Thursday, December 31, 2009

Up in the Air, or, The trouble with "watchable"

For New Year's Eve, I went with my best friend to see Up in the Air.

The film is worth seeing, firstly because it is a good script, and it is executed well. But as a connoisseur of performances, and a teacher of acting, it was valuable on an entirely different plane.

George Clooney is a (mostly) watchable actor. If you look closely you can detect the occasional false move, a slight hyperactivity in the face, around the eyes. But it's very slight, and not intrusive enough to be noisome. With a little good will, it can be easily overlooked.

What he is not, however, is a passionate actor. He is the consummate charmer, supplying a steady stream of wryness and happy-go-lucky ease, which, as it happens, is called by the role he plays in this film. However, this is a movie about a playboy who wakes up, and is supposed to have a Wile E. Coyote moment of vertiginous horror when he realizes that the ground beneath his feet is no longer there, in fact was never there to begin with. It's clearly supposed to be painful. That pain? We can infer it, but we don't get it. Clooney quite simply lacks the depth, the investment, the deep empathy for the man he is portraying and his dilemma. So while the story is told skillfully enough that we understand what is happening to him, and can even sympathize, we don't get to feel what he feels.

We do get to feel something, though. And that is mostly due to the radiant work of his co-star, Vera Farmiga. She manifests a genuine fondness for Clooney's character that is the steady undercurrent of the movie. It is a fondness that knows its limits, to be sure, but it is undeniably there. She manages to offer him empathy, compassion even; she is generously willing to overlook his limitations, which she is quite clear about. The passion and care that she brings to her role make the movie a satisfying experience, regardless of the other assets and liabilities of the film as a whole.

The difference between Farmiga's performance and Clooney's provides a perfect opportunity to talk about the trouble with "watchable". As I stated previously, Clooney is a watchable actor. What does this mean? He refrains from doing anything patently false. He is not overwrought. He does not visibly strain. In his manner of relating to his fellow actors, he does no violence to our sense of truth. We will not wince watching George Clooney.

However, he lacks killer instinct. He does not go for the jugular. He does not play to win. He is not bold. Now, an excess of boldness in the absence of the "truthiness" that he provides, in the absence of the ease, the grace, the savoir faire, the letting-the-action-fit-the-word-and-the-word-the-action would grate. We would recoil from it as "bad" acting, as overacting, as a big pile of fail. One thing we all know about acting is that overacting is bad. Visible strain, exaggeration, and theatrically magnified behavior are to be avoided at all costs. But the naturalness that Clooney delivers, while it may put as at ease and make us feel safe in watching what happens, does nothing to challenge us, to unsettle us, to be Kafka's axe that breaks up the frozen sea within. It is, in short, underwhelming.

Ms. Farmiga, on the other hand, walks the tightrope of providing BOTH boldness and truth. She can make herself vulnerable without losing her balance, her poise, her responsiveness. She demonstrates what Artaud termed "an affective athleticism".

One of the many challenges of teaching acting is to induce students to develop in both registers at once. They need to be real and truthful, but they also need to be bold and CARE a lot, as much as they possibly can. Allowing them to develop one of these capacities without simultaneously cultivating the other one is like teaching a piano student to play only with her right hand. When she finally starts to use her left hand, it will be WAY behind the curve.

Boldness and truthfulness need not be opposing variables; in a well-developed talent, they complement and support each other. A sense of what is at stake reinforces the need to respond in a truthful way, and careful attention to the reality of the character's situation should promote greater care for, and investment in, the character's reality. However, it is not a given that the two values exist in a synergistic equilibrium; such a dynamic balance is an ideal which must be attained anew, again and again, in every role the actor takes up.

your task, should you choose to accept it

is to write an About Me page for your (possibly not yet existing) personal website, on a par with this one, belonging to my old, old OLD friend Kevin Free (luv ya, Kevin! ;)).

This blog post will self-destruct in ten seconds. (Not really, just trying to rock the Mission Impossible thing for all it's worth.)

(If you do write an About Me page, please post it in the comments!)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Hugh Grant: theater is mostly boring

From the Guardian theater blog last week, Hugh Grant sez:

"I personally find going to the theatre is enjoyable about one time in 20", he told World Entertainment News Network (WENN) last week. "The other 19 you're just going, 'Oh, come on. Let's get to the end of it and have a drink'"

I am not a particularly big fan of Hugh's, but I think he is right here. A genuinely GREAT evening at the theater, an evening that you like so much that you dread it ending, is exceedingly rare. Most of the time, an evening at the theater involves shifting uncomfortably in your seat, looking at the clock, fanning yourself with the program, watching other people watch the play, assessing the light plot, exchanging looks of bafflement and despair with your companions, and a final dash for the exit.

This malady is uniquely the theater's. Most people will not have a problem leaving a movie or an art exhibition they dislike. But leaving a play while it is in progress is something many if not most people find to be a tall order. Add to that fact this, from the Guardian theater blogger:

The level of engagement – and fiscal investment – needed for a night at the theatre is often much greater than that demanded by listening to an album, watching a film or reading a book. The frustration caused by having to disengage with it once you've realised it's not your cup of tea – walking out at the interval instead of turning it off or flinging it across the room – is greater still.

It all adds up to a recipe for not going to the theater at all, which is a choice that many people make.

And what is the reason for all these heaping piles of fail? Why is the theater so distinctively, pervasively, ubiquitously boring, excepting the very occasional, very exceptional success? I think there are several possible reasons.

The first, and the one that gets most often overlooked, is that doing theater well is very, very difficult. In particular, acting in theater well is very, very difficult. Acting well enough to sustain the genuine interest of a few hundred people for a period of two hours give or take is very, very difficult. With film and television, the actor only needs to get something right once. Budget permitting, actors in film can attempt a sequence many times, and as long as one of the takes is in the ballpark, all is well. The theater actor needs to be able to repeat something again and again, preserving the integrity of the performance without losing the freshness. In addition, much of the acting that film actors do is in close up, so they are not obligated to remain engaged with their whole bodies at every second of a scene in the way that the theatrical situation requires. Being alive from the neck up is a lot easier than being alive from head to toe. Also, actors in film commonly only need to act for a minute or two at a time, whatever the length of an individual take. Actors in the theater need to be able to stay invested in scenes for much longer stretches than film actors generally do. Further, film editors can and do cover up a multitude of sins. Bad acting can be edited around, and musical underscoring can be used to provide an emotional hit that the actor falls short of supplying. With the theater, as powerful as design and production values can be, a show lives or dies by the acting, assuming a decent script. The actors have to be GOOD ENOUGH to make us, the audience, FORGET OURSELVES and WONDER ABOUT what will happen next TO THEM. No mean feat, to say the least. Everyone has cares of their own to worry about, and an actor has to be very good indeed to get people to suspend their egocentric preoccupations and CARE about what is happening on the stage.

