carrying water and chopping wood

“Put your heart, mind, intellect and soul even to your smallest acts. This is the secret of success.”
Swami Sivananda

There is a Zen saying, “Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”

What this means to me is that gaining insight is not necessarily going to turn your life upside down. You are going to do a lot of the same things. But what it means to do them will be different.

AND: if you don’t keep doing those mundane things, you are probably going to lose your insight.

But I find it interesting to look at the two activities that were chosen to exemplify the mundane path to Enlightenment in this proverb: carrying water and chopping wood. There are many other activities that could have been chosen, washing dishes, folding clothes, etc. But in fact, we are instructed to carry water and chop wood to get Enlightenment.

Both of these activities are strenuous, and both require engagement of the abdomen to accomplish them. In a previous post on the band Blink-182, I called attention to certain gestures which illustrated the relationship between the abdominal core and the rest of the body:

You can see how these gestures have the same shape as chopping wood. They both involve a sharp contraction in the abdomen, followed by a lengthening and release in the rest of the body. The power generated in the core is allowed to travel up or down the spine and out the extremities.

Something analagous actually happens when you carry water, which is really just walking with a lot of weight bearing down on the collar bone, spine, and legs. In walking, as I noted in another previous post:

You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it,
but you’re always falling.
With each step you fall forward slightly.
And then catch yourself from falling.
Over and over, you’re falling.
And then catching yourself from falling.
And this is how you can be walking and falling
at the same time. –Laurie Anderson

Each step is launched with the power of the leg and pelvis, and the other leg and torso are allowed to “fall” forward.

So when we carry water and chop wood, we are being asked to invest physically in what we are doing at the core level. We experience the alternation of the contraction that occurs to generate the power, and the expansion that allows that power to be appropriately channeled or directed outward. The hope is that through repetition of these things, we will acquire the habit of bringing our whole selves to whatever we do, and thereby gain enlightenment.

Actors need to always be aware of their cores. This awareness is what makes us compelling. And not only do we need core awareness, but we need the whole body to stay alert to the core. When I was learning this stuff, I became aware at one point that when I would direct my attention to my core, I would unconsciously tighten up my throat. Presumably I felt the need to protect myself. But as a result of that tension, the “flow” was being blocked and so the power that lives in the core was not being allowed to travel up into my skull and animate my face.

Acting from the core is not easy. It’s why we place such a premium on naming a single visceral need that an actor can pursue in a scene. That can go a long way toward getting the core activated, but it’s no guarantee, and there are constantly blockages like the one in my throat that can arise. In particular, I see a lot of actors who work from the solar plexus area, which is more superficial and much more connected to the head, to volition and the will than the core, which is the seat of primal hungers and instinctual action. An actor whose awareness rests in the solar plexus (unfortunately, this is very common) is effectively walling off the core and skating along the surface. The habitual action of carrying water and chopping wood tends to strengthen the core, and with that strength comes greater core awareness. The hope is presumably that by living from the core, which carrying water and chopping wood pretty much require, will change the habitual seat of awareness.

There are ways to exercise the core without actually carrying water and chopping wood, as I have enumerated here.

But I think the proverb points out another important truth for actors: the need for continuous practice. Acting is a neuromuscular activity at bottom. The mind has a role to play, but the muscles and reflexes involved need to stay active and alert. So, effectively, an actor who has stopped training has stopped acting. You don’t learn to act and then no longer need to practice. In the words of acting teach John Gronbeck-Tedesco: “Athletes, dancers, and singers never outgrow their need for the basic conditioning that makes their crafts possible. Neither do actors.” Even after you get enlightenment, you still need to carry water and chop wood.

Actors whose awareness is firmly grounded in their core can actually “throw away the ladder” of action/objective apparatus, because all of that understanding now lives in their bodies. But reaching that peak is no mean feat. A lot of water will have been carried and wood chopped for that to come about.

