Andrew Wood, MFA, Yale School of Drama • Call Today To Schedule a Free Informational Session With Andrew Wood! (323) 836-2176

the scene partner experience

 

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?

 

working loose, working tight

Someone recommended Jon Jory’s book to me, Ideas for Directors. On the one hand, I had been taught, by a certain mentor who shall remain nameless, to smile derisively at the notion that books had anything to teach about the art of directing a play. And to some extent, that’s actually a healthy attitude. To the extent that directing (or acting) can be taught at all, such teaching depends on the right-here-right-now immediacy of the classroom, and no matter how good a book is, it can’t give you that.

That said, I did encounter William Ball’s book A Sense of Direction a few decades ago, and I learned a lot from it. I still didn’t find much in it that in any way communicated what I had learned from the great classroom experiences I had had, but I did discover some new perspectives on things that had never really been a part of my classroom directing experiences. It was, in fact, extremely valuable. So when someone suggested Jon Jory’s book, I decided to give it a look.

I haven’t read it cover-to-cover, but it’s not really designed to be read that way, I don’t think. It’s more like a loosely organized compendium of brief meditations on various aspects of a director’s work. One distinction that I came across that resonated with me was his notion of “working loose” versus “working tight”.

Working loose means giving the actor input that helps her get oriented towards a scene, such as important aspects of the circumstances, or significant objectives that they might pursue as the character in the scene. The idea is that the actor will take this input and then explore it in rehearsing the scene, without any fine-grained, moment-to-moment, line-by-line input from the director. As the director, you’re directing the actor’s attention to certain key elements, and then letting her run with those. Ideally, much of the rehearsal process would get accomplished in this way, with the director providing input about creative priorities, and the actor exploring and discovering through the process of rehearsing.

Working tight means rolling up your sleeves, as a director, and giving actors that fine-grained direction that you avoid providing when you are working loose. “The important word in that line is xxx.” “Don’t turn back until you have finished saying xxx.” “Let him have it with that line!” “You don’t need a pause there.” While it might sound intrusive, Jory points out that when it is done well, most actors actually appreciate this kind of input. It’s almost a type of grooming, and most actors know that a director with a good eye and a way with words can help them in ways that they can’t do themselves.

Directing is different from teaching, but there is an analogous distinction in the acting classroom. In my Essentials class, I don’t actually “work tight” with students at all until the second time they put a scene up. The first time they put their scene up, I grill them (yes, grill them) on the given circumstances of the scene, and on what they have found to pursue as the character, based on those circumstances. Usually, this amounts to exposing (kindly and respectfully) holes in the student’s preparation (hey, if there were no holes, they likely wouldn’t need the class). The hope is that once the student fills in those holes, through a closer look at the text and the application of imagination in the appropriate ways, the next time they bring in the scene, the closing of said holes will have made a significant difference in their work.

Sadly, this is rare. The first time through the class, students don’t really know, yet, what it means to have something to pursue, what it means to actually pursue that something, what “throwing the ball” or playing an action means, how to sustain the playing of an action rather than simply following the vicissitudes of the dialogue, the difference between responding and reacting, the importance of eye contact, etc. Without all of that information, it’s very difficult (though not impossible, with heart and effort), to begin to know how to apply the insights gained when getting up the first time, the insights about the circumstances and what the actor needs to pursue in the scene, the “working loose” insights.

