gut churn

I recently came across a piece by Thomas Frank, a regular contributor on Salon.com, which skewered the general triteness of so much of the contemporary writing on creativity these days. I generally agree with his assessment:

What our correspondent also understood, sitting there in his basement bathtub, was that the literature of creativity was a genre of surpassing banality. Every book he read seemed to boast the same shopworn anecdotes and the same canonical heroes. If the authors are presenting themselves as experts on innovation, they will tell us about Einstein, Gandhi, Picasso, Dylan, Warhol, the Beatles. If they are celebrating their own innovations, they will compare them to the oft-rejected masterpieces of Impressionism — that ultimate combination of rebellion and placid pastel bullshit that decorates the walls of hotel lobbies from Pittsburgh to Pyongyang.

I’ll leave you to decide whether or not you want to follow Frank down that rabbit hole, to the somewhat disturbing conclusion that he reaches about what all this creativity blather is all about. But having read this piece recently, I was decidedly skeptical when I saw a post turn up in my Facebook feed with the title Science, Storytelling, and “Gut Churn”: Jad Abumrad on the Secrets of Creative Success. Was it going to be more of the same blather that Frank had mockingly exposed? I didn’t watch it right away, as I feared the worst. However, the title stayed with me, as regular readers of this blog know that lighting a fire in the gut of the actor is what I am all about. Eventually, I had a spare moment and let the video play.

I was pleasantly surprised. The talk is by the creator of Radiolab, a show on NPR. I have heard it before, and know people who are big fans. I am not a huge fan, but I like radio shows in general, and so it got my attention.

I found the talk to be thoughtful and honest, and the vulnerability that the speaker evinces, the amount of not-knowing that he is prepared to cop to, impressed me. His candor about the amount of sheer terror that creative endeavor can entail, and the physiological consequences of that terror, that is, “gut churn”, was bracing. And what makes this quite different from the kind of writing that Frank was deriding was that in this case, it was a creator looking back on his own experience of creating something and reflecting on it. It was not about “the science of creativity”, although he does invoke some science along the way. And to that point, he doesn’t offer prescriptions, but he does offer some useful insights, like: “pointing arrows”, things that show a way forward out of what seems like a hopeless morass, sometimes appear, or, sometimes negative feedback can mean you are doing the right thing. It is presented in a spirit of thoughtfulness and humility that I really appreciated.

Anyway, here it is, in the event that I have piqued your curiosity:

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it changes your life

Today, on NPR, from a review of the career of Ben Bradlee, the editor at the Washington Post during Watergate:

Bradlee wasn’t introspective, but in an interview with his friend Jim Lehrer of PBS late in life, he sought to pin down what animated him.

“It changes your life, the pursuit of truth,” Bradlee said. “At least, if you know that you have tried to find the truth and gone past the first apparent truth towards the real truth, it’s very, it’s very exciting, I find.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

And I LOVE what Mr. Bradlee had to say about the first apparent truth and the real truth. This is what we struggle with all the time in class when looking at a script. There is one truth that presents itself to us as readers, initially, as we stand outside the story and take in the unfolding events. But the more we project ourselves INTO the narrative, and see things from the point of view of the character we are seeking to embody, the more we discover how superficial that initial truth was.

And getting beyond that superficial truth, getting to what Bradlee calls the real truth, is such a thrill. So emboldening. So energizing. It really does change your life.

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Cris D’Annunzio on The State of Affairs

Congratulations to Andrew Wood Acting Studio alum Cris D’Annunzio (seen in the recent Uranium Madhouse production The Duchess of Malfi) for landing a recurring role on the new NBC show The State of Affairs. Way to go Cris!















acting class los angeles alum Cris D'Annunzio appearing on The State of Affairs

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we can work it out

Everyone, in every relationship in which they engage, is trying to make it work. Everyone is trying to make every significant relationship they have work. Until the moment when they leave that relationship for good, they are trying to make it work.