So get going!

carrying water and chopping wood2018-02-26T21:49:34-08:00

Blink-182, the abdominal core, and ecstatic release

Blink-182’s new album is out. And so is the first single from the album, “Up All Night”. I was watching the video and saw some striking movements and gestures that exemplify the kind of simultaneous power and receptivity that performers of all stripes need to cultivate. I have made some clips of the moments that stood out to me, so I can show you what I mean. Since the moments are fairly fast, I have repeated them five or six times so you can get a good look.

This first one features drummer Travis Barker and guitarist Mark Hoppus:

These two gestures are striking because they both clearly begin in the abdominal core, that most powerful complex of muscles in the human body, but in both cases, their upper torsoes and heads just go along for the ride, in a kind of whiplash effect. This is the way a pitcher in baseball powers a pitch: from the core. In the best acting, ALL impulses are born in the abdominal core and THEN travel outward to the extremities, whether it be the jaw and neck (for speaking or moving the head), the arms (for gesturing or touching or handling an object), or the legs (for traversing space). The muscles in the core are deeply engaged, and the extremities are engaged only as necessary, and not more. This is not easy, as it involves the kind of coordination that patting your head and rubbing your stomach does. This is particularly clear in the case of Hoppus, the guitarist, as you can see his head bounce at the end of the movement: again, the head is just a long for the ride. There’s something very satisfying or cathartic watching these gestures of release, and that is what we want from actors as well.

Here’s another clip of Hoppus:

What I like here, first of all, is the freedom in the hips on display as Hoppus rocks back on forth. We saw in the previous clip that he can summon considerable power from his abdominal core (oh boy, if these guys ever read this they would have a field day with it ! 😉 ), but he is also capable of allowing the hips to move freely, he does not get stuck in the place of engagement of the abdominal muscles, he is totally capable of letting go of them as well. I also love the way his arms move with such liquid dexterity. Someone less physically assured might feel the need to constrict the arms because of the rocking on the hips, but Hoppus’ arms move effortlessly up and down the guitar, so that the guitar itself seems to hover in the air.

Finally, there’s this one of Travis Barker, who is called the world’s greatest drummer by some:

I love the way Barker seems to be ecstatically absorbed in listening to the music even as he plays. This is true receiving. His arms are obviouly busy, but his spine remains long and expansive. You get the distinct impression that he is allowing the music to play him.

These are clearly guys who have put in their 10,000 hours, and are consummate musicians, regardless of how you may feel about the pop-punk genre or this new album. They have been and continue to be a source of inspiration and energy to me over the years, and I am deeply grateful.

Blink-182, the abdominal core, and ecstatic release2018-02-26T21:49:36-08:00

feet flat on the floor

For various reasons, actors find themselves seated a lot, often at a table.

We may be playing a scene in which we are supposed to be seated in a restaurant, or behind a desk. Also, when we read at auditions, we often find ourselves seated.

So it’s a good situation to be prepared for. But do we really need to be prepared for it? Sitting is something we do all the time without even thinking about it. So what’s the big deal?

It’s true we sit all the time, but we don’t sit in front of an audience or a camera all the time. That’s where things can get a little tricky.

What I often observe is that actors seated in a scene, particularly at a table, often seem to want pull their feet back, either to cross their legs at the ankles, or as if they were preparing to stand up. Often, the first position is a result of a desire to withdraw from the encounter with the partner, to kind of curl up a little bit, as if into a fetal position. The second position is often a symptom of the actor’s discomfort with the situation: stagefright, and fear of the intimacy and/or vulnerability with the partner called for in a scene. So unconsciously, the actor is actually physically preparing to bolt.

These are both defensive crouches, and bring with them some significant problems, or, at the very least, challenges. When the feet are resting flat on the floor, with the knees more or less at a right angle, the actor is grounded. It’s like we can feel the floor below us, supporting us. This supports our sense of personal power and strength. We are at rest, but the power of the ground to push off of and stand if need be is available.