I spoke once with Richard Gilman about the pervasive badness of the theater, and the reasons why we find it so unendurable. He remarked that we find bad theater particularly unendurable because of the real presences involved. When we are watching a bad play, not only is it bad, but there are REAL PEOPLE in front of us engaged in being bad, in failing, in flailing, in sucking, so to speak. At a movie, not so: the people on the screen may be bad, but because they are NOT REALLY there, because they are nothing more than the effect of light projected through moving plastic onto a screen, we can be more at ease with them. The fail is not as relentlessly in our faces as it is in the theater. We feel removed, we feel protected, we feel detached. We seem not to feel as implicated in the failure. We find the failure easier to accept.

The sheer difficulty we become accustomed to if we go to the theater with any regularity, the difficulty of sitting in the real presence of people failing, though, makes the appearance of something that is genuinely good in the theater, something genuinely fresh and compelling over a sustained period of time, a true miracle. As we watch it unfold, we pinch ourselves in disbelief. We expect another shoe to drop. We expect things to fall apart. We feel certain that the center cannot hold, and yet somehow it does. We watch a group of actors give birth to the impossible. Jaded old theater maven that I am, I have left theaters in Vienna, in New York, and in San Francisco with the exuberance of a child, ready to sing hallelujah to the mountain tops like Julie Andrews at the beginning of The Sound of Music. That kind of experience is something most of us had in our childhoods when attending a play, and having had it, we are very, very reluctant to give up on it altogether. So we gird our loins and head once more into the breach, dear friends, once more, knowing what likely awaits us, the ennui, the soul-killing tedium, the desperation for laughter and applause on the part of the performers, but hoping, hoping against hope, that this time might be different. And every once in a while, everyone once in a great while, every once in a blue moon, it is.

david byrne's diy rant

Read it here.

I get where he's coming from. Things stand the test of time for a reason, that I do believe, but with a $32 million dollar budget for a production of the Ring Cycle when funding for the arts in many LA public schools has been virtually eliminated or eliminated in fact, the time is out of joint.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

you need to call the psychiatric answering machine

the guardian's best theater blogs of 2009

This article in the Guardian UK links to some terrific blogs about theater. So many blogposts, so little time...

Monday, December 28, 2009

aspiring filmmakers take note

Hat tip to Zoo O for sending me this LA Times article. It's about Scott Cooper, the first-time director of the new film Crazy Heart The critics can't stop effusing about the performances of Jeff Bridges and others in the film.

And who is this first-time director who has gotten these great performances from his actors, and where did he come from? Turns out, he's an actor.

From the LA Times article:

Scott Cooper, who after working in TV and film for more than a decade as an actor has suddenly made a splash as the rookie writer-director of "Crazy Heart."

And, it turns out there is plenty of good precedent for actors turning into great directors:

For years, thousands of young Hollywood wannabes have been paying top dollar to get a film school education, figuring that it is the best way to break into the movie business. But it turns out that if you want a career as an admired filmmaker, one of the shortest lines to success is to put in some time working as an actor. If you study the Oscar history books, it is nothing short of remarkable how many great films over the last few decades have been made by directors who began their careers as actors.

The article presents an impressive list of luminary directors that started out as actors, such as Clint Eastwood and Sean Penn. It mentions some less famous ones as well, such as Tom McCarthy, who made The Station Agent, and who was two years ahead of me at the Drama School, in the acting program.

The article suggests that the experience of acting is invaluable for putting a film together:

Having often spent years working out scenes in acting classes and observing great filmmakers on movie sets, actors have a keen eye and ear for the right rhythm and tone that help form the creative architecture of a good movie.

Scott Cooper himself concurs:

"I think actors make good directors because they understand behavior," says Cooper, 39...

More than once I have been approached by a filmmaker about taking my classes. They say something like "I learned a lot in film school about blocking a scene and placing the camera, but I didn't really learn very much about acting." And these are the more conscious ones. I have also encountered filmmakers who are completely ignorant about acting, and don't even know they're in the dark.

The article talks a bit about how Cooper went about making the movie, and apparently, he kept his mind very open:

During filming, Cooper was a sponge, listening to anyone with a good idea, especially one that lent more grit to the story. In the opening of the movie, we see Bridges pull into town in his woebegone '78 Chevy Suburban, emptying a Sparkletts bottle full of urine in a parking lot. "That came from Stephen Bruton," says Cooper, referring to the recently deceased country singer -- a mainstay in Kristofferson's band -- who worked on much of the film's music with Burnett. "He said he'd often drive 300 miles between gigs and he needed to find a way so he never had to stop to take a [leak]. So, man, that felt so perfect. It went right into the movie."

I have written previously about the director/actor relationship, and I would wager that Cooper's open mind comes from his life experience as an actor. He undoubtedly worked for many directors who thought they knew best and didn't need input from anyone else. In the post I wrote, I invoke William Ball, the founder of ACT, to show just how wrong-headed this attitude was. Unfortunately, it is about as pervasive as it is misguided. So pervasive is it that Ball dedicated his book, in which he argues for the urgency of directors behaving respectfully and with deference towards actors, "to the well-being of actors everywhere."

You just don't get a steady stream (no pun intended) of great ideas like the urine bottle above unless you give heed to the ideas of other people, as well as your own. So aspiring directors out there: take some time to find out how the other half lives. No question you will be the better for it.

Guest Post: Tension—not too much, not too little

I am a proud evangelizer of the Alexander Technique as a way for actors to develop greater body-mind integration. I asked Bay Area Alexander teacher Constance Clare to write a piece on how she uses the Alexander technique to work with actors. Here it is!--Andrew

When I teach the Alexander Technique to an actor, the student and I choose which aspect of the work to focus on.

The most common starting point is teaching the student how to come to a balanced neutral. Not too much tension, and not too little. Just the right amount of tension creates a lively, dynamic state of being.

Cultivating this dynamic neutral usually means that the student needs to “relax” some parts of herself and enliven other parts. Most people have habits and patterns of posture, movement, gesture, breath and voice that are out of balance.

As the student and I explore the student’s “postural set” we find out where the bones are mis-aligned and where the muscles, tendons and ligaments can release out of either tightening or collapsing. We look in the mirror to see the postural set and how it changes with my hands-on guidance. As muscles release into length and lively tone, the bones find a more efficient balance. It’s typical for students to feel “weird” or like they are almost falling forward when they come out of their habitual postural pattern. Often when I ask about that feeling, it’s a “good weird” or a “floaty falling” sensation.

The use of hands is one way that an Alexander lesson is different from other methods or techniques in actor training. As the student learns to refine her kinesthetic and proprioceptive senses, she is able to work with the principles on her own. But at first the teacher’s hands help the student understand the teacher’s verbal guidance, and help her actually experience her own proprioceptive sensations.

As students progress, we work on releasing excess tension in action. Here’s a typical example:

Mark is learning a role that requires anger and upset. As Mark goes over his lines for the first time in his Alexander lesson, he pushes his face forward and contracts his jaw and neck muscles. He is over-acting because he is over-efforting. His lines are strong enough; he doesn’t need the extra tension. The tension causes his voice to rise. The tension in his face and jaw make his expression look forced.

I suggest that he try the lines while staying in a more neutral state, as I use my hands to help him notice what he is doing muscularly with his neck and jaw. I suggest that he let the lines evoke some of that anger in him, but not force it.