This is an incredibly important insight for actors. Actors work on situations involving conflict, almost all of the time. And it’s often easy to look at a scene and think that from the point of view of her character, everything would be fine if the other person would just STOP DOING [THAT THING THAT THEY DO]. So the actor looks at the scene as the struggle to stop the other person from doing something, to mute them, in some sense. To shut the other person down.

The problem with looking at a scene in this way, any scene, even a scene in which you are trying to get someone to STFU or holding a gun to someone’s head, is that the actor is looking only at what the other character does that is wrong or offensive, and ignoring what they offer, what they bring to the table. And what the other character offers or brings to the table is the basis of the vulnerability in the scene. And vulnerability is what makes acting great, first and foremost.

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the uses of fame

It’s banal to say that we live in a celebrity-obsessed society. Even those of us who have no interest in the latest high-jinks of the rich and famous can’t help but absorb a fair amount of it, if only by osmosis (for example, I know that Kim Kardashian got married). And needless to say, a lot of it is frivolous nonsense. Life is too short.

But once in a while you hear of someone doing something with their fame and influence that is both laudable and original. For example:

Allison Janney is involved with an organization called Justice for Vets , which seeks to intervene to stop the downward trajectory that many veterans of America’s wars find themselves on as they turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with all that they have to cope with. The organization provides legal advocacy for veterans when they get into trouble with the law, and helps get them assigned to rehabilitation programs rather than prisons.

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“Film acting is small.” Oh really?

Just a couple of counter-examples. Feel free to suggest more in the comments.

The notion that “film acting is small and theater acting is big” is a cliche. Great acting is bold and truthful, regardless of the medium. An underwhelming, trivial performance will vanish down the memory hole faster than you can say Amy Adams or Anne Hathaway. An overly “large performance” may live on in infamy, but if you regard “film acting is small” as a deep and powerful insight about acting, you may have a long career of cautious, eminently forgettable performances ahead of you. Sadly, many young people aspiring to be actors regard this kind of soundbyte-y, easily-graspable, facile pseudo-insight as exactly the kind of thing that will help them feel more comfortable walking into an audition.

Deep vs. shallow is a much more useful distinction than big vs. small. Have you studied a script carefully, thought long and hard about the situations of the characters and the worlds in which their stories play out? Their dreams for the future, and their fears? Their past setbacks and triumphs, particularly in the realm of forming and sustaining relationships? Have you considered corresponding relationships in your own life? Have you found a way to look at the scene as an opportunity to form or repair a significant connection, rather than a situation in which annoyance or injustice much be squelched? Have you found a way to light yourself on fire? If so, you will likely shine, in front of the camera or on stage, especially with the help of a discerning outside eye. If not, well, at least you won’t be too big. Never mind that in order to make sure you’re not too big, you’ll be watching yourself, monitoring yourself, measuring the “size” of your acting, cutting yourself down to size, where necessary. That might make you, I don’t know, a little self-conscious, but down’t worry about that. Whatever you do, don’t take a risk, don’t dare greatly, don’t expose anything raw. Because you know, if you do, they’re all gonna laugh at you. Just keep it small. Safe and small.

“There are no small parts. Only small actors.”

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this is a test

Are you ready?

Are you ready to learn that being excited about getting up in front of people does not, by itself, make you interesting to watch?

Are you ready to read all assignments for the dates when they are assigned, and read them not just once, but until you feel that you have an understanding of what they say? Are you willing to take responsibility for finding all the texts in question, even when it takes some work to do so?

Are you ready to listen to lectures?

Are you ready to learn a framework for studying a script, a robust framework, a framework that is not a set of blanks to be filled in, like a tax form, but a series of prompts for imaginative exploration?

Are you ready to learn about objectives? Underlying objectives and plot objectives? Physical plot objectives and psychological plot objectives and psychophysical plot objectives, and what the differences are? Not just to hear these distinctions once, but to study them, master them, so that you understand the criteria involved, are FLUENT in the criteria involved, so that you can actually use them in your work, they are not just some words you wrote in your notebook one time?

Are you ready study a script fastidiously, obsessively, extracting information about your character and her world, rearranging that information so that you can view it from a first person perspective, filling in the the gaps left by the script, so that you can genuinely feel that you have some sense of who the person is you purport to be playing?

