Thursday, November 27, 2008

"It Screams"

Devilstower, one of the editorial bloggers on the Daily Kos, the notorious epicenter of the liberal blogsophere, wrote a eulogy for Tom Gish, the tough-minded editor of a newspaper in Kentucky called the Mountain Eagle. Upon acquiring the paper, Gish gave it the motto "It Screams!". And, according to devilstower, it did:

The Mountain Eagle screamed out against corruption in Kentucky politics, against the excesses of coal mine operators, against police who abused their power, against mistreatment of workers, and against destruction of the land. Gish used his paper like a hammer, and he didn't care whose political fingers he smashed as he pounded out the truth. It didn't matter if you were a local school board member, or the president of a giant corporation. The Gish's would not back down.

I'd like to say that it is in this spirit that I started the Mother of Invention Acting School. When I started teaching, I used to say that I was happy to be San Francisco, at some remove from "the industry." There is an idealism in the way I run my classes, and there is an idealism to San Francisco, so there was a good match. My recent Los Angeles expansion was prompted in part by my recognition that in spite of the presence of "the business" in SoCal, and all that goes along with it, there is a vast number of highly creative, energetic people in Los Angeles who would enjoy my classes. When I visited friends in the Southlands, this became obvious to me.

I look forward to growing my classes in Los Angeles. I fully intend, though, to continue to uphold the things about the class that may mean that it grows more slowly than it otherwise might. I don't offer "weekend workshops": what I teach can't be learned in a weekend. Only one absence is allowed per ten week cycle, and the class is set up on a pay-as-you-go basis. So if a student misses for the second time at session 5, I lose revenue that I would get if I let them continue to show up, and I create a headache for myself, in having to find them a new scene partner. But I am committed to creating an environment in which everyone is similarly invested in what we are doing, everyone is accountable in the same way, everyone is vulnerable in the same way. I do not invite prospective students to audit, although I know that that costs me some enrollments. But with the trouble I take to create and maintain an atmosphere of safety and seriousness, I don't want to allow that atmosphere to be undermined by having strangers sit in. I don't teach "cold reading technique", as I believe the best possible preparation for cold reading is proficiency as an actor and the confidence that follows from that. Everyone works on two person scenes, not monologues, in spite of the logistical challenges that this poses for me and the students. If industry people want to attend a "Friends and Family Night" at the end of the cycle, they are welcome, but I ask them to be discreet, and not approach students directly that night, but rather through me at a later time. The emphasis at Friends and Family Night is on celebrating what we have achieved together.

I haven't looked for a job teaching acting at a local college or university, because I don't want to have to compromise in all of the ways that a university bureaucracy would aak me to. I may still do this at some point, but it is not the preferred path for me.

Doing it your way, the way you hold to be the right way, comes with a cost, as Tom Gish of the Mountain Eagle knew. Devilstower again:

The paper's reputation grew until politicians throughout the region refused to allow the Eagle's reporters into press conferences. Then it grew until they had to let them back in. When the office was firebombed and their press burned, they didn't miss a week. Even when advertisers were so frightened to be associated with the paper that The Mountain Eagle shrank to only four pages, Gish held his ground.

I do it my way, not out of a sense of high-mindedness, but because it's the way I want to do it. It's the best way I have been able to find, so far, to help people live as expansively as possible in the fictional worlds of stage and screen. This way is not for everyone, and not everyone wants to hear my message about how much is asked of the actor or to be held accountable in the way that I hold my students accountable. But, like Tom Gish's Mountain Eagle and like Howard Dean, in my teaching, I scream, (not literally!), in the hope of summoning people into a greater vitality. A finer vocation, for me, I can't imagine.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

what is good and why

(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 San Francisco for serious, motivated students.)

I am reading a book with the above title for my dissertation work in German Literature at Stanford. The book is by Richard Kraut, an analytic philosopher. Unless you have a taste for meticulous, painstaking philosophical argumentation, I can't recommend it, but I have found that Kraut has ideas that resonate strongly with the way that we think about how people make life decisions in scene work.

