Sunday, January 31, 2010

this doesn't suck: Sweeney Todd rehearsal in Japan

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wherein I explain why Crazy Heart is not all that

Kenneth Turan of the LA Times offers a good example of the kind of props that Jeff Bridges has been getting for Crazy Heart:

There's a powerful symmetry at work in "Crazy Heart" that's impossible to resist. >It's a parallel between protagonist Bad Blake, a country singer whose entire life has led him to a nadir of disintegration, and star Jeff Bridges, whose exceptional film choices have put him at the height of his powers just in time to make Mr. Blake the capstone role of his career.

It's a mark of how fine a performance Bridges gives that it succeeds beautifully even though the besotted, bedeviled country singer has been an overly familiar popular culture staple (Rip Torn in "Payday," Robert Duvall in "Tender Mercies," Hank Williams and Merle Haggard in their own lives) for forever.

So my expectations were a tad inflated going in to the movie, and as is often the case under those conditions, the reality did not them. I was restless with the movie for much of it, and I thought Bridges did eminently "watchable" work and his study of the character was extremely well-observed, I did not feel compelled by it, most of the time. There were two moments, when Bridges character experienced some wrenching rejection and failure, where I felt gripped, but they came pretty far into the movie.

I spent some time on Movie Review Query Engine reading some reviews, to see if I was alone in this view, and while most critics lavished praise on Bridges, I did find this review, which pretty much speaks for me:

Crazy Heart, directed by Scott Cooper, is fine for the kind of film it is, but I can't help thinking this movie, in its release timing and the talk surrounding it about Bridges's performance being award-worthy, arrives in the same spot as last year's The Wrestler. However, The Wrestler felt truly special -- whether owing to Mickey Rourke's performance, Darren Aronofsky's direction, or the depths that both men take their main character, that movie conveyed helpless pain in a way as raw as I've ever seen. At some point in Crazy Heart, pain like that is touched upon during a key moment, the moment Blake realizes he's more of a screw-up than he's let himself believe.

The critics tend to account for this by calling Bridges' portrait "understated", or calling the performance "enigmatic" or "sly". Maybe it is that, but it's also possible to be too canny. If we don't know why we're watching, (and I mean know in our gut), it's hard to be more than sympathetic to the plight of Bridges' character. Yes, it's extremely challenging to play someone who is an alcoholic, as they live their lives in an emotional and cognitive fog, but they do feel pain, and if the actor can't give us that, we will be watching at a safe distance.

Some of the critics do have complaints about the film: they find the love affair improbable 0or inexplicable, and some of them find Maggie Gyllenhaal a bit facile, which I can agree with. But what is surprising is that so many give credit for a tour de force, when his work is more merely competent than arresting.

The reason, I believe, is that the critics, by and large, respond to the "visible" aspects of Bridges work: the unbuckled belt buckle, the cigarette case lazzi, the sunglasses worn askew, and given the originality and specificity of these things, they are prepared to overlook the ways in which Bridges falls short in supplying the vulnerability for which we look to performers to affirm and manifest.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

what the Elizabethans ate at the theater

Sounds good to me:

The preferred snacks for Tudor theatre-goers appear to have been oysters, crabs, cockles, mussels, periwinkles and whelks, as well as walnuts, hazelnuts, raisins, plums, cherries, dried figs and peaches.

Some clues even suggest that 16th-century fans of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe also ploughed through vast quantities of elderberry and blackberry pie – and some may even have snacked on sturgeon steaks.

Mmmmmmm. OmNomNom.

Talk about the decline of Western civilization.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

knowing when you've got it going on (and when you don't!)

Teachers of the Alexander technique talk about something called the "kinesthetic" or "proprioceptive" sense ("proprio" like "appropriate"):

The Alexander Technique educates the student's sense of kinesthesia or proprioception. This sense is used to internally calibrate one's own bodily location, weight and to judge the effort necessary for moving. The Alexander Technique also educates how to more fully carry intent into action with reasoning and constructive thinking techniques. These may demand a re-evaluation of the priority and value of motives that drove the goal-setting of past habits that the student must resolve. All Alexander teachers advocate the value of effortlessness and practical structure.

Turns out that in modern life, it's easy for the kinesthetic sense, the sense of how your body is supposed to align and move in a concerted way, to get out of whack:

Alexander Technique teachers believe that humans have a built-in proprioceptive blind spot: people become habituated to repetitive motions. Repetitious circumstances lead people to create habits as they adapt and learn. These habits are both deliberate and non-deliberate responses that include physical movement patterns, coping and learning strategies. The advantage of adapting is that behavior and learning becomes simplified; it becomes possible to meet a given stimulus or interpretation of circumstances with a ready-made reaction. As a person adds one habit onto another, the disadvantage is they may train themselves to also repeat unintentional side effects - the tension, over-compensation and cumulative stress that the Alexander Technique addresses.

Adapting has a further serious drawback: habits diminish sensation. Using the habit decreases the importance of paying attention to perceptual differences. Also, sensory systems can flood from accommodating too many contradicting habits and intentions. From disuse or flooding, perceptual sensitivity shuts down and eventually becomes dull and untrustworthy, just as skin becomes numb if the same spot is rubbed. Loss of perceptual awareness encourages mistaken interpretations for the need to choose a particular response. In a panic, all opposing habits can fire off at once, pulling in all directions, sometimes without the person noticing it has happened.

So with all of the traumas and adversity that we encounter in growing up and growing into modern life, our sense of how our body fits together and what it feels like when it's moving efficiently can become, well, something we can't rely on.

This is also true of our "acting" sense, or, without wanting to get too pious about it, our "sense of truth". Most of us don't survive childhood with our ability to abandon ourselves to play and pretending intact, and with the ability to gauge the fullness of the leap we have made. As actors, most of us need to develop that sense through our training. We need to have the experience of getting in touch with our own needs and bringing those needs to bear on the fictional situation of another. Then we need to have it again, and again, and again. Over time, if we do that with the guidance of someone who can help us achieve that, we will begin to acquire a sense of what it feels like to be plugged into our own need and vulnerability on the one hand, and simultaneously present and responsive to our partner on the other.

