free things you can do for your acting

Everybody goes through times when there isn’t a lot of broccoli in the crisper, for whatever reason.  But that’s no reason to stop doing work to develop yourself as an actor.  Here are some terrific things you can do to feed your creative soul or hone your craft while you’re waiting for the financial picture to change.

  1. Read.  Acting is about bringing the word to pulsing, transfixing life.  So getting to know said written word better is never a bad idea.  Read books about acting, read biographies of actors. read great novels, read pulp novels, read poetry, read the newspaper.  There are plenty of options.  But in our media-saturated world, spending some time reading is never a bad idea, and if helps you develop your sensitivity to the extraordinary expressive power of language, that’s even better.
  2. Study the Alexander Technique.  Wait, what?  I thought you said this was a list of free stuff?  The Alexander Technique is pricey high-end body-mind integration training.  How do I get it for free?  Well, it happens that there is an Alexander Technique Training Institute in Los Angeles, where people train to become teachers of the Alexander Technique.  And such institutes often need people to serve as subjects for the teachers-in-training to practice on.  So give them a call, and offer them the use of your body for their pedagogical purposes.  There’s a good chance you’ll learn invaluable things about said body, for a song.
  3. Meditate.  Practice the fine art of paying attention.  There are all kinds of places to learn to meditate in Los Angeles.  Here is one of my favorites, but there are many others.
  4. Study Pilates.  What does Pilates have to do with my acting? Well, acting as I teach it involves what Pilates people call core awareness. The actor’s awareness should rest in the abdominal core, in order to achieve true visceral activation and the radiance that comes with it.  Pilates is a great way to work on that, because Pilates is about learning to use your abdominal core muscles in everything you do.  Literally: everything.  There are lots of how-to videos on Youtube, such as this one.
  5. Journal.  “It’s so funny, you go to acting school thinking you’re going to learn how to be other people, but really it taught me how to be myself. Because it’s in understanding yourself deeply that you can lend yourself to another person’s circumstances and another person’s experience.”–Lupita Nyong’o
    So get going!  Writing a journal is a great way to develop intimacy with yourself, an invaluable asset for an actor.
  6. Read aloud.  Pick up some Shakespeare.  Pick up some poetry that speaks to you.  Read it aloud.  Read it to yourself.  Read it to your dog.  Read it to your roommate.  Read it to anyone who will listen.  Savor the sounds of the words and the rhythm of the sentences.
  7.  Improv.  Look on Meetup for an Improv group near you, and join in the fun.
  8. Make a game out of being rejected.  Like this guy.  There will never be any shortage of people to reject you.  If you have the nerve to do this one, your future as an actor looks bright.
  9. Go to the zoo.  Ok, this one isn’t quite free.  But if you can scrape together $20, there are worse ways to spend it.  Studying and learning to imitate animals is a hallowed form of actor training, and is wonderful for shedding inhibitions and exploring physical possibilities.

I’m sure there are others, and I’ll add them as I think of them.  But there should be some things here to get you started.

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.

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.

(more…)

on stiffness, or, the only way out is through

“You’re stiff.”

It’s one sentence that no actor wants to hear. It’s not a sentence that I ever would use, as a director or a teacher. I would find a way to come at the problem by giving the actor something to pursue or attend to that might free them up. But how I would address a problem like that is not what I am setting out to discuss tonight. I want to talk about the problem itself, and how the actor can address it.

The obvious thing that an actor might do, upon being made aware of such a liability, that is, the stiffness and paralysis that performance anxiety can engender, is to try to relax. But this effort is probably futile. Even if the actor succeeds in letting go of the stiffness by willing herself to relax, and that’s a big if, since often we aren’t even aware of the muscular tension producing the stiffness, but even if the actor can activate her volition to remedy the tension in question, her attention is then on herself and her own neuromuscular condition, and her attention is not engaged with the imaginary world of the scene when that is the case. This can, paradoxically, mean that her self-consciousness is heightened. An actor who has been instructed to “relax” may succeed in relaxing, but the self-consciousness that the effort to relax provokes can interfere with her acting in a profoundly unsatisfying way.

