the power of grievance (for the actor)

There is a saying attributed to the Buddha about resentment. Sometimes it is stated that harboring resentment is like taking poison and hoping someone else dies, or that it is like holding onto a hot coal with the intent to throw it another at the right time: the one holding the coal burns herself.

Knowing what we know about human beings, these are wise words, but very challenging ones. Our sense of grievance is very powerful, in some cases overwhelming. It doesn’t even really matter, in the end, whether we perceive the grievance to be righteous or not: nursing it, holding onto it, harboring it: these are bound to have a corrosive action on our souls, our psyches, our being. We may take action and get a wrong righted, a grievance redressed, but that doesn’t necessarily make up for the time spent being gnawed at by the resentment involved.

So learning to forgive, which is what letting go of resentments entails, is difficult, but necessary if we are to move through life with any measure of openness and ease. For most of us, that’s a pretty daunting piece of insight.

But this is not a blog about living well, it’s a blog about acting well. And while acting and life have something to do with each other, it would be a mistake to assume they mirror each other perfectly.

So while in life, we might need to strive to let go of grievances, for the sake of our well-being, in acting, we need to work to uncover them, when they are not obvious, and embrace them as skeleton keys that will allow us to unlock many scenes that we encounter.


the power of grievance (for the actor)2018-02-26T21:48:59-08:00

the source of “stakes” in #acting

In acting classes, actors hear a lot about “stakes.” Stakes need to be “high”, stakes need to be “raised”, the scene needs “urgency”. Unfortunately, though, actors often aren’t given a whole lot of help with how to accomplish these instructions. “Raise the stakes!” At worst, actors walk away with the notion that raising the stakes means they should “act harder”, do the scene more “urgently”, in a more “high-stakes” way, as if they had an internal “stakes” knob that they could just turn up to 11. Such an approach is doomed to fail; for one thing, it invites the actor to put his attention on himself and his own performance, which will produce self-consciousness and artificially revved-up work, not work informed by deeply personal investment in the situation at hand.

Some approaches will tell the actor to use what they call an “as-if”: the actor is told to come up with some kind of hypothetical situation involving cast members of the actor’s real life to somehow inject the imaginary situation of the scene with gravity, urgency, importance. This invites the actor to divide her awareness between the as-if scenario and the situation of the scene. She can focus on the scene, but then she is not getting the stakes from the as-if, or conversely, she can focus on the as-if, but then she is not being truly present to the scene. How about this: find a way of looking at the scene, understanding it, that reveals the human interest, the drama, the compelling aspects of it, so the actor can give the scene her full attention and have it be suffused with urgency that gets her juices flowing and ours?

How about that?

Nothing like having your cake and eating it to, as a mentor of mine at Yale used to say.

The point of departure is that any situation that anyone has bothered to put into a script, to dramatize, to ask us to examine, is inherently dramatic, high-stakes, and compelling. And even if, for a given scene in a given script, that is not the case, we have little choice but act as if it were. So what we need to do is articulate those stakes for ourselves, describe them, characterize them, so that our way of looking at the scene and the situation of the scene prompts us to act it in a way that honors these stakes. Not a simple thing to do; in fact learning to develop such a view of a scene is a whole skillset in itself that needs to be studied and practiced, but we can at least, with what have said so far, see the soundness of the goal of mastering this skill, as it will allow us to give an account of what is at stake in the scene that does not require us to focus on anything other than the scene at hand to achieve deep investment and existential urgency in our acting work.


the source of “stakes” in #acting2018-02-26T21:49:03-08:00

the dark engine

Actors are frequently described as a species of storyteller. And there is an important sense in which that is true. Characters’ stories have arcs, we are told, and the actor needs to uncover that arc, and bring it to life.

But that’s only one aspect of what actors do. When we live our lives, moment to emerging moment, there is no story yet. No arc. Was it Kierkegaard who said that lives have to be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards? I believe it was. In those moments that we live through, one after the other, there is no shape yet, no arc, just an array of facts, and another array, this one of possibilities.

We meet each moment, as best we can. And how do we do it? We are prompted, by something inside. A hunger: for wholeness, belonging, accord with the world, something. Try to name it and it slips through your fingers.

That’s what the now is like: there’s the world, there’s this inner prompting, and then there is our action, our response. Later, much later, we arrange these prompts and responses into stories, which we tell for an array of reasons, as responses to prompts we encounter further down the road.

