Friday, March 20, 2009

the trouble with Mamet's practical aesthetics

Admittedly, my title is intended to provoke. As you will see, I have plenty of good things to say about practical aesthetics. There are some really great insights about acting that they are promoting. But now that I have your attention, I will say that there are limitations as well. In their zeal to vanquish the actor's preoccupation with her own emotional state, a worthwhile cause, to be sure, I would maintain that the practical aesthetics advocates neglect what I would call the sources of true urgency within. But first things first.

Let me first of all establish my credentials and my lineage as an acting teacher. I did an MFA in directing at the Yale School of Drama ('97). During my time at Yale, I was fortunate enough to study with Earle Gister, a remarkable teacher who chaired the acting program at Yale for 17 years, and ran the acting conservatory at Carnegie Mellon for years before that. The other teachers who were important in my development were Evan Yionoulis and Mark Brokaw, directors who went through the directing program ten years before I did. Evan became the chair of the acting program at Yale for five years after Earle left. Evan and Mark have had high flying New York directing careers; Mark has done outstanding work with actors like Mark Ruffalo and Mary Louise Parker, and Evan won an Obie for her production of Three Days of Rain, which Patricia Clarkson starred in. She also directed Robert Sean Leonard in The Violet Hour on Broadway. Evan and Mark had been students of Earle, but there was another important acting teacher at Yale when they were there in the eighties. His name was David Hammond. When Hammond left Yale, he ran Playmaker's Repertory Theater in Chapel Hill, North Carolina for many years, and he ran the MFA program there as well.

Between the four of them, they came up with a new way of looking at acting characterized by astonishing depth and clarity. I will say more about what is involved in that, but first I'll talk about Mamet's practical aesthetics. I actually assign a short chapter from the The Practical Handbook for the Actor in my course. That chapter is called "the emotional trap." The chapter has an important message, as there is no more pernicious belief about acting than the widespread belief that what actors do is "show emotion." This is argued in the Practical Handbook with perhaps an excess of machismo, but its points are well taken: an actor who is focused on his own emotional state is focused on himself, and is thus, by definition, self-conscious. Many acting classes pay lip service to the notion that emotion is an improper focus of the actor's attention, but most return to it in the practice of scene work. Practical aesthetics argues compellingly for turning our backs once and for all on the importance of emotion for the actor at his work.

There is, of course, a sense in which, as audience members, we do look to actors for manifesting emotional states, somehow, but the Practical Handbook's point is that it is counterproductive for the actor to think of this when she goes about her work.

But what's an actor to do? The Practical Handbook prescribes a strong emphasis on concrete physical tasks, activities and goals, for one thing. And the evangelizers of practical aesthetics are right to stress the power and importance of these things. I also assign a brief piece from the collection The Legacy of Stanislavsky in my class, in which the Russian maestro himself makes an analogy to airplane taking flight. He says that the physical score of the scene, things like tasks, activities, etc. are like the runway for an airplane. He says that the spiritual life of the scene is what occurs when the plane takes flight, but this is not possible without the runway. If an actor has not understood his physical surroundings in the scene in the way she needs to, the "spiritual" life of the scene, to use Stanislavsky's old-fashioned terminol for the temporary lack of a better one, will not happen. Imagination and instinct can almost never be tempted out of their holes without the actor paying sufficient attention to the physical situation. The Practical Handbook's emphasis on the effort and care the actor must pay to his or her physical situation is right on the money.

The Practical Handbook is also right to emphasize breaking scenes down into manageable, bite-sized portions. A scene is a journey, and a large part of its interest are all the bumps in the road, hairpin turns, dead ends, rope bridges, sandtraps, and unexpected places of shelter that are encountered on the course of the journey. Motivated by a fear of not measuring up to all these shifting contours, actors often try to pretend for themselves that the terrain of a scene can be navigated by facing in the right direction and just forging ahead, come hell or high water. They want to suppress or deny the fact that the scene asks many different things of them in the short space of four minutes or so. And Mamet's practical aesthetics pushes back against that strongly. It argues for a rigorous segmentation of the scene, and for the identification of appropriate tasks for each segment that can help ground the actor in the present moment with clarity and specificity.

