Stage Fright: What an Acting Coach Can Teach Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) speaks during his debate with Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L). | Photo: STF/AFP/GettyImages
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) speaks during his debate with Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L). | Photo: STF/AFP/GettyImages

Barack Obama, meet Brad Heller.

After the debacle of a presidential debate last night in which Mitt Romney ran roughshod over a strangely inert Obama, I found myself fantasizing about introducing the president to a kind of advisor he's likely never considered: an acting coach. In politics that may seem redundant -- it's all theatre, right? Especially campaigns, and most especially presidential debates, which are quite literally staged. Overhyped clashes that are all performance.

But as every actor knows, even the most scripted performances require soul and passion. Truth is in the delivery. Whatever's coming out of your mouth, it has to be connected to something in your gut or in your heart; something must be driving you forward. This forward energy almost had Romney leaping over the podium at points (despite the lies that were most certainly coming out of his mouth). President Obama, by contrast, lacked that forward motion, or any motion, to an almost pathological degree. It's more than ironic considering that Obama's campaign slogan for 2012 is "FORWARD."

I have several theories about what happened -- Obama was complacent about his lead in the polls, he was striving to look presidential, he was assiduously avoiding coming off as an angry black man and alienating that mythical but critical group of white (read: independent) voters who haven't made up their minds. Basically he was trying to look like he didn't need the job, an attitude actors are often told to adopt when they go on auditions. That attitude didn't work last night, to say the least.

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This is where Brad Heller comes in. He's an actor and teacher who runs classes out of Two Roads Theater on Tujunga Boulevard in Studio City. I became a student years ago after writing a story for the LA Weekly about my husband, a long-aspiring actor who finally agreed to take a class for the first time and see what happened. My husband chose Brad's class out of the hundreds in L.A. somewhat randomly, although its philosophy, "Acting Without Agony," did sound very appealing. My husband took to the class, and so did I. I'd had plenty of acting instruction, but what I liked best about Brad's teaching style was his mix of straightforwardness -- no Method-like mumbo jumbo -- and attention to detail about what actors are doing on stage. He insists that whatever you're doing up there, always be clear on two things: emotion and objective.

These were just the two elements Obama was missing, while Romney had them in almost gleeful abundance (emotion was eagerness; objective was, crush Obama at all costs). Obama proceeded from his head, his data, and his intellect, but all that together doesn't really add up to being human. Though I sensed that humanness stifling itself almost instinctively, snuffing itself out at key moments. Restraint seemed part of Obama's strategy of connecting with voters, which can work only if it's clear that something's boiling underneath that restraint. Let's just say there was no boil, or even a simmer.

Brad says that the most common -- and most destructive -- habit that actors have is a tendency to observe themselves on stage. The second you do that you're out of the moment, he says, and out of the connection. Though we're strictly talking about a one-on-one debate here, the bigger context is that President Obama is always on stage, always being observed by the public, always being watched through a special lens of scrutiny reserved for black people. In the last four years he's had to observe all the observations and often respond to them. How to ignore all those layers and let some bit of the "real" Obama come through in the next couple of debates, I don't know. He should talk to Brad.

One thing I know Brad would tell him is that successful acting -- being real and spontaneous in the artificial setting of a stage -- involves taking a risk. By not risking anything yesterday, Obama gained nothing, and lost quite a bit. Just ask my husband.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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