As actors we hear a lot about "being in our heads", and we know that "in our heads" is not where we want to be. True, but this can also be a little misleading. An actor can be fully engaged in what they are doing with their body, their breath, and their voice, and have some "chatter" going on in their minds about how well the scene is going or some mistake that was just made or some tough moment that is coming up. This is entirely normal, and just because we have such thoughts does not necessarily mean that we are "in our heads". That commentary is going to be there most of the time. It becomes troublesome when we allow it to distract us and worry us. If we can let it be without being phased by it, it probably won't land us "in our heads."

When I meet with prospective students, I have a set speech, my "spiel", that I do about the class. I make a point of connecting with the student as I do the spiel, making eye contact and using the sounds of the words to create the images I want to create for the student. Sometimes, as I am speaking about some topic pertaining to the class during the spiel, some thought about something a student said or did in class in the preceding week will be triggered, and a whole train of thought will embark, even as I continue talking. However, my body "knows" how to do this speech; I have been doing it for five years. When I eventually shake off the full train of thought and return my full concentration to the person I am speaking to, I see that he or she is unwavering in their attention, and fully engaged in taking in what I am saying and processing it. They have not registered at all that my mind was momentarily elsewhere. It's not that I was "mechanically" saying the words, because I was sustaining the eye contact and continuing to say the words meaningfully. My "self", in the sense of Alexander titling his book "The Use of the Self", was fully engaged in interacting with my interlocutor even as my mind was momentarily elsewhere. The fact that my mind was momentarily distracted meant nothing about my engagement with the person I was speaking to.

Other times, the thought that arises while I am speaking becomes so powerful and compelling that I do become distracted, and when I am supposed to move from one subject to the next, I instead stop briefly and stare into space. I then shake it off and return to the task at hand. In this case, what my mind was doing was definitely interfering, but that was the exception, not the rule. The thing that had occurred to me had to be very compelling indeed to take me away from talking to a prospective student about a class. And so it is with the "chatter" that goes on in an actor's head: that it's there is not a problem; it's only a problem when we allow it come on. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, as the man said.

As we achieve greater degrees of absorption in the role we are playing, the chatter may recede, and we will have more thoughts appropriate to the character we are playing. But we don't control our thoughts entirely, although we can direct them. That's one of the things that makes spontaneity possible. But because we don't control them fully, we can't assume that because they don't always pertain to the world of the scene, but rather, often, to how we think the scene is going, that we are necessarily "in our heads". That's simply not what "in our heads" means.

I think I'm going to leave it there for now.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

what I'm talkin about

This is how the book that I heard about on the radio yesterday opens:
The evening of December 24, 1914, Flanders. The first world war in history was entering into its fifth month. Millions of soldiers were bedded down in makeshift trenches latticed along the European countryside. In many places the opposing armies were dug in within thirty to fifty yards of each other and within shouting distance. The conditions were hellish. The bitter-cold winter air chilled to the bone. The trenches were waterlogged. Soldiers shared their quarters with rats and vermin. Lacking adequate latrines, the stench of human excrement was everywhere. The men slept upright to avoid the muck and sludge of their makeshift arrangements. Dead soldiers littered the bodies left to rot and decompose within yard of their still living comrades who were unable to collect them for burial.

As dusk fell over the battlefields, something extraordinary happened. The Germans began lighting candles on the thousands of small Christmas trees that had been sent to the front to lend some comfort to the men. The German soldiers then began to sing Christmas carols--first "Silent Night," then a stream of other songs followed. The English soldiers were stunned. One soldier, gazing in disbelief at the enemy lines, said the blazed trenches looked "like the footlights of a theater." The English soldiers responded with applause, at first tentatively, then with exuberance. They began to sing Christmas carols back to their German foes to equally robust applause. A few men from both sides crawled out of their trenches and began to walk across the no-man's-land toward each other. Soon hundredss followed. As word spread across the front, thousands of men poured out of their trenches. They shook hands, exchanged cigarettes and cakes and talked about where they hailed from, reminisced about Christmas past, and joked about the absurdity of war.

And it goes on from there.

multiple full-body goosebump moments

Driving down 280 in my Prius Plug-in Zipcar today, I heard this remarkable conversation on NPR.

I'll have a lot to say about it, for sure. But I wanted to just put the word out.

Here is the NPR lede:

Jeremy Rifkin
European adviser and author Jeremy Rifkin challenges the notion that people are innately selfish and materialistic. In his new book, "The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis," he alleges that our future rests on our ability to function as an empathic society. We talk with Rifkin about his call for a "third Industrial Revolution."

If that's the revolution, then I guess that makes me the new Lenin!

I'm serious, it's great stuff. I already bought the book (for my Kindle, of course :)).

Monday, January 25, 2010

breakin down breakdown economics: Keynes and Hayek, as a rap

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

picasso like you've never seen him before

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

not now, but someday...

My new Body-Mind-Word class was scheduled to start in LA and SF this week, but it won't be happening. I didn't get the enrollments. A number of former students in SF did get in touch with me to say they would be interested in it, but they couldn't do it right now. I confess I am disappointed; the impulse to do work in this direction has been forming inside me for some time, and I was really looking forward to tackling the challenge of teaching people to act in a way that is totally different from what I do in the Essentials class.

I still love the Essentials class; don't get me wrong! At the same time, I see the students in the current cycle struggling to get their heads around some of the framework concepts in the class: underlying objective, plot objective, the path through the scene, action, personalization. And I know what they must be going through: I have learned two languages in my lifetime, and I know that learning any new language entails an enormous amount of frustration, even failure. Especially as an adult: you have adult-grade cognition that you struggle to express in your limited language skills, and it's easy to feel constricted and incompetent.

Once we get into the scene work, and people are speaking and moving around, the physical side of all of the concepts we have been talking about for weeks starts to emerge, and the concepts themselves, having been lived with for a while and put to use, are not as burdensome and scary as they can be when they are initially presented. Still, part of me felt that there must be another way of approaching all of this, one that began with the physical. In the Essentials class, we try to analyze and imagine our way into the scene. The goal is to become physically, even viscerally activated. But what if there were a way to begin with visceral activation, to cut out the middle man of the analytical, so that an actor learned what it meant physically to touch the need to do and say what it is that the writer asks them to do and say, rather than finding their way there by posing and answering the probing and immediate questions we wrestle with in the Essentials class?

