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on inner monologue

In her new book Listening and Talking A Pathway to Acting, Evan Yionoulis, chair of the Acting program at Juilliard, describes a technique for inner monologue as a rehearsal technique.

By inner monologue we mean the progression of sensory stimuli that form the character’s path through the action of a scene.

Here, Yionoulis is talking about stimuli, which I discussed in my previous post. Stimuli are sensory perceptions that the actor/character¨bumps up against¨ in the course of playing the role. She tells us:

A stimulus can be a tangible object in the play’s physical world, something existing in the character’s reality that can be either actually present for the actor—…—or imagined by them—…. It could also be an inner object, something not physically present in the character’s reality but rather living in their “mind’s eye.” For example, as I type these words, my attention is directed to the touch of the keys on my computer keyboard and the image of the accumulating letters appearing on the screen. I hear my husband rustling papers in another room and the sound of chirping birds and playing children out the window. I’m aware of the faint taste of jasmine tea in my mouth and the smell of lotion on my hands. These are actual stimuli present for me in this moment. I might also focus my attention on you, sometime in the future, reading this. Or look at my watch and remember that my daughter is at the airport about to board a plane. You and my daughter exist for me in this moment as inner objects. My attention goes to you, but you’re not in the physical space with me. Both inner and actual objects will be important elements along the path we’re building. (Of course, we’re using the word “object” quite expansively, to mean anything we might see, hear, touch, or otherwise perceive.)

So there are two types of stimuli: actual objects, which are part of the character´s immediate reality, whether real or imagined, and inner objects, which are objects not in the same physical space as the character. And note that she indicates that by object we really mean any sensory perception.

inner monologue

So far so good. Now we are ready to consider inner monologue. Yionoulis says that sometimes inner monologue is conceived of as the character´s thoughts, such as ´It´s cold out here. We should go inside.¨ But this is not what she has in mind:

However, we want to keep our interactions as physical and immediate as the tossing of the ball, an enterprise of the body rather than the mind. By the time our thinking proceeds from image to the conscious realm of words and sentence formulation, we´re already a step removed from the pure ball in play.

Throughout her book, Yionoulis uses the metaphor of tossing a ball to conceive of the exchange of energy that acting entails.

So what does this inner monologue actually look like?

For a particular scene my inner monologue may be: foghorn, lighthouse, ships, waves, rocks, cliff, wind, stairs, lamp, kitchen, chowder, mother. As I speak the words simply and without predetermined expression, I allow myself to receive from each stimulus, seeing the lighthouse or hearing the foghorn or smelling the chowder. I range freely from stimulus to stimulus, from actual objects to inner ones and back again, letting associations happen as they will.

Inner monologue consists of verbally delineating the stimuli that the actor encounters in the course of playing out a situation or a scene. Yionoulis cautions about trying to ´narrate´ the situation as you name the stimuli:

When using this exercise in rehearsal, resist the impulse to perform the inner monologue by expressing your point of view about the stimuli you’re identifying. Don’t try to convey a story to the director or other actors. No one needs to understand that you’re smelling the chowder rather than seeing it or that you’re both feeling and hearing the wind. You don’t need to let us know that you’re seeing the lighthouse keeper racing up the spiral staircase toward the lamp while her son carefully ladles chowder into bowls. You don’t need to communicate that your character’s dear departed mother used to make chowder, the taste of which you’ve always found . . . unappealing. The goal of the exercise is for you to experience viscerally what you receive from the images you’re taking the time to identify and from the chains of association you’re allowing yourself to explore.

She closes her discussion with the following reminder:

Again, we limit the words spoken to a simple voicing of images, rather than a complex verbal formation, in order to keep us in a physical relationship with the imaginative world rather than an intellectual one.

The power of this approach to inner monologue lies in its immediacy: it keeps the actor directly processing her reality, rather than ruminating on it.

The stockpile of possible stimuli that the actor can draw on when engaging in inner monologue is greatly enlarged by the process of personalization. As the actor imaginatively explores his given circumstances and discovers stimuli therein, these stimuli become fodder for the actor´s inner monologue.

