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.

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