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

Should I Stay or Should I Go?, or, acting an inner conflict

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.

(Skip to about 1:30)

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.

See what I did there?

do you really want to know?

I write often on my blog about how getting better as an actor is generally not a matter of tips and tricks, but rather a matter of learning a craft, something that takes time, persistence, dedication, and patience.
However, here is a simple thing that can make a difference: whenever you have a line in a scene that is phrased as a question, in other words, a sentence that ends in a question mark, TREAT IT AS A REAL QUESTION! All the time, I see actors treat lines written as questions as merely rhetorical questions. This is almost never a good idea.

Why not? Because a rhetorical question is by definition, a question that is not intended to elicit an answer.

And why is that a problem? Because the poser of a rhetorical question is assuming that she knows how the person on the receiving end of the question will answer.
And why is that a problem? Because it’s making a decision about the UNIMPORTANCE of input from the partner at some point in the scene. And that is never a good thing to do. Usually, when actors unconsciously decide to make a question rhetorical, it’s so that they can get on to the next line without having to do anything like look for an answer from the other person, that is, to receive off of them, as we say in my classes.

But that receiving is what exactly has to be happening at each moment.
“Treat it as a real question. Wait for an answer.” is a simple directive that often achieves powerful results very quickly.
Just treating a line written as a question as a real question is already a good thing to do, but a further next step is to ask yourself: if this question that my lines include is in fact a real question, how might that prompt me to reconsider how I have understood the scene? This can be a powerful nutcracker for getting at what is really going on in the scene. Usually the choice to make a question rhetorical gives aid and comfort to some (unhelpful) assumptions an actor has made about the scene. The question of how the scene would be viewed differently if what were taken to be rhetorical questions were actually treated as real questions has revolutionary potential in the mind of the actor, but she has to be open to seeing things differently.

I can hear you thinking: can you give me an example?

Consider this speech of Stanley’s from Streetcar:

“When we first met, me and you, you thought I was common. How right you was, baby. I was common as dirt. You showed me the snapshot of the place with the columns. I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it, having them colored lights going! And wasn’t we happy together, wasn’t it all okay till she showed here?”
The speech ends with a question: “wasn’t it all okay till she showed here?”
Now do the thought experiment. How would you speak the above paraphrase as a rhetorical question, which is the way we are all likely to be tempted to say it? In other words, if you know that it was all ok until Blanch showed up?

Now — what would it be like to really ask that question as a real question, to which the answer was important?

Do you see how it changes the scene?

Do you?

By speaking the speech as a real question, Stella’s answer — to the all-important question of whether the relationship was sound or not — matters. Which is a much more high-stakes, much “hotter” way of treating that moment then treating her answer as a foregone conclusion. That would make the speech veer perilously close to being a lecture, something that has no place in a scene like this.

PS While in real life people do ask rhetorical questions, it’s better to err on the side of caution as an actor and assume a question is a real one, and then let a director tell you otherwise if she wants the line delivered as a rhetorical question. We as actors are tempted to treat questions as rhetorical, and not for good reasons, so the best rule of thumb is to always treat questions as real rather than rhetorical.

contested space, or, getting out of your head (and into the room)

Drama is about what happens between people (not about what happens inside them).

Actors are made to worry a lot about being “in their heads”. However, anyone who has worked closely with actors for any length of time, and has some understanding of what good acting is, knows that actors themselves aren’t very good judges, most of the time, of whether or not they are in their heads. That’s why the “outside eye”, whether it’s a director, a teacher, a coach, or a friend with a discerning eye, is so crucial for the actor’s work.

One thing actors can do to increase the odds of not being in their head is to have a *vision* for how the character wants the scene to unfold. A vision is something like an objective, only a having a vision means that the actor can actually picture what it would look like to get their objective. What would have to happen, in real time, for the objective to be met. What would be said, what would be done. And the what would be done part *includes* what would happen *spatially*: does it mean someone would give ground? Vacate the space entirely? offer a chair? Get down on bended knee before you? What would the accomplishing of said objective look like in the space in real time?

