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

on acting in comedy, according to Michael McKean

Came across this gem in a Slate interview with Michael McKean of Better Call Saul:

I don’t think that a comedy performance—You know, it’s essentially the same job, no matter what. You find out what your character wants and then you go for it. That’s really how to do anything. They’re just going to write more jokes for you if it’s a comedy.

And he should know:

Like Odenkirk, McKean is best known for comedy, with a career that stretches from Laverne & Shirley through his roles in This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and Clue. But his dramatic talents are on full view at the moment, both on TV and on stage, where he’s appearing in the Tony-winning production of The Little Foxes at the Manhattan Theatre Club.

The defense rests.

MichaelMcKeanJaneLynch06TIFF.jpg
By gdcgraphics, CC BY 2.0, Link

 

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?

the fun part

Have you seen Casy Affleck’s incredible work in Manchester-by-the Sea?  If not, GO!

And how does he do such great work?  It might have a little to do with this:

“The fun part for me is endlessly talking about why does he do this, or why does he do that, or why doesn’t he? I really get into that.” – Casey Affleck on Rehearsing

People who tell you that understanding motivation and objectives isn’t worth it are, quite  simply, full of it.

 

 

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.

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.

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.

(more…)

“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.

(more…)

cyberball and acting

Now that the Uranium Madhouse show is over, I have had time to do a little reading. I have picked back up a fantastic book I wrote a little about previously, called Social Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.

The book explains how contemporary neuroscience is bearing out the perception that is at the heart of the approach to acting that I teach: that our most fundamental drive aims at belonging and social connection.

In one section of the book, Lieberman talks about discovering that another researcher had developed a way of being able to study the effects of social distress and rejection on subjects while their brains were being scanned in a MRI machine. The approach to doing so had been developed in meatspace first, that is, in a context that did not involve computers.

…a subject would show up and be told to wait for a few minutes. In the waiting room, two other people were already sitting, waiting for the same study. In reality, the other two people were what psychologists call confederates, which means they were pretending to be subjects and were actually working for the experimenter. One of the confederates would appear to “spontaneously” discover a tennis ball and would throw it to the other confederate, who would then toss it to the actual participant. Over the next minute or two, the three of them would toss the ball around in a triangle. However, at a prearranged time, the two confederates would stop throwing the ball to the real participant, and instead they would throw it back and forth to each other.

A digital version of the scenario was created, so that participants being scanned could “throw” a ball, using a computer, to other players (really computer-generated avatars) of the game. Again, once the game had started, and after some previously-decided amount of time had passed, the other participants in the virtual game would stop throwing the ball to real participant. In spite of the fact that the subject could not see or hear the other participants, the reactions of the subjects, who had been told their brain activity while engaging in cooperative activity with others (i.e. throwing a virtual ball) was being studied, were substantial:

After participants were rejected, they got out of the scanner, and they were taken to a room to answer questions about their experience. Frequently, these individuals would spontaneously start talking to us about what had just happened to them. They were genuinely angry or sad about what they had gone through. This was unusual for an fMRI study back then because most tasks didn’t generate personal emotional reactions. We had to pretend that we hadn’t been paying attention to what had happened in the scanner because we did not want their answers to the questions they were about to be asked to be contaminated by anything we might say.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

“the muscle of the soul”

One of the things that distinguishes the approach that I teach to acting, which I encountered as a directing graduate student at the Yale School of Drama, is the notion of visceral activation. The word “visceral”, I explain to students at their first night of class, comes from the Latin word viscera, meaning “”gut” or “intestines”. The idea is that the lower abdomen is the seat of our very primitve need to thrive and flourish, that is, for well-being. Thriving and flourishing, it turns out, are intimately linked to a sense of belonging, of connection to others. By attempting to bring the need that is housed in that area to bear on every moment of a performance, we strive for maximum vulnerability, authority, and presence as an actor.

I have written about this quite a bit, including here and here and here and here. So when I came across this piece, by Yoga teacher Danielle Prohom Olson , on a muscle in the abdominal core called the Psoas, I got very excited. Olson had recently discovered the work of a teacher named Liz Koch, who teaches what she calls Core Awareness.

According to Koch, the Psoas is far more than a core stabilizing muscle; it is an organ of perception composed of bio-intelligent tissue and “literally embodies our deepest urge for survival, and more profoundly, our elemental desire to flourish.”