This time, Mark’s voice is fuller, he becomes more intimidating as he retains his stature and his strength without contracting. Dynamic tension is there, but it is there in the right amount.

Another common Alexander lesson is in the realm of excess preparation before an activity. Before speaking or moving, actors will often “prepare” themselves by contracting and “getting ready”—thereby coming out of their neutral state.

Marla is working on a new monologue. Marla begins from a dynamic neutral state of being ready for action, but whenever Marla starts to speak, the area just under her skull at the top of her neck contracts. As I work with Marla, I put my hands gently on the back of her neck, where most people have excess tension. My hands helps her to notice when the muscles contract. Marla practices not tensing as she begins to speak. She continues to notice the area under her skull and can begin feel it tense even when my hands are not there.

I have her practice speaking without any concern for what her words mean. She counts to ten. Marla needs to soften and slow down so much that she feels like she is slurring, but we get her to make sounds without activating those necks muscles. I then have her practice normal conversation. She slows down to about 70% of her normal speaking pace, and I encourage her to allow her skull to be mobile as her neck remains free of extra tension as she speaks. When her neck muscles are too tense, her skull won’t move. When she has released some of the tension, she lets her head move freely.

When we progress to speaking her lines, Marla once again goes back to tensing her neck. And now she adds a new habit—she takes a short, quick breath each time she begins.

We go back to not-tensing, and not-preparing, and this time we bring in not-gasping before the speaking. Because we’ve now been working on releasing tension while speaking, working with the breath is easier. As Marla practices not adding the extra effort of the quick intake, she continues to allow her head to float easily, her neck muscles to be long and lively, her jaw to be easy and mobile. It is a lot to think about! Changing ingrained habits takes time, but more than that, it takes awareness and clarity of intention.

Marla now can speak her lines without excess tension, and her whole state of being shows the change. Her voice is clear and not rushed or raised. The lack of excess tension and effort shows in her spontaneous choice to move with her lines, which excites her. With more openness, she feels a fuller expression and more freedom as she explores her role.

best comment of 2009

Jenny Bennett, daughter of the magnificent Robin Bennett, made this comment on Facebook in response to my post the actors in the hallway

Amen, brother. Hallway actors at auditions drive me nuts. They're also the ones who'll pepper everyone with questions about 'How'd it go', 'Did you (= 'Should I') use an accent?' ( or do people talk just like I normally do in a hallway in 21st c NYC, in a play set in 18th century Georgia? But they didn't read the play, so how would they know?), 'I'm just gonna do it funny, you know?', 'Were they nice?', etc. before going in and shouting their way through, mistaking volume for intention and insouciant disregard of craft for presence, operating as if they can find some loophole in the process that will compensate for their lack of preparation so as to hold the process accountable when they inevitably don't book it.

As righteous a rant as I've seen in many a year. And concise to boot! Not to mention funny! Props to Jenny. Would LOVE to see her play Beatrice!

teaching empathy: THEY'RE DOIN IT WRONG

This piece is a good kick in the stomach.

The parents described in that piece are not teaching anyone empathy. It doesn't sound like they even know what it is themselves.

Come spend ten weeks with me. I'll teach you empathy.

how to detect a lie

Although a person lying to someone else in real life is not exactly the same as an actor not fully entering into the situation of the scene, there are a lot of affinities. Many of the tells outlined in this video also show up in scene work. Notice particularly what he says about the liar placing something between himself and his listener, touching his nose or hair (a big one!), engaging in erratic eye behavior (I wrote about the importance of eye contact here) and producing unnatural speech.

Chicago is a theater town, and how, part II

Francis Sadac, a Chicago theater and culture blogger, has published his top ten theatrical happenings for 2009. Wow. I could never handle the cold, but it does sound like an INCREDIBLE array of yummy stuff. Looking forward to reading more from Francis.

Read the prequel to this post here.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

announcing: actingbiz

What's actingbiz?

My new hobby/passion/obsession is social media. I've become quite the twitterhead. In the process, I have come across a number of blogs that pertain to the business of acting: getting work, and everything connected with getting work. I have started to collect the feeds from these blogs (if I am losing you, don't worry) in a folder on Google Reader, and I have created a public page for this folder, which I linked to above.

On that page, you can see the most recent entries from the blogs whose feeds I have collected in the folder. You can scroll through them, and if something interests you, you can click on the title of it and read the original item on the blog in question. It's another way to keep your ear to the ground.

I'll be adding more relevant blogs to the page as I come across them.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

best of this blog for 2009

Here are my personal favorites, in no particular order:

Friday, December 25, 2009

Frisco Christmas Lights

This is mostly cool because of the music. It's a song called Wizards of Winter by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

if hemingway had written Twas the Night Before Christmas

I really don't like Twas the Night Before Christmas. It's one of my least favorite Christmas traditions.

However, this James Thurber parody of Ernest Hemingway telling the story of the night before Christmas is another matter.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"The Top Ten Years of the Decade"

I wish I could say that I came up this myself. It was Dr. Aristophanes at Sadly, No, which is the best name for a blog EVAH!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

what happens when French business school students have too much time on their hands

must-read article on the vital role of failure and anomaly in creativity

Reading this article gave me goosebumps, and I even started to tear up a little. Given that it's an article about failure in scientific research, that's pretty surprising.

I am going to be writing about portions of the article have to do with working on a scene in the future, but I wanted to pass the word now.

muppetastic carol of the bells

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

the true meaning of meh


"I am afraid of those who will look for tendentiousness between the lines and who are determined to see me either as a liberal or a conservative. I am neither a liberal nor a conservative, neither a gradualist nor a monk nor an indifferentist. I would like to be nothing more than a free artist, and I regret that God did not give me the gift to be one. I hate falseness and coercion in all their forms . . . . Pharisaism, stupidity and arbitrariness reign not merely in merchants' houses and police stations: I see them in science, in literature, among the young. That is why I have no particular passion for either policemen or butchers or scientists or writers or the young. I consider brand-names and labels a prejudice. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom, freedom from force and falseness in whatever form they express themselves. That's the platform I'd subscribe to if I were a great artist." --Anton Checkov

Friday, December 18, 2009

ivana chubbuck and objective

When I came across Ivana Chubbuck's book The Power of the Actor a few years ago, I was pleased: here was the first book on acting that I had seen that discusses the all-important innovation created by some of my teachers at the Yale School of Drama. The innovation has to do with the notion of objective. Objective is a concept that has been around since Stanislavsky, and it is in fairly widespread use in one form or another. The concept of objective is, most simply, this: that the actor can be liberated from self-consciousness by focusing on a goal that she, as the character, wishes to accomplish in a scene or situation. By focusing on the goal, the actor partially forgets that she is being watched, and is, as a consequence, free from the paralyzing effects of self-consciousness.