Knowing what that would look like, *having* said vision is one thing. It’s equally important that you *play to win*, which means actively wishing for that vision to become a reality, and then engaging with the scene partner(s) to make it so, in a take-no-prisoners kind of way. In other words, like you mean it.

Another important piece of this is what Uta Hagen calls *destination*. What she is talking about with destination is the way that certain movements become *necessary*: for me to get what I want, it becomes *necessary* that I go sit next to you on the couch. For me to get what I want, it becomes *necessary* that I go and look at the bookshelf, so as not to appear too needy, or too confrontational. Destination means the way in which physical positions in a space seem to call out to us, to demand that we move to occupy them. But it’s also true that physical positions *outside* of a space can demand movement as well: as it becomes clear that you are not going to join me on my mission, I may start to feel a tremendous urge to go to my friend’s place across town, who may be a more persuadable candidate. The first step of which is making my way out of your apartment and out onto the street, where I can get an uber. So if the scene is in your apartment, then the door to your apartment starts to *call to me*, it beckons, it extends a kind of tractor beam that pulls me toward it. This tractor beam may switch on, even at a low intensity, long before the point in the scene when I actually go through the door. At the first flicker of a suggestion of a hint that you might not be the one who is going to join in my crusade, I may start to feel that tractor beam, but at a very low intensity. Still, that keeps the door to the apartment within my “circle of concentration”, as Stanislavsky called it, within the contours of my awareness. Then, as more signals emerge, as it starts to seem less and less likely that you are going to become Robin to my Batman, that destination of the door “heats up”, the tractor beam becomes stronger, and harder to resist. It’s only at the moment when you break out into a rousing a capella rendition of “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, that I surrender to the tractor beam and walk out the door– (and this is important:) on my way (hopefully!) to something better.

(more…)

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.

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.

until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes

“Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” So the Native American proverb goes. Ever wonder why it’s the shoes? Why not “until you’ve walked a mile wearing his hat?” or “until you’ve walked a mile wearing his jacket?” But no. It’s the shoes. The layer of protection between us and the ground we walk on. I would argue that it is because it is the through the shoes that we are connected to the ground that the shoes take pride of place in the proverb.

We take our ambulatory capacity, that is, our ability to walk, very much for granted. Our ability to change where we stand at will, quite literally, is one thing that separates us and all the other animals from plants. With that ability comes the ability to approach someone for sex, or to attack them, or to just seek a little companionable society. The ability to change our spatial relationships at will is a fundamental feature of all human society. Because of this feature, for example, we can define certain property as ours, and have others evicted from it if we choose. They don’t have the right to stand on our property if we don’t allow it.

All human relationships come with some notion of how physical space will be occupied together. The famous Seinfeld episode about the “close talker” exemplifies this vividly. A mother and child enter in an embrace that obliterates the space between them readily, but two grown men who are not related to each other may do so only seldom. So where we physically stand in relation to others is inextricably bound up with the nature of our relationship to them

“Until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes” might be parsed “until you have moved in and out of the various (physical) relationships with others that he typically undertakes.” Or, until you have stood in relationship to others in the way that he has. While the last sentence can be understood metaphorically (closeness in the sense of emotional closeness, by the way it is no accident that we use this spatial metaphor to analogize our connections to others), it can also be understood physically, for the reason that I have already articulated: our ties with other people include agreements or contracts, if you will, about how we will occupy space together: what is too close, what is not close enough, under what circumstances these parameters change, etc.

The Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, whose actor training techniques have enjoyed a vogue in the last decade in this country bordering on the cultish, recognized the primacy of the feet as defining the actor’s relationship to the ground and, therefore, to the space around her. His fundamental exercise involves rigorously stomping the ground by isolating the muscles of the legs and abdomen, to “awaken” the lower body of the actor. However, the importance of placement in space is well-understood within the Stanislavsky tradition as well. In A Challenge for the Actor Uta Hagen discusses the concept of “destination” in her chapter entitled “animation”. “The reason for movement is destination” she proclaims. The simplest possible gloss of this is that when we move, we have reason to (i.e. not because the script or the director says we move at that point.) Or: when we move, we are going somewhere. Or It is the fact that the beginning of this impulse to move involves a psycho-physical orienting of ourselves towards where we are going and what arrival in that place promises us that gives this somewhere its importance for us as actors. This idea was dramatized in a superb manner in the movie Donnie Darko by the ectoplasmic streams that Donny starts to see emanating from the chests of those around him, as I have written previously.

In the approach that I teach, we search for a need for the actor to embody and pursue in a scene, which then prompts her to seek certain outcomes that promise to gratify this single need, both in immediate and in long-term ways. What it is essential to keep in mind is that these outcomes nearly always involve changes in the physical proximity to other characters or to things. As actors, we are very focused on what we are saying, our lines, and the temptation is to think of where we are standing or sitting or lying down in the scene as “the place where we say these particular lines.” So while we put a lot thought into understanding the relationship between what we are saying and what we need, it’s easy to forget to consider the relationship between where we are standing (or sitting, or lying down…) and what we need. The failure to come to this can devolve into actors devolving into very animated talking heads. In real conversations, we have a particular physical outcome in view, and if that outcome involves movement, then we prepare ourselves physically for that movement, or to respond to some expected or feared movement. The awareness of the destination of the expected movement invites a partial orientation toward the destination in question, even as we may continue to interact with another character, and be partially oriented towards him or her.

Consider, as we did two days ago, Blanche’s first appearance inStreetcar. I (Blanche) have to ask the two strangers on the steps for information about my sister and for assistance accessing the house, but after my long journey from Laurel lugging a trunk with everything I own in the world, the destination of the Stella’s apartment, where I might hope to catch a few moments alone to have a few quick drinks to relieve my stress and anxiety and compose myself, is very “hot”. So hot that Williams makes it clear that once I access the apartment, I cannot avoid offending Eunice in hustling her back out of the apartment. So in the scene with the two women, once it becomes clear where Stella lives, I will be physically preparing to go there, even as continue to engage with them. This is the real importance of the concept of destination: even as we engage in dialogue, our bodies must remain alive to the movement that the situation may call for, either because a window of opportunity opens, or some threat or danger makes itself manifest that we need to act to squash.

I can remember one of my mentors at the Yale School of Drama, Evan Yionoulis, talking about whether certain actors she had encountered “had destination.” It’s now clear to me that what she meant was not only that the when they moved, they knew where they were going, but also that as they spoke, they were physically alive to the possible movements which could at any time become necessary given the situation (necessity being the mother of invention, don’t forget!)

For an actor to “have destination”, she needs to understand these things. This is the cognitive side of “having destination”: she needs to be mentally alert to the physical ramifications of the development of the scene. However, there is a physical side to this as well. To truly “have destination”, impulse needs to be free to flow from the Pilates core of the actor, where the need lives, down through the hips and all the way down into the legs to the feet. Well, that’s easy, right? Not so fast. When we are acting, we are aware of being watched and judged, and therefore, tension can be introduced into our bodies because of this awareness. We can easily carry this tension in our legs, and, even more probably, in our hips. There is so much shame in our society around the things we do with our hips (have sex and rid ourselves of bodily waste) that tension in this area is extremely common. An Aexander technique teacher I encountered told me of a student of hers who proclaimed “Life is a butt-clenching experience!” There are few more humiliating scenarios than one involving incontinence. Tension in the pelvis are well-nigh universal. Such tensions obstruct constipate, if you will) the flow of need-driven “energy” into the legs. Without this energy, the actor’s lower body ca easily check out. Tension in the various joins of the legs can compound this problem. The actor can develop a tendency to grip the floor with the feet, which can lead to becoming rooted to the spot and making movement require more effort than it would if the actor were poised to move.

