the gaping hole

gape
verb
  1. be or become wide open.
    “a large duffel bag gaped open by her feet”

We humans are incomplete beings by nature.

In the approach to acting that I teach, we talk about characters as having a “gaping hole” in themselves, in their psyches.  Not just holes, but wide, gaping holes.  And these wide, gaping holes amount to a crisis for the character who has them.

We think of there being two types of contributors to the gaping hole.  The first is called a gash.  It is an episode that occurs at a point in time that robs the character of vital stuff and contributes to the gaping hole.  In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois has experienced the loss of the home that has been in her family for generations, Belle Reve.  This is a gash for Blanche.  It’s a devastating loss that contributes to her gaping hole.  The same with the suicide of her husband whom she shamed for being a “degenerate”.  This is a gash that widens her gaping hole.

The other type of contributor to the gaping hole is the tumor. A tumor is a condition that a character lives with over time.  In Streetcar, Stanley Kowalski lives in New Orleans as a second class citizen: he is Polish, and has lived with being seen as a dirty immigrant or the child of immigrants all his life.  This condition of living with this second class citizen status is a tumor; it widens Stanley’s gaping hole.

The gaping hole is important because it points to the underlying objective, which is what the character will pursue to try to fill the gaping hole.  We want the underlying objective to be a “hot” need that defines the character’s motivation across different scenes.  So Blanche could pursue love to try to fill her gaping hole which was created in part by the loss of her family home and the death of her husband.  Stanley could pursue respect to try to fill the gaping hole created by living as a second-class citizen.

Characters form plans to try to harvest as much of their underlying objective as they can.  We call these plans plot objectives.  If Blanche is pursuing love, she can try to get Stella to welcome her into her home and to apologize for leaving Blanche to handle the old age of their elders on her own.  She can try to find a husband.  These are plot objectives she can pursue to try to win her underlying objective, love.  Plot objectives change as the character’s circumstances evolve, while the underlying objective remains a constant “true north” that defines the character’s priorities moment to moment.

But it all starts with the gaping hole.

 

the gaping hole2021-03-18T02:39:46-07:00

“Everyone wants to eat, but no one wants to hunt”

I don’t know who first said the quote that gives this post its title, but it’s a righteous sentiment.

There was a profile of Baryshnikov in American Theater magazine recently. You may or may not be aware that Baryshnikov has become a major theater performer in the last few decades. This, from the profile, caught my eye:

What’s your advice to young people looking for training today?
If you want to be in any kind of art form—musical theatre, drama, dance, Broadway—you have to start from your very early years and really learn how to read music, how to sing, how to dance, how to train your voice.

That’s great if you’re five or six years old, but many people who come to me to study acting are considerably older than that. So they should go back in time and get training from the time they were a small child? Well, basically.

It’s not commonly understood that many of the successful people in the business now have been doing this their whole lives. They do things instinctively that untrained people can only do with great effort. Many people think they will come to Los Angeles and cash in on their looks and youthful vitality. They just need to take a few classes to learn how to not look like a clumsy neophyte in auditions and what their best camera angles are. Maybe a few improv and cold reading classes, and they’re ready for prime time.

Sadly, no.

Learning a new language is difficult. Learning to read music is difficult. Learning to finger a flute is difficult. And yes, learning to act is difficult.

People watch their favorite shows and movies, and the actors in those productions make it look easy. They bring a lifetime of skill and experience, make it through the gauntlet of multiple rounds of auditions, and then are coached, directed, costumed, coiffed, made up, lit and edited so that no one ever gets to see them sweat. But as Bette Davis once said, in this business, you have to love the sweat more than the lights.

Some people come to my class and don’t want to engage with the complexity of the framework that I present. But human experience is complex, and acting presents human experience, so it could only be complex. Like any art form. And that’s actually a good thing. It’s what keeps it interesting. I am frequently asked by students if they have talent. I don’t answer the question. But to cultivate and nurture whatever talent you have been given, you have to have an appetite for this complexity. You have to be fascinated by it. You have to be able to become obsessed with it. If you can’t do that, then while you may be able to trade on your native talent (and/or looks), there will be probably no growth, no development, no sense of discovery, and you will likely lose interest in the business, the way that Kurt Cobain stopped wanting to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It was a great song, but it even it grew stale after being played a few thousand times.

Everybody wants to eat, but nobody wants to hunt.

