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.)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Prison Guards Union Squashes Inmates' Musical

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

This is a cryin' shame:

A troupe of 18 convicted murderers, robbers and other felons at Woodbourne Correctional Facility had been scheduled to perform an original play Wednesday at Eastern Correctional Facility in Ellenville.

But the state Department of Correctional Services has canceled the show because union workers threatened to picket.

This was a project that a very noble group had launched:

In January 2008, inmates began writing and rehearsing their own Broadway-style show about the difficulty of living behind bars and keeping a family. The play, "Starting Over," was funded and supervised by Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a nonprofit group that seeks to reduce recidivism through arts enrichment programs. The group declined comment on the cancellation, but it forged ahead with a production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" last week at Sing Sing.

And why? The Prison Guards Union just didn't see the point:

Kevin Walker, regional vice president for the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, said prison farms, annexes and print shops have been useful because they teach skills that can be applied toward a job on the outside. The union saw no value in theater work.

"How many of these medium-security convicts do you think will go to Broadway and get a job?" Walker said. "We believe it's a blatant waste of manpower and funding."

Un-effin-believable. This is a profoundly sad commentary on the pervasive, radical ignorance in this country about the way in which artistic practice enriches the lives of those who participate in it. These are men who have lost everything, and most carry horrendous burdens of guilt and shame with them, attempting to collaborate constructively to EXPRESS THEMSELVES!!! Oh THE HORROR!!! My take: the Prison Guards were jealous that prsioners were taking such initiative to transform their lot and enrich their lives. Cut a little too close to home for these philistines.

Please, pass this on!!!

And here are some people you can contact to complain about it:

Kevin Walker (mentioned above)

New York State Department of Correctional Servies

Governor PatersonL

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

some questions

I was on a website called today and I came across some thought-provoking questions I wanted to share with all of my friends on teh Internets. If you want to know the answer, you can visit yourself, and search for the answer. You will be enlightened!

  • Did a security guard ever annoy you?
  • What is that song that come out in French movie girl riding on bicycle and story is she falls in love with book writer... love triangle..... I have been trying to figure this out for so many days...
  • I have started a casual thing with this guy,he has invited me to his house later and asked me to bring a porn movie with me,what should i read into this?is he getting more comfortable with me?
  • Which animal is the meanest on earth?
  • Your 1.6 ghz computer acts like a 386... what do you do?
  • What is the recipe for the butter fried lobster sold in Puerto Neuvo, Baja California, Mexico?
  • What would you do if your older daughter was negative in all she talked about or did and every time she came to visit she would curse her son out in front of you being the grandmother of the child and then she talked bad about you and the other siblings?
  • Do you like to ride in a convertable?
  • How did human evolutions came from apes if most apes live no more than 75 years? don't a ape would have to live thousands or ten thousands of years for this to happen?
  • Have you ever seen a blue rabbit?
  • Does anybody find the burger king guy creepy and what would you do if you saw him peeking in your window
  • What is that rap song that came out in the 90's, it has a guy and a girl singing thats like, na na na na na na na na na something something "well always be together" na na nana na na na na na...Ive been trying to figure this out for days!
  • What is good way to get knowledge?
  • Would you rather receive an official letter or an official e-mail?
  • Are the new Giant Cheetos commercials meant to be creepy as hell?
  • Will i lose weight if i jump everyday. Will my breast become bigger or not?
  • When i was baptized in 2004 it was like having new life after a rain.Written by myself.Decribe to me what the rain means logicaly or spirituly
  • I'm in the malI, I can't make to the bathroom. What do I do? (13
  • Hi, my wife tried to use a credit card online by inserting it into the floppy port of our pc. I have tried to fish it out but looks like it will have to come apart to retrieve the card. Is that a easy task to do? Thanks.
  • My boyfriend is 29, and he revealed to me when he was 20 a man sucked his penis..... do you think he may still have those tendecies
  • Were you disappointed when your doggie didn't want to eat or didn't enjoy the box of Scooby Doo snacks; you purchased for them?
  • Does a cold beverage taste better to you in a glass or in a plastic cup or does it really matter?
  • What do you do when your friend ditches you? Her excuse being 'your trying to steal my boyfriend', which is completely untrue and stupid as im not like that at all.
  • If the Civil War were to happen today, would you fight for the west?
  • How much would you guess you pan of Lasagna weighs when you are all done with preparing it? (I swear mine has got to be 5 lbs. or better)
  • How many times have you actually followed your gut instinct and what you felt was going to happen didn't because you felt it and did something different?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Saving Uta Hagen

