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

the visceral difference

In the much-read first chapter from Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting: The First Six Lessons, Boleslavsky says that audiences watching an actor exercising her capacity for concentration correctly should “know and feel immediately” that what that audience is witnessing is more important than whatever concerns that audience members brought into the event with them.  The importance of what the actor is undergoing must somehow be made evident by the actor’s engagement in her craft.  No small order.

The teachers I encountered at the Yale School of Drama asserted that what makes this effect possible, this immediate recognition on the part of the audience, independent of plot or story elements, is the visceral activation of the actor.  If you look up the word “visceral” in the dictionary, you will likely see something like this “pertaining to primitive or elemental emotion”, and indeed, that is what the word means in contemporary usage.  But the etymology tells the tale: the word originates with the Latin word viscera, which refers to the digestive tract, the intestines, or, more colloquially, the gut.

Visceral activation means that in some way, the actor’s gut is involved in what he or she is doing.  In our approach, this is achieved through working with the notion of objective in a particular way:  objective has to be understood as visceral need. I have discussed this distinction at length on this blog, for example, here.  But I’d like to say a bit about what the visceral difference looks like and sounds like, that is, what are the signs that such activation has been achieved?

Actors do two things more than anything else: they talk and they listen.  When a viscerally activated actor talks, they seem to be speaking from the gut, from the heart, from the core.  Perhaps the most evident example of what this is like in the current moment is the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Whatever you think of Donald Trump, he has a reputation for saying what is on his mind and in his heart in a tell-it-like-it-is way.   There is an immediacy to the way he speaks, and this is part of what accounts for his appeal.  When a viscerally activated actor speaks, he is making use of his abdominal core muscles, most importantly, the transverse abdominis, also known as the “skinny jeans” muscles, the muscles you need to tighten in order to squeeze into skinny jeans.  These muscles are deep in the layers of musculature, and they help to stabilize the spine and also interact with the diaphragm.  When these muscles are activated as part of the process of verbalizing, the actor appears to be speaking with the intention of impacting the partner: there is a palpable determination to be heard and understood.  An audience understands this immediately.  And it has nothing to do with projecting or being loud:  these muscles can be used when speaking quietly, but the effect is the same:  the actor who is activated in this way wants her words to land on her partner, and make something happen.

So much for the talking.  The listening of a viscerally- activated actor is a bit more difficult to describe.  In the process that I teach, we attempt to articulate a visceral need that the actor can embrace and pursue as a character in a given situation.  This need is understood as living in the gut.  This means that the actor needs to ground her attention in her gut, right behind the navel.  It’s like the actor has an eye or an ear there, right behind the navel, and all of the listening needs to happen from there.  This is “listening with the need”.  Everything that the partner does is immediately evaluated as either meeting the actor’s visceral need, or refusing to meet it, and this evaluation affects the actor’s next utterance, in the next moment.  This is challenging to do, because when an actor does this, she gives up the ability to monitor herself and how she is being perceived by her audience.  She can’t watch herself with her awareness placed in her belly, behind her navel.  This requires courage, but it is so satisfying for audiences because an actor engaging in this seems utterly sincere and honest.

If you consider all of this in relationship to mirror neurons we can begin to see why a viscerally engaged actor is so rewarding for audiences to watch: when the actor is viscerally activated, then through the mirror neurons of the audience, they feel themselves touched or moved in a very deep place.

Achieving visceral activation, even one time, is quite challenging.  Becoming an actor who habitually and instinctively works from the gut is more challenging by orders of magnitude, but is a very worthy goal, as such an actor can bring interest and life to virtually any script.  An awesome power, to be sure.  Like any awesome power, it comes with great responsibility.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

STOP! in the name of doing it better

Interesting piece on NPR this morning about a photographer who has photographed every New Hampshire primary since 1980.

What caught my interest was this:

Cole has a rule he follows when out on assignment: No matter how crowded the press gaggle gets, he never takes a picture while he’s touching another photographer. The point is to force himself to think of a different approach to each shot.

Take, for instance, a campaign appearance by George H.W. Bush at Nashua Airport in 1988: All of the other photographers followed the then-vice president on board an airplane.
Vice President George Bush waves from the cockpit of a World War II B-17 bomber at a quick campaign stop at Boire Field in Nashua, N.H. on Wednesday, July 15,1987.
Jim Cole/AP

“I stayed outside, and with all the luck in the world, Bush stuck his head out the pilot’s window and waved to everybody,” said Cole. (click here to view the picture)

With this rule, which does not allow him to take a picture if he is touching another reporter, (in other words if he is stuck in a scrum of reporters all taking the same picture ) Cole is practicing what in the Alexander technique is called inhibition. While inhibition might not sound like a good thing, in the context of the Alexander technique, it is. In the Alexander technique, inhibition is the ability to suppress one’s habitual response to things in order to open up the possibility of a different kind of response. Since many of our physical habits are the results of trauma or other kinds of negative input, it’s important for actors to engage with their physical habits and develop new habits that maximize expressive capacity and presence.

While the Alexander technique works with physical habits, in class at Andrew Wood, we work in part with mental habits, particularly the habits that we have involving how we understand and frame human motivation. Knee-jerk attempts at stating the motivations of characters often entail negative judgments and are focused on goals about the future (what we call plot objective), rather than on the present moment. At Andrew Wood, we learn to “inhibit” these initial ways of looking and thinking, and to find ways of understanding and framing what characters are after that are empathic and oriented towards the here and now of relationship rather than the future. Actors are forever enjoined to “be in the moment”, but aren’t asked to think about motivation in ways that promote this focus them on the here and now of interpersonal dynamics.

