Brian Eno: beautiful things grow out of sh*t

“Beautiful things grow out of shit. Nobody ever believes that. Everyone thinks that Beethoven had his string quartets completely in his head—they somehow appeared there and formed in his head—and all he had to do was write them down and they would be manifest to the world. But what I think is so interesting, and would really be a lesson that everybody should learn, is that things come out of nothing. Things evolve out of nothing. You know, the tiniest seed in the right situation turns into the most beautiful forest. And then the most promising seed in the wrong situation turns into nothing. I think this would be important for people to understand, because it gives people confidence in their own lives to know that’s how things work. If you walk around with the idea that there are some people who are so gifted—they have these wonderful things in their head but and you’re not one of them, you’re just sort of a normal person, you could never do anything like that—then you live a different kind of life. You could have another kind of life where you could say, well, I know that things come from nothing very much, start from unpromising beginnings, and I’m an unpromising beginning, and I could start something.”

Brian Eno

Or, as the Buddhists like to say: No Mud, No Lotus

See also Dave Grohl.

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not you as the character, but the character as you

The other night, I was saying goodnight to a student who was leaving class. This was her first acting class, and she hadn’t yet put her scene up. She mentioned that she and her scene partner had done their scene for someone else, a third person, and she had asked that third person whether or not it had seemed like she was a different person when shte was acting, whether she had “become the character”.

I didn’t want to detain her from getting home, so I didn’t take the matter any further at that point. But I subsequently sent her an email in which I gently explained that thinking about “becoming the character” was not really the thing that she should be worrying about in the moment.

I once heard the following piece of advice: Don’t try to see yourself as the character. Try to see the character as you.

I remember the first day of acting class at Yale. Someone was doing a scene from Three Sisters, playing Masha. Earle, the teacher, said to the student: Masha lives in you. He was trying to tell her that she didn’t need to “become someone else” to play the role; he needed to bring herself to the role.

The lay person believes that “becoming the character” is what actors do, and in a sense, of course, that’s true. But only in a sense.

I don’t teach Meisner technique, but I know enough about it to know that the regimen of repetition exercises is about getting people to simplify what they are doing, to strip away the affect, to get out of their heads, and to respond as simply and authentically as they can to the partner.

In other words, it’s not helping them to become someone else. It’s helping them to allow themselves to show up.

My approach goes about achieving that in a very different way, but the goal is the same: you, the actor, are bringing your own passions and vulnerabilities to the character, channeling them appropriately, so that the words of the writer arise from “an authentic place”.

This is a really challenging point for a lot of new actors: they want to think about the character and what “he (or she) would do”. But you don’t have to think about what he or she would do; the writer has already provided that! You need to find the need in yourself who needs to do those things.

Of course, people sometimes do play characters who are very far from who they are as people, and a transformation is required for them to do that. But that transformation cannot eclipse the actor’s own self or humanity or vulnerability: that is always going to be a part of any successful performance. That’s kind of an advanced challenge, to be able to change voice and body dramatically, without compromising the actor’s investment in the character’s needs and priorities.

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Glenn Frey and acting

NPR had a nice appreciation this morning of Glenn Frey of the band The Eagles, who just passed away.

Apparently he was an actor as well as a musician. Who know?

Glenn Frey also acted. He was in the movie “Jerry Maguire” and on the TV show “Miami Vice”.

But something else in the piece caught my ear.

In 1980, Frey quit and the Eagles broke up. Don Henley said they’d reunite when hell freezes over. Glenn Frey went on to a solo career, with hits like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “THE HEAT IS ON”)

FREY: (Singing) The heat is on.

ROBBINS: Glenn Frey also acted. He was in the movie “Jerry Maguire” and on the TV show “Miami Vice.” Then, in 1994, the Eagles did reunite for the “Hell Freezes Over” tour. In 1998, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Glenn Frey told the audience he thought their disagreements were overplayed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FREY: We got along fine. We just disagreed a lot.

(LAUGHTER)

FREY: Tell me one worthwhile relationship that has not had peaks and valleys.

Exactly. Acting is fundamentally about engaging in pretend relationships. And there is nothing more definitive of longstanding, significant relationships than peaks and valleys, as I have written about previously.

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.

So, thank you, Glenn Frey, for the music, and for reminding us of the importance of peaks and valleys!

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“not a technique person”

I started my first Essentials class of the year a couple of weeks ago. The first night of class, I introduce a framework called the Five Questions, which helps to organize the process of extracting the given circumstances from the text. It’s the kind of exercise that can appear to be simple to the point of being simplistic, not to say tedious.

But there is more to it than meets the eye. Dramatic writing always depends on a relationship between what is made explicit in the text, and what is present through implication and context. The former is very easy to spot, the latter much less so. The things that depend on implication and context are hiding in plain sight, so to speak. So the question is: how do catch sight of those things? Well, there is no foolproof method for seeing what you don’t see, but writing down what you do see is a good starting point. Putting stuff in writing can turn the kaleidoscope of the mind, and suddenly you might spot something that you hadn’t seen before.

I encourage students to send me their Five Questions documents, and I provide thorough feedback on them, helping the students to see what they may not have seen. I can see from many of the documents submitted that many students don’t really see the value of the exercise, because the first submissions are often kind of cursory. When the students get their documents back from me with commentary, I can only hope that they begin to see the value of assuming that there are things in it that are not obvious, and combing it carefully and thoroughly to find those things.