Some people, less analytically minded people, will surely find this to be a great relief. And the truth is that when I am testing the usefulness of what a student claims to be pursuing in a scene, I do it by touching that place of need in myself physically, somatically. So if that place is the final arbiter in sorting things out, why not teach people to get to that themselves, so they can rely on it in their work?

It's an interesting idea. One thing I know is that there is no substitute for difficulty in trying to gain creative mastery. There are no short cuts, no quick fixes. There would be things about this way of working that would be just as elusive and troubling as the framework presented in the Essentials class often seems to be on first encounter. And I think actors will always need some analytical skill, no matter how they work. But my intuition tells me that by playing both ends against the middle, so to speak, the student's comfort level with both sides of the coin will increase.

I have no doubt that one day this course will run, and I look forward to it. I am sure I will learn as much from the experience as my students will.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

DIY creativity

This is an interesting video of a speech by a graphic designer who went indie and made it work.

(If you're looking at this on Facebook and seeing a bunch of html below, click here to go to my blog and see the original post. )

Ji Lee: The Transformative Power of Personal Projects from 99% on Vimeo.

what the cat twitter dragged in

Not bad for a day's an hour's work.

Susan Sontag

I was introduced to Susan Sontag in Jody McAuliffe's directing class at Duke. We were assigned to read her seminal essays "Against Interpretation" and "On Style". As a literary/theater geek, I felt like I had discovered a new form of pornography. I remember the exact room in the East Campus library were I would pore over her books. Some of the names she talked about I knew, most I didn't, but one thing I knew was: I wanted to know more.

It was truly dizzying the way that she wielded difficult literary and philosophical concepts with the ease of combing her hair. She constantly invoked unheard-of artists as if they were common currency in late twentieth century America. A bit older and wiser now, I get that that was part of her act, and some of her ideas, thrilling as they are, don't hold up to prolonged scrutiny. But even if it was part affectation, the fluency in the art and thought of our time that she seemed to take as a given in all her readers gestured at a way that the world could be: we could live in a world in which people had immersed themselves in, and become truly intimate with, challenging, contemporary artists who MATTERED.

Another book that was assigned in Jody McAuliffe's class was Richard Gilman's The Making of Modern Drama. Sontag had endorsed it "Richard Gilman's study of this beautiful subject is written with love, measure and authority. It has no equals." Gilman's book was impressive enough, but Sontag's endorsement of it made me love it all the more. It was a book I was to read and reread many times over the years. Later, when I came across a copy of Gilman's Common and Uncommon Masks in a used bookstore, I was astonished to learn that he had written a whole essay about Sontag, mostly defending her from older critics who Just Didn't Get It. I swooned; it was like two of my best friends had met and were falling in love.

I worked in a campus bookstore one summer, and had plenty of time to read the one biography on Sontag while I was at work, but that wasn't enough. I needed to buy it. It was mostly intellectual biography, but certain facts emerged about her personal life: her incredible precociousness, going to Berkeley at 16, appearing on the cover of Vogue, her divorce, her travels to Hanoi.

She has turned up at many junctures in my life. I remember falling hard for a guy in New York who was probably never meant to be more than a one-night stand for me but he had a Sontag book on his bookshelf. He would one day become the actor David Pittu, Later, in Berlin, I met a guy who introduced me to Robert Wilson, who was directing Sontag's play about Alice James, Alice in Bed, for the Schaubuehne. I went to the premiere with my snarky, cynical friend Egbert, who insisted he saw Sontag snoring through the premier of her show at the Hebbel Theater. I don't know if it was true; it was the kind of thing Egbert would have made up. It was a funny image nonetheless.

Still later, still in Berlin, I met the photographer David Armstrong, and was enthralled to learn that he and his associate Nan Goldin were socializing routinely with Sontag and Daryl Pinkney, as they were all guests of the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service). I remember David remarking that Sontag seemed to look through men; she was apparently only interested in listening to women.

David and I moved back to New York. David had a good friend, Peyton Smith, who was a member of the Wooster Group at the time. I had been a fan of the Wooster Group for years at this point, and couldn't believe my good luck that I had gotten to meet one of them in person. Even better than that, I was invited to watch rehearsals, and when I was there watching, who else was there watching too? You guessed it, Susan Sontag. Peyton let me know that Sontag had recently discovered the Wooster Group and was there pretty much every night. I was glad to know that one of my favorite critics loved my favorite theater company, and I was even more glad to know that I had found them before she had.

While I was at the Drama School at Yale, Sontag came to read from her new novel, In America. Of course I was there with my first edition copy of Under the Sign of Saturn to be signed. I hadn't read her recent novel, The Volcano Lover. I had picked it up in the bookstore and given it the first paragraph test. It had come up wanting. All I remember was that the first paragraph ended in the word "Rubbish" and that had struck me as terribly stuffy. Plus it was a historical fiction, which made me deeply skeptical as well. Had the great Sontag gone soft in her old age? Historical fiction was decidedly midbrow, or so I believed at the time.

I found the reading that she did from In America tedious. David and I went up to her afterwards, and David was able to sort of make her remember who he was. I gushed about what an honor it was to meet her, and handed her the book to sign. She complied, almost grudgingly, and then let me know with more than a little impatience that I needed to read her more recent books. I remember thinking what a waste it was that such a brilliant critic and thinker wanted to write these novels that just didn't seem very interesting.

There was one thing that she said on this occasion which surprised me. Before she read, or maybe afterwards during the Q&A, she remarked that she thought that one of the main purposes of art (or literature, or fiction, I can't remember) was to instruct, particularly to instruct the heart, or something to that effect. I remember this striking me so strongly because it is such a far remove from her positions Against Interpretation, when it was all about how sensual appreciation of art conditioned the moral sense. "Instead of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." She had ridiculed any sort of didacticism. And now here she was extolling "instruction". She was coming out as a nineteenth century novelist. No wonder the preoccupation with historical settings. Time passes, people evolve, I guess. But it sure was surprising.

