Friday, August 27, 2010

the facts, felt life, and the actor

I have written previously about psychiatrist Dan Siegel's book Mindsight here and here and here. I want to write today about one case study in particular from his book, and some ways in which it sheds light on the challenges facing the actor.

Siegel worked with an older man, an attorney, whom he calls Stuart.

Once I got Stuart talking, his memory was excellent for details about the town where he grew up, the games he played as a child, the make and model of his first car, and even the historical and political events of the time. But when it came to questions about his early family life -- or any family life -- his responses were consistently vague. "My mother was normal. She ran the home. My father worked. I think my brothers and I were fine." To a question about how his family life affected his development, Stuart responded, "It didn't... . My parents gave me a good education. What's the next question?"

Stuart insisted that his childhood was "fine" even though he said that he did not remember the details of his relationships with his parents or two brothers. He insisted that the he "just didn't recall" what they had done at home, what life felt like for him as a youngster. The details he gave me sounded like facts, not like lived experience. This was true even when he told me that he had been with his brother during a bad skiing accident, which had resulted in the loss of his brother's leg. His brother had recovered and was "fine."

Siegel had noticed that Stuart had a highly developed ability to recall and report facts, but an impaired ability to recall what anything felt like. Siegel goes on to explain how handling facts, logic and reason on the one hand and feelings and sensations on the other are functions of the two halves of the brain, the right and the left. Now, this right brain-left brain business as been popularized to the degree that I was inclined to dismiss it as psychobabble or quackery, but it turns out that this division of labor in the brain is borne out by science. These two ways of approaching experience are handled by anatomically distinct portions of the brain that develop with some degree of independence from each other (although thet do collaborate extensively).

Siegel began working with Stuart, providing him with exercises to develop the under-utilized capacity of his brain. The ways in which the exercises challenged Stuart provided further illustration of the divide:

I asked him to recall the evening before our session and his breakfast that morning, and to convey his recollections as images rather than facts...Stuart wanted to summarize and evaluate: "I had a good evening." "I had cornflakes for breakfast." What came hard to him was telling me "I scoop the cornflakes into my blue bowl and hear the sound that they make. The milk carton feels cool in my hand, and I pour it slowly until I see the milk almost covering the flakes. I sit down and I notice that the sunlight is in my eyes."

One part of our mind apprehends and traffics in facts, the other in impressions. This reminded me of something about the way an actor approaches a role in the technique that I teach in my classes.

When an actor begins work on the role, I encourage her to study the script for the facts. "Just the facts, ma'am", the mantra from the TV show Dragnet, governs this phase of the work. The author has embedded her work with a multitude of facts, and it is incumbent upon the actor to carefully uncover them and organize them into a surveyable arrangement. I have actors place facts in the historical and immediate past, the present, and the potential future.

The importance of this cannot be understated. These facts give the actor a basic grounding in the situation of the character. An actor who fails to take in these facts will find herself unmoored from the circumstances of the piece, casting about without orientation or compass. When actors present a scene in my class, I question them to make sure that they have a solid command of the facts of the piece.

There comes a point, though, when facts must be transmuted into lived experience. It is not enough for an actor playing Blanche DuBois to know that she discovered the body of her dead lover; she needs to have imagined the episode for herself, as well as the sequence prior to it, when she discovered him in flagrante with another man and shamed him for it. The actor needs to make that movie for herself; she needs to live through it, so that it exists for her as something that happened to her, not simply facts that she noted from the pages of the script. In short, she needs to particularize it.

How does she bring this about? She needs to daydream, productively. Journaling can be a great way of going about this. One way or another, she needs to spend time alone internalizing this episode. Al Pacino said in a recent interview on acting, "A lot of acting is private time." This private time is spent, in part, in projecting one's self into the world of the character, acquiring the character's experiences, appropriating them, stealing them even. I call it the "lonely work of the actor", not because it feels lonely to do it, but because it takes an enormous amount of faith to engage in this work, as the results of the work will not be immediately evident. In our culture of immediate gratification, we want to get something for our efforts. We like the fruits of our labor to be tangible. Investing work in building these castles in the air is likely to induce feelings of foolishness. And yet building these castles of lived experience is precisely what will fortify us, so that when we rehearse and perform, we will prevail.

