the proactive actor

I just received an email from a student of mine. He was telling me passionately about how he had taken a suggestion of mine and run with it. A little background: he was playing a hospital administrator in a scene in which he had to confront one of his doctors about the fact that she was deviating from the hospital’s policies about being honest with terminally ill people about the fact that they were, in fact, dying. In the course of the scene the administrator mentions, fleetingly, that the doctor has “managed to dick off several of my high-strung surgeons” with her candor; they didn’t appreciate that the doctor was exposing them as liars for having concealed the reality of the patients’ fate. Anyway, the student playing the administrator had dutifully written up his “Who-am-I” and sent it to me, and in responding, I had suggested to the student that he imagine exactly who the “high-strung surgeons” were and what the encounters with them had been like, i.e. how unpleasant that they had been. I was suggesting to the students that he “daydream” these encounters, play them out for himself in the theater of his mind. In the email I just received, the student told me that he had just had lunch with another actor whose work he admired, and he had gotten the actor-friend to improv one of the those encounters with the pissed-off, high-strung surgeons. He was delighted with the result; the actor-friend had been suitably intense, after a little coaching from my student, and my student had left the lunch with a fully personalized, bona-fide experience of a critical moment in his character’s past.

There is a blog post in this anecdote about the usefulness of improvisation in making the past and future of the character real to us as actors, but that’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the initiative, ingenuity and diligence of this actor in the unfolding of this tale. First of all, none of it would have happened had he not submitted his Who-am-I for review. Now, this student is an experienced actor, director, and film-editor, and he very easily could have turned up his nose at filling in the Who-Am-I chart as too “mickey-mouse” for him. Secondly, I don’t require submission of the Who-Am-I chart to me for review. I strongly encourage it, but the decision to do so is up to the student. This student, in spite of his substantial prior experience, did the exercise as instructed and submitted it to me for feedback, knowing that some of what he would get back from me would be constructive criticism. The openness and humility in this is what Suzuki Roshi calls “Beginner’s Mind” in Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind. In Beginner’s Mind, we see interactions with mentors primarily as occasions to receive input to improve, not as a chance to be validated or stroked. And when we receive feedback, we apply our imaginations and intentions to making the most of that feedback to help our work develop.

And this student is one of many among my students over the years who have demonstrated such initiative in relationship to their work. A young woman playing a fugitive from the scientologists actually went to some scientology services (or whatever they call their church gatherings). A straight guy playing a gay teenager in a Peoria with nothing to offer him but homophobia and parochial stupidity did research on first-person accounts of coming-out experiences of LGBT youth in small towns. These are just a few examples of how students of mine have brought extraordinary thoughtfulness and initiative to their work on the role over the years.

And it isn’t just that it made their work better. I can’t even say definitively that it did, immediately; having the preparatory work immediately translate into results in the rehearsal process is not a given. It often takes time in an actor’s development before these two realms truly begin to inform each other. But what I can say for certain is that it made the process more rewarding for these students. These students were allowing the work of art that they were, for the current 10 weeks, immersed in, that is, the play that their scene was from, to entice them into broadening their view of life and the world. Realms previously unknown to them were becoming charted territory through their imagination, initiative and courage. The Zen Master Senug Sahn, founder of the Kwan Um School of Zen, said that artists are natural Zen students. And these students are unquestionably artists. This alertness to the possibilities, to the opportunities constantly afforded us in creative work and in life in general, to expand and actualize ourselves, is the hallmark of the creative person. It’s the greatest gift we give to ourselves, and it is this talent for renewal and for springing eternal that sustains.

the proactive actor2018-02-26T21:49:52-08:00

above all else

I bought a crazy book last night.

It’s crazy not because of what it says but because of how it made me feel. It’s Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning.

Waitzkin is a child prodigy chess player. He was playing and winning international chess tournaments in his teens and even younger. Then a documentary was made about him, based on his father’s book Looking for Bobby Fisher, about Josh’s young chess life. And Josh got a taste of celebrity:

But there were problems. After the movie came out I couldn’t go to a tournament without being surrounded by fans asking for autographs. Instead of focusing on chess positions, I was pulled into an image of myself as a celebrity. Since childhood I had treasured the sublime study of chess, the swim through ever deepening layers of complexity. I could spend hours at a chessboard and stand up from the experience on fire with insight about chess, basketball, the ocean, psychology, love, art. The game was exhilarating and spiritually calming. It centered me. Chess was my friend. Then, suddenly, the came became alien and disquieting.

He goes on:

My game began to unravel. I began to think about how I looked thinking instead of losing myself in thought. The Grandmasters, my elders, were ignored and scowled at me. Some treated me like a pariah. I had won eight national championships, and had more fans, public support and recognition than I could dream of, but none of this was helping my search for excellence, let alone for happiness.

And then, the money shot:

At a young age, I came to know that there is something profoundly hollow about the nature of fame. I had spent my life devoted to artistic growth and was used to the sweaty-palmed contentment one gets after many hours of intense reflection. This peaceful feeling had nothing to do with external adulation, and I yearned for a return to that innocent, fertile time. I missed just being a student of the game, but there was no escaping the spotlight. I found myself dreading chess, miserable before leaving for tournaments. I played without inspiration and was invited to appear on television shows. I smiled.