I had an encounter with another guy, Rick Whitaker, that catalyzed the dissolution of my relationship with David. The night I met him, he was talking about Thomas Bernhard's novel Woodcutters, about which I was to go on to write a dissertation. Sontag would write about Bernhard years later in discussing the phenomenon that is W.G. Sebald. Rick Whitaker, too, had Sontag on his bookshelf. I ended up writing him a postcard with a reproduction of the image that was on the cover of the Penguin edition of Portrait of a Lady, my favorite nineteenth century novel. That postcard was probably the closest I have ever come to writing romantic poetry.

I saw Susan Sontag one more time in person. It was near the end of my time in New York. I was getting ready to say goodbye to all that. I had somehow ended up in a hip new gay club in Williamsburg. I don't know what it was called anymore. I was barely over 30, but I felt old and frumpy compared to the kids at this club. I was still trying to figure out what electroclash was, even though everyone assured me it was already over. Whoever I was with, I can't remember now, pointed to a couple at the bar, who were much older, and said "Isn't that Susan Sontag?" And sure enough, there was the black hair interrupted by the streak of distinguished gray, nodding sagely to the shaved head gay culture vulture she was sitting with. It took me a moment to accept that Susan Sontag was hanging out at this divey night club with these teen-agers, but there she was. The person I was with, whoever it was, assured me that Sontag liked to keep her ear to the ground with respect to what the kids were up to.

Last night, scrolling throught my Google reader, I came across this video that collects excerpts from Sontag's appearances on Charlie Rose. In watching the clips, she somehow struck me as earthier than she ever had before. I don't know whether I had changed or she had, probably both. But what I love about this video is how she owns up to having made a big mistake: when she was younger, she had doubted the power of fiction to communicate. Quite late in life, she had discovered her true passion, her true self. It was inspiring to hear this woman, an authority on everything, admit that she had missed the boat. It somehow made it ok to admire her without reservation: she was not so full of her own expertise and insightfulness that she couldn't see her own mistakes. A critic who knows everything, but then, finally, doesn't, is a critic I can embrace, once and for all.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

in praise of keeping it light

I was reading a blog posts at Theatre Ideas and I came across the following bracing piece of honesty and wisdom, which the blogger quoted from an article by Barbara Carlisle and Randy Ward, two professors at Virginia Tech in an article entitled "Writing for Ralph: An Exploration in the Dramaturgy of a Sustainable Theatre," which was published in Theatre Topics in 1999.

Since at least 1990, the authors of this article--director and playwright Barbara Carlisle, with scenographer and lighting designer Randy Ward--have been participating in a common theatre problem at Virginia Tech. As a department we pride ourselves in maintaining high standards of execution to provide valid design and technical learning for our students. At the same time we confront increasing materials costs with fixed budgets, intense pressure to meet overlapping production deadlines, and perhaps more importantly, deep discomfort with the unrecycled waste that has gone out the door after each production. In every respect we have balked at the model we were perpetuating for our students--debilitating burnout, financial anxiety, and production panic. In writing the book Hi Concept - Lo Tech*, Barbara and her co-author Don Drapeau (also of Virginia Tech) coined the expression "sustainable theatre" to refer to the need for a mode of theatre making that does not deplete the resources of the theatre makers (174). Yet our theatre at Virginia Tech was not sustainable. We were working off the backs of exhausted students and staff, caught up in a theatre mythology that presumes "if you're not willing to kill yourself for the art, you better get out."

As a young theater artist, I considered myself willing to kill myself for the art. Directing in college and graduate school, this was possible: those were both relatively forgiving environments in which to neglect everything else in your life to get the product you wanted. In between those two periods of study, I was living in Berlin, Germany. I had gone there with some money from my undergrad school to do an internship with a theater company, but had stayed on well after that money was gone. I worked as an English teacher, worked on my German, and got to see a lot of exciting theater. However, I eventually decided I wanted to produce and direct my own production of Maria Irene Fornes' play Mud there. I raised a little money and went to work.

I had no idea what the cost would be. As I pushed and grunted and sweated to make the things happen I believed needed to happen for the production to be what I believed it needed to be, my relationships began to fray: with the actors, with the design/production team I had recruited, with my roommates, with my employers. We presented the play both at the Amerika Haus and at a private theater in Berlin, and the set involved a sever rake and a curving cyclorama. It was, in a word, a bitch. And in getting the show up, I took my eye off the ball of promoting the show. The Amerika Haus presentations were well attended, but at the private theater we played to many a sparsely-populated house (the show impressed one of the members of the Berlin Culture Senate enough that she offered to try to help me get money to start a company in Berlin; this was the silver lining). But all things considered, it was a wrenching series of crises and heartbreaks. By the end of the process, my bowels were upset and didn't recover for about a month.

I then was fortunate enough to enter graduate school, which was a more forgiving environment, although it came with its own set of aggravations. I had my triumphs there as well as my disappointments. My last show in school was my thesis production. I had chosen a difficult Austrian play with nothing in the way of a discernible story in the text, that depended on virtuosic performances to give the audience anything to hold onto at all. If it had worked, it might have been something really unique: an experience of being both oriented and disoriented at once. But we didn't get there, and I left graduate school with the monkey on my back of having felt that my thesis production was not a success.

I had spent ten years, between undergraduate school, where I studied with incomparable directing teacher and Yale MFA Jody McAuliffe, to Berlin, where I saw some of the best that European state theater has to offer, to three years at the Drama School at Yale, developing these incredibly high standards for what I wanted my work to be like. When I finally left graduate school and started hustling for work in New York, it wasn't an easy adjustment to make. First of all, I had to make money, which meant long, boring, demoralizing days temping at Goldman Sachs or working as a cater-waiter. When I did get opportunities, it was always a project that someone else had picked. They had also set up the timetable and severely limited the budget. The talent I was able to access was also pretty circumscribed. Little or no rehearsal support, etc. Crises would erupt during the day that I would have to try to handle on the phone at my temp job. I would have to try to make things happen by pulling strings in a bureaucratic setting I did not understand. And I brought my share of neurosis to the mix, which certainly didn't help matters.

After a while, it wore me down. I was able to make happen little or nothing of what I dreamed of, and at such a cost! I eventually turned my back on the theater and jumped on the web development bandwagon. Having given my first thirty years of life to the theater, it was time to take care of myself.