21st century enlightenment

Monday, August 23, 2010

why The Kids Are All Right was not all right

First of all, I'll say that there was some genuinely funny stuff in this movie. Also, I love the way the director, Lisa Cholodenko, loves LA. She gets it.

But the movie is disappointing in more than a few ways. The decisive flaw, from the point of view of the acting, is the work of the two leads, Annette Benning and Julianne Moore. Neither actor is a favorite of mine, and they did nothing to change my opinion of them here.

The biggest failing in their work was they did not create a convincing relationship with a palpable history. I just could not accept that these two people had been together for twenty years. What would I like to have seen that was different? It is difficult to write about (easier to point out in a classroom!), but it has to do with what the two actors look for when they look at each other and interact with each other. The most persuasive way that an actor can successfully make you believe that there is such a history to a relationship is that they are always looking to the other person to manifest the essence of the relationship, the sense of fit, match, connection, the thing that convinced them both that they belonged together. Even expressions of disappointment and bitterness, in a real relationship, are infused with the person in question asking for, calling for, invoking, the successful relationship that was. It is this looking for that something in the other that persuades us, immediately and viscerally, that the relationship has a history.

One of the best articulations of this that I have come across is from a critic named Percy Lubbock. In an essay on what Henry James learned from his unsuccessful forays into playwriting, Lubbock writes:

"The actors are not there only to illustrate for us the facts of the story, but through their make-believe to create an imagined world for the eye of the mind to dwell upon. Good dramatic writing, like good acting, owes much of its quality to the establishment of these imagined perspectives behind and beyond the little figures on the boards."

These "imagined perspectives behind and beyond" the actors/characters in the film are what Moore and Benning totally failed to provide. As the film progressed, and the relationship entered a crisis, I got hints of how Benning's character had a sense of having a claim on Moore's character, a sense of ownership, based on being together for so long, but this is not the same as the sense of what it was like when it worked, and is something significantly less compelling than that.

In other words, in any relationship in a scene, the most urgent question to pose is: what made us us? What were the defining moments, when we became a "we"? The moments of connection and communion? The moments of crisis that were resolved in a satisfying way that brought us even closer together? What about our experience together makes this "we" worth fighting for? It's this sense of "stuff happened to us and made us us" that gives a relationship between two actors its unmistakable reality.

These questions went totally unasked in this film, apparently. And it shows.

I am sure my writer friends would have more than a little to object to about the way the story unfolded. For one thing, the Moore-Ruffalo liaison seemed kind of arbitrary and forced, like it was there just to precipitate a crisis in the Benning-Moore relationship.

But here is one thing about the movie that I have absolutely no objections to. Nope, none at all. More of that, please.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

been savin em up: Sunday evening links

Thursday, August 19, 2010

INEBRIATION -- A Drunken Parody of Inception

(If you don't see a video below, click on the link above to see it at my blog.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Al Pacino's movie magic

Below is a pretty inane Katie Couric interview with Al Pacino (if you don't see a video, click the headline above to visit my blog). However, there are some things he says that I like, such as:

"What I did with Jack Kevorkian is I worked. I went into my little bunker by the house. A lot of acting is private time," he explained.

It seems that people who are attracted to acting have a hard time accepting this. They see the finished product, and assume that that is what the whole thing must be like. But it isn't. Actors need to invest. And to do that, we need to be alone.

It's that simple.

H/T Larry Mazur

Sunday, August 15, 2010

audition notes

It's been quite a few years since I cast a play with auditions. Today and yesterday I watched the first round of auditions for Stories Left to Tell, the play I am directing in San Francisco. Some thoughts about what I saw:

  • Many people did not seem to pay attention to the audition instructions, which called for either one or two contemporary one-minute monologues, or for learning a monologue from the play provided as a side. Of the people who did monologues not from the play, I don't think one person did one that came in under a minute. All it required was a few minutes thinking to figure out how to cut a two minute or 90 second monologue down, but no one seemed to bother. Most directors know after sixty seconds of watching you act whether they want to see more or not. Giving them sixty seconds more than they asked for is inviting them to become impatient. They can always ask for more, or ask you to redo the original with an adjustment, if they want to see more.

