drawing the bow

luczniczka-904030_640I was meeting a prospective student for coffee the other day, like I do, and I was describing how the scene study portion of the class works.  I was explaining that the first time a pair puts a scene up, I ask each actor a lot of questions, to prompt them to speak from the character’s point of view about the charater’s situation in the scene.  I do this to hear the actor talk about how she has framed the scene for herself, so that I can help them see how framing the scene in another way could be a stronger way of approaching it.  It’s an absolutely vital part of the process.  In the course of this dialogue, things like judgments about the character that the actor may be harboring come to light, judgments which interfere with the actor’s ability to fully enter the character’s situation and fight her fight for keeps.

The prospective student was nodding his head, and then he said something.

“Drawing the bow.”

I looked at him blankly.  I hadn’t even understood the words that he had uttered, let alone what they could mean.

“What?”

“It’s like drawing the bow.”

I stared at him blankly.  What on earth could he be saying?

Then he made a gesture like he was pulling back the string of a bow, preparing to fire an arrow.  In a flash, I knew what he meant.  And I knew that he knew what I meant.

Getting a clear understanding of the circumstances that brought a character to a certain situation (the scene), and what the character wants to see happen in the scene, are integral to being able to play the scene effectively.   In the questioning process I described in class, it often is revealed that the actor has only a superficial grasp of these things.

But even beyond the circumstances themselves, there is the question of whether the actor has found a way to view those circumstances in a way that is urgent or “hot”, as we say in the class.  This urgency is vital for going all in on fighting the character’s fight, and getting his visceral need met.  If you see the situation as a ho-hum, everyday situation, you’re not going to be bringing much passion, or much core vulnerability, to his fight.

In the Essentials Workshop, I teach a framework called the Five Questions that is invaluable in focusing this process of extracting information about a character from the script and framing it so that the fight seems like one that urgently needs to be fought.

This whole process is about getting calibrated appropriately, so that your acting energies are aiming at the right things, and you’re not wasting your mojo and spinning your wheels.  And since it’s about aiming at the right things, “drawing the bow” is a perfect metaphor for this process.  It’s the action of pulling the bow back that makes the momentum and the flight of the arrow possible.  So while this process of working through the circumstances and arriving at clear, compelling framing takes a lot of challenging thinking, and can feel laborious at times, it’s work that is well worth the effort, so that you’re not giving away your shot.

This prospective student ended up signing up.  It’s wonderful to have such insightful students.

drawing the bow2018-02-26T21:48:24-08:00

more on the trouble with meisner

By far the most popular post on this blog is from nearly a decade ago: the trouble with meisner. In that post, I acknowledge that Meisner training can be very valuable and effective, and is a good way to learn certain things.

However, it has some limitations, as I outlined in my previous post on the subject. In the interceding years, I’ve had a few more thoughts on the subject, which I thought I’d outline here.

The centerpiece of Meisner technique is the repetition exercise. This involves the repetition of a pair of phrases between two actors:

A: Your shirt is blue.
B: My shirt is blue?
A: Your shirt is blue.
B: My shirt is blue?
.
,

The phrase is allowed to change occasionally, and only occasionally. The exercise is intended to teach actors to tune into the behavioral cues from the partner, and to allow those cues to shape the delivery of the next phrase. It also helps to strip away affectation, which gets tiring to maintain over time, so that the actor is merely responding to the prompts from the partner, and not “adding” anything from an idea about how the lines should be spoken. All of this is what is meant by listening, a word that is given a talismanic significance in Meisner technique training.

And listening is important for acting, no two ways about it. It’s one of the most important elements of any performance. An actor who is not responsive to what her partners or offering her is dead in the water. So learning to be attuned to the partner is very valuable.

However, there’s only so much that can be taught about listening without entering into the question of who is listening and what they are listening for. In other words, to character. And character arises from circumstances: among other things, it arises from what has happened to someone (like how they were treated by their parents or their peers, but not limited to this, at all), and from the choices they have made (about where to live, who to marry, how to earn a living, and how those choices have panned out, but again, not at all limited to do these things). You cannot begin to listen deeply as someone in particular without taking account of these things.

Now, in a two-year Meisner program, such elements are generally taught in the second year. In reality, not everyone ends up doing a two year program. Not everyone even undertakes to do two years of Meisner training, and even when people set out to do so, not everyone crosses the finish line. So not everyone gets exposed to these important matters. And my sense is that even for those are who are, a prejudice against thinking too long on these things gets acquired, as is attested to by the email I received that I quoted in my previous post on Mesiner:

I’m a Meisner-trained actor looking for
a scene study class with a minimal focus on technique. Coming
from a Meisner background, I want the class to be more about the
interaction between the actors, and staying truthful
moment-to-moment and less about script analysis.

