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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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Does it run in the family? Sadly, no.

From a review of Amy Poehler and her brother Greg’s new show, Welcome to Sweden:

“Welcome to Sweden,” about a man who leaves his high paying job as a celebrity accountant to move to Sweden for the love of his life, was created by Greg Poehler, brother of “Parks and Recreation” star and comedy veteran Amy Poehler. The elder Poehler cashes in a few favors from the likes of “SNL” veteran Will Ferrell and “Parks and Rec” co-star Aubrey Plaza to bring some much needed talent to the show, as well as appearing as an evil version of herself on more than one occasion. She, as always, is a delight — as are most of the celebrity guests, who occasionally save some subpar writing — but a much harsher “d” word comes to mind when watching the character her brother portrays on the show.

Unlike his sister, Greg has no formal training as an actor, writer, or producer (he and Amy serve as executive producers). Sadly, it shows. While plenty of family members are funny in their own right, it appears Amy’s wealth of experience in the UCB improv theatre, years writing and acting on “Saturday Night Live” and many diverse roles in television and film have actually helped her hone her craft and become one of the funniest people on the planet. Her brother, however, did none of these things, instead relying on whatever inherit

[sic] charm and perseverance was within him to churn out a comedy series based on his own personal experiences moving to Sweden.

Big surprise: it doesn’t work… “

Hard work. Dedication. Stamina. There are no short cuts.

lies, damn lies and hollywood acting teachers

You may have noticed the redesign of the homepage, not to mention the new business name. In the course of effecting this transformation, I looked around at the way some of my competitors are marketing themselves. And some are doing a terrific job. But I did see one thing that gave me pause.

I saw studios that make such promises as that their approach to training will make acting “easy” and “fun”. In some cases, they went on to glibly ridicule the great approaches to acting that evolved in the last century or so, as if they were talking about some dated hairstyle that now seems both disastrously misguided and quaint at the same time. I found the level of disrespect and outright mendacity here nothing short of breathtaking.

What makes it so awful is that there is a part of all of us that wants things to be easy, but this part is not the part that acquires stamina, builds careers, and finds the faith it takes to confront adversity. Assertions that acting can be easy fosters the wrong part of those who are drawn to it.

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experiencing vs learning (for performers)

Leah Zhang, the certified Alexander instructor who is co-teaching my current Advanced class at the moment, sent a great excerpt from a book called The Body Speaks by Lorna Marshall to my current students. I have picked out an excerpt from the excerpt that I thought was really valuable.

People sometimes confuse experiencing with learning. Experiencing an exercise means you have encountered it and understood it. Learning means that you have repeated it so often that you can reproduce its function at any time, anywhere. It is no longer something you have met once and found interesting; it is something you own, that you have claimed and can easily repeat. (And remember, the business of performing is repeatability. Every night on stage you must be able to repeat and reproduce a vivid performance. When filming, you must be able to repeat a moment of great sensitivity again and again, until the director has all the takes he or she wants.)

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is a habit, not an act.” –Will Durante, paraphrasing Aristotle

an inconvenient truth

“Athletes, dancers, and singers never outgrow their need for the basic conditioning that makes their crafts possible. Neither do actors.”

–John Gronbeck-Tedesco, Acting Through Exercises

Suppose your dream were to become a concert pianist. How many years of daily practice would you expect to put in before attempting to appear publicly as a pianist? 5? 10? It will depend to some degree on your inborn ability, but as Malcolm Gladwell and Gary Marcus and Josh Waitzkin have suggested, it actually depends more on time, diligence and a sustained focus on getting better at what you do.

But no one, I would venture to say, would take piano lessons for three months or six months or a year or even two years and then attempt to present themselves to the public as a concert pianist. It would be inconceivable, and, barring a true prodigy, an adventure doomed to end in failure, not to say humilation.

So where am I going with this? An actor should not put themselves out there to appear in a film, play, webisode, or whatever, until they have taken five years of classes? I wouldn’t presume to say that. Such projects, if you can get them, can be learning experiences. Although as I have written about previously, production situations are not always conducive to the actor working in a process-oriented way. There is a lot of pressure to produce results than can lead to shortcuts being taken, shortcuts that can compromise the final product. More dangerously, these shortcuts can become habits, habits that can eventually become “bags of tricks”, ways of being that actors rely on to avoid having to deal with the newness and strangeness of the material and the situation they find themselves confronted with. Real-world experience can be great, but there is also a danger that in the hurlyburly of production ideals and values fall by the wayside in the rush to get to the finish line.

