the secret of their success

Japan has won three of the last five Little League World Series.

What’s the secret of their success?

The team practices eight to 10 hours every Saturday and Sunday. Each morning is devoted just to fielding practice. The kids field endless bunts, and turn one double play after another.

Ten hours a day!

“This is the Japanese way of doing sports, the same in karate as in baseball,” he told me. “It emphasizes what we call konjo, or grit and tenacity. Repetition is important. You’ve got to repeat movements until you master them.”

He calls this yakyudo, the “way of baseball,” just as kendo is the “way of the sword,” or bushido, is the “way of the warrior.”

They all focus on honing technique until it is flawless and instinctive. It’s this way that Omae believes led to the team’s victory two years ago.

“We had no star players,” he says, “but our discipline and repetition of basic plays made our defense strong and helped us to finally win.”

Longtime readers of this blog will find these sentiments very familiar. It’s at the heart of what Josh Waitzkin has to say in his book The Art of Learning, which I ask everyone who takes my class to read. Also Guitar Zero. And Malcolm Gladwell. Betty Davis says you have to love the sweat more than the lights.

But as many times as I have remarked upon these things, they bear repeating. A prominent Hollywood acting teacher with a platform on a major industry website tells students NOT to rehearse, and says their scene partners would rather be at the beach anyway. This is a remarkable double-whammy: a teacher telling students not to rehearse, and then scaring them with the prospect of social rejection at the hands of their partners.

Actors are already up against it because the acting they consume lets them see the lights but not the sweat. The work is cast, costumed, coiffed, lit and edited for consumption for an entertainment-starved public. Aspiring actors don’t see the sacrifice that was required, the sweat that Bette Davis mentions, behind those lights.

So telling actors not to bother with rehearsing and to worry about whether or not their partners would rather be at the beach is, as I have written previously, nothing short of criminal.

There was a reason Uta Hagen her book Respect for Acting. Telling people not to rehearse is an act of gross disrespect for the craft. Taking class, working on scenes, bringing obsessiveness, grit and tenacity to the class work, embracing the breadth of challenges that acting involves, and the difficulty of those challenges, is what respect looks like.

Take it from the Japanese little leaguers.


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STOP! in the name of doing it better

Interesting piece on NPR this morning about a photographer who has photographed every New Hampshire primary since 1980.

What caught my interest was this:

Cole has a rule he follows when out on assignment: No matter how crowded the press gaggle gets, he never takes a picture while he’s touching another photographer. The point is to force himself to think of a different approach to each shot.

Take, for instance, a campaign appearance by George H.W. Bush at Nashua Airport in 1988: All of the other photographers followed the then-vice president on board an airplane.
Vice President George Bush waves from the cockpit of a World War II B-17 bomber at a quick campaign stop at Boire Field in Nashua, N.H. on Wednesday, July 15,1987.
Jim Cole/AP

“I stayed outside, and with all the luck in the world, Bush stuck his head out the pilot’s window and waved to everybody,” said Cole. (click here to view the picture)

With this rule, which does not allow him to take a picture if he is touching another reporter, (in other words if he is stuck in a scrum of reporters all taking the same picture ) Cole is practicing what in the Alexander technique is called inhibition. While inhibition might not sound like a good thing, in the context of the Alexander technique, it is. In the Alexander technique, inhibition is the ability to suppress one’s habitual response to things in order to open up the possibility of a different kind of response. Since many of our physical habits are the results of trauma or other kinds of negative input, it’s important for actors to engage with their physical habits and develop new habits that maximize expressive capacity and presence.

While the Alexander technique works with physical habits, in class at Andrew Wood, we work in part with mental habits, particularly the habits that we have involving how we understand and frame human motivation. Knee-jerk attempts at stating the motivations of characters often entail negative judgments and are focused on goals about the future (what we call plot objective), rather than on the present moment. At Andrew Wood, we learn to “inhibit” these initial ways of looking and thinking, and to find ways of understanding and framing what characters are after that are empathic and oriented towards the here and now of relationship rather than the future. Actors are forever enjoined to “be in the moment”, but aren’t asked to think about motivation in ways that promote this focus them on the here and now of interpersonal dynamics.

It’s what makes this kind of difference.