Skipping forward a few chapters, I moved to the west coast and entered a Ph.D. program at Stanford. After a year there, I had a brainstorm and launched an acting studio in San Francisco, now the Mother of Invention Acting School. I was determined to start small: the first time I taught the class, I taught it for free (I had my Stanford fellowship to live off of). The class had some pretty strict requirements in terms of attendance and preparation, so the students were contributing, even if they weren't paying cash money. It worked, and I found that it afforded me the pleasure of working with actors and text, which is what it was always all about for me, without the aggravations of trying to make art in a foreign institutional matrix, whether regional theater, university, or downtown theater. I had the autonomy of being my own boss, and I didn't have the pressure of opening a show. I did institute a Friends and Family night at the end of each cycle, and I found that that was an invaluable practice, since it helped keep me honest with myself about what I was accomplishing with the students. It's hard to kid yourself about your work when there are strangers in the room watching it.

I have been teaching my acting classes for five years now, and expanded to Los Angeles a little over a year ago. It has proved a solid foundation for me. It afforded me the opportunity to continue to grow as an artist, it has provided me with a (modest) income, and it has given me the pleasure and satisfaction of doing what I love to do and do well.

I turn 40 in March, and recently completed my doctoral program in Stanford in German literature. I don't plan to look for an academic job in literature (was never going to be my scene). As I look ahead, I envision relocating to Los Angeles (although still teaching in SF), and starting my own theater company there. One of the biggest obstacles to moving forward with this was the memory of the backbreaking toil and labor involved in producing Mud in Berlin, and the heartbreak of its less than sparse attendance. However, reading this piece and this piece at Theatre Ideas has given me some encouragement. By keeping my vision right-sized, light and sustainable, there is no reason that the process needs to be wrenching or heartbreaking, or at least not consistently so. It is the same vision that worked so well for me with the class: set meetable goals, and then meet them. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Invest in people. Remember what's really important: the passion of the actor, the human capital, and the relationships that keep that capital healthy and motivated.

We usually think of "sustainability" as something that pertains to big industries, but sustainability is a key concern for artists trying to carve out a niche for themselves and create an artistic home. As Will Durant wrote, paraphrasing Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." When we think about what we can repeat, rather than what we might be able to do once, we are creating a future.

we've all been there

Friday, January 15, 2010

the "Oh sh*t!" circuit and the Delete key

In the January issue of Wired magazine, there is a fascinating article on the nature of scientific work. Specifically, it investigates the way scientific progress happens. It turns out that there is an enormous amount of failure involved. A researcher named Kevin Dunbar spent a year observing scientific researchers at their work, and found that:

Science is a deeply frustrating pursuit. Although the researchers were mostly using established techniques, more than 50 percent of their data was unexpected. (In some labs, the figure exceeded 75 percent.) “The scientists had these elaborate theories about what was supposed to happen,” Dunbar says. “But the results kept contradicting their theories. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to spend a month on a project and then just discard all their data because the data didn’t make sense.” Perhaps they hoped to see a specific protein but it wasn’t there. Or maybe their DNA sample showed the presence of an aberrant gene. The details always changed, but the story remained the same: The scientists were looking for X, but they found Y.

Not only did things not go as planned most of the time, but the not-going-as-planned was discounted and abandoned more often than not:

According to Dunbar, even after scientists had generated their “error” multiple times — it was a consistent inconsistency — they might fail to follow it up. “Given the amount of unexpected data in science, it’s just not feasible to pursue everything,” Dunbar says. “People have to pick and choose what’s interesting and what’s not, but they often choose badly.” And so the result was tossed aside, filed in a quickly forgotten notebook. The scientists had discovered a new fact, but they called it a failure.

It turns out that the brain is wired to tune out anomalous information, stuff that seems not to jibe with how think the world should be. Dunbar performed some experiments and verified this:

As he tried to further understand how people deal with dissonant data, Dunbar conducted some experiments of his own. In one 2003 study, he had undergraduates at Dartmouth College watch a couple of short videos of two different-size balls falling. The first clip showed the two balls falling at the same rate. The second clip showed the larger ball falling at a faster rate. The footage was a reconstruction of the famous (and probably apocryphal) experiment performed by Galileo, in which he dropped cannonballs of different sizes from the Tower of Pisa. Galileo’s metal balls all landed at the exact same time — a refutation of Aristotle, who claimed that heavier objects fell faster.

While the students were watching the footage, Dunbar asked them to select the more accurate representation of gravity. Not surprisingly, undergraduates without a physics background disagreed with Galileo. (Intuitively, we’re all Aristotelians.) They found the two balls falling at the same rate to be deeply unrealistic, despite the fact that it’s how objects actually behave. Furthermore, when Dunbar monitored the subjects in an fMRI machine, he found that showing non-physics majors the correct video triggered a particular pattern of brain activation: There was a squirt of blood to the anterior cingulate cortex, a collar of tissue located in the center of the brain. The ACC is typically associated with the perception of errors and contradictions — neuroscientists often refer to it as part of the “Oh shit!” circuit — so it makes sense that it would be turned on when we watch a video of something that seems wrong.

However, the "Oh Shit!" circuit is not the whole story. There is another part of the brain that closes the deal by editing out parts of reality that conflict with our picture of it.

But there’s another region of the brain that can be activated as we go about editing reality. It’s called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC. It’s located just behind the forehead and is one of the last brain areas to develop in young adults. It plays a crucial role in suppressing so-called unwanted representations, getting rid of those thoughts that don’t square with our preconceptions. For scientists, it’s a problem.

When physics students saw the Aristotelian video with the aberrant balls, their DLPFCs kicked into gear and they quickly deleted the image from their consciousness. In most contexts, this act of editing is an essential cognitive skill. (When the DLPFC is damaged, people often struggle to pay attention, since they can’t filter out irrelevant stimuli.) However, when it comes to noticing anomalies, an efficient prefrontal cortex can actually be a serious liability. The DLPFC is constantly censoring the world, erasing facts from our experience. If the ACC is the “Oh shit!” circuit, the DLPFC is the Delete key. When the ACC and DLPFC “turn on together, people aren’t just noticing that something doesn’t look right,” Dunbar says. “They’re also inhibiting that information.”

