Thursday, June 24, 2010

the paradox

It's hard not to get a kick out yourself as you imitate, transform, or entertain others, or make them laugh! How great it is to be able to do these things.

But it's the watching-yourself-do-these-things-while-you-do-them that is, unfortunately, the essence of self-consciousness. It's this awareness that has to be marginalized if not banished altogether from your mind to achieve maximal absorption in what you are doing.

Unfortunately, it's this desire to see one's self doing these things, to watch one's self in the act of imitating, transforming,entertaining or inducing laughter that brings most of us to want to act in the first place.

If you want to be great, you don't get to watch yourself be entertaining. That you have to give up. You can be appreciated by others all you want afterwards. But while you are acting? Don't look into the light!

Or, as the famous nineteenth century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said: when Abraham consents to make the sacrifice of his son Isaac, he regains the world!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

because you never know who's watching


We had the Friends and Family Nights at the end of the cycles in Los Angeles and San Francisco two weeks ago. These events are intended as celebrations: I do not invite prospective students, to try to sell them on the class, because on those nights I don't want to be distracted by having to play host to these prospectives. The way that I run the class, there is usually a familial feeling (in a good way!) among the graduating students. I like to savor that feeling, and not have to worry about making sure that the prospectives feel at home. I also don't want to feel pressure for the students who are showing their scenes to "deliver for me" and sell the class. I want to celebrate the work at whatever level it is at as the course comes to a close. When industry people have inquired about coming to the Night, I have allowed it, but have asked them not to speak to students in a professional capacity that night, but rather to contact them through me later, because I wouldn't want the word to get out that night and for other students to feel that they had not measured up in failing to attract the attention of whoever these industry people were. I want my students to celebrate their achievement and enjoy the their last night together as a class.

But I have no control over who students choose to invite. It so happened (I later learned) that at one of these events, a student had a guest who was a casting director for HBO. Now many of the students had worked hard throughout the cycle, and were Ready. And casting my mind back over the evening in question, the man who I take to be the HBO director (based on whose guest he was) complimented me on the way out, in a "No, really, I mean it" kind of way. So I think he felt those students were Ready too. But I know for a fact that some students had not worked as hard and as consistently as the ones who were Ready, and as a consequence, were not as Ready.


The moral? Always be Ready. Because you never know who's watching.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

David Foster Wallace on "puff words"

In class, we spend a lot of time learning to talk about who we are as the role, what we are pursuing, etc. And I strive to instill in my students an understanding of how important it is to speak about the scene in an immediate, direct, visceral way. That's why I like this so much:

(If you just see a bunch of HTML below, then click the headline above to go to my blog and watch the video)

William Burroughs shooting Shakespeare (with a gun, not a camera)

The Buddhists say that if you meet the Buddha on the road, you should kill him. I guess that's the idea here.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

what Sheila quoted Minnie as saying about performing

Via The Sheila Variations

"Genius is the great unknown quantity. Technique supplies a constant for the problem. Fluency, flexibility, technique, precision, virtuosity, science - call it what you will. Why call it anything? Watch Pavlova dance, and there you have it. She knows her business. She has carried this mastery to such perfection that there is really no need of watching her at all. You know it will be all right. One glance at her and you are sure. On most of our players one keeps an apprehensive eye, filled with dark suspicions and forebodings - forebodings based on sad experience. But I told Gabrielle Rejane once that a performance of hers would no sooner begin than I would feel perfectly free to go out of the theatre and take a walk. I knew she could be trusted. It would be all right. There was no need to stay and watch."

-- Minnie Maddern Fiske, famous American actress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries

audition wisdom

What The Working Actress said.

Words to live by.

the production effect

When I meet people new to acting for the informational coffee date at the start of the process of enrolling in the class, these people often express some worry about the task of memorizing their lines. They often ask me if I have any special techniques for overcoming this obstacle. I tell them that I do have a few things to say about memorization, but that really, there is always going to be a need to put in time doing rote study for a role with any substance. I smile inwardly, as little do these hapless newbies know, but memorizing lines is the LEAST of the actor's worries. That memorization is the aspect of the work that they find most daunting attests to how far their conception of what acting is what what it really is at this point. This is pretty much inevitable for a beginner. The question is how they will react once the true scope of the challenge facing actors begins to sink in.