When we pull our feet in towards us, we almost certainly introduce muscular tension into our legs. This means we are holding up part of our skeleton, rather than being pushed up by being supported by the earth. The result is that we are less grounded. It’s hard to overstate the consequences of this. This tension blocks the flow, the dynamic equilibrium in our neuromuscular system, so that the pelvis, what Joseph Pilates referred to as our “powerhouse”, loses the effortless support of the ground beneath our feet. Also, the feet pulled in below us can invite the spine to pitch forward, further obstructing the connection between the ground and the core. This pitching forward of the spine in turn can invite the chin to thrust forward and collapse the neck, which is actually the top of the spine. All of these effects are further constrictions. The actor is shrinking away from an open confrontation with the partner, and often preparing to flee.

Don’t people in real life shrink away from adversity and even flee from danger? Yes, they do. But you want to be sure that if you are having impulses like that, they are arising from the unfolding circumstances of the character and not from actor’s performance anxiety. Also (this is a little more complicated) there is a sense in which acting is not only an imitation of reality; it is simultaneously an imitation of reality and an illumination of it. Groundedness and length in the spine are important elements of that illumination part of the operation. But mightn’t we be asked to play a character with a hunch or curved spine? Yes, but delivering the illumination in that context is extra challenging.

In truth, all of this goes for standing as well. In scene work, actors often shift their weight to one side or the other. In the language of the body, this is a non-confrontational stance: I’ve half moved out of your way already. And I have watched these same actors in real life, and they generally don’t stand around with one hip popped. This posture also has the effect of undermining groundedness. Another common difficulty is habitual tension in the legs or the pelvis while standing or walking. This can similarly undermine our sense of strength and stability. The Alexander technique is a great way to develop awareness of these tendencies, and ultimately reverse them.

“The nature of any tree begins at the root. The body must adjust to the foot.” Carlo Mazzoni-Clementi, Commedia and the Actor

feet flat on the floor2018-02-26T21:49:42-08:00

danger artists

Actors are danger artists.

No one wants to go and watch actors that can’t experience danger, and experience it in a way that we can experience that danger with them.

As animals, we have an instinctive, preconscious understanding that other animals activate their pelvic core when they sense danger. The pelvic core is a constellation of muscles that goes from the lower thighs to the abdominals, and is intimately connected with basic fight-or-flight functions like locomotion, stability (needed for fighting), strength, and appetite. While many people live their lives with little or no core consciousness or activation, actors always need to have a wakefulness in this region. Otherwise, they are sending a signal to the audience that nothing dangerous or significant is about to happen.

That’s why we place such a high premium on articulating an underlying objective in the class. An underlying objective is a positive need that lives in the gut or belly, and prompts us to engage with the world to meet this need. Everything an actor does should issue from this need, just as all movement should include at least a modicum of core awareness or activation.

There are many acting approaches out there that emphasize the importance of give-and-take with the partner, that as actors, we are always trying to affect others and are being affected by them. But too many of these techniques take this give-and-take as the be-all and end-all. If all of the impulses that the actor receives are being processed in a more superficial region than the core (often the intercostal muscles, which help the ribs move in concert with the lungs), and therefore all outgoing impulses originate in this more superficial region as well, then an actor can offer us a very “believable”, and even “honest” performance that clearly presents the arc of a character, but we remain uninvolved. Our sympathy might aroused, but not our empathy. There will be no danger. The danger will not be televised, because there isn’t any.

The give-and-take with the other actors and with the environment is very important, but the neuromuscular center underwriting that activity is at least as important. A give-and-take where there is no core engagement and no danger can only be described, ultimately, in one way: boring.

danger artists2018-02-26T21:49:43-08:00

the “second brain” in the gut

From Scientific American:

As Olympians go for the gold in Vancouver, even the steeliest are likely to experience that familiar feeling of “butterflies” in the stomach. Underlying this sensation is an often-overlooked network of neurons lining our guts that is so extensive some scientists have nicknamed it our “second brain”.

A deeper understanding of this mass of neural tissue, filled with important neurotransmitters, is revealing that it does much more than merely handle digestion or inflict the occasional nervous pang. The little brain in our innards, in connection with the big one in our skulls, partly determines our mental state and plays key roles in certain diseases throughout the body.

One of the goals of my class is that actors learn how to allow every moment of their performance to originate in an impulse from the gut, so that their acting has a viscerally compelling dimension.

Also:

scientists were shocked to learn that about 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around.

