Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Christopher Nolan does not shit solid gold. Like most people, he shits shit. Inception, for example."

A grrrrrreat review of Inception at

Some other highlights:

Just an example here, to give you an idea of how original the bones of this film are: Nolan wrote, then reviewed, considered, and retained the following line: “I just need this one last job.” You might have thought this line would be banned from heist films forever, but no.

between creating visual spectacle, teasing along the cheap emotion, and having his cast awkwardly explain what could have been confusing plot points, there’s very little time to make things cohere.

Even when his story is little more than 10th-grade psychology wrapped around 8th-grade science, Nolan treats it as if it’s Einstein giving a college lecture on Jung

My sentiments EXACTLY. Can you say SOPHOMORIC?

There was one really great actor in Inception. But who was it? Put your cards on the table in the comments, and in a few days I'll say who it was. (hint: it's not Leo: he's up to his usual tricks in this movie)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

why acting matters

We who love acting don't do it because it matters, we do it because we love it. However, it's useful to know why whatever it is you love doing makes a contribution to the larger world. It helps you move through the world with a bit more of a spring in your step, and you don't have to feel, in our case, like there is anything frivolous about what we are doing. And if it turns out that what we are doing makes, or has the potential to make, a vital contribution to our world, more the better.

I am a passionate reader of political blogs, liberal political blogs in particular (the other kind not being good for my blood pressure ;) ). Earlier this month I read a piece at Digby's Hullabaloo which has been knocking around in my brain, and I think offers some valuable insight into the precise way in which what it is that we do is such a precious asset in our world, or can be.

Digby quotes a Boston Globe article:

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

And of course that is only the beginning: appears that misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions. A striking recent example was a study done in the year 2000, led by James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He led an influential experiment in which more than 1,000 Illinois residents were asked questions about welfare — the percentage of the federal budget spent on welfare, the number of people enrolled in the program, the percentage of enrollees who are black, and the average payout. More than half indicated that they were confident that their answers were correct — but in fact only 3 percent of the people got more than half of the questions right. Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. (Most of these participants expressed views that suggested a strong antiwelfare bias.)

People generally don't change their minds over salient political issues through rational argumentation. And I think that's where the (really good) actor comes in.

A really good actor can arouse not only sympathy for the character's plight: he can actually arouse empathy. The people sitting there watching can experience the character as an extension of themselves. In other words, the barrier between the self of the actor and the self of the observer can be temporarily dissolved. Plato was so worried about this possibility that he proposed that the dramatic poets should be banished from his imaginary republic. The threat to people's rational capacities seemed to him to be just too great; people could entirely lose track of the distinctions between themselves and others. This possibility of forging an empathic bond between the actor and spectator is rare enough that most people haven't actually experienced it, but important enough that striving to fulfill this promise and keep this possibility alive is, to my mind, among the most legitimate and worthy of pursuits. Lucky thing, since I teach acting.

I think this possibility of empathic bonding is one of the ways in which people might be brought to revise their views of situations in the larger society. Not by being told that what they believe is wrong, but by getting that the other guy dreams, the other guy hurts. That the other guy's dreams and hurts are our own dreams and hurts, the differences are superficial. Not by being told this, but by getting it, getting it because some actor embodied that dreaming and that hurting in a compelling and undeniable way. In a way that lets you see something in the other guy's eyes that you've never been able to see before.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

what not to do at an audition

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

come audition for my show!

Hello Readers!

I know I have been quiet for a while, but I am back in the saddle now. I hope you didn't miss me TOO much!

Announcing (Drum Roll Please!)

Custom Made Theatre Company is holding auditions for their upcoming production of Spalding Gray: Stories Left to tell, directed by Andrew Utter. We are looking for 2 Men and 2 Women of any age and ethnicity.

SPALDING GRAY: Stories Left to Tell catapults the audience into the hilarious, heartbreaking, and ultimately remarkable life of one of the most irreverent and revered storytellers of our time. A five person ensemble perform the beloved classics and never-before-heard stories that embrace the wit and wisdom found in the words of Spalding Gray.

Audition Dates: 14th or 15th
Audition Times Between: 12-3p on Saturday 8/14 and 2-5p on Sunday 8/15 (5 minute slot)
Audition Location: 1620 Gough Street, San Francisco at the Next Stage

To schedule an audition go to:
Sides will be sent once your appointment has been confirmed.

For the audition, you should plan to do one or two contemporary monologues, 1 min each. You can either do monologues you already have, or you can choose among the sides sent when you sign up.

