love regained

I just finished the first novel I’ve read in years. What a tonic, what a thrill, what a lark! The joys of total immersion. I had forgotten.

I wrote a dissertation on novels, which I finished in 2010. That left me sated with literary fiction for quite a while, and that’s really the only kind of fiction I am interested in. I keep myself pretty busy with teaching, running a business, writing a blog, keeping an eye on the spectacle that is American politics (somebody’s got to!), directing plays, raising a puppy, cleaning the house, and reading books. Not novels, not short stories, not fictions of any kind. Non-fiction about brain science or empathy or mastering a craft, things that might help me become a better acting teacher or at least a more knowledgeable one, and also give me grist for the relentless blogging mill. In short, I had let fiction come to feel like a luxury I just didn’t have time for.

However, after a while, my conscience woke up, for deep inside, I knew that not reading fiction was a form of self-neglect. Fiction had been a mainstay of my younger self, and had gotten me through some rough patches in life, in a surprising variety of ways. It was perhaps the supreme form of mental and spiritual self-nourishment, I had found. Whenever I moved to a new place, I immediately unpacked my books. They were a constellation of old friends who helped to remind me that although I was in a new place with new surroundings, with new pursuits and new priorities, some element of who I had previously been persisted.

2666 by Roberto BolanoA few years ago, a friend with a taste in books that I found congenial recommended Roberto Bolano’s 5-part epic 2666. What he told me about it made it sound unlikely that I would like it, but I liked its numerical title, its five volumes, and, I suppose, its German connection, which my friend had mentioned. I could also tell that my friend’s passion had been aroused by it: he felt the need to talk about it, and although he was thoughtful enough to restrain himself from asking me to listen to too much about it, his need to talk about it made an impression on me, and I filed the title away somewhere.

A couple of years later, I was heading on a holiday road trip, and someone (my mother?) suggested I get an audiobook. So I got 2666 and listened to the first 10 hours of narration on the road. Then the road trip was over, and I had no further context in which to listen to audiobooks, so I set it aside. I had enjoyed what I had heard, but not so much that I found that I could not put it down.

But I like to finish what I start, where I can, and the book had planted some seeds that had aroused my curiousity. So I resumed my listening, after a break of six months. This time, I found my way into the dark, pulsing core of the novel, and joyfully rediscovered the thrill of total immersion. I came to know why this book had been so acclaimed, and found myself wanting to write a novel, even though I have always found making up stories to be extremely difficult. Still, the complexity and mystery that inhered in this book had hit me like a thunderbolt, and I knew it had changed me. I had become a lover of Roberto BolaƱo.

But what I wanted to say here, on this blog, is that with this experience I had recalled what a valuable thing for actors reading fiction is. With every novel that we read, we deepen our sense of what people and characters are, but also what words and sentences are. More precisely, we sharpen our sense of what is possible with people and with characters, how they (and we) might answer what confronts them (and us), and what is possible with words and sentences, how words and sentences can help us to answer what confronts us. Such possibilities are the medium in which actors swim when they work on scenes, so greater intimacy with such possibilities is pure win for actors.

No more self-neglect. I will be making time for the reading of novels from now on.

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on looking at text

My sense is that much of what goes by the name of “script analysis” today is actually not very helpful. Actors often sense that “not-helpfulness” and end up ignoring their analysis of the text, or skipping over it altogether. This has some dangers, most notably, what my teacher at Yale, Earle Gister, called “playing the language”, which seems to me to be what Howard Fine is talking about in The Common Mistakes section of Fine on Acting when he talks about “acting on the lines”. The actor believes she can just look at a line of text and know what to do with it, how to deliver it. So a line like “How dare you!” should be said indignantly, and “You’re so sweet!” should be said affectionately, and so on. This leads to banal delivery and ignores everything else that might be going on, apart from what is being said.

Then actors will notice that often, the most interesting deliveries are those that cut against the explicit meaning of the line. So they will conclude that they should always speak the lines in a way that cuts against the explicit meaning of the line. But in the end this amounts to the same thing. The actor is being responsive to the line and only to the line, and not to relationship, circumstance, need, or anything else. The difference between this and the first approach is only superficial, at best.

So what’s an actor to do? Knowing what to do with text emerges from examining that text, those lines, in the context of circumstances and need. I have discussed this at length in other posts, but I want to say a bit more about the text itself right now. What the character says is not unimportant, it just has to be viewed in relation to those other elements. But if it is important, how is it important? If the explicit meaning itself does not determine what to do with a line of text, but is nevertheless somehow important, in what way is it important? How does it matter?

