what acting can do

I went to see a play not too long ago. The premise of the play was that two architects, who had been partners decades earlier, but who had fallen out, find themselves sharing a hospital room near the ends of the their lives. I knew this going in to the play, and that the play would be a reckoning between the two old partners and friends.

In the first scene of the play, when they discover that they are sharing a room, they both lose their tempers, and the nurse offers to see if there might be another room. Now, I could see the set, and I knew the premise of the play was that they were in the same room and were going to have things out in that room, but the quality of the acting was such that I found myself wondering whether there might not be another room for the two of them, in spite of the fact that I knew the script was going to keep them in the same room, and that the set provided for no other room!

As an acting teacher and coach, when I go to see plays or movies, my “critic” is very alert. I am watching the actors carefully to assess their skill and the depth of their work. It’s hard to shut that off, even when I want to For me to find myself wondering whether it was possible for the play to take a course other than the one I knew it was going to take is very unusual. The acting was powerful enough that I was drawn into the immediate reality of the situation. I was no longer judging or evaluating, I was trying to solve the characters problems for them!

In short, I was watching a play the way I watched a play as a kid: with fully open heart and mind (whether I wanted to or not).

That’s what (really great) acting can do.

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faq: what else should I know?

I just recently added the following to the FAQ page of my web site. Thought you’d want to know.

What else should I know?

This is a class that takes you and your potential seriously. VERY seriously. It’s not a class full of preliminary exercises about getting in touch with yourself or feeling less inhibited. It’s a class that teaches a framework for becoming a true student of a script, for patiently discovering and extracting the details that will place you in touch with the pulsing heart of the role. And it teaches you a process and a set of tools and distinctions to support you in translating what you learn as a student of the script into action in a scene.

The class presents a COMPREHENSIVE approach. It’s not one class in a sequence of four, all of which you need to be able to act. The whole appraoch is laid out in ten weeks. But this means that the course is dense: a lot of material is presented every week, and it’s important that you take responsibility for making sure that the informaation offered to you becomes knowledge and understanding. So this will mean STUDYING. It will mean WORKING. It will mean accepting structure. It will mean APPLYING YOURSELF. It will mean PATIENCE with not understanding everything immediately. It will mean accepting and ultimately embracing COMPLEXITY (telling stories is principally a way of contending with the complexity of life). It will mean forging resolve and staying true to a purpose. It will mean continuing to work when you no longer feel like it. It will mean getting to class when you’d rather take a night off. It will mean coming through for your scene partner. It will mean being held accountable. It will require GRIT.

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the great challenge of making imagined relationships feel like real ones

I came across a column on The New York Times website, called The Myth of Quality Time.

Columnist Frank Bruni shares a realization that he had about why he changed his mind about thinking that brief visits with family members or other loved ones were best:

With a more expansive stretch, there’s a better chance that I’ll be around at the precise, random moment when one of my nephews drops his guard and solicits my advice about something private. Or when one of my nieces will need someone other than her parents to tell her that she’s smart and beautiful. Or when one of my siblings will flash back on an incident from our childhood that makes us laugh uncontrollably, and suddenly the cozy, happy chain of our love is cinched that much tighter.

There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence.

Bruni is saying that the defining moments of relationships of any duration occur as they occur. Not on anyone’s schedule. Not by appointment. Not by any kind of design.

What does this tell us, as actors? It tells us that the relationship-defining moments, the moments that make Blanche and Stella into Blanche and Stella, or make Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, happen in the midst of long stretches of time the individuals in question have spent together. And it’s also true that these special, definitive moments arise, unexpectedly and mysteriously, from the daily, mundane interactions, the exchanging of pleasantries, the doing of favors, the reporting on how the day went, etc. The special moments of connection emerge from the everyday comings and goings, and the familiarity that grows in the process.

It’s this familiarity, borne out of repeated, everyday interactions that occur over months, years, even decades, that actors attempt to create when they enter into an imaginary relationship in a fictional situation.

Doing this successfully is no small feat, and one that is, sadly, often taken for granted.

How to go about this process of making fictional relationships seem like real ones? There are some tools that I present in the class, which I’ll describe briefly below, but the most important thing is to recognize that making a fictional relationship seem like a real one is not something to take for granted. There’s no one way to do it, but it must be done. Too often people think it’s as simple as saying “Ok, we’re sisters” or “You’re the boss, I’m the employee” and then you can get on with the all-important business of deciding how to deliver the lines or whatever. Keeping in mind the fact that a relationship is something that develops across an expanse of time, often a vast one, and is given definition both through the major milestones, good and bad, and through the process of unremarkable, everyday interaction, is paramount. If you keep these facts in view, you won’t forget about what you’re up against.

One important means of lending depth and substance to an imaginary relationship is to bring imagination and specificity to the defining moments of a relationship, the major milestones that I mentioned. How did the relationship come into being? What were its origins? What were the high points? The crisis points? How were the crises overcome, so that the relationship survived? Making these little short films of the imagination is a great way to begin to give the relationship a specific gravity. It’s backstory, yes, but not a more or less arbitrary stream of factoids strung together into a “”backstory” or character bio; it’s backstory that focuses specifically on the defining moments of the relationship, its origins, peaks and valleys. We can call this process particularization of the relationship.

