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.)

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