  • Far too many people think that acting is something that they do with their faces and mouths, and their bodies are just there to move their heads around. True acting happens deep in the core of the body, and emanates outward.

  • Most monologues have imagery of some kind. Many people allowed themselves to become preoccupied with the imagery, at the expense of the fact that the imagery is there to help them communicate with someone. The connection with the someone in question seemed to be totally eclipsed by the speaker communing with his or her own imagery.

  • Those among my students who auditioned acquitted themselves well on the whole, if I do say so myself.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Thursday links: here's what's happening

  • File under Inevitable: Twitter, The Motion Picture

  • File under Cojones: Surfer Records Circling Great White Shark with Video-Camera-On-A-Stick

  • File under Nocturnal: All about owls.

  • File under WTF!!?!$#: Oil-Spill-Inspired Fashion Shoot

  • File under Richly Deserved: A hip-hop anthem celebrating Ira Glass, host of This American Life.

  • File under Woodland Art Installations.

  • File under Not Just For Shoes Anymore: Clothing Made of Wood


    (If you don't see a video below, click on the headline above to watch at my blog.)

    Bill and Ted's Excellent Inception

    (If you see code instead of a video below, click the headline above to go to my blog.

    Tuesday, August 10, 2010

    one more thing about priming

    This post is a follow up to this one about the importance of the ceremony of donning rehearsal clothes for a scene every time you rehearse it.

    I have been continuing to read Dr. Dan Siegel's Mindsight:

    If you play tennis, for example, each time you put on your shorts and shoes,pick up your racket, and head for the court, your brain is actively creating a "tennis-playing state of mind." In this state, you are primed to access your motor skills, your competitive strategies, and even your memories of prior games. If you are playing a familiar opponent, you'll recall her moves, her strongest hits, and her weak spots. All of these memories, skills, and even feelings-- of competition and aggression-- are activated together.

    Any questions?

    Update: Tweet from Alain de Botton: Enduring wisdom of Zen Buddhism in making a central religious ritual out of the preparation and consumption of a cup of tea.

    Monday, August 09, 2010

    links: New Moon on Monday edition

  • It's one of the Big Questions: do tigers like catnip?

  • An incredible letter from Kurt Vonnegut to an admiring novelist fan.

  • The idea that most scholars in even the early medieval period thought the earth was flat is entirely false.

  • This man is keeping your neighborhood 100% safe.

  • Monkeys hate flying squirrels.

  • The cliffs of Norway are majestic.

  • Help finding the best way to foolishly lose your money is right here.

  • Street art takes over a Belgian ghost town.

  • What do Don DeLillo and Stanislavksy have in common?

    The blogosphere is lit up with the news that the intensely "private" (but not reclusive!) Don DeLillo has descended from Olympus to give an interview.

    You may or may not be familiar with DeLillo, considered to be "a giant of the contemporary American literary landscape", as the intro to the interview states. I was an enthusiast in college. Some of his books I have liked (a lot) more than others, and I have not kept up with him over the years. I was introduced to him by the Duke professor Frank Lentricchia as a student at Duke.

    Some of the books are just too damned difficult, and this is coming from someone who gets into difficult stuff. But if you want some to start with, you can't go wrong with White Noise, and Mao II is pretty good as well. Mao II is particularly celebrated for its prophetic vision of the ascent and influence of Islamic extremism.