Ultimately, we want to play both ends against the middle. We want the cognitive awareness of the possibilities for movement to merge with habituated physical freedom in the pelvis and legs, so that the distinction between body and mind virtually disappears. I tell students often that acting is a body-mind trick. It’s a particular combination of physical and mental engagement on the one hand, and physical and mental receptiveness and relaxation on the other.

Talk about walking a fine line. And in someone else’s shoes, to boot (heh!). It’s no mean feat (sorry, I can’t stop!), but one worth striving for.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio

saving uta hagen

I have been snooping around on the BackStage.com Acting Methods and Approaches Message Board and a couple of times I have seen posters speak of Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg as essentially equivalent in terms of the approach to acting that they espouse. This is a misperception, and it seems to spring from two sources: first, a belief that what Hagen calls “transference” (earlier, “substitution”) is somehow roughly equivalent to “affective memory”, the technique that defined Lee Strasberg, and second, the fact that Uta Hagen does discuss and even recommend affective memory in her books, which does seem to align her with Strasberg. In that sense, the confusion is not entirely without warrant. I propose to shed some light on both of these, and demonstrate that although Uta Hagen has a pragmatic openness to the possible uses of affective memory, she does not regard it as the alpha and the omega of compelling acting, as Strasberg does.

Before we proceed, let’s define some terms. Here is what the Cambridge History of the American Theater has to say about Strasberg and the use of affective memory:

And in a technique called affective memory, … Strasberg believed he had found a reliable aid for achieving

[true emotion]. … What Strasberg prized about the technique was that the actor would be using true emotion – his own reawakened real-life feelings – to color and deepen his performance. . . Maintaining that the technique was the surest way of achieving the style of psychological realism the Group was searching for, Strasberg placed it as the foundation of his work

The idea is that the actor, while rehearsing and performing (this is key, as we’ll see later), is making use of emotionally charged episodes from her own life in order to summon the feeling appropriate to the scene. Over the years, this has been controversial, to put it mildly. Most famously, Stella Adler argued that Strasberg had been mistaken in giving primacy to this practice. From the Wikipedia entry on Stella Adler:

Adler’s biggest issue with Strasberg concerned whether an actor should use the technique of “affective memory” (recalling a personal event or sensory experience for more expressive and truthful behavior), or living in the moment, using your partner to create a believable result. It’s been said that after Strasberg died, Adler asked for a moment of silence in her class for the famous actor. Afterwards, she allegedly claimed that it will take a hundred years to repair what Strasberg did to acting.

To some extent, the use of affective (or emotional) memory has become a kind of line in the sand in the teaching of acting in this country: you either believe in it or you don’t, and most of the time, never the twain shall meet. For a good example of this, check out the writings of David Mamet and the practical aesthetics crowd: they take the reviling of affective memory to heretofore unknown heights.

Interestingly, Uta Hagen is someone who appears to walk the line between the two camps, although, I will ultimately maintain, her heart belongs clearly in one of them. In both her books, Respect for Acting and A Challenge for the Actor, she describes the practice of affective memory. She is very careful, though, to qualify and limit its use, characterizing it as a means for meeting certain kinds of challenges posed by a role, but not as an end in itself. Here she is, close to the end of her discussion of emotional memory in A Challenge for the Actor:

You will need to supply personal psychological realities only when direct contact with the events, the objects, and your partner fails to stimulate you, when the imagination alone fails to support your specific actions during the moment-to-moment give and take that will prove you are alive on stage.

For Hagen, affective memory is a kind of stopgap when the things which are supposed to galvanize an actor in a scene (circumstance, relationship, need, pushback from scene partners) are, for whatever reason, not doing the trick. Then, the actor might use a dash of affective memory in order to stir the pot, but:

The sole purpose of developing a limber psychological instrument, and the correct technique of spontaneous emotional recall, is to discover and execute the consequent actions (what we do about what we feel) and to give substance to the actions which are the true communicators of our character.

So Uta sees some possible place for the use of affective memory, but her priority is doing, which places her comfortably in the camp of Adler, Meisner, and those who emphasize being in the moment over reliving the past.