The gut can guide the brain, if the brain allows itself to be guided. In some sense, all of the work we do with the Who-am-I and the underlying objective work in class is about aligning the brain so that it can be led by the gut in the way the script requires it to be. That way, the words and actions of the character become something that the actor allows to happen rather than decides to have happen.

And then there’s this:

The second brain informs our state of mind in other more obscure ways, as well. “A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut,” Mayer says. Butterflies in the stomach—signaling in the gut as part of our physiological stress response, Gershon says—is but one example. Although gastrointestinal (GI) turmoil can sour one’s moods, everyday emotional well-being may rely on messages from the brain below to the brain above. For example, electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve—a useful treatment for depression—may mimic these signals, Gershon says.

Given the two brains’ commonalities, other depression treatments that target the mind can unintentionally impact the gut. The enteric nervous system uses more than 30 neurotransmitters, just like the brain, and in fact 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is found in the bowels.

There’s a reason why it feels good to shake your groove thing! 90% of our happy juice lives in the gut.

I love the smell of vindication in the morning.

the “second brain” in the gut2011-07-21T13:26:44-07:00

recommended movement forms for actors

Physical training is indispensable for actors. Today I am going to take that as a given, and discuss some of the movement disciplines I have studied and the advantages they afford.

Capoeira There was a time when it was being considered to hire a capoeira teacher at the Yale School of Drama to teach the discipline to the acting students there. To my knowledge, this step was not taken, and it’s too bad, in my opinion. Capoeira is a martial art from Brazil that was created by slaves brought to Brazil from West Africa. In order to disguise their activites from their masters, the slaves developed the form as a kind of dance. It is practiced to chanting and the music of a string instrument called the berimbau. Martial arts are in general great things for actors to practice, as they promote alertness, focus, presence, strength, agility, and endurance. But capoeira has an advantage over other forms in that it has a rhythmic aspect, and rhythm is a vital faculty for actors as well. Also, capoeira has a swing to it, so it also promotes fluidity in movement, another aspect that differentiates it from other martial art forms. There are different styles of capoeira as well, so there are styles appropriate for people of all ages and physical ability. Try out this exuberant and sly movement form– you’ll be hooked before you know it.

T’ai-Chi

I have actually studied two different T’ai-Chi forms. T’ai-Chi, as I have practiced it, is a form of moving meditation based in part on Kung-Fu maneuvers. It has taught me a lot about the principle of filling negative space, for one thing, which is invaluable on its own. It promotes groundedness, and it also teaches you about managing your weight, which helps you move much more gracefully (some actors have an unfortunate tendency to begin walking by crossing their legs, which is often awkward looking). It helps actors develop independence of the two arms, and the ability to gesture expressively and gracefully. It challenges the student to learn to extend herself expansively, and stay grounded and balanced at the same time.

Contact Improvisation:

From Wikipedia:

Contact Improvisation (also referred to as “Contact” or “CI”) is a 39-year old dance form, practiced as both a concert and social dance form. In the performance context, Contact Improvisation is used either as a dance practice end-to-itself or as a dance research method for identifying new set choreography. Weekly meetings of practitioners that take place world-wide are called “jams,” in which participants participate and watch as they choose over the course of 2-4 hours. Dancers practice both known CI technique and conduct new dance research with different partners or groupings over the course of a Jam session. The name “Jam” is used in keeping with its use by contemporary musicians, who come together to spontaneously explore musical forms and ideas, with some group agreement about structure and duration of the exploration. While there is now an established CI Fundamentals technique, CI dance vocabulary is not closed, so all who practice the form contribute to the constant expansion and greater understanding of the dance form’s vocabulary, which is exchanged and taught among practictioners world-wide via regional jams, classes, week-long festivals, both print and online publications and, since its inception, via video in a process of dancing/watching/refining. While CI dancers usually stay touching or in physical contact for much of a dance, a CI dance can occur in which partners never touch yet there is a clear “listening” and energetic connection/intention that creates the “contact” of their shared dance.