When we act, we try to touch our own promptings, our own hunger for belonging, for accord with our world, our own hunger to be enfolded in a harmonious whole the way we were once enfolded in the womb, and bring these promptings from this dark engine inside us to bear on someone else’s circumstances, someone else’s situation, someone else’s life, someone else’s story. Stories are great to watch, but a great actor invites us into that space of flux and danger, between prompt and world, where the story has not yet become a story; it is still a great question, a test of some kind. An actor who does this makes the oldest story fresh, and in her mouth the stalest of speeches becomes a song of arresting beauty and mystery.

A tall order. Acquiring the ability to do this at will, to repeat it as needed, within a broad range of narratives and situations, is earned only with extraordinary patience, dedication, and implacable resolve to keep moving forward. When I see a student take a step closer towards acquiring this facility, I am deeply, passionately gratified

the dark engine2013-05-11T11:12:08-07:00

chekhov work

I am working with a terrific group of actors in my advanced class at the moment. We are doing scenes from Chekhov’s plays. I absolutely love working on Chekhov. Part of that is the difficulty and the mystery. His writing is enigmatic, surprising, not at all obvious, but with a little effort whole new realms of experience and perception become surveyable. It’s a little like opening a wooden wardrobe, pushing past the coats that smell of mothballs, and stepping into a brave new world, lustrous and covered in snow.

One of the things that we do in class is inspired by a process called The Booth, which I encountered when I took some great writing classes at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop in New York some years ago. A writer would distribute work to the class to be read ahead of time. Everyone would read the work, and identify something that was working well about the piece of writing, and something that could be improved. We were asked to pick just one of each, which forced us to make decisions about what cried out most urgently for discussion. In class, everyone would be invited to share the thing they had identified that worked, and the thing they thought should be worked on. But as they did that, we were told to imagine that the writer of the piece was inside a glass booth. The writer could hear everything that was being said, but she could not say anything herself. This forestalled any inclination to defend what she had written, which actually made it easier, I found, when I was in the booth, to listen to. After the class and participants had completed their observations, the teacher would then weigh in with a longer review of the work. It was a very illuminating and satisfying process, whether you were in the booth or not.

We do something like this with our 5 Questions document, aka “The Who-am-I”. This document is a kind of blueprint for the role, an attempt to capture and organize the information provided by the writer about the character, and then to expand upon and imaginatively develop that material. It is not a free-ranging character bio; there is a complex set of strictures involved in answering the questions posed by the framework. Developing a Who-am-I is an art in itself, and an indispensable one, as it helps the actor to become oriented towards his world and the other people in it.

My twist on the booth is that as students share their Strong Point on Point for Improvement on the Who-am-I document at hand, I write these points up on the board, for all to see. Then, once each participant has weighed in, I go over each of the observations offered, both the Strong Points and the Points for Improvement, and I respond to each, essentially either agreeing and amplifying a point offered by the student, or invalidating it, and explaining why. In each case, my response is based not on my subjective response to the observation offered about the Who-am-I, but on whether the observation in question was a constructive and useful application of the principles of Who-am-I building. So the student is being given feedback on whether their commentary demonstrates a full understanding of the criteria that make up a strong, functional Who-am-I. They also receive such feedback when I comment directly on their own Who-am-I, but in that context, they are focused on the practical problem of how to make the Who-am-I that they are working on better. In the situation where I am responding to their commentary, they are not so focused on a practical problem they need to solve to be able to do their work well, so they are more able to absorb the principle in question. Or so it seems to me. They seem to find it very rewarding as well.

A couple of themes that came up in discussion of Who-am-I’s recently:

story vs background: Both are important. In the Astrov-Sonya scene in Uncle Vanya, you will not find something to pursue as Astrov unless you recognize that (1) Sonya has been in love with you for a while, (2) she has hoped to become your wife for a while (3) she has burdened you with these expectations, silently. (1) and (2) are made clear in the unfolding of the story, but (3) only becomes clear with some work. We see how later in the play, when Astrov is asked to stop coming to the house, because Sonya is suffering, he readily acquiesces. There is no surprise or discussion, in spite of the fact that he says the nanny, Marina, is the only person he loves, and he clearly has a deep bond with Vanya, and a fondness for Sonya, for that matter (he just doesn’t want her for a wife). But he is willing to give them all up to alleviate Sonya’s suffering. He knows this is the decent thing to do. This means that the suffering is evident to him. So that in turn means that he knows it, and has lived with it, with her expectations which he cannot possibly meet, for some time. This recognition gives the actor a compelling thing to pursue in the scene: he must get Sonya to prove her love for him by setting him free, which includes apologizing for imposing on him with her expectations. However, we have not had any evidence in the story prior to this point that Sonya is behaving in this way. There is no plot point that displays it. It is a part of the background up to this point: a part of the experience of the character, but not on display in any particular plot point. This demonstrates the need for the actor to imaginatively project himself into the routine life of the character, what I am calling the background, or what some screenwriting books call the stasis that exists prior to the inciting incident of the story, as well as to explore the events that appear as past plot points in the story.