Rehearsals Start: Mid-November
Tech. Period: January 14-20
Previews: January 21, 22, 23
Opens: January 25 (Tues.)
Performance Schedule after Opening: Thurs. – Sat., 8:00 p.m.; Sun., 7:00 p.m.
Scheduled Close: February 19
Possible extension close: February 26

Stipend: $150-$200

For questions, Contact Daunielle Rasmussen at

Hope to see you there!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

rethinking "motivation" with Sebastian Junger and Rachel Maddow

Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and the new book War, appeared on the Rachel Maddow show recently. Rachel posed him the following question:

MADDOW: Sebastian, let me follow-up with you on that. You have said that you don‘t think society understands war very well. Obviously, you have a book out now called “War” that‘s based on your time with these soldiers as well.
You said, “If society is going to solve the human problem of war, they have to figure out what it is about combat that attracts young men so much that they‘re willing to risk their lives to go back out there to get it.”
After spending all of those months with second platoon out in the Korengal Valley, do you feel like you‘re any closer to figuring that out?

In the terms of my acting class, Rachel is asking for the underlying objective of the soldiers, the Stanislavsky 2.0 version of the old concept of "motivation". She wants to know what it is that they need so badly that they will volunteer for multiple dangerous tours of duty in the treacherous terrain of war-torn Afghandistan.

Junger's answer is good:

JUNGER: You know, I think I am. We were at a very remote outpost on this hilltop that we were getting attacked three or four times a day sometimes. The guys - you know, when they come back, they often - they want to back - when they come back to society, how can they want to return to that hilltop into combat?
Society thinks - often, people think that it‘s a question of adrenaline - an adrenaline addiction. I think what they‘re really addicted to essentially is brotherhood, an otherwise very healthy impulse that is taking place in a very unhealthy place.
And I think if society understands that, they won‘t - it won‘t be pathologized(ph) so much and be understood on its own terms. And maybe society can provide that sense of inclusion and brotherhood here rather than in combat.

Got that? Brotherhood. Not adventure. Not patriotism. Not money. The soldiers are seeking a particular kind of connection or belonging with other soldiers, that they apparently see as most obtainable on the front lines of war. In the class, we are constantly in the process of peeling back the layers of the more superficial accounts of human motivation to get to a particular, immediate expression of the human need to form meaningful and lasting ties to others.

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Sunday, July 04, 2010

until you've walked a mile in his shoes

"Never judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes." So the Native American proverb goes. Ever wonder why it's the shoes? Why not "until you've walked a mile wearing his hat?" or "until you've walked a mile wearing his jacket?" But no. It's the shoes. The layer of protection between us and the ground we walk on. I would argue that it is because it is the through the shoes that we are connected to the ground that the shoes take pride of place in the proverb.

We take our ambulatory capacity, that is, our ability to walk, very much for granted. Our ability to change where we stand at will, quite literally, is one thing that separates us and all the other animals from plants. With that ability comes the ability to approach someone for sex, or to attack them, or to just seek a little companionable society. The ability to change our spatial relationships at will is a fundamental feature of all human society. Because of this feature, for example, we can define certain property as ours, and have others evicted from it if we choose. They don't have the right to stand on our property if we don't allow it.

All human relationships come with some notion of how physical space will be occupied together. The famous Seinfeld episode about the "close talker" exemplifies this vividly. A mother and child enter in an embrace that obliterates the space between them readily, but two grown men who are not related to each other may do so only seldom. So where we physically stand in relation to others is inextricably bound up with the nature of our relationship to them

"Until you've walked a mile in his shoes" might be parsed "until you have moved in and out of the various (physical) relationships with others that he typically undertakes." Or, until you have stood in relationship to others in the way that he has. While the last sentence can be understood metaphorically (closeness in the sense of emotional closeness, by the way it is no accident that we use this spatial metaphor to analogize our connections to others), it can also be understood physically, for the reason that I have already articulated: our ties with other people include agreements or contracts, if you will, about how we will occupy space together: what is too close, what is not close enough, under what circumstances these parameters change, etc.

The Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, whose actor training techniques have enjoyed a vogue in the last decade in this country bordering on the cultish, recognized the primacy of the feet as defining the actor's relationship to the ground and, therefore, to the space around her. His fundamental exercise involves rigorously stomping the ground by isolating the muscles of the legs and abdomen, to "awaken" the lower body of the actor. However, the importance of placement in space is well-understood within the Stanislavsky tradition as well. In A Challenge for the Actor Uta Hagen discusses the concept of "destination" in her chapter entitled "animation". "The reason for movement is destination" she proclaims. The simplest possible gloss of this is that when we move, we have reason to (i.e. not because the script or the director says we move at that point.) Or: when we move, we are going somewhere. Or It is the fact that the beginning of this impulse to move involves a psycho-physical orienting of ourselves towards where we are going and what arrival in that place promises us that gives this somewhere its importance for us as actors. This idea was dramatized in a superb manner in the movie Donnie Darko by the ectoplasmic streams that Donny starts to see emanating from the chests of those around him, as I have written previously.

In the approach that I teach, we search for a need for the actor to embody and pursue in a scene, which then prompts her to seek certain outcomes that promise to gratify this single need, both in immediate and in long-term ways. What it is essential to keep in mind is that these outcomes nearly always involve changes in the physical proximity to other characters or to things. As actors, we are very focused on what we are saying, our lines, and the temptation is to think of where we are standing or sitting or lying down in the scene as "the place where we say these particular lines." So while we put a lot thought into understanding the relationship between what we are saying and what we need, it's easy to forget to consider the relationship between where we are standing (or sitting, or lying down...) and what we need. The failure to come to this can devolve into actors devolving into very animated talking heads. In real conversations, we have a particular physical outcome in view, and if that outcome involves movement, then we prepare ourselves physically for that movement, or to respond to some expected or feared movement. The awareness of the destination of the expected movement invites a partial orientation toward the destination in question, even as we may continue to interact with another character, and be partially oriented towards him or her.

Consider, as we did two days ago, Blanche's first appearance inStreetcar. I (Blanche) have to ask the two strangers on the steps for information about my sister and for assistance accessing the house, but after my long journey from Laurel lugging a trunk with everything I own in the world, the destination of the Stella's apartment, where I might hope to catch a few moments alone to have a few quick drinks to relieve my stress and anxiety and compose myself, is very "hot". So hot that Williams makes it clear that once I access the apartment, I cannot avoid offending Eunice in hustling her back out of the apartment. So in the scene with the two women, once it becomes clear where Stella lives, I will be physically preparing to go there, even as continue to engage with them. This is the real importance of the concept of destination: even as we engage in dialogue, our bodies must remain alive to the movement that the situation may call for, either because a window of opportunity opens, or some threat or danger makes itself manifest that we need to act to squash.

I can remember one of my mentors at the Yale School of Drama, Evan Yionoulis, talking about whether certain actors she had encountered "had destination." It's now clear to me that what she meant was not only that the when they moved, they knew where they were going, but also that as they spoke, they were physically alive to the possible movements which could at any time become necessary given the situation (necessity being the mother of invention, don't forget!)

For an actor to "have destination", she needs to understand these things. This is the cognitive side of "having destination": she needs to be mentally alert to the physical ramifications of the development of the scene. However, there is a physical side to this as well. To truly "have destination", impulse needs to be free to flow from the Pilates core of the actor, where the need lives, down through the hips and all the way down into the legs to the feet. Well, that's easy, right? Not so fast. When we are acting, we are aware of being watched and judged, and therefore, tension can be introduced into our bodies because of this awareness. We can easily carry this tension in our legs, and, even more probably, in our hips. There is so much shame in our society around the things we do with our hips (have sex and rid ourselves of bodily waste) that tension in this area is extremely common. An Aexander technique teacher I encountered told me of a student of hers who proclaimed "Life is a butt-clenching experience!" There are few more humiliating scenarios than one involving incontinence. Tension in the pelvis are well-nigh universal. Such tensions obstruct constipate, if you will) the flow of need-driven "energy" into the legs. Without this energy, the actor's lower body ca easily check out. Tension in the various joins of the legs can compound this problem. The actor can develop a tendency to grip the floor with the feet, which can lead to becoming rooted to the spot and making movement require more effort than it would if the actor were poised to move.

Ultimately, we want to play both ends against the middle. We want the cognitive awareness of the possibilities for movement to merge with habituated physical freedom in the pelvis and legs, so that the distinction between body and mind virtually disappears. I tell students often that acting is a body-mind trick. It's a particular combination of physical and mental engagement on the one hand, and physical and mental receptiveness and relaxation on the other.

Talk about walking a fine line. And in someone else's shoes, to boot (heh!). It's no mean feat (sorry, I can't stop!), but one worth striving for.

