Sunday, November 29, 2009

when it's important to be an adult

Acting teachers famously emphasize the importance of "play" for actors, and rightfully so. The give and take of doing a scene involves actors "playing" off each other in the manner of jazz improvisation. Ask and answer, receive and respond. And with the advent of the nineties, we learned of the "Inner Child", that part of all of us which hungers for spontaneous, positive, playful, connected interaction with others, which many look for (and find) in acting.

However, there are aspects of an actor's work where the wisdom and insight that come with life experience are called for. Interestingly, this fact can be seen clearly through looking at a way in which adults are at a disadvantage in comparison with children There's a recent Wired Science article that reports on how children fare better in not getting tricked by optical illusions in which there is a misleading context. Consider the following:

In each of the three cases, the orange ball on the right is larger. However, in a study cited in the article, adults were more likely to be deceived by misleading contextual information than young children were.

This unusual triumph of kids over grown-ups suggests that the brain’s capacity to consider the context of visual scenes, and not just focus on parts of scenes, develops slowly, say psychologist Martin Doherty of the University of Stirling in Scotland and his colleagues. Even at age 10, children lack adults’ attunement to visual context, Doherty’s team concludes in a paper published online November 12 in Developmental Science.

As a result, visual context can be experimentally manipulated to distort adults’ perception of objects’ sizes. But Doherty’s group finds that children, especially those younger than 7, show little evidence of altered size perception on a task called the Ebbinghaus illusion.

In other words, the adult's tendency to consider context to make judgments, in this case, works against her. The scientists involved attribute this to the nature of the development of the brain, and they are no doubt right. However, I would also suggest that in general in life, assessing situations and making judgements well depends on an awareness of the importance of context, and acquiring this awareness is a part of the maturation process. Unlike the situation with this example, awareness of the value and importance of context is an enormous asset. I can remember an incident from when I was a child. It was Christmas, and my cousins and their parents had come over for the afternoon and evening. My cousins' parents were less protective than mine, and they had seen the movie Grease! I must have been 8 or 9 at the time, and my two cousins were a year older and a year younger than I was. They told me about the drive-in incident in the movie, which ends with Sandy slamming the door on Danny's "nuts", as my cousins referred to them. I understood what was meant by that, but I had no awareness of how the contexts in which this might be appropriate are limited. Within a short time, I had repeated the story for the whole company, adults and all. My cousins were mortified, which surprised me, and amused, and the adults were not pleased. In this incident, I learned something about in what contexts talk of "nuts" might be appropriate, and contexts where they aren't.

I wrote previously about what a huge role, in working on a scene, that considering the context that is invoked implicitly (not explicitly) plays. There is always some very important part of the scene that is left implicit; otherwise it wouldn't be very interesting writing. But what's the problem? My acting students are adults. They have the requisite understanding of the importance of context that will help them understand what is involved in a scene, what is at stake, and what to do with that information, right? Well, in truth, no. All of us tend to regress in unfamiliar and challenging situations, and for most people, acting, getting up in front of people and pretending to be be someone else, is an unfamiliar and challenging situation. Also, preparing to act a scene is another unfamiliar and challenging situation. Challenging for different reasons, but challenging nonetheless. In these situations, in my experience, actors often lose their hard-won sensitivity to context that they have acquired from their years living their life, and they cling to a hope that what they need to do to act the scene will be handed to them by the writer; that they only need be careful students of what the writer has laid out for them, and they will have everything they need. They seldom are able, of their own initiative, to activate their own sensitivity to context and do the imaginative work necessary to project themselves into that context and see things the way they need to so that the scene comes fully alive.

An example. A play I like to work on in the class a lot is Neal Bell's Cold Sweat. There is a whipsmart, tough woman at the center of it, lots of two person scenes, a range of types of characters for both genders, lots of wit, depth, and passion, what's not to like? There is one scene in which the main character, Alice Franklin, in a moment of crisis, goes alone to a graveyard to visit her father's grave. Her sidekick and close friend, Fay, has followed her secretly, and makes her presence known when the graveyard gates are about to close. When asked to account for how she happens to be there, Fay tells Alice that she followed her there, and when questioned on this, she says "I saw you buying a bottle of rotgut wine, and wondered if you were sad. Are you sad?"

After the students do their scene, I question them on a lot of things. I ask the actor playing Fay why she chose to follow Alice rather than greet her when she saw her buying the wine. The actor is always pulled up short, because this point is not explicitly addressed by the writer. The answer is that somehow, Fay knows that Alice is avoiding her. The whys and the wherefores of that are too complicated for this discussion, and it is also not explicitly addressed in the scene. Many other things are, such as the fact that Alice hasn't written the lecture she is supposed to deliver that night. However, it is contemplating this particular point, that Fay knew that Alice was avoiding her, that can bring the actor playing Fay into consciousness that her problem in the scene is that her friend is pulling away from her, not whether or not Alice writes the lecture. "The scene is about the relationship, not about the plot" is a mantra in the class. The lecture is part of the plot, and the plot is always what is foregrounded. The plot is, however, never the key to unlocking the scene for the actor. The key is the relationship, and the relationship is related to many things outside the scene, i.e., the context of the scene.

When we get through the discussion to this point, the actor playing Fay is invariably nodding her head. The "adult" part of her, the part of her with aforementioned sensitivity to context, knows the truth of what I am saying intuitively. The "child" part of her, the part that wanted to avoid the work of imaginatively addressing the context of the scene and work only with what the writer had made explicit in the dialogue, had won the day in her preparation process, though.

In the Alexander technique, the first step in changing a habit is "inhibiting", or obstructing the habitual response. Actors need to develop the ability to inhibit the child-like wish for the plot to be the answer, for the writer to hand them all they need to know on a silver platter. They need to be able to recognize when they are reaching for such "ready-to-hand" answers to fundamental questions about the role, and the need to set those answers aside and see what arises from further introspection and study. Recognizing the need to do this, and the act of doing this, are hallmarks of an actor who brings the wisdom and experience of adulthood to bear on their role.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

the wayward "Messenger"

I really, really wanted to like this movie. I hate feeling so disconnected from the wars this country is engaged in. I went to the movie ready to be kicked in the stomach and take it, and feel some of the pain that the people who have been robbed of their loved ones by our foreign interventions. For a while, it seemed like I was well on track to experience just that. The first third of the movie is tightly focused on the initiation of Ben Foster's character into the practice of informing families that their loved one has been killed. The able Woody Harrelson is his Virgil, guiding him through the perils and pitfalls of this series of emotional minefields, where the soldier delivering the message is confronted with his own impotence to do anything in the face of the wrenching, profound loss the recipients of the bad news experience before his eyes.

But by halfway through, it becomes clear that the director does not know where to take the story. In the end it seems the story was supposed to be about the bond between these two men, but by the time we get there, there have been several digressions and false starts, and waters have been substantially muddied. The catharses intended in the final scenes disappoint, in a word. Ben Foster may well win an Oscar for his work in this, although not because the acting is extraordinary, but because he did a serviceable job on a role that cannot but elicit enormous sympathy, given the type it embodies: the troubled soldier, hounded by wartime loss and perceived failure.

