By Harris Allgeier
CHESTERTOWN, MD—The Washington College Drama department hosted veteran Hollywood production manager Robert Bella on campus for a week in April to lead acting workshops with students. The first session, on Tuesday, April 3, focused on the acting philosophies of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, whom Bella studied with for several years. In a Thursday night session on Acting for the Camera, Bella shared strategies and techniques for film and television acting.
Bella is a founding member of Mamet’s much acclaimed Atlantic Theater Company. For the past six years he has worked in Los Angeles as a post-production supervisor, overseeing the process of turning the raw footage accumulated during months of shooting into the finished products that hit the silver screen. In L.A., he’s a known commodity. Just this year, three of the movies he worked on saw Oscar nominations (The Help, War Horse and Real Steel).
The workshop that Bella conducted on Tuesday focused on Mamet’s “Practical Aesthetics” acting method. Bella explained to the room of roughly a dozen students what drew him to Mamet and his ideas on acting. “My frustration as I was studying acting at NYU,” he said, “was that I was told time and time again to believe I was a character and to control my emotions. Which, if you think about it, is really impossible for anyone to do consistently. Acting needs to be rooted in the tangible, something that’s physically capable of being done. If you pursue a physical objective, your emotional life will take care of itself.”
Bella led several students through a set of exercises with energetic aplomb. The actors were encouraged to remove the burden of pushing a scene forward from themselves and to “live in the moment” by focusing on and responding to everything their partner did. The activity onstage gradually grew in scope, beginning with students making simple observations of physical truths about one another and culminating in several dramatic interpretations of the Trayvon Martin story currently in the headlines. (Martin is the black youth shot and killed by neighborhood-watch member George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida.)
Bella was quick to caution students against trying to “get it right.” “We live in a superficial world where there’s supposed to be only one way that’s the right way,” he said. “We let ourselves be defined by external pressures. Don’t. There are as many ways as there are people. Or conversely, there’s only one way, and that’s yours.”
“Acting for the Camera” focused on not only the basic differences between performing for the camera versus a live audience, but also on specifics tricks of the trade seasoned professionals use to enhance their screen presence.
Bella repeatedly emphasized the importance of being aware of the camera. “In theater your audience is all around you,” he said. “In film that audience is wherever the camera is.” He gave tips on how to alter the same performance for differing camera angles and focus. “Understanding the frame is part of your job as an actor, and to be successful you should learn to be aware of the shot and how to modulate yourself for it.”
For the workshop, a single camera was hooked up to a large T.V. screen. Students performed in pairs, one sitting in front of the camera and the other off camera as a stand-in for the performing student to deliver lines to. In between takes, Bella offered advice. “Most film acting takes place in the face, specifically with the eyes. You’d be amazed at what you can communicate with a simple downward glance. On film, even the act of blinking becomes a powerful choice.”
Bella also discussed the importance of acting efficiently. “In Hollywood, shooting can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 a minute. Unless you’re Harrison Ford, the people behind the cameras want you to get on and nail it on take one so they can do 20 with Mr. Ford,” Bella explained. “There’s no greater compliment in the industry than going on for one take and being told you’re done. The director loves you for saving time, the producers love you for saving money, and the crew loves you because you let them get home a little earlier.”
Bella concluded the workshop with advice from David Mamet “As you get better and better at this you make the difficult easy, and the easy habitual, and at some point your habits will be beautiful.” His visit was made possible by the Visiting Artist Endowment established by Edward Maxcy, an arts supporter and former administrator at the College.
Harris Allgeier ’14 is a double major in English and drama who participated in the Robert Bella workshops. Photo of Robert Bella by Ronald Butler.