Are you ready to have the holes in your preparation exposed in front of the class?

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on physical characterization

“When are we going to work on creating characters?”

This refrain arises from time to time in the course of my teaching. I might be tempted to reply “What do you think we’re doing?”, as we strive to come to terms with circumstances, need, plot objective, action, and the path. We look at the decisions that a character makes, and the actions that follow from these decisions, as revealing character. So by studying the circumstances in which a character finds herself, some of which are a consequence of her own decisions, we can learn a lot about her character.

But that isn’t what the student is asking. The student who asks about when we are going to work on character is asking about physical characterization, the taking up of various physical and vocal idiosyncrasies that define character in the popular imagination. Darth Vader’s character impresses itself on us in large part through his voice. The temptation, then, is to assume that the main work of the actor is the finding of the right voice, and the consistent application of it across the role. This ability to change one’s vocal and physical demeanor is a kind of miracle to the lay person, and also to the aspiring actor, and indeed, there can be something miraculous about it. But it is not the deepest essence of the actor’s work, to my mind. And that deepest essence should be the basis for such physical and vocal mutations.

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Bryan Cranston schools Terry Gross about acting

Today, in honor of the Emmys, Terry Gross interviews Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston about acting, life, and Van Dyke mustaches. While I don’t regard Cranston as the ne plus ultra of actors, based on what I’ve seen, which is admittedly not that much, there are some nice moments in this interview. For example, near the beginning of the interview, Terry wants to play the scene that I guess has come to be known, among the Breakingbaderati, as the “one who knocks” scene, and she is talking about how Walter White’s wife doesn’t know all of the things he has done, things that Terry characterizes as horrible. Cranston takes issue, a little bit, with Terry’s assessment. At about the 2 minute mark, in response to Terry’s use of the word ‘horrible’ to describe Walter’s deeds:

“Well…you know, horrible to one man is…necessary, to another.”

Acting is about entering into the necessities facing a character, one of the progenitors of the approach I teach said. The actor has to become the person who needs to do and say what it is that the character is given to do and say.

It’s a good interview. I like the story about Cranston’s parents, and helped him to develop the stamina necessary (!) for life as an actor. Give it a listen.

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touching lives

So inexpressibly sad today about the horrific and grotesque execution of American journalist James Foley. His parents spoke about him today.


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I loved what they had to say about why he went back to the Middle East after being imprisoned in Libya: why do firefighters keep going into burning buildings? Because it’s their job. Journalism was James’ passion, his vocation. He was firmly convinced that it was his place in the world, and was ready to risk his life in order to keep doing it.

Being a creative person is an incredibly difficult undertaking. Just ask Robin Williams, or Heath Ledger. Getting the world to pay attention and furnish us with opportunities is difficult, and then there is also the baked-in-the-cake part of every creative person that constantly calls the value of our work into question. Chekhov said that dissatisfaction with oneself is the source of any true achievement. True as that may be, living with that dissatisfaction on a daily basis is wearing, to say the least.

James Foley’s parents talk about how many lives that he touched. Touching lives is the potential of our lives as creative people. That’s something to remember the next time you’re thinking that you should have gone to law school or become a CPA or whatever. With all due respect to lawyers and accountants, as actors, writers, teachers, and other creatives, we have a special opportunity to touch the lives of people, to inspire them, to restore their sense of the wonder of the world. Of course, to be able to do that, we have to be very good. It takes steely resolve, stamina, and faith to make the sustained investment in one’s work that it takes to reach the point where one can consistently offer work that is very good. No one questions how much time a violinist or an athlete needs to invest, over a period of years or decades, to acquire the level of mastery required to be able to touch lives, but aspiring actors often somehow think that less will be asked of them. As a teacher of acting, it’s often my job to help them understand this, and their understanding this sometimes means they decide not to go any further. But the other side of it is this power to touch lives, to have the ability to remind people what an extraordinary thing it is live a life, to renew the spirits of people, to reconnect them to their sense of possibility. And what a fine thing that is, a fine thing to be able to be a part of.

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