But what is even more disappointing than the movie itself is the apparent lack of hunger for narratives like this one. We have been at war for almost a decade now, and inside Fortress America we are largely shielded from the horrors and costs of these episodes. This movie opened two weeks ago, and is playing in only one cinema in San Francisco, and even then there are only two showings a day, sharing a theater with Boondock Saints II. The theater was about three-quarters full at a 7:30 showing on Saturday night. People are busy with Black Friday and Twilight and Ninja Assasin, I guess. Perhaps the buzz on the movie is not good enough, but the reviews have largely been kind to it. I feel a bit of frustration that the moviegoing public does not seem to feel any urgency about engaging with these issues, even as President Obama weighs what the course will be in Afghanistan. Flawed as it was, this movie should have a greater audience. Time for the citizens of this country to step up.

Bob Dylan-- Must Be Santa

This is one Christmas song I won't resent hearing. As a kid, I absolutely loved it. I would sing it shamelessly, at the top of my lungs, even though I can't sing very well.

The video reminds me a lot of the video to the song Jonathan David by Belle & Sebastian. Since B&S have a song about Dylan, and to me they seem to be totally kindred spirits, it wouldn't surprise me if Dylan had actually seen their video.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

William H. Macy is a written page guy. That's good, but...

From a profile of Macy done accompanying the release of Bobbie:

Macy, like his friend, mentor and longtime collaborator David Mamet, does not believe in delving into his characters any further than the writer has already delved. He doesn't believe that creating a back-story - a cherished aspect of the Method school - does anything for the performance.

"I'm a written-page guy," he says. "The writer gives you everything you need."
And in one very important sense, I am with him. I quoted that same remark of his in a previous posting in which I take pretty much the same position. For me, acting is about touching the same impulse in yourself that prompted the writer to invent the character in the first place. The text is the alpha and the omega. When Mamet and Macy make remarks like this, their targets are approaches such as Method acting, which relies heavily on the actor's personal experience, and, to a lesser extent, Meisner, which gives primacy to the immediate connection to the partner, and the circumstances and text are built up around that.

Before proceeding, I'll point out that Mamet and Macy are not quite the textual purists they sometimes make themselves out to be. Part of their approach, as described in the Practical Handbook for the Actor, involves finding what they call an "As If", a kind of equivalence between the challenge facing the character in the scene and the actor's own life experience. They are still STRONGLY oriented towards the text, much moreso than the Strasberg "method" is, but they do advocate this kind of extra-textual reflection as part of the actor's process. I advocate something similar in the approach I teach, so I do not fault them for this. I have made my reservations about Mamet's Practical Aesthetics known elsewhere. I have something else I want to focus on here.

While I consider myself a "written page guy", as well, I think that there is a way in which Mamet and Macy make things sound deceptively simple. I had been thinking about discussing this for a while, and then, in one of those marvelous moments of serendipity that all creatives know and cherish, I came across a brilliant exposition of the difficulty with what they are saying, in quite an unlikely context. That context was a book by technology guru Clay Shirky called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations , which, by the way, is a great read if you are interested in what's coming next in the way we live now. But here is the Shirky passage I found deeply relevant to this discussion:

There's a story in my family about my parent's first date. My father, wanting to impress my mother, decided to take her to a drive-in, however, he had to borrow his father's car. Once they were at the movie, my mother, wanting to impress my father, ordered the most sophisticated drink available, which was a root-beer float. Now my mother hates root beer, always has, and after imbibing it, she proceeded to throw up on the floor of my grandfather's car. My father had to drive her home, missing the movie he'd driven fifteen miles and paid a dollar to see. Then he had to clean the car and return it with an explanantion and an apology. (There was, fortunately for me, a second date.)

Now, what part of the story is about the internal combustion engine. None of it, in any obvious way, but all of it, in another way. No engine, no car. No cars, no using cars for dates. (The effect of automobiles on romance would be hard to overstate.) No dates in cars, no drive-in movies. And so on. Our life is so permeated with the automotive that understand immediately how my father must have felt when my grandfather let him borrow the car, and how carefully he must have cleaned it before returning it, without thinking about internal combustion at all.

Now imagine, if you will, that someone had written a script of the scene in which Shirky return the car keys to his father, explains what happens, and apologizes. Depending on what his dad was like, this scene could have gone a lot of different ways. But the important point is that the stuff that Shirky mentions about how central the automobile is to the way we date now would have gone unmentioned in such a scene. It would be understood. It does not belong to the text, strictly speaking, but to the context, in this case the historical context.

I am now going to make a categorical statement: all fiction derives its power, to some extent at least, from the rub, the friction, between the text and the context in which the actions it depicts transpires. If you take a screenwriting class, and you write a scene in which a character explicitly states everything about his or her situation, you will be told that this is too "on the nose." It is part of what is mysterious and awesome about storytelling that it engages our understanding of the world in presenting itself, without making its reliance on that understanding explicit. The story is told, and in the process aspects of the context of the story are invoked, in the way the primacy of the automobile is invoked in the above anecdote, without our even being aware of their evocation. Henry James, in the preface to his novel The Wings of the Dove, spoke of wanting his characters to

assert their fulness and roundness, their power to revolve, so that they have sides and backs, parts in the shade as true as parts in the sun

The terms in the sun are the aspects of the situation or circumstances that the writer makes explicit, in the dialogue in the case of a play, and the terms in the shade are the aspects of the situation that we grasp without knowing that we grasp them. They are alluded to or evoked on the written page, but they are not stated outright; then they would no longer be in the shade. Everything would be in the sun, and nothing would be in the shade. There would be no mystery, no enigma, nothing miraculous about the unfolding of the story. Everything would be open to view. Shirky says above that we "instantly understand" what is true about the car and its significance and value, and in one sense we do, although Shirky himself felt the need to spell it out in his discussion, so while we may grasp that importance in experiencing the story, we may also have a difficult time articulating that importance if prompted.

Uta Hagen famously remarked that "every good actor has a secret." The only meaningful way to understand that remark, in my view, given that Hagen herself was a believer in the importance of the text, is that the actor has somehow unlocked those aspects of a situation or a scene that the writer has not made explicit, but are critical to recognizing what is actually at stake in the scene. Actors continually want to believe that everything important in the scene is laid out for them in the script, and it is in the script, but it is not laid out for them. They have to unearth it. Let me be clear: I do not mean that they have to psychoanalyze the character in order to discover what is driving them, unless the writer herself has included psychoanalysis in the play itself. Wittgenstein wrote that "The aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. We fail to be to struck by that which, once seen, is most striking and powerful." It is these aspects of the situation that are so familiar that they are hiding in plain sight that we need to discover, and then we will have earned the "secret" that Uta Hagen calls for.

It turns out that no less an eminence than Aristotle understood the importance of the relationship between text and context. (I like to read the blog of Nobel-Prize winning Princeton economist Paul Krugman, and he mostly writes for general consumption, but he'll sometimes write a post that gets deep into the economic weeds, and when he does that, he labels the post "wonkish". My post is about to become a little wonkish, but only a little, so bear with me ) In a groundbreaking new study of Aristotle's aesthetics, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, scholar Richard Halliwell writes that, in addition looking at the form and structure of a play, can also speak of the agents and actions represented by the play, and for this one relies...on the same range of concepts that are used outside the work of art [emphasis added]—concepts, for example, of purpose and choice, success and failure, prosperity and suffering, good and evil, guilt and innocence. Nor, on this model, do we speak descriptively of the work in these terms; we experience it through an understanding that depends on them, and we respond to it with evaluative judgments, hence with emotions, that presuppose and are informed by that understanding.

