a day at the museum

I went to the Getty Center yesterday to see the London Calling exhibit, an exhibition of works by painters in London in the post-WWII period.

While I was there, I tried to make use of my understanding of the Alexander Technique as I moved through the exhibition.  The Alexander Technique is not an acting technique in itself, although it is very relevant to acting, and actors in the MFA acting program at the Yale School of Drama are required to study it for the entire three years of the curriculum there.  My “elevator pitch” on the Alexander Technique is that it helps us to become aware of, and address, habits of  what I call “micro-scrunching”, subtle contractions of muscles that we make unconsciously that interfere with our ability to move through our lives with ease, poise, and presence.  For actors, this “micro-scrunching” interference causes a host of problems.  One of these problems is it obstructs the actor’s process of exposing his or her vulnerability.  The great psychologist Wilhelm Reich talked about the way in which our muscles often function as “armor” against the psychic blows we inevitably encounter in life.  This armoring undermines the actor’s ability to make palpable his or her own vulnerability, his or her own need for meaningful connections with the world.  The Alexander Technique is wonderful in terms of counteracting that physical armoring process.

Another benefit of the Alexander Technique is that it can have a subtle but undeniable effect on our perception of our environment.  By eliminating unnecessary muscular effort involved in perception (such as the process of fixing our gaze on something), we are free to have a closer encounter with our world.  At the museum, I found that when I invoked the Alexander Technique reminders, my experience of the paintings I was regarding changed significantly.  For one thing, I became more conscious of the physical surface of the painting; the textures presented themselves more strongly.  At the same time, to the extent that the paintings in question depicted a scene in three-dimensional space, I found that I had a greater experience of depth-of-field in the images.  This, in turn, asked me to look at what I was seeing not merely as painted figures, but as figures in three-dimensional space, which in turn asked me to regard them as people.   On the whole, I found that when I remembered to invoke the Alexander Technique, my physical and emotional experience of the painting was enriched, and I had a more vivid, sensuous experience, and as a less guarded, intellectual one.

A richer sensory experience can not help but enrich and strengthen an actor’s work.  The experience at the museum re-affirmed my conviction about the value of the Alexander Technique all over again.

a day at the museum2018-02-26T21:48:20-08:00

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

not you as the character, but the character as you

The other night, I was saying goodnight to a student who was leaving class. This was her first acting class, and she hadn’t yet put her scene up. She mentioned that she and her scene partner had done their scene for someone else, a third person, and she had asked that third person whether or not it had seemed like she was a different person when shte was acting, whether she had “become the character”.

I didn’t want to detain her from getting home, so I didn’t take the matter any further at that point. But I subsequently sent her an email in which I gently explained that thinking about “becoming the character” was not really the thing that she should be worrying about in the moment.

I once heard the following piece of advice: Don’t try to see yourself as the character. Try to see the character as you.

I remember the first day of acting class at Yale. Someone was doing a scene from Three Sisters, playing Masha. Earle, the teacher, said to the student: Masha lives in you. He was trying to tell her that she didn’t need to “become someone else” to play the role; he needed to bring herself to the role.

The lay person believes that “becoming the character” is what actors do, and in a sense, of course, that’s true. But only in a sense.

I don’t teach Meisner technique, but I know enough about it to know that the regimen of repetition exercises is about getting people to simplify what they are doing, to strip away the affect, to get out of their heads, and to respond as simply and authentically as they can to the partner.

In other words, it’s not helping them to become someone else. It’s helping them to allow themselves to show up.

My approach goes about achieving that in a very different way, but the goal is the same: you, the actor, are bringing your own passions and vulnerabilities to the character, channeling them appropriately, so that the words of the writer arise from “an authentic place”.

This is a really challenging point for a lot of new actors: they want to think about the character and what “he (or she) would do”. But you don’t have to think about what he or she would do; the writer has already provided that! You need to find the need in yourself to do those things.

Of course, people sometimes do play characters who are very far from who they are as people, and a transformation is required for them to do that. But that transformation cannot eclipse the actor’s own self or humanity or vulnerability: that is always going to be a part of any successful performance. That’s kind of an advanced challenge, to be able to change voice and body dramatically, without compromising the actor’s investment in the character’s needs and priorities.

not you as the character, but the character as you2018-02-26T21:48:30-08:00

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.

STOP! in the name of doing it better2018-02-26T21:48:37-08:00

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

on physical characterization

 

Day-Lewis quote

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“When are we going to work on creating characters?”

