Saturday, October 31, 2009

the balloon boy's parents met where?

From the Los Angeles Independent

ABC News' Denver affiliate KMGH-TV reported Friday that the Heene parents met as aspiring actors at the Lee Strasberg Institute of Theatre & Film in West Hollywood, and lived for many years in the greater Los Angeles area

See what happens when you study Strasberg?


Although they did manage to fool everyone until the kid blurted out that it was all for show...

Friday, October 30, 2009

acting while carrying half a million dollars

A student emailed me today, and mentioned having watched a documentary about the making of "Jackie Brown". He says that apparently Tarantino always uses real props, and so the bundle of money in the final sequence of that movie, half a million to be exact, was real money.

I am sure those actors all found it very simple to...invest in that scene.

it's not easy being swank

In the SF Chronicle today, Hillary Swank affirms the importance of hard work:

Q: Many people probably think of you as the actress who won two Academy Awards. But between "Boys Don't Cry" and "Million Dollar Baby" you made nine movies, and between "Million Dollar Baby" and "Amelia" you made five. Can you talk a little about the mistaken idea that you just take a role, act, win an award - easy as that?

A: I'm so glad you said that, because even with "Boys Don't Cry" people said it was an overnight success. I'd been acting since I was 16, and I won that Academy Award when I was 25. Obviously, it's such a great honor and privilege to have won an Academy Award, and to have two is mind-blowing. Something like that happened off of my doing what I love. But, yes, there's a lot of hard work. It's a constant challenge, fighting for roles that you love. As Clint (Eastwood) says, you always aim for the bull's-eye, but you don't always hit it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

the actors in the hallway

I arrive early at the space where I teach in LA on Wednesday nights. My classroom is off a hallway that has doors to studios where other classes are taught simultaneously with mine. Invariably, there are actors out in the hallway at a quarter to seven, clutching scripts (or sometimes not) and speaking earnestly to each other, apparently "rehearsing". Thet are all in street clothes, so it doesn't appear that they have given any thought to what they will wear in their scenes. Because they are rehearsing in the hallway, they have no physical environment. In a word, they got nothin. And they know it. And they are about to present that fact to their teacher and their peers, in their class. The resulting anxiety is so palpable you can cut it with a knife. I unlock my classroom and make my way in as quickly as possible, tape my poster up on the door, and then close the door, and wait for my students to arrive. I do my best to shed any of the free-floating nervousness that may have found its way into me as a result of passing through this activity.

My class starts, and 90 minutes in, we take a break. I head out into the hall to run down to the corner store and/or make a pitstop, and there are still actors out in the hall, reading off of photocopies and getting ready for the big moment. I am told that these actors are preparing to read in their "cold reading" class (I'll take that canard up another day).

The burns. The practices I promote in my class for rehearsing couldn't be further from what is on display in the hallway. First off, I strongly encourage students to rent space to rehearse, rather than rehearsing in someone's apartment, let alone in the hallway before class. The act of formally setting aside time and space to give to rehearsing is very significant, apart from the practical advantages of such an arrangement, which are many. By setting aside time in this way, the actor affirms for herself the importance of what she is doing when she rehearses. She says to herself: "What I am doing when rehearsing is important enough to take steps to assure it gets done well."

When you do that, the creative part inside of you has a way of waking up and taking notice. And then, you never know what might happen. With the actors in the hallway, you always know what will happen: not much.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

the conservatory question

A question that I hear from time to time from serious students is: should I go to an MFA program? As I do when any such life decisions are laid at my feet, I evade. It's just not my call. However, having gone to a conservatory myself, I can make some observations.

First of all, I will say that my three years at Yale were invaluable, and I am very glad I went, and very glad I stayed (although don't think there weren't times when I wanted to leave!).

The second thing I'll say is that although Yale was a great experience, there were parts of the Drama School that were stagnant or deeply problematic. And that is bound to be the case at most institutions.

This brings me to my third observation: when you go to such a program, you are buying the whole enchilada, stagnant parts and all. As long as there is only a stagnant bit here or there, that's probably ok. But if something is rotten in a more substantial portion of the institution (as was the case in my undergrad Drama department experience), you may find that it is more than you can stomach.

A large part of the appeal of these programs is that they relieve you of the obligation to support yourself while attending. A lot of this relief, however, may come in the form of loans. (This is not true of the program at the National Theater Conservatory at the Denver Theater Center: every student gets a free rids PLUS a stipend. My former student nt Dawn Scott is there. Go Dawn!) Investing in yourself through education is something I think is mostly a good idea, but incurring massive piles of debt, in this day and age especially, is not something to enter into lightly.

Another appeal of such programs is that they provide a curriculum, which relieves you of the burden of figuring out WHAT you should actually learn. If the curriculum is well-designed, great, but even at the Drama School, I saw the actors spending a lot of time doing stuff that in the end didn't help them much, and there were much more valuable things that they could have been studying. Remember, when you go to one of these programs, you buy the whole enchilada, the good and the bad. I can't stress that enough.

I think an acting student with a little initiative can forego a conservatory and take charge of his or her own training, and really benefit from doing that. He or she can shop for classes and instructors that serve him, and get advice about what disciplines to study besides acting itself that will support them in their efforts. It takes a bit more initiative and resourcefulness, but offers a great deal more autonomy as well. In a conservatory situation, there are authority figures that you will be beholden to for the entire time you are there. Missteps in that kind of a setting can have long term ramifications.