    Anyway, towards the end of the aforementioned interview, when the interviewer goes with DeLillo and Paul Auster to a traditional, boisterous New York deli, Auster and DeLillo get to lamenting the disappearance of the typewriter ribbon (neither writes on a computer) (yeah, I know, how quaint, especially in the deli and all). And this reminded me of the time I met Don DeLillo in person. Lentricchia and his then-wife Melissa were chaperoning a gaggle of young Duke students on a semester-long field trip to New York, and they would invite artists and critics of various kinds to come and talk to us. DeLillo was the headliner. Lentricchia introduced DeLillo to the academy, and so they knew each other. DeLillo described his writing habits, including the typewriter (yes, we had word processors in 1991), and he spoke about how he would write each paragraph on an individual sheet of paper, no matter how much of the rest of the paper remained unused. Presumably, this helped him to insure the integrity of each individual paragraph, and resist the temptation to see it only as a means of getting to the next one. And it shows in the writing, for sure: each paragraph, like it or not, is a carefully crafted microcosm of the larger work.

    So this is where Stanislavsky comes in. The whole business of "breaking a scene down into beats" originates with Stanislavsky. In the "Units and Objectives" chapter of An Actor Prepares, Stanislavsky famously uses the example of a turkey cooked for dinner. He observes that it is impossible to eat the whole turkey at once, that it must be dismantled into smaller and smaller pieces until manageable, bite-sized portions have been arrived at. So it is with a role, and even with an individual scene: it cannot be effectively handled all at once. To give each phrase of it (to borrow a term from music) its due, it has to be worked at one piece at a time.

    "Worked at" being the operative words. As Travis notes here, anyone who spends any amount of time in an acting class is taught to "break a script down into beats". Because the actor is learning to draw lines through her script, she feels like she is actually learning something. However, the process is usually fraught with problems. First of all, where to draw the lines? When the "action" or "intention" changes, students are told. Sounds good, but usually, the terms "acting" or "intention" are not given very rigorous definition, and so trying to draw these lines in a meaningful way becomes a pretty meaningless exercise pretty quickly.

    The second problem is that usually, this "breaking things down into beats" is presented as an analytical process that precedes the rehearsal process, but whatever breakdown is arrived at is typically abandoned once the rehearsing starts. The lines drawn in the script have little or no practical consequence. Students run through the scene, confer about how it felt, rinse and repeat, and believe that they have rehearsed. They have rehearsed everything and nothing, nothing being the operative word.

    What is important about the process of breaking a scene down, as far as I am concerned, is not where to draw the lines, but that whatever lines are drawn are respected in the rehearsal process. I encourage students to draw lines where it seems like the scene turns a corner, or that something new is starting. Someone changes the subject, or reverses direction. The writer writes "Pause". I tell them not to have debates with their partners about where to draw the lines, that they should just follow their noses. The important thing is that lines are drawn, and then the scene is rehearsed ONE UNIT OR BEAT AT A TIME. This challenges the actor to give each segment or phrase of the writing the focused attention it deserves BEFORE integrating it into the larger movement or trajectory of the scene. Then, AFTER the students have rehearsed the first two units individually, they can try combining them, and make sure how they understand how the first necessitates the second. I know that this is rare, because people who come to my class having taken other classes are usually familiar with the concept of breaking a scene down, but pretty much never have experience in using that breakdown as the organizational principle for their rehearsals. Yeah, I know, seems like it should be a no-brainer. But it most assuredly isn't.

    No matter how talented you are, you can't put a whole turkey in your mouth at once. Break it down, my friends, break it down. And then live by your breakdown. The rewards will be considerable.

    I just can't let this one go.

    H/T Agent M Loves Tacos

    Sunday, August 08, 2010

    sunday sundries

  • On your next retreat from the world that is too much with you, stay in a Mirrorcube Hotel, in a tree.

  • The Wooster Group is doing Tennessee Williams in Edinburgh.

  • Highly-rated cable TV imitates nineteenth century philosophy.

  • I've heard of animals out of paper, but this something...more.

  • Taking its cue from Velasquez, iPhone's new video chat puts a dick in a box.

  • All your favorite Hitler emoticons in one place.

  • Batman and Wonder Woman tie the knot.

  • Catching up with Don DeLillo.

  • rehearsal clothes, "priming", and the land of make-believe

    "What the hell are rehearsal clothes?"

