Sunday, March 29, 2009

the viewpoints mystique

I am the veteran of a thousand viewpoints wars. I first encountered Anne Bogart's six or seven or eight or nine viewpoints (they kept changing the number) of "postmodernism", as they were originally called, in the summer of 1990. I was employed as a Faculty Associate (or "FacAss", as we were known, basically teaching assistants plus) at Northwestern University's National High School Institute, aka the "Cherub" program. Two of the people I was assisting, one for a voice and movement class, and one on a production of Euripides' The Bacchae, were MFA students at the Trinity Rep conservatory, where Anne Bogart, the premier evangelist of the viewpoints was at the helm. My initial encounter with viewpoints was thrilling: using viewpoints, the instructors seemed to be able to effortlessly concoct a quirky, surprising theatrical landscape with moving parts that seemed connected to each other in some mysterious way. It was a little like watching a Rube Goldberg machine being simultaneously designed and tested, with human bodies and voices triggering each other in an endless series of jerks, plops, ritardandoes, bounces, beelines and stop-drop-and-rolls. To use a slightly more contemporary analogy, it was like a large-scale, human-body version of the culmination of the boardgame from the 1970's, Mousetrap.

As the summer wore on, though, something became clear: one "viewpoints" exploration looked a lot like the next one , and the previous one as well. The person moderating the exercise could introduce various stipulations, but sooner or later, a monotony crept in. The reason for this, I would maintain, was the underlying arbitrariness of the unfoldings. A relentless series of surprises of more or less the same kind, is still a relentless series. And a relentless series of anything grows wearing at some point. A college friend of mine who entered the Columbia Graduate acting program under Bogart, but later dropped out in disgust, dubbed the viewpoints "aerobics for dramaturgs." And I think that about hits the nail on the head.

A year later, I was interning in New York at Mabou Mines, a downtown theater collective that dates back to the 1960's. The original members included Lee Breuer, Phillip Glass, JoAnne Akalaitis, Ruth Maleczech and David Warrilow, all of them titans in the history of downtown New York theater. It was the early nineties at this point, and many of the original members were gone, and the collective was scrambling for a new vision or a way forward. In collaboration with the Public Theater, which at that time JoAnnne Akalaitis was running, Mabou Mines produced Bertolt Brecht's enigmatic, early play In the Jungle of Cities, and hired Anne Bogart to direct it. Anne was a very hot item right about then, her recent departure from Trinity Rep notwithstanding, and there was a good deal of excitement about the potential synergy of Anne Bogart, Mabou Mines and Brecht. The excitement, sadly, did not bear fruit.

The production was widely panned, although it did have its defenders, and it had some fine performances as well. It had Ruth Maleczech, a titanic force of nature and a phenomenal actor, but she was in a relatively small role. It had Fred Neumann, a man whom none other than Samuel Beckett had entrusted some of his prose pieces for adaptation to the stage, also a tremendous actor. And it had a wonderful, recent graduate of the NYU conservatory named Fanny Green, who acquitted herself splendidly. But on the whole, the productions failed, and there was a simple reason for that sad fact.

Frank Rich nailed the reason for this in his New York Times review of the production;

Since most of the large supporting cast is as smart-alecky in voice and gesture as Mr. Arrambide [the lead actor], the jungle of Ms. Bogart's Chicago is less a savage industrial wasteland out of Upton Sinclair than a benign absurdist cartoon, a rather sexless retread of R. Crumb.

Ms. Bogart does not dream big. She is so cautious that she minimizes the seedy Chinatown fantasized by Brecht, perhaps out of fear that a contemporary audience might be offended by the author's tongue-in-cheek use of old Charlie Chan ethnic stereotypes. (Even Shlink's Malayan identity is all but obliterated.) As bold esthetic sensuousness is missing from this "Jungle," so is most of Brecht's raw pain at discovering man's "infinite isolation." Far more care is devoted to the busy deployment of two moving men whose endless shifting of a few sticks of furniture typifies the evening's pedantic illustration of Brechtian stagecraft.

I was in a lot of those rehearsals, I was friends with the backstage interns who handed off and received that furniture from the actors on stage, and I can say that Frank Rich is absolutely right. Bogart did spend hours in those rehearsals painstakingly choreographing the movement of the furniture movers. But it gets worse. She had an assistant director for the production who was the development director (grantwriter) for Mabou Mines, an aspiring director himself, with whom, to my knowledge, she had not worked previously. When one of the actors would have a question about the scene involving, you know, their relationship to other characters in the scene, their needs or desires, or the outcomes they were seeking, she would motion the assistant director to run down and chat with them.

Now, getting to the essence of any scene is a challenge. Brecht's play is especially enigmatic, and it really takes someone with an overarching vision to help actors connect the dots. Someone like a director. Regardless of how helpful this assistant director's insights were, it's a terrible signal to send to the actors that their concerns, their legitimate concerns about how to act their roles well, are to be relegated to an assistant. They must NOT, under any circumstances, be allowed to interfere with the machinations of the director as the string-puller of the uber-marionettes.