The concepts he speaks of are elements of the context. In Shirky's case, it was the concept of having "wheels" when romancing a woman in the mid-twentieth century. That these concepts play a role is so much a part of the process of reading or encountering a text that we are not even aware of it. We need it to be brought to light.

So it is in this sense that I take issue with what Macy says he is a "written page guy." He is right that the writer gives you everything you need, but some of it, he gives you so subtly and deftly that you don't know you are getting it. It's learning to become aware of what is essential but not explicit that is is the key to really penetrating any scene.

And how do you that? By learning to pose and answer some pretty tough questions about the character and scene, which can only be learned through lots and lots of practice. The good news is, the fact that it takes lots and lots of practice means that if you do learn to do it, you cannot help but distinguish yourself.

Thanksgiving 2009

Happy Turkey Day, Charlie Brown!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

the actor and GTD

In my travels through the twittersphere (I just made that up!), I kept seeing this acronym pop up: GTD. I had no idea what it meant. I imagined it was some type of software that required special skills to operate. Well, I was wrong. GTD stands for Getting Things Done. It's an approach to, well, getting things done. The core principle is summarized by wikipedia:
GTD rests on the principle that a person needs to move tasks out of the mind by recording them externally. That way, the mind is freed from the job of remembering everything that needs to be done, and can concentrate on actually performing those tasks.

When I read this, it resonated immediately. One of the most important things I have ever done was a year of private lessons in the Alexander Technique. I worked with this remarkable instructor. She noticed my occasional "absent-minded professor" tendencies, and suggested that I get a planner to carry with me, so that I could record things I needed to do as they arose. She explained that this would reduce the mental strain involved in my day-to-day existence. I took her advice, and found she was right. Things were much easier when I knew that I had recorded things. I knew I had the information SOMEWHERE, so there was no pressure to keep it all in my head. I felt free to be more present.

Another example: when I am watching students do a scene in class, and I write down notes as I do. Sometimes, I will notice something very minor: a slight error in the lines spoken, or some of the actor's hair getting in her face. The hair is actually kind of important, because if it continues to distract me as I watch the actor, I am less effective as an instructor. Also, if the student is not made aware of the issue, she will eventually get up in front of people when the scene is presented at the end of the class with her hair getting in her face a bit, and this will distract everyone trying to watch her work. It's not significant in terms of her craft as an actor, but it does constitute an intrusion of sorts. I used to find myself having little debates with myself about whether to write such things down. After all, while I was writing this down, I would not be watching the actors, and so I would be missing out on some other possibly much more significant part of her work or her partner's work. But I have learned that no matter how minor the issue, the best thing to do is to write it down immediately. By writing it down, I let the issue go, for the moment at least. This frees me to return with a clear mind to what is happening in the scene. If I don't write the issue down, then it will continue to nag at me, and I will be less fully available to what I am looking at. And if I do write it down, I can address it once the scene is over, and hopefully it won't be there to distract me the next to time through.

A third example from my own experience: I try to keep the production of content for this blog pretty steady. However, I never know when ideas for posts are going to come to me, and I also never know I am going to get to the actual writing. But as soon as an idea occurs to me, I go to my blogger dashboard and I create a new post. Possibly it will just be a title or a title and a link, but then I have a placeholder for it. I can come back and actually write the piece when I am ready to do so. I can come back to it whenever I need to. And my unconscious knows that too. It knows it can let go of that issue for the moment, and move onto new things, which will, we hope, lead to new ideas being generated.

What does this have to do with the actor? Well, in the approach that I present in the class, the process begins with a careful, thorough study of the text, to attempt to glean as much information as possible about the character from what the writer has provided. There is a framework for organizing this information as it is collected, called the "Who-am-I" or the Five Questions. Interestingly, this is very close to the first phase of the GTD work sequence. According to wikipedia:

The notion of stress-free productivity starts with off-loading what needs to get done from one's head, capturing everything that is necessary to track, remember, or take action on, into what Allen calls a bucket: a physical inbox, an email inbox, a tape recorder, a notebook, a PDA, a desktop, etc. The idea is to get everything out of one's head and into a collection device, ready for processing. All buckets should be emptied (processed) at least once per week.

Allen doesn't advocate any preferred collection method, leaving the choice to the individual. He only insists upon the importance of emptying the "buckets" regularly. Any storage space (physical inbox, email inbox, tape recorder, notebook, PDA, etc.) that is processed regularly by the individual is acceptable.

It's of course essential that the actor actually WRITE DOWN the information that she is gleaning from the text. No matter how much I stress that, though, both explicitly and by example, it's often difficult to see the importance of doing that up front. It's only later in the process that assuming that "Yeah, I read the play, I know what happens, I don't need to write it out" has consequences, and the need for discipline and exhaustiveness at this phase is made indisputably clear.

The benefits of writing down the information are manifold: first of all, by engaging in the physical act of writing, the body is engaged, and this begins the process of transforming textual information into experience grasped in a bodily, physical way. Once it is written, the actor can look at it, and this may trigger valuable questions or intuitions. That particular bit of information is then out of her head, and she is then fully receptive to other pieces of information. She can move through all of the scattered information in the text that may be relevant in a somewhat linear way, dealing with one issue at a time, and placing it in a "bucket" where it can be found easily later.

The hardest part of all of this, probably, is the fact that you don't necessarily see the payback right away. But it is precisely this recognition, that learning to act well involves sustained work over time, which doesn't always immediately result in a payoff, that is the beginning of the actor taking command of her own working process.

human rainstorm

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

the dance with the director

Unfortunately, I think that much of the time actors view the director, consciously or unconsciously, as someone who needs to be endured until the show opens, and then, so the thinking goes, the show is really the actors', and they can really relax and enjoy themselves. Don't misunderstand me: I don't fault actors for this attitude. I fault directors. The director has authority, and with that authority comes the opportunity to define the relationship with the actors in such a way that the actors enjoy the interaction, and are nourished and emboldened by it.

William Ball, the legendary founder of the American Conservatory Theater, has this to say in his book A Sense of Direction:
You have known directors to come into rehearsal crying "I want this. I want that. I see it this way. My entire concept...I need so many people on this side. I want you here." This is an amateur at work. He once overheard himself being praised as being a director who "knows what he wants." He uses the rehearsal as an endless opportunity to tell everyone what he wants. He puts the word "I" at the beginning of all his sentences...If he uses the word "I" recklessly and compulsively, the likelihood is that he is untrustworthy.

And what, according to Ball, does a good director do? He follows Ball's principle of positation, by which:

we say yes to every creative idea...we say yes because we understand that to do so is the practical way of sending a message to the intuition that every creative idea will be valued, respected, and used. And when the intuition gets that message often enough, it will send us its most perfect and most pure creative ideas. That is why, whether we like it or not,saying yes to everything is the most creative technique an artist can employ.