Even students who are not taking the class for the first time, or students in my advanced class, often have a hard time taking the “working loose”-type insights and translating them into choices about the scene, and then fulfilling those choices. The ability to move from understanding to action involves quite a few different skills, and if one of those skills is still undeveloped, then this will likely be a barrier to translating that understanding into implementation, into choices and fulfillment of choices. So why bother with working loose, in classroom setting? Because to do otherwise would be an injustice to the actor. It’s important that they begin to build some skill in understanding where strong choices come from, and how a text can be successfully mined for these choices, even if they still have lots of practice (and failure, what Wittgenstein called “bumping one’s head”) ahead of them before they can do that mining successfully and translate it into strong choices that they can actually execute and fulfill. Working tight with them without first teaching them at least the basics of where to find the insights that are foundational for their work amounts to spoon-feeding, and while it may lead to results more quickly, it leaves the actor with little or no understanding of how those results came about. The experience of doing good work, of fulfilling a scene, is powerful, and not to be dismissed. But in the best of circumstances, the student has that experience AND gains some understanding of where the thinking that underlies that good work comes from, so that they begin to be able to do some of that thinking themselves, and can start to see how that thinking (the framing of the scene based on circumstances) enables them to do the good work they are doing.

Call it playing both ends against the middle. With time and practice, those ends get less and less far apart, and the student actor, nourished by both approaches, can perhaps find true freedom in the craft.

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?

(more…)

“But where does the emotion come from?”

I was giving an overview of my approach to a group of students at a local acting school. Near the end of my talk, a student who had had a bit of a Strasberg background raised her hand and posed the question that gives this post its title.

As a student of the Strasberg approach, she had been taught that she needed to use emotional memory to infuse a scene with vitality and interest. Without the actor’s own experience, the scene would be devoid of feeling and therefore of interest, she apparently thought.

At that moment, since all I was doing was giving an overview of my approach, there was little I could do to respond beyond reiterate some of the points that I had already made: namely, that we all have a hunger for connection and meaningful relationship, and that what we would attempt to do was to bring that need to bear on the imaginary circumstances of the character. But I knew that, especially given her beliefs about what it took for a scene to come to life, this wasn’t going to mean much to her. All I could do was assure her that over the course of the class I was beginning to teach with them, she would come to understand what I was talking about. Trust me, in other words.

With this group of students, I was beginning with a so-called “neutral scene”. This is a familiar enough acting class assignment: students have to play a scene with no help from the text or dialogue, which was comprised of utterances such as “Okay–Please—” and “Come on!”. I have a particular way of working with the neutral scene that requires students to invent a fully developed scenario, with characters that have rich pasts and dreams for the future, and also have activities in the present situation that they can pursue independently of the scene partner. It’s a challenging exercise that takes students a few weeks to complete, from scenario generation to approval of the final presentation.

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lies, damn lies and hollywood acting teachers

You may have noticed the redesign of the homepage, not to mention the new business name. In the course of effecting this transformation, I looked around at the way some of my competitors are marketing themselves. And some are doing a terrific job. But I did see one thing that gave me pause.

I saw studios that make such promises as that their approach to training will make acting “easy” and “fun”. In some cases, they went on to glibly ridicule the great approaches to acting that evolved in the last century or so, as if they were talking about some dated hairstyle that now seems both disastrously misguided and quaint at the same time. I found the level of disrespect and outright mendacity here nothing short of breathtaking.

What makes it so awful is that there is a part of all of us that wants things to be easy, but this part is not the part that acquires stamina, builds careers, and finds the faith it takes to confront adversity. Assertions that acting can be easy fosters the wrong part of those who are drawn to it.

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an inconvenient truth

“Athletes, dancers, and singers never outgrow their need for the basic conditioning that makes their crafts possible. Neither do actors.”

–John Gronbeck-Tedesco, Acting Through Exercises

Suppose your dream were to become a concert pianist. How many years of daily practice would you expect to put in before attempting to appear publicly as a pianist? 5? 10? It will depend to some degree on your inborn ability, but as Malcolm Gladwell and Gary Marcus and Josh Waitzkin have suggested, it actually depends more on time, diligence and a sustained focus on getting better at what you do.

But no one, I would venture to say, would take piano lessons for three months or six months or a year or even two years and then attempt to present themselves to the public as a concert pianist. It would be inconceivable, and, barring a true prodigy, an adventure doomed to end in failure, not to say humilation.