    This scornful question greeted me once when I was in the midst of an argument dialogue on the message boards of a prominent entertainment industry trade rag. I was attempting to explain why I didn't believe it was necessary or even wise to try to get every student up to work at every class, and I was doing the math on another teacher who made that promise, given the published length of her classes and the number of students per class. (It turned out that each student got about 12.5 minutes of feedback per week, which to my mind is not enough time to roll up your sleeves and really address anything in depth.)

    "Rehearsal clothes" figured into the calculation because, to my mind, any scene study class worth its salt will expect students to bring clothes to wear for their scene, i.e. "costumes". And getting into those clothes takes time, unless you want people to sit around in their clothes for the scene for the whole class, which is undesirable for reasons I'll get to below. At the Drama School, in the design department, with legendary costume designers like Jane Greenwood and Jess Goldstein at the helm, it was the practice to refer to the costumes for shows in which actors were dressed in a contemporary, more or less realistic idiom as "clothes" rather than costumes. A designer was said to be "doing the clothes" for a show or film if the costumes were contemporary, realistic ensembles. That turn of phrase has stayed with me, and I used it in the context on the message board. Hence the confusion and consternation of the person who wrote "What the hell are rehearsal clothes?" (I imagine they must have been picturing something along the lines of uniforms for martial arts classes).

    Anyway, I have always insisted that students pick out rehearsal clothes for their scene, and that they bring them to class and change into them. Further, I urged them to do this when they rehearsed outside of class: bring the rehearsal clothes and change into them, do not wear them to class, do not wear them to rehearsal. This had the effect of making life a little more difficult for the less motivated students in the class: they might be inclined to show up in street clothes, and, if their scene permitted, to claim that these were what they were going to wear for the scene. However, with my edict, even if they were wearing street clothes for the scene, they still needed to bring clothes to change into.

    But aside from that, why put people out in this way? Why demand that they find special clothes to do their scene, even if the character might dress similarly to the way the actor dressed in everyday life. Well, there are a few reasons for this. First of all, I am a firm believer that the actors greatest enemy, in terms of his/her preparation anyway, is the temptation to ignore some aspect of the character's life or experience, rather than shining the light of awareness on it. I sometimes call this the "get it off my desk" syndrome. There is always pressure from the part of our minds that fears challenge and change to assume that its better to let sleeping dogs lie, not look under that rock, and just assume that some particular aspect of the role does not call for inspection or reflection. Actors have to work hard to counteract this, and developing the awareness of this danger (for that is what it is) and cultivating the habit of examining every conceivable facet of the role takes hard work and dedication.

    The clothes worn by the character, or by the "Who-am-I" as we say in the class, are one more instance of this. Clothes make the man, as the maxim goes. What we wear is an important part of our self-presentation, of the way we play the role(s) that we play in the various contexts that we move in and out of. Reflecting on what kind of clothes the character would be wearing, given the situation of the scene, is both good for the scene AND for the actor's developing practice of considering ALL aspects of the role.

    But I am getting at something beyond all of this. It has always been my conviction that changing into the clothes for the scene can assume a kind of ceremonial significance: in putting on these clothes, I am now entering another persona in another world. Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances, as Sanford Meisner said. It's entering a land of make-believe. And changing into the clothes can become a ritual that speaks to the whole person of the actor, body, nervous system, and mind, and says: "Now we are becoming Blanche DuBois" or whoever.

    It turns out that the latest brain science bears me out. As I mentioned in previous posts, I am reading a book called Mindsight by Dr. Dan Siegel, which proposes that an understanding of how the brain works can be combined with mindfulness and other mental practices to promote mental health. Last night, I came across the following:

    Finally, implicit memory creates something called "priming," in which the brain readies itself to respond in a certain fashion. When his mother arrives home, the boy anticipates a hug. Not only is his internal world primed for receiving that loving gesture, he'll move his arms in anticipation when he hears her car in the driveway. As we get older, priming continues to operate with more complex behaviors. If you've learned to swim, when you get your bathing suit on, your behavioral repertoire for swimming is primed and readied to engage when you jump in the pool.