I'll let that sink in for a moment. Ball is saying that the skilled director says yes to everything that an actor attempts or proposes, not just the ideas that are congenial to the director's vision or understanding of the script.

A tall order. Directors do have vision and points of view (famously), and being willing to put this aside to promote the actor's flourishing and intuitive expression requires a lot of maturity and patience. It's kind of like good parenting.

Ball claims that the director does not need to prune the bad ideas, because the bad ideas will "fall out of orbit by their own weight." This is probably sometimes true, but it may be a trifle utopian to think that it always works this way. However, Ball's vision of the role of the director sets a benchmark against which directors can be measured, even if absolute conformity to it is unrealistic. The bottom line: a good director is very generous, very patient, and very appreciative of those with whom he collaborates. An actor who finds herself working with a director who does not comport himself with these virtues knows that she is working with someone with some major professional liabilities. I encourage my acting students to read Ball's book, so they will know what a real pro looks and acts like.

Interestingly, the punditry at Harvard Business School is catching on to what William Ball knew long ago:

An oft-quoted proverb says: "The best leader, the people do not notice. When the best leader's work is done, the people say, 'We did it ourselves.'"

Truly great leaders...recognize how silly it is to believe that a coach or a leader is the key to an organization's success. The best leaders understand that long-term results are created by all of the great people doing the work — not just the one person who has the privilege of being at the top.

And sadly, most directors harbor this false picture about leadership. I actually think that in this regard we are better off in the US than they are in Europe. Living in Germany, I often heard tales of directors who were notorious for screaming at those who worked for them, and the fact that they behaved in this way was offered almost as a badge of their "realness". In the US, there is less tolerance for this outright abusiveness, even if the director is still able to put himself first, much of the time.

So, if you are an actor, and you find yourself working with a director who falls short of Ball's vision for the director, what do you do? Evan Yionoulis, the Obie-award winning director who chaired the Acting Program at the Yale School of Drama for 5 years and who still teaches there, had this to say: "Render to Caesar, that which is Caesar's, and render to God, that which is God's." These words were originally attributed to Jesus Christ, of course, when the Pharisees were attempting to trap him into recommending Jews pay taxes to imperial Rome. For actors,this means: the director is an authority that has to be reckoned with, and you will make your own life very difficult, as well as damage your future employment prospects, if you do not supply him with what he wants.


Having this obligation to please the director does not relieve the actor of her obligation to "God", so to speak. That is, to her vocation, to her spirit, to her own integrity. The actor must take care that she is appropriately invested in the cares and concerns of the character, that she is engaged in arduously pursuing what the character needs, and that she is doing this moment-to-moment. The truth is that there is almost never a conflict between giving the director what he is asking for, and doing what the actor needs to do to make sure she is living up to her own high personal standards. The director, in some sense, should be seen as an extension of the writer: the director is continuing to define what it is that the actor must do. The actor must then find the need in herself to do what must be done as the character in the scenes in which she appears, and then she must do it.

The actor must take care to safeguard her own passion for her work, and not to allow anyone to snuff that out. An abusive director who will not mend his ways is a reason to quit a job. It will not often come to this, but an actor facing a truly abusive director should always keep in mind that quitting is an option. Creativity is too precious a gift to allow someone to squash it with contempt and abuse.

Finally, I'll mention that while directing and teaching have much in common, they are not exactly the same endeavor. A director is on a timetable to produce a finished product; a teacher's primary concern is the growth of the actor's command of the of the practice of acting. Because there is no final product for the teacher, there is more opportunity to challenge people to shed habits and re-examine their most fundamental beliefs about acting and about themselves. You can do very little of this as a director before you run the risk of undermining someone's confidence as they attempt to prepare to appear before the public. Never a good idea.

As an educator, I still regard it as important to express appreciation for my students' efforts, even when they are not the most successful efforts, even as I challenge them to fulfill the role more fully. But the imperative for appreciative expression is not as great as it is for the director, who, without it, will very quickly run aground.

Ball dedicated his book "to the well-being of actors everywhere".

I'll leave you with a video from William Ball's 1976 production of The Taming of the Shrew. It's plain as day here: the man knew a thing or two about directing. (PS This is only a short snippet, but if you click through to the youtube page you can watch the full scene).

immersive macbeth -- Sleep No More

This is almost enough to make me wish I was in Boston.


muppets do bohemian rhapsody

Definitely good for some chuckles. Especially love Animal and the Swedish Chef.

Wow. Just, wow. No, really!

Talk about invention.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

the actor and the lizard brain

Famous brain scientist Paul McLean came up with a model of the brain that still has some currency today. In this model, there are three areas. The first is called the "R-complex", so named because it is the part of the brain that resembles the brains of reptiles. It controls "the four F's" (fighting, fleeing, feeding, and f*cking). The so-called "lizard brain" is attuned to primitive matters, matters of survival. The second portion of the brain is the portion we have in common with other mammals: the limbic system. The limbic system is the source of pleasure and pain, of maternal behaviors like nursing, and the urge to play. Finally, the "neo-cortex", or new brain, is most developed in humans, and is the source of reason, logic, and abstract thinking.

The activities of the R-complex (lizard brain) and the limbic system are largely unconscious.

Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, in Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, writes that our five senses at any moment take in over 11 million pieces of information. Our conscious minds can handle about 40 pieces of information per second.

This unconsciousness presents a challenge for the actor: this means that an actor can be mentally alert and engaged in a scene, but his limbic system and R-brain can be disengaged, and it won't feel at all unusual to him, since he is used to those being unconscious processes anyway. However, if the limbic system and the R-brain are asleep, those of us in the audience watching the actor will feel similarly disengaged. We will see an actor who appears to be engaged and responsive from the neck up: the portions of the anatomy that have to do with forming intelligible language, with talking and listening, may be active, but the rest of it will be inert. The truth is that when we watch something, our lizard brain and our limbic system are watching too. And if the corresponding portions of the actor's brain are not engaged, we are likely to disengage as well.

It is common to see actors whose "limbic" or emotional system is alive and well, they are not only talking and listening but visibly "feeling" things as well, and yet, they leave us largely uninvolved. In watching them, we are aware of some kind of activity in their chests: they register emotional pleasure or pain in that part of the body ("the heart"). We recognize the range of emotions that they pass through, but we are not moved to feel with them, to empathize. This is very common. Such acting can be totally "believable" and totally uninteresting at the same time. It often suffices in television and film, where editing and musical accompaniment can compensate for the shortfalls of the actor. But it is not acting that inspires anyone, it is not acting that is particularly memorable, it does not make anyone feel more alive.

The actor whose R-brain is engaged is viscerally alive. We sense a vitality in the actor's stomach and pelvis that we register in those regions of our own anatomy. It is in this part of the body that the four F's actually take place (eating in the belly, operation of the legs (for fight or flight) in the hips, and the genitals for sexual activity) Our lizard brain is very attuned to the state of those around us, and when we sense that they are viscerally alive, engaged, or threatened, we come to life as well. It is this level of engagement that prompts us to say that we were "gripped" or "compelled" by an actor's performance.