So far so good. The innovation created by David Hammond at Yale, and developed by Mark Brokaw and Evan Yionoulis, was to distinguish between two kinds of objectives: plot objectives and underlying objectives. The "plot" in plot objectives refers to the plot of a story or play or screenplay: a character's plot objectives are the changes in the world that she wishes to bring about. A plot objective expresses the way in which a character wants to change some piece of their world. Plot objectives might include getting you to buy my house, to accept my marriage proposal, to stop playing the drums at night in your room so I can have some peace and quiet, or to join me in robbing a jewelry store. All of these involve my attempting to change my circumstances for the better, or, put differently, to solve a problem. Pursuing a plot objective activates those parts of an actor that are involved in solving problems: the mind, and to some extent the heart, as often solving problems involves influencing others emotionally.

What these teachers at Yale recognized, though, is that the mind and the heart is not all there is. There is also the gut. In the gut lives the appetites, and also, our capacity for locomotion, for fight or flight (in the hips). It's entirely possible for an actor to be engaged as a problem solver, in the head and heart, and to be asleep in the gut, at the visceral level (viscera is Latin for the guts, quite literally, the bowels, so to eviscerate someone is, colloquially, to rip them a new one).

So these teachers recognized that a conception of objective as a problem that you need to solve, a change in the circumstances surrounding you, is incomplete, by itself. Solving these problems is important -- that's part of the fascination of stories, is seeing people contend with adversity. But we as spectators are not going to be viscerally engaged by this problem-solving alone.


We conceive of another type of objective. Let's call it the "underlying objective." The underlying objective is is the NEED that lives in the belly, the proverbial fire in the belly, that drives us to enter into the fray, influence people, and solve problems. It is the motor that drives us forward, the motor of appetite, hunger, need. My teachers recognized that the underlying objective was the thing that impels us to take up plot objectives, and then to put them down in favor of other plot objectives. The underlying objective is the need which stays constant, even as circumstances shift and plot objectives change accordingly. One of the consequences of this is that the underlying objective is not phrased in a way which involves another person, because other people are part of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and so an objective that involves another person will be some form of a plot objective. If my underlying objective is to get "respect as a true healer", then the plot objective "getting you, my client, to confide in me, your therapist" will give me a piece of the underlying objective, but the underlying objective is something that exists in me APART FROM who or what is around me. The changes I will seek to bring about in the world (my plot objectives) are ways of getting my underlying objective met, of ANSWERING that need. We always look for the need to be met from others, but naming the need itself is saying something about us, not about what we want other people to do.

This distinction between plot objective and underlying objective is very powerful, and it is not simple. I realize I have provided only a very preliminary sketch of it here. And I don't intend to to try to say too much more about it here, because I believe that a classroom setting is where it can be best presented and understood. Without the context of a scene and actors to work with, there is a limit to how much can be made intelligible about it. But I think I have said enough to be able to make clear what Ivana Chubbuck gets right (not that much), and what she doesn't (quite a bit).

She does say "Always Make the SCENE OBJECTIVE about Relationship, Don't Play the Plot", and with that, I am in 100% agreement. And she says that a scene objective (which is another form of the underlying objective, any distinction between them is not important here) should not be "rational" or "cerebral", that it should be "basic", "needy", and "primal". I'm down with that. She also says the scene objective doesn't change-- that's good. And that every scene has one, good too, and that it is an actor's most important tool. But that's about where my agreement with Ivana Chubbuck ends. I fundamentally disagree with her on her criteria for what makes an underlying objective. I don't want to do a big recap of her criteria for picking an objective, because I think it is mostly foolish. So I will focus on one important point: she says the scene objective (or underlying objective) should be worded in a way that requires a response. From her examples of what that would look like, I am going to go through a list of "good" scene objectives (underlying objectives) that she provides, and say specifically what I think is wrong with each of them.

  • "To get you to love me"
    The problem with this is that it describes what we want the other person to DO (love us). We want, with an underlying objective, to say what it will mean to us or give us if the other person loves us. It will give me my...(something). By knowing that we need our (something), we can constantly be monitoring in the scene to see whether the other person is giving us our "something", we can HARVEST our "something." To get the other person to love you? So what if they don't? THAT is the question an underlying objective needs to answer.

  • "To get you to give me a job"
    Plot, the whole plot, and nothing but the plot. This is nothing but an attempt to impact our circumstances, our situation in the world. It says nothing about what is AT STAKE in the situation, what it will cost us if we don't get the job, what we will GET if we do get the job. Chubbuck might argue that this is addressed in what she calls the "overall objective", but she muddles things badly by saying that the actor should not play the plot in the scene objective, and then suggesting...wait for it...PLOT scene objectives. She speaks of the need to get beyond the plot to the relationship, but her scene objectives ARE the plot.

  • "To make you validate me"
    In my class, we call "validate" "the V word." I write off "validation" as what I call "Oprah talk", which is a particular form of what Chubbuck calls the "rational" and the "cerebral". Validation is not a part of our everyday ways of describing our needs. Can you imagine any advertiser (advertisers understand all about language and the visceral) asking you to see a movie described as "one man's quest for validation"? I didn't think so. Also, we don't look on validation as a very legitimate thing to pursue: someone who needs a lot of validation is considered needy, insecure. Not buying it.

  • "To make you my ally"
    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, an objective that gets beyond the plot, whether you call it overall, underlying or scene, needs to not be phrased as a way of changing our circumstances, as changing our circumstances IS the definition of the plot. An objective that goes beyond the plot is something you can HARVEST in pursuing your plot objectives. What will you get if you make the other person your ally? Not only what will you be able to accomplish if you make the other person your ally, but what will it mean about you that you succeeded in making someone your ally? That is getting beyond the plot.

I think I've made my point. Chubbuck talks a good game about the need to move beyond the plot, that is, beyond problem-solving, but her recommendations about how to do that are confused and misleading. Getting the gut activated involves something beyond naming what you want to see other people do, and yet Ivana Chubbuck seems to think it involves precisely that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

what to do when you are not acting

Many of us have had to take on a day job unwanted obligations at some point to support our creative pursuits. This can be a drag, but there is good news: this kind of activity provides great opportunities for paying attention to habitual ways of doing things that you would like to change, and by changing, help your acting.

Suppose you are in a class and in the course of the work the teacher has called attention to a physical or vocal habit that is blocking the flow for you: preventing you, in one way or another, from fully engaging.

It might be habitual tension in your lips or jaw or brow or around the eyes. It might be a habit of standing with your hip popped to one side or the other, so that you are not over your center of gravity. It might be habitual throat tension when you speak. It might be shallow breathing. There are any number of things it could be.

These kinds of habits can seriously undermine your efforts at entering in to the moment, integrating mind and body, and going for it. The trouble is, while you are acting is not the time to put your attention on addressing these things, because while you are acting, you want the majority of your attention to be on the scene at hand, your partner, and whatever you are pursuing in the scene. You want to be ABSORBED by these things. You don't want to be thinking about your jaw or your shoulders or whatever bugaboo of habitual tension you are struggling with. So what to do?

While you are about the aforementioned "unwanted obligations" is a great opportunity to address those things. Thinking about your jaw or your breathing is unlikely to significantly detract from these things, in the way it might while you are acting. So you have the opportunity to monitor whatever the problem area is, and continually make the adjustment that is called for. In order to change a habit, you will have to notice the unwanted habit MANY MANY TIMES and make the adjustment MANY MANY TIMES before the change starts to become automatic. If you are having to give significant chunks of time to your unwanted obligations, then you have lots of time to try to address these things.