the lives of others: Things that happen to people you know are things that happen to you, and belong in your Who-am-I. In Vanya, prior to the start of the play, Sonya’s mother has died, and her father marries Yelena. Since we know that Astrov has been visiting for eleven years, he was aware of these events, and he certainly would remember the first time he saw Yelena. So even though these events don’t involve him as a principle player, they still belong in his Who-am-I as events he witnessed or was aware of at some level. The same with the marriage of Andre to Natasha in The Three Sisters: Masha is not getting married herself, but her brother got married, and his wife has moved into the house, between Act I and Act II of the play. These events belong in the Who-am-I of the actor playing Masha.

Will share some more insights as they emerge. Having a wonderful time. Can you tell?

chekhov work2018-02-26T21:49:12-08:00

speaking volumes

I think I’ve made it clear by now that I LOVED the new film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy . I liked so many things about it that even the idea of trying to enumerate them conjures the vivid image of trying to drink from a firehose.

But I’m happy to let other people take a shot at counting the ways. I was struck by this passage from the review by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times about the performance of John Hurt:

That face, a crevassed landscape that suggests sorrow and history, has the granitic grandeur of W. H. Auden in his later life. In tandem with Mr. Hurt’s sonorously melancholic voice (and its useful undertones of hysteria), it is a face that, when used by a filmmaker like Mr. Alfredson, speaks volumes about a character who would otherwise take reams of written dialogue to discover.

Dargis can attribute the volume-speaking to Hurt’s face and voice, but let me tell you, the acting had something to do with it as well. And this was one thing about the film that was so successful: so many of the actors in it successfully embody the strain of a lifetime spent in high-pressure contests of nerve, the weight of a past. I have written several times before on this blog about the “great spaces of life and experience” that the actor’s presence needs to evoke; when it doesn’t, we are just watching someone go through the motions. But an actor who can, by means of technique, impose the imprint of someone else’s decades of aches and longings and joys and fears upon their own neuromuscular apparatus is like is a portal onto an alternate dimension.

This is what accounts for the inexhaustibility of acting: no matter how much good acting we see (and there is a vast canon of it in the history of film that is fairly accessible through modern technology), we’ll always want to see more of it. Our thirst for the actor to engulf us in another life is undying.

speaking volumes2018-02-26T21:49:31-08:00

the circus of the given circumstances

To accomplish their fabulous feats, trapeze flyers must depend completely on an ensemble of objects, people and physical forces. Fly-bar and catch-bar must swing in sync. A catchman must spot and receive the flyer, and a guidesman tempers the tension and the give in the wires and pulleys while the act is in progress so the rigging responds correctly to the flyer’s velocity and weight. The astounding acrobatics are the outcome of a grand collusion between flyers and their given circumstances. Great aerialists know precisely how to use the support and energy of the special ecology that surrounds them.

A play provides different kinds of given circumstances, including other actors, particular arrangements of time and space, events, and a variety of costumes and objects. All of theser contribute to the world of a play just as the pulleys, bars, catchmen, and so on contribute to the world of the trapeze act. In the theatre, as in the circus, the given circumstances are nonnegotiable gifts–nonnegotiable because they are generally thought of as intergral parts of a play (…); and gifts because they operate as a readily available energy field that charges the work of those who know how to use them.
–Acting Through Exercises, John Gronbeck-Tedesco

This is an absolutely marvelous description of the simultaneous complexity and richness that the given circumstances of a play comprise. In my class, students initially encounter the given circumstances as a set of facts that they have to master to be ready to face what is affectionately known as the “grilling”, the period of question-and-answer after they do a scene when I check their depth of knowledge of these things. So they first come to know the given circumstances as a dragon that they need to slay.