I remember, long before I knew anything about acting, being in an acting class and watching a student do a monologue from The Matchmaker. This student, I recognize now, was viscerally engaged. At the time, all I knew was that it seemed like something was happening inside her body while she was acting, in a way that seemed totally different from what went on when everyone else was acting. I don't mean inside her body in the sense of "feelings", but rather it seemed like there were moving parts that were moving for her but that stayed still for most people when they act. Looking back, I can now say with certainty that what I was registering was the engagement of the Pilates core, that network of muscles in the pelvis which are responsible for supporting the spine and maintaining balance.

The imperative of getting the R-brain or lizard brain active is the reason why in the approach that I teach, we attempt to understand every scene through the prism of need. If we can find a "hot" need to pursue, and truly understand the way in which we attempt to influence our world in the scene in order to get the need met, we are well on our way to waking up the sleeping serpent. And who doesn't want to watch something in which a sleeping serpent is roused?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Woody Harrelson on acting

NPR did an interview with Woody Harrelson in anticipation of the release of "The Messenger", a movie about soldiers assigned to inform designated Next of Kin that their loved ones have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In the first part of the interview, they discuss the film and his preparation for it. In the second interview, they discuss his earlier career.

Part I

Part II

Here were a couple of highlights that stuck out for me:

And yeah, he asked me to shave my head. So, yeah, I did that. And, I mean, just
did the most - in reading a book, Tim O;Briens The Things They Carry, really helped. And, you know,
there were a lot of things, but nothing really helped as much as just spending time with the soldiers. I
felt like that really helped me humanize them in such a way that I felt like, oh, you know, they're not
that much different from me, you know.

Harrelson describes the most important part of his preparation as the part that forged a bond of identification between him and the people he was to portray.


But certainly, I remember standing back offstage, waiting for that red light to go on and, you know, I
could hear the dialogue and I could tell I was getting closer. And then, boom, the red light goes on
and I'm entering into the bar, in front of a live audience, and obviously a show thats going to be seen
by a lot of people. So it was pretty I was nervous, I got to say. But thankfully, you know, I'd done
enough theater in college that I think it really helped me get through that

Harrelson credits his experience acting in theater as preparing him for the high stress of making his first entrance on a popular national TV show.

Worth a listen.

App to Help Actors Learn Lines

Check it out.

Friday, November 20, 2009

the eyes have it

"But we don't stare at people in real life when we talk to them." I'll occasionally hear this from a student I am coaching. In the approach that I teach, we conceive of acting as the pursuit of a real need in an imaginary situation. Since in almost every scene, the source of the sought-after gratification of the need is the other person, the scene partner, actors almost always benefit from directing more attention to that person than they already are, attuning themselves to this other person, receiving off of the other person. This involves LOOKING at the other person. Stanislavsky stated that the basic challenge the actor faces is self-consciousness. The solution is to somehow get the attention off of the self, and keep it off. Easier said than done. But there is no doubt that the actor who receives off of his or her partner, which entails LOOKING at his or her partner, stands a better chance of succeeding at this than one who doesn't.

So far so good. But here is an actor problem that I encounter in every single ten-week cycle that I teach: it's the "look away to compose yourself" actor. With great regularity, not to say always, this actor, when she begins to speak, will not be looking at her partner. She will be looking down, or to the side, or somewhere else. But as soon as she starts speaking, she will look at her partner and connect with her. She is partly successful in what she is attempting, because she is really using her words to affect the other person, to influence them in some way. However, because she looks away before she starts to speak, the impulse to speak DOES NOT ARISE out of connection with the other person. In looking away, the actor is taking a moment to "compose herself". This is almost always a moment of self-consciousness. Because she successfully connects with the other person while speaking, the result is not totally unsatisfying, but it is marred in its moment of inception by the fact that it did not originate in a moment of receiving off of the other person. The impulse is "self-generated", as my teacher at Yale, Earl Gister, would say. And since it is self-generated, it is self-conscious, at least initially, if not ultimately.

In a way, as the teacher of the class, I am happy when the "look-away-to-compose-yourself" actor appears during the cycle, because I know that by bringing him to make a relatively small adjustment, there will be a sudden and dramatic flowering in his work, right before our eyes. I can count on it right up to 500, as my teacher Robin Bennett used to say. The student may be reluctant when first asked to do it, but when they discover that I will take whatever time I need to to get them to make this change, that is, to make sure he has eye contact with the partner before he speaks, it invariably makes an enormous difference. Much of what the student has digested and prepared about the role is suddenly brought to life. The change never fails to make a substantial impact on those watching. And why does such a simple change matter? Well, as previously discussed, it means that the impulse to speak is borne out of in-the-moment encounter with the partner, and this is an antidote to self-consciousness. Also, a "flow" is established. Flow is not a new age jargon word, but a particular psychological state described by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. When the actor looks away to compose himself, he is disrupting the exchange that (we hope) has begun to develop between him and his partner. The condition of flow depends on a sustained interaction between the subject and his environment (the partner is the most significant element of that environment). By looking away consistently, the actor stops the flow from forming and from gaining momentum and depth.

And why do these actors look away before they start to speak? There are several possible reasons. One is, as I have suggested, to compose themselves, which is another way of saying to maintain a kind of control. If they allow the other person to take pride of place in their attention, then their image of themselves is eclipsed, and they can no longer monitor their own appearance and behavior as closely as they had. Related to this point is that the direct eye contact with the partner is INTIMATE, and that can be uncomfortable or scary, to say the least. Looking into the eyes of another invites bonding, hypnosis, even dissolution of the boundaries of the self. Even if we want to experience these things, we can never approach it without ambivalence. So the actor is always tempted to "look away", to keep a hold on the proceedings. But to move towards greatness, this is exactly what she must not do.

It is at this point in the process that a student may register the protest that I began this post with: that in real life, we do not generally sustain eye contact with those with whom we interact. There is all kinds of "looking away" that goes on. And this is true enough. And yet it is indisputably true that actors who make the adjustment I describe invariably get much, much more compelling very quickly. There's a conundrum there. My first way of responding to this point is that in high stakes situations in real life, we may be much more inclined to focus in a sustained way on our interlocutors, as we are often faced with disclosures that are shocking, terrifying, miraculous or incomprehensible, which impact our basic sense of orientation and safety, and to recover that sense, we look steadily at those with whom we interact for clarification, comfort, and grounding. And I encourage actors to find the way in which any scene is high stakes, even the ones that on the face of it seem very everyday and ordinary. That's because a scene in which the actors are compelled by some kind of urgency is ALWAYS better than a scene in which they aren't. There's no contest there.

I think that's a pretty good reason for asking the actor to keep her gaze on her partner. But there may be another reason. This one is a little more difficult to express, and it involves the idea that acting is not ONLY imitating reality. It is imitating reality in such a way that the vulnerability and the care and the interconnectedness between the characters involved is MANIFEST as they go about imitating the real world. In real life, these things are not typically manifest. The psychologist Wilhelm Reich first described the way in which vital energies are blocked by habitual tensions in the body:

He argued that could produce actual physical blocks within muscles and organs, and that these act as a "body armor" preventing the release of the energy... These ideas developed into a general theory of the importance of a healthy sex life to overall well-being, a theory compatible with Freud's views.