If you can get into a truly first-rate program, you should probably go. Otherwise, I would try to educate yourself as much as possible about the programs you are considering, including visiting and watching classes, if possible. Go into it with your eyes open, and try to be sure that you are entering into something you truly want, rather than fleeing the responsibility to take your destiny into your own hands.

Either path, conservatory or a la carte, can work, and it's going to be a personal decision for everyone. It's just good to bring as much care and clarity to making that decision as you can.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Comedy is very serious business

This was a dictum I heard from one of my heroes, Richard Gilman, who headed the playwriting and dramaturgy program at the Drama School for many years. He is the author of The Making of Modern Drama, a fantastic study of the the way thea great playwrights of the modern era became who they are.

It came to mind because I finally saw Inglorious Basterds yesterday. I had heard a great deal of good buzz about it, but the reviewers have been less kind. Here is what Kenneth Turan of the LA Times had to say:

The chapters of "Inglourious Basterds" at first focus on these plot strands one by one, but by the time they all come together in a finale that rewrites history with a particularly Tarantino flourish, it is hard to care what happens to anyone in them.

And for my money, Turan nailed it (Manohla Dargis of the New York Times came to a similar conclusion by a different route). Tarantine had all of the stylishness and outrageousness that we have come to expect from him, but he does not understand that if we are to care much, even in a stylish romp, the actors need to care deeply about what they are after. The proof positive that they don't is that as the various characters meet their final destinies in the end, it just doesn't matter to us (SPOILER ALERT). When the Ufa starlet turned spy for the British is strangled in a penultimate sequence, we view it with apathy. When the cinema owner is killed by her noisome suitor moments before destroying the entire Nazi junta, we can only shrug. The immilation of the Nazis in the cinema itself feels like an afterthought. And the carving of the Swastika into the forehead of the oily Landa seems to be without consequence.

I admired the performance of Sacha Waltz, who played Landa. His poisonous charm and graciousness were quite pleasurable to watch. Who doesn't like to be seduced? But because his performance was all about the blood lust of the hunter, and there was nothing of the desperation that he would have felt as an officer of a collapsing Reich and perpetrator of abominations, his switching sides at the end simply doesn't rate. It msy have been a writing problem as well; if Mr. Tarantino had asked for this value from this skilled actor, and built in an opportunity for him to display it, he no doubt would have. But for us to feel real vindication at him being branded a Nazi at the end, we needed to feel his wish to escape his destiny much more keenly.

And the same is true of the other characters. The Jewish cinema owner seems to regard the Nazis with annoyance and disdain, but there is none of the visceral hatred of someone who has witnessed the slaughter of her whole family. So the payoffs aren't there.

It is these kinds of failings that makes the movie a fun but forgettable romp. We can only hope that Mr. Tarantino stumbles into some gravitas on the way to his next movie.

In the class, we strive to get in touch with the visceral need that drives any character that we play to fight their fights. Fighting well is certainly important, but knowing what you are fighting for moreso.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

"But you don't rehearse when you get on TeeVee..."

So the refrain goes. Television production happens on a frantic timetable, and TV casting people need you to be able to deliver immediately. Just show up with your lines learned, looking your best, hit your marks, look your partner in the eye, and tell the truth. Therefore, goes the thinking, much of what goes on in scene study classes, that is, the preparation, the thinking, the WORK, is just not relevant. It's a quaint anachronism that the actor who understands the realities of today's showbiz world can afford to simply disregard.

Think again.

The idea that the way that television is produced makes intensive scene study obsolete is a fatuous one. The fact is, when you show up for your TV show shoot, you bring whatever readiness to go the distance that you have in with you, and nothing more. There is a persistent fantasy that when opportunity knocks, the actor, through a combination of talent and determination, will rise to the challenge and somehow deliver something extraordinary, something memorable, because, after all, they picked him, the TV people did, and they must know, so that must mean he's "got it", whatever "it" is.

Sadly, no.

The ability to move quickly to the essence of what is transpiring in a scene, an essence which is never explicit in the text the actor is given to speak, and to work from that essence, is something that is acquired through lengthy study, hard work, and bumping one's head against one's own misconceptions. It is the result of a change in how people and situations are viewed, and an understanding of the way incidents matter to the characters involved. The scales have fallen from the eyes of such an actor, but this is not easily purchased. Anyone who promises a quick and easy way to achieve great acting is probably going to offer you a set of Ginsu knives if you act now.

Consider the fact that actors such as Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Paul Giamatti, Frances McDormand and Patricia Clarkson all attended the Yale School of Drama, a three year conversatory program that trained them to act in plays. All went on to have stellar careers in Hollywood, some of which are still in progress. They are all enormously gifted actors, and probably would have found a way to flourish no matter what path they took, but I am sure that many of them would say that their training at the Drama School was excellent preparation for what came after. It is the experience of having taken acting classes with master teachers, and of working on countless productions, examining roles in depth and taking time to develop them across substantial rehearsal processes, that prepared them to work quickly, intuitive, incisively when the situation called for it.

Can you imagine someone saying that since they were only going to play jazz improvisation on the piano, they were not going to learn to read music or to learn to play any previously composed music? The ability to improvise and work spontaneously comes from an intimate familarity with the medium in question, that comes in turn from lengthy exposure to the patterns that recur in various forms again and again. The only way out is through, a wise person once said. Wanting to be able meet the challenge of working spontaneously on a quick timetable without putting in the time to learn to work well under less strained circumstances is wanting a way out without going through. And except for those very few, freakishly talented exceptions, that isn't going to happen. All the other people showing up for the call you are going to have been to the same Acting for the Camera classes you have. The question is, what else have you got?

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