Furthermore, not only are you given the opportunity to practice noticing and adjusting, but you have the opportunity to notice and adjust WHILE DOING SOMETHING ELSE. This adjusting-while-doing-something-else is vital, because that is what you want to be doing while acting. Once you have enough awareness and facility at making the adjustment in question, you will be able to go through that process with less and less of your awareness required for it, until you can do it without skipping the proverbial beat. When you are at that point, then your acting will truly benefit. Either you will make the adjustment automatically while you act, or the process of noticing the problem and fixing it will require so little awareness as to be no intrusion at all on your primary activity of acting the scene.

Notice the role that the teacher plays in all of this: she points out some habit, brings you to an awareness of it. The bulk of the work of changing the habit is yours. There are many students who come to an acting class wanting the teacher to make them into a good actor. There is no teacher alive who can do that. Only the student brings about transformation of himself or herself. It is the ones who take charge of their own learning process, of making that process happen, that truly grow. As much as learning to act, the student needs to learn to learn to act. A student who has that is unstoppable.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Chicago is a theater town. And how.

I am visiting Chicago for the Memorial Service of my first great theater teacher, Robin Bennett. This morning I met her daughter Jenny and Jenny's partner for breakfast. When I met them Jenny handed me the copy of the Riverside Edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare that my school had won when we took our ensemble developed "Songs and Sonnets" to the Folger Shakespeare Library's High School Festival in 1988, pictured here. Apparently Robin had wanted me to have it. The place we went to breakfast was an Irish pub type place called Hackney's I believe, with lots of carved wood and ketchup bottles on the tables. It was full of people in Chicago Cubs regalia, who were headed to a football game. During the meal, the Riverside sat on the table, but I had set my black leather gloves down on top of it, obscuring the title. While we were eating, not one but TWO waitresses stopped by the table, guessed correctly what the book was based on familiarity with the decor on the binding (the title was obscured remember), and voiced their enthusiasm for its contents. Can't really picture this happening in another American city. Although I suppose we should make some allowances for the fact that the spirit of Robin Bennett was probably working her voodoo on the waitresses to make sure they noticed.

sundry digital ephemera

  • These digital drawings for the Green Movement by architect Soheil Tavakoli to honor Iran's Freedom Fighters are pretty great.

  • If you had to work for the Man, these offices would be where you'd want to do it.

  • Al Pacino is getting his Shylock on in Central Park

  • See these butterflies try to fly in space and fail massively

  • Note to self: if building a replica of San Francisco, toothpics are the wrong materials. It takes to too long (34 years)!

  • This poor slob's conjugal bed was tweeting his, uh, activities, thanks to his best man.

  • I want my own Fortress of Solitude desk. I just don't know how I can ever feel complete without one.

Friday, December 11, 2009

15 minutes a day

I didn't actually read this book, but someone explained the principle to me -- that accomplishing a little something everyday can add up to a lot -- and I embraced it, in writing my dissertation on Thomas Bernhard in German studies at Stanford, and I found it to very effective. The biggest enemy of the writer (I'll get to actors in a moment) is procrastination. The magnitude of the task at hand just feels so great, that you just don't want to start. This procrastination persists over time, and then guilt starts to set in, which in turn compounds the procrastination, and creates a vicious cycle. By telling yourself that you ONLY need to write fifteen minutes a day, and NOTHING MORE if you don't feel like it, you eliminate the difficulty with facing the daunting magnitude of taking on the whole project at once. By only needing to take on a little bit at a time, the fear factor is greatly diminished.

But there are other substantial benefits to the fifteen minutes a day plan: by staying connected, if only in a relatively small way, to the project at hand, the mind stays engaged with the project, so that when you are doing other things, washing your hair, mowing the lawn, walking the dog, a part of your mind will be chewing on the problem, even if it is not in the foreground of your mind. You will find that when you return to your writing the next day, things that may have seemed intractable or puzzling the previous day will have sorted themselves out. I used to experience this all the time when I worked as a software engineer: I would puzzle over some bug for hours, finally give up and go home, and then, over the weekend, while I was eating a hot dog or cutting my toenails, the answer would come to me, like a bolt from the blue. The thing that had eluded me was suddenly visible, and the bug dissolved before my eyes. By exposing yourself to your work on a daily basis, you keep the unconscious mind churning, and you maximize the likelihood that it will spit a solution out into your lap.

This is an extremely valuable principle for actors. I require my acting students to meet once per week to rehearse. Some of them meet more than that, but that is the minimum. Some of them end up meeting the day of class and rehearsing before the class starts. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, it sometimes means that the student is leaving the scene alone for the whole week and then taking it up only when he comes to rehearse it. He doesn't make a conscious decision to do this, but life happens, way leads on to way, and before he knows it, a week has passed and he has not thought about the scene. In that time, the scene has morphed into a foreign, unfriendly entity; the warm glow of familiarity has not been allowed to grow through repeated exposures.

Even the actor who does little outside of rehearsal but meets her partner midway through the seven days between classes to rehearse is better off, for she is re-exposed to her work every three days or so, between rehearsing and coming to class. But the best case scenario is that the actor does some work on the scene each day, even if only fifteen minutes worth. You'd be surprised at how much you can accomplish in fifteen minutes of focused work, and that does tend to accumulate quickly as the days and weeks pass. Plus, you get the enormous added benefit of staying close to your work, so that your comfort with it grows, it begins to appear less demanding and menacing, and your mind continues to chew on the problems even as you are occupied with other things.

WHAT TO DO in those fifteen minutes depends on the actor and the process she is exploring or embracing in her work. I present a framework in my class for developing a role based on the training I encountered at the Yale School of Drama, but it is certainly not the only possible framework. That is not really at issue here. What is at issue is the actor developing the discipline to stay close to his work. This, in the end, probably makes as much difference as the precise kind of work that is done in those fifteen minutes. There is a quote that is ascribed to Aristotle incorrectly; it is actually from a man named Will Durant, who was paraphrasing Aristotle : "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Sustained excellence over time depends as much on the way the actor approaches his or her task as it does on what she actually achieves in any given performance situation. Slow and steady, and all that.

This principle dovetails nicely with the principle of units initiated by Stanislavsky, today commonly referred to as "beats." Acting students everywhere are taught to break down the scene into beats, but the justification for doing so is not often explained. In the "Units and Objectives" chapter in An Actor Prepares, Stanislavsky famously used the metaphor of a large cooked turkey that needed to carved up into manageable, bite-sized portions in order to be consumed. The only way to accomplish a monumental task (like embodying a role) was to break it down into smaller ones. He wasn't taking about the rate at which these tasks are tackled, as I am in this article, but the underlying principle is the same: what seems impossible becomes possible when broken down into its constituent parts.

