Direct And To The Point: Specifically Sexy

In any given system, the better the input, the better the output. You ask the right questions, you get the right answers. You give the right note, (in theory) the better the actor is able to implement it. Now granted, when you’re trying to communicate something you may think you’ve described it with absolute clarity but your recipient may have no idea what you’re talking about, so a dialogue between both parties is clutch for ensuring that the message you think you’ve sent is actually the message that’s been received. This whole process works better if we are specific with our language.

One particular concept which might feel specific but is actually incredibly vague is the word “sexy”. This includes any note like “do you have anything sexier?” (with regard to audition material), “she needs to be more appealing”, “can you seduce him more?”. (This is just one example. The word “funny” is another. I’m sure there are many. But for this post I’m going to focus on “sexy”.)


There’s no one set way to be sexy. If there were, we would all just do that and everyone would sexy to everyone all the time. Which sounds kind of fun until you realize that this would mean your husband/wife now finds that person you can’t stand equally as attractive as you. Suffice it to say, sexy comes in many different forms. When the feedback that goes into the system is solely “be sexier”, it often results in attempting to do our best imitation of someone widely considered to be sexy. Maybe we speak a little lower or we make our voice a little breathier. Maybe we twirl our hair, or make more eye contact, or smile more. But those are general attempts, rather than a specific embodiment.

I would argue that people are not sexy. People exhibit certain qualities which we as the viewer (or the scene partner) then find enticing. If you’ve read Robert Greene’s The Art of Seduction (not as steamy as it sounds, but very interesting food for thought), this is largely what he’s talking about. Sexy is the result, but not the cause. It results because of other characteristics. Perhaps the character is sexy because of their confidence, or their innocence, or their intelligence, or some kind of impressive skill. They can be sexy because they’re the life of the party or they can be sexy because they’re dark and brooding and just out of reach. So when we’re looking to arrive at a desired destination (sexy), we need to provide directions on how to get there. We can tell someone “bring me my pogostick” and let them hunt for it or we can say “bring me my pogostick – it’s at the back of the closet by the front door”. How to find the pogostick is crucial information. If we can articulate how a character is sexy, then achieving that becomes significantly easier.

I would also argue that sexy is a defined relationship, similar to a chemical reaction, where are parties are in agreement with regard to what the triggers are. If you pour vinegar on baking soda, there will be a reaction. You’ll see the foam bubble up instantly. If you pour vinegar on powered sugar (something that looks a lot like baking soda), all you’ll get is a really gross mess. But that doesn’t mean something was wrong with the powered sugar (or the vinegar). It just means we haven’t paired up the right chemicals to create a reaction. So, if we’re not getting the desired “sexy” effect, perhaps it’s not because the actor (male or female) is doing it wrong but because we haven’t agreed on what the make up of “sexy” should be within the given world. It has to be equal parts what-one-character-is-doing and how-the-other-character-is-responding. Both parties have to be on the same page with regard to what sexy means specifically. We want to create a situation, which is true to the text and suited to the actors, that tells the story of two characters being drawn to each other.

If you’re getting general output, refine your input. God is in the details.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more the merrier!

Direct And To The Point: A Nice Personality

There are certain actors who I regard as “plug and play”. They are very serviceable. They give a lovely, dependable performance. But I’m never surprised by their choices and I never find their performances to be terribly personal. It’s this kind of performance that feels like it could be duplicated by any number of other performers without adding or subtracting to the final product.

Then there are the performers who seem to mesh who they are with who the character is resulting in a blend that is in keeping with the story but unique to who they are as a human being. These are the performances where we can’t imagine anyone else in the role. These are the auditions after which no one else is even in the running.


There is a universal component to our emotional experiences which allows us to relate to what happens to a character. But it’s the specificity of that experience which helps us really believe that the character is having this experience. Love is an experience we all know, but we each experience love specifically. We fall in love with the way someone smells, or the funny way they laugh, or the way they pronounce the word “tortilla”. We hate specifically, becoming riled by the way our nemesis breathes, the way they shuffle their feet when they walk, their choice of syntax. Personality is a short cut to specificity. Integrating some of our own weird little quirks into the mix with the character we develop (as long as they don’t contradict the givens of the script) helps flesh out everything that the playwright couldn’t squeeze on the page. This mesh between character-as-written and actor is what creates a layered, three-dimensional performance.

A lack of personalization can obviously happen in any piece, but I think some works are more prone to it than others. When there’s a preconceived notion of how the piece should be done – based on previous productions, or even just general concepts relating to the time period of the piece – it can become a shortcut to playing a generalization rather than forming our own vision of the piece. Classical work often suffers from this. People form a notion of how classical work should sound or move without first answering for themselves how they would specifically respond to these circumstances. Similarly when something is well known you can fall into unconsciously repeating the choices of previous productions, instead of forging the path for ourselves. For example, with something like The Last Five Years, which for a decade had only one recorded version, it’s easy slip into imitating Sherie Rene Scott or Norbert Leo Butz because the interpretation that they arrived at (by really personalizing their roles) is so rich.

The other place where I think it can be difficult to find personalization is in broad comedy. In things like farce and slapstick where the physical comedy is such a key component, the specificity of that physical routine becomes choreography. It’s not dance choreography per se, but each movement has distinct requirements of which body parts should be where and a tempo at which it unfolds. The trick is to get the choreography to feel honest and true to the characters. And while this is specific and detailed work requiring impressive technical skill, I don’t think it stems from who the actor is as a person. Assuming the show has been well choreographed by both the director and the actor and goes on to be well executed by the actors, the physicality does the work. Which is fascinating given that verbal based comedy can be almost entirely tied to personality, where jokes that kill for one comedian fall totally flat for someone else. Broad comedy is one of the few types of theater where we’re not looking for the characters to be three dimensional where as stand-up demands a more personal product.

The range of roles an actor can be called on to play are almost infinite. When we look at the types of performances for which actors get Tony nominations (in theory, reflecting the performances the theater industry considers impressive), they tend to fall into two categories: roles that are technically impressive (e.g. the actor plays a zillion characters) or emotionally impressive (e.g. the actor develops a vision of the role that is rich, layered and unique). Certain roles allow for more personality than others. Certain roles demand more technical skill than others. Both of these are essential. To the extent that it’s possible, I want as much personality as possible.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more, the merrier.