As important as the moment-to-moment responsiveness is, without serious consideration of the circumstances and the priorities of the character that emerge from these circumstances, this moment-to-moment responsiveness risks remaining in the shallow end. Without a significant effort to enter into the circumstances and priorities of the character, the listening risks remaining superficial, and even glib. To achieve deep listening, listening that happens in the visceral core of the actor, the circumstances and priorities have to be studied and embraced fully and painstakingly.

Part of the appeal of Meisner, I think, is that the course of the typical training regimen postpones this focus on circumstances and priorities, which involves a deep engagement with the text and the actor exercising her analytical faculties, among other things, so that for the first six to twelve months of training, the actor doesn’t need to be bothered with all that studying and thinking and puzzling over objectives, and she can just focus on repetition work, which may ask to be practiced but doesn’t require the effort of thought. (“There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”–Joshua Reynolds) The focus is heavily on execution, and preparation is put off for later. This appeals to many aspiring actors, who are used to seeing actors executing in their favorite films and prestige television shows, but haven’t seen all the blood, sweat and tears that went into making that execution possible. In other words, intentional or not, structuring the training in this way amounts to a kind of pandering to the aspiring actor’s notions of what an actor’s day-to-day work is like.

That’s one issue. Another is this: on the execution side, the heavy emphasis on listening in Meisner, on receptiveness, as valuable as it is, may mean that the importance of assertiveness, of tenacity in going after the priorities of the characters, of what in my tradition is called playing to win, may get short shrift. Receptivity to the partner is very important, but there is an active principle to acting as well: the actor needs to fight for the character’s priority, to move the ball down the field, to claim territory, physical and psychic. When the focus is so heavily on how the partner’s volleys are being received, and allowing those volleys to condition the actor’s response, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the character that the actor is playing is heavily invested in proactively seeking to transform her circumstances. She is not merely answering to prompts of the partner, but is looking to impact her world in significant ways, to bring it into accord with her own vision. She is asserting herself. The opposing-yet-complementary principles of assertiveness and responsiveness are important for any actor.

The approach I teach shares the emphasis on imaginary circumstances and focusing on the partner with Meisner, and to the extent that it teaches these things, Meisner is a valuable course of study. The approach I teach begins with the leap into the character’s world through an immersion in the text, rather than with the basic fact of a partner who is to be responded to, which is Meisner’s starting point. The approach I teach also emphasizes the simultaneity of the assertive and the receptive principles: the actor needs to be fighting for what she needs at the most visceral level possible, and be responsive to her world from that visceral place moment-to-moment. It’s bringing these values into harmony that makes for the most compelling and memorable work.

more on the trouble with meisner2018-02-26T21:48:26-08:00

circumstances, underlying objective, and Donald Trump

In reading about this crazy primary season circus, I came across a profile of Al Sharpton on Politico. The subject was Sharpton’s take, as a fixture of New York politics for decades, on the Donald Trump phenomenon. And what he said about what motivates Trump is instructive in terms of the concept of underlying objective, which is central to the approach to acting that I teach:

And that’s when he gets to his keenest observation — the best assessment of Trump’s deepest motivations I’ve yet heard, and one that Beltway pundits who don’t understand the tangled psychological geography of the five boroughs miss: Trump may have been born with millions and erected huge buildings that bear his name, but he still feels the resentment of a gaudy, new-money outsider who has decided to burn down a Yankee establishment that always viewed him as a garish, grasping joke.
“Donald Trump was a Queens guy,” says Sharpton, who hails from Brooklyn’s Brownsville, the city’s toughest neighborhood, a collection of housing projects jammed hard between Queens and the Jamaica Bay swamps — and the scene of an all-out crack war in the 1980s and ’90s.

“His father was a successful real estate guy, but they were Queens guys. They were outer borough

[and] had to break into the big Manhattan aristocracy. He was an outsider — rich, but an outsider. He was not part of the Manhattan elite. So, he always had this outsider feeling — us against them. So, in many ways, when I read people talk about, ‘Well, do you have a billionaire as a populist?’ He does feel like he’s one of the guys who was shut out.