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an awful black hole

Great interview with Ta-Nahisi Coates
, one of the country’s foremost thinkers and writers on race, and a brilliant prose stylist. Here he is talking about the creative process, writing in his case. Really terrific, really important insights. It’s worth watching the video, but I know some of y’all (I see you!) don’t like to watch videos online, so I have transcribed some it here (although the whole thing is worth watching, it’s about three and a half minutes.):

When I came to the Atlantic I was in a very frustrating period because I knew what kind of writer I wanted to be. I was not becoming that writer. I was looking for a breakthrough and I was not finding that breakthrough. I was banging my head against the wall and nothing was coming out. I would say it was very depressing. So, in my first year here I actually had to finish my first book, my only book, and I had to write my first story for the Atlantic. I had to write an 8,000 world piece for the magazine which was absolutely, I mean it was just hell. I was on unemployment at the time, I had just been laid off, and I was under a great degree of stress. I think I gained, like, thirty pounds that summer but what I’m trying to say is that I think breakthroughs come from that sort of stress.

When I got done with that piece, when I got done with that book, I was clear that those were things that I was not capable of doing before. You know, like, the writing was very, very different, the sentences had much more power. And I think a lot of that had to do with the stress I was under, you know, and I think breakthroughs come from putting an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself, like seeing what you can take, and hoping you grow some new muscles. You know, it’s not really that mystical. you know, it’s like repeated practice over and over and over again and then suddenly you become something that you had no idea that you could really be…or you quit the field and just say “I suck.”. That could happen too, but, hopefully you have a breakthrough, you know.

So much that’s important here. I acted in a play at the Magic Theater in San Francisco close to a decade ago. I don’t usually act myself. My main focuses are teaching and directing, but someone approached me about reading for this play, and I decided to do it, and was offered the role. I remember, close to the end of the rehearsal process, after one of the final rehearsals, I was out in the parking lot with some of the other actors, and someone asked the actor who was playing the lead role how she felt. “Like I want to disintegrate into a million pieces.” was her response. But then you know what happened? The production opened to some appreciative notices and audiences.

I don’t know whether the leading actor felt like she grew or not from the experience, but the point is that sooner or later every creative person finds themselves in this sort of crucible of exhaustion and doubt. What’s important about what Coates is saying is that such episodes are necessary to have breakthroughs. I think Coates’ insight is a healthy and necessary corrective to the attitude that many people aspiring to acting careers have. They aren’t ready for it to be hard. And acting teachers who assure actors that they don’t need to rehearse or prepare, but simply need to “be in the moment” and “follow their instincts” and take to heart other such banalities, aren’t helping matters. This profession will test you, in all kinds of ways. Finding work will test you, and then doing the work will test you. It will push you to the breaking point. And this a good thing, according to Coates. Einstein: “Adversity introduces a man to himself.” It introduces us to strengths that we didn’t now we had and to liabilities to which we had been turning a blind eye.

This is my experience with directing: it is always an existential crisis and a physical ordeal. And I’m not the only one:

Most people think it’s an interesting career path. It’s not. It’s a terrible waste of your life, making movies. Your life will be sucked into an awful black hole of nothing but unpleasant things going on. “How should I go about making my first movie?” If you have to ask me, don’t do it.

Pretty much. And it’s enough to make you ask yourself what the hell you’re doing. But what’s heartening about what Coates is saying is that subjecting yourself to this type of state of siege is necessary to break through and come into your full powers as an artist.

From an NPR story this morning on the effects of Hurricane Katrina on people’s lives, ten years later:

The researchers were able to track down 334 of the study participants who had been living in New Orleans at the study’s start. They found that 10 years after the storm, more than 60 percent of the women in the study had bounced back emotionally to where they were before Katrina. And more than half of these survivors of the storm had gone on to experience significant emotional growth — making positive life changes.

So if you experience this kind of Hurricane-Katrina-of-the-soul moments from time to time, YOU’RE DOING IT RIGHT!

And if you’re not, well, you may be playing things a bit too safe. Or you may not be in the right business.

Some years ago, I became friends with an author and filmmaker who is now completing training to become a Zen monk in South Korea. I told him (this was in 2013) that my most recent production had nearly killed me. “GOOD!” he said.

Now I know why,

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resting bitch face and the badge of appeasement

Was reading this article on “Resting Bitch Face”, about the phenomenon where women whose faces seem to express hardness or harshness when the women in question are in fact merely pensive or spaced out. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and one I think I may suffer from, although it’s supposedly only a female phenomenon. I am often told that I look “serious”. I guess the point is that women are expected to appear friendly and reassuring, and when they don’t, well, they get accused of having Resting Bitch Face.

I have some thoughts about Resting Bitch Face and acting, but they are still crystallizing, so I think I’ll hold off on going into them at the moment. But something else in the first article, above, caught my eye. It was part of a discussion of how women tend to smile more than men, that they are expected to smile, so they then get unfairly taken to task for RBF. :

Nancy Henley, a cognitive psychologist, has theorized that women’s frequent smiling stems from their lower social status (she called the smile a “badge of appeasement”). Still others have pointed out that women are more likely to work in the service sector, where smiling is an asset.