Friday, July 02, 2010

like a dog with a bone

In Blanche DuBois' first moments in Streetcar Named Desire, she stands in front of what she takes to be her sister's home, and encounters two women, one white (Eunice) and one black, sitting on the outdoor stairs of the building, equipped for lounging, with fans and fashion magazines.

For a casual reader of the play, it can be easy to miss what a confounding circumstance this must be for Blanche. In Laurel, Missisippi, from whence Blanche has just sojourned, blacks and whites surely did not fraternize so readily. This is the "easy cosmopolitanism" Williams speaks of in his introduction. For Blanche, it is one of the first signs that she is, well, not in Kansas anymore.

It is only by projecting one's self into Blanche's mindset and looking at the situation through her eyes that we can recognize how challenging this apparently innocuous bit of stage direction is for this character. Once recognized, this bit of insight can enrich these opening moments for the actor playing Blanche dramatically.

I started new cycles of my class this week, in SF and LA, and some students have started to send me their Who-Am-I charts to review. This is a process I present to them in the first class, using Blanche's first moments in Streetcar as an example. I always draw their attention to this particular aspect of the initial situation Williams poses for Blanche, and hope that it communicates something to them about the value for carefuly scrutinizing and studying what the writer has given the actor, looking impossibly closely until the superficial starts to fall away and the depths begin to present themselves. However, the Who-Am-I charts I usually receive are almost always pretty skeletal. Actually, the three I have received so far have been better than most. But in general, the initial drafts of these assignments usually have the look of something that has been hurriedly dashed off so that it could be sent off even more quickly, safely out of sight and out of mind.

I don't really fault my students, especially not the new ones. Learning to read like an actor takes years of practice. The fact that they are putting fingers to keyboards and generating anything at all is a giant leap in the right direction. But I cannot help but wonder about why they don't approach the text as something that has to be studied relentlessly, chewed on like a dog with a bone, right out of the gate. Something that has to be forced, through dogged tenacity, to yield up its secrets. And the answer, I think, has to do with our wish to believe that things will be easy. The proposition that the work might be quite difficult, coupled with the proposition that the actor has it in her power to nevertheless do this difficult work, is quite simply too frightening to contemplate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure, and all that. It's much easier to comfort one's self with the notion that the work that lies ahead does not require much effort, it is nothing like a struggle, and there is absolutely no chance of falling short.

I majored in mathematics in college. Math had always come easily to me, and I discovered I could have a BA in it by taking exactly eight classes, which would leave my schedule open for all of the literature and theater classes I was truly focused on, and would at the same time mollify my parents. I breezed through the first two years of math classes. However, in my third year, I took Complex Analysis, and suddenly, I wasn't in Kansas anymore. Math, which had always been a matter of being shown a technique in class, and then practicing that technique over and over again in the homework, was suddenly a matter of being introduced to a new concept and then being asked to do a lot of hard, original thinking about how to apply the concept. What had always come easily to me was suddenly maddeningly difficult. I started getting bad grades on quizzes and tests. I found myself having to go nearly every day to the professor's office to ask for help with the homework, which I found to be totally humiliating. No sooner would he have walked me through one problem, then I would be asking him for help with the next one. One day, I found myself breaking into tears in his office at my frustration at finding myself unable to handle this subject with the ease with which math had always come to me. The professor was gentle, but kept pressing ahead with the problem, prompting me to reason incrementally from one claim to the next. It was poinful, and I was even more humiliated by the emotional display. At 20, I thought of myself as a mature adult(!). But we both stayed with it, eventually, I reached a point where the light at the end of the tunnel was in sight, and it was not an oncoming train. I found myself chuckling, involuntarily, from the gut, and it was not an entirely pleasant sensation. Sure, it was great to reach the solution, with help from the professor but also figuring some things out for myself. But mixed with this was the awareness that I COULD do problems this difficult, and since I could, I could no longer expect that things would be easy. The training wheels had come off, and I had continued to ride, however tentatively, and with however many falls along the way. There would be no going back to the training wheels. It's an exciting moment, to be sure, but there was a strong measure of fear as well. The fear of having to be responsible for myself.

I feel that I am up against this fear all the time with students. It's a natural fear. We all have it. And there is nothing wrong with wanting to be taken care of, sometimes. But I feel like I am constantly trying to confront students with two facts at once: it IS difficult but you CAN do it. Every once in a while, one of them bravely looks those truths in the face, and forges ahead. It's in moments like that that I get to feel like a true teacher.

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