I did come across something of interest recently though, that does offer some help with the task of memorization. It turns out that if you are attempting to memorize something and you say it aloud, the act of verbalizing it makes it more likely that you will remember it. It's called "the production effect", according to Psychology Today:

In this paper, these researchers document what they call the production effect. They looked at people's memory for items like a list of words. They found that if people studied the list by reading half of the words silently and the other half by saying the words out loud, that [the] words spoken aloud were remembered much better than those that were read silently.

The production effect works because it makes part of the list of items more distinctive. The words you speak aloud are now translated into speech and you have knowledge of producing the items as well as a memory of hearing them. All of this information makes your memory for the spoken items more distinct from the rest of the items that were read silently.

Good to know, but the production effect has implications beyond the learning of lines. One of the things students are confronted with in my class is the amount of concerted effort it takes to acquaint themselves with the character's reality and circumstances to the degree that they have a credible claim to embody that character. We call this process developing a "Who am I", or a way of perceiving one's self and the facts of one's life, history, and hopes and fears about the future. I provide students with a framework or set of questions to pose to organize their work on the Who-Am-I, and I urge them to write it out, for precisely the reasons that the production effect entails. The physical act of writing out these pieces of information, as well as the cognitive act of ordering all of these bits of information in relationship to each other, helps these pieces of information enter the BODY of the actor, as well as the mind. Whatever you may think of Julia Cameron and The Artist's Way, Cameron makes much the same point in advocating for the writing of "morning pages": in the act of writing out our thoughts, we process them physically. This may or may not yield answers to our personal or artistic conundrums, but it turns up the soil, so to speak, freeing up inchoate energies to travel neural pathways they may not have traveled previously. Or whatever.

I recognize the difficulty of this. I was recently introduced to something called "cognitive behavioral therapy", which is a process for examining damaging thoughts by identifying their origins or triggers, and then shining the light of reason on them by weighing evidence for and against them. It is a formalized process of self-reflection. In being asked to undertake this, I was handed a sheet of paper with a chart on it with columns which I was expected to fill in, which would guide me through the process.

The chart sat on my dresser for a week. I was immediately aware of the similarity between the Who-am-I process I ask actors to undertake and the cognitive behavioral therapy chart, and so I could hardly object to being asked to undertake it, and yet I felt a marked resistance to doing so. Perhaps that is partly a function of my (male) (Aries?) temperament, but I suspect many of us would similarly chafe under being asked to work out our inner struggles through a chart like this. It felt a little infantilizing. (Is it possible to infantilize just a little?)

I took note of the resistance, sat with it, so to speak, and eventually, I overcame it, and started to work with it. Did the earth move and the angels weep? No. Did I gain some insight about how to reflect on my thoughts and their relationship to my mood? Yes. As adults, we prize our autonomy, and can easily resent encroachments upon it, real or perceived. But any kind of technique is going to be an encroachment of sorts. Otherwise we could all just do what comes naturally and we would all be Awesome at whatever we wanted to do. It doesn't work that way. Freedom lies on the other side of technique, as a wise person once said.

Writing has its benefits for the initial phase of the Who-am-I process, and it is also enormously valuable for the personalization process that follows. Personalization has two components: particularization, in which the people, places and things that comprise the world of the Who-am-I are given detail which imbues them with an enlivening vividness, and investment, in which the actor uses relationships in her own life to endow these people places and things with the appropriate kind of signficance. Writing can be invaluable for both particularization and transference. In addition to the production effect, writing down pieces of particularization and investment force a ocmmitment to be made: if such things remain as mere thoughts, they are likely to remain undeveloped and incherent. Writing out these things asks the actor to bring an urgently needed definition to her imaginative approach to the role.

Uta Hagen is a tremendous resource in this regard: in both her books, she provides countless examples of the kind of writing on the role that provides this kind of enrichment to the actors work.

Of course, what you write when you write is also important. Just the mere fact of writing does not guarantee that the Who-Am-I will be productively developed and rich personalization will take shape. But writing it down is a step in the right direction, a gesture of seriousness to your creative self about your intentions. It beats not writing anything out every time.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

a fantastic talk about the sunday evening blues

Last night, I went to a friend's for a late night dinner, and my friend had arranged for me to sleep at her neighbor's house in Echo Park. The neighbor is out of town. It turns out that the neighbor is a gay man who is a very successful Hollywood director. He has directed episodes of some of the most esteemed shows on cable at the moment, and his feature film has won a major international film festival. The house itself was a classic East Hollywood Craftsman, the kind of place I can only dream that I will someday call my own, even if I am renting (the guy owns this house). The director is in his late forties. The house was decorated impeccably, and fastidiously maintained. I'd be lying if I said that this experience wasn't a challenge to my self-esteem: as much as I enjoy what I do and believe in its importance, and also recognize that many people have derived tremendous value from my classes and returned to them repeatedly over time, the enterprise of supporting myself in a comfortable existence doing what I do is still very much a work-in-progress. It's moments like yesterday evening that test the depth of my conviction that my work-in-progress life is headed in a good direction.