I have been snooping around on the Acting Methods and Approaches Message Board and a couple of times I have seen posters speak of Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg as essentially equivalent in terms of the approach to acting that they espouse. This is a misperception, and it seems to spring from two sources: first, a belief that what Hagen calls "transference" (earlier, "substitution") is somehow roughly equivalent to "affective memory", the technique that defined Lee Strasberg, and second, the fact that Uta Hagen does discuss and even recommend affective memory in her books, which does seem to align her with Strasberg. In that sense, the confusion is not entirely without warrant. I propose to shed some light on both of these, and demonstrate that although Uta Hagen has a pragmatic openness to the possible uses of affective memory, she does not regard it as the alpha and the omega of compelling acting, as Strasberg does.

Before we proceed, let's define some terms. Here is what the Cambridge History of the American Theater has to say about Strasberg and the use of affective memory:

And in a technique called affective memory, … Strasberg believed he had found a reliable aid for achieving [true emotion]. … What Strasberg prized about the technique was that the actor would be using true emotion – his own reawakened real-life feelings – to color and deepen his performance. . . Maintaining that the technique was the surest way of achieving the style of psychological realism the Group was searching for, Strasberg placed it as the foundation of his work

The idea is that the actor, while rehearsing and performing (this is key, as we'll see later), is making use of emotionally charged episodes from her own life in order to summon the feeling appropriate to the scene. Over the years, this has been controversial, to put it mildly. Most famously, Stella Adler argued that Strasberg had been mistaken in giving primacy to this practice. From the Wikipedia entry on Stella Adler:

Adler's biggest issue with Strasberg concerned whether an actor should use the technique of "affective memory" (recalling a personal event or sensory experience for more expressive and truthful behavior), or living in the moment, using your partner to create a believable result. It's been said that after Strasberg died, Adler asked for a moment of silence in her class for the famous actor. Afterwards, she allegedly claimed that it will take a hundred years to repair what Strasberg did to acting.

To some extent, the use of affective (or emotional) memory has become a kind of line in the sand in the teaching of acting in this country: you either believe in it or you don't, and most of the time, never the twain shall meet. For a good example of this, check out the writings of David Mamet and the practical aesthetics crowd: they take the reviling of affective memory to heretofore unknown heights.

Interestingly, Uta Hagen is someone who appears to walk the line between the two camps, although, I will ultimately maintain, her heart belongs clearly in one of them. In both her books, Respect for Acting and A Challenge for the Actor, she describes the practice of affective memory. She is very careful, though, to qualify and limit its use, characterizing it as a means for meeting certain kinds of challenges posed by a role, but not as an end in itself. Here she is, close to the end of her discussion of emotional memory in A Challenge for the Actor:

You will need to supply personal psychological realities only when direct contact with the events, the objects, and your partner fails to stimulate you, when the imagination alone fails to support your specific actions during the moment-to-moment give and take that will prove you are alive on stage.

For Hagen, affective memory is a kind of stopgap when the things which are supposed to galvanize an actor in a scene (circumstance, relationship, need, pushback from scene partners) are, for whatever reason, not doing the trick. Then, the actor might use a dash of affective memory in order to stir the pot, but:

The sole purpose of developing a limber psychological instrument, and the correct technique of spontaneous emotional recall, is to discover and execute the consequent actions (what we do about what we feel) and to give substance to the actions which are the true communicators of our character.