This refrain arises from time to time in the course of my teaching. I might be tempted to reply “What do you think we’re doing?”, as we strive to come to terms with circumstances, need, plot objective, action, and the path. We look at the decisions that a character makes, and the actions that follow from these decisions, as revealing character. So by studying the circumstances in which a character finds herself, some of which are a consequence of her own decisions, we can learn a lot about her character.

But that isn’t what the student is asking. The student who asks about when we are going to work on character is asking about physical characterization, the taking up of various physical and vocal idiosyncrasies that define character in the popular imagination. Darth Vader’s character impresses itself on us in large part through his voice. The temptation, then, is to assume that the main work of the actor is the finding of the right voice, and the consistent application of it across the role. This ability to change one’s vocal and physical demeanor is a kind of miracle to the lay person, and also to the aspiring actor, and indeed, there can be something miraculous about it. But it is not the deepest essence of the actor’s work, to my mind. And that deepest essence should be the basis for such physical and vocal mutations.

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on physical characterization2018-02-26T21:48:50-08:00

“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 vulnerability confusion

I was a on website for actors that publishes advice columns from various eminences in the industry: acting teachers, agents, casting directors, and others. I saw one such column from a prominent acting teacher in town who was recommending to actors that they try to be more vulnerable in their lives. This teacher was telling actors that during their day, when something embarrassing happened, an episode of clumsiness or cluelessness or whatever, the actor should make a conscious effort to be vulnerable in such situations: to face the witnesses to the moment of awkwardness, and in the process, maybe form a connection or at least have a moment with someone that would not otherwise have happened. The suggestion seems to be that in this way, the actor practices exercising her vulnerability muscles, and if those muscles get strong enough, she will be able to leverage them when an audition calls for true vulnerability.

But not so fast. Vulnerability is not, at bottom, an attitude we adopt towards a situation. In one sense, yes, we can choose to stay open or close down to someone. So there is something to this. But this is the tip of the iceberg. And we are interested, as actors, when it comes to vulnerability, in more than just the tip.

For an iceberg is an underwater mountain. It weighs tons, literally, and extends downwards into the depths. As human beings, we come into every moment, in which we might decide to throw that switch and make ourselves vulnerable, from somewhere. This is true in a literal sense: we come from Zimbabwe, or from Soviet Georgia, East St. Louis, or from Paris, or we lived across the street, to paraphrase a band I like. But we also enter into present moments from already-existing situations and contexts: our family, our education, our ongoing and discontinued relationships. Because of these contexts that already exist, we have a whole set of commitments or investments: people we care about, political convictions, passions, fetishes, even phobias and prejudices. If this moment when we might choose to throw the vulnerability switch is one in which we are interacting with someone previously known to us, then we are likely invested in that person in a particular way: we look for certain kinds of treatment from them, certain kinds of recognition of who and what we are. We may also have expectations about what various kinds of strangers, of various races, genders and occupations, may offer us. In either case, our vulnerability to the other person is baked into the cake: we are vulnerable to these people, whether we like it or not.

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the vulnerability confusion2018-02-26T21:48:56-08:00

I love the smell of vindication in the morning

Yesterday I wrote about Jeremy Rifkin’s thesis that our need for social connection and relationship is our deepest need, our most fundamental priority, and the implications of that for the understanding of acting. And this is far from the first time I have written about this.

I heard a teaser this morning for a segment on KPCC, a local NPR station, for an interview with UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman, whose new book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. This is how the book is described on Amazon:

In Social, renowned psychologist Matthew Lieberman explores groundbreaking research in social neuroscience revealing that our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental, more basic, than our need for food or shelter. Because of this, our brain uses its spare time to learn about the social world – other people and our relation to them. It is believed that we must commit 10,000 hours to master a skill. According to Lieberman, each of us has spent 10,000 hours learning to make sense of people and groups by the time we are ten.

Social argues that our need to reach out to and connect with others is a primary driver behind our behavior. We believe that pain and pleasure alone guide our actions. Yet, new research using fMRI – including a great deal of original research conducted by Lieberman and his UCLA lab — shows that our brains react to social pain and pleasure in much the same way as they do to physical pain and pleasure. Fortunately, the brain has evolved sophisticated mechanisms for securing our place in the social world. We have a unique ability to read other people’s minds, to figure out their hopes, fears, and motivations, allowing us to effectively coordinate our lives with one another. And our most private sense of who we are is intimately linked to the important people and groups in our lives. This wiring often leads us to restrain our selfish impulses for the greater good. These mechanisms lead to behavior that might seem irrational, but is really just the result of our deep social wiring and necessary for our success as a species.