Contact improvisation is very valuable to actors as it helps them to develop trust in others, and to embody that trust physically. It is all about risking balance, which actors need to be able to do contantly. not just for physically challenging scene work, but to achieve fully engaged, fulfilled work in the most sendentary of scenes. It also helps to develop responsiveness and attunement to the partner.

Limon technique: This is a form of modern dance developed by the legendary Jose Limon.

Wikipedia again:

Limón created the Limón technique, which “emphasizes the natural rhythms of fall and recovery and the interplay between weight and weightlessness to provide dancers with an organic approach to movement that easily adapts to a range of choreographic styles.”

[3]

Limon technique is very bouncy, emphasizing “suspend and release” as the central dynamic. It is a great way for the actor to discover her body’s natural swing. The connection to the breath is also paramount in this technique, which is invaluable for actors.

Butoh:

Butoh (?? But??) is the collective name for a diverse range of activities, techniques and motivations for dance, performance, or movement inspired by the Ankoku-Butoh (???? ankoku but??) movement. It typically involves playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, extreme or absurd environments, and is traditionally performed in white body makeup with slow hyper-controlled motion, with or without an audience. There is no set style, and it may be purely conceptual with no movement at all. Its origins have been attributed to Japanese dance legends Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno.

Butoh is extremely challenging physically, and that is the point. The great theater visionary Jerzy Grotowski was interested in what occurred at the limits of an actor’s physical capabilities, and Butoh is a great context to enter into such an explanation. Like acting, it asks that the actor be both fully engaged and relaxed at the same time.

And here’s an even better butoh video that I couldn’t embed.

Suzuki: This is an approach to acting developed by the Japanese theater director Tadashi Suzuki. It seeks to help the actor develop self-definition, focus, and groundedness. While I think it has value, I think it should not be sole discipline that an actor pursues, as I think it is important to develop physical responsiveness and agility as well.

Fitzmaurice voice work: This is a type of vocal training that involves physical training as well, particularly “tremoring”, a process where the actor is asked to hold difficult physical positions until the muscles start to shake, which can have the effect of helping long-held, unconscious rigidities and tensions to dissolve.

The Alexander Technique: Most major acting conservatories offer training in the Alexander technique. Alexander was an actor in Australia in the early part of the century who evolved an approach to body-mind integration that is extremely valuable for recovering from injuries, maintaining health, and helping performers of all stripes to stay in the present moment consistently. I think of the Alexander technique as an invaluable “meta-technique”, or a technique that helps you to execute other techniques, so I encourage actors to study one of the above disciplines in concert with the Alexander technique. I have written extensively about the Alexander technique on this blog, so you can use the search box to find other pieces.

Zen meditation: Although this is done, generally, seated and motionless, it’s a great way to develop centeredness, and to understand the dynamic nature of living stillness. Again, I would receommend using another technique in combination with it, to actually practice moving, but the benefits of Zen practice cannot be overstated.

There are lots of others, but these are ones that I have firsthand experience of. If you have thoughts about others, please leave them in the comments!

recommended movement forms for actors2018-02-26T21:49:52-08:00

quantum leaps


The expression “quantum leap” is kind of tricky to use correctly. As one physicist explains:

Some people think that a quantum leap is a particularly large leap. This is incorrect. In fact, in quantum physics, where the expression came from, a quantum leap is usually a very tiny leap indeed, often smaller than the diameter of the nucleus of an atom.

In defense of the people who are using the term incorrectly: if I recall correctly, quantum leaps can produce radiation, so while the leaps themselves may be very small, the results of said leaps can be significant, to say the least.

So what does all of this have to do with acting?

There are certain types of behavioral tics that crop up again and again when people are acting that, once they are addressed, can unleash enormous acting power. It’s as if the actor has everything in place, internally, but some part of her is using the tic in question to hold back and remove herself from the fray, to stay safe. Once that little bit of interference is removed, the actor’s work catches on fire, becomes radioactive, in a good way.

So what are some of these tics?