So where am I going with this? An actor should not put themselves out there to appear in a film, play, webisode, or whatever, until they have taken five years of classes? I wouldn’t presume to say that. Such projects, if you can get them, can be learning experiences. Although as I have written about previously, production situations are not always conducive to the actor working in a process-oriented way. There is a lot of pressure to produce results than can lead to shortcuts being taken, shortcuts that can compromise the final product. More dangerously, these shortcuts can become habits, habits that can eventually become “bags of tricks”, ways of being that actors rely on to avoid having to deal with the newness and strangeness of the material and the situation they find themselves confronted with. Real-world experience can be great, but there is also a danger that in the hurlyburly of production ideals and values fall by the wayside in the rush to get to the finish line.

So, the answer, quite simply, is to keep studying. Book a project? Great! Can you keep studying while you do it? Have you looked closely to determine if there is a way you can stay in class, thus staying connected to the sources of your values and priorities as an actor? I was impressed with the desire of actors in the last play I directed to stay in class even while they were in the midst of a demanding rehearsal schedule. These actors knew that it’s enormously valuable to keep reflecting on their work and the values and distinctions that define it, even as they worked on a production. But maybe the schedule is such that you can’t keep studying. What can you do? Study the Alexander Technique? Most AT teachers will let you schedule one-on-one sessions at your convenience. What about some voice work with a Fitzmaurice-trained teacher? What about some movement training? In short, anything that keeps you open and looking at things in new ways will help you stay connected to your commitment to do the best work you are capable of.

But as soon as the project is over, what should you do? If you’re serious, you get back into class. You need to reconnect with basic principles, to re-embrace your commitment to process and growth and continuity in your artistic work, to going beyond what you already know and can do. If you are an actor who is also an artist, you find a way to act whether or not anyone wants to pay you to do it or provide you with an unpaid opportunity to do it at this particular moment. You act because it is a form of attesting to the wonderful meaningfulness of everything, and this attesting gives your own life meaning. Complacency is totally incompatible with being an artist.

For an actor who is an artist, finish lines and sabbaticals are anathema. You keep going.

That is all.

18 reasons to take acting class at Andrew Wood

1. to get to know a piece of dramatic writing really well, even intimately
2. to enjoy the challenge of learning a craft alongside others
3. to remember how much fun it is to play
4. to work towards being more available emotionally
5. to make new, enduring friendships
6. to learn more about character and story, and what makes them resonant
7. to tap into your core vitality, and learn to tap into it at will
8. to puzzle over a scene and eventually get to the bottom of it
9.to read a whole lot of stuff about creativity and process and how it works and why
10. to benefit from the wisdom and insight of a whole lineage of teachers going back to Stanislavsky
11. to be introduced to the Alexander technique, a body-mind approach to moving through your life with greater ease and presence
12. to build skill and confidence in expressing yourself publicly
13. to develop the skill of empathy
14. to derive satisfaction from crafting a scene over 10 weeks
15. to acquire a new, experiential way of understanding motivation, yours and other people’s
16. to become a better listener
17. to experience the pleasure of sharing your work with your friends and family and those of your classmates
18. to understand the awesome power of vulnerability

Class starting February 28. Enroll now!

acting for film class

There was no acting for film class at the Yale School of Drama when

MERYL STREEP

was there.

There was no acting for film class at the Yale School of Drama when

JULIE HARRIS

was there.

There was no acting for film class at the Yale School of Drama when

SIGOURNEY WEAVER

was there.

There was no acting for film class at the Yale School of Drama when

JOHN TURTURRO

was there.

There was no acting for film class at the Yale School of Drama when

FRANCES MCDORMAND

was there.

There was no acting for film class at the Yale School of Drama when

PAUL GIAMATTI

was there.

There was no acting for film class at the Yale School of Drama when

PATRICIA CLARKSON

was there.

There was no acting for film class at the Yale School of Drama when

CS LEE

was there.

A Los Angeles acting teacher has posed the quesion: “Would you learn to play the violin for film? Would you learn to play football for television?”

The camera is there to record what you do. So be sure to have something to show it.

That is all.

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