    And when the actor puts on her rehearsal clothes, her whole being primes itself for what is about to happen. This only happens, of course, if the act of doing the scene is repeatedly associated with putting on the clothes: actors who don't wear the rehearsal clothes when the rehearse, only when they perform, will have no such experience.

    Note that Dr. Siegel talks about priming in the context of "implicit memory". Briefly, implicit memory is the recall of things in which the act of recalling is not consciously registered. He uses the example of how once we learn to ride a bike, we don't have to remember how to ride the bike each time we do it. We recall it without intention or conscious effort. So with priming, the behavior that happens to prepare for some encounter or activity happens unconsciously. You could say that as the clothes are donned, they speak to the actor's nervous system and prepare it to play the role in question.

    The same goes for creating an environment for the scene. Recently, I had a student who was doing a scene in which his character was in a conference room at a hotel in which he had just finished giving a lecture. The student informed me of his intention to go out and purchase a bunch of chairs for Friends and Family Night, and then return them the next day. I gently explained that the environment was to be created for the rehearsal process, so that by setting up the environment every time they rehearsed, gaining familiarity with it and using the setup as a springboard into the land of make believe, they would be getting themselves ready to act. Bringing a bunch of chairs for the performance only was not going to help anyone act, and would probably undermine him and his partner, since it would be introducing a new element on the day of the performance.

    When actors act in projects, in films or in theater, they aren't going to be setting up the environment, but they do need to be attuned to it. The practice of creating an environment for a scene and setting up each time they rehearse, allowing that arrangement of rehearsal furniture to become an altogether different place where the actor leads an imaginary life, is a great way of developing the awareness that provides for that kind of attunement when they walk onto a movie set.

    Here's a talk that Dan Siegel gave with Goldie Hawn about his work. The first part of the video is Goldie talking, he comes in about halfway through. He gives a good overview of what he's about.

    Saturday, August 07, 2010

    incredibly thorough, devastating takedown of Inception

    It's called Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception, and it's even better than the one I linked to before.

    Some highlights:

  • Cobb’s relationship with Mal doesn’t work, and not just because it’s impossible to believe that the man-child Leonardo would ever end up with Marion Cotillard. No, it doesn’t work because Nolan, like so many little-boy directors preoccupied with automatic rifles and explosions, has nothing believable to say about adult relationships. (The deepest romantic sentiment comes when Cobb asks Mal to marry him: he tells her he has a dream (!) that they will “grow old together.” Cue Spielberg-esque footage of a cute old couple shuffling along hand in hand.) (We even get a close-up of their old—but not too elderly and withered and liver-spotted—hands!)

  • This (besides all the dialogue) is the actual content of Inception. The folks who love this movie, who think it’s an instant classic, one of the all-time greats (right up there with Shawshank and The Usual Suspects!)—this is what they think great filmmaking is: scenes of casual slaughter. (What’s the body count in Inception? How many shots of death by bullet did Nolan have to plan and then execute in making this film? …Quite a lot.)

    What so many folks really like about Inception, I’d argue—the reason why it’s currently #3 of all time at the IMDB, and has grossed $200+ million—is that this summer’s big dumb blockbuster has a whiff of intellectualism about it, so no one need feel any shame for liking all the ‘splosions

  • It saddens me to hear that it took Nolan ten years to write Inception, because, honestly, it’s just so terribly written. Some sample dialogue:

  • They come here to be woken up. The dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise?

  • She had locked something away, something deep inside her. The truth that she’d always known but chose to forget. Limbo became her reality.

  • Do you think you can build a prison of memories to lock her in?

  • We wanted to live in a house, but we loved this type of building. In the real world we’d have to choose, but not here.

  • I am so glad that I agree with such smart people about how stooooopid this movie was.

    This is pretty cool though:

    flotsam and jetsam

  • Everyday life never looked like this -- or did it?

  • Whatever this kid does in her life, it's going to be worth watching.

  • Chekhov, Joyce, et al: The words they went out on.

  • Speaking truth to literary pretense.