So Uta sees some possible place for the use of affective memory, but her priority is doing, which places her comfortably in the camp of Adler, Meisner, and those who emphasize being in the moment over reliving the past.

So much for affective memory. However, I believe that the source of the confusion about where to place Uta Hagen relative to Strasberg comes not from her flirtation with emotional memory, but from her concept of transference, which she previously called substitution. In a nutshell, transference is a way to create investment in the persons, places, and things from the fictional world of the text by making reference to people, places and things from our own experience. If I were playing Blanche DuBois, then I might use my own sister Elizabeth as a transference for Stella. My relationship with Elizabeth becomes an experiential frame of reference for my relationship with Stella (Hagen speaks of the transference as evoking the "essence" of the relationship). Ideally, I would come to value "Stella" in a way approximated by the way I value my sister Elizabeth. So transference is a way of creating correlations between people, places and things in the world of the play and similar persons, places and things from my own experience. The goal of transference is not to put me in an emotional state, but to help me orient myself towards whoever or whatever I am interacting with appropriately and compellingly.
Uta Hagen is very clear that transferences are something that is used to prepare to do a scene:

[A transference] should not lead you to private feelings and reveries when you are on stage. A transference is incomplete until the original source has become synonymous with the material in the play...[When practicing transference] I have not hung onto an image of [the person from my own experience] or dangles their images before my eyes. That would cloud my awareness of the partner and my influence on him.

While in the scene, Uta Hagen wants the actor present to his partner, not recycling feelings from your personal history. This much is clear.

The confusion about an identity or strong affinity between Hagen's views and Strasberg's arises, I think, because Hagen does ask the actor to make use of his personal experience through transference, but she asks him to do so, by and large, as a way of preparing to act, not as a technique for acting itself. But because she does point to the sensible use of the personal experience of the actor (and why not?), she is often misunderstood as an advocate of emotional memory as THE way to act as a scene. And that, she most emphatically is not.

In my own classes, I assign readings from Hagen on transference, inner monologue, sense memory (frequently confused with affective memory but quite distinct from it), and physical life. She writes on these things inspiringly and clearly, and has great things to say on these subjects. I don't make use of emotional memory, as I don't see it as a primary means of getting the job done. I don't dispute that it can have a limited kind of usefulness in preparing a performance, for example, for a scene that has to start at a particularly strong emotional pitch. But a scene is like a roller coaster ride, and emotional memory is useful only for getting to a particular altitude. In the scene, you have to get to that altitude with the right momentum and speed, and headed in the right direction. If you need to start from a great height, emotional memory might help you reach that starting point, but the real work is learning to take the ride, and enjoy it.

I do recognize, though, that Lee Strasberg trained a number of great actors. There is a phrase that Hagen uses that gestures at another potential use of emotional memory: she speaks of becoming "psychologically limber." It reminds me of a remark of Kafka's: "A book should be an axe to break up the frozen sea within." Emotional memory can be a technique to break up the emotional sod, so to speak, to tune one's emotional instrumeent, to use a pretentious turn of phrase. People do have blockages and inhibitions, and emotional memory can be a way of overcoming emotional constipation, quite apart from the use it might have in a scene. To use it successfully in this way, as emotional uncoiling, it would take a teacher of extraordinary sensitivity and integrity, as this type of work would likely take people to some very fragile places. I have heard tell of teachers who teach this technique and are simultaneously abusive, and I hope one day their bad karma catches up with them. And pedagogically, I believe there is as much to master in the much more immediately useful skills of coming to grips with a character's circumstances and entering into them, playing off the partner and embodying a need in a scene. Further, there is nothing to say that engaging in this much more grounded type of work, with much clearer lines between the art and the personal life, cannot stretch the actor in ways that will help her to achieve the psychological limberness Uta Hagen recommends. I have seen it happen, and it has been, and continues to be, supremely satisfying.