Now, this is a sociological observation about the place of women in society, and how smiling is a response to that. But here’s the thing: I see a lot of unhelpful smiling during scene work in class. Of course, people smile in real life, so there is no reason they shouldn’t in acting as well, but the problem arises when the smiling is part of the actor’s response to the situation of acting a scene, rather than the character’s response to the evolving circumstances in the scene.

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“Who am I without my sport?”

Great interview with Olympic diver Greg Louganis today on NPR today.

On returning to the diving world to mentor current Olympic hopefuls

It’s great to share those experiences. I’m most concerned with aftercare because as an elite athlete you finish your career and then you’re pretty young. When you retire from your sport then it’s almost like you lose a part of yourself. You lose your identity … I retired at 28 … You know, making that transition is not always easy. It’s like, “OK, now who am I? Who am I without my sport?”

His last question is an important one, even for people who are still practicing a sport, or a craft, like acting. When we dedicate ourselves to something like acting, as a life pursuit, it becomes necessary to, as the poet Rilke said, build our life around that necessity. And yet part of such a life, a life centered around an all-consuming passion, even an obsession, is that there are parts of that life that are separate from that thing. We have to have the ability to appreciate ourselves and our lives apart from our profession, even as we dedicate ourselves to it completely. Paradoxical, perhaps, but entirely necessary. The part that is not the life pursuit (friends, pets, hobbies, spirituality, travel, etc.) nourishes and maintains the flame of passion in the part that is. Having a life apart from the work is proof against the setbacks and disappointments that are bound to come, and also helps stave off burnout. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote:

‘A ship should not ride on a single anchor, nor life on a single hope’

True dat.

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see what I mean? (eisenberg vs. segel)


(This post continues my last one.)

Quick: which of these two actors seems more alive to you in this moment?

If you said Eisenberg, on the left, look again, and this time, pay attention to what is happening inside of you when you look.

See what I mean?

I am always astounded at the power of still photographs to reveal exactly how much an actor has going on.

If you said Eisenberg initially, you may have been attracted to a certain alertness and sense of expectation in his face. And none of that is bad (as long as it isn’t preventing something from happening in a deeper place, which can sometimes be the case). But what makes an actor compelling, involving, gripping, what makes their performance sticky, so that it stays with you and you wake up the next morning and it’s still there, somehow inside you, is the still-waters-run -deep quality evident in Segel, on the right.

My belief is that this has to do with mirror neurons: when we watch someone perform, our nervous system is replicating, for us, what they are experiencing, in our mirror system. That’s why the screen kiss is such a phenomenon, we all get to experience the thrill of the kiss, without any of the baggage or risk that may come with it.

When an actor is viscerally activated, in his or her core (visceral means “pertaining to the gut, the belly”, believe it or not), and we watch him, we get viscerally activated as well, thanks to our mirror system. So we experience the actor in a deeper way, and he or show leaves a more lasting impression than otherwise.

The miracle is how do we know this? We can’t see inside the actor’s gut. But I believe that we are exquisitely attuned, through evolution, to recognize this visceral activation, this vulnerability, perhaps because it signals that someone might be about to do something unexpected, something totally out-of-character, perhaps something dangerous. How do we recognize it? Through careful attention to the face, the eyes, and to the voice, and how it is produced, and where in the body it comes from. It’s something we learn to do so well because we were so entirely dependent on our parents as small children, and pleasing them meant everything. So it’s something we do without even being aware, when we do it.

Try it. The next time you consume some acting, whether on TV, at a movie, or even onstage, as you watch the acting, watch yourself, your core, that space behind your navel where you get butterflies in the stomach, and see which actors get in there, and which don’t. It will likely be an eye-opener.

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I feel so sorry for Jesse Eisenberg

He plays opposite Jason Segel in The End of the Tour. Segel plays David Foster Wallace, who had just been hailed as the greatest writer of his generation. Eisenberg plays David Lipsky, writer himself and reporter for Rolling Stone, who joins Wallace on the last leg of his book tour for his newly-released masterpiece, Infinite Jest, in order to interview Wallace.

Segel. Is. Brilliant.

People who are worried about a crisis or a decline in American acting need look no further.

Eisenberg, who can be pretty good, turns in a lackluster performance here. But even if he had turned in a credible, serviceable performance, there is no way he could avoid looking mediocre next to Segel’s achingly vulnerable portrait of a tortured soul.

Given that Eisenberg has sometimes been good, I suspect that he may have made some bad assumptions here. His Lipsky seems envious and petty at times. And perhaps that was the design of the script. But as an actor, Eisenberg needed to look further than that, and find what was compelling about this guy, find something to connect with. And that, he didn’t do.