So far so good. Mamet's movement, for that is what it is, makes a compelling, late-twentieth century case for the primacy of doing and for the power of an actor whose attention rests consistently and specifically on his or her partner.

So what is missing? It's not that easy to name, but I will do my best. The emphasis in practical aesthetics is on the notion that a big part of what people are is problem-solvers. In scenes, people(characters) have challenges of various kinds, problems, if you will. When the actor focuses on the solving of those problems, he she is to some extent liberated from self-consciousness, from the awareness of being watched, scrutinized, and evaluated. Further, his mind, his expressive faculties, and his will are organized by the problem at hand, which, in virtually all scenes, involves influencing other people in one way or another.

What is missing, though, is some strong way of addressing the precise WAY in which it is urgent to solve these problems. Problem-solving will imbue an actor's work with clarity, lucidity and credibility, but it will stop short, by itself, of compelling us to CARE. The problem to be solved in a scene might be getting someone to marry you, or sleep with you, or buy your house, or lend you money, or lend you her car, but the real question is: so what? So what if she turns you down, or refuses to buy your house, or help you break out of jail? What will that mean to you? Not just what will it mean to you to have to stay in jail, but what will it mean to you that she refused to help you, refused YOU?

The magic word that is often used to gesture at this is "stakes." "Raise the stakes!" is the eternal battle cry. Unfortunately, this is often understood practically by actors, in the absence of any meaningful advice about how to do this, to mean "act harder", which is almost never fruitful. Some teachers may understand something about the profound relationship between a thoughtful grasp of circumstances and stakes, but usually the most is said is that the stakes need to be high.

But as important as grasping circumstances is to effectively working with the notion of stakes, it doesn't take you all the way there, according to my teachers at Yale. It was their genius to re-engineer the notion of objective, so that there are two types of objectives in any scene: ones that focus on problems that need to be solved (plot objectives) and ones that name the burning need that will be answered by the solving of those problems (underlying objective). There is a lot to say about the power of this approach, but for this discussion, suffice to say that it invites the actor to confront the nature of her care for, her involvement with, her investment in, her implication with, the solving of the said problems. In what way is her whole being tied to the particular outcomes she is striving for in a scene? We are dealing here with attachment, with the significance of people places and things to us, with care, with our profound need to stand well with others. Attending to a need, pursuing its gratification, is different from focusing on emotional states, because attending to this need, which in my approach is described as living in the belly, the gut, the Pilates core, always immediately directs the actor's attention outward, because the need needs to be met! It is never an invitation to self-involvement. Emotional states will follow as a result of the pursuit of the need, but they can be safely ignored by the actor, as the Practical Handbook advises.

Does practical aesthetics have a way of addressing stakes, urgency, need, whatever you want to call it? Yes. Students are typically told to think of some situation in their own lives that is compelling and comparable to the scene in order to arouse investment in the situation of the scene. This is, essentially, what Uta Hagen named substitution forty years ago, and renamed transference fifteen years ago. It is NOT comparable to emotional memory or method acting, but that is a matter for another day. By finding a compelling or powerful transference, we are told by practical aesthetics, we will care about the scene in the way we need to.

To this I say: maybe. I teach transference as well, and while it can be powerful, certainly, I don't believe it is a substitute for the actor actually struggling to articulate what the need is for which he is fighting. My experience has borne out this belief. It's not enough to know that the person you are interacting with in the scene means something to you like what your brother means to you in real life, you need to be able to name, concisely, what is the thing that a brother gives you that you can't do without. In the approach I teach, there are rules about what counts as a satisfactory answer to the question of need, and these rules guarantee that the answer will be something that has to be sought, hunted down, discovered, it is never ready to hand. In engaging in this struggle, the actor comes into close encounter with the circumstances of the scene, and thus with the writing, in a way that leads her to discover the real significance of those circumstances, and paves the way for those circumstances to activate her viscerally. For an actor, there is nothing better than that.

