Saturday, January 31, 2009

You can't make this sh*t up

If I told you that someone had figured out how to predict the weather by counting the number of a certain kind of sub-atomic particle a half a mile below the surface of the earth, particles that end up there because of cosmic rays of unknown origin entering the earth's atmosphere, you'd ask for some of what I was smoking, right?

Well check this out.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

(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.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

throwing away the ladder

I posted this to my current classes, who are entering week 4 of the class at Mother of Invention.

Hi all,

At this point in the course, you may be feeling overwhelmed by all of things you are being asked to consider and attend to. I can imagine that it would be easy to be think things like "is this acting? all of this THINKING? all of this searching and probing and obsessing? where is the spontaneity? where is the play? where is the fun?"

There are a few ways to respond to this. The first is, as General Eisenhower once remarked, "Plans are useless, but planning is essential." Ultimately, we do want to LIVE TRUTHFULLY under IMAGINARY CIRCUMSTANCES, and living means freely, fully, with verve, with abandon. The difficulty, though, is that we need to do all of that free living in the context of a role in a play or movie that has been written in advance. Completely fore-ordained, absolutely nothing spontaneous about it. So we need to do some thinking and some analysis to get ourselves calibrated and oriented in that right way, so that we can live freely AS Blanche Dubois or AS Hamlet or AS the Joker, and still do the job for the writer and the story that is our fundamental task. So that is one justification for the amount of thought and preparation I am asking for.

Another is this: we initially come to looking at characters in plays and screenplays as people we are observing as they experience something. We approach them as observers. That is the de facto way that we consume plays and movies. To act, though, we need an altogether different way of approaching these things. We must see events FROM the point of view of the person experiencing them, not from the point of view of an outside observer. This is a far more radical shift in outlook than is commonly imagined. It is nothing less than a change in our way of reading, of thinking about people and the choices that they make, and of representing these choices in the execution of a scene.

Accomplishing this change of vantage is a long, slow process, no matter how you slice it. All of the questions I ask and the things I ask you to examine and consider are ways of inviting you to leave behind the way of looking at people in stories that you in all likelihood brought in to the class, and to take steps towards this other way of looking. Over the course of the ten weeks, if you are studious and conscientious and devoted to your work, AND you bring a lot of initiative AND listen carefully to what Uncle Andrew tells you, you may achieve this relative to the character you are playing, that is, you may actually SEE their world from their point of view, and then also be able to LIVE from that vision of the world in the course of the scene.

If that does, in fact, occur, you will have had a kind of experience that you can use as a reference point. You will have experienced what it is like to be completely absorbed in the moment, and to have SOMEONE ELSE'S choices and utterances and physical actions issue from you AS IF THEY WERE YOUR OWN. Let me tell you: it's a completely psychedelic experience, and not to everyone's taste. It reminds me of the first time I started to dream in German. You are both yourself and not yourself at one and the same time. And THIS experience of this altered state becomes a reference point for you of what it is like to enter into the NEED that prompts other people to live as they do. This is a reference point you will be able to use in all future acting endeavors. Perhaps your hold on it, your grasp of it, will be tenuous at first, but if you continue to strive to achieve it, if you find a way to REPEAT having this experience, then you will begin to HABITUATE working in this this way in your scene. It will require less and less forethought and effort, and become more and more of an intuitive step through the looking glass, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein had a particular view of philosophy: that philosophy itself, the impulse to philosophize, was in fact the source of many of philosophy's troublesome conundrums. He described himself as attempting to offer "just enough" philosophy so that people could see this, in effect offering them a ladder to climb up which they could then "throw away" once they had reached the vantage point to which he was inviting them. So it is, I assert modestly, even humbly, with me. I am giving you all of these things to puzzle over which you might think of as breadcrumbs forming a trail to a totally different kind of experience. But the goal is not learning to puzzle better or learning what to puzzle over, although this does not hurt, but rather, the experience that may arise as a result of all of this puzzling and rehearsing. That experience is of the vantage which, once you have ascended to it often enough, you may comfortably throw away the ladder, because at that point it will require little more than clicking your heels together to achieve. With your help, we won't be in Kansas anymore, and it will be a good thing. The very best of things.

To work!

(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.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

something elemental and honest and true and authoritative.

One of my favorite things about being in L.A. is listening to NPR in the car. I can just never believe the amount of inspiring stuff I hear.

Recently, I heard a story about the classical singer Thomas Quasthoff. Thomas is a soloist who sings with the leading conductors the world over, but here is one thing that makes Thomas's story so remarkable:

He was born, almost fifty years ago, in Hildesheim, Germany. While his mother was pregnant, she took the drug Thalidomide to combat morning sickness. As a result, Quasthoff was born with severe defects - shortened arms and legs, missing fingers. Even now, he stands only about four feet tall.

He gets high praise from the critics,like Anthony Tomassini of The New York Times":

TOMASSINI: "It's a warm, rich, full, robust sound. There's just a sense of something elemental and honest and true and authoritative. You sit up and listen when he sings."

Elemental and honest and true and authorative: what a great description of what we strive to achieve in class at Mother of Invention. In session 1, I always read a passage from Boleslavsky's Acting The First Six Lessons, in which he describes the challenge of the actor to a young student: he tells her she must be able to make the audience forget whatever is important to them in their life, and believe that what is happening to her is much more important, in other words, "to sit up and listen."

Also, see what a colleague says about him:

Tenor Michael Schade frequently performs in duo recitals with Quasthoff. He says he's impressed by Quasthoff's ease as a performer - how he can turn a large concert hall into an intimate parlor.

SCHADE: "Thomas walks out onstage and, like in life, you have the feeling that you've always known him. And he looks at his audience - you have a feeling that he looks everyone in the eye - and there's sort of an excited hush that happens. And you suddenly have the feeling that, due to this masterful control that actually Schubert himself, or Brahms or whoever he's singing, is actually talking to you, in persona.

He looks everyone in the eye: I also remind everyone in session 1 that the eyes are the windows of the soul. And the fact that Quasthoff, according to Schade, appears to channel the composer is also very important to us at Mother of Invention. Necessity is the mother of invention, according to Plato, and when we act, we in some sense are attempting to connect with the same need in ourselves that the writer was touching in herself when she wrote the text.

I downloaded a Quasthoff album, first chance I got. Classical is not really my thing, but when experts the world over are characterizing Quasthoff in this way, I thought it was worth a listen.

Here's a link to the story on PRI:

(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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