the four actions, or, all we ever do

I wrote recently about the most important element of Earle Gister’s legacy as an innovator in the understanding and practice of the craft of acting: namely, his notion of action as a way of describing and understanding the way in which an actor, acting as a character, is engaging another actor/character in a section of a scene: Earle professed that that way of engaging could be characterized by saying how an actor/character was making another actor/character feel. It’s a revolution in the understanding of what acting is all about, as everyone who attended one of Earle’s classes knows.

(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d suggest you read the post linked to above before proceeding, as the discussion is going to get quite technical)

I have been working with Earle’s notion of action for ten years as a teacher, and for longer than that as a director. So I have thought a lot about it. And one thing that caught my attention a while back was I realized that in Earle’s class, there were certain actions that came up again and again in his work on scenes. The actions he worked with most often were making someone feel needed, making them feel loved, and making them feel out of line.

(more…)

the four actions, or, all we ever do2018-02-26T21:49:04-08:00

the legacy of Earle Gister, or, how to play an action

I know that many students who come into my class with some prior training have some grasp of the notion that “acting is doing”. They understand, in one way or another, that the layman’s notion that acting is “showing emotion” is misleading, or at least unproductive for the actor. The reason it is counterproductive has to do with Stanislavsky’s basic observation that self-consciousness is the source of the actor’s problems. The actor is aware that she is being watched and scrutinized and judged and evaluated, and this awareness has an inhibiting effect. The actor can achieve some measure of liberation from this inhibition by finding a problem to solve in the scene, a challenge to meet, a difficulty to overcome. An objective. Thus, the actor needs to “do” something. (more…)

the legacy of Earle Gister, or, how to play an action2018-02-26T21:49:04-08:00

CS Lee of Dexter endorses Mother of Invention

I recently reconnected with my colleague from the Yale School of Drama, CS “Charlie” Lee, who graduated from the acting program in 1998. I completed the directing program in 1997, so he was a year behind me. After we had both graduated, I directed a one act play called Nooner in New York for a theater company called Emerging Artists, and Charlie played the leading man.

Charlie went on to have an impressive acting career, appearing on Law and Order, The Sopranos, and many other TV shows, as his IMDb page reveals.

But he is best known for his work on Dexter, where he plays Dexter’s partner, Vince Masuka.

The master acting teacher we both studied with at Yale, Earle Gister, passed away in the last few years. Charlie appreciates that I am keeping Earle’s flame alive at Mother of Invention, and he graciously offered me the following endorsement:

“From working with Andrew and seeing his work, I can say that he has a deep love for the craft of acting, and he is extremely skilled at transmitting his formidable understanding to actors in ways that empower and inspire actors to do their best work.”–CS Lee of Showtime’s Dexter

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CS Lee of Dexter endorses Mother of Invention2018-02-26T21:49:13-08:00

living through reading

From an enlightening piece in the New York Times:

Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.

Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.

Stanislavsky famously defined acting as “the life of the human soul receiving its birth through technique.” More basically, acting is bringing a kind of life into a being, it is coming alive. The above excerpt from the Times article is highly suggestive of the profound importance for acting. The actor wants to come fully alive, and reading provides a way of coming alive not only to actualities, but to fictional things as well, to a land of make-believe. We tend to think of acting as a physical activity, as something that we “do”: speak, move, gesture, grimace, etc. But all of those things are of interest largely because they illuminate inner movements: movements of thought and feeling.

In some sense, the actor works to allow these mental activities to manifest themselves physically, in movement, in speech, in expressiveness. However, if there are no mental activities to manifest, nothing much is going to happen in the physiognomy of the actor. Receptiveness and sensitivity to the power of words (scripts are written in words, after all) is an absolutely critical skill for any actor, and there is no better way to develop this receptiveness and sensitivity than reading.

We are prone to think of acting as a fundamentally extroverted activity: actors express things, we are told. And there is truth to this: acting is nothing if not manifesting some inner life. But much depends on the richness of that inner life, and that points to the “introverted” side of acting. Actors must possess a kind of practical psychological insight, in order to get at what “makes someone tick”, they must possess richly the sensitivity to language that I previously described, and they must be comfortable in trafficing with the unreal, with the imaginary. In that it depends on both extroversion and introversion, acting is a very special, if not totally unique practice.

living through reading2018-02-26T21:49:20-08:00

remembering Earle Gister

On this Facebook page, students and friends remember the great Earle Gister. dean of the Acting Program at the School of Drama from 1980-1997. I wanted to share some of them here.

