what is good and why

I am reading a book with the above title for my dissertation work in German Literature at Stanford. The book is by Richard Kraut, an analytic philosopher. Unless you have a taste for meticulous, painstaking philosophical argumentation, I can’t recommend it, but I have found that Kraut has ideas that resonate strongly with the way that we think about how people make life decisions in scene work.

Kraut maintains that older ways of thinking about what is good (what gives pleasure, achieving what one wants or plans) and the problems that are bound up with them can be jettisoned in favor of a notion that what is good for humans is what brings about their flourishing. By flourishing, he means a sustained condition in which humans can exercise their powers (physical, cognitive, and emotional) as expansively as possible.

Most scenes in class involve a relationship in some type of crisis or culmination. The two people involved are attempting, in one way or another, to save or at least strengthen the relationship, based on their understanding of the relationship and what is valuable about it. This, in turn, always comes down to a belief about the way in which two people fit together: what about them makes them a good match.

Close friendships and relationships of all kinds are important because they provide us an opportunity to exercise aspects of ourselves that we value. With one friend, perhaps we can banter in a satisfying way, with another, perhaps we can play a great game of squash, with another, exchange stories of our lives. In other words, they give us contexts in which flourishing is possible. If there is no one to appreciate our wit, and no one to provide wit which, in appreciating, we have an experience of our own wit, then things are not as good for us as they could be.

Of course, we also talk a lot about what we want at particular moments in scenes, but generally, we can say that in scenes, in our roles, our beliefs (as the character) about what wants will bring us closer to flourishing are tested, and we must make decisions about whether to hold fast to one vision of coming closer to flourishing, or to embrace another. Uta Hagen calls this “weighing courses of action” in her discussion of this in her book A Challenge for the Actor.—

Andrew Wood Acting Studio

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why you should really take my class

In launching my Los Angeles acting classes, I met with a talent manager in Los Angeles, to try to interest him in sending me some of his clients. I was struck, nay, dumbstruck, by one of the things he said to me.

“I don’t need my people to be that good. They just need to be able to, you know, have a conversation.”

He meant have a conversation in a scene, as in, talk and listen naturally. This is what it took for them to be able to book. The rest of getting acting jobs wasn’t really about acting.

That Tinseltown works in this way is hardly news, but I was surprised that he would speak in this way to a stranger about the people he represents.

At any rate, I understand that for purposes of getting work, this may be enough. If what you want is to be able to land jobs in Hollywood, then finding someone who can teach you to do this, and only this, may be enough for you. And there are lots of people around who can teach you that (lots of people who can’t, too, but I won’t go there.)

I had a conversation with a professional soap opera director years ago, on a date, if you want to know, and he told me the secret of his success: everyone working in soaps KNOWS that what they are doing is unadulterated schlock, but they ALL want to believe that THEY bring that spark or creativity or originality to what they are doing that elevates their little corner of serial daytime drama above the churning morass of mediocrity it usually is. He found that if he let them believe that he saw this in them, he would earn their undying gratitude.

The point of this is that getting in the door is great. But the novelty eventually wears off, and then you are in the position of having to deliver. If the only people you want to make an impression on are the people who think believable talking and listening is enough, then, well, you deserve what you get: a perhaps long, but probably undistinguished career as a serviceable working actor. However, if you want to be someone who leaves people wanting more, in particular the people who want to make movies and cable series that leave viewers wanting more, if you want to be able do something memorable, something that inspires people, that adds something to their day or night, in short, something that means something to someone for longer than the time that they watch it, well, you need someone who proposes that acting is more than believable talking and listening. Believable talking and listening are essential, but it’s totally possible to be believable and natural without being compelling.

Not to mention the fact that if you have embarked on acting as a career, as a profession, you need to take seriously the fact that it is your responsibility to find ways to keep it fresh and challenging. You cannot expect the projects you get to do this for you, much of the time. Occasionally yes, but anything you do for a living is in danger of becoming a chore with time. Finding ways to keep yourself interested in what you do will prevent burnout. It would be terrible to work hard for years to penetrate the Hollywood membrane, only to discover that you just don’t like doing it that much anymore.

This is another reason to look for someone as a teacher, like me, who proposes that acting is an endeavor that asks for much more than believable, passable talking and listening. Someone who claims that acting involves the simultaneous exercise of empathy, imagination, agility, spontaneity, and discernment. It is ultimately up to you whether you have the resources to find the interest in ANY job you encounter along your path, whether those around you see that interest or not.

The talent manager who I talked about at the beginning of this piece suggested, none too subtly, that what I was offering could be dismissed as “academic.” Given the professionals that I have studied with and worked under, I was at a loss for words as to how to respond. What I WISH I had had the presence of mind to say was “Oh, well, I guess that academic training worked out pretty well for the likes of Meryl Streep, Paul Newman, Sigourney Weaver, Frances McDormand and the other Yale School of Drama alums who have had distinguished Hollywood careers.”

Oh well. Next time.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio

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that damned talent question

A student will study with me for a few months, and then work up the nerve to ask if they “have what it takes.” I categoricaily refuse to answer this question. First of all, there are countless stories of major actors who were told repeatedly that they were no good. And since I don’t have a working crystal ball, I refrain from commenting.

This story talks about a new study that suggests that it is practice, not talent, that makes for success. It asserts that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve true expertise at something. So now I have a new response if I want one: “Check with me after another 9,900 hours of practice.”

Most singing teachers will tell you that there are actually very few people who cannot learn, with some work, to sing. Most of us have the capability. How much readiness, willingness, and dogged determination we bring to the challenge is another matter. And that’s how I feel about acting. Does everyone bring different levels of readiness to meet the challenges of vulnerability and spontaneity that acting calls for? Sure. But then the question becomes: what will they DO with whatever they have been given.

Make no mistake. Acting is VERY challenging. I think that is one of the things that pretty much everyone who darkens my door comes to grasp. It’s the ones who decide, for whatever reason, to soldier on in the face of that grasped difficulty, that grow, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.

Aesop wasn’t kidding about that slow and steady stuff.

It may take 10,000 hours to get to be a jedi knight. But as another wise man once said, the journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step.

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the Hawthorne effect

I was looking at The Economist online, because I like the cover for this week’s issue so much, and I happened upon an article that I thought bears pretty interestingly on a lot of things we talk about in class. Basically, experiments were conducted in which changes of various kinds were made in the environment of one group of workers, and not in that of another. The results were kind of surprising:

The experimenters concluded that it was not the changes in physical conditions that were affecting the workers’ productivity. Rather, it was the fact that someone was actually concerned about their workplace, and the opportunities this gave them to discuss changes before they took place.

The man who conducted the experiment, who went on to teach industrial research at Harvard, said it this way:

The desire to stand well with one’s fellows, the so-called human instinct of association, easily outweighs the merely individual interest and the logic of reasoning upon which so many spurious principles of management are based.

“The desire to stand well with one’s fellows”, i.e. respect. In all of the scene work we do in the class, we see how the desire for respect is a core need for all of us, and how even while working towards long term goals as a characters, we always have one eye on the quantum of respect that can be won or lost at each moment.

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