Wednesday, May 03, 2006

a glimpse into the inner sanctum

This post pertains to acting class at the Mother of Invention Acting School in San Francisco (

I don't allow auditing of the class, for reasons discussed on the FAQ page of the website. There are, however, lots of ways to find out about the class. I thought I would supplement those ways by publishing here a post I wrote recently to the Yahoo Group that I use to conduct the course. It should provide a sense of my priorities as a teacher and the ways I encourage students to approach their work.

Here goes:

Hi all,

Here are some other things to consider as you approach your role:

Uta Hagen does a great job of talking about transference, so I am
just going to say a little bit about it here. A transference is an
equivalence between something in the circumstances of the character
and something from your life. You need to find transferences for all elements of
the character's experience that are not immediately familiar to you.
Uta suggests you formulate them with an equals sign, such as
Stella=my sister Elizabeth. However, she also points out that this is the end
of the story. The transferences gain traction if you bring them to
mind before you rehearse, so they are there to inform your behavior.
Then they begin to be a part of your lived experience, and deepen
through repetition. (Note: you do not think about the transference
while acting. Transference is a part of your preparation. It's a
good idea to run through your list of transference with yourself
before you rehearse and after you rehearse, and once a day when you
are not rehearsing. But while you are rehearsing, you are in the
moment, playing action towards an objective!)

Also, the best transferences are the ones that give you a moment of
"A-ha!", that actually TEACH you something about the character's
relationships or circumstances. They cause you to grasp some aspect of
the character's world in a way that you hadn't yet. Look for
transferences that make you go "Oh, now I get it!". They are the ones
that are going to take you somewhere.

Uta Hagen talks about finding transferences for people and places,
but it is also important to find them for important events in the life of
the character. In particulay, there is the type of event which I call
the gash. A gash is an event that is extremely damaging to you, and
robs of you of a big chunk of underlying objectivve. So for Blanche,
major gashes would be Allan Grey's death, having to take up at the
Flamingo, getting kicked out of the Flamingo, losing Belle Reve, etc.
She has sustained a lot of them. It's important that I find
gashes I have sustained in my own life that are somehow akin to the gashes in the text
that give me a sense of what I as Blanche lost in that moment. This is crucial for heating
up the need. Note that these transferences might have nothing to do with the
ones I am using for other people who were involved in these episodes.
So I might use my friend Ramzi as a transference for Allan Grey, but
I never drove him to suicide, so I'll find something else to use for
that, that may have nothing to do with Ramzi.

Also, gashes are a way of helping you hunt for the UO. If you
identify a gash and then ask yourself, what did I lose a chunk of
when this happened, or what did I start to bleed when this happened, the
asnwer to that question may be a UO, or at least may take you a bit
closer to articulating it.

Similarly, there are the tumors. Whereas gashes happen at discrete
moments in time, tumors are something that we live with over time. If
I am playing Stanley, I probably want to think a lot about what it
was like to grow up Polish and the kind of contempt I faced for that.
They may be specific episodes of it that count as gashes, but there
is also the lifelong attitudes I encountered in school and the
workplace that have taken their toll. I want to find a transference
for that.

Also, extremely important are the trophy moments. These are moments
or periods in the past when things I worked, I was getting my UO in spades: "the days
when we saw everything the same way and nothing was impossible and we loved each
other." If you were playing Walter, you would want to make up specific moments where
that happened, flesh them out with as much detail as you can, and then find a
transference from your ownlife that played a similar role. Trophy moments are extremely
powerful pointsof reference that we can access and try to bring our partners back to.

A note about gashes, tumors, and trophy moments: it is important not to stop at the step
of labelling a gash, tumor, or trophy moment as such. It is tempting to do so, as we then
feel like we have dealt with the circumstance somehow and gotten it off of our desks.
However, merely identifying these episodes is only sufficient in rare cases, where the
circumstacnes are so close to something you have experienced that you readily enter into
them in a total way. Most of the time, you will need to take the time to actually imagine
these events, and to find transferences for them, so that they exist for you as living parts
of your past to draw on in the scene, and not mere facts. Doing so is what I call the lonely
work of the actor, as no one can help you do it, and it can feel kind of silly or childish to
sit around and use your imagination. It's easy to feel childish and unproductive. maybe
it's easier to do while doing something else that doesn't require your full attention, like
bikeriding or knitting. But in any case, activating your imagination and getting in touch
with a child-like belief in your ability to transform and play without inhibition is what we're
after right? So take a trip to the land of make-believe. It might be a bit uncomfortable at
first, but it will get easier with time.

I mean it, really! Don't just read these suggestions, overcome your inertia and doubt and
explore the experience of the character. You may or may not reap the benefits
immediately, but that doesn't really matter. The important thing is to establish a practice
of doing this, and sooner or later it will start to work in your favor. The great critic Francis
Fergusson, in an essay on what the novelist Henry James learned from his forays into
writing drama, had the following to say:

"The actors are not there only to illustrate for us the facts of the
story, but through their make-believe to create an imagined world
for the eye of the mind to dwell upon. Good dramatic writing, like
good acting, owes much of its quality to the establishment of these
imagined perspectives behind and beyond the little figures on the

He speaks elsewhere of "great spaces of life and experience" which
exist in the characters in any good dramatic writing. Creating and
making palpable these great spaces of life is the goal of all of the
preparatory work we have been discussing. All of the who-am-I work
we have been talking about, the techniques of personalization,
particularization, and transference, are towards the end offering a sense of life, as
opposed to an empty imitation of it. We don't just want the mechanics of the story
reenacted for us; we want to feel that the people we are watching
are truly alive. That's what it's all about.

Enjoy your work!



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