Between the Oh Shit! circuit and the delete key, the brain is set up to protect our existing pictures of the world from threatening anomalies. And in a lot of situations, that's probably a good thing. It would be impossible to focus on anything without such a capacity.

But progress in science depends on noticing anomalies. Anomalies are the things that tell us where our existing models are inadequate, and can point the way towards evolving new models.

Given our propensity for censoring out anomalies, Dunbar wondered how any kind of progress happened at all. He sat in on a lot of lab meetings where results were discussed. What he found was that meetings where diverse groups of scientists, people with very different kinds of expertise, were involved were much more effective than discussions among people who shared a common area of expertise:

The diverse lab, in contrast, mulled the problem at a group meeting. None of the scientists were protein experts, so they began a wide-ranging discussion of possible solutions. At first, the conversation seemed rather useless. But then, as the chemists traded ideas with the biologists and the biologists bounced ideas off the med students, potential answers began to emerge. “After another 10 minutes of talking, the protein problem was solved,” Dunbar says. “They made it look easy.”

When Dunbar reviewed the transcripts of the meeting, he found that the intellectual mix generated a distinct type of interaction in which the scientists were forced to rely on metaphors and analogies to express themselves. (That’s because, unlike the E. coli group, the second lab lacked a specialized language that everyone could understand.) These abstractions proved essential for problem-solving, as they encouraged the scientists to reconsider their assumptions. Having to explain the problem to someone else forced them to think, if only for a moment, like an intellectual on the margins, filled with self-skepticism.

This is very relevant to the working process for acting that I teach in the class, in particular to the challenge of articulating an underlying objective. As an actor studies a role, he/she becomes an expert on it. The challenge of distilling her understanding of the role into a single phrase, the underlying objective, that captures the urgency and significance of the character's struggle is an extremely valuable one. It is in that struggle to articulate, to find expression, to communicate, that the actor is challenged to touch in herself the the place in herself that corresponds to the place in the author that prompted her to create the role in the first place.

In finding our way to that expression, anomaly is very important. When most of us approach a text initially, we have an evaluative relationship to the figures presented therein: we are interested in the choices they make in the situations in which they find themselves, and the way in which those choices work out. Based on those factors, we form judgments about the figures in question. We are interested in evaluating them as a way of gaining insight about our own lives.

To work on a role as an actor, we need to approach the role empathically rather than evaluatively. We need to understand what makes each step that the character takes the next necessary thing for them. We are not interested in judging them, but rather in connecting with them, getting in touch with what makes them tick. Unfortunately, our first encounter with a script tends to produce an evaluative way of looking at the character. We need to work our way around to an empathic way of looking at the character, but that is not easy. Once the evaluative way of looking at it lodges itself in our minds, we can puncture it only with difficulty.

That's where anomaly comes in. When we read something in a script that triggers our Oh shit! circuit, we need to pay close attention to that. It's often the key to moving past the evaluative to the empathic.

In our first night of class in the Essentials class, we talk about the role of Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire. I ask everyone to imagine that they are going to play Blanche, and then I walk them through the posing of the initial questions they need to consider. One of them is the character's strengths. The initial ones that come out usually have to do with "I'm charming", "I'm insightful" "I'm clever", "I'm refined". It often takes quite a while before someone comes out with "I'm caring" or "I'm loving", and yet those strengths belong to Blanche indisputably. She cared for her dying relatives through protracted and hideous illnesses, and she feels deep remorse about her contribution to the death of Allan Grey. And Stella affirms these qualities when she defends Blanche to Stanley. These are not the aspects of Blanche that the text puts in the foreground, but they are definitely there. An actor approaching this role needs to pay attention to the clues that Blanche is not merely an unlucky charmer with a lot of education. The success of the piece depends on the actor discovering this vulnerability, that is, on noticing the anomalies that disrupt a purely evaluative view of her. It's in that disruption that vulnerability is born.

Monday, January 11, 2010

there's been something I wanted to say to you

You can find it here.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

breaking it down

I received a really nice compliment last night on one of my old blog posts, the somewhat contentious the trouble with Mamet's practical aesthetics. In an earlier comment, someone (these were all anonymous posters) had asked me to describe the way that I approach objective in my classes, since I had supplied such an exhaustive critique of the approach Mamet recommends.

Here was the request for explication:

I'm curious though as to what rules you've come up with for choosing a strong NEED (and to see an example of how it's applied to a scene). You don't have a book I could be referred to and I can't take your classes since I'm not based in the U.S., so it would be great if you're willing to share your insights to the acting community here.

I responded (I'll include my response below), and received the following response to my response, from a newcomer to the thread:

I have an MFA in acting and find your writings remarkable. Your analysis is the most concise and applicable information I have encountered and I am overwhelmed by your generosity in posting it online. Truly well done and thank you.

Naturally, it felt good to get a compliment like that. Mark Twain once said he could live for two months on a good compliment; ditto for me. Reading that compliment made me think that I should do a blog post and include the comment that elicited that compliment. I do it with a little hesitation, because this point i one of the things that makes what I teach truly distinctive, and there is a temptation to hoard it for my students only. However, I know that putting it out there will be the better choice karmically, and I hope it will make some of you consider studying with me. So here goes:

Thanks for your comments.

I once asked one of my mentors at Yale whether he would write a book, as it seemed to me that what he presented in class and in scene work was truly visionary, and the world would be the better for becoming acquainted with what he had to see. He chuckled and simply said "No." Astonished, I asked him why not. His answer was that what he was teaching couldn't be taught in a book.

I say that to frame what I am about to write. I appreciate your interest in what I have written, and so I am going to do my best to oblige you, but I am skeptical about how well I can make myself understood in this kind of format. That's only because I think to a great degree the concepts I teach have most of their meaning in the context in which they are used. But I will walk you through some things.

The first things about the underlying objective is that it is a need, not an out come. So for Blanche DuBois, arriving in New Orleans, the fact that she wants he sister and brother-in-lew to welcome her into their home, and the fact that she hopes to find a husband, are outcomes. THey are what we refer to as plot objectives. Getting Eunice to orient her and let her into Stella's apartment, once she learns Stella is not around, is also a plot objective, albeit much shorter term. But both of these things are outcomes Blanche would like to bring about. The question is: what is the need that drives her to pursue these outcomes?