So much for affective memory. However, I believe that the source of the confusion about where to place Uta Hagen relative to Strasberg comes not from her flirtation with emotional memory, but from her concept of transference, which she previously called substitution. In a nutshell, transference is a way to create investment in the persons, places, and things from the fictional world of the text by making reference to people, places and things from our own experience. If I were playing Blanche DuBois, then I might use my own sister Elizabeth as a transference for Stella. My relationship with Elizabeth becomes an experiential frame of reference for my relationship with Stella (Hagen speaks of the transference as evoking the “essence” of the relationship). Ideally, I would come to value “Stella” in a way approximated by the way I value my sister Elizabeth. So transference is a way of creating correlations between people, places and things in the world of the play and similar persons, places and things from my own experience. The goal of transference is not to put me in an emotional state, but to help me orient myself towards whoever or whatever I am interacting with appropriately and compellingly.
Uta Hagen is very clear that transferences are something that is used to prepare to do a scene:

[A transference] should not lead you to private feelings and reveries when you are on stage. A transference is incomplete until the original source has become synonymous with the material in the play…[When practicing transference] I have not hung onto an image of [the person from my own experience] or dangles their images before my eyes. That would cloud my awareness of the partner and my influence on him.

While in the scene, Uta Hagen wants the actor present to his partner, not recycling feelings from your personal history. This much is clear.

The confusion about an identity or strong affinity between Hagen’s views and Strasberg’s arises, I think, because Hagen does ask the actor to make use of his personal experience through transference, but she asks him to do so, by and large, as a way of preparing to act, not as a technique for acting itself. But because she does point to the sensible use of the personal experience of the actor (and why not?), she is often misunderstood as an advocate of emotional memory as THE way to act as a scene. And that, she most emphatically is not.

In my own classes, I assign readings from Hagen on transference, inner monologue, sense memory (frequently confused with affective memory but quite distinct from it), and physical life. She writes on these things inspiringly and clearly, and has great things to say on these subjects. I don’t make use of emotional memory, as I don’t see it as a primary means of getting the job done. I don’t dispute that it can have a limited kind of usefulness in preparing a performance, for example, for a scene that has to start at a particularly strong emotional pitch. But a scene is like a roller coaster ride, and emotional memory is useful only for getting to a particular altitude. In the scene, you have to get to that altitude with the right momentum and speed, and headed in the right direction. If you need to start from a great height, emotional memory might help you reach that starting point, but the real work is learning to take the ride, and enjoy it.

I do recognize, though, that Lee Strasberg trained a number of great actors. There is a phrase that Hagen uses that gestures at another potential use of emotional memory: she speaks of becoming “psychologically limber.” It reminds me of a remark of Kafka’s: “A book should be an axe to break up the frozen sea within.” Emotional memory can be a technique to break up the emotional sod, so to speak, to tune one’s emotional instrumeent, to use a pretentious turn of phrase. People do have blockages and inhibitions, and emotional memory can be a way of overcoming emotional constipation, quite apart from the use it might have in a scene. To use it successfully in this way, as emotional uncoiling, it would take a teacher of extraordinary sensitivity and integrity, as this type of work would likely take people to some very fragile places. I have heard tell of teachers who teach this technique and are simultaneously abusive, and I hope one day their bad karma catches up with them. And pedagogically, I believe there is as much to master in the much more immediately useful skills of coming to grips with a character’s circumstances and entering into them, playing off the partner and embodying a need in a scene. Further, there is nothing to say that engaging in this much more grounded type of work, with much clearer lines between the art and the personal life, cannot stretch the actor in ways that will help her to achieve the psychological limberness Uta Hagen recommends. I have seen it happen, and it has been, and continues to be, supremely satisfying.

It might have seemed like Uta Hagen needed to come back to the five and dime, but in the truth, she never left.

an acting class in Hollywood/Los Angeles and San Francisco for serious, motivated students.)

Andrew Wood Acting Studio

what is good and why

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Wood Acting Studio
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