Bogart reaped what she sowed. The production flopped. But worse than that, she left the lead members of Mabou Mines with a profound sense of betrayal. "We got taken" Ruth Maleczech said in the office on Ninth St, months later. She then proceeded to perform a spontaneous, derisive parody of "kinesthetic response", one of Bogart's most hallowed viewpoints.

This anecdote perfectly illustrates both the appeal and the danger of viewpoints. People who are studying acting want desperately to be initiated, to be shown the true secrets of doing compelling, memorable work. However, finding someone who can really help them with that is never easy. They may encounter a gifted teacher at school, college, or grad school, but eventually, they leave that institution, and are faced with finding someone who can help them continue to develop. The teaching of acting can be maddeningly insubstantial, ethereal even, and so often aspiring actors despair of finding someone who can help them make sense of it all: what to do with their minds, their bodies, their feelings, the text. It can seem to be impossible to find an approach that works with all of these elements together.

Viewpoints makes a false promise: put your money on the "physical". Anything that deals with the inner life or intention or yearning or longing smacks of dated, naive aberrations from Lee Strasberg's 1950's New York. Use viewpoints and focus on the physical, the acolytes are told, and let the rest take care of itself. And so the actor is introduced to this series of relatively simple "viewpoints" that are concerned with an actor's physical relationships with others in a space: how far away or close they are to each other, the shapes of their bodies, the mimicing of what others in the space are doing, the contours of the space itself, and potential responses to the gestural exhibitions of others. Follow these simple steps, and you, too, can be a "physical" actor.

The appeal is in the concreteness of what viewpoints is pushing, and in its relative simplicity. Through my years of training at the Yale School of Drama and at Duke before that, I watched it happen again and again: actors would be presented with a concrete skill to master, whether it was the "ask" list of words, in which the pronounciation of the short "a" sound varies across British and American dialects, or fencing, or scansion, or stage combat, or, yes, viewpoints, and they leaped at the promise that mastering this very concrete set of more or less mechanical rules, a set of rules that was divorced from things like judgment, intuition, and imagination, would somehow accredit them as actors. I can empathize with the impulse: learning to act well is not easy, even with the help of a caring and insightful teacher. But the promise, my friends, is a false one.

Any good acting teacher, like any good yoga teacher, or any good Alexander teacher, or any good Zen teacher, wil tell you, in one way or another, that it is all about body-mind integration. Viewpoints promises to make accessible something that DEPENDS on this integration of body and mind, i.e. acting, by focusing on the merely physical, and in a totally superficial way. I had a great piano teacher growing up, Linda Calligaro, and she insisted that you do NOT develop independence of the right hand and the left hand by practicing one hand at a time. Learning the part of a piece of music one hand at a time could be useful as a preliminary, but no gains would be made in achieving the INDEPENDENCE of the two hands by practicing one hand at a time. For that, you had to try to do the much more difficult challenge of playing with both hands at once. It's all about coordination. As so is acting. It's about learning to simultaneously direct your attention to people or things, sometimes ones that are present, sometimes not, use your voice, use your body, remember your lines, and an whole lot more. It's what Barack Obama has referred to as walking and chewing gum at the same time. It's rubbing your tummy and patting your head, jumping on one foot, naked, while speaking a bit of text that means everything to you in a way that honors both the punctuation and the need to preserve the integrity of the whole thought. Viewpoints, sadly, makes things just way too easy, and tries to make a virtue of that.

Viewpointa can have a value as part of an actor's training. It is definitely valuable for an actor to have a dynamic understanding of space and his or her relationships to others in that space, and the way she can use his body in relationship with the space and the others with whom she shares it. Too much of this awaremess, though, is NOT a good thing. These concerns are essentially the purvey of the director (viewpoints evolved out of dance composition principles), as they involve the "big picture". And being too aware of the "big picture" can be a major stumbling block for the actor: when he is thinking about that, he is thinking about what he, and everyone else, looks like, and is therefore the very definition of self-conscious. Viewpoints also tacitly encourages cleverness (or "smart-aleckeyness" as Frank Rich put it), and seeming clever has nothing to do with being vulnerable. So a LITTLE bit of viewpoints goes a long way. Some viewpoints proponents will no doubt say that their technique is not intended to replace "inner" work, but my experience with Anne Bogart, and Frank Rich's etimation of her work, shows that that is not the case.

The only way I can imagine viewpoints being valuable is as a kind of basic awareness of space and its possibilites. Though I have heard tell of scene study classes that attempt to incorporate viewpoints as part of the working process, I am very, very skeptical. Getting the attention of the actor on to the right things is difficult enough, and viewpoints is an invitation to focus on many of the wrong ones.