And this was not a good movie to forget to do that in. Because he is left flat-footed opposite the brilliant Segel.

I have to say, when I had that Segel would play Foster Wallace, I was surprised. Seemed like an unlikely choice. But I was completely convinced. Segel should go home with a trophy for this one, if there is any justice in the world.

That, however, remains to be seen.

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the truth is not what you think it is

The word “truth” is something actors hear a lot about. Meisner’s famous formulation that acting is “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” is invoked again and again, by me and many other acting teachers, whether they teach Meisner or not. Actors come to understand that truth is synonymous with good acting. But is that really saying anything?

What is truth, anyway?

I think a lot of people equate truth with believability. But this is begging the question. What makes an audience believe something?

The answer that I think most people walk around with in their heads is that a performance has to have the appearance of real life. It has to look like real life. It has to be life-like. It has to be natural. It has to appear real.

But let’s think about that for a minute.

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the trouble with “method” and emotional memory

Most people, actors or not, I’d venture to guess, are familiar with the basic idea of emotional memory: an actor tries to relive an episode from his or her own life in order to conjure the emotional state called for in a scene or even a moment.

It’s an idea that’s fairly simple to grasp, and seems intuitively appealing: why shouldn’t the actor be able to make use of her own experiences in realizing the emotional life of the role? And in fact it became the basis of the Method, as evangelized by Lee Strasberg.

One reason, articulated by Stanislavsky and by Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, is that the emotional memory takes the actor out of the present moment of the scene he is attempting to play. If he is focused on something that happened years ago, he is not relating to the actors he is in the scene with. Actors everywhere understand that it’s important to be in the moment, and so this explanation of why emotional memory is problematic carries some weight.

I think there is another, very important reason that emotional memory is problematic. And that is its superficiality. Let me explain.

We’ve all had the experience of having a fight with someone close to us. When we’re in the throes of the fight, we can feel righteous anger coursing through us: this person has failed us in some absolutely egregious way, and the anger we feel is vigorous, often overwhelming.

Then, time passes. Some hours. A day. A few days. A week. A month. We begin to feel something else towards this person: a mixture of regret at having fought, sadness at feeling disconnected, and some measure of tenderness towards the person in question.

Now, if that that moment, someone said to us, “Well, what about the anger? What happened to that?”, we would likely just shrug our shoulders and say “I was just mad. It passed.” And then if we’re asked, “So which is the truer, deeper reflection of how you really feel about this person, the anger or the emotions you’re feeling now?”, we would almost certainly say the feelings we are feeling now are truer and deeper. And I think we can recognize that the emotions we are feeling now, some distance from the fight, don’t just feel truer and deeper because we happen to be feeling them now: they are our deepest, truest feelings about the person in question.

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no is huge

Interesting anecdote about Ian McKellen aka Gandalf:

“I got offered a part in Mission: Impossible II with Tom Cruise, but they wouldn’t let me see the whole script because I might have spilled the beans. I only got my scenes,” he explains to the magazine.

But that is not how McKellen rolls. The actor couldn’t figure out if he liked the film or not based on the partial scenes alone, so he played it safe and rejected the project.

“I couldn’t judge from reading just those scenes what the script was like. So I said no,” McKellen says. “And my agent said, ‘You cant say no to working with Tom Cruise!’ and I said, ‘I think I will.'”

And he did. And what happened?

“The next day, Bryan Singer asked me to play Magneto and then Peter Jackson asked me to play Gandalf, and I said yes to both,” he continued.

He’s since played Gandalf in three Lord of the Rings films and three Hobbit films, and Magneto in four X-Men films and once (uncredited) in The Wolverine.

This is a powerful story. I remember someone telling me a story about Madonna being interviewed, and someone asked her what was the most important thing she wanted to teach her kids, and she replied “To say no. No is huge.” I haven’t been able to find a transcript of this interview, but the story has always stayed with me.

It’s been a lesson I have had to learn the hard way, many times over, in my career and in my personal life. The desire to be an artist is connected with the desire to please. Yes, we all want to please by expressing our vision and in our own voice. But we want that expression to be appreciated. Anyone who tells you that’s not true is lying. It’s not a good idea to become dependent on that appreciation, but it’s fine to want it, and it’s a part of being an artist.

But that desire to please makes compromising ourselves by saying yes to things that we don’t actually want a powerful, and, in my experience, ever-present temptation. And the biggest mistakes in my life have been saying yes to things that I knew I didn’t actually want.

This story about Ian McKellen shows how saying no to what you don’t want makes room for what you do.

Of course, we need to stay open, we can’t be phobic about everything that isn’t exactly what we want. But when we know that something is wrong for us, we need to be able to say no.

And you know what? The Tom Cruises of the world will respect us for it.

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