In 1968 Earle auditioned me in New York for Carnegie Mellon. I made it in, and was on my way with my ten month old daughter and her mother. I had recently turned eighteen. When I arrived in Pittsburgh, there was a problem with my living quarters on campus. They didn’t know I was coming with a family. Earle solved the problem by taking us into his home on Squirrel Hill. It was a mansion. We had the upstairs room while Earle, his wife and child was on the floor below. I found out that Earle was the head of the drama department. I would ride with him everyday to the campus.
I brought a little money from New York with me because I wanted a used car. I told Earle about it, so one day he took me to a used car dealership to purchase one. The car I wound up getting had a stick shift. Not only could I not drive a stick shift, I couldn’t drive a car period. However, I didn’t tell Earle this. I also failed to tell him I didn’t have a driver’s license. He soon found this out, of course, but somehow decided to do whatever he had to do so that I could have that (stick shift ) car.
He left his own car at the dealership and drove my car home with me as a passenger. This was a good thing since I couldn’t drive. Once we got home and parked, like a father, he said that I couldn’t take the car out until I got my license. At night and early in the mornings I would sneak the car out and practice on the trolley track streets of Pittsburgh. It was definitely a challenge, but I soon got the hang of it. I took my drivers test and passed with flying colors. Driving on the trolley tracks has made me an excellent driver in New York where I dodge cabs. Thanks again Earle. Who else would have done that for me? Of course on the other hand, if you knew I couldn’t drive…

I was a scrappy latchkey kid, who grew up in a house of ham-bones. When I did theatre in high school, I was hooked. The stage, a place where being sensitive had value, where I finally made sense. I found HOME. I was a hippy with a theatre company in the Haight-Ashbury when Earle plucked me out of obscurity. Yale was a dream come true for me, and our times in that basement with Earle, where times of great terror and triumph. We were all his children, he was our father. We lived and died by his word. We could change the world. He told us to make our time there as selfish and focused as we could muster, because OUT THERE, you won’t get to play these parts, you won’t have this luxury of time and talent. “Don’t f#@K it up”. HIS FACE when an actor would GET IT? He would whirl his small frame around in his chair to meet each of our eyes with his, ” DID YOU SEE THAT, THAT’S IT!”, the joy in his face. Often he would throw down the mike and speak with his hoarse gruff sounds, and the clarity in which he could communicate was remarkable ! He was beloved by many and his legacy carries on in all our words, our hearts, and most importantly in our actions. Rest in peace, dear Earle, rest…

In my first year at Yale, I arrived knowing that my father was dying of cancer. A few days into our third month – my mother called me to tell me that my father had taken an unexpected turn and that he wouldn’t make it through the night. I immediately made plans to leave. I remember running through the streets of New Haven to Earle’s office to let him know my father was dying and that I had to leave right away. I was lucky enough to find him in his office. He listened to me and without a pause he embraced me and told me to take as long as I needed. Nine hours later my father was gone.

That moment with Earle has a deep imprint on my memory. It was special for me and through my 3 years at Yale I always felt those kind arms of support around me. I’m so thankful to have had a chance to be one of Earle’s many students. The acting tools, lessons of life – and O yes those kind arms of support have helped me time and time again. A second father – yes most definitely. Thank you Earle – you rocked my world and I’m all the better for it . . .

My brother passed away suddenly three months before I was to start school at Yale. I was in a cloud. When I started class, I was upset and withdrawn. I was going to leave school. I went to tell Earle. After I told him, he was silent and then closed his office door. We sat silent for quite some time until Earle finally spoke. He said he hadn’t lost a brother so he said he would not pretend to know how I felt. He then asked my to tell him about my brother. I told him he was successful, loved, and a good businessman. He asked what my brother thought of my attending Yale. I told him my brother was proud of me.

He then said, “It doesn’t sound like your brother would want you to blow such a great opportunity.” That was all I needed. I dove into my work and never looked back. Someone mentioned Earle as a second father: Nailed it.

We all owe you such a debt that went beyond teaching. I owe him my life.
Evermore thanks, Earle, say Hi to my Bro

Best memory of Earle Gister and this goes to the HEART of the man was Graduation Day 1987- My father who had lung cancer travelled from Wyoming in his Cowboy hat and boots to see his daughter graduate from an Ivy league school. Something no one in our famiy had done- we never had much money- and Dad wanted to meet Earle Gister and when we went into his office – dad in the western tradition hung his hat off the end of Earle’s desk and then said,” I feel I have known you my entire life” and started weeping- Earle came around the side of the desk and held my father in his arms….ok? That is the kind of man Earle Gister was…..

