In 2015, I received a commission from the Goethe Institut Los Angeles, which is the cultural wing of the German consulate, to translate a play by the writer Peter Handke that had never before been translated into English. The English title of the play is Subterranean Blues, with a nod to Bob Dylan. I’ll be reading the play aloud with two other actors on June 13th at 7 PM. Full information here.
AWAS alumni have been doing some incredible things lately. Here are some of them:
Evan Bittencourt shot a major role in a film called Ideal Home, with Paul Rudd and Steve Coogan, debuting this spring. He also did a guest star appearance on the late Bill Paxton’s series Training Day on CBS.
I read a nonsensical post on an industry website telling actors they should be afraid of classes that make them work with scene partners (the HORROR!), because their scene partner will flake on them, and also because partnering people to work on scenes is a scam acting teachers use to double their class sizes and profits. I’m not going to link to this disquisition, for reasons which I hope are obvious. But I was provoked by it into articulating what is valuable about working with a scene partner. Valuable, and often deeply satisfying. So, let’s get to it!
Learning to act is learning to get your attention off of yourself, and onto another person (a scene partner!). This was Stanislavsky’s fundamental insight, and it is crucially important to this day. People enter acting classes thinking that what they will be doing in their work is showing emotion, and, not surprisingly, that’s how they go about the work. A good teacher, regardless of the technique taught, will challenge this misconception at every turn, and help students understand that they must learn to put their attention on their partner, and keep it there. This is not easy, because it means giving up the ability to manage your own self-presentation. You can’t pay attention to your partner and watch yourself at the same time. It’s an act of surrender, and requires courage and faith. And guess what? Having a partner to focus on helps with this process. That’s why every acting class I was in at the Yale School of Drama taught acting using two-person scenes, not monologues! And this is why I think it’s pedagogically suspect to teach acting using monologues. It’s not that it can’t be done, but it’s a very tricky business, since with monologues you’re trying to get someone to put their attention on someone who isn’t even there! A scene, any scene, is about a relationship. Having a partner is helpful in exploring having a relationship. Capiche?
Film, television and theater are collaborative art forms. In rehearsing with a scene partner, you are practicing your skill at collaborating. We all need to learn to balance our own needs and impulses with those of others. This is a lifelong learning process that we all have to continually practice and refine. Having a scene partner allows us to work on that.
With a partner, you have accountability. As creative people, we all face resistance at various points. “The price an artist pays for doing what he wants is that he has to do it”, the writer William Burroughs said. We don’t always feel like doing it. We don’t always want to do it. We procrastinate. We forget. We avoid. And all of this keeps us from moving forward, in our craft and in our career. Having a partner, for whom we have to show up each week, and to whom we have to respond, helps us to keep ourselves honest. A class where everyone works on monologues? I am guessing there will be a whole lot of procrastination going on. Why work by yourself, when you can wait for the teacher to spoon-feed you instructions about how to do the monologue?
A scene partner can be a sounding board. You don’t want a partner who is bossy or overbearing, but someone who you can bounce ideas off of or ask for feedback when you feel like you want it is a good thing.
When you work together with someone on a scene in a committed way, chances are good you come out of it having made a friend. We can all use another friend. Maybe you don’t feel you need to go to acting class to find that, but it doesn’t hurt. And you never know when that friend is going to say to their new agent or manager: hey, I have a friend you should meet! I imagine that such friendships in a class centered on monologues are a bit more…rare.
Like any partnership, scene partnership has its challenges, and can go south if both parties allow it to. As a teacher, I make it very clear that I want the partnerships in the class to work, and I want to know as soon as problems arise. I won’t necessarily get involved immediately; I think it’s best when partners can solve problems between them, but I can coach the partner experiencing the difficulty on how it might be productively addressed. If that doesn’t work, then I am more than willing to intervene to help partners get things on track. But mostly, people are able to work things out between them. It’s when one person is falling short, and the other stays silent about it, that the partnership ends up not working. But in most cases, people work together successfully, learn from each other and support each other, and perhaps complete the experience with a solid new friend. So what’s so awful about that?