Kraut maintains that older ways of thinking about what is good (what gives pleasure, achieving what one wants or plans) and the problems that are bound up with them can be jettisoned in favor of a notion that what is good for humans is what brings about their flourishing. By flourishing, he means a sustained condition in which humans can exercise their powers (physical, cognitive, and emotional) as expansively as possible.

Most scenes in class involve a relationship in some type of crisis or culmination. The two people involved are attempting, in one way or another, to save or at least strengthen the relationship, based on their understanding of the relationship and what is valuable about it. This, in turn, always comes down to a belief about the way in which two people fit together: what about them makes them a good match.

Close friendships and relationships of all kinds are important because they provide us an opportunity to exercise aspects of ourselves that we value. With one friend, perhaps we can banter in a satisfying way, with another, perhaps we can play a great game of squash, with another, exchange stories of our lives. In other words, they give us contexts in which flourishing is possible. If there is no one to appreciate our wit, and no one to provide wit which, in appreciating, we have an experience of our own wit, then things are not as good for us as they could be.

Of course, we also talk a lot about what we want at particular moments in scenes, but generally, we can say that in scenes, in our roles, our beliefs (as the character) about what wants will bring us closer to flourishing are tested, and we must make decisions about whether to hold fast to one vision of coming closer to flourishing, or to embrace another. Uta Hagen calls this "weighing courses of action" in her discussion of this in her book A Challenge for the Actor.---

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"will I have to listen to lectures?"

(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 San Francisco for serious, motivated students.)

Someone recently posted a review on the internets somewhere about my class, in which they claimed, about the class, that "There is a lot of lecture, and not much "doing." I'd like to address this.

First of all, it's a lie. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about why someone would tell a lie like this. But here's why it is a lie: the class has two major components: technique and scene study. The format of the scene study portion of the class is mostly self-explanatory: people do scenes and we work on their understanding and execution of the scenes. What is perhaps a bit different about my class is that we work on each scene for an hour or so, so that means that you don't get up even nearly every week, unless you happen to be working on two scenes. Also, if you work on a scene, you work on it for the duration of the ten weeks. All of this is explained in the coffee date I have with every student who enrolls PRIOR TO their enrolling.

The technique portion of the class, as described on my website: "The exercises are carefully-crafted, purposeful, exciting explorations that are designed to give you an experiential grasp of the elements of the technique taught in the class. Discussions elaborate on the principles presented in the exercises." I didn't make up these exercises, they were made up by Evan Yionoulis, who served as dean of the Yale School of Drama for five years and still teaches there, and by Mark Brokaw, another Yale alum who has directed Mary Louise Parker, Mark Ruffalo, and other famous folks on the Broadway stage. As I said above, the exercises are conducted, and then I TALK ABOUT THEM, using them as springboards to introduce principles, concepts, and rules of thumb that apply directly to the scene work we are engaged in. In other words, the "lecturing" I do is about connecting the experience of the exercises to the practical work on the scenes. Even so, it comprises about half of the technique part of the class, and actual "doing" comprises the other half. And the technique part of he class is actually LESS than half of the course: 4 sessions of the class are devoted entirely to scene work, 2 to technique, and the rest is split between the two. So LESS THAN a quarter of the class is actually comprised of the dreaded "lectures."

When I came to the Drama School at Yale, I, as a first year director, attended Earl Gister's acting classes. Earl had been the dean of the acting program at the Drama School for fifteen years, and before that had run the program at Carnegie Mellon. Earl is one of the giants of his and my profession. It was not uncommon for us to come to class, have someone do a scene, and then for Earl to talk about for the remaining two to three hours of class, with his device that allowed him to talk through his throat sounding like a robot, since his larynx had been removed. Were there days when I felt restless or didn't want to be there? Sure. But most of the time, I was glad that someone who was a true authority, and could produce results in class, was sharing his accumulated knowledge and wisdom with me.