Another valuable tool is transference. The term comes from Uta Hagen’s book, A Challenge for the Actor. Transference means finding relationships from the actor’s own experience that approximate the relationships of the character to people, places and things. Playing Stella Kowalski? You want to find a transference to help you make the relationship with your Blanche feel more real. If you had an older sister who you were once close to, or even one you still are close to, you’re all set. If not, then you have to try to find another relationship from your own life whose essence approximates the relationship that the character you’re playing has with the character in question. Then you want to find ways to reinforce that transference. While you don’t want to be trying to think of the person from your own life while you’re rehearsing (you want to be present, in the moment), creating little rituals to regularly remind yourself outside of rehearsal of the connection can go a long way towards prompting the unconscious mind to direct the energy associated with the real relationship into the fictional one.

Also, taking care to always engage in relationship while rehearsing, that is, to treat every moment when you are actually rehearsing a scene as a moment of relationship in involving give and take and the pursuit of visceral need, then each of these moments acts as a deposit in the piggy bank of real relationship, and gradually, over time, the fictional relationship will start to take root and find a reality of its own. But every time you treat a moment of rehearsal as an exercise in remembering the lines or the blocking, this deposit in the piggy bank of relationship does NOT occur, in fact, when rehearsal is approached that way, a deposit is made in the piggy bank of mechanical repetition, and that’s NOT where your want your money.

These strategies are most effectively used together, in and out of rehearsal, to get over the bar of making fictional relationships seem like real ones. It takes work, but it’s one of the greatest pleasures that the craft of acting affords.

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“the grit to keep standing”

This NPR story about the singer Jewel, and her new book, and all that she had to overcome to become who she is, is ruthlessly inspiring.

Physically abusive father. Boss who withheld paycheck when she refuses to have sex with him. Consequent eviction. Living in her car. Kidney problems that made keeping a job very hard. Homelessness. Agoraphobia. Shoplifting.

And then…major label bidding war.

It’s worth listening to. I know, you’re busy. But…seriously. Listen to it.

And I loved this:

“You realize that so much of success, whether it’s personal happiness or career, is really just about not giving up,” she says. “It’s about who has the grit to keep standing. And that’s what my life’s been about. It’s brought me to my knees again and again.

Why does that sound familiar?

Chekhov, The Seagull

Nina:“…I understand, finally, that in our business — acting, writing, it makes no difference — the main thing isn’t being famous, it’s not the sound of applause, it’s not what I dreamed it was. All it is is the strength to keep going, no matter what happens.”

It’s something we all need to hear.

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“and I was like…is this real?”

Jimmy Fallon had one of the heroes of the European train episode on last night:

It’s a great story, and there’s a lesson there for actors as well.

Notice what Anthony Sadler says happens as he was waking up: his friends were ducking down and looking back, and then he says he looked back and saw the gunman coming in the cabin, “cocking an AK.” An AK-47 submachine gun, a Kalashnikov, that is.

And his response, even though his friends were ducking and looking back: “And I was like…is this real? Is somebody playing a joke?”

The whole thing seemed unreal. And this sense of unreality was potent enough that as he and his friends started to move down the aisle to tackle the gunman, he returned to the question, to settle it: “Both of them get up, and I just followed them, so I was like, Ok, I guess this is real.”

Reversal is a fundamental element of drama. It’s what’s popularly known as “twists and turns” and it basically means something unexpected is happening. A drama in which everything that happens is expected is not much a drama. “Predictable” is not a word used to praise scripts. We expect a good drama to have some surprises. And that’s what reversals are. Something that happens that changes everything.

Often, when actors are working on a scene, I see them face reversals, that is, unexpected radical developments in the situations of their characters, and take them into stride way too easily. I may see a moment of “reaction” and then it’s on to dealing with the new state of affairs. But that’s not actually the way we take in seismic changes in our reality, out here in the real world. There’s a reason that the first of Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grieving is Denial. The first thing we want to do when we are treated to a radical departure from what is expected is to pretend it’s not happening. “Is this real? Is somebody playing a joke?” “You gotta be shitting me!” But the the key to acting moments like this, though, is not mere “reactions of disbelief”, because reactions are not active. What is active is to seek confirmation. We can do it verbally, with utterances like those I just spelled out, or non-verbally, with our gaze, and, yes, with our faces. But these verbal and non-verbal expressions have to be directed at someone, they are a part of the effort to gain confirmation from the partner, they are active and dynamic, not static and merely expressive.

When this step is skipped, it gives the lie to the whole situation, because if the change is too easily accepted, then we, the audience, know that it wasn’t much of a change, or that the actors were anticipating it, or that the actors had no real expectations about how the situation would play out in the first place. None of these scenarios are good for the telling of the story or for the experience of the audience.

It’s often the case that people start to speak or otherwise take action before they have fully accepted the new state of affairs. Notice how in the above example, he says he started to follow his friends after they moved, then he decided that what was happening was real. Actors are often too ready to move past the phase of getting confirmation that the new state of affairs really is what has just been reported, and usually to their detriment. When confronting a reversal, see how long you can go after the reversal is announced and not accept, or not completely accept, its reality. That means, see how long the script will allow you to continue to seek confirmation of the new reality. The script may force your hand at some point, and it may not be possible to continue doubting the new state of affairs, but find that limit point. See how long you can maintain the effort to seek confirmation. This will make sure that you don’t move through it too quickly and thus deny the reality of the unreality.

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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.

Continue reading

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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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