“Everyone wants to eat, but no one wants to hunt”2018-02-26T21:48:28-08:00

the secret of their success

Japan has won three of the last five Little League World Series.

What’s the secret of their success?

The team practices eight to 10 hours every Saturday and Sunday. Each morning is devoted just to fielding practice. The kids field endless bunts, and turn one double play after another.

Ten hours a day!

“This is the Japanese way of doing sports, the same in karate as in baseball,” he told me. “It emphasizes what we call konjo, or grit and tenacity. Repetition is important. You’ve got to repeat movements until you master them.”

He calls this yakyudo, the “way of baseball,” just as kendo is the “way of the sword,” or bushido, is the “way of the warrior.”

They all focus on honing technique until it is flawless and instinctive. It’s this way that Omae believes led to the team’s victory two years ago.

“We had no star players,” he says, “but our discipline and repetition of basic plays made our defense strong and helped us to finally win.”

Longtime readers of this blog will find these sentiments very familiar. It’s at the heart of what Josh Waitzkin has to say in his book The Art of Learning, which I ask everyone who takes my class to read. Also Guitar Zero. And Malcolm Gladwell. Betty Davis says you have to love the sweat more than the lights.

But as many times as I have remarked upon these things, they bear repeating. A prominent Hollywood acting teacher with a platform on a major industry website tells students NOT to rehearse, and says their scene partners would rather be at the beach anyway. This is a remarkable double-whammy: a teacher telling students not to rehearse, and then scaring them with the prospect of social rejection at the hands of their partners.

Actors are already up against it because the acting they consume lets them see the lights but not the sweat. The work is cast, costumed, coiffed, lit and edited for consumption for an entertainment-starved public. Aspiring actors don’t see the sacrifice that was required, the sweat that Bette Davis mentions, behind those lights.

So telling actors not to bother with rehearsing and to worry about whether or not their partners would rather be at the beach is, as I have written previously, nothing short of criminal.

There was a reason Uta Hagen her book Respect for Acting. Telling people not to rehearse is an act of gross disrespect for the craft. Taking class, working on scenes, bringing obsessiveness, grit and tenacity to the class work, embracing the breadth of challenges that acting involves, and the difficulty of those challenges, is what respect looks like.

Take it from the Japanese little leaguers.

the secret of their success2018-02-26T21:48:36-08:00

an awful black hole


Great interview with Ta-Nahisi Coates, one of the country’s foremost thinkers and writers on race, and a brilliant prose stylist. Here he is talking about the creative process, writing in his case. Really terrific, really important insights. It’s worth watching the video, but I know some of y’all (I see you!) don’t like to watch videos online, so I have transcribed some it here (although the whole thing is worth watching, it’s about three and a half minutes.):

When I came to the Atlantic I was in a very frustrating period because I knew what kind of writer I wanted to be. I was not becoming that writer. I was looking for a breakthrough and I was not finding that breakthrough. I was banging my head against the wall and nothing was coming out. I would say it was very depressing. So, in my first year here I actually had to finish my first book, my only book, and I had to write my first story for the Atlantic. I had to write an 8,000 world piece for the magazine which was absolutely, I mean it was just hell. I was on unemployment at the time, I had just been laid off, and I was under a great degree of stress. I think I gained, like, thirty pounds that summer but what I’m trying to say is that I think breakthroughs come from that sort of stress.
When I got done with that piece, when I got done with that book, I was clear that those were things that I was not capable of doing before. You know, like, the writing was very, very different, the sentences had much more power. And I think a lot of that had to do with the stress I was under, you know, and I think breakthroughs come from putting an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself, like seeing what you can take, and hoping you grow some new muscles. You know, it’s not really that mystical. you know, it’s like repeated practice over and over and over again and then suddenly you become something that you had no idea that you could really be…or you quit the field and just say “I suck.”. That could happen too, but, hopefully you have a breakthrough, you know.

So much that’s important here. I acted in a play at the Magic Theater in San Francisco close to a decade ago. I don’t usually act myself. My main focuses are teaching and directing, but someone approached me about reading for this play, and I decided to do it, and was offered the role. I remember, close to the end of the rehearsal process, after one of the final rehearsals, I was out in the parking lot with some of the other actors, and someone asked the actor who was playing the lead role how she felt. “Like I want to disintegrate into a million pieces.” was her response. But then you know what happened? The production opened to some appreciative notices and audiences.