I recently received an inquiry from a prospective student who had read the aforementioned review and wanted to know if he would have to listen to lectures in the class. He said the prospect of having to do so was giving him pause. I explained the makeup of the class to him, but I have to say, I do not feel favorably impressed by the sort of incuriousness he evinced in his inquiry. Acting students profess to study a mysterious and marvelous practice, and there is much to learn about it. They must bring a great deal of inquisitiveness and a truly open mind to anything they want to learn. Someone with this kind of prejudice about the ways he can absorb information is likely to shy away from the side of acting that requires close examination of situations and of persons, and what "makes them tick", to trot out a tired cliche. IF he can overcome his distaste for "lectures", he is welcome in my class, but if not, he will most likely find himself feeling at home in another sort of acting class: a class that offers an endless succession of theater games and exercises in ensemble building that involve lots of "doing" but amounts to very little.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Great LA Alexander teachers

(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 San Francisco for serious, motivated students.)

A student of mine pointed to me to the website of these two Alexander teachers, Jean-Louis Rodrigue and Kristof Konrad. They have a high-profile clientele (most recently Josh Brolin for his work on Oliver Stone's "W."). My guess is they aren't cheap, but probably worth the investment if you have the cash.

The Alexander technique is one of the most important things an actor can study. I recommend it as highly as I recommend my class. There aren't too many things I say that about.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

in case you missed it...

(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 San Francisco for serious, motivated students.)

Video interview with yours truly, produced by Roman Wyden of

Saturday, November 22, 2008

why you should really take my class

(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 San Francisco for serious, motivated students.)

In launching my Los Angeles acting classes, I met with a talent manager in Los Angeles, to try to interest him in sending me some of his clients. I was struck, nay, dumbstruck, by one of the things he said to me.

"I don't need my people to be that good. They just need to be able to, you know, have a conversation."

He meant have a conversation in a scene, as in, talk and listen naturally. This is what it took for them to be able to book. The rest of getting acting jobs wasn't really about acting.

That Tinseltown works in this way is hardly news, but I was surprised that he would speak in this way to a stranger about the people he represents.

At any rate, I understand that for purposes of getting work, this may be enough. If what you want is to be able to land jobs in Hollywood, then finding someone who can teach you to do this, and only this, may be enough for you. And there are lots of people around who can teach you that (lots of people who can't, too, but I won't go there.)

I had a conversation with a professional soap opera director years ago, on a date, if you want to know, and he told me the secret of his success: everyone working in soaps KNOWS that what they are doing is unadulterated schlock, but they ALL want to believe that THEY bring that spark or creativity or originality to what they are doing that elevates their little corner of serial daytime drama above the churning morass of mediocrity it usually is. He found that if he let them believe that he saw this in them, he would earn their undying gratitude.

The point of this is that getting in the door is great. But the novelty eventually wears off, and then you are in the position of having to deliver. If the only people you want to make an impression on are the people who think believable talking and listening is enough, then, well, you deserve what you get: a perhaps long, but probably undistinguished career as a serviceable working actor. However, if you want to be someone who leaves people wanting more, in particular the people who want to make movies and cable series that leave viewers wanting more, if you want to be able do something memorable, something that inspires people, that adds something to their day or night, in short, something that means something to someone for longer than the time that they watch it, well, you need someone who proposes that acting is more than believable talking and listening. Believable talking and listening are essential, but it's totally possible to be believable and natural without being compelling.

Not to mention the fact that if you have embarked on acting as a career, as a profession, you need to take seriously the fact that it is your responsibility to find ways to keep it fresh and challenging. You cannot expect the projects you get to do this for you, much of the time. Occasionally yes, but anything you do for a living is in danger of becoming a chore with time. Finding ways to keep yourself interested in what you do will prevent burnout. It would be terrible to work hard for years to penetrate the Hollywood membrane, only to discover that you just don't like doing it that much anymore.