So, the answer, quite simply, is to keep studying. Book a project? Great! Can you keep studying while you do it? Have you looked closely to determine if there is a way you can stay in class, thus staying connected to the sources of your values and priorities as an actor? I was impressed with the desire of actors in the last play I directed to stay in class even while they were in the midst of a demanding rehearsal schedule. These actors knew that it’s enormously valuable to keep reflecting on their work and the values and distinctions that define it, even as they worked on a production. But maybe the schedule is such that you can’t keep studying. What can you do? Study the Alexander Technique? Most AT teachers will let you schedule one-on-one sessions at your convenience. What about some voice work with a Fitzmaurice-trained teacher? What about some movement training? In short, anything that keeps you open and looking at things in new ways will help you stay connected to your commitment to do the best work you are capable of.

But as soon as the project is over, what should you do? If you’re serious, you get back into class. You need to reconnect with basic principles, to re-embrace your commitment to process and growth and continuity in your artistic work, to going beyond what you already know and can do. If you are an actor who is also an artist, you find a way to act whether or not anyone wants to pay you to do it or provide you with an unpaid opportunity to do it at this particular moment. You act because it is a form of attesting to the wonderful meaningfulness of everything, and this attesting gives your own life meaning. Complacency is totally incompatible with being an artist.

For an actor who is an artist, finish lines and sabbaticals are anathema. You keep going.

That is all.

a neverending story

I mentioned a while back that I had started reading a book called Guitar Zero. I’ll admit to getting sidetracked (producing and directing a play has more than a little to do with it 😉 ), but I have picked it up again. Here’s a passage I recently found to be very inspiring:

Music, as we have seen, is more like a lifelong journey than a few weeks’ project, more chess than checkers. Although many of the rudiments of music fit naturally with the human mind, mastering the detail is an ongoing project. As I soon discovered, every new chord and every new scale took significant amounts of practice; I also started talking to musicians and discovered that they too see mastering music as an ongoing pursuit. Virtually every musician I met professes to still be learning; not one claimed to have fully mastered his or her craft. Pat Metheny, for instance, is one of the most accomplished musicians I had the pleasure of meeting; he is widely acknowledged to be one of the world’s leading jazz guitarists, yet even after four decades, he has no doubt that he is continuing to develop his craft. For all his accomplishments (eighteen Grammys as of this writing), he still keeps studying; every time Metheny plays, for instance, he keeps a diary— typically six to eight pages long— analyzing what worked, and what didn’t, in order to make subsequent shows (and recordings) even better.

Learning a craft is about acquiring good habits. There are few habits more important than that of reflecting on one’s creative work. The temptation to follow paths of least resistance and take short cuts, and to rely on a bag of tricks, is very great and ever-present. I’ve been around long enough to see brilliantly talented people become complacent and soft, and also to see novices acquire a degree of mastery. A man once observed that we are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is a habit not an act. Let the habit of always trying to get better be a part of what you are.

deliberate practice

Another chestnut from Gary Marcus’ book Guitar Zero:

The second prerequisite of expertise is what Ericsson calls “deliberate practice,” a constant sense of self-evaluation, of focusing on one’s weaknesses rather than simply fooling around and playing to one’s strengths. Studies show that practice aimed at remedying weaknesses is a better predictor of expertise than raw number of hours; playing for fun and repeating what you already know is not necessarily the same as efficiently reaching a new level. Most of the practice that most people do, most of the time, be it in the pursuit of learning the guitar or improving their golf game, yields almost no effect. Sooner or later, most learners reach a plateau, repeating what they already know rather than battling their weaknesses, at which point their progress becomes slow.

Word.

It’s one thing to have some native ability, and another to put in the time, but the mark of an artist is someone who constantly wants to get better, someone who is determined to learn and grow, and is always looking for opportunities to do so. Such people take full responsibility for making sure that they are always prepared to maximize any opportunity to learn. In even the very first emails to set up the coffee date to sign a student up for the class, there are often signs that scream out whether someone is going to be such a student. How responsive are they? How much do they attempt to put their best foot forward? How conscientious are they about following up and accomplishing tasks like providing the deposit or joining the Yahoo Group? Once the course starts, it’s on to do they do the reading? Do they do the optional homework assignments and send them to me for review? Do they revise their work as instructed and resubmit it? Do they take time at home to make sure they have absorbed the practical concepts presented in class? Do they know their lines? Do they have rehearsal clothes (a costume) to do their scene in? Have they bothered to create an environment for the scene? Have they learned the lines precisely as written? All of these are little episodes of self-revelation. It’s not reasonable to expect everyone to be this devoted to their work; if the class helps them realize that acting is not the thing that they want to get married to, that’s an accomplishment. Someone learned something about themselves. But this fastidiousness about learning in a student always warms the heart of a teacher, because it is in such students that we have a hope that what we have acquired will live on.

it’s never too late

Guitar ZeroI heard this great interview on NPR the other day with psychologist Gary Marcus about his book Guitar Zero. He had taught himself to play the guitar as an adult, and the book combines meditations on this experience with the latest science on learning.