Not long after 9/11, when every security precaution was taken, from removing shoes, checking backpacks and passing through metal detectors, I had driven Earle to an event in NY. As I pulled into a parking garage, the attendant met us. He asked me to open the trunk of my car, in order for them to search it. I was more than willing to oblige but Earle jumped out of his seat and nearly knocked this poor man over. He utterly refused to allow him to search my car. The audacity, that someone would think, that it was possible, to look into a person’s trunk, was more than he could stand. I had no worries, what did I have to hide and what did I care if he looked inside my trunk? He hurled many an expletive at this attendant while I talked our way out of there. At the time, I wanted nothing more than to allow this man to do his job. Earle saw things differently; if we allow others to impinge on the “little” things what is to stop them from impinging on the bigger ones?

remembering Earle Gister2018-02-26T21:49:27-08:00

RIP Earle Gister 1934-2012

Earle Gister

a right jolly old elf

I was sorry to hear today of the passing of Earle Gister, Dean of the Acting Program at the Yale School of Drama from 1980 to 1997. He was a brilliant, incisive, generous teacher and a true lover of both the theater and the drama. We will not see his like again.

RIP Earle Gister 1934-20122018-02-26T21:49:28-08:00

not everybody made the list this year, Michael Fassbender

You know, this list.

Mr. Fassbender has been getting raves for his performance in Shame. I saw it tonight fully expecting add him to my list. But, it turns out, his performance was…not great. There were certainly things to admire about it. He knows how to exploit his personal vulnerability to seduce people, and that’s not nothing. But there were a lot of holes. Consider the moment after (not a spoiler!) his boss gets off the video phone call with his son. This is a climactic moment in the film. Notice Fassbender’s physicality in this moment. It’s awkward and stiff, and not because the moment is awkward and stiff. He has no idea, as an actor, what to do with his body.

And that’s the thing about Fassbender: when he does act, it’s pretty much completely from the neck up. If he does become viscerally activated, it’s in a tight close-up when he knows no one is looking at his body, and he relaxes.

Consider the “big” moment near the end of the movie in the rain. He tries really hard, but that’s all we get. We are not there with him, experiencing what he is experiencing. We are on the outside looking in, because he isn’t really in it himself. He’s supposed to be convulsing, but he isn’t really convulsing, so it doesn’t work.

Also, he’s not that good at dialogue. There is a long scene in a restaurant, when he’s on a date, and his partner in that scene acts circles around him. She’s going on the list.

Mr. Fassbender deserves props for the difficult, painful situations he explores in the movie, and for the moments when he does pull it off. He’s talented. But he needs to read Uta Hagen’s chapter on Animation in A Challenge for the Actor. And fire his acting coach.

not everybody made the list this year, Michael Fassbender2018-02-26T21:49:30-08:00

leaving the comfort zone

I’ve been at this, teaching acting, for seven years now. I feel very fortunate to have been initiated into the methodology that I teach in my classes. When I look at acting around me, in the theater or on a screen, I often see work that is responsive, free, and spontaneous. (I often see work that isn’t those things, but we’ll leave that for the moment.) But even in this free, responsive, and spontaneous work, there is often a dimension missing: call it true vulnerability, exposure, deep investment or visceral engagement, but there is often a lack of the depth that makes something transporting and memorable.

I firmly believe that the teachers I encountered at Yale were visionaries in terms of defining the need for this level of investment and creating tools that helped actors achieve this depth of expression. I see students, even first time actors, make extraordinary strides in their work by making use of these tools, even inside of one ten-week cycle. But here’s the thing, and I am getting very honest here: most of them need my help to get oriented properly and use the tools effectively, even after several cycles of the class. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of students who have really internalized the framework I present to the degree that they can implement it themselves, and implement it successfully. Why is that? Well for one thing, it has to do with the true complexity of the activity of acting. To act any role well, there is a lot to master. But it also has something to do with the nature of the methodology: this methodology is about using the mind, particularly the imagination and the analytical faculties, to help the actor enter into and live in the imaginary world of the play. Now, my mind is very analytical: I had finished calculus as a sophomore in high school, and majored in math in college. Analytical thinking is second nature to me. But I don’t think it is to a lot of actors. Everyone has analytical ability, but I think people are drawn to acting from a desire to be seen, to engage in playful interaction with others, to express themselves. “I’m very analytical; I should try acting!” is not a familiar train of thought to many. People are often able to mobilize these analytical abilities to a degree when they learn that the task requires it, but it’s often not second nature, and will only take them so far. That’s part of why we have directors: the director (hopefully) can help the actor understand what is essential to a role or a scene, and help them mobilize that understanding in their work.