(This post is from the blog of the Mother of Invention Acting School in Los Angeles and San Francisco ( an acting class in Los Angeles and San Francisco for serious, motivated students.)


miklos said...


Anonymous said...

Having studied Mamet's technique myself, I have to agree that you're right on the mark -- that merely "raising the stakes" could be counterproductive and that an as-if could be insufficient.

I also like that you make a distinction between a plot objective and an underlying objective, though I would probably phrase them as conscious vs unconscious objectives, or physical vs psychological objectives.

I'm curious though as to what rules you've come up with for choosing a strong NEED (and to see an example of how it's applied to a scene). You don't have a book I could be referred to and I can't take your classes since I'm not based in the U.S., so it would be great if you're willing to share your insights to the acting community here. Or if you prefer to correspond one-to-one, let me know, and I could send you an email.


Mother of Invention said...

Thanks for your comments.

I once asked one of my mentors at Yale whether he would write a book, as it seemed to me that what he presented in class and in scene work was truly visionary, and the world would be the better for becoming acquainted with what he had to see. He chuckled and simply said "No." Astonished, I asked him why not. His answer was that what he was teaching couldn't be taught in a book.

I say that to frame what I am about to write. I appreciate your interest in what I have written, and so I am going to do my best to oblige you, but I am skeptical about how well I can make myself understood in this kind of format. That's only because I think to a great degree the concepts I teach have most of their meaning in the context in which they are used. But I will walk you through some things.

The first things about the underlying objective is that it is a need, not an out come. So for Blanche DuBois, arriving in New Orleans, the fact that she wants he sister and brother-in-lew to welcome her into their home, and the fact that she hopes to find a husband, are outcomes. THey are what we refer to as plot objectives. Getting Eunice to orient her and let her into Stella's apartment, once she learns Stella is not around, is also a plot objective, albeit much shorter term. But both of these things are outcomes Blanche would like to bring about. The question is: what is the need that drives her to pursue these outcomes?

It is axiomatic to this approach that there is only one need that remains the same throughout the stage-life of a figure or character(our term for a character is a "who-am-I" ). This is kind of an astonishing demand, but it is justified (and this I do not discuss with my students unless they ask) by the fact that the writer is presenting a distillation of a person, not a person in total.

Anyway, the underlying objective, which we also call the play objective, the life objective and the scene objective, are ALL THE SAME. The scene objective and the life objective are the same. They do not change. A consequence of this is that the scene objective does not change over the course of the scene. This is a crucial point. The need pursued by the actor stays constant. Plot objectives can change, but scene objective remains unchanged. In fact, the reason that we discard one plot objective and take up another (ie change course) is because the new direction promises to provide more of what is needed than the old one.

Another point is that the underlying objective has to be HOT or visceral. It can't be cerebral. I tell my students to avoid Oprah-talk like "approval, understanding, validation, support." These are really pop-psychology euphemisms for thrue needs, and it's not necessarily that they are wrong, but they won't light a fire in anyone. I tell people to try to speak in the language of the morning DJ, ie be as plain spoken as possible, to "dumb it up", not to be confused with dumbing it down.

Secondly, the thing pursued must be positive. I use what is called the dating game test. Someone proposes that Hedda Gabler's UO is "control." So I say: "Bachelorette #1, what she cares about more than anything else in the world is control. Do you want to date her?" This is a way of getting the students to recognize that they have not provided an empathic account of what the who-am-I needs when they provide an answer like "control." The UO has to be something attractive to pursue, which Stanislavsky actually says in his list of criteria in the Units and Objectives chapter in AAP. A major premise of this entire approach is that the actor's talk to herself about the role must be legitimating of what the actor will have to pursue in the role: judgmental talk has the opposite effect.

Finally, I (and my teachers) demand (and this is critical) that the UO be phrased in a particular way. This is absolutely mission-critical. The UO should be phrased EXACTLY as follows: "What I need to GET FROM the world, my life, my partner is my..."