So, in terms of underlying objective, which is a way of thinking about objective that unites the character’s long-term plot goals with his moment-to-moment needs, we can see that Trump needs respect as an elite American , as a man among men. And we can also see how this need arises from the defining circumstance of his youth: that his father and himself were shut out of the winner’s circle in Manhattan social life. So then it becomes incumbent on the actor to do the imaginative work of exploring what that condition of being shut out actually looked like, how it was directly experienced in that past of the character, so that it becomes particularized and lives in the body of the actor.

See also the Islamic State and acting and rethinking “motivation” with Sebastian Junger and Rachel Maddow.

circumstances, underlying objective, and Donald Trump2018-02-26T21:48:28-08:00

“not a technique person”

I started my first Essentials class of the year a couple of weeks ago. The first night of class, I introduce a framework called the Five Questions, which helps to organize the process of extracting the given circumstances from the text. It’s the kind of exercise that can appear to be simple to the point of being simplistic, not to say tedious.

But there is more to it than meets the eye. Dramatic writing always depends on a relationship between what is made explicit in the text, and what is present through implication and context. The former is very easy to spot, the latter much less so. The things that depend on implication and context are hiding in plain sight, so to speak. So the question is: how do catch sight of those things? Well, there is no foolproof method for seeing what you don’t see, but writing down what you do see is a good starting point. Putting stuff in writing can turn the kaleidoscope of the mind, and suddenly you might spot something that you hadn’t seen before.

I encourage students to send me their Five Questions documents, and I provide thorough feedback on them, helping the students to see what they may not have seen. I can see from many of the documents submitted that many students don’t really see the value of the exercise, because the first submissions are often kind of cursory. When the students get their documents back from me with commentary, I can only hope that they begin to see the value of assuming that there are things in it that are not obvious, and combing it carefully and thoroughly to find those things.

From this new class I started, I received a Five Questions document that was actually a bit more thorough and thoughtful than average. Upon submitting it, its author had said he was “not a technique person, more a just do it and hope it works out kind of guy”, but that he was eager to see what he could learn over the course of the class. The Five Questions framework is itself a technical exercise: students are asked to answer a set of questions using particular criteria and guidelines. The fact that he had embraced this particular piece of technique in the way that he had suggested to me that he possessed a very important quality, which some have called grit: the capacity to contend with adversity and discomfort. He described himself as someone who wasn’t comfortable with technique, and yet he dove into this first piece of technique, in which he was asked to write out information about the character in a particular way, for reasons that were probably not yet obvious to him. This willingness to embrace discomfort is very important: it’s what is commonly called “getting out of one’s comfort zone”. It’s going forward, toward challenges, in spite of resistance. I recognize the great difficulty of this. It’s something that life makes sure that we contend with, sooner or later, and it’s usually not easy. But to my mind, it is the single most important quality for acting students to have. Technique by definition is going to ask that you do things in ways other than the ways that seem the most likely or plausible to you. That’s what it is: technique is a procedure that you follow in order to achieve a certain end. Sometimes, this procedure is going to chafe, it’s going to feel like an imposition, like something that cramps our style. This is inevitable. It’s the willingness to undergo this, in order to discover what the promise of that technique or procedure might be, in spite of the aspects of it that might seem foreign or unpleasant, that means the difference between an actor who can go beyond his or her inborn capabilities, and one who can’t.

Getting better as an actor is not about being a good actor. It’s about being a good student.

“not a technique person”2018-02-26T21:48:31-08:00

the Islamic State and acting

Like many people, I have been poring over reportage about the Islamic State, and I came across a discussion of what makes people vulnerable to ISIS recruiters, and ultimately prompts them to join ISIS:

The appeal of Islamic State rests on individuals’ quest for what psychologists call “personal significance,” which the militant group’s extremist propaganda cleverly exploits. The quest for significance is the desire to matter, to be respected, to be somebody in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others.

This quest for what these psychologists call personal significance is what we call underlying objective in the approach taught by me and by Evan Yionoulis at the Yale School of Drama. In this approach, every scene, and in fact every moment of every scenes, has to be understood as a bid for this personal significance, in a manner that it is independent of the medium- and long-term goals that the character has for changes in his circumstances. These medium- and long- term goals, which we call plot objectives in the approach, are easier to spot, and tempting to fixate on as a way of articulating something to pursue as a character, but they are insufficient, generally, for the purpose of helping the actor to activate her own visceral need for personal significance, her need to matter, to be meaningfully connected to others.

It’s striking to see that even in the case of people who join such an alien and horrific organization, we can understand something about what motivates these people with this notion of underlying objective.