It is axiomatic to this approach that there is only one need that remains the same throughout the stage-life of a figure or character(our term for a character is a "who-am-I" ). This is kind of an astonishing demand, but it is justified (and this I do not discuss with my students unless they ask) by the fact that the writer is presenting a distillation of a person, not a person in total.

Anyway, the underlying objective, which we also call the play objective, the life objective and the scene objective, are ALL THE SAME. The scene objective and the life objective are the same. They do not change. A consequence of this is that the scene objective does not change over the course of the scene. This is a crucial point. The need pursued by the actor stays constant. Plot objectives can change, but scene objective remains unchanged. In fact, the reason that we discard one plot objective and take up another (ie change course) is because the new direction promises to provide more of what is needed than the old one.

Another point is that the underlying objective has to be HOT or visceral. It can't be cerebral. I tell my students to avoid Oprah-talk like "approval, understanding, validation, support." These are really pop-psychology euphemisms for thrue needs, and it's not necessarily that they are wrong, but they won't light a fire in anyone. I tell people to try to speak in the language of the morning DJ, ie be as plain spoken as possible, to "dumb it up", not to be confused with dumbing it down.

Secondly, the thing pursued must be positive. I use what is called the dating game test. Someone proposes that Hedda Gabler's UO is "control." So I say: "Bachelorette #1, what she cares about more than anything else in the world is control. Do you want to date her?" This is a way of getting the students to recognize that they have not provided an empathic account of what the who-am-I needs when they provide an answer like "control." The UO has to be something attractive to pursue, which Stanislavsky actually says in his list of criteria in the Units and Objectives chapter in AAP. A major premise of this entire approach is that the actor's talk to herself about the role must be legitimating of what the actor will have to pursue in the role: judgmental talk has the opposite effect.

Finally, I (and my teachers) demand (and this is critical) that the UO be phrased in a particular way. This is absolutely mission-critical. The UO should be phrased EXACTLY as follows: "What I need to GET FROM the world, my life, my partner is my..."

One reason the UO needs to be phrased in this way is that the GET FROM sets up the listening or "receiving" that the character does in the scene. In each moment, the actor/character is asking for what she needs, and then checking to see whether they are getting a piece of it in a way that is TOTALLY INDEPENDENT of any and all plot outcomes. This is the most important point, and the most difficult to explain. What it does NOT mean is that what the actor is listening for at each moment is whether or not she has successfully moved an inch closer to realizing some plot objective (this is the convention conception of what it is like to pursue an objective), but whether, in that moment, in an immediate way, she has gotten a small piece of the same thing she will get a big bucket of if she gets one of her plot goals.

When I ask students to suggest an underlying objective for Blanche, they suggest many plot objectives (find a husband etc), but they also say: happiness-- begging the question, we all want happiness. but what is happiness for Blanche. That is what we are trying to say. Security-- too Oprah-ish, also fails the dating game test, in a big way. Comfort-- tempting, but also doesn't really pass the dating game test: someone who values comfort above all else seems to be selfish and lacking in aspiration or ambition. Love: we all want love, but unfortunately the word doesn't have enough teeth, by itself it is more Oprah talk.

When they pose plot objectives, I call them on proposing plot objectives, and then ask, "what will that give you?" I tell them that is the appropriate question when a plot objective arises.

One way to get to the UO is to think about what has been lost. Everyone has a past, and there are always important clues in that. Blanche has lost Belle Reve, and her place in that world as a sought-after hothouse flower of refinement and feminine bounty. These are the treasures she was born into, her birthright, her "beautiful dream", this is the source of belonging for her. So as Blanche, I can pursue my belonging, my birthright, my lost way of life. I can look for that in one way from Stella, in another way from Stanley, and in another way from Mitch. When I tell Stella about all that has happened, each moment she listens attentively, each moment she empathizes and expresses sympathy, I get a piece of my birthright, because she is according my the respect and care she owes me according to our common origin. Similarly, if she welcomes me into her life, tells me I can stay as long as I want, that I should treat the house as my own, and tells her husband to just deal with it, I get a huge bucket of my birthright. If she acts like I am being melodramatic, then she is refusing to give the losses their weight, and I lose a piece my birthright. And if she chooses Stanley the Polish proletarian over me, then I lose a colossal piece of my birthright. What I pursue in each moment independently of the plot, and what I pursue through plot objectives, are one and the same.

There is not one answer to the UO question for any character, but there are many that will not work. The ones that are "ready to hand" generally derive from the student looking at the situation from outside of it, and it is only after they have tried these ready to hand ones on for size, and seen how they fail, that they will begin to make headway towards finding one that comes from a bond between their own gut and the circumstances and language of the play.

It can also be good to try to look for bits of language that characters use to try to clinch negotiations and close deals, and make use of them. I use a two page play by John Patrick Shanley in which a character complains that he was at a "nice, silly party, about to get somewhere with a nice, silly woman" when he was dragged away by his best friend, for reasons that have yet to be explained. So the acotr might pursue "my nice-silly". Since it turns out that the character is asking not to be subjected to blid-faith tests of friendship, but rather to be taken as is, "my nice-silly" works well. Grammar can even be abused and often should be, so that someone might pursue "my fresh" or "my clean".

There is a lot more to it, particularly in understanding how the UO is to pursued from various partners, but this is at least an introduction.

I hope you enjoyed this. Let me know if you have questions in the comments and i'll do my best to respond.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

the whole twitter thing

This is a post I sent out to my acting classes that are starting next week, describing how I'd like to integrate Twitter into the training.

If you have read through the startup post by now (and if you haven't please do ASAP :)), you know that one of the things I asked you to do is to create a Twitter account, and to let me know what your Twitter name is. I imagine that may have been a little surprising.