I will note that I do not think classes that offer the actor the chance to "come and work every day of the week" necessarily addresses the issue I am confronting here, and that is because it is imperative that the actor to develop the ability to work on his role without supervision. The input of teachers and coaches is invaluable, but an actor who relies completely on them will be in trouble when facing a difficult or incompetent director. The actor needs to make friends with working by herself, and develop confidence in her ability to do so. I am not saying it is a bad thing for an actor to go to a class every day, but doing that does nothing to bring the actor to develop creative self-reliance. Wittgenstein used a metaphor of a ladder which can be thrown away once you have climbed it to describe the role of philosophy. An actor might look at ther training ins a similar light: ultimately, she wants to reach a vantage point where she can do her work with or without the help of well-wishers and sherpas. That is the source of true creative strength.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

enough to make you wish you were in Austin

This is one of the most interesting pieces of theater criticism I've seen in a while. It's a discussion of a one-man Henry V done in Austin, Texas:

On arriving at the OffCenter and receiving my complimentary champagne (apparently there was some sort of Federal holiday on) I was informed that I would be seated. This is odd for our fringe spaces, but what the hell… not my show. I waited. And Robert greeted me and showed me to a seat of his choosing.

On setting out to perform a one man version of Henry V, Mr. Faires wasn’t pacing out back trying to find his inner Dionysus, cramming scene 4, or opening his 4th chakra, he was personally greeting and seating all 60 of his guests.

Did he then run out back to compose himself 10 minutes before curtain? No. He simply stepped on stage, surrounded by 20 of those guests, adjusted his props and began when his lights shifted.

It was a piece that could have been told in a bar by as expert a storyteller as Mr. Faires. Simply a gathering of friends who asked for that one story about the time Harry went to France.

The unpretentiousness of what is described here...I could take a bath in it. The intimacy of it, the friendliness of it, dare I say the warmth of it? The author enjoins his readers to "Stop building a monolith to yourself in every production and performance". That's what we need: fewer monoliths, more warmth.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

from the depths of the Interwebs

Saturday, December 05, 2009

(virtual) points of interest

profile in courage

We can all learn from this boy.

Friday, December 04, 2009

fox in the snow, or, playing to win

This fox holds nothing back. A model for actors everywhere.

"I don't know what to do with my hands."

This is a cry for help that comes up occasionally for acting teachers everywhere. I have a few thoughts about it.

Problems in the physical life of a scene invariably stem from a lack of clarity about the immediate potential future: more specifically, what you are looking for your partner to do and say next, but especially do. When problems pertaining to the physical life of the scene arise in class, I pose the question: what do you want to see happen next? Usually, the actor doesn't have much to say, thinks about it for a moment, and then comes up with something, but the something he comes up with is often lacking in HEAT or urgency, and it will often be of the form "I want her to say xyz". It may be true that xyz is what the actor in the scene wants to hear at that moment, but saying xyz is always a part of some larger development that will have a physical component, and getting clear about that is is the key to solving whatever is weighing down the physical life at that moment. Do you want to see the other person embrace you? Take your hands and dance you around? Leave the room? Leave the room with you? Sit down and confide in you? Once the actor has clarified this, then usually, without further ado, her body adjusts accordingly to prepare for the expected outcome. These are calculations that we make instinctively for ourselves in our own lives, but when we are pretending to be someone else, they don't always come as readily.

It's often important to be clear not only about what you want to see happen next, but what you are afraid will happen next, and what you may need to be ready to act to prevent. DO you need to stop someone from leaving the room? From picking up a gun? From leaving the bed? Clarifying these possible negative outcomes can have an equally clarifying effect on the actor's physical orientation towards the partner.

The actor is not sure what to do with his hands because he is not sure what he is waiting for or looking for to happen. She is so focused on the verbal interaction with her partner that she forgets that that verbal interaction is wrapped in a physical context. Usually, by reminding the actor of the nature of her physical engagement with her partner and her relationship to the space, her phsycal life sorts itself out.

If the actor is involved in a section of the scene where there is a back-and-forth discussion or debate or argument happening with another character, and they are in a kind of standoff, where they are confronting each other in a kind of deadlock, then there will naturally be some gesturing involved. When an actor is seeming or feeling self-conscious about these gestures, the answer is usually to clarify the desired or feared physical outcomes, as described above, and to remind the actor to consistently receive of his or her partner, which, most of the time, involves sustained eye contact. Tha partner's eyes, as I have written about elsewhere, are the surest antidote to self-consciousness. I know this from firsthand experience. When I meet prospective students for coffee, I have a "spiel" that I do for them about the purpose of the class and the expecations involved. I have been doing this pitch for five years now. I typically gesture as I speak, to help make my points, the way that people who are explaining something typically do. However, I sometimes can feel a bit of self-consciousness about my gestures: I notice that the timing of the gestures relative to the words is off somehow, and I anticipate the gesture I will be making next, which distracts me. However, I have found that if I consciously look directly into to my interlocutor's eyes, not vaguely in the direction of the eyes but right into the pupils, unwaveringly though not aggressively, then the self-consciousness vanishes. There is some vulnerability in doing that, but it's worth it: my gestures then arise spontaneouly and line up perfectly with my words, I feel myself plugged into the "flow", and I am aware of all of this without being self-conscious about it. In other words, by fully giving myself over to connecting with my partner and communicating with her, I forget about what I look like and how I am being received, and I feel free. Or, as a wise person once said, the only way out is through.

Some people need to work to develop freedom in the joints of the arms. In his "advice to the players" speech, Hamlet warns about "sawing the air too much with your hands". If the actor has not discovered the requisite freedom in these joints, his arm will move monolithically, and he will seem to be sawing the air too much. The Alexander technique can be a great help with this, and studying T'ai-Chi is also enormoulsy beneficial in developing the expressive potential of the arms and hands.

In the end, it comes down to being in the moment. Paradoxically, though, being able to be in the moment successfully as someone else usually involves thinking things through.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

from the great flux of the cosmic Web

Some points of interest that have shown up in my browser recently:

Sunday, November 29, 2009

when it's important to be an adult

Acting teachers famously emphasize the importance of "play" for actors, and rightfully so. The give and take of doing a scene involves actors "playing" off each other in the manner of jazz improvisation. Ask and answer, receive and respond. And with the advent of the nineties, we learned of the "Inner Child", that part of all of us which hungers for spontaneous, positive, playful, connected interaction with others, which many look for (and find) in acting.

However, there are aspects of an actor's work where the wisdom and insight that come with life experience are called for. Interestingly, this fact can be seen clearly through looking at a way in which adults are at a disadvantage in comparison with children There's a recent Wired Science article that reports on how children fare better in not getting tricked by optical illusions in which there is a misleading context. Consider the following:

In each of the three cases, the orange ball on the right is larger. However, in a study cited in the article, adults were more likely to be deceived by misleading contextual information than young children were.

This unusual triumph of kids over grown-ups suggests that the brain’s capacity to consider the context of visual scenes, and not just focus on parts of scenes, develops slowly, say psychologist Martin Doherty of the University of Stirling in Scotland and his colleagues. Even at age 10, children lack adults’ attunement to visual context, Doherty’s team concludes in a paper published online November 12 in Developmental Science.

As a result, visual context can be experimentally manipulated to distort adults’ perception of objects’ sizes. But Doherty’s group finds that children, especially those younger than 7, show little evidence of altered size perception on a task called the Ebbinghaus illusion.