But whatever merits viewpoints may have, it is NOT a substitute for a real approach to the difficult terrain that belongs to the actor: the domain of dreams, fears, needs, outcomes, interventions, confrontations, and intuition, as well as the body and the voice. And like Mrs. Calliagaro said, the real work begins when you are practicing using all of these things at one time. Is it difficult to work with these thing all together? Yes. Is there only one way of doing it? No. Is finding an approach to dealing with these things necessary for any actor who wants to sustain a creative life in acting in film or theater? Absolutely. The only way out, a wise man once said, is through. That's a viewpoint you can believe in.

(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.)

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.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

the trouble with Meisner

A while back I received an inquiry about my classes which contained the following:

I'm a Meisner-trained actor looking for
a scene study class with a minimal focus on technique. Coming
from a Meisner background, I want the class to be more about the
interaction between the actors, and staying truthful
moment-to-moment and less about script analysis.

This person's Meisner teacher had instilled in him a suspicion, a fear, a paranoia even, of "technique" and "text analysis." The first thing to say about this is Meisner is itself a technique. Techniques are nothing more than ways of approaching things, and they are nothing to be afraid of.

But beyond that, this teacher had imprinted upon him a prejudice about text analysis that is more disturbing. I once spoke to one of my mentors at Yale, Evan Yionooulis, about Meisner. Evan chaired the acting program at Yale for five years. What she said is that Meisner is great for learning to "take it off of the other person", but not so great for learning organizing principles of working on a scene or a role. "Organizing principles" has an abstract sound to it, but what she meant by that term was this: a set of priorities, when approaching a scene or a role. Or, a set of questions which point you toward the significant and urgent elements of the character's situation, elements that will unquestionably impact how you play the scene, such as: what do I most need? What do I expect to happen next, best-case and worst-case? What are my strengths? What are my vulnerabilities? What are the greatest losses or failures I have suffered? Who is the person I am interacting with to me? etc. Such questions often strike students initially in my class as not terribly challenging, but as we discover in the scene work again and again, being able to frame compellingly and appropriately for yourself things like who you are in a scene, what you expect, and what happened in the past are critical in rising to the challenge presented by any scene and embracing the imaginary circumstances involved.

The phobia about "text analysis" bespeaks the actor's perennial fear of being "in her head". And certainly, text analysis undertaken wrongly, as, for example, an exercise in literary criticism, will land an actor in her head. But that is exactly why it is appropriate for an actor's training to include a procedure for how to approach the text involved in a scene and a role, and how to work towards identifying what is essential to it.

I have had students in my class who are either taking Meisner classes concurrently or have taken them in the past. They complain about the way in which certain words are used in Meisner classes almost talismanically, without explanation, like "listening" or "doing". The idea is that a good actor "really listens" and "really does", but to say more about what is meant by this is to betray or profane a sacred mystery. Some students are fine with refusal to explicate, and can learn what is meant by these terms by following the way an instructor praises or doesn't praise students' work in the repetition exercises. And to be fair, the teaching of acting is always going to be in part an experiential affair: books on acting can be great, but they can never suffice all by themselves. Helping the observers in the class see the important things and understand them is inevitable part of a good class, no matter how you slice it. But there is a difference between refusing to explain ANYTHING and a willingness to enlighten when and where it is possible. I think many Meisner teachers tend towards the former.

Another quagmire that can develop in Meisner classes is that as the repetition exercises unfold, INITIALLY the emphasis is on receiving from the partner and answering him or her, but then, as the weeks go by, a premium starts to be placed on repetition exercises where an emotional escalation takes place. Students then begin to work for this type of display, and the focus becomes totally wrong. Any acting teacher worth his salt, Meisner or not, will tell you that the emotion in an actor's work is a by-product of engagement with others. When the emotion experienced by the actor becomes the focus of the actor's attention, she is experiencing HERSELF having the emotion, rather than experiencing the partner and the scene. The histrionic displays can be impressive, but they are a colossal red herring. That is just not what it's about.

Meisner is a great approach to study, no two ways about it. Properly taught, it is a great way to learn to put your attention on your partner. However, it has limitations and dangers, like any technique, and in the hands of an untalented teacher, it can be worse that no technique at all.

I met a Los Angeles talent agent not long ago who said that he didn't need his people to be good, he just needed them to be able to "carry on a conversation in front of the camera". That was what it took to get work in the acting chops department. And Meisner can be a great way for people to learn to talk and listen naturally. But there is a lot more to acting than talking and listening naturally. You don't get memorable and inspiring performances without a solid measure of boldness, insight and imagination as well. A technique that helps orient the actor toward the secrets of the scene carefully planted by the writer in plain sight, and invites the actor to use these secrets to enliven his imagination, helps him become not just a credible presence in front of the camera or on stage, but a luminous one.

(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, March 03, 2009

Sully Sullenberger tells it like it is

One way of looking at this might be that, for 42 years, I've been making small regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training," said US Airways Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger of Danville. "And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.

Did you catch that? Sullenberger says that his tour de force landing of the plane in the Hudson was prepared for by a lifetime of experience, training, and eduction. You want to work miracles when you act? Time to start putting some deposits in to that account (Couses starting April 6(SF) and 8 (LA) :) )

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