I thought I would write and tell you a little about where I was coming from with that, and where I am going, or perhaps where we may be going. Recently, I read a remarkable book called Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky . Shirky is an eminent writer on the social implications of digital technology. This book was about the social media revolution: the changes that email, the Internet, Facebook, Myspace, youtube and Twitter have wrought on our world. I heartily recommend it; it is a fascinating and inspiring account of how the way we live now came to be, and the possibilities and dangers of that new way of living. Shirky offers anecdote after amazing anecdote illustrating the ways the new connectedness is making movements and undertakings possible that were never possible before.

Upon reading the book, I naturally began to think about how these social media practices might have an impact on how I teach my class. Around the same time, I wrote a blog piece called 15 minutes a day, describing the process I used for part of writing my dissertation in German literature at Stanford. The idea is that for most people, when they have a significant undertaking, the biggest difficulties are procrastination and the guilt that flows from procrastinating, which in turn spawns more procrastination, and a vicious cycle is set in motion. In the five years of teaching the acting class, it has become clear to me that avoidance of the work for the class during the week can be a significant problem for some people. I present a whole framework for work on a role in the class, and as inspiring as I believe what I am presenting to be, it can be overwhelming at first. The overwhelming-ness can make procrastination attractive, and then the deadlines start to loom, and it's at that point that some people make the choice to withdraw from the class. This is a disappointing outcome for all concerned, and so to attempt to head that off I wrote the "15 minutes a day" blog post, to suggest an approach that, if adopted early on, might prevent this from occurring.

The idea is that you commit to do 15 minutes of work every day on the class. No more work is required if you're not in the mood. 15 minutes is a small enough unit to take the edge of the intimidation that the magnitude of the undertaking can instill. Upon occasion, she might be drawn in by the work, and work longer than 15 minututes, but there is no obligation to do so. (The days when you get together to rehearse with your partners will clearly require some more time, but it's the alone time that tends to be the sticking point) This has the effect of defusing procrastination, keeping the actor in touch with the work on a daily basis(which tends to keep the unconscious mind chewing on it even when you are doing other things), and affirming experientially the fact that bit by bit progress can be made. All of this conspires to change the actor's relationship to his work: the work becomes a familiar, known quantity, rather than a menacing mountain to be climbed at unknown cost and consequence; that is, the work becomes domesticated, it is tamed.

So what does all of this had to do with Twitter? Well, in the class, as you will soon learn, each week I present a short "body work" component, something that takes only a couple of minutes to do a day, and helps to heighten your awareness of various parts of the body and the ways in which we are prone to carry tension in them. To support this work, you have a body work buddy who you contact when you have done your body work for the day. You email, text, or leave a voicemail messssage containing a "mantra" that I assign each week to say that you have done the body work for the day. This has the effect of reinforcing some principle we are working on in the class, through the content of the message, the mantra, for both you and your partner, but through the act of contacting each other, it also helps recall the class and the work associated with it to mind, making it less likely that the demands of daily life keep you from getting to your work. It's a gentle reminder to do the body work.

It occurred to me that we might add Twitter to the mix in the following way: I will create a Twitter List that contains the accounts of all the people in the class (and only those people). It will only be viewable by people in the class. Whenever you do some work for the class, whether it is doing some assigned reading or homework on your role or rehearsing with your partner, you can then tweet about it. This means that any day of the week, you can look at the Twitter list (perhaps when you receive the mantra from your body work partner) and see what other people in the class have been doing, what they have been working on. This, I think, would help people who feel stymied about what the next step to take is in their work. This way, they can see what their colleagues have been up to, and follow their lead or be inspired to go in a different direction. And I think everyone will be supported in their own work by the knowledge that their colleagues are staying involved with their work for the class.

People occasionally express to me disappointment that there is not more of an opportunity to interact with their classmates in the class. If all goes well, you will have a close positive working relationship with your scene partner. The opportunities to connect with others in class, though, while certainly there, are a bit limited. By tweeting with each other during the week, we will increase the sense of connectedness in the group, as well as support each other in staying close to the work. And your own social network will be that much richer upon leaving the class, which, whatever your life goals are, can only be an asset. Also, if you are not a tweeter already, you will have mastered a new form of social networking that I believe is going to be increasingly important in our society in the future.
Of course, it will require some effort from everyone to get this started, and if you don't know Twitter, it may require some courage as well. There isn't a lot to it, but anything new and foreign can require that some inertia be overcome. But I say: cmon in, the water's warm! I think it has the potential to be a great addition to the class.

My Twitter name is @actbetter. Follow me, and I'll follow you back!

How do I create a Twitter account?

Go to Shouldn't take more than two minutes

What is a tweet?

A tweet is a message that you publish on Twitter. The tweet appears on the Twitter pages of those who have subscribed to your tweets ("followed" you). A tweet is limited to 140 characters.

How will I find the Twitter list for the class?

I will send you the URL in short order.

Does this mean I am going to get a bunch of annoying messages to my phone?

No. You can set up your Twitter to send updates to your phone, but that is not the default, so it won't happen unless you go to the extra effort to make it happen.

How can I find out more about Twitter?

As simple as Twitter is, there are lots of ways to amplify it and add bells and whistles. A good primer, you're interested in learning more, can be found here. No obligation though, feel free to keep your Twitter use totally bare bones, if that's what you prefer. But I hope you'll give it a try.

Monday, January 04, 2010

a new year's message from actorfactor

Saturday, January 02, 2010

the war on the little hater inside your head

See also this.

Friday, January 01, 2010

2009: the motion picture

Check it out here. Though I'm not sure Will Smith would be my choice for Barack Obama.

H/T Jenny Bennett

announcing: Body-Mind-Word

The Mother of Invention Acting School will be offering a new class starting in 2010, Body-Mind-Word. This will be a class that initiates students into the practice of presence: the use of our physical, mental and verbal capacities to invite and hold attention, and manifest our full expressive potential. It will make use of elements of non-Stanislavsky based acting training, including Suzuki, Linklater, Grotowski and Cicely Berry, and of various other disciplines that promote body-mind integration, including T'ai-Chi, yoga, capoeira, Limon dance technique, contact improvisation and Pilates.

The class is intended to complement and round out the Stanislavsky-based training presented in the Mother of Invention Acting School's Essentials class. As such, for a limited time, students who are currently enrolled in an Essentials class will be able to take Body-Mind-Word for a substantial discount.

Course specifics such as cost, time and location to be announced shortly.

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