One reason the UO needs to be phrased in this way is that the GET FROM sets up the listening or "receiving" that the character does in the scene. In each moment, the actor/character is asking for what she needs, and then checking to see whether they are getting a piece of it in a way that is TOTALLY INDEPENDENT of any and all plot outcomes. This is the most important point, and the most difficult to explain. What it does NOT mean is that what the actor is listening for at each moment is whether or not she has successfully moved an inch closer to realizing some plot objective (this is the convention conception of what it is like to pursue an objective), but whether, in that moment, in an immediate way, she has gotten a small piece of the same thing she will get a big bucket of if she gets one of her plot goals.

When I ask students to suggest an underlying objective for Blanche, they suggest many plot objectives (find a husband etc), but they also say: happiness-- begging the question, we all want happiness. but what is happiness for Blanche. That is what we are trying to say. Security-- too Oprah-ish, also fails the dating game test, in a big way. Comfort-- tempting, but also doesn't really pass the dating game test: someone who values comfort above all else seems to be selfish and lacking in aspiration or ambition. Love: we all want love, but unfortunately the word doesn't have enough teeth, by itself it is more Oprah talk.

When they pose plot objectives, I call them on proposing plot objectives, and then ask, "what will that give you?" I tell them that is the appropriate question when a plot objective arises.

One way to get to the UO is to think about what has been lost. Everyone has a past, and there are always important clues in that. Blanche has lost Belle Reve, and her place in that world as a sought-after hothouse flower of refinement and feminine bounty. These are the treasures she was born into, her birthright, her "beautiful dream", this is the source of belonging for her. So as Blanche, I can pursue my belonging, my birthright, my lost way of life. I can look for that in one way from Stella, in another way from Stanley, and in another way from Mitch. When I tell Stella about all that has happened, each moment she listens attentively, each moment she empathizes and expresses sympathy, I get a piece of my birthright, because she is according my the respect and care she owes me according to our common origin. Similarly, if she welcomes me into her life, tells me I can stay as long as I want, that I should treat the house as my own, and tells her husband to just deal with it, I get a huge bucket of my birthright. If she acts like I am being melodramatic, then she is refusing to give the losses their weight, and I lose a piece my birthright. And if she chooses Stanley the Polish proletarian over me, then I lose a colossal piece of my birthright. What I pursue in each moment independently of the plot, and what I pursue through plot objectives, are one and the same.

There is not one answer to the UO question for any character, but there are many that will not work. The ones that are "ready to hand" generally derive from the student looking at the situation from outside of it, and it is only after they have tried these ready to hand ones on for size, and seen how they fail, that they will begin to make headway towards finding one that comes from a bond between their own gut and the circumstances and language of the play.

It can also be good to try to look for bits of language that characters use to try to clinch negotiations and close deals, and make use of them. I use a two page play by John Patrick Shanley in which a character complains that he was at a "nice, silly party, about to get somewhere with a nice, silly woman" when he was dragged away by his best friend, for reasons that have yet to be explained. So the acotr might pursue "my nice-silly". Since it turns out that the character is asking not to be subjected to blid-faith tests of friendship, but rather to be taken as is, "my nice-silly" works well. Grammar can even be abused and often should be, so that someone might pursue "my fresh" or "my clean".

There is a lot more to it, particularly in understanding how the UO is to pursued from various partners, but this is at least an introduction.


Anonymous said...

I have an MFA in acting and find your writings remarkable. Your analysis is the most concise and applicable information I have encountered and I am overwhelmed by your generosity in posting it online. Truly well done and thank you.

Mother of Invention Acting School said...

Thanks for reading, and glad you enjoyed!

"What you get/ Is what you give/ So give it all you've got" --Eartha Kitt

Anonymous said...

Hi -- I also agree that the technique has its shortcomings. I'm currently a student of the technique. However, the Practical Handbook is outdated unfortunately and different from the way Practical Aesthetics is currently taught. After the "Literal" step, actors now come up with a "Want" that sounds very similar to the "Underlying Objective" you were discussing -- it is supposed to sing from the character's soul. In terms of navigating conflict, actors are supposed to choose actions that support the conflict within the scene. In theory, this should mimic the struggle in the scene.