If she succeeds in relaxing, but then turns her attention back to what is rightfully primary for her in her scene, that is, her partner and the world of the scene, chances are good that the achieved relaxation will evaporate and the tension will return. Acting requires engagement, and that means muscular engagement. Unfortunately, the untrained actor will not have the coordination to engage only the muscles he needs and no others to accomplish a given action. So when he goes to engage in the playing of the scene, he will most probably do a lot of unnecessary engaging as well, summoning the stiffness we have all seen so much of.

What is the solution? There is no magic bullet. There is no royal road to graceful, fluid, expressive movement. Stiffness, or lack of physical freedom, is a problem that needs to be attacked on a number of fronts at once. One extremely valuable modality for dealing with habitual physical tension is the Alexander technique. The Alexander technique is an approach to coaching ourselves physically, based on a set of commands that we can give ourselves, to help ourselves move through our lives, and that includes our acting, with greater ease, efficiency, awareness and freedom. Sounds good, right? It is. It’s great. But like any practice, it requires great investment to reap great benefit from it. That’s not a reason not to do it; I think every actor should study the Alexander technique. But it is by no means a quick fix.

In some sense, it also addresses only part of the issue at hand. A significant part, but a part, no less. The Alexander technique is really a meta-technique; it’s a technique to use to help you execute some other technique in an optimal way. When you study the Alexander technique, you typically use simple movements like sitting in a chair or walking across the room to practice. But what happens when you are trying to engage a technique for something more complicated, like ballroom dancing or karate, or, say, acting? The Alexander technique would be invaluable for all of these things, but we only have so much psychic bandwidth, and so attention we are giving to coaching ourselves through the Alexander commands is bandwidth we can’t devote to the activity in question. As actors, we want to be able to be fully engaged in our acting and move in a fluid and optimal way.

Practice goes a long way towards making this happen, but I believe that it is best for actors to take up some other physical practice, such as dance or martial arts, so that they can work at being physically engaged (which dance or martial arts certainly require) and practice making use of the cultivated physical relaxation of the Alexander technique at one and the same time. Acting could also be that physical practice, but ultimately, with your acting, you want to be able to become completely absorbed in the scene, in what you need, and in how you are trying to affect your partners. In performance, you really want the Alexander work to be a habit that your muscles have acquired, not something that requires much awareness while you are doing it. So having a physical practice to engage in simultaneously with the Alexander technique gives you a context in which you are engaging physically and fully, and in which you can do the conscious work of maintaining Alexander awareness and freedom while being physically engaged. That way, when you act, this optimal way of moving is effectively second nature, something that requires your awareness only occasionally.

The truth is that relaxation is only half the battle when it comes to fending off stiffness for the actor. The problem is resolved, or shall we say dissolved, when the actor can engage parts of herself that are needed, and maintain openness and ease everywhere else. As Hamlet puts it, in the Advice to the Players:

for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness…

Acting inevitably involves entering into extreme situations, situations where you may have to, in the world of the play, confront a lover who has betrayed you, or commit acts of violence. You cannot act these situations well if your body is wracked with tension, but neither can you act them well if you fail to enter into the extremity of the moment, if you, so to speak, “underplay it”. To act well, the actor must always engage the abdominal core, the Pilates core, among the most powerful constellation of muscles in the body, but maintain relaxation elsewhere. The Alexander technique is great, but for it to really serve you as an actor in such moments of sound and fury, of Sturm und Drang, you have to have the virtuosity, yes, the virtuosity, to be able to continuously re-engage the abdominal core and maintain the relaxation elsewhere. No mean feat, to say the least. If you lose either value, your acting will be significantly marred.

There is a saying: the only way out is through. It has different meanings in different contexts, but in this discussion, it means that stiffness can only be fully addressed in situations that provoke stiffness. That’s why activities like dance and martial arts are the best arena for developing this ability to be simultaneously engaged and relaxed: they require full physical exertion, which can promote excessive tension, so if you can find the ease and grace in doing that, then you will likely be able to bring that balance to your acting as well.