  • Loving Borges.

  • Winter -- yeah, right, I remember that. Which is the way I like it.

  • Friday, August 06, 2010

    in defense of the third degree

    I have been reading this book that came highly recommended to me called Mindsight The New Science of Personal Transformation, by Daniel J Siegel. It was discussed in a book I recently finished and have discussed on this blog at length. The person who recommended Mindsight to me had not read that book, so it was a little bit of a Jungian synchronicity moment, if if you believe in that sort of thing.

    Mindsight is all about the proposition that awareness about how the parts of the brain interact can actually impact mental health. It's brain science meets I'm OK You're OK. Ok that was kind of glib, but it gives you the idea. And so far it has been interesting, notwithstanding the fact that it can't seem to make up its mind (heh!) about whether it is making a serious intellectual argument or popularizing brain science, mindfulness and other stuff. But anyway, I came across something quite striking as I was reading it the other day. I'll just lay it on you:

    Research has revealed that the best predictor of the security of our children's attachment to us is our ability to narrate the story of our own childhood in a coherent fashion.

    You want your kids to be able to securely attach to you because, from both a neurological and a psychological point of view, their ability to form attachments in the future is going to be heavily shaped, limited, and conditioned by the success of these initial formative attachments (Read about attachment theory here).

    So let's recap that: the best predictor of the ability of children to form these all-important bonds with their parents is the ability of said parents to narrate the story of their own childhoods.

    Not what you would call an obvious or intuitive connection.

    What struck me about this was that this ability to narrate a life is what my teachers at Yale, and in their footsteps, I, use as a way to take the measure of an actor's preparation and their readiness to walk in the shoes of the character or "Who-am-I" the actor was attempting to portray.

    During the three semesters that I was a TA to Evan Yionoulis, who chaired the acting program at the Yale School of Drama for five years, I watched Evan elicit narrations from actors by posing questions to them that they were to answer in the first person. It was part interrogation and part Socratic dialogue. These questions were about the past, present or the future of the character. At the very minimum, these questions were intended to probe the actor's mastery of the given circumstances of the scene. "So why did the second of your two daughters turn you out?" "Who did the person behind the curtain who you stabbed turn out to be?" etc. A firm grasp of the circumstances is essential to anything further. Often actors take such knowledge for granted, only to discover, awkwardly, that their command of these basic facts is lacking when they are standing in front of the class being questioned by a teacher.

    But it's not only the facts that Evan wanted to hear about. She wanted to hear about how the actor had surveyed those facts and arranged them into a narrative that heated up the scene. It's the difference between "And I discovered I had killed Polonius" and "And I discovered that the man I killed was Polonius, the father of the woman I love and the trusted advisor of my late father." Actors were expected not just to grasp the facts, but to be able to talk about them in ways that articulated their importance, and injected urgency into the situation.

    And then there was the fanning of the flames, the term for the supplementing of what the writer provides by the actor to enhance the interest and urgency of the scene, and provide greater fullness and specificity to the life the actor is leading in the scene. Actors were taught that they should not just arbitrarily add details to their background, but details that make the scene more compelling.

    Actors were also expected to be able to talk about the potential future of the character. They were expected to be able to say without hesitation what they would most like to see happen in a given situation and what they would least like to see happen.

    Finally, it was important that the actor have personalized all of this: found ways to make the people, places and things that make up the world of the character carry the weight for the actor that the story called for. So the actor needed to be able not simply to recite the facts in the first person, but to talk about those facts as if they were the facts of their own life. Not that the question and answer process was supposed to be a performance, only that when the actors address subjects important to the character in the first person, the weight of the topics discussed should have been palpable in the actor's narration.

    The ability to speak about these things with fluency attests to the time and thought an actor has put into the situation and priorities of the character. It's a lot more difficult than it sounds. It's the process that I use in class when students show their scenes for the first time, and the first pair that gets up has the hardest time. At the end of the night that the first pair show a scene during a ten week cycle, other students invariably express relief that they got to see the process once before having to go through it. They leave class knowing that they have a lot of work to do.