Yes! Our elemental desire to flourish! That is exactly what the work that we do at Mother of Invention, which centers on getting in touch with an underlying objective, our need to flourish, is all about. And it means that all discussions of motivation come down to a basic, visceral, positive need to flourish! Everyone is trying to grow, expand, and thrive, by living connected, dynamic, full lives. To be able to do this, everyone has to enter relationship with others, to be connected. So everyone is vulnerable, viscerally vulnerable, because of this need for connection.

Also, the Psoas is “bio-intelligent tissue!” The Psoas is not just a muscle, it receives and processes information as well. This is consistent with this earlier blog post I wrote about brain research indicating the the gut processes information in a way that is similar to the brain, that in fact the gut can be thought of as a “second brain.” This is hugely important, because as actors, we have to learn to “receive with the gut” or “receive with the need”; that the measuring of what we are receiving from our world and our scene partners happens not in the head but in the gut!

And what is the Psoas?

The Psoas muscle (pronounced so-as) is the deepest muscle of the human body affecting our structural balance, muscular integrity, flexibility, strength, range of motion, joint mobility, and organ functioning.

Growing out of both sides of the spine, the psoas spans laterally from the 12th thoracic vertebrae (T12) to each of the 5 lumbar vertebrae. From there it flows down through the abdominal core, the pelvis, to attach to the top of the femur (thigh) bone.

But wait! There’s more!

A tight psoas not only creates structural problems, it constricts the organs, puts pressure on nerves, interferes with the movement of fluids, and impairs diaphragmatic breathing.

Koch believes the first step in cultivating a healthy psoas is to release unnecessary tension. But “to work with the psoas is not to try to control the muscle, but to cultivate the awareness necessary for sensing its messages. This involves making a conscious choice to become somatically aware.”

A relaxed psoas is the mark of play and creative expression. Instead of the contracted psoas, ready to run or fight, the relaxed and released psoas is ready instead to lengthen and open, to dance. In many yoga poses (like tree) the thighs can’t fully rotate outward unless the psoas releases. A released psoas allows the front of the thighs to lengthen and the leg to move independently from the pelvis, enhancing and deepening the lift of the entire torso and heart.

Koch believes that by cultivating a healthy psoas, we can rekindle our body’s vital energies by learning to reconnect with the life force of the universe. Within the Taoist tradition the psoas is spoken of as the seat or muscle of the soul, and surrounds the lower “Dan tien” a major energy center of body. A flexible and strong psoas grounds us and allows subtle energies to flow through the bones, muscles and joints.

The relaxed Psoas is ready to lengthen and open, to thrive, to experience meaningful connection that is the basis of our contentment. In class, we always look for a name for the visceral need, the underlying objective, that is positive. The actor must always understand herself to be reaching out in a scene for something worth having, even when she the scene requires that she hurl a thunderbolt at someone. We may use the core strength of the Psoas to hurl the thunderbolt, but we need to always return to the condition of openness to what our world has to offer.

Koch believes that by cultivating a healthy psoas, we can rekindle our body’s vital energies by learning to reconnect with the life force of the universe. Within the Taoist tradition the psoas is spoken of as the seat or muscle of the soul, and surrounds the lower “Dan tien” a major energy center of body. A flexible and strong psoas grounds us and allows subtle energies to flow through the bones, muscles and joints.

Koch writes “The psoas, by conducting energy, grounds us to the earth, just as a grounding wire prevents shocks and eliminates static on a radio. Freed and grounded, the spine can awaken”…“ As gravitational flows transfer weight through bones, tissue, and muscle, into the earth, the earth rebounds, flowing back up the legs and spine, energizing, coordinating and animating posture, movement and expression. It is an uninterrupted conversation between self, earth, and cosmos.”

The Psoas is the muscle of the soul. What did Stanislavsky say? Acting is “the life of the human soul receiving its birth through technique.” See how it all comes together?

I am really excited to learn through Olson about Koch’s work. Seems like I am going to have learn something about grantwriting in the near future, so I can go on one of these Core Awareness retreats. And Koch is based in Santa Cruz. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to convince her co-teach with me at Mother of Invention one day. As Rachel Maddow likes to say, watch this space!

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