There is another way in which the problem of stiffness can be attacked that I alluded to near the beginning of this piece, which I have written about at length here. The premise of this proceeds from Uta Hagen’s essay “Animation” in her book A Challenge for the Actor. Her basic point is that what animates the actor’s body, what keeps it from being captured by stiffness, is intentionality, or, as we would say it in my acting tradition, need. At any given moment, the actor, as the Who-Am-I, has both desired outcomes and outcomes they wish to avoid, “nightmare” scenarios. In the process of receiving off of the world, we constantly measure which way the wind is blowing, what we are expecting to transpire, and what (physical) action we await or may need to prevent. Becoming clear about these contingencies is something we do instinctively as people, not so much as actors pretending to be other people. The more clear we are in a scene about what we may be expecting, promoting or preventing in the way of immediate physical outcomes, the more our body will automatically prepare for these developments, and will hence be animated and not stiff. Stiffness arises from the feeling that you ought be doing something, together with a lack of clarity about what is to be done. The more clear you are about what you might need to do, the more your body will instinctively arrange itself accordingly.

The actor needs to work to develop fluidity and expressiveness in her movements on both fronts at once, that is, to play both ends against the middle. He needs to study the Alexander technique and another physical discipline to develop the coordination to be engaged and relaxed simultaneously as needed, and in his acting work he needs to heighten his awareness of his physical environment and the outcomes that may unfold within that environment at each moment, so that the body knows what it is supposed to do. By working on both of these fronts at once, the marriage of mind and body in the actor comes ever closer to consummation.

Uranium Madhouse Associate Artist: Ben Miller

A tremendous addition to the Uranium Madhouse crew is Alexander technique master Ben Miller:


Ben Miller is the only AmSAT certified Alexander Technique teacher in Southern California who also holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Performance Pedagogy — the art of teaching actors. As such, he is uniquely qualified to assist actors in developing their craft and increasing their emotional fluidity. Ben resides and teaches the Alexander Technique in Los Angeles. In addition to his private teaching studio, he has taught the Alexander Technique in New York, London and Berlin. He has taught workshops for the Pasadena Playhouse’s resident company, Furious Theatre, as well as The Five Willows in Lincoln, NE. Ben has taught acting and/or the Alexander Technique at the following schools: Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, Los Angeles. Pomona College, Claremont, CA, USC (assisting Babette Markus). Point Park University, Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh, Ben recently served as Associate Producer in charge of casting and assayed the role of Don on the independent full-length feature, “American Macho Buddha” (www.americanmachobuddha.com). He was also the casting director and inhabited the character of Rowan in “The Resurrection Man” (www.resurrectionmanmovie.com). Ben is also a member of Actors Equity Association and Screen Actors Guild. He served on the nominating committee for the Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2004 and 2009. Ben currently serves as the Treasurer on the Executive Committee for the American Society of the Alexander Technique (AmSAT).

Ben is an also experienced writer, producer and director.

Welcome Ben!

Andrew Wood Acting Studio

knowing when you’ve got it going on (and when you don’t!)

Teachers of the Alexander technique talk about something called the “kinesthetic” or “proprioceptive” sense (“proprio” like “appropriate”):

The Alexander Technique educates the student’s sense of kinesthesia or proprioception. This sense is used to internally calibrate one’s own bodily location, weight and to judge the effort necessary for moving. The Alexander Technique also educates how to more fully carry intent into action with reasoning and constructive thinking techniques. These may demand a re-evaluation of the priority and value of motives that drove the goal-setting of past habits that the student must resolve. All Alexander teachers advocate the value of effortlessness and practical structure.

Turns out that in modern life, it’s easy for the kinesthetic sense, the sense of how your body is supposed to align and move in a concerted way, to get out of whack:

Alexander Technique teachers believe that humans have a built-in proprioceptive blind spot: people become habituated to repetitive motions. Repetitious circumstances lead people to create habits as they adapt and learn. These habits are both deliberate and non-deliberate responses that include physical movement patterns, coping and learning strategies. The advantage of adapting is that behavior and learning becomes simplified; it becomes possible to meet a given stimulus or interpretation of circumstances with a ready-made reaction. As a person adds one habit onto another, the disadvantage is they may train themselves to also repeat unintentional side effects – the tension, over-compensation and cumulative stress that the Alexander Technique addresses.