In everyday life, most people cannot allow these "energies" to flow freely: there is too much vulnerability involved, and so they "armor" themselves with various tensions and defensive alignments and postures so that should not feel the full pain of life's slings and arrows. However, part of what makes great acting great is the actor's willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve, so to speak, and to make himself in some sense transparent, so that these "energies" or passions can become visible and palpable. When in the presence of an actor giving a truly great performance, there is a sensation of immersion in her expanded vitality that is extraordinary and tremendously renewing. And the process of the actor reaching this state, this condition of free-flowing Chi or vitality, is aided and abetted by eye-contact and connection with the other person in the scene. It is not for nothing that they say that the eyes are the windows of the soul.

I also make it clear that I should not be understood to be saying "never look away from your partner". I don't want to restrict actors in that way, only to motivate them to make contact with the partner the rule of thumb, and secondary points of focus the exceptions which should be entered into deliberately and not haphazardly. In some sense, it is an "advanced challenge" to be able to have a secondary point of focus, because to do so, the actor has to keep the partner within her awareness even while she is not looking at him. We do that instinctively in real life, as our needs from others motivate us to do so. But the actor in front of the camera or on stage is always confronted with the temptation to focus on how he or she looks or appears, and in looking at something other than the partner, this temptation can be overpowering. So especially in the early phases of his training, while the actor is still learning how to get her attention on her partner and keep it there, I give the actor to understand that when they look away from their partner, they are always in peril of losing the thread of the scene. In terms of staying in the moment, in the zone, in the flow, their partners' eyes are the best friend they ever had.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

my friend Bill

William Haugse is a film editor, director and actor. He has worked with luminaries such as John Cassavetes and Orson Wells, and he was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the documentary Hoop Dreams. He has been coming to my class recently to shoot some footage for a short documentary film on the class, and offered me characterization of what he saw there:

Watching Andrew Utter conduct an acting class was a revelation. I was putting together a short film of teaching technique, Andrew was conducting sessions of scene study and the workup of character. He strives to maintain a generous, warm relationship with his students, some of whom may be feeling vulnerable as they walk on the stage for the first time. He is very thoughtful, never speaking just to fill the silence, never rushing the student for an answer. He is patient in an unsentimental way; gentle and attentive, he never coddles a student. He keeps moving forward, prodding the student with questions aimed at deeper and deeper understanding of the character being worked up. I felt certain that were I to study again, I would feel very comfortable in Andrew’s class.

Andrew can spin out a relentless string of questions which will poke holes in even the most intensive preparation on the part of the student actor. This questioning is aimed not only at the development of a specific character, but beyond that, Andrew is always conscious of the goal of training the actor how to generate these questions for himself, as his career continues outside of the class. How to actualize their own inquiries, how deeply to pursue them, how to meld the answers with the development of the other actors involved and, of course, the constraints of the written text. This intense dialog which Andrew has with his students aims above all at the foundation of the actor’s courage, that he or she might find the courage and commitment to discover the character he is playing – as well as his or her own identity - beyond the facile and the cursory into the realm of deeply successful acting.

Monday, November 16, 2009

You might be a Mother of Inventioner if...

1. you like doing scenes from plays that surprise you
2. you want a scene partner that shows up every week, ready to work
3. you like being surprised by what comes out of you
4. you like working on a scene until it's really, really good
5. you enjoy daydreaming and wondered how it could help you make a living
6. you like some irreverence with your seriousness
7. you play to win
8. you see props as opportunities to enrich the physical life of the scene, not something to mime and do without
9. you don't rehearse your scene in the hallway ten minutes before class
10. you like to go deep
11. curiousity is your drug of choice
12. you don't show cleavage at auditions
13. you think that anything worth doing is worth doing well

superior donuts

Superior Donuts is the new play running on Broadway by Tracy Letts, author of August:Osage County.
Watch a preview of it here.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Robert DeNiro uses his awesome acting powers to become Elmo and a cabbage

Never underestimate the power of the imagination.

Hat Tip, Alex Kavutsky.

Donnie Darko, Acting Teacher

Uta Hagen says "The reason for movement is destination". I've never seen a better visualization of this idea than this clip from Donnie Darko. Keep your eyes on the ectoplasm that comes out of Donnie's father, then his sister, then Donnie himself. Take it away, Jake (the first 80 seconds are the relevant portion):

The video actually goes a step further than Uta Hagen does, by visually suggesting, with the ectoplasm, a connection between Donnie's core (I would have placed the origin of the stream of ectoplasm a bit lower, around the belly, the film has it coming out of the solar plexus) and the place outside himself where he is headed next. The core is the seat of the "underlying objective" or driving need which is the source of the actor's vitality. And in the moment that an actor who is in touch with that vitality identifies a point in space to which he NEEDS to move, his presence expands visibly, the space between him and his destination appears to "filled" with this vitality. It's what the Chinese were talking about with "Chi". Ok, I'm going to stop there, before I start to sound whacky.

the actor and the duck-rabbit

Look at this image. Is it a duck or a rabbit?

Actually, you can see it as either a duck or a rabbit. Now try to see it as both a duck AND a rabbit at the same time. It's not possible.

The way we learn to take in stories as children is as readers or spectators. We watch attentively as the action unfolds, we make predictions about what will happen, and we make judgments about the cleverness, wisdom, and goodness of the characters involved. Our relationship to the work is of one who stands outside it and observes, and then makes judgments.

When we approach scripts, this habitual way of looking at texts usually stays with us, and so even as we approach a role that we are going to play, we are often standing on the outside, looking in. We bring out judgments about the character we are representing along with us, usually unconsciously. These judgments often have the effect of distancing us from the role we are to play, and thus holding us back from fully abandoning ourselves to the cares and pursuits of the figure in question.

Approaching a text to be performed is fundamentally about learning to look at that text in an altogether different way than we do when we are occupying the spectator's position that we learned to occupy as children, when we were told stories. In order to promote the greatest possible identification with the role, we must begin to see the world not as an Olympian observer, immune to the reversals of fortune that the character experiences, but through the eyes of the character herself. There is more to this than meets the eye.

In my class, this process begins with the actor's willingness to say "I" when referring to the role she is playing. If she is playing Blanche Dubois in Streetcar, she will say "I was fired from my job as an English teacher for having an affair with a student" rather than "She was fired from her job as an English teacher for having an affair with a student." Try saying these two sentences aloud. You will discover that they affect you in very different ways. I can say the second one and be secure in the knowledge that no one will confuse me with Blanche; she is the one that suffered this humiliation, not I. But it is precisely this confusion that we want to bring about: we want the audience to (mis)take you for Blanche. But that means taking on the losses and indignities Blanche has suffered, or, I should say, you have suffered as Blanche.

Students are often called upon, in my class, to recount their portions of their histories as the character, including the facts presented by the writer in the text and embellishments that the actor has seen fit to add. Students who assume that because they have read the play and "know what happens", they will be able to think on their feet and spontaneously transpose their knowledge of the story into the kind of first-person narration I have described above without thinking this transposition through in advance often learn the difficulty of making this change in the way they look at the text the hard way: they find they are unable to supply facts which should clearly be at their fingertips, if they had really taken the trouble to look at the experience presented by the writer from the eyes of the character, rather than from the comfortable position of the spectator.