In other words, the adult's tendency to consider context to make judgments, in this case, works against her. The scientists involved attribute this to the nature of the development of the brain, and they are no doubt right. However, I would also suggest that in general in life, assessing situations and making judgements well depends on an awareness of the importance of context, and acquiring this awareness is a part of the maturation process. Unlike the situation with this example, awareness of the value and importance of context is an enormous asset. I can remember an incident from when I was a child. It was Christmas, and my cousins and their parents had come over for the afternoon and evening. My cousins' parents were less protective than mine, and they had seen the movie Grease! I must have been 8 or 9 at the time, and my two cousins were a year older and a year younger than I was. They told me about the drive-in incident in the movie, which ends with Sandy slamming the door on Danny's "nuts", as my cousins referred to them. I understood what was meant by that, but I had no awareness of how the contexts in which this might be appropriate are limited. Within a short time, I had repeated the story for the whole company, adults and all. My cousins were mortified, which surprised me, and amused, and the adults were not pleased. In this incident, I learned something about in what contexts talk of "nuts" might be appropriate, and contexts where they aren't.

I wrote previously about what a huge role, in working on a scene, that considering the context that is invoked implicitly (not explicitly) plays. There is always some very important part of the scene that is left implicit; otherwise it wouldn't be very interesting writing. But what's the problem? My acting students are adults. They have the requisite understanding of the importance of context that will help them understand what is involved in a scene, what is at stake, and what to do with that information, right? Well, in truth, no. All of us tend to regress in unfamiliar and challenging situations, and for most people, acting, getting up in front of people and pretending to be be someone else, is an unfamiliar and challenging situation. Also, preparing to act a scene is another unfamiliar and challenging situation. Challenging for different reasons, but challenging nonetheless. In these situations, in my experience, actors often lose their hard-won sensitivity to context that they have acquired from their years living their life, and they cling to a hope that what they need to do to act the scene will be handed to them by the writer; that they only need be careful students of what the writer has laid out for them, and they will have everything they need. They seldom are able, of their own initiative, to activate their own sensitivity to context and do the imaginative work necessary to project themselves into that context and see things the way they need to so that the scene comes fully alive.

An example. A play I like to work on in the class a lot is Neal Bell's Cold Sweat. There is a whipsmart, tough woman at the center of it, lots of two person scenes, a range of types of characters for both genders, lots of wit, depth, and passion, what's not to like? There is one scene in which the main character, Alice Franklin, in a moment of crisis, goes alone to a graveyard to visit her father's grave. Her sidekick and close friend, Fay, has followed her secretly, and makes her presence known when the graveyard gates are about to close. When asked to account for how she happens to be there, Fay tells Alice that she followed her there, and when questioned on this, she says "I saw you buying a bottle of rotgut wine, and wondered if you were sad. Are you sad?"

After the students do their scene, I question them on a lot of things. I ask the actor playing Fay why she chose to follow Alice rather than greet her when she saw her buying the wine. The actor is always pulled up short, because this point is not explicitly addressed by the writer. The answer is that somehow, Fay knows that Alice is avoiding her. The whys and the wherefores of that are too complicated for this discussion, and it is also not explicitly addressed in the scene. Many other things are, such as the fact that Alice hasn't written the lecture she is supposed to deliver that night. However, it is contemplating this particular point, that Fay knew that Alice was avoiding her, that can bring the actor playing Fay into consciousness that her problem in the scene is that her friend is pulling away from her, not whether or not Alice writes the lecture. "The scene is about the relationship, not about the plot" is a mantra in the class. The lecture is part of the plot, and the plot is always what is foregrounded. The plot is, however, never the key to unlocking the scene for the actor. The key is the relationship, and the relationship is related to many things outside the scene, i.e., the context of the scene.

When we get through the discussion to this point, the actor playing Fay is invariably nodding her head. The "adult" part of her, the part of her with aforementioned sensitivity to context, knows the truth of what I am saying intuitively. The "child" part of her, the part that wanted to avoid the work of imaginatively addressing the context of the scene and work only with what the writer had made explicit in the dialogue, had won the day in her preparation process, though.

In the Alexander technique, the first step in changing a habit is "inhibiting", or obstructing the habitual response. Actors need to develop the ability to inhibit the child-like wish for the plot to be the answer, for the writer to hand them all they need to know on a silver platter. They need to be able to recognize when they are reaching for such "ready-to-hand" answers to fundamental questions about the role, and the need to set those answers aside and see what arises from further introspection and study. Recognizing the need to do this, and the act of doing this, are hallmarks of an actor who brings the wisdom and experience of adulthood to bear on their role.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

the wayward "Messenger"

I really, really wanted to like this movie. I hate feeling so disconnected from the wars this country is engaged in. I went to the movie ready to be kicked in the stomach and take it, and feel some of the pain that the people who have been robbed of their loved ones by our foreign interventions. For a while, it seemed like I was well on track to experience just that. The first third of the movie is tightly focused on the initiation of Ben Foster's character into the practice of informing families that their loved one has been killed. The able Woody Harrelson is his Virgil, guiding him through the perils and pitfalls of this series of emotional minefields, where the soldier delivering the message is confronted with his own impotence to do anything in the face of the wrenching, profound loss the recipients of the bad news experience before his eyes.

But by halfway through, it becomes clear that the director does not know where to take the story. In the end it seems the story was supposed to be about the bond between these two men, but by the time we get there, there have been several digressions and false starts, and waters have been substantially muddied. The catharses intended in the final scenes disappoint, in a word. Ben Foster may well win an Oscar for his work in this, although not because the acting is extraordinary, but because he did a serviceable job on a role that cannot but elicit enormous sympathy, given the type it embodies: the troubled soldier, hounded by wartime loss and perceived failure.

But what is even more disappointing than the movie itself is the apparent lack of hunger for narratives like this one. We have been at war for almost a decade now, and inside Fortress America we are largely shielded from the horrors and costs of these episodes. This movie opened two weeks ago, and is playing in only one cinema in San Francisco, and even then there are only two showings a day, sharing a theater with Boondock Saints II. The theater was about three-quarters full at a 7:30 showing on Saturday night. People are busy with Black Friday and Twilight and Ninja Assasin, I guess. Perhaps the buzz on the movie is not good enough, but the reviews have largely been kind to it. I feel a bit of frustration that the moviegoing public does not seem to feel any urgency about engaging with these issues, even as President Obama weighs what the course will be in Afghanistan. Flawed as it was, this movie should have a greater audience. Time for the citizens of this country to step up.

Bob Dylan-- Must Be Santa

This is one Christmas song I won't resent hearing. As a kid, I absolutely loved it. I would sing it shamelessly, at the top of my lungs, even though I can't sing very well.

The video reminds me a lot of the video to the song Jonathan David by Belle & Sebastian. Since B&S have a song about Dylan, and to me they seem to be totally kindred spirits, it wouldn't surprise me if Dylan had actually seen their video.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

William H. Macy is a written page guy. That's good, but...