Inner monologue can seem foreign at first, but it´s a muscle like any other. The more you train it, the stronger it gets. It´s a valuable tool for exploring a character´s inner life in a given scene. It´s worth the effort of learning to use it.

on inner monologue2024-02-22T14:12:31-08:00

the trellis of acting technique

 

A frequent question that aspiring actors have is about technique.  If acting is a matter of instincts and impulse, as it surely is, at least in part, then why study technique?  Isn’t it going to put you in your head?  Isn’t it going to block the flow?  After all, technique, by definition, means there is a way of doing something, a right way and a wrong way, and isn’t that the opposite of doing what comes naturally and following your instincts and intuitions? Evan Yionoulis, the chair of the acting program at Juilliard, proposes a great way of thinking about this in her fantastic new book Listening and Talking A Pathway to Acting:

Some actors fear that technique will rob them of spontaneity and freedom and be a kind of straitjacket that will block them from their instincts and some sort of unexpected magic. On the contrary, technique is what allows an actor to be truly and consistently open and available. Think of technique as a trellis. (A trellis is one of those, often wooden, frameworks that support vines and other plants as they climb up the sides of buildings. The crisscrossing strips of wood usually form a pattern of open diamonds.) Technique provides a structure through which the intuition may freely move. If the intuition is flowing—if the vine is climbing—technique, like the trellis, doesn’t interfere. But if, at this rehearsal or in this performance or for this take, intuition seems to have abandoned you, you’ll have the structure of your technique for support until it returns.

So technique is there to support you in moments when you find yourself at sea, when your instincts seem to have abandoned you.  It doesn’t (or shouldn’t) impede the flow of intuition and impulse when it is not needed.

There’s also the matter of consistency across multiple performances or takes.

Some people might think that working in film or television is easier for the actor. After all, you only have to get it right once. The reality on set, however, is that there’s rarely time—because time is expensive!—to do a scene over and over until a particular actor—or every actor—manages to do their best work. When working on camera, you have to give a full, truthful, and seemingly effortless performance on demand. There’s no way to rewind a sunset or crash another car or two to accommodate blunders or an “off” performance. You have to get it “right” the “once” when it counts! And when several angles of a particular scene are filmed, you have to do so in a consistent way in every take so that the editor can fashion the various shots into a coherent whole.

So technique can support you in having to provide a consistent performance across many repetitions.  I once spoke to a student of mine who had just come off his first experience playing the lead role in a feature film.  I asked him what surprised him about the experience.  He said he was surprised by how many times he was required to repeat things, and that the director wanted the same performance in every repetition.  In these kind of situations, technique is invaluable.

Acting will always be both an art and a craft.  To the extent it is an art, things like instinct, intuition and impulse are indispensable.  Technique is there to help us consistently access our instincts, intuitions and impulses.

the trellis of acting technique2024-02-19T01:51:18-08:00

on personalization

“ When we speak of personalization, we mean the process by which actors seek to connect to a character’s circumstances and needs as if they were their own.”

That was Evan Yionoulis, the head of the Juilliard acting program whose book I wrote about in my previous post, defining the vital process of personalization for the actor.  When an actor encounters a script, she strives to extract the vital given circumstances from the script, the facts of the character’s life, that are provided (given!) by the author.  The question is: how do these facts which are extracted become experientially available to the actor? How does the actor become acquainted with these facts and connect to them as if they were the facts of his own life?  That’s what the process of personalization is about.

So what does personalization actually involve?  Here’s what Yionoulis says in Chapter 3 of her book:

Through our homework, we connect sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations to the touch to what is laid out in the text.  In this way, we develop a personal relationship to each circumstance, allowing us, when activated by events in the play, to respond as if it were part of our own experience.

So personalization involves specifically imagining the given circumstance in question, and mining that circumstance for sensory stimuli (things which you can see, hear, taste, touch or smell) which help that circumstance become imprinted on the nervous system of the actor.  I once taught at an acting conservatory where there was another acting teacher named Fabiana teaching (I don’t know her last name).  Fabiana’s students told me that she would often say:

If the senses believe it, then the body will believe it.  And if the body believes it, then the mind will believe it.

Our five senses function as a gateway to the imaginary circumstances, allowing us to “experience” them for ourselves in a manner which is specific and vivid.

And what of transference or substitution, which are both terms that the great Uta Hagen has used to describe a process where the actor identifies experiences in her own life which can help her connect to the given circumstances?  Well, in conversation with Yionoulis, she has said that substitutions or transferences arise automatically as we dwell on the given circumstances, but at a granular level.  Thus, if I’m playing Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire,  I don’t try to find a single transference to use for Belle Reve, the family estate which was recently lost, but rather I imaginatively develop (that is, personalize) my experience at Belle Reve through various images and episodes, and as I do that, transferences will arise virtually involuntarily as part of that process.

So let’s consider how I might go about personalizing Belle Reve.  First of all, I might do a quick Google search of plantation estate homes in Missisippi, and select one that conforms to our image of Belle Reve, perhaps something like this:

House in Usa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then we might use our imaginations to think up images and episodes connected to the house.  I will put sensory stimuli in bold, and transferences or substitutions in italics.