Adapting has a further serious drawback: habits diminish sensation. Using the habit decreases the importance of paying attention to perceptual differences. Also, sensory systems can flood from accommodating too many contradicting habits and intentions. From disuse or flooding, perceptual sensitivity shuts down and eventually becomes dull and untrustworthy, just as skin becomes numb if the same spot is rubbed. Loss of perceptual awareness encourages mistaken interpretations for the need to choose a particular response. In a panic, all opposing habits can fire off at once, pulling in all directions, sometimes without the person noticing it has happened.

So with all of the traumas and adversity that we encounter in growing up and growing into modern life, our sense of how our body fits together and what it feels like when it’s moving efficiently can become, well, something we can’t rely on.

This is also true of our “acting” sense, or, without wanting to get too pious about it, our “sense of truth”. Most of us don’t survive childhood with our ability to abandon ourselves to play and pretending intact, and with the ability to gauge the fullness of the leap we have made. As actors, most of us need to develop that sense through our training. We need to have the experience of getting in touch with our own needs and bringing those needs to bear on the fictional situation of another. Then we need to have it again, and again, and again. Over time, if we do that with the guidance of someone who can help us achieve that, we will begin to acquire a sense of what it feels like to be plugged into our own need and vulnerability on the one hand, and simultaneously present and responsive to our partner on the other.

As actors we hear a lot about “being in our heads”, and we know that “in our heads” is not where we want to be. True, but this can also be a little misleading. An actor can be fully engaged in what they are doing with their body, their breath, and their voice, and have some “chatter” going on in their minds about how well the scene is going or some mistake that was just made or some tough moment that is coming up. This is entirely normal, and just because we have such thoughts does not necessarily mean that we are “in our heads”. That commentary is going to be there most of the time. It becomes troublesome when we allow it to distract us and worry us. If we can let it be without being phased by it, it probably won’t land us “in our heads.”

When I meet with prospective students, I have a set speech, my “spiel”, that I do about the class. I make a point of connecting with the student as I do the spiel, making eye contact and using the sounds of the words to create the images I want to create for the student. Sometimes, as I am speaking about some topic pertaining to the class during the spiel, some thought about something a student said or did in class in the preceding week will be triggered, and a whole train of thought will embark, even as I continue talking. However, my body “knows” how to do this speech; I have been doing it for five years. When I eventually shake off the full train of thought and return my full concentration to the person I am speaking to, I see that he or she is unwavering in their attention, and fully engaged in taking in what I am saying and processing it. They have not registered at all that my mind was momentarily elsewhere. It’s not that I was “mechanically” saying the words, because I was sustaining the eye contact and continuing to say the words meaningfully. My “self”, in the sense of Alexander titling his book “The Use of the Self”, was fully engaged in interacting with my interlocutor even as my mind was momentarily elsewhere. The fact that my mind was momentarily distracted meant nothing about my engagement with the person I was speaking to.

Other times, the thought that arises while I am speaking becomes so powerful and compelling that I do become distracted, and when I am supposed to move from one subject to the next, I instead stop briefly and stare into space. I then shake it off and return to the task at hand. In this case, what my mind was doing was definitely interfering, but that was the exception, not the rule. The thing that had occurred to me had to be very compelling indeed to take me away from talking to a prospective student about a class. And so it is with the “chatter” that goes on in an actor’s head: that it’s there is not a problem; it’s only a problem when we allow it come on. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, as the man said.

As we achieve greater degrees of absorption in the role we are playing, the chatter may recede, and we will have more thoughts appropriate to the character we are playing. But we don’t control our thoughts entirely, although we can direct them. That’s one of the things that makes spontaneity possible. But because we don’t control them fully, we can’t assume that because they don’t always pertain to the world of the scene, but rather, often, to how we think the scene is going, that we are necessarily “in our heads”. That’s simply not what “in our heads” means.

I think I’m going to leave it there for now.

Guest Post: Tension—not too much, not too little

I am a proud evangelizer of the Alexander Technique as a way for actors to develop greater body-mind integration. I asked Bay Area Alexander teacher Constance Clare to write a piece on how she uses the Alexander technique to work with actors. Here it is!–Andrew

When I teach the Alexander Technique to an actor, the student and I choose which aspect of the work to focus on.

The most common starting point is teaching the student how to come to a balanced neutral. Not too much tension, and not too little. Just the right amount of tension creates a lively, dynamic state of being.