There is more to making this switch than I have described here: there is the central criteria of finding a way to make sense of the past of the character (or "Who-Am-I" as we call it) that generates the most possible "heat" or urgency. There is a lot to that process, which is usually dispensed with by what are supposed to be magic words: "raise the stakes", which actors everywhere tend to understand as an injunction to "act harder", rather than as a call to carefully reexamine the way they have viewed their circumstances and consider whether there are changes they could make to this view that would make their point of entry into the scene "hotter" or more compelling.

It's much easier to see the duck as a rabbit or vice-versa than it is to make the change from approaching a text as a spectator to approaching it as an impassioned, engaged participant. To make this change, the ways of looking at many things, from people to situations to relationships to language to movement, need to be recalibrated. Our way of looking at a script actually entails ways of looking at many other things. Making this change is more like completely rearranging your living room than it is like turning your car to the right. But once you have achieved this new way of looking, you can make strides in approaching texts and roles with infinitely greater speed and insight.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

for what it's worth: Jude Law's Hamlet

The critics have not been kind, but the show is selling well. There are enough snippets of Law's performance in here to satisfy me that there's no need to high-tail it to the Big Apple to see this. I do like what he says about the role being "tattooed on his soul."

Ken Burns on the Power of History and Creativity


“I’m a written-page guy. The writer gives you everything you need.” William H Macy

If you could make a word cloud of the words that appear most often in acting classes everywhere, "choices" would be the word that probably comes up more often than any other. Believe it or not, I think that that is actually symptomatic of a deep-seated confusion about what acting is and how an actor's connection to a role develops.

Earl Gister, who was the Dean of the Acting Program at the Yale School of Drama for more than fifteen years, and who was my acting teacher at Yale, spoke of the actor "fulfilling" the role. What he meant by that is that in a screenplay or play, a character fulfills a function in the unfolding of the narrative. On the most superficial level, this means that they will perform certain actions that contribute to the unfolding of the plot: a character might steal money, seek someone's hand in marriage, or sell a house. But beyond the plot, characters, in their interactions with each other, exert pressures on each other that attempt to alter or restore their relationships, to affect the emotional climate in which they travel. It is in these encounters and confrontations that the episodes of the plot become inevitabilities, they become necessary. To the extent that the actor has discovered what pressures the writer needs her to exert in order to make the contribution to the various scenes in which she appears, she has succeeeded, she has "fulfilled" the role.

All of this is to say that first and foremost, work on a role is not about making "choices" but about tapping into the heart of the role as defined by the author, in fact finding the same impulse in the actor herself that prompted the writer to create the character in question in the first place. This impulse will reside "deep inside", it will be a primitive longing for connection and belonging. Rather than making choices, the actor opens himself to the writer's creation in the hopes of being being "chosen" by the role itself. In place of "choices", I would wish that "discoveries" were the word that appeared most often in the word cloud made from acting classes everywhere. This expresses correctly the actor's relationship to his or her role.

The obsession with "choices" flatters the actor, feeds his narcissism, suggests that he can exert his volition, his will, in the shaping of the role, and by doing so "originally", "provocatively", "unpredictably", he will distinguish himself from all the other busy choice-makers out there. When an actor has attuned himself to a text, intuition is active and impulses arise. He does not "choose" anything. Opportunities bubble up out of his frontal lobe (the part of the brain where creativity resides, IIRC), and he ACTS on them. He discovers them. The "choices" canard invites actors to think that what they do TO a role is what will determine whether they succeed, rather than their MANIFESTING or EMBODYING the role. There's the rub, to coin a phrase.

Actors do put their individual stamp on a role, no two ways about it. But it is not by making "choices", which implies a cerebral act of calculation, as if all the possible ways a moment could be played were laid out on a table like a brunch buffet, and it's simply a matter of deciding whether you like the Eggs Benedict better than the smoked salmon. The audience doesn't care about the actor's preference for smoked salmon or Eggs Benedict. It's immaterial to the people watching. What they care about is: has the actor brought her own humanity to bear on the fictional character she is embodying? If she has done that, no one will be thinking about her "choices." They'll be too busy watching the story unfold, and wondering what will happen next.

dialect coach to the stars

My friend Elisa Carlson, voice and speech teacher at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the lady who introduced me to Suzuki lo these many years ago (20!), posted a link this abstract for an article from the New Yorker about a man, Tim Monich, who coaches Hollywood stars on dialect. Apparently he coached Brad Pitt for Inglourious Basterds. The abstract quotes Sutherland (Donald?) as saying:“He’s not a mechanic, and he doesn’t impose. He comes in from underneath and supports your instincts; he doesn’t try to define them.” At the same time, he mentions Edith Skinner, who from what I know, is all about precise differentiations between sounds, so if he is that touchy-feely, it's on top of real depth of understanding.

Elisa mentions that she is now represented by the same agent as Monich, so maybe she'll be telling us stories about coaching celebrities in how to talk before long.

Unfortunately you have to be a New Yorker subscriber to read the whole article, but even the abstract is worth a look.

ever wonder about voice-over?

Check this out.

Friday, November 13, 2009

an extraordinary teacher, an extraordinary life

My senior year in high school, we got a new theater teacher at my school, Robin Bennett. She had a galvanizing, electrifying influence on me. She passed away recently, and prior to this happening, her children arranged for students from virtually every year of her teaching career to write letters of appreciation. Here is one extraordinary one. It is a tremendous tribute to the power of teachers to inspire and empower. Don't miss it.

make like the germans

Where is our vaunted Yankee ingenuity when it comes to righting the economy? We've got plenty of necessity, with unemplyment rates at their highest since the thirties. Nobel-Prize winning Princeton economist Paul Krugman to American let-the-market-do-it-types: UR DOIN IT WRONG. He says we need to take a lesson from the Germans, who have engineered a safety net that has prevented them from experiencing the kind of surge in unemplyment since the crisis began that we have experienced here. Krugman on the human cost of our rising long-term unemplyment:

And long-term unemployment inflicts long-term damage. Workers who have been out of a job for too long often find it hard to get back into the labor market even when conditions improve. And there are hidden costs, too — not least for children, who suffer physically and emotionally when their parents spend months or years unemployed.

For a particularly grizzly example of what Krugman is talking about, read this.

Jobs baby, jobs. Now. Before it's too late.

grace under pressure

Watch this breathtaking new animation of Capt. Sullenberger landing his plane in the Hudson.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

pictures from Mars

Play some Radiohead and get a load of these.

the single biggest mistake that actors make in approaching a scene

It's a mistake that is at the root of actors getting derailed in scene work more often than not. And that mistake, in short, is failing to see the other person in the scene as having something to offer. Something worth having. Something worth asking for. Something worth being vulnerable for. Something worth insisting on. Something worth fighting for.

Let me explain.