Anonymous said...

Also, if an as-if is insufficient for the stakes of a scene, then the actor needs to find a new as-if that matches the scene's stakes.

Mother of Invention Acting School said...

Thanks for commenting, that's interesting to hear about the "Want". That does sound like it is akin to the underlying objective, and seems like it could really enrich Practical Aesthetics.

At the end of the day, the "why" question has to be addressed, in a way that is decisive and compelling. The actor has to reach a kind of bedrock in being able to say why the character takes each step that they take. I have had students who studied practical aesthetics tell me that they were told not to worry about why, that if the Essential Action and the As If were strong enough, the why would take care of itself. I don't think that's true, actors do need to think about why, although they need a particular kind of answer to that question, and that is what the UO is supposed to be. It sounds that like that may be what a Want is as well.

Real said...

I am an amateur writer and don't officially act. I love you and your commentators insights into attempting to realize the potency of the scene.

As a student of film I love when the actor transcends themselves and "becomes" the character. I suppose there are many ways to create these "honest" moments as Matt Damon once called them.

We all know the "magic" when we see it. When I write it all sometimes flows and sometimes not. I hate to just "move the chess pieces" around to create a scene.

A scene should ultimately come out of character, and not be forced upon the character. To "insert" interesting scenes into the story does not fully illuminate the character.

Easier said than done, I know.

I love the dialogue that you start and continue.

Thank you.

Srisaack said...

Hi, and thank you for sharing your ideas. I enjoyed reading your piece.

On my first Practical Aesthetics class, while in grad school, I remember my teacher saying that the goal of the course was to teach us the tools of Practical aesthetics. He made very clear that while in his class we must subscribe to the method, in our lives, however, we should subscribe to the method(s) that we felt that suits us best. He also mentioned that some actors might do well without subscribing to any method at all.

To me that was probably the most important piece of advise, since the job of the actor is not one of exact results…for it is based on humanity. I find it dangerous to blur the line between academic theatre and acting. The idea of right and wrong is counterintuitive for acting. I know you're not saying that practical aesthetics is wrong, and I understand that you're simply saying that it has problems. However, by saying that a method has problems, you might be raising unnecessary questions for actors who might be doing very well with that certain method. We're mostly insecure beings to begin with. Why is it needed to debunk a method in order to promote a new one? Why not simply promote it as new method, or one more tool to help the actor?

Let me use myself as the "item in question". I grew up in Brazil, and have been acting for over 20 years now. I came to the US in 1998, when I started my BFA/MFA journey in acting. During my first year, I realized that what would often get in my way, was my dramatic/emotional indulgence while on stage. Practical aesthetics was the right tool for me, personally, to focus on the scene and actually tell the story. It also helped me a great deal with my needs as a professional - I was less aware of myself, and therefore much more comfortable and happier as an actor.

My point is that I find harmful to actors in general to think that acting is a "one size fits all" kind of thing.

Thank you.

The Young Actor said...

Absolutely wonderful commentary. I was reading about practical aesthetics, and found that it was problematic/limiting as well. I wanted to see if any one with a deeper understanding of the intricacies of acting could explain the feeling I was having while reading "A practical handbook..", and you did it! Thank you for thoroughly explaining your view on practical aesthetics!! You have helped me so much!

I also have to say that I disagree with Srissack. I respect and understand the fact that some actors may benefit from certain methods more than others, but there is no reason for a reconstruction of this author's presentation of him ideas. I think it's important that there be a common ground amongst the acting community on basic method for good acting. Yes, everyone is different, and everyone has applies methods differently and in ways unique to them, but an acting teacher can't just say "every method is valid and right, just find one that works for you," that would be a counterproductive and even dishonest way of teaching. I say kudos to this blog for helping young actors like me to understand and establish a basis of good acting technique!

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