From a profile of Macy done accompanying the release of Bobbie:

Macy, like his friend, mentor and longtime collaborator David Mamet, does not believe in delving into his characters any further than the writer has already delved. He doesn't believe that creating a back-story - a cherished aspect of the Method school - does anything for the performance.

"I'm a written-page guy," he says. "The writer gives you everything you need."
And in one very important sense, I am with him. I quoted that same remark of his in a previous posting in which I take pretty much the same position. For me, acting is about touching the same impulse in yourself that prompted the writer to invent the character in the first place. The text is the alpha and the omega. When Mamet and Macy make remarks like this, their targets are approaches such as Method acting, which relies heavily on the actor's personal experience, and, to a lesser extent, Meisner, which gives primacy to the immediate connection to the partner, and the circumstances and text are built up around that.

Before proceeding, I'll point out that Mamet and Macy are not quite the textual purists they sometimes make themselves out to be. Part of their approach, as described in the Practical Handbook for the Actor, involves finding what they call an "As If", a kind of equivalence between the challenge facing the character in the scene and the actor's own life experience. They are still STRONGLY oriented towards the text, much moreso than the Strasberg "method" is, but they do advocate this kind of extra-textual reflection as part of the actor's process. I advocate something similar in the approach I teach, so I do not fault them for this. I have made my reservations about Mamet's Practical Aesthetics known elsewhere. I have something else I want to focus on here.

While I consider myself a "written page guy", as well, I think that there is a way in which Mamet and Macy make things sound deceptively simple. I had been thinking about discussing this for a while, and then, in one of those marvelous moments of serendipity that all creatives know and cherish, I came across a brilliant exposition of the difficulty with what they are saying, in quite an unlikely context. That context was a book by technology guru Clay Shirky called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations , which, by the way, is a great read if you are interested in what's coming next in the way we live now. But here is the Shirky passage I found deeply relevant to this discussion:

There's a story in my family about my parent's first date. My father, wanting to impress my mother, decided to take her to a drive-in, however, he had to borrow his father's car. Once they were at the movie, my mother, wanting to impress my father, ordered the most sophisticated drink available, which was a root-beer float. Now my mother hates root beer, always has, and after imbibing it, she proceeded to throw up on the floor of my grandfather's car. My father had to drive her home, missing the movie he'd driven fifteen miles and paid a dollar to see. Then he had to clean the car and return it with an explanantion and an apology. (There was, fortunately for me, a second date.)

Now, what part of the story is about the internal combustion engine. None of it, in any obvious way, but all of it, in another way. No engine, no car. No cars, no using cars for dates. (The effect of automobiles on romance would be hard to overstate.) No dates in cars, no drive-in movies. And so on. Our life is so permeated with the automotive that understand immediately how my father must have felt when my grandfather let him borrow the car, and how carefully he must have cleaned it before returning it, without thinking about internal combustion at all.

Now imagine, if you will, that someone had written a script of the scene in which Shirky return the car keys to his father, explains what happens, and apologizes. Depending on what his dad was like, this scene could have gone a lot of different ways. But the important point is that the stuff that Shirky mentions about how central the automobile is to the way we date now would have gone unmentioned in such a scene. It would be understood. It does not belong to the text, strictly speaking, but to the context, in this case the historical context.

I am now going to make a categorical statement: all fiction derives its power, to some extent at least, from the rub, the friction, between the text and the context in which the actions it depicts transpires. If you take a screenwriting class, and you write a scene in which a character explicitly states everything about his or her situation, you will be told that this is too "on the nose." It is part of what is mysterious and awesome about storytelling that it engages our understanding of the world in presenting itself, without making its reliance on that understanding explicit. The story is told, and in the process aspects of the context of the story are invoked, in the way the primacy of the automobile is invoked in the above anecdote, without our even being aware of their evocation. Henry James, in the preface to his novel The Wings of the Dove, spoke of wanting his characters to

assert their fulness and roundness, their power to revolve, so that they have sides and backs, parts in the shade as true as parts in the sun

The terms in the sun are the aspects of the situation or circumstances that the writer makes explicit, in the dialogue in the case of a play, and the terms in the shade are the aspects of the situation that we grasp without knowing that we grasp them. They are alluded to or evoked on the written page, but they are not stated outright; then they would no longer be in the shade. Everything would be in the sun, and nothing would be in the shade. There would be no mystery, no enigma, nothing miraculous about the unfolding of the story. Everything would be open to view. Shirky says above that we "instantly understand" what is true about the car and its significance and value, and in one sense we do, although Shirky himself felt the need to spell it out in his discussion, so while we may grasp that importance in experiencing the story, we may also have a difficult time articulating that importance if prompted.

Uta Hagen famously remarked that "every good actor has a secret." The only meaningful way to understand that remark, in my view, given that Hagen herself was a believer in the importance of the text, is that the actor has somehow unlocked those aspects of a situation or a scene that the writer has not made explicit, but are critical to recognizing what is actually at stake in the scene. Actors continually want to believe that everything important in the scene is laid out for them in the script, and it is in the script, but it is not laid out for them. They have to unearth it. Let me be clear: I do not mean that they have to psychoanalyze the character in order to discover what is driving them, unless the writer herself has included psychoanalysis in the play itself. Wittgenstein wrote that "The aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. We fail to be to struck by that which, once seen, is most striking and powerful." It is these aspects of the situation that are so familiar that they are hiding in plain sight that we need to discover, and then we will have earned the "secret" that Uta Hagen calls for.

It turns out that no less an eminence than Aristotle understood the importance of the relationship between text and context. (I like to read the blog of Nobel-Prize winning Princeton economist Paul Krugman, and he mostly writes for general consumption, but he'll sometimes write a post that gets deep into the economic weeds, and when he does that, he labels the post "wonkish". My post is about to become a little wonkish, but only a little, so bear with me ) In a groundbreaking new study of Aristotle's aesthetics, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, scholar Richard Halliwell writes that, in addition looking at the form and structure of a play, can also speak of the agents and actions represented by the play, and for this one relies...on the same range of concepts that are used outside the work of art [emphasis added]—concepts, for example, of purpose and choice, success and failure, prosperity and suffering, good and evil, guilt and innocence. Nor, on this model, do we speak descriptively of the work in these terms; we experience it through an understanding that depends on them, and we respond to it with evaluative judgments, hence with emotions, that presuppose and are informed by that understanding.

The concepts he speaks of are elements of the context. In Shirky's case, it was the concept of having "wheels" when romancing a woman in the mid-twentieth century. That these concepts play a role is so much a part of the process of reading or encountering a text that we are not even aware of it. We need it to be brought to light.

So it is in this sense that I take issue with what Macy says he is a "written page guy." He is right that the writer gives you everything you need, but some of it, he gives you so subtly and deftly that you don't know you are getting it. It's learning to become aware of what is essential but not explicit that is is the key to really penetrating any scene.

And how do you that? By learning to pose and answer some pretty tough questions about the character and scene, which can only be learned through lots and lots of practice. The good news is, the fact that it takes lots and lots of practice means that if you do learn to do it, you cannot help but distinguish yourself.

Thanksgiving 2009

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