I don’t know whether the leading actor felt like she grew or not from the experience, but the point is that sooner or later every creative person finds themselves in this sort of crucible of exhaustion and doubt. What’s important about what Coates is saying is that such episodes are necessary to have breakthroughs. I think Coates’ insight is a healthy and necessary corrective to the attitude that many people aspiring to acting careers have. They aren’t ready for it to be hard. And acting teachers who assure actors that they don’t need to rehearse or prepare, but simply need to “be in the moment” and “follow their instincts” and take to heart other such banalities, aren’t helping matters. This profession will test you, in all kinds of ways. Finding work will test you, and then doing the work will test you. It will push you to the breaking point. And this a good thing, according to Coates. Einstein: “Adversity introduces a man to himself.” It introduces us to strengths that we didn’t now we had and to liabilities to which we had been turning a blind eye.

This is my experience with directing: it is always an existential crisis and a physical ordeal. And I’m not the only one:

Most people think it’s an interesting career path. It’s not. It’s a terrible waste of your life, making movies. Your life will be sucked into an awful black hole of nothing but unpleasant things going on. “How should I go about making my first movie?” If you have to ask me, don’t do it.

Pretty much. And it’s enough to make you ask yourself what the hell you’re doing. But what’s heartening about what Coates is saying is that subjecting yourself to this type of state of siege is necessary to break through and come into your full powers as an artist.

From an NPR story this morning on the effects of Hurricane Katrina on people’s lives, ten years later:

The researchers were able to track down 334 of the study participants who had been living in New Orleans at the study’s start. They found that 10 years after the storm, more than 60 percent of the women in the study had bounced back emotionally to where they were before Katrina. And more than half of these survivors of the storm had gone on to experience significant emotional growth — making positive life changes.

So if you experience this kind of Hurricane-Katrina-of-the-soul moments from time to time, YOU’RE DOING IT RIGHT!

And if you’re not, well, you may be playing things a bit too safe. Or you may not be in the right business.

Some years ago, I became friends with an author and filmmaker who is now completing training to become a Zen monk in South Korea. I told him (this was in 2013) that my most recent production had nearly killed me. “GOOD!” he said.

Now I know why,

an awful black hole2018-02-26T21:48:37-08:00

the actor: child AND adult

What draws many of us to acting is the “play-acting” aspect of it: we like to dress up and pretend to be other people, with other people who like to do that as well. There is something wonderfully child-like about all of this, and in fact, Earle Gister, one of my teachers at the Yale School of Drama, liked to quote Nietzsche: “Man’s maturity: to have regained the seriousness that he had as a child at play.” To be able to abandon ourselves to a world of the imagination, and allow our inner lives, our moments of triumph and exaltation, and our moments of devastating grief and loss, to be laid bare in the process. This process of fearlessly sharing ourselves with child-like abandon is what draws most of us to this prodigious pursuit.

However, on the way to being able to do that is an enormous amount of hard work. The acting we consume on TV and in the movies has been air-brushed, so to speak, with musical underscoring, lighting, editing, and all manner of show biz magic. That’s not to say it isn’t good, but great care has been taken to make sure that it looks effortless.

Acting isn’t effortless, though, most of the time, and learning to act is even less so. Learning to act necessarily means being brought face-to-face with your limitations, so you can begin to see the need to get beyond them, and to understand how what is being offered you in acting class helps you to get beyond them. In any endeavor, acting or otherwise, this process of being confronted with your current limitations is difficult but absolutely unavoidable. There is no growth without this, no matter how you slice it, no matter what technique you are doing. And not everyone wants to go through that process, frankly, or at least acting, they learn, is not the craft for which they wish to subject themselves to this process.

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the actor: child AND adult2018-02-26T21:48:43-08:00

wax on, wax off

mr miagiOne of the many surprises in The Karate Kid is that the seemingly menial chores given to Daniel to do are actually training him, in various ways, to face enemies in the upcoming fight. Daniel wants to learn to punch and chop and kick, and instead he is told to wash a car using the seemingly simple motions of “wax on, wax off.”

Acting students have all seen a lot of acting by the time they come to my class, and they can’t help but form expectations about what such a class will be like: what will be asked of them (crying real tears! showing emotion! ), what kind of feedback they will get (“you’ll never make it in this town, give it up!”, “you have what it takes!” ), etc. These expectations are usually unhelpful, and much depends on the students’ willingness to let go of them.