So am I saying that I think what I teach is of limited value? No, decidedly not. But its greatest benefits are reaped by those who are willing to apply themselves most strenuously. For those without that plucky resilience, the technique has limits because it will only take actors as far as they take it. But make no mistake: even those who never acquire that deep mastery still benefit from exposure to it. I know this because of how often students tell me war stories about their auditioning and how the feedback that they get is that they are extraordinarily well-prepared. So even if a student doesn’t acquire the ability to fully wield the technique independently, they still have learned some very important things. A red belt is not a black belt, but it’s better than a white belt.

But this perception, that a student’s relative comfort with analytical thinking would define how far they would go with this technique, was troubling to me. I wanted students to have full autonomy, as I knew there was no way i could always be there to point them in the right direction, even if they wanted me to be. I felt myself longing for a way to cut through all the analysis, and to bring people into a more directly physical relationship with their work.

Meisner repetition work has a similar goal, as I understand it. The actor is taught to allow himself or herself to respond spontaneously to what she receives. In full-blown Meisner technique, analytical tools are layered on top of this, so this repetition is not the whole story it’s sometimes presented as. But as much respect as I have for Meisner, I have watched enough Meisner-trained actors in my time to know that while the Meisner-trained actor may be responding authentically, there are different degrees of authenticity, different depths from which the impulses may originate, and that few Meisner-trained actors (in my experience) learn to listen and respond with their cores, with the deepest parts of themselves, and that is what I am after.

At various junctures in my training and experience, I had encountered actors who were trained in Grotowski’s techniques, and I found them to have this ability to engage viscerally without the analytical apparatus of a Stanislavsky-based approach. I have never formally trained in Grotowski, but I have done a good deal of work that I think is comparable, including Suzuki, Butoh dance, rigorous Pilates, and capoeira, all disciplines that involve extreme levels of physical engagement, pitting the will and the body against their respective limits. So, , when I saw a series of exercises described that were based on Grotowski’s plastiques in a book about acting that I came across recently, I was intrigued. I decided that in the cycle of my Advanced class that started in September, we would spend part of our time exploring these exercises.

I hesitated, because I knew there would be some difficulties. There would be varying levels of comfort with being instructed to perform various movement and assume various physical attitudes. Even though I think there is value in warming up, I forego any kind of warm-up in the Essentials class because there is something about this that takes people back to junior high school gym class, and people feel they are giving up some of their autonomy as adults in going through such regimens. But I hoped that in my Advanced class, working with students with whom I had some history, and presumably some reservoir of trust, that we could get past that hurdle.

So I forged ahead, and we worked our way through some introductory stretching and breathing work and into the exercises based on the plastiques. I am not going to describe in detail what we did right now, but suffice to say that there was a fairly complex sequence of movements that involved moving the body and making sound at the same time. Each week we added a bit more, and then one week we were ready to put the whole sequence together. We did it simultaneously, and it involved all of us moving and making sound together and separately, following a basic structure but with plenty of room to find our own path through the structure.

At the end of the sequence, the five of us gazed at each other in astonishment. “That was so cool!”, someone said, although none of us could have said precisely what had happened or what had been cool about it. But I felt totally sure that through this process, we had all begun a journey towards a new mind-body integration, the goal that was Grotowski’s as well. This was only a first step, but it was a decisive one.

In other words, I had seen a need to step out of my comfort zone, I had found a roadmap for doing so, and I had brought along some intrepid acting students as I ventured forth. And it paid off, I feel certain, for all of us. Not right away; it took faith to keep going. But in the end, this risk bore fruit. We all experienced something altogether new.

I think that what I want to communicate here is that it’s imperative that we all pay attention to the voice that emerges from time to time that says: I am going to have to leave behind what is familiar to get what I need. Heeding this voice is truly the only way that anything new ever happens.

leaving the comfort zone2018-02-26T21:49:34-08:00

the poet’s advice for the actor

Unless the eye catch fire

The God Will not be seen

Unless the ear catch fire

The God will not be heard

Unless the tongue catch fire

The God will not be named

Unless the heart catch fire

The God will not be loved

Unless the mind catch fire

The God will not be known

– William Blake

Think about that, especially in connection with Stanislavsky’s statement that acting is “the life of the human soul receiving its birth through technique.”

the poet’s advice for the actor2011-11-15T11:50:08-08:00

“What are we going to do about your face?”

A young woman was actually asked this question by her, uh, acting teacher.

Recently I took an acting class with a woman in Los Angeles, and it went as such: Do a scene, get feedback. While the other students received comments regarding their acting skills, I was called out of the room to get some private notes beginning with, “What are we going to do about your face?”

She was also told that she should get collagen injections, a nose job, a chin lift and to “fix that gummy smile.”

Read the whole thing.

It has an affirming, happy ending. But yikes. Choose your acting teachers carefully.

“What are we going to do about your face?”2011-09-12T22:04:52-07:00
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