Cultivating this dynamic neutral usually means that the student needs to “relax” some parts of herself and enliven other parts. Most people have habits and patterns of posture, movement, gesture, breath and voice that are out of balance.

As the student and I explore the student’s “postural set” we find out where the bones are mis-aligned and where the muscles, tendons and ligaments can release out of either tightening or collapsing. We look in the mirror to see the postural set and how it changes with my hands-on guidance. As muscles release into length and lively tone, the bones find a more efficient balance. It’s typical for students to feel “weird” or like they are almost falling forward when they come out of their habitual postural pattern. Often when I ask about that feeling, it’s a “good weird” or a “floaty falling” sensation.

The use of hands is one way that an Alexander lesson is different from other methods or techniques in actor training. As the student learns to refine her kinesthetic and proprioceptive senses, she is able to work with the principles on her own. But at first the teacher’s hands help the student understand the teacher’s verbal guidance, and help her actually experience her own proprioceptive sensations.

As students progress, we work on releasing excess tension in action. Here’s a typical example:

Mark is learning a role that requires anger and upset. As Mark goes over his lines for the first time in his Alexander lesson, he pushes his face forward and contracts his jaw and neck muscles. He is over-acting because he is over-efforting. His lines are strong enough; he doesn’t need the extra tension. The tension causes his voice to rise. The tension in his face and jaw make his expression look forced.

I suggest that he try the lines while staying in a more neutral state, as I use my hands to help him notice what he is doing muscularly with his neck and jaw. I suggest that he let the lines evoke some of that anger in him, but not force it.

This time, Mark’s voice is fuller, he becomes more intimidating as he retains his stature and his strength without contracting. Dynamic tension is there, but it is there in the right amount.

Another common Alexander lesson is in the realm of excess preparation before an activity. Before speaking or moving, actors will often “prepare” themselves by contracting and “getting ready”—thereby coming out of their neutral state.

Marla is working on a new monologue. Marla begins from a dynamic neutral state of being ready for action, but whenever Marla starts to speak, the area just under her skull at the top of her neck contracts. As I work with Marla, I put my hands gently on the back of her neck, where most people have excess tension. My hands helps her to notice when the muscles contract. Marla practices not tensing as she begins to speak. She continues to notice the area under her skull and can begin feel it tense even when my hands are not there.

I have her practice speaking without any concern for what her words mean. She counts to ten. Marla needs to soften and slow down so much that she feels like she is slurring, but we get her to make sounds without activating those necks muscles. I then have her practice normal conversation. She slows down to about 70% of her normal speaking pace, and I encourage her to allow her skull to be mobile as her neck remains free of extra tension as she speaks. When her neck muscles are too tense, her skull won’t move. When she has released some of the tension, she lets her head move freely.

When we progress to speaking her lines, Marla once again goes back to tensing her neck. And now she adds a new habit—she takes a short, quick breath each time she begins.

We go back to not-tensing, and not-preparing, and this time we bring in not-gasping before the speaking. Because we’ve now been working on releasing tension while speaking, working with the breath is easier. As Marla practices not adding the extra effort of the quick intake, she continues to allow her head to float easily, her neck muscles to be long and lively, her jaw to be easy and mobile. It is a lot to think about! Changing ingrained habits takes time, but more than that, it takes awareness and clarity of intention.

Marla now can speak her lines without excess tension, and her whole state of being shows the change. Her voice is clear and not rushed or raised. The lack of excess tension and effort shows in her spontaneous choice to move with her lines, which excites her. With more openness, she feels a fuller expression and more freedom as she explores her role.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio

the actor and GTD


In my travels through the twittersphere (I just made that up!), I kept seeing this acronym pop up: GTD. I had no idea what it meant. I imagined it was some type of software that required special skills to operate. Well, I was wrong. GTD stands for Getting Things Done. It’s an approach to, well, getting things done. The core principle is summarized by wikipedia:

GTD rests on the principle that a person needs to move tasks out of the mind by recording them externally. That way, the mind is freed from the job of remembering everything that needs to be done, and can concentrate on actually performing those tasks.