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Andrew Wood Acting Studio featured on Backstage

acting studio los angeles  -Andrew Wood Acting Studio profiled on Backstage.comRight here.

Great to receive some attention from such a high-profile website! Thanks to all of my students over the last ten years who have enabled to me to share the insights that I love so much!

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the vulnerability confusion

I was a on website for actors that publishes advice columns from various eminences in the industry: acting teachers, agents, casting directors, and others. I saw one such column from a prominent acting teacher in town who was recommending to actors that they try to be more vulnerable in their lives. This teacher was telling actors that during their day, when something embarrassing happened, an episode of clumsiness or cluelessness or whatever, the actor should make a conscious effort to be vulnerable in such situations: to face the witnesses to the moment of awkwardness, and in the process, maybe form a connection or at least have a moment with someone that would not otherwise have happened. The suggestion seems to be that in this way, the actor practices exercising her vulnerability muscles, and if those muscles get strong enough, she will be able to leverage them when an audition calls for true vulnerability.

But not so fast. Vulnerability is not, at bottom, an attitude we adopt towards a situation. In one sense, yes, we can choose to stay open or close down to someone. So there is something to this. But this is the tip of the iceberg. And we are interested, as actors, when it comes to vulnerability, in more than just the tip.

For an iceberg is an underwater mountain. It weighs tons, literally, and extends downwards into the depths. As human beings, we come into every moment, in which we might decide to throw that switch and make ourselves vulnerable, from somewhere. This is true in a literal sense: we come from Zimbabwe, or from Soviet Georgia, East St. Louis, or from Paris, or we lived across the street, to paraphrase a band I like. But we also enter into present moments from already-existing situations and contexts: our family, our education, our ongoing and discontinued relationships. Because of these contexts that already exist, we have a whole set of commitments or investments: people we care about, political convictions, passions, fetishes, even phobias and prejudices. If this moment when we might choose to throw the vulnerability switch is one in which we are interacting with someone previously known to us, then we are likely invested in that person in a particular way: we look for certain kinds of treatment from them, certain kinds of recognition of who and what we are. We may also have expectations about what various kinds of strangers, of various races, genders and occupations, may offer us. In either case, our vulnerability to the other person is baked into the cake: we are vulnerable to these people, whether we like it or not.

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Does it run in the family? Sadly, no.

From a review of Amy Poehler and her brother Greg’s new show, Welcome to Sweden:

“Welcome to Sweden,” about a man who leaves his high paying job as a celebrity accountant to move to Sweden for the love of his life, was created by Greg Poehler, brother of “Parks and Recreation” star and comedy veteran Amy Poehler. The elder Poehler cashes in a few favors from the likes of “SNL” veteran Will Ferrell and “Parks and Rec” co-star Aubrey Plaza to bring some much needed talent to the show, as well as appearing as an evil version of herself on more than one occasion. She, as always, is a delight — as are most of the celebrity guests, who occasionally save some subpar writing — but a much harsher “d” word comes to mind when watching the character her brother portrays on the show.

Unlike his sister, Greg has no formal training as an actor, writer, or producer (he and Amy serve as executive producers). Sadly, it shows. While plenty of family members are funny in their own right, it appears Amy’s wealth of experience in the UCB improv theatre, years writing and acting on “Saturday Night Live” and many diverse roles in television and film have actually helped her hone her craft and become one of the funniest people on the planet. Her brother, however, did none of these things, instead relying on whatever inherit[sic] charm and perseverance was within him to churn out a comedy series based on his own personal experiences moving to Sweden.

Big surprise: it doesn’t work… “

Hard work. Dedication. Stamina. There are no short cuts.

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what keen ears are hearing

NPR conducted a poll in which they played two sounds during a broadcast: one was hot water being poured into a glass, and the other was cold water being poured into the same glass.

The results? Eighty percent of the 30,000 respondents guessed correctly on the cold water, and a whopping 91% guessed right on the hot water (I’m a little unclear about how you get one right and not the other, but I didn’t see the original poll). And how were people able to tell the difference?

Cold water is more viscous, or sticky, than hot water. That’s what makes that high pitched ringing, and it’s what tells your brain – this glass of water is cold – before you even take a sip.

The difference is extremely subtle: click the link above and listen, and you’ll see what I mean. And yet a very high percentage of people were able to distinguish between these two sounds.