This is another reason to look for someone as a teacher, like me, who proposes that acting is an endeavor that asks for much more than believable, passable talking and listening. Someone who claims that acting involves the simultaneous exercise of empathy, imagination, agility, spontaneity, and discernment. It is ultimately up to you whether you have the resources to find the interest in ANY job you encounter along your path, whether those around you see that interest or not.

The talent manager who I talked about at the beginning of this piece suggested, none too subtly, that what I was offering could be dismissed as "academic." Given the professionals that I have studied with and worked under, I was at a loss for words as to how to respond. What I WISH I had had the presence of mind to say was "Oh, well, I guess that academic training worked out pretty well for the likes of Meryl Streep, Paul Newman, Sigourney Weaver, Frances McDormand and the other Yale School of Drama alums who have had distinguished Hollywood careers."

Oh well. Next time.

the change you need

(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 San Francisco for serious, motivated students.)

Keep up with what President-elect Obama is planning for the country with his weekly youtube video addresses here.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

that damned talent question

A student will study with me for a few months, and then work up the nerve to ask if they "have what it takes." I categoricaily refuse to answer this question. First of all, there are countless stories of major actors who were told repeatedly that they were no good. And since I don't have a working crystal ball, I refrain from commenting.

This story talks about a new study that suggests that it is practice, not talent, that makes for success. It asserts that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve true expertise at something. So now I have a new response if I want one: "Check with me after another 9,900 hours of practice."

Most singing teachers will tell you that there are actually very few people who cannot learn, with some work, to sing. Most of us have the capability. How much readiness, willingness, and dogged determination we bring to the challenge is another matter. And that's how I feel about acting. Does everyone bring different levels of readiness to meet the challenges of vulnerability and spontaneity that acting calls for? Sure. But then the question becomes: what will they DO with whatever they have been given.

Make no mistake. Acting is VERY challenging. I think that is one of the things that pretty much everyone who darkens my door comes to grasp. It's the ones who decide, for whatever reason, to soldier on in the face of that grasped difficulty, that grow, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.

Aesop wasn't kidding about that slow and steady stuff.

It may take 10,000 hours to get to be a jedi knight. But as another wise man once said, the journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Tale of Intertwined Misery

(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 San Francisco for serious, motivated students.)

I just listened to this podcast from NPR's Planet Money on one strand of the financial crisis, which involves high schools in Kenosha, Wisconsin, German banks in Ireland, and a whole lot of other hapless people and institutions. The intertwinings of destinies are at the core of all plays and movies, but few have this particular yarn's remarkable epic sweep. It also does a great job of illuminating how the global financial crisis is, literally, all around us.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

the Hawthorne effect

I was looking at The Economist online, because I like the cover for this week's issue so much, and I happened upon an article that I thought bears pretty interestingly on a lot of things we talk about in class. Basically, experiments were conducted in which changes of various kinds were made in the environment of one group of workers, and not in that of another. The results were kind of surprising:

The experimenters concluded that it was not the changes in physical conditions that were affecting the workers’ productivity. Rather, it was the fact that someone was actually concerned about their workplace, and the opportunities this gave them to discuss changes before they took place.

The man who conducted the experiment, who went on to teach industrial research at Harvard, said it this way:

The desire to stand well with one’s fellows, the so-called human instinct of association, easily outweighs the merely individual interest and the logic of reasoning upon which so many spurious principles of management are based.

"The desire to stand well with one's fellows", i.e. respect. In all of the scene work we do in the class, we see how the desire for respect is a core need for all of us, and how even while working towards long term goals as a characters, we always have one eye on the quantum of respect that can be won or lost at each moment.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Tomorrow -- Change.

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Henry V, William Shakespeare

Hat tip to

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