But I would say it’s a sign of an actor’s maturity to have come to regard the given circumstances not as an obstacle to be overcome, but rather, as Gronbeck-Tedesco suggests, as gifts, opportunities, trapeze-bars that they can grab onto and be swung into a world of imagination. In that sense, the circumstances are no longer a beast that must be overcome, but rather one that needs to be tamed, with all of the patience, gentleness, warmth and dogged persistence that taming entails.

PS Happy birthday Yolanda!

the circus of the given circumstances2018-02-26T21:49:46-08:00

in defense of the third degree

I have been reading this book that came highly recommended to me called Mindsight The New Science of Personal Transformation, by Daniel J Siegel. It was discussed in a book I recently finished and have discussed on this blog at length. The person who recommended Mindsight to me had not read that book, so it was a little bit of a Jungian synchronicity moment, if if you believe in that sort of thing.

Mindsight is all about the proposition that awareness about how the parts of the brain interact can actually impact mental health. It’s brain science meets I’m OK You’re OK. Ok that was kind of glib, but it gives you the idea. And so far it has been interesting, notwithstanding the fact that it can’t seem to make up its mind (heh!) about whether it is making a serious intellectual argument or popularizing brain science, mindfulness and other stuff. But anyway, I came across something quite striking as I was reading it the other day. I’ll just lay it on you:

Research has revealed that the best predictor of the security of our children’s attachment to us is our ability to narrate the story of our own childhood in a coherent fashion.

You want your kids to be able to securely attach to you because, from both a neurological and a psychological point of view, their ability to form attachments in the future is going to be heavily shaped, limited, and conditioned by the success of these initial formative attachments (Read about attachment theory here).

So let’s recap that: the best predictor of the ability of children to form these all-important bonds with their parents is the ability of said parents to narrate the story of their own childhoods.

Not what you would call an obvious or intuitive connection.

What struck me about this was that this ability to narrate a life is what my teachers at Yale, and in their footsteps, I, use as a way to take the measure of an actor’s preparation and their readiness to walk in the shoes of the character or “Who-am-I” the actor was attempting to portray.

During the three semesters that I was a TA to Evan Yionoulis, who chaired the acting program at the Yale School of Drama for five years, I watched Evan elicit narrations from actors by posing questions to them that they were to answer in the first person. It was part interrogation and part Socratic dialogue. These questions were about the past, present or the future of the character. At the very minimum, these questions were intended to probe the actor’s mastery of the given circumstances of the scene. “So why did the second of your two daughters turn you out?” “Who did the person behind the curtain who you stabbed turn out to be?” etc. A firm grasp of the circumstances is essential to anything further. Often actors take such knowledge for granted, only to discover, awkwardly, that their command of these basic facts is lacking when they are standing in front of the class being questioned by a teacher.

But it’s not only the facts that Evan wanted to hear about. She wanted to hear about how the actor had surveyed those facts and arranged them into a narrative that heated up the scene. It’s the difference between “And I discovered I had killed Polonius” and “And I discovered that the man I killed was Polonius, the father of the woman I love and the trusted advisor of my late father.” Actors were expected not just to grasp the facts, but to be able to talk about them in ways that articulated their importance, and injected urgency into the situation.

And then there was the fanning of the flames, the term for the supplementing of what the writer provides by the actor to enhance the interest and urgency of the scene, and provide greater fullness and specificity to the life the actor is leading in the scene. Actors were taught that they should not just arbitrarily add details to their background, but details that make the scene more compelling.

Actors were also expected to be able to talk about the potential future of the character. They were expected to be able to say without hesitation what they would most like to see happen in a given situation and what they would least like to see happen.

Finally, it was important that the actor have personalized all of this: found ways to make the people, places and things that make up the world of the character carry the weight for the actor that the story called for. So the actor needed to be able not simply to recite the facts in the first person, but to talk about those facts as if they were the facts of their own life. Not that the question and answer process was supposed to be a performance, only that when the actors address subjects important to the character in the first person, the weight of the topics discussed should have been palpable in the actor’s narration.

The ability to speak about these things with fluency attests to the time and thought an actor has put into the situation and priorities of the character. It’s a lot more difficult than it sounds. It’s the process that I use in class when students show their scenes for the first time, and the first pair that gets up has the hardest time. At the end of the night that the first pair show a scene during a ten week cycle, other students invariably express relief that they got to see the process once before having to go through it. They leave class knowing that they have a lot of work to do.

in defense of the third degree2018-02-26T21:50:46-08:00
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