillian Tan at Tiong Bahru, after the shoot for the Singapore Writer's Festival's "Tin Kosong", directed by Saniff Olek.

Here's a trailer of Utter 2014, which "Tin Kosong" is part of.

Watch this space for the next edition of "My Wine Kaki This Week!"