It might have seemed like Uta Hagen needed to come back to the five and dime, but in the truth, she never left.

(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.)

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

shameless self promotion

Hi y'all,

THis is a press release I just put out and I wanted to share.

Acting Teacher's Students Blazing Creative Trails
Andrew Utter, founder of the Mother of Invention Acting School in Los Angeles and San Francisco, finds that his students are seeking out and finding fresh and exciting opportunities to practice their art.

Mother of Invention Acting School

PRLog (Press Release) – May 06, 2009 – Andrew Utter, founder of the Mother of Invention Acting School in Los Angeles and San Francisco, started his acting school five years ago, and is constantly amazed at the variety and richness of the work that his students are doing. From booking a small speaking part in Gus van Sant's 'Milk' to creating a touring one-woman show by a Palestinian-American entitled 'I Heart Hamas and Other Things I Am Afraid to Tell You', Utter' finds that his students carry on the idealism, the passion and the love of the art of acting that he espouses in his classes.

"One of the best things about this gig, aside from the classroom experience, and seeing people make strides in their skill as an actor, is hearing back from students about the things they are up to. I'll get a Facebook message that someone just got a role in an independent film, or I'll hear that someone got into a graduate program they applied for, and I will feel like a proud papa for a whole week!" Utter muses.

Utter's student Dawn Scott was admitted to the National Theater Conservatory in Colorado, which included a full scholarship and a stipend for three years and the opportunity to study trapeze as part of the training! Another student, Tim Rossi, just got a role in an independent film shooting this June in San Francisco called 'Sedona's Rule', about a man who agrees to let his girlfirend cheat on him, and is subsequently drawn into dangerous sexual intrigue. Miklos Philips, a filmmaker who studied with Utter, has made films which have been shown in several festivals and on NBC's Universal's Digital Television Channel 4.4 Independent Producer Showcase. Holly Shaw, an actor and choreographer, recently produced an evening of wolrd dance at Fort Mason's Cowell Theater, entitled 'Eyes of Eve', which included pieces that Shaw choreographed and appeared in, but also included many other pieces that allowed Bay Area dancers and choreographers to show their work.. Jeremy Mascia has becone a regular with the offbeat and surprising PianoFIght Productions, a theater/improv/comedy troupe operating in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"I am very lucky to attract students who want to learn to do great work as actors and have a creative vision all their own. A lot of actors don't feel a lot of ownership of their own creative destinies, but you can't say that about my students. They have the pluck and determination to search out or create the contexts that will allow them to be the creative artists that they want to be" says Utter.

Utter started teaching in San Francisco five years ago, and began offering classes in Los Angeles in October. He founded the School to create a forum to pass on the tremendous acting training he received at the Yale Schoold Drama from master teachers like Earle Gister and Evan Yionoulis. He lives in San Francisco but travels weekly to Los Angeles to teach there. "I love teaching in both cities. They have very different things going for them, but there are passionate, creative people in both. I plan to keep a foot in both cities in the future."

The courses Utter teaches at Mother of Invention run in ten week cycles. The next cycles begin the week of June 30. More information is available at the School's website,
# # #

About Mother of Invention Acting School. The Mother of Invention Acting School was founded in 2004 by director Andrew Utter, MFA, Yale School of Drama. Utter founded the School to create a forum to transmit the approach to acting that he encountered from master teachers like Evan Yionoulis and Earle Gister at Yale to serious, motivated students.

Monday, May 04, 2009

the ego of the acting teacher

The tough acting teacher is such a familiar type as to be a cliche. It's a ruthless business, so the reasoning goes, so teachers need to be ruthless with their students to prepare them for the brutal, cutthroat world that they will face in showbiz. Students often embrace this ethos. How many times have I had students say "I want you to be harsh with me", believing that this harshness will make it more likely that they will succeed the next time. Suffering through the harshness becomes a badge of pride: "my training must have been good, it was harsh."