One of the central insights of Stanislavsky is that by focusing on the goal(s) of the character in a particular situation, an actor can go a long way towards entering the role and embodying the character’s experience. The term of art for such a goal is an objective. In the approach I teach at AWAS, we think in two types of objectives: we can call these two types of objectives needs and plans. Basically, a character has a need, and from that need, forms a plan about how to get that need met. In my approach, the game is to keep the need primary, and not allow it to be eclipsed by the plan, which is usually easier to spot and simpler to pursue. Pursuing the plan always has to be seen as a means of getting the need met.
One good thing about this approach is that it allows a character (and actor) to adapt to circumstances which change as the script proceeds to change her plan, but to still have a single need which she pursues. It’s perhaps hard to explain why having a single need is valuable, but suffice to say it has tremendous organizing power, ultimately simplifying what an actor needs to focus on in her performance. With this setup, we get to have our cake and eat it too: the ability to change plans affords us flexibility, and the single need grants our work continuity and ultimately integrity.
The question arises, though: what about a situation where a character is conflicted or ambivalent? He wants to have his cake and eat it too, but unhappily for him, in his case, there is no way to have both. How should the actor approach this? The danger here is that the actor becomes focused on his conflicting feelings. In the approach I teach, the only thing approaching a feeling that the actor should focus on is his need. He can have feelings, such as sadness or joy or regret or anger, but he always directs his attention to his need and his plan, and the feelings come and go as they come and go. They are never the appropriate object of his attention.
But in a situation where a character is ambivalent, the temptation can become very strong for an actor to focus on her conflicting feelings. This would be a mistake, and would enmire the actor in a morass of self-consciousness (as focusing on her emotional experience always will). What is the way out of this impasse?
The answer is to take the so-called inner conflict and translate it into an outer one. If someone is conflicted, he is conflicted, ultimately, about what to do. Should I open door number one, or do number two? Should I stay here with you and make the best of it, or go home and lick my wounds over how you have rejected and betrayed me? There is usually some way of seeing an emotional conflict in spatial terms, such as what I have described.
But to give this solution legs, as it were, we need another couple of concepts. One is Uta Hagen’s concept of destination. “The reason for movement is destination!” is her refrain in the chapter of A Challenge for the Actor entitled “Animation”. What she means by this, on first encounter, seems to be the familiar admonition that when an actor moves in a scene, the movement needs to be coupled with an intention to go somewhere in particular, it can’t be an arbitrary movement utterly devoid of purpose. An important insight that helps actors overcome the tendency to wander around the space aimlessly, often as a way of alleviating the discomfort of encounter with the partner or of being watched.
But this is only the beginning of the usefulness of Hagen’s concept of destination. We can talk about destinations “heating up”: as the prospect of physically moving towards a destination becomes more appealing, we say that the destination “heats up”. The actor should start to imagine it as exerting a well-nigh magnetic influence on her physical being, drawing her to the destination in question like the tractor beam from Star Wars.
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Now, back to the actor attempting to act a character’s ambivalence or inner conflict. One side of this conflict is typically: there is something I want from my partner. The other side of this conflict is: nah, this is never going to work with this person (the partner), time to cut my losses and go somewhere else to get my need met. During the scene, as the prospect of going elsewhere begins to look like a better choice, the destination in question “heats up.” The destination in question is often outside the space in which the scene is taking place; in other words, deciding to go towards that destination often involves exiting. Even as that destination heats up, though, the prospect of getting the need met from the current partner remains, so the actor/character finds himself “caught”: he is being pulled, tractor-beam like, toward the destination that is elsewhere, but at the same time, there is still some hope of getting his need met from his partner. So typically, he continues to press the partner to do what would be necessary to meet his need, but as the external destination seems more and more like the better prospect, the “tractor beam” grows stronger and stronger. In this situation, the actor is using Stanislavsky’s notion of the circle of attention, described in the “Concentration of Attention” chapter of An Actor Prepares. The actor’s primary focus will typically be the partner, but the actor has to keep the destination (usually outside the space of the scene) in his awareness, in his circle of awareness. Keeping the destination in the actor’s circle of awareness will start to produce subtle physical changes in the body of the actor: the body will instictively begin to prepare to move: he will shift his weight, and perhaps eventually, start to orient his feet towards going towards the external destination. These changes should not be consciously and deliberately enacted by the actor; rather, they come about instinctively or unconsciously as the negotiation with the partner unfolds and the prospect of going towards the offstage exit becomes more and more appealing.