It’s what makes this kind of difference.

it changes your life

Today, on NPR, from a review of the career of Ben Bradlee, the editor at the Washington Post during Watergate:

Bradlee wasn’t introspective, but in an interview with his friend Jim Lehrer of PBS late in life, he sought to pin down what animated him.

“It changes your life, the pursuit of truth,” Bradlee said. “At least, if you know that you have tried to find the truth and gone past the first apparent truth towards the real truth, it’s very, it’s very exciting, I find.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

And I LOVE what Mr. Bradlee had to say about the first apparent truth and the real truth. This is what we struggle with all the time in class when looking at a script. There is one truth that presents itself to us as readers, initially, as we stand outside the story and take in the unfolding events. But the more we project ourselves INTO the narrative, and see things from the point of view of the character we are seeking to embody, the more we discover how superficial that initial truth was.

And getting beyond that superficial truth, getting to what Bradlee calls the real truth, is such a thrill. So emboldening. So energizing. It really does change your life.

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…)

RSA Animate – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

This is a really interesting piece, and helps make it clear why we have to constantly strive to think beyond “plot objectives” in thinking about what motivates characters.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio

El Duende and underlying objective

I was making the best of a Sunday night, trawling around what is quickly becoming one of my favorite websites, TheRumpus.net. I was reading this essay, which is quite good, by the way, about what keeps writers writing (or any artist creating art). And I came across a term I had never encountered before, in the context of a quote from Garcia Lorca: “The true fight is with the duende”.

Curious, I consulted the oracle of Palo Alto, which sent me to the Wikipedia. What I found was electrifying. The whole article is worth a read, and is quite short, but here are some highlights:

The meaning of duende as in tener duende (having duende) is a rarely-explained concept in Spanish art, particularly flamenco, having to do with emotion, expression and authenticity. In fact, tener duende can be loosely translated as having soul.

El duende is the spirit of evocation. It comes from inside as a physical/emotional response to music. It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive. Folk music in general, especially flamenco, tends to embody an authenticity that comes from a people whose culture is enriched by diaspora and hardship; vox populi, the human condition of joys and sorrows.

According to Christopher Maurer, editor of “In Search of Duende”, at least four elements can be isolated in Lorca’s vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. The duende is a demonic earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that “ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head”; who brings the artist face-to-face with death, and who helps him create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art. The duende is seen, in Lorca’s lecture, as an alternative to style, to mere virtuosity, to God-given grace and charm (what Spaniards call “angel”), and to the classical, artistic norms dictated by the muse. Not that the artist simply surrenders to the duende; he or she has to battle it skillfully, “on the rim of the well”, in “hand-to-hand combat”. To a higher degree than the muse or the angel, the duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort. It is, in Lorca’s words, “a sort of corkscrew that can get art into the sensibility of an audience… the very dearest thing that life can offer the intellectual.” The critic Brook Zern has written, of a performance of someone with duende, “it dilates the mind’s eye, so that the intensity becomes almost unendurable… There is a quality of first-timeness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal…”.

[1]

Lorca writes: “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”

“Everything that has black sounds in it, has duende.” (i.e. emotional ‘blackness’)

“This ‘mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains’ is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched the heart of Nietzsche, who searched in vain for its external forms on the Rialto Bridge and in the music of Bizet, without knowing that the duende he was pursuing had leaped straight from the Greek mysteries to the dancers of Cadiz or the beheaded, Dionysian scream of Silverio’s siguiriya.”

“The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.”

“All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present.” [1]– García Lorca, Play and Theory of the Duende

Reading this article started to stir up my bodily humors: adrenaline, bile and testosterone in equal parts. This duende seems to be a great description of what we attempt to bring to our work in class by articulating an underlying objective for the character. There are so many great things in the piece above, but particularly appropriate to the class is the thing about duende “creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort.” In the first class of the ten weeks, I always point to a passage from the first chapter of Boleslavsky’s book, where Boleslavsky informs the actor that their work must be such that those watching must “know and feel immediately” that what the actor is doing is more important than whatever the spectator was preoccupied with in the moment before the actor began. It seems that for this recognition to be immediate, it must be pre-cognitive: it must speak to the intuitions and instincts of the spectator.

If duende is so elusive and norm-defying, why do we try to get at it with technique? Well, the truth is that I can make a few points about what an underlying objective is or isn’t, but at a certain point, the actor has to move beyond the rules and, by fusing herself to the role, wrench the answer from deep within. She is almost required to become a poet for a moment, or at least to touch the poetic spirit the writer has imbued the work with. Yes, it’s frustrating, but if it were merely a matter of a few simple rules, I guarantee the duende would never appear. Articulating an underlying objective does not guarantee the appearance of duende; indeed, it is clear that nothing ever could. But it creates a condition of receptiveness; the actor makes herself into a vessel and waits to be filled.

Not bad for a Sunday night, n’est-ce pas?

Andrew Wood Acting Studio

David Foster Wallace on “puff words”

In class, we spend a lot of time learning to talk about who we are as the role, what we are pursuing, etc. And I strive to instill in my students an understanding of how important it is to speak about the scene in an immediate, direct, visceral way. That’s why I like this so much:

(If you just see a bunch of HTML below, then click the headline above to go to my blog and watch the video)

Andrew Wood Acting Studio
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