He opens the book with a discussion of the idea of “critical periods”– the idea that difficult skills (like speaking a foreign language fluently or playing the guitar, or, we might suppose, acting) can only be learned by children up to a certain age.

The idea is that there are particular time windows in which complex skills can be learned; if you don’t learn them by the time the window shuts, you never will. Case closed.

But ah, not so fast, says Marcus:

The more people have actually studied critical periods, the shakier the data have become. Although adults rarely achieve the same level of fluency that children do, the scientific research suggests that differences typically pertain more to accent than to grammar. Meanwhile, contrary to popular belief, there’s no magical window that slams shut the moment puberty begins. In fact, in recent years scientists have identified a number of people who have managed to learn second languages with near-native fluency, even though they only started as adults.

As someone who learned German as an adult and went on to teach German at the university level and do a PhD in German literature, and who has an accent that can sometimes fool native speakers, at least for a time, I am living proof of Marcus’ argument.

But beyond my own experience, I have volumes of experience as a teacher of acting students who have thrown themselves into the study of the craft and improved dramatically. Acting is different from the other skills Marcus discusses, because when people are acting well, or at least not too badly, they can make it look easy. It can seem like with talent and a little bit of effort, anyone can be a really good actor without investing too much in it. In other words, it’s obvious that learning to play the violin is a lot of work, but it may not be obvious in the same way that acting is. So convincing people of that is an extra hurdle along the way in teaching acting, and then, once the student grasps this, they have a moment of truth, where they have to decide how badly they want it. I am reminded of my study of mathematics. I majored in math in college. I chose this major because I had always liked math, because it had come relatively easily to me, it would satisfy my parents that I was getting a degree that would prepare me to make a living, and it didn’t require that many actual classes, so it left me free to take a bunch of other things that I wanted to take. This worked well for a few years, as the first few years of college math were a lot like high school math: go to class, learn some technique for solving a particular kind of problem, practice that technique in homework assignments, rinse, repeat. But at a certain point I started to take classes that demanded more than simply applying a technique I had been taught repeatedly. The problems in these higher classes demanded real thought, creativity, patience, and a willingness to countenance feeling incompetent. In other words, I didn’t get to feel like the smarty-pants that I always had in math classes. I had to sweat. If I worked at the problems, I could often get through them, though not always. But I was facing what TS Eliot called an overwhelming question. Did I love mathematics enough to accept feeling incompetent quite a bit in order to learn it? The answer was a resounding no. I liked math, I appreciated it, I even enjoyed it. But did I want to marry it? No, I didn’t.

I did want to marry acting and directing. Which is why I am where I am, doing what I am doing. I did find something that I loved enough to be uncomfortable for, even very uncomfortable sometimes. Having found that thing is unquestionably one of the great sources of meaning and pleasure in my life. I have a practice that will pretty much always remind me that life is worth living, if I ever doubt that. But that is why Marcus’ message in the opening pages of his book, and presumably in the rest of it, is so important: it’s never too late.

In my coffee dates that I have with prospective students, I am asked fairly often: it’s not too late, is it? And the answer depends somewhat on the answer to the question: too late for what? Although even with that answered, the first question can’t always be answered definitively. But the prospective student usually wants to know whether or not it is too late for them to study the craft, to experience what acting is all about, and that answer is always, again, a resounding no. We all have things we wanted and have gotten, we have all had things we wanted and not gotten, we have all had to reflect on ourselves and why we did things, to repair relationships that have been damaged, we all have the stuff it takes to act.

It’s simply a question of figuring out how badly you want it.

“and then I practice until it’s time to play.”

I was just reading this Rolling Stone interview with Travis Barker, the drummer of Blink-182. The interview was conducted during the band’s recent tour. It goes like this:

Q: Walk me through your day so far today.
A: I woke up. I had a lot of phone call meetings for stuff going back home with my companies. And then I went to the gym, made myself some shakes and I rushed back over to do my flying drum riser gag to make sure everything’s cool. Then I stuff my face, do whatever press is given to me and then I practice until the time to play.

Barker has been called one of the greatest drummers in rock, or even in the world, or even THE greatest drummer in the world. And yet, he spends a substantial amount of time on tour practicing.

