Saturday, May 23, 2009

Pandora: the acting exercise

The website has been around for a while, so a lot of people are already familiar with it. For those that aren't, a quick primer: Pandora lets you create "radio stations" by using artists or songs you like as "seeds". Based on your "seed" choices, Pandora makes use of something called the Music Genome Project, a giant music classification archive, to select other songs it believes will appeal to you. It plays the songs it selects, and for each song, you have the opportunity to give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Pandora then uses your input to refine its sense of what you like and don't like, and to serve up music it thinks you will like. I have discovered some great music through listening to it, and look forward to finding even more.

A novel concept, but it definitely has some flaws. One is that when you identify a song that you like, Pandora will put it on "heavy rotation", playing it quite often, to the point where you may quickly get sick of the song in question. Pandora does give you the option to tell it not to play a song for a month. However, I found I had to use this option really often, more often than I would have liked. Repetitiveness is definitely the biggest setback to Pandora.

But like most things in life, Pandora is what you make it. If you are vigilant about giving it feedback about what you like and don't like, and consign songs you like but hear too much to the Don't Play for a Month Shelf, Pandora will probably work out pretty well. It doesn't work so well for you if you go on auto-pilot. If you just leave it to its own devices, and don't give it continuous feedback, you will find yourself annoyed by its tendency to replay songs it thinks you MIGHT like endlessly, and will probably end up shutting it off in frustration.

But why would anyone go on auto-pilot, when they have the option to determine the nature of what gets played? If you have used Pandora, you probably can answer this question, but if you haven't, you might not be able to right off. Then answer is that having to constantly take actions based on our responses to what we are receiving from our environment can be very, very taxing. And there are consequences to our choices: Pandora might misunderstand WHY I dislike a given song, and this might skew the whole aesthetic. And if I say no to a given song, then I am banishing it FOREVER. But what if I'm wrong, what if it really is a good song and I just not hearing it yet? DECISIONS! ONOOOOOOOZZZZZZZ! Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and all that.

What does this have to do with acting? To act well, you have to be in touch with your vulnerability to the fictional people you are involved with, i.e. your scene partners. You must discover and embody a need that you can pursue from these partners AT EACH MOMENT of your life in the scene. There is no local color, no exposition, no irrelevant chatter. If you are in a situation where you have an URGENT NEED (and you should conceive of EVERY scene you do in this way, no matter how quotidian or everyday it may seem on the surface" Anton Chekohv wrote in his journal that "Men dine, just dine, and in that moment their destinies are decided and their lives destroyed."), then EVERYTHING that happens, at each moment, is either giving you a piece of what you need or depriving you of what you need. There is no grey area, no dead air. However, it is very often not obvious to us when we act, since we are entering into someone else's world, whether what we are receiving is giving us what we need or not. Many of us, when we aren't sure, choose to merely coast until we come to a part of the scene where we are sure, and then we start to pursue what we need in earnest. This will mean we only fulfill the role in a piecemeal way, and our own experience in the scene or the role will be much less than it could be.

Which brings me back to Pandora. To do the Pandora acting exercise, set aside ten minutes a day to listen to Pandora. As you listen, make a decision about EACH SONG you hear: do you give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down or a Don't Play This Song For a Month? Think Simon Cowell: the song either makes the cut or it doesn't. No half-measures. If you have never used Pandora before, you may have a very strong reaction to the initial songs you hear, but eventually you will start to hear songs that you have less of a strong feeling about, songs that will require you to listen more closely to your own internal aesthetic compass. And you will have to commit. You will have to come down on one side or the other. You will have to be attentive and fully alive: alive to the music, to what is coming at your from your world, and alive to your own reaction to it. It's what a Zen teacher once called "brutally simple." Ready to listen?

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

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