I think this is very important because if we have this level of sensitivity to sound, it suggests that we are able to discern where in an actor’s body the sound is originating from when she speaks, and likely without even being aware of this discernment. In class, we seek to help actors approach their scene in such a way that their primitive need for connection with others is activated, a need believed by my teachers at the Yale School of Drama and by me, to live in the viscera, the gut, the lower abdomen. Think of the expression that something “was like a kick in the stomach.” That. When an actor’s impulses are originating in this place, something extraordinary happens, as I have written about many times before: speech that originates in the core confers upon the speaking actor a peculiar authority. We, the audience, can sense that the actor is speaking from the depths of her being. And the way we can sense it, for the most part, is that we can hear it. We can hear where the utterance is originating, where it is issuing from.

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free falling

The other night in class, we were looking at a scene. A student was having an issue that comes up a lot: I have written about it previously, more than once, here and here, for example. Every time the student spoke a line in his scene, before he spoke, he looked off to the side, away from his partner. It was while looking away that the impulse to speak the next line seemed to arise. Once that had happened, he would look again at his partner and deliver the balance of the line to her.

I don’t wish to say that actors should always look at their partners. However, when an actor looks away constantly, apparently compulsively, in exactly the same way before every line, we are not talking about something that is arising out of the circumstances or the character: this is an actor’s tic. It’s actually, I believe, a way that the actor attempts to manage his discomfort with the public intimacy he is engaging in in the scene. By constantly interrupting that intimacy by looking away, he makes sure that he doesn’t expose himself too much. Of course, that he exposes himself is exactly what we want.

So the actor needs to overcome his discomfort with allowing the impulse to arise while he is still connected with the partner, and so he needs to either maintain eye contact with her, or be sure that he always looks at her prior to starting to speak, even prior to inhaling the air he will need to speak. Once he feels comfortable with that intimacy, and does not feel compelled to look away, then if he looks away, there is a better chance that it is behavior arising from the situation of the scene, and not a function of his discomfort.

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the technique dilemma

Technique promises us some measure of control. We want to be able to take certain actions, press certain buttons, if you will, and produce results which are somewhat predictable. We don’t want to go to an audition, then a callback, then learn that we have booked the job, and then find that we are totally unable to reproduce any semblance of the work that landed us the job, thus disappointing those who hired us, and bringing consequences which are likely unpleasant.

The root of the word technique is the Greek techne, and strongly connotes work with the hands, as in an activity like pottery or sculpture. The image is one of a strong relationship between action and consequence: press the clay in this way, and you will get a result like this. Something like that is what we look for from technique: some understanding of how to bring our faculties to bear on a scene in order to produce desirable results.

And yet: no actor wants to seem studied, contrived, or calculated. No one wants to seem like they are deliberately manipulating themselves to produce certain results. Actors are meant to be spontaneous, natural, of the moment; a planned performance is a mechanical performance, a deadly performance.

That would seem to leave the actor on the horns of a dilemma: one wants a technique, one wants some control over the outcome, and yet the appearance of having control over the outcome somehow dilutes the credibility of that outcome. An actor’s performances appeals to the extent that there seems to be something involuntary about it, in the way that laughing, or sneezing, or, for that matter, having an orgasm are involuntary.

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lies, damn lies and hollywood acting teachers

You may have noticed the redesign of the homepage, not to mention the new business name. In the course of effecting this transformation, I looked around at the way some of my competitors are marketing themselves. And some are doing a terrific job. But I did see one thing that gave me pause.

I saw studios that make such promises as that their approach to training will make acting “easy” and “fun”. In some cases, they went on to glibly ridicule the great approaches to acting that evolved in the last century or so, as if they were talking about some dated hairstyle that now seems both disastrously misguided and quaint at the same time. I found the level of disrespect and outright mendacity here nothing short of breathtaking.

What makes it so awful is that there is a part of all of us that wants things to be easy, but this part is not the part that acquires stamina, builds careers, and finds the faith it takes to confront adversity. Assertions that acting can be easy fosters the wrong part of those who are drawn to it.

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Andrew Wood Alumni Rock the Duchess of Malfi

Some pictures from Uranium Madhouse’s recent production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Ten of the eleven actors in the cast were Andrew Wood students! Whoever trained these actors knew what they were doing! ;)

David Bauman, Mandy Acosta and London May
David Bauman, Mandy Acosta and London May
Cris D'Annunzio and David BaumanCris D’Annunzio and David Bauman
Mandy Acosta and Michael Cho
Mandy Acosta and Michael Cho
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