From this new class I started, I received a Five Questions document that was actually a bit more thorough and thoughtful than average. Upon submitting it, its author had said he was “not a technique person, more a just do it and hope it works out kind of guy”, but that he was eager to see what he could learn over the course of the class. The Five Questions framework is itself a technical exercise: students are asked to answer a set of questions using particular criteria and guidelines. The fact that he had embraced this particular piece of technique in the way that he had suggested to me that he possessed a very important quality, which some have called grit: the capacity to contend with adversity and discomfort. He described himself as someone who wasn’t comfortable with technique, and yet he dove into this first piece of technique, in which he was asked to write out information about the character in a particular way, for reasons that were probably not yet obvious to him. This willingness to embrace discomfort is very important: it’s what is commonly called “getting out of one’s comfort zone”. It’s going forward, toward challenges, in spite of resistance. I recognize the great difficulty of this. It’s something that life makes sure that we contend with, sooner or later, and it’s usually not easy. But to my mind, it is the single most important quality for acting students to have. Technique by definition is going to ask that you do things in ways other than the ways that seem the most likely or plausible to you. That’s what it is: technique is a procedure that you follow in order to achieve a certain end. Sometimes, this procedure is going to chafe, it’s going to feel like an imposition, like something that cramps our style. This is inevitable. It’s the willingness to undergo this, in order to discover what the promise of that technique or procedure might be, in spite of the aspects of it that might seem foreign or unpleasant, that means the difference between an actor who can go beyond his or her inborn capabilities, and one who can’t.

Getting better as an actor is not about being a good actor. It’s about being a good student.

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best of this blog: 2015

Here’s the list:

Enjoy!

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what Christian Bale regrets

interesting find:

Since a young age Christian Bale was very ambitious about attending Drama School, and auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), and the Central School of Speech And Drama at the age of twenty. He was accepted to all, but was convinced by his parents to continue working instead. To this day, he regrets not attending drama school for his personal passion of learning his craft.

He seems to have found his way ok, but it’s interesting that as late as 2013, post Dark Knight Rises, he still had this regret.

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the great gena rowlands on acting and reading

Gena Rowlands is an one of the greatest actors of modern times, and with her husband John Cassavetes, she created a body of work that established independent filmmaking in this country. If you’re not familiar with her, you can read a terrific profile of her here.

She starts off of the above interview talking about how her interest in acting grew out of her love of reading books. In our relentlessly visual age, I think it’s easy for people to forget that language is the basis of acting. It’s the actors job to become the person for whom speaking the lines of the script is truly necessary. I think it’s important for all serious actors to read constantly, and develope their sensitivity to language and the way people use it to navigate their relationships. I was impressed by this profile of Ethan Hawke that I read today in the New York Times. Hawke displays a commanding knowledge of literature, mentioning Tolstoy, Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, as well as a number of contemporary writers. Being this kind of reader is vital for anyone serious about acting. There is a lot more to acting than reading, but without the ability to read sensitively, the actor is dead in the water. The deepest things about any character are embedded in what she says and how she responds to others, and an actor who can’t tune in to these things is never going to achieve lift-off. Reading is the single most important thing an actor can do on an ongoing basis to keep herself in trim and develop her craft. So be inspired by Gena Rowlands, and grab a book or your e-reader, and get reading!

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the Islamic State and acting

Like many people, I have been pouring over reportage about the Islamic State, and I came across a discussion of what makes people vulnerable to ISIS recruiters, and ultimately prompts them to join ISIS:

The appeal of Islamic State rests on individuals’ quest for what psychologists call “personal significance,” which the militant group’s extremist propaganda cleverly exploits. The quest for significance is the desire to matter, to be respected, to be somebody in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others.

This quest for what these psychologists call personal significance is what we call underlying objective in the approach taught by me and by Evan Yionoulis at the Yale School of Drama. In this approach, every scene, and in fact every moment of every scenes, has to be understood as a bid for this personal significance, in a manner that it is independent of the medium- and long-term goals that the character has for changes in his circumstances. These medium- and long- term goals, which we call plot objectives in the approach, are easier to spot, and tempting to fixate on as a way of articulating something to pursue as a character, but they are insufficient, generally, for the purpose of helping the actor to activate her own visceral need for personal significance, her need to matter, to be meaningfully connected to others.

It’s striking to see that even in the case of people who join such an alien and horrific organization, we can understand something about what motivates these people with this notion of underlying objective.

It’s a revolution in the way in which scenes from dramatic texts, and indeed human encounters more broadly, are understood. Sign up for a class at Andrew Wood and plug yourself into this amazing source of acting power.

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directors have it easy

  • “Apparently, director Pam MacKinnon isn’t able to help. When she tried giving Pacino a note, sources say he snarled: “I’m not your f - - king puppet, Pam!” Since then, she’s been spotted nervously pacing at the back of the theater.”

  • “In the days I knew Helen Mirren, she was not at all the respectable figure who … is before you. She had wonderful techniques of not listening to the director when the director tried to give her notes. And her best ever technique was saying, “Come to the dressing room at a quarter to 7:00, and you can give me notes then.” And I knocked on the door and went into her dressing room, and she put aside the copy of the Evening Standard, which was briefly obscuring her, and she was absolutely stark naked and said to me: “Perhaps now you’d like to give me some notes.” And needless to say I muttered apologetically and left as fast as I possibly could.”

Offered without comment.

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“the better things you need to do”

Nice interview with Bill Murray this morning on NPR Weekend Edition.

He talks about habit, in the context of why he doesn’t have a phone or an agent or an assistant:

Everyone needs to take a vacation from the sort of automatic things you do, you know. The automatic things you do are basically those things that keep you from doing the better things you need to do.

That, in a nutshell, is what technique is all about. You cannot learn a new way to do things without setting aside the way to do things that you already know. Actors often have a wish that they can just “follow their instincts” and do what they feel. This notion is the opposite of the idea of technique. Technique means doing things in a prescribed way. It means doing things in a prescribed way that takes you beyond the way you would automatically do it. It disrupts your learned inclinations and preferences about how to do things.

If you don’t believe this, there is no reason to study technique.

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