In some ways, it’s a familiar theme and a familiar story: is this all there is to fame? His observations thus far are keen, sincere, and heartfelt, but it’s what happened next that makes Waitzman’s story so electifying. He discovered T’ai-Chi, and began to study it, and after a time, he had a remarkable realization:

This type of learning experience was familiar to me from chess. My whole life I had studied trechniques, principles, and theory until they were integrated into the unconscious. From the outside T’ai-Chi and chess couldn’t be more different, but they began to converge in my mind. I started to translate my chess ideas into T’ai-Chi language, as if the two arts were linked by an essential connecting ground. Every day I noticed more and more similarities, until I began to feel as if I were studying chess when I was studying T’ai-Chi. Once I was giving a forty board simultaneous chess exhibition in Memphis and I realized halfway through that I had been playing all the games as Tai-Chi. I wasn’t calculating with chess notation or thinking about open variations…I was feeling flow, filling space left behind, riding waves like I do at sea or in martial arts. This was wild! I was winning chess games without playing chess

Waitzkin went on to compete and win international tournaments in push hands, the martial arts form of T’ai Chi. This was an incredible story: a young man who becomes a beginner again to rediscover the joy of learning, and then goes on to master a totally unrelated field.

There is so much to talk about, even in this first chapter, that it kind of makes me crazy, as I said earlier. I feel like jumping around and shrieking, in a completely crazy way. You will be hearing more about Waitzkin on this blog, believe me. My students will find his book on their curriculum list. But I will close this initial discussion with the following:

A lifetime of competition has not cooled my ardor to win, but I have grown to love the study and training above all else.

This is something I often want to express to students, but I hold back, because coming from someone who makes his living as a teacher, it can sound self-serving. But an actor who has stopped learning has probably stopped acting. A high-performing athlete does not train to be able to stop training: the training continues throughout her career, and ultimately, the training is the source of the true satisfaction. The siren’s song of performing in front of an audience is strong, and not necessarily to be resisted. But the pursuit of greater skill is not something that should be abandoned, well, ever.

Take it from the champ:

What I have realized is that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess — what I am best at is the art of learning.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio
above all else2018-02-26T21:50:13-08:00

the Beatles’ apprenticeship

Fareed Zakaria (CNN) had Malcolm Gladwell on today. Gladwell, in case you don’t know, is the author of Blink, Outliers, and The Tipping Point. He was on to talk about his newest book, Outliers. This is a study of what makes for success in a variety of disciplines. He tells an interesting anecdote about the Beatles: in 1959, they went to Hamburg, Germany for two years to play in a strip club for eight hours a day, seven days a week. Gladwell maintains that this period of intensive practice was, in fact, an apprenticeship that allowed them to develop virtuousic skill, mastery of different genres and boundless experience collaborating with each other. He says that this is what gave them their edge.

He goes on to argue that talent is not some inborn, native ability, but simply the desire to practice, to make enormous sacrifices and compromises to be able to do what one loves. He says that it was the Beatles’ genius to see the Hamburg gig as an opportunity, and not as an invitation to indentured servitude.

Few people recognize this as the truth about acting. What we associate with actors is the glamour and the slick presentation of the movies, but most actors never see even a moment of fame, and the ones that do find that it isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. What doesn’t get seen is the endless hours of blood, sweat and tears that go into doing anything well. My class gives people a taste of that: an enormous amount is asked of the students in the way of time and preparation. I do my best to communicate the happiness of this challenge, this burden. “We must do what is difficult because it is difficult”, wrote Rainer Maria Rilke. It is a message that not everyone is ready to hear, much less to embrace. But it’s the ones that can lap up that vinegar like it’s honey and ask for more that will come to know the true rewards of a creative life.

The Gladwell piece:

the Beatles’ apprenticeship2018-02-26T21:52:08-08:00

Sully Sullenberger tells it like it is

One way of looking at this might be that, for 42 years, I’ve been making small regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training,” said US Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger of Danville. “And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.

Did you catch that? Sullenberger says that his tour de force landing of the plane in the Hudson was prepared for by a lifetime of experience, training, and eduction. You want to work miracles when you act? Time to start putting some deposits in to that account (Couses starting April 6(SF) and 8 (LA) 🙂 )

Andrew Wood Acting Studio
Sully Sullenberger tells it like it is2009-03-04T06:49:00-08:00

that damned talent question

A student will study with me for a few months, and then work up the nerve to ask if they “have what it takes.” I categoricaily refuse to answer this question. First of all, there are countless stories of major actors who were told repeatedly that they were no good. And since I don’t have a working crystal ball, I refrain from commenting.

This story talks about a new study that suggests that it is practice, not talent, that makes for success. It asserts that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve true expertise at something. So now I have a new response if I want one: “Check with me after another 9,900 hours of practice.”

Most singing teachers will tell you that there are actually very few people who cannot learn, with some work, to sing. Most of us have the capability. How much readiness, willingness, and dogged determination we bring to the challenge is another matter. And that’s how I feel about acting. Does everyone bring different levels of readiness to meet the challenges of vulnerability and spontaneity that acting calls for? Sure. But then the question becomes: what will they DO with whatever they have been given.

Make no mistake. Acting is VERY challenging. I think that is one of the things that pretty much everyone who darkens my door comes to grasp. It’s the ones who decide, for whatever reason, to soldier on in the face of that grasped difficulty, that grow, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.

Aesop wasn’t kidding about that slow and steady stuff.

It may take 10,000 hours to get to be a jedi knight. But as another wise man once said, the journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio
that damned talent question2008-11-14T05:37:00-08:00
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