I was more than a little relieved to learn that the director/homeowner's father had been an artist. It made me feel better about the distance I have come in affirming my own life choices to put my creative practice at the center of my life, despite the consequences, given that I came from a household whose values opposed diametrically such a decision.

It felt more than a little serendipitous to come across this talk in my Google Reader today, as I have been recently speaking to friends and even students about having the Sunday evening blues sometimes, not on Sunday evenings, when 9--to-5-ers tend to get it, but on a day when I have to teach or coach in the evening. Time and again, when the appointment to teach or coach arrives, I find myself happily and productively immersed in what I do, and finish the session with a core sense of contentment. But that doesn't change the fact that I sometimes feel a cloud of dread hanging over me on the days on which I have an evening appointment to ply my trade.

This talk is by Alain de Botton, a writer, essayist, and lecturer. He has written a book called How Proust Can Change Your Life. (Proust did change my life, incidentally, but that's a story for another time.) He does a terrific job of outlining the way in which the pressure to be "a success" pervades modern life, and what we might do about that. Highly recommended.

(If you just see a bunch of HTML below, click the headline above to view the video at my blog.)

H/T Rob Weinert-Kendt at The Wicked Stage

true theater

(If you just see a bunch of HTML below, then click the headline above to visit my blog and watch.)

More funky avian mating dances here.

H/T Ezra Klein

Thursday, June 03, 2010

addition to my blogroll: the working actress

Anyone who comes up with stuff like this is ok by me:

When traveling...

...and a customs or security person asks you the purpose of your trip, as true as it may be, never ever say, "I'm here to shoot a pilot."

They won't get it...
And they'll probably arrest you...

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

necessity is the mother of invention: case in point

(If you just see a bunch of HTML below, click the headline above to go to the blog and watch the video)

the new new (acting) thing?

This article in the NY Times is not exactly new, but it does chronicle what seems to be a newish direction in acting training, dream work.

In the last decade, dream work, as it is known, has spread into actors studios and classrooms across the country, taking its place among the ever expanding techniques of actor training and in the long-running debate over what leads to the most authentic performances.

From what I have read, it is not a an approach to scene work itself, so much as a way of working on the connection to the role, i.e. your homework.

In light of that, I found this piece from the Guardian today interesting.

John Clare and Ali Zarbafi are psychotherapists and authors who believe it is vital that we remember and talk about our dreams in order to "discover the thoughts to which we usually have no access" – the "unthought known", as Christopher Bollas puts it — and find a new way of thinking, new ideas. Maybe social dreaming – a concept dreamed up by Dr Gordon Lawrence – is how to find this; Clare and Zarbafi certainly believe it is.

The Guardian points cites some of the major points they use to make their argument. Both are provocative:

Can it really be true that, in 1930s Germany, Charlotte Beradt catalogued hundreds of dreams and, on looking at them collectively years later, found early premonitions of concentration camps and other terrors which were to come? Clare – and the book he jointly authored with Zarbafi – say it is.

and, even more intriguing:

He then gave another example. In the 1930s, the Senoi tribe in Malaysia were found by an anthropologist to have had no war or violent crime for 300 years. He discovered that they were committed to dream interpretation and dream expression – they took their dreams seriously and believed in talking about them, with each family spending breakfast listening to one another's dreams, and the head of the household then taking them to a council meeting to report and discuss them.

There are reasons to be skeptical. For example, I suffer from something called Meniere's disease, which is a minor condition which can sometimes cause me to get attacks of vertigo, sometimes very intense ones. I have sometimes awoken from a dream in which I was on some sort of merry-go-round or something, only to discover that I was having such a vertigo attack. So the merry-go-round image in my dream would seem NOT to have been a deep message from my unconscious, but rather an effect of what I was physiologically experiencing. Ebenezer Scrooge famously dismissed the visits of Christmas ghosts as the result of "an undigested bit of beef", and it does seem likely that there is some link between physiological events and dreams. But it also seems likely that our psyche does make itself visible to us in ways it doesn't in the everyday world through dreams, and that studying these visions can be illuminating, or, failing that, at least provocative.

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