LOOKING AWAY BEFORE STARTING TO SPEAK:When I see an actor CONSISTENTLY look away from his partner before starting to speak, I always take notice. The actor is not looking at anything in particular, but is simply looking to the side or down, into space, for a moment, before starting to speak. Then, as soon as he starts to speak, he makes eye contact with the partner. Why is he looking away? It would seem he is formulating his response to what he has heard, find the right words, or something of the sort. We do this in real life. However, when an actor does it CONSTANTLY, every time he speaks, or more than half the time, this is a sign that the looking away is not arising from the situation he is attempting to inhabit, but is rather a response to being an actor in front of an audience, and the anxiety that goes along with that. Often, the actor will be using that disengagement to recall the next line, and will also use it to “compose” himself before speaking. As such, this looking away is a bid for control, an unwillingness to allow the impulse to arise from the connection with the other actor, but rather to reserve the right to shape or control the utterance he is about to undertake. Eye contact is intimate, and is therefore scary. Invariably, when I call an actor’s attention to this and INSIST that he make eye contact with the partner upon starting to speak (this usually takes a little work, first to make the actor aware of what he is doing with his eyes, and then to get him to stop doing it), there is a DRAMATIC flowering in the actor’s work. And to be clear: the goal is not “eye lock”, which occurs when an actor maintains eye contact with the partner only because she is directed to, but to inhibit HABITUAL looking away before starting to speak.

SMILING:Again, smiling is part of our repertoire for expression as human beings, a regular part. However, an actor who is smiling more often in a scene than she isn’t smiling is simply holding tension in her lips, probably out of anxiety. This will dramatically affect her ability to “throw the ball”, that is, to use her words to impact her partner, to place pressure on him. She will be effectively pulling her punches. When I see this, I ask her not to smile, and again, the results are often remarkable. Suddenly she is no longer fighting herself in her verbal expression, and she starts to really get her words out into space and into her partner.

STANDING OFF CENTER:When I see an actor standing with their weight over one leg or the other, rather that equally distributed over the two legs, I will ask him to stand over his center, by which I mean the abdominal core of the body, the Pilates core, if you will. When the weight is entirely over one leg or the other, the core muscles are “off the hook”: they do not need to be engaged to hold the body upright. When the actor’s weight is equally distributed over the two legs, the core has to engage to help maintain balance between the two. And when the core is engaged, the chances that the actor is doing something interesting increase exponentially. But what if it’s a character choice to stand with the hip popped and the weight over one leg, like Fonzee? Well, let’s just say that that is like a handicap in golf: the actor is making her life more difficult. Not that it can’t be done, but it is harder, because the actor is choosing a way of standing that actually undermines the engagement of the all-important abdominal core. So it’s a kind of advanced challenge. The actor first needs to learn what it is to engage with his core in a scene, to use it to put his words out and also to receive with it from his partner and from his environment. Once he has mastered that, he can start working at adopting alternate physical attitudes WHILE engaging from the core. But as always, first things first.

These are just a few examples of the kinds of tics that can undermine actors’ efforts to engage fully in a scene. It never ceases to amaze me the difference addressing them can make. We get to see an actor catch fire, in a good way.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio
quantum leaps2018-02-26T21:50:28-08:00

Donnie Darko, Acting Teacher

Uta Hagen says “The reason for movement is destination”. I’ve never seen a better visualization of this idea than this clip from Donnie Darko. Keep your eyes on the ectoplasm that comes out of Donnie’s father, then his sister, then Donnie himself. Take it away, Jake (the first 80 seconds are the relevant portion):

The video actually goes a step further than Uta Hagen does, by visually suggesting, with the ectoplasm, a connection between Donnie’s core (I would have placed the origin of the stream of ectoplasm a bit lower, around the belly, the film has it coming out of the solar plexus) and the place outside himself where he is headed next. The core is the seat of the “underlying objective” or driving need which is the source of the actor’s vitality. And in the moment that an actor who is in touch with that vitality identifies a point in space to which he NEEDS to move, his presence expands visibly, the space between him and his destination appears to “filled” with this vitality. It’s what the Chinese were talking about with “Chi”. Ok, I’m going to stop there, before I start to sound whacky.

Donnie Darko, Acting Teacher2018-02-26T21:51:56-08:00
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