Anyone who hangs around acting classes for any length of time will learn that drama is conflict. That's what makes it engaging: people are fighting, values are clashing, wrongs are being confronted, words are being had. However, the recognition that a scene that an actor is working on entails conflict is a very, very preliminary recognition, and a dangerous one to try to take to the bank. If you do try to take it to the bank, you come up with an account of the scene that sounds like this: "everything would be great if the other person would STOP DOING that really annoying thing that they are doing. that annoying thing that they are doing is causing all the problems, and if they would just STOP THAT, just GIVE IT A REST, we would all be just fine." What's the problem with looking at a scene in this way? Well, in this version, the other person is producing some kind of negative condition or circumstance, and your job is to STOP THEM. If your relationship with the other person is defined by shutting down their negative noise, then you are engaged in shutting them down, not in obtaining something positive from them, some kind of value. So you are not seeing them as someone who has something to offer you. If you do not see them as someone who has something to offer you, you cannot need something from them. And if you cannot need something from them, you cannot be vulnerable to them. And vulnerability is what it's all about. It's the whole game. As audience members, we are arrested and compelled by raw vulnerability. It's relatively rare that we see this, in the theater, on films, or on television. When we do, it is truly inspiring and memorable. We do not soon forget it.

Let's give an example. Suppose we are playing Blanche in Streetcar. In the first part of the play, we will see Stanley as uncouth, coarse, abrupt, and inconsiderate. If we describe what we are pursuing as "to stop Stanley from behaving like a barbarian or a jerk", then we are engaged in shutting down what we take to be Stanley's defining behavior. No one watching this is likely to find it compelling or urgent on its face. However, if we define what we are doing as "get Stanley to prove his respect for me as a true woman, a woman among women", then we see him as having something yummy to offer us (respect!), something we can thrive on, something we value. The important point it how we SEE Stanley and how we describe the way in which we are trying to influence him. If we do so in a way that opens our eyes to the potential value to be had from him, from the yummy stuff he can send our way, then we have a scene going. A scene that people will be glad they paid money for, will remember, will be inspired by, will talk about to their friends, will generate buzz about. Nothing the matter with that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

november falls flat

For years now I have made it a rule of my blogging that I don't talk smack about local theater productions. If I like them, I write about them, and if I don't, I say nothing. There are a variety of reasons for taking this position, which I won't go into here, except to say that I am primarily an educator, not a critic. But suffice to say, my resolve is wearing thin. And ACT seems to be doing well enough that I am no threat to them or their viability as an institution. So I am breaking my silence about the recent production of November by David Mamet that I saw there.

Full disclosure: the set designer, Erik Flatmo, is a friend of mine, and I went to grad school with Rene Augesen, who plays the speechwriter in the play. I thought Erik's work was gorgeous, even if I missed the spectacular finale because I didn't stay past intermission. Rene acquitted herself well enough, I thought. The two supremely disappointing things about this afternoon at the theater were the leading actor and the play.

Mamet is no favorite of mine, but what happened, Dave? There was a poisonous pleasure to the swagger and betrayal of Glengarry Glen Ross, but that is a thing of the past. Mamet wants to be taken seriously as a writer of comedy, and the result is much ado about nothing at all. A protracted gag about the pardoning of turkeys? (And what kind of electoral timetable, pray tell, has turkeys being pardoned BEFORE the presidential election?) Whaaat? And the rendering of the figure who seems to be some kind of George Bush figure is so clownish and simplistic that I started to feel irritated that I was starting to feel indignation for Bush, and for myself. Am I supposed to believe that the former President was anything like that? Why extreme caricature, when accurate portraiture would have been much more devastating? Not funny, not politically incisive or illuminating, just a chance to allow audiences to pat themselves on the back for their infinite superiority to such a buffoon. In a word, pandering.

The leading actor adds insult to injury. He has timing and plays the role expansively, commandingly, but there is no insight into why someone would need to comport himself in this way. There is nothing that invites us to care about this man in any way at all. His unapologetic boorishness wears thin very quickly, so we assume there must be something more in the offing. Alas, there isn't.

What was even more disturbing was that at the preview matinee I attended, the theater was packed with patrons who were yucking it up at this tedious display. I won't specifically identify the demographic, as I don't want to offend anyone, but here's a hint: it was a matinee. So, it seems, ACT is mounting productions which are artistically bankrupt, and finding an audience for that! The circle is complete! Alack and alas, this is my experience of regional theater in this country generally. Institutions need adults to run them, to see that the mortgage is paid, to make the schedules and budgets and spreadsheets and raise money, but somehow, the juice and the life and the integrity and the passion and the madness and the bloodiness of real theater gets lost in the shuffle. I'm not saying it has to be this way. I think there are regional theaters that avoid this fate. But they are the exception, not the rule. Our artistic life, as a civil society, I fear, is in as ruinous a condition as our economy. Where will it end?

Sunday, November 08, 2009

I completely agree with this

review of A Serious Man, by Christopher Orr in The New Republic:

The film is often quite funny, especially when it casts a knowing eye on the rituals of middle-class Jewish suburbanhood at the very moment when they were about to have the generational rug pulled out from under them. (It is no coincidence that the movie is set at the time when Joel and Ethan were themselves coming of age.) And there are moments of genuine tenderness as well. But humor and empathy alike have trouble flourishing in the grim narrative soil the Coens provide, in which every cosmic joke is a black one. As Ethan explained in an interview, “For us, the fun was inventing new ways to torment Larry.” Over time, though, the fun becomes theirs alone. The game is too apparent and, for all the Coens’ craftsmanship, the accumulation of insults becomes deadening.

Everything I said in my previous post, comedy is very serious business, on Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, applies to this film as well. The son in A Serious Man was the only one who I consistently felt viscerally connected to. Michael Stuhlbarg is talented, but he ultimately didn't embrace Gopnick's desire to be a serious man, didn't TRULY take it to heart, so there was an element of distance and comment in his performance ("See Gopnick be verklemmt" hahaha). As a result the highs were not as high as they could be (the son's Bar Mitzvah), and the lows were not nearly low enough: the occasions when he is supposed to "break down", like in the lawyer's office, did not kick me in the stomach in the way I wanted and needed to be kicked. And in the end, the film just doesn't add anything to the question of why bad things happen to good people. And the fact that God only knows why is not enough for the brothers Coen to take to the bank.

Better luck next time, fellas.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

degree of difficulty

Sometimes I think the best thing that I can teach anyone about acting is how difficult it is to do it well, not so they will feel discouraged, but so that they will never become complacent. Good actors make it look easy, and it often doesn't seem like it requires any specialized knowledge, just walking and talking and not bumping into the furniture, as Spencer Tracey famously quipped. But the grace that a good actor exhibits in performing a role well is either the product of a freakish natural talent that almost no one has, or the result of hard work and sustained imaginative and intellectual engagement. And even the freakishly talented ones need help in shaping a performance, even if they supply regular flashes of brilliance at particular moments.

In promoting my class, I do have to put messages out there about the power of the approach that I teach, and there is power in it, without a doubt. But that power doesn't remove the difficulty of acting. That is a disappointing discovery for many. But as frustrating as the difficulty may be, it is the challenge of facing that difficulty that prompts us to stretch ourselves beyond our previous capabilities, to achieve what would have previously been out of our reach. And that means that the difficulty is nothing that anyone should want to avoid or be rescued from. "We must do what is difficult because it is difficult", the poet Rilke wrote. I am happy to show people what acting involves, to point them in the right direction, give them tools and procedures to follow, and to help them along the way. But I would never want anyone to think that I am here to make things easy. I'm not that kind of acting teacher.

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