One of the first things I teach is a framework called the Five Questions, which helps students look at a scene, extract vital information about the character’s situation from it and from the the script it is a part of, and then arrive at what are essentially priorities, things they might focus on that will engage their minds, bodies, and souls, for lack of a better word, in productive ways that help to facilitate good acting.

They are many guidelines to be followed in generating a strong and solid Five Questions document, and the work of developing that document can seem, at times, kind of menial. Kind of like waxing a car when what you want to do is learn how to fight. And when it’s not menial it’s…frustrating, because it often involves trying to catch sight of things that are hiding in plain sight, staring you mockingly in the face. Kind of like trying to catch flies with chopsticks.

Accepting this menial-ness and this frustration are central to the students’ moving past their preconceptions and towards some skill in acting. The tasks are apparently menial and frustrating because, metaphorically speaking, we are looking for things to shift at the molecular or even atomic level in the students’ understanding. Metals have properties such as malleability, the ability to be bent or shaped, and ductility, the ability to be drawn into a wire. These properties depend on the atomic characteristics of the metals in question. No matter how much copper you are working with, its ability to be drawn into a wire depends on its atomic structure. And so it is with a student’s acting: what shows up depends in large part upon the student’s picture of what is going on when she acts. For almost everyone that comes into my class, that picture requires at least some revision, and in some cases in requires a total overhaul. But no matter how much change is ultimately called for in the student’s understanding, those changes happen through seemingly trivial changes in the way students talk to themselves about what they are doing, and ultimately in the way the way they understand what they are doing. A tweak here, a tweak there, and sooner or later you’re talking about foundational transformation, what is known as a sea change in the student’s work. But such sea changes can’t happen without the student’s willingness to embrace these small, seemingly meaningless changes, and to trust that they have an importance that may not yet be visible.

Getting students to accept and embrace the menial and the frustrating is the first step. The next step is getting them to embrace steadfastness, constancy and doggedness. The writer Ursula Le Guin, who in 2014 received the National Book Foundation’s 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, commented on the indispensableness of this virtue in her acceptance speech:

If you haven’t learned how to do something, the people who have may seem to be magicians, possessors of mysterious secrets. In a fairly simple art, such as making pie crust, there are certain teachable “secrets” of method that lead almost infallibly to good results; but in any complex art, such as housekeeping, piano-playing, clothes-making, or story-writing, there are so many techniques, skills, choices of method, so many variables, so many “secrets,” some teachable and some not, that you can learn them only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice — in other words, by work.

Methodical, repeated, long-continued practice. In other words, by work.

I encountered Le Guin as a kid; I read the three books in her Earthsea trilogy, which I understand has been expanded beyond the three novels I knew. The first book had an apprentice wizard as its protagonist, the second a young girl learning to be a priestess, and the the third a young prince. All three embark upon the learning of a kind of craft, and all three have to learn the importance of patience and the danger of overreaching, of hurrying, of grasping at capability that has not been acquired by building on a solid foundation.

I remember hearing an interview with the great Cherry Jones about class with the late, great Jewel Walked at Carnegie-Mellon, back in the day. She talked about how he asked them to do an exercise that involved carrying a serving-tray across the room and setting it on a table, over, and over, and over again. At the time she couldn’t believe that this was what her tuition dollars were funding. But later she realized (and these realizations do generally happen later) that he was teaching them what she referred to as “the value of a completed action.” She didn’t expand on this, and probably it would be almost impossible to explain the meaning of it in an interview setting. It’s the kind of thing you need a classroom for.

Take a good Meisner class, and you’re going to watch repetition exercises until your eyelids curl. You’ll likely be bored out your mind in the process — and that’s a good thing! Because it’s only by realizing how truly boring disconnected work is– and what it takes to do work that is genuine, sincere, honest, open, responsive, vulnerable– that you’re going to get the value of the training.

As much as I teach actors what makes for a good objective or what it means to play an action or how to order the circumstances of the scene in a way that is conducive to high stakes and undeniable vulnerability, I feel that the deeper lessons that I have to teach — and also to learn, over and over again, are these: the acceptance of the menial and the frustrating, of the need for resolute steadfastness, or doggedness, what Le Guin elsewhere calls “the obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition, leading to skill in performance.”