It’s a revolution in the way in which scenes from dramatic texts, and indeed human encounters more broadly, are understood. Sign up for a class at Andrew Wood and plug yourself into this amazing source of acting power.

the Islamic State and acting2018-02-26T21:48:33-08:00

working loose, working tight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

working loose, working tight2015-07-04T01:10:25-07:00

we can work it out

Everyone, in every relationship in which they engage, is trying to make it work. Everyone is trying to make every significant relationship they have work. Until the moment when they leave that relationship for good, they are trying to make it work.

This is an incredibly important insight for actors. Actors work on situations involving conflict, almost all of the time. And it’s often easy to look at a scene and think that from the point of view of her character, everything would be fine if the other person would just STOP DOING

[THAT THING THAT THEY DO]. So the actor looks at the scene as the struggle to stop the other person from doing something, to mute them, in some sense. To shut the other person down.

The problem with looking at a scene in this way, any scene, even a scene in which you are trying to get someone to STFU or holding a gun to someone’s head, is that the actor is looking only at what the other character does that is wrong or offensive, and ignoring what they offer, what they bring to the table. And what the other character offers or brings to the table is the basis of the vulnerability in the scene. And vulnerability is what makes acting great, first and foremost.

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we can work it out2018-02-26T21:48:48-08:00

“But where does the emotion come from?”

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

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

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

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

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“But where does the emotion come from?”2018-02-26T21:48:52-08:00

the ostrich effect

Nice piece on NPR today about something called the “ostrich effect.” In a study, students were motivated by various incentives and penalties to take a test to determine whether they had genital herpes. In spite of having to pay a penalty (presumably from their compensation for participating in the study) if they refused the test, and in spite of the fact that their blood would be drawn regardless of whether they agreed to have it tested, 15% of the students still did not want to have the test, even though, rationally speaking, they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by finding out the truth. And yet, some of them didn’t want to know. “For those who didn’t want to know, the most common explanation was that they felt the results might cause them unnecessary stress or anxiety.”

What the article doesn’t mention, and I guess is to important to consider, is that some of the students may not have wanted to know because they didn’t want the responsibility of having to act in a way that would protect others. This means that they would rather be spreading the disease to others and not know it, than know about it and take the necessary steps. Not surprising, I suppose, given that the the subjects were college-aged, and likely fairly sexually active, but still, worth considering. Perhaps the “stress and anxiety” is actually a euphemism for precisely this.

Where am I going with this? Well, I talk to students (and have written before on this blog more than once) about what I call the “get it off my desk” phenomenon. It’s not the same thing, exactly, as the ostrich effect, but a cousin certainly. Essentially, in studying a script, actors will encounter bits of information on the characters’ past, or there will be bits of information that imply other things that are not stated expressly. Many of these things are presented obliquely, or indirectly, by the text, because, well, it would be bad writing if it just laid everything out explicitly. However, acting the role demands attention to these indirectly presented points. Now, sometimes these things go unnoticed, and so actors need to work to “be one upon whom nothing is lost”, as one famous American novelist enjoined other writers. But sometimes, these little bits of information ARE noticed, but they are, for some reason, ignored.

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the ostrich effect2018-02-26T21:48:52-08:00

on looking at text

My sense is that much of what goes by the name of “script analysis” today is actually not very helpful. Actors often sense that “not-helpfulness” and end up ignoring their analysis of the text, or skipping over it altogether. This has some dangers, most notably, what my teacher at Yale, Earle Gister, called “playing the language”, which seems to me to be what Howard Fine is talking about in The Common Mistakes section of Fine on Acting when he talks about “acting on the lines”. The actor believes she can just look at a line of text and know what to do with it, how to deliver it. So a line like “How dare you!” should be said indignantly, and “You’re so sweet!” should be said affectionately, and so on. This leads to banal delivery and ignores everything else that might be going on, apart from what is being said.

Then actors will notice that often, the most interesting deliveries are those that cut against the explicit meaning of the line. So they will conclude that they should always speak the lines in a way that cuts against the explicit meaning of the line. But in the end this amounts to the same thing. The actor is being responsive to the line and only to the line, and not to relationship, circumstance, need, or anything else. The difference between this and the first approach is only superficial, at best.

So what’s an actor to do? Knowing what to do with text emerges from examining that text, those lines, in the context of circumstances and need. I have discussed this at length in other posts, but I want to say a bit more about the text itself right now. What the character says is not unimportant, it just has to be viewed in relation to those other elements. But if it is important, how is it important? If the explicit meaning itself does not determine what to do with a line of text, but is nevertheless somehow important, in what way is it important? How does it matter?

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on looking at text2018-02-26T21:48:53-08:00
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