Now that’s what I call a work ethic.

the fortress of solitude

“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. “–Rainer Maria Rilke

“In the circle of light on the stage in the midst of darkness, you have the sensation of being entirely alone… This is called solitude in public… During a performance, before an audience of thousands, you can always enclose yourself in this circle, like a snail in its shell… You can carry it wherever you go.”
— Constantin Stanislavsky (An Actor Prepares)

It’s a jungle out there.

An actor pursuing professional work has to contend with all kinds of daunting challenges, including headshots, resumes, managers, agents, casting directors, social media, auditions, callbacks, unions…the list goes on and on. And that’s all just a part of finding work. Once an actor books a job, there is a whole new set of challenges: lines to be learned, breaking down the script, rewrites, the director, the producer, the other actors, the camera, the crew, the audience. If you found this all a little overwhelming, you wouldn’t be alone.

As work on the project unfolds, the one thing you can count on is there will be adversity. Some projects will be harder than others, but because making film and theater are collaborative enterprises, you are bound to bump up against some people who make your job, doing your job, harder, occasionally by design, but more often because they are pursuing some goal that is at cross-purposes with your own. The biggest single candidate is the director. Directors bear a huge amount of responsibility and have a lot of power. The result that they are trying to get from you may run counter to all your intuitions and instincts, but refusing to accommodate them can come at a huge cost. They may push you for results when you are still finding your way around the script. They may change their mind frequently about what they want, or constantly pressure you to come up with something better, without telling you what they are looking for. Other actors can be challenging as well, at times. So all of this means that when you are doing professional work, there is a lot of adversity involved. You need to try to enter into the necessities facing a character while putting out forest fires of various kinds in your immediate environment, constantly. This is a fact.

It’s difficult to survive under such conditions, to say nothing of thriving. The death of Amy Winehouse is another grim reminder of the terrible toll that the creative life can exact, for all its rewards. The wise actor looks all of this in the face at the outset, and arms herself accordingly. How does she do that? Well, there is no one single path, but I think for a lot of people, it involves finding a context in which you can develop your facility where the stakes are not too high, and where you are in the care of well-wishers who will always prod you to do better, but never judge you for falling short. One such context may be an acting class.

The advantage of knowing who you are, artistically, when you walk into an audition, cannot be understated. Knowing what you value, what you are capable of, and what you are looking for not only fortifies you against rejection, but it also makes you stronger and more confident, thus reducing the likelihood of said rejections. When you feel clear about what acting is, and you know you have done it and done it well, not once but many times, you carry a conviction and a clarity around with you that will shield you from a lot of the toxic sludge that is out there in the business. There is nothing like self-knowledge to protect you from the prejudices and misjudgments of others.

It’s for this reason that I applaud actors who give themselves plenty of time to take classes and develop themselves before subjecting themselves to the vicissitudes of the professional life. Acting well is hard enough when that is the only agenda in the room. Being able to do it well when there are a lot of other demands on your attention and ability is a very, very formidable challenge. Most people’s skill will be undermined in such environments. That’s why I believe it is enormously valuable for actors to give themselves plenty of time to develop an understanding of what they do, and skill at doing it. That way, when they enter the maelstrom of production, they have an inner artistic compass which points steadfastly in the direction of fulfilling the creative challenge at hand.

I remember watching a movie with my mom as a kid. The movie was about a talented young tennis player, Maureen Conolly, and the tennis player wants to study with a prominent teacher, Eleanor “Teach” Tenant. Teach agrees to take her on, but stipulates that Maureen, or “Mo”, is not allowed to play with anyone other than Teach. A few scenes later, Mo is playing with someone else, and Teach comes onto the court, hands her something (I can’t remember what), and tells Mo that she can no longer study with Teach, as she had broken the rule. I think Mo does continue to study with Teach somehow, but in any case, I remember being very impressed with this episode. The teacher felt that the student needed to shield herself from deleterious influences by playing only with her.

I don’t run my classes this way, and I understand that not every teacher is right for every student, and even if there is a fit, breaks are sometimes needed and are very healthy in any case. So while I am glad when a student continues to study with me, I am ok when one doesn’t, as well. I think artists need to find their own way, and I wouldn’t seek to fence anyone in in the way Teach does with Mo.

Nonetheless, I think there is something inspiring about the kind of “cocooning” period that Teach is proposing. By minimizing and muting the “noise” of the outside world, the student has an opportunity to discover, define, and differentiate themselves. She is not trying to please everyone at once, or be all things to all people. She has artificially but deliberately narrowed her world in order to find her center and her direction. For doing so, she will likely reap many benefits.

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