I encounter this attitude in many students. There is no question that acting is challenging, and that teachers need to be challenging. Certainly no one who comes to my class walks away feeling unchallenged. Compelling acting is difficult to do, no matter how you slice it. I make no bones about this to my students, and I am always ready to invite them to fulfill the aspect of the scene or role that they may not yet have attended to. But it is also true that acting is a confidence game: being able to do it entails believing that you can do it, and harshness or abuse from a revered teacher is a great way to destroy that confidence forever.

I have heard stories of acting teachers saying things to students, in front of a whole acting class, such as "You know, you wouldn't be having this problem if you weren't sleeping with a truck driver." There is so much wrong with this, I don't know where to begin: betraying a confidence, inappropriate use of knowledge about someone's personal life in a public setting, shaming about sexuality and pleasure, and humiliation, all rolled up into one ugly bundle. I shudder to think about what that student suffered. There is no excuse for behavior like this from teachers who have been entrusted with the creative aspirations and dreams of others. To my mind, it has more than a little in common with child abuse.

The truth is people like to be challenged, and they like the challenge of pleasing a demanding teacher. There is simply no need for this type of abusive treatment. That is not to say that people never need to be confronted about their foibles and evasions, but context and tone mean everything in that type of intervention.

And then there are the acting teachers who publicly harangue their students for a one-time lateness. It's true that an acting class needs structure, and that that structure is part of what creates the feeling of safety for the participants. But there is simply no way that this kind of no-wiggle-room approach can truly foster an environment conducive to creativity. I have evolved my own set of rules for dealing with attendance and promptness, and I find that they are very adequate. There is no need to shame or humiliate anyone. in fact, the most important thing I can do to promote observance of the class structure is to start on time and have something really interesting to say, so that students will be motivated to be present for as much of class as possible.

There are a lot of people who gravitate to acting because they think it looks easy, and it can be a rude awakening for them when they come to learn how much work and dedication is involved. Sometimes I have to be the agent of that awakening for someone, but even then, I endeavor to keep it respectful: for all I know, they will be ready to dedicate in the fullness of time, but they simply aren't right now. And that's ok. Better that we both recognize where they are right now and move on.

Theater and film are collaborative art forms. As teachers, we have an obligation to prepare our students to work collaboratively by modelling the practice of standing for high quality in the work of the actors that we work with while adhering to a basic principle of respect for all people. There is simply no acceptable alternative.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Big Art flop

Last weekend I went to see the Big Art Group's show at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. I have good associations with Yerba Buena: it was there that Cassie Powell introduced me to Miranda July. She took me to see her live show there, and it had a big impact on me, influencing the way that I conducted the Friends and Family Night presentations at the end of the ten week cycles of my classes.

Big Art Group, though, was another story. I had heard some good things, and the pictures looked intriguing. When I sat down in the theater, though, I began to feel uneasy. My frame of reference for multimedia work is the incomparable Wooster Group, and one of the many things that was so dazzling about them was the way in which the multimedia equipment that decked the stage was always arranged and rearranged with an eye toward the overall visual composition of the landscape: human figures, scenic elements, video monitors, and mic stands conspired to form an eternally arresting composition, and this was even true upon entering the theater, in the time before the performance started.

The stage for Big Art Group was crowded with multimedia equipment that seemed to be arranged in no particular way relative to the rest of the space. There was nothing alluring or artful about the array of screens and mics and other stuff that lay in waiting for the performance to begin.

It turned out that this was shades of things to come. The performance was big and loud. The acting was not good. The subject matter, insofar as I could even grasp it at all, was glib and devoid of interest. The director seemed conflicted about whether we should watch the actors in the center of the stage or their projected faces on the giant screens above, and this conflict was not even remotely aesthetically interesting, just confused. I lasted about twenty-five minutes.

As much as I love California, I often wonder what new talents are exploding onto the scene back in NYC. This is one I won't need to wonder about anymore.

(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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