When I read this, it resonated immediately. One of the most important things I have ever done was a year of private lessons in the Alexander Technique. I worked with this remarkable instructor. She noticed my occasional “absent-minded professor” tendencies, and suggested that I get a planner to carry with me, so that I could record things I needed to do as they arose. She explained that this would reduce the mental strain involved in my day-to-day existence. I took her advice, and found she was right. Things were much easier when I knew that I had recorded things. I knew I had the information SOMEWHERE, so there was no pressure to keep it all in my head. I felt free to be more present.

Another example: when I am watching students do a scene in class, and I write down notes as I do. Sometimes, I will notice something very minor: a slight error in the lines spoken, or some of the actor’s hair getting in her face. The hair is actually kind of important, because if it continues to distract me as I watch the actor, I am less effective as an instructor. Also, if the student is not made aware of the issue, she will eventually get up in front of people when the scene is presented at the end of the class with her hair getting in her face a bit, and this will distract everyone trying to watch her work. It’s not significant in terms of her craft as an actor, but it does constitute an intrusion of sorts. I used to find myself having little debates with myself about whether to write such things down. After all, while I was writing this down, I would not be watching the actors, and so I would be missing out on some other possibly much more significant part of her work or her partner’s work. But I have learned that no matter how minor the issue, the best thing to do is to write it down immediately. By writing it down, I let the issue go, for the moment at least. This frees me to return with a clear mind to what is happening in the scene. If I don’t write the issue down, then it will continue to nag at me, and I will be less fully available to what I am looking at. And if I do write it down, I can address it once the scene is over, and hopefully it won’t be there to distract me the next to time through.

A third example from my own experience: I try to keep the production of content for this blog pretty steady. However, I never know when ideas for posts are going to come to me, and I also never know I am going to get to the actual writing. But as soon as an idea occurs to me, I go to my blogger dashboard and I create a new post. Possibly it will just be a title or a title and a link, but then I have a placeholder for it. I can come back and actually write the piece when I am ready to do so. I can come back to it whenever I need to. And my unconscious knows that too. It knows it can let go of that issue for the moment, and move onto new things, which will, we hope, lead to new ideas being generated.

What does this have to do with the actor? Well, in the approach that I present in the class, the process begins with a careful, thorough study of the text, to attempt to glean as much information as possible about the character from what the writer has provided. There is a framework for organizing this information as it is collected, called the “Who-am-I” or the Five Questions. Interestingly, this is very close to the first phase of the GTD work sequence. According to wikipedia:

The notion of stress-free productivity starts with off-loading what needs to get done from one’s head, capturing everything that is necessary to track, remember, or take action on, into what Allen calls a bucket: a physical inbox, an email inbox, a tape recorder, a notebook, a PDA, a desktop, etc. The idea is to get everything out of one’s head and into a collection device, ready for processing. All buckets should be emptied (processed) at least once per week.

Allen doesn’t advocate any preferred collection method, leaving the choice to the individual. He only insists upon the importance of emptying the “buckets” regularly. Any storage space (physical inbox, email inbox, tape recorder, notebook, PDA, etc.) that is processed regularly by the individual is acceptable.

It’s of course essential that the actor actually WRITE DOWN the information that she is gleaning from the text. No matter how much I stress that, though, both explicitly and by example, it’s often difficult to see the importance of doing that up front. It’s only later in the process that assuming that “Yeah, I read the play, I know what happens, I don’t need to write it out” has consequences, and the need for discipline and exhaustiveness at this phase is made indisputably clear.

The benefits of writing down the information are manifold: first of all, by engaging in the physical act of writing, the body is engaged, and this begins the process of transforming textual information into experience grasped in a bodily, physical way. Once it is written, the actor can look at it, and this may trigger valuable questions or intuitions. That particular bit of information is then out of her head, and she is then fully receptive to other pieces of information. She can move through all of the scattered information in the text that may be relevant in a somewhat linear way, dealing with one issue at a time, and placing it in a “bucket” where it can be found easily later.

The hardest part of all of this, probably, is the fact that you don’t necessarily see the payback right away. But it is precisely this recognition, that learning to act well involves sustained work over time, which doesn’t always immediately result in a payoff, that is the beginning of the actor taking command of her own working process.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio
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