    Thursday, August 05, 2010

    take it from Travis

    Actor and Emmy-nominated producer Travis Shakespeare talks about how his experience as an actor on a movie set has been transformed by his experience at Mother of Invention:

    Sunday, August 01, 2010

    El Duende and underlying objective

    I was making the best of a Sunday night, trawling around what is quickly becoming one of my favorite websites, I was reading this essay, which is quite good, by the way, about what keeps writers writing (or any artist creating art). And I came across a term I had never encountered before, in the context of a quote from Garcia Lorca: “The true fight is with the duende”.

    Curious, I consulted the oracle of Palo Alto, which sent me to the Wikipedia. What I found was electrifying. The whole article is worth a read, and is quite short, but here are some highlights:

    The meaning of duende as in tener duende (having duende) is a rarely-explained concept in Spanish art, particularly flamenco, having to do with emotion, expression and authenticity. In fact, tener duende can be loosely translated as having soul.

    El duende is the spirit of evocation. It comes from inside as a physical/emotional response to music. It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive. Folk music in general, especially flamenco, tends to embody an authenticity that comes from a people whose culture is enriched by diaspora and hardship; vox populi, the human condition of joys and sorrows.

    According to Christopher Maurer, editor of "In Search of Duende", at least four elements can be isolated in Lorca's vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. The duende is a demonic earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that "ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head"; who brings the artist face-to-face with death, and who helps him create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art. The duende is seen, in Lorca's lecture, as an alternative to style, to mere virtuosity, to God-given grace and charm (what Spaniards call "angel"), and to the classical, artistic norms dictated by the muse. Not that the artist simply surrenders to the duende; he or she has to battle it skillfully, "on the rim of the well", in "hand-to-hand combat". To a higher degree than the muse or the angel, the duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort. It is, in Lorca's words, "a sort of corkscrew that can get art into the sensibility of an audience... the very dearest thing that life can offer the intellectual." The critic Brook Zern has written, of a performance of someone with duende, "it dilates the mind's eye, so that the intensity becomes almost unendurable... There is a quality of first-timeness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal...".[1]

    Lorca writes: "The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, 'The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.' Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation."
    "Everything that has black sounds in it, has duende." (i.e. emotional 'blackness')

    "This 'mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains' is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched the heart of Nietzsche, who searched in vain for its external forms on the Rialto Bridge and in the music of Bizet, without knowing that the duende he was pursuing had leaped straight from the Greek mysteries to the dancers of Cadiz or the beheaded, Dionysian scream of Silverio's siguiriya."

    "The duende's arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm."

    "All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present." [1]
    – GarcĂ­a Lorca, Play and Theory of the Duende

    Reading this article started to stir up my bodily humors: adrenaline, bile and testosterone in equal parts. This duende seems to be a great description of what we attempt to bring to our work in class by articulating an underlying objective for the character. There are so many great things in the piece above, but particularly appropriate to the class is the thing about duende "creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort." In the first class of the ten weeks, I always point to a passage from the first chapter of Boleslavsky's book, where Boleslavsky informs the actor that their work must be such that those watching must "know and feel immediately" that what the actor is doing is more important than whatever the spectator was preoccupied with in the moment before the actor began. It seems that for this recognition to be immediate, it must be pre-cognitive: it must speak to the intuitions and instincts of the spectator.

    If duende is so elusive and norm-defying, why do we try to get at it with technique? Well, the truth is that I can make a few points about what an underlying objective is or isn't, but at a certain point, the actor has to move beyond the rules and, by fusing herself to the role, wrench the answer from deep within. She is almost required to become a poet for a moment, or at least to touch the poetic spirit the writer has imbued the work with. Yes, it's frustrating, but if it were merely a matter of a few simple rules, I guarantee the duende would never appear. Articulating an underlying objective does not guarantee the appearance of duende; indeed, it is clear that nothing ever could. But it creates a condition of receptiveness; the actor makes herself into a vessel and waits to be filled.

    Not bad for a Sunday night, n'est-ce pas?

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