Ultimately, the character will decide to stay or go, depending on how the exchange with the partner goes, and, ultimately, what the script dictates. But what has been accomplished here is the reframing of an “inner conflict” as an outer one, thus getting the actor’s attention off of herself and her emotional life, and onto the appropriate objects of her concern in the physical world.
In the much-read first chapter from Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting: The First Six Lessons, Boleslavsky says that audiences watching an actor exercising her capacity for concentration correctly should “know and feel immediately” that what that audience is witnessing is more important than whatever concerns that audience members brought into the event with them. The importance of what the actor is undergoing must somehow be made evident by the actor’s engagement in her craft. No small order.
The teachers I encountered at the Yale School of Drama asserted that what makes this effect possible, this immediate recognition on the part of the audience, independent of plot or story elements, is the visceral activation of the actor. If you look up the word “visceral” in the dictionary, you will likely see something like this “pertaining to primitive or elemental emotion”, and indeed, that is what the word means in contemporary usage. But the etymology tells the tale: the word originates with the Latin word viscera, which refers to the digestive tract, the intestines, or, more colloquially, the gut.
Visceral activation means that in some way, the actor’s gut is involved in what he or she is doing. In our approach, this is achieved through working with the notion of objective in a particular way: objective has to be understood as visceral need. I have discussed this distinction at length on this blog, for example, here. But I’d like to say a bit about what the visceral difference looks like and sounds like, that is, what are the signs that such activation has been achieved?
Actors do two things more than anything else: they talk and they listen. When a viscerally activated actor talks, they seem to be speaking from the gut, from the heart, from the core. Perhaps the most evident example of what this is like in the current moment is the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Whatever you think of Donald Trump, he has a reputation for saying what is on his mind and in his heart in a tell-it-like-it-is way. There is an immediacy to the way he speaks, and this is part of what accounts for his appeal. When a viscerally activated actor speaks, he is making use of his abdominal core muscles, most importantly, the transverse abdominis, also known as the “skinny jeans” muscles, the muscles you need to tighten in order to squeeze into skinny jeans. These muscles are deep in the layers of musculature, and they help to stabilize the spine and also interact with the diaphragm. When these muscles are activated as part of the process of verbalizing, the actor appears to be speaking with the intention of impacting the partner: there is a palpable determination to be heard and understood. An audience understands this immediately. And it has nothing to do with projecting or being loud: these muscles can be used when speaking quietly, but the effect is the same: the actor who is activated in this way wants her words to land on her partner, and make something happen.
So much for the talking. The listening of a viscerally- activated actor is a bit more difficult to describe. In the process that I teach, we attempt to articulate a visceral need that the actor can embrace and pursue as a character in a given situation. This need is understood as living in the gut. This means that the actor needs to ground her attention in her gut, right behind the navel. It’s like the actor has an eye or an ear there, right behind the navel, and all of the listening needs to happen from there. This is “listening with the need”. Everything that the partner does is immediately evaluated as either meeting the actor’s visceral need, or refusing to meet it, and this evaluation affects the actor’s next utterance, in the next moment. This is challenging to do, because when an actor does this, she gives up the ability to monitor herself and how she is being perceived by her audience. She can’t watch herself with her awareness placed in her belly, behind her navel. This requires courage, but it is so satisfying for audiences because an actor engaging in this seems utterly sincere and honest.
If you consider all of this in relationship to mirror neurons we can begin to see why a viscerally engaged actor is so rewarding for audiences to watch: when the actor is viscerally activated, then through the mirror neurons of the audience, they feel themselves touched or moved in a very deep place.
Achieving visceral activation, even one time, is quite challenging. Becoming an actor who habitually and instinctively works from the gut is more challenging by orders of magnitude, but is a very worthy goal, as such an actor can bring interest and life to virtually any script. An awesome power, to be sure. Like any awesome power, it comes with great responsibility.