Based on the latest cutting edge research, the findings in Social have important real-world implications. Our schools and businesses, for example, attempt to minimalize social distractions. But this is exactly the wrong thing to do to encourage engagement and learning, and literally shuts down the social brain, leaving powerful neuro-cognitive resources untapped. The insights revealed in this pioneering book suggest ways to improve learning in schools, make the workplace more productive, and improve our overall well-being.

This is essential for actors to grasp: every scene has a conflict, but conflict must be understood as the breakdown of an otherwise meaningful, or at the very least potentially meaningful, connection. The vaunted stakes of a scene can only be grasped by seeing the scene in this light.

I love the smell of vindication in the morning2018-02-26T21:49:03-08:00

the energy garden

Readers of my blog and those familiar with my teaching know that I place the highest emphasis on the visceral activation of the actor: if the actor can somehow involve the muscles and nerves in the lower abdomen, the so-called Pilates core, in her work, then her work will shine, pretty much no matter what. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially when you know others are watching, as they always are for actors, and when you have lines to say and other things to keep an eye on.

So it was with great pleasure that I discovered a wonderful discussion of the primacy of the lower abdomen in the book Zen Training Methods and Philosophy by Katsuki Sekida. We are reading excerpts from the book in my new advanced class, and this is one of them. This chapter is an absolutely extraordinary explication of the importance of this region for any endeavor.

Why is this region, called the tanden or “energy garden”, so important? Well, one reason is that the muscles in the lower abdomen control the breathing apparatus. By engaging these muscles, the pressure is placed on the diaphragm, which drives inhalation and exhalation. As Sekida puts it:

In according such importance to the tanden we do not question that it is the brain that thinks, plans, and gives orders; but what carries out the directions of the brain is, in the first place, the abdominal muscle structure, together with the diaphragm. If they do not go to work, no scheme is translated into action. You cannot produce a piece of music by simply staring at the score. When the respiratory muscles set to work, mental—or spiritual—power is put into action.

Even if you are breathing shallowly, into your chest, you cannot do it without some engagement from the muscles in the lower abdomen. Without them, nothing happens. Now consider the words “respiration”, “inspiration” and “spirit”. The common root speaks for itself. Respiration is re-spiriting yourself. Without the abdominal muscles, that would never happen.

Or as Sekida starkly restates:

Our contention, then, is that controlled respiration generates spiritual power, and that attention, which is actually spiritual power, can never be exercised without tension in the tanden. Some detailed examples may serve to explain this idea further.

He goes on to explain how in a variety of disciplines of performance, from circus to calligraphy to cartography to tea ceremony to sumo wrestling, the abdominal respiratory muscles of the tanden play an absolutely essential role. He even discusses American football:

Now let us stop and think of the players’ posture just before their dash, and consider how they are breathing, and what part of the body is particularly tensed at the moment of darting forward. The breath, of course, will be stopped, arms and legs tensed. But how about the abdomen? In reality, you cannot dart forward if strength is not thrown into the abdomen. Even if you throw your entire body against your opponent, if the center of gravity is not fixed in the lower abdomen, and the hips and buttocks are not supporting the center of gravity from below, you will undoubtedly suffer a severe fall. All Americans must know that the momentary collision is not merely the percussion of two bodies: it is a combat between spiritual powers.

A combat between spiritual powers. A more fitting description of the drama could hardly be found, and indeed, the great drama critic Richard Gilman loved to quote Henry James’ discussion of Ibsen, in whose work he saw “the ego against the ego, the soul against the soul”.

So all of this, I think, helps to explain why I place the emphasis that I do on visceral activation in the training of the actor. Much of what actors do is talk, which seems to be an activity of the one of the extremities: the jaw. It can be done with minimal involvement of the tanden. But if that is how it is done, everyone watching instinctively understands that nothing important is happening, and they are likely to remember that they have a scratch in their throat and start coughing, or take out their smart phones and start tweeting about how bored they are, or, worse still, get up and leave.

Sekida’s focus is on the engagement of the abdominal muscles, but that is only half the story: the receptive nerves in the tanden are vital as well. In the pit of our stomachs, we measure our standing with our world, especially with our social world. The actor needs this apparatus as much as he needs the muscles. When both the active and receptive principles are active in the core, and not merely in the solar plexus, or the throat, or in the face, then the actor is living FULLY under imaginary circumstances. It’s rare enough that anyone who witnesses it feels they are experiencing a miracle. And, in fact they are: they are seeing the actor conduct and distribute spiritual energy through their cores. Our society needs this now, sad to say, more than ever.

the energy garden2018-02-26T21:49:15-08:00
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