Training that does not require the acceptance of the menial, the frustrating, and the need for the “obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition” is just not good training. It’s snake-oil.

Or, as Nina says in Anton Chekhov’s great play The Seagull: “…I understand, finally, that in our business — acting, writing, it makes no difference — the main thing isn’t being famous, it’s not the sound of applause, it’s not what I dreamed it was. All it is is the strength to keep going, no matter what happens.”

Wax on, wax off.

wax on, wax off2018-02-26T21:48:46-08:00

this is a test

Are you ready?

Are you ready to learn that being excited about getting up in front of people does not, by itself, make you interesting to watch?

Are you ready to read all assignments for the dates when they are assigned, and read them not just once, but until you feel that you have an understanding of what they say? Are you willing to take responsibility for finding all the texts in question, even when it takes some work to do so?

Are you ready to listen to lectures?

Are you ready to learn a framework for studying a script, a robust framework, a framework that is not a set of blanks to be filled in, like a tax form, but a series of prompts for imaginative exploration?

Are you ready to learn about objectives? Underlying objectives and plot objectives? Physical plot objectives and psychological plot objectives and psychophysical plot objectives, and what the differences are? Not just to hear these distinctions once, but to study them, master them, so that you understand the criteria involved, are FLUENT in the criteria involved, so that you can actually use them in your work, they are not just some words you wrote in your notebook one time?

Are you ready study a script fastidiously, obsessively, extracting information about your character and her world, rearranging that information so that you can view it from a first person perspective, filling in the the gaps left by the script, so that you can genuinely feel that you have some sense of who the person is you purport to be playing?

Are you ready to have the holes in your preparation exposed in front of the class?

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this is a test2018-02-26T21:48:50-08:00

“towering emotional and spiritual stakes…”

“…that fertilize our soul for quantum growth, irrespective of outcome.”

This talk, by ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll, speaks about the rampant desire to “hack” one’s life, to find quick fixes and short cuts and easy profit. As I have written about many times, this attitude pervades the Hollywood acting culture, propagated by latter day purveyors of snake oil: cold reading classes, audition classes, acting classes that deride preparation, among many other dubious offerings.

Rich Roll’s talk is persuasive and eloquent on sustained dedication to a pursuit as the indispensable source of meaning. You’ll need just shy of 20 minutes, but it’s worth finding the time for.

The talk put me in mind of one of my favorite quotes, from Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” –Theodore Roosevelt

“towering emotional and spiritual stakes…”2018-02-26T21:48:53-08:00

the secret sauce

In my last blog post, I offered a quote from the actor Kim Stanley, in which she talked about how terribly difficult acting is. In fact, “impossible” was one of the words she used.

Well, the effort to describe acting, to characterize it, to point at where it comes from and to offer people a technique of some kind that will help them to actually do it, is just as exceedingly difficult to achieve as Ms. Stanley made acting out to be. As a teacher, sometimes I can’t help but feel a bit like Annie Sullivan despairingly signing the word “water” into the hand of an uncomprehending Helen Keller when I teach. And that’s not because my students are thick-headed or obtuse, or because they fail to apply themselves to the work. On the contrary, I marvel at the dedication and perceptiveness of many of my students. I know that I am doing something right in my messaging about what I do, that such students find their way to me.

It’s that acting is that difficult, and teaching it is also that difficult.

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the secret sauce2018-02-26T21:49:05-08:00

acting and failure

From the great Kim Stanley:

“What a good actor–a real actor–is always trying to do is very difficult, almost impossible, so most of the time we fail. Most of the time I fail. Because what I’m after is perfection, truth, reality: Truth in art. This is exceedingly rare. It’s very, very hard to achieve and overwhelming to maintain. So I fail a lot. But if I keep reaching for that perfection, that connection to the script, to the actors, to the audience, I’m becoming a better actor. I’m growing. I’m doing the right work. If you find someone who claims they are always satisfied, always good, a professional who hits the marks, you are not looking at an actor. I’m not going to say what you’re looking at, but it’s not an actor. It’s not an artist. I’m going to say it: What you have is a performer. I am not a performer.” –Kim Stanley/Interview with James Grissom/1992

Thanks to the Follies of God Facebook page for this.

acting and failure2013-09-24T20:27:21-07:00
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