  • Been in my family for generations (like Auto-Chlor, a family business in my own family for multiple generations)
  • Memories of Christmas tree with Mother and Father and little Stella, the smell of pine
  • Elegant parties that my parents hosted for the elite of Laurel (like in the Sound of Music), with a string quartet
  • Playing hide and seek in the house and on the grounds (like I did as a kid)
  • Housekeeper (like the servant on Ms Scarlet and the Duke) and a cook  (a large, jolly woman like the cook on Downton Abbey)
  • Hosting gentleman callers in the parlor, with a grandfather clock and a Japanese folding screen
  • Leaky roof, we had to use buckets in the attic  to collect rainwater

And with that, we’ve begun the process of personalizing Belle Reve.  Belle Reve is a place that is dear to Blanche’s heart, it’s the home she grew up in, so we probably want to continue to imaginatively explore and develop, that is to say, to personalize Belle Reve, further.

An important episode in Blanche’s past is the loss of Belle Reve.  That’s something that we definitely want to personalize.  So we might do so as follows:

The loss of Belle Reve:

  • The departure of the housekeeper and the cook, both fixtures of the household for a long time
  • The notices and warnings arriving in the mail– the FINAL NOTICE OF FORECLOSURE
  • Packing the trunk with my most precious belongings (which?)
  • The knock on the door, the arrival of the bailiff(Balding, slightly overweight, mustache, in a uniform “Ma’am, I have to ask you to vacate the premises”)
  • Calling a taxi
  • Leaving the house for the last time with the trunk, looking at the house for the last time as the taxi pulls away

And with that, we have imprinted the experience of the loss of Belle Reve on ourselves, giving ourselves access to it as part of our own “experience”.

Yionoulis’ mantra when it comes to personalization is:

“Specify, specify, specify.”

And she also says:

“It’s work that’s as joyful as play—necessary work that’s, unfortunately, too often neglected.”

As actors, we want to embrace the imaginative work that personalization entails.  Connecting to the given circumstances of the character as though they were our own is vital successfully embodying the character.

 

 

 

on personalization2024-02-19T03:32:45-08:00

the only acting book you’ll ever need

Evan Yionoulis taught acting at the Yale School of Drama for twenty years, and since has become the head of acting at Juilliard.  She is also a world class theater director.  She was also my mentor when I was at Yale.  I assisted her for three summers with the Yale Summer School Acting Program, and it was the greatest educational experience of my life.

She has just published a book on acting, called Listening and Talking  A Pathway to Acting.  It is, quite simply, THE definitive book on acting. Yionoulis writes in a straightforward, approachable way about the finer points of the actor’s craft.  She covers concepts like the underlying objective, plot objectives, given circumstances, personalization and destination in a manner that does justice to the complexity of these topics but is also eminently concrete and practical.

It’s hard to overstate how down-to-earth she is in approaching her material.  He’s an anecdote from the first chapter, when she is making the case for technique:

“Once I directed a musical play whose cast consisted primarily of amazing musicians—singers and guitar players—most of whom had never acted before. After an early performance, one of the youngest came up to me and said, ‘This acting thing isn’t so hard. All you have to do is learn the lines and be that guy.’ In the moment, I think I was a bit amused by his answer. But as I’ve pondered it over the years, I’ve come to think that his definition of acting is as good as any I’ve heard.

All you have to do is: Learn the lines. And be that guy.

Or, I might say: Learn the lines. And do what that guy does.”

So even as she is embarking on the explication of a sophisticated and eminently challenging approach to the craft, she is grounded in the miraculous simplicity that acting entails.

The book is a remarkable achievement, and belongs in the libraries of actors everywhere.  (As of this writing, it may be that only the Kindle version is available.  I attempted to order a hard copy and was eventually told it would be delayed indefinitely.  But anyone can read the Kindle version with the Kindle app on their phone.)

 

the only acting book you’ll ever need2024-02-20T02:33:51-08:00

the actor and the sentence

You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it,
but you’re always falling.
With each step you fall forward slightly.
And then catch yourself from falling.
Over and over, you’re falling.
And then catching yourself from falling.
And this is how you can be walking and falling
at the same time. –Laurie Anderson

History is a story of sentences.–Peter Handke

A sentence is a commitment. Every time we speak a sentence, we link a subject to a verb, and by making that linkage, we mean something. Someone did something. Or will do something. Or should do something. Or whatever. We take a stab. We make an attempt. We essay.

A sentence is something so familiar that we tend to take for granted how foundational it is to our existence, and our ability to interact with others. We tend to think of sentences, if we think of them at all, as a set of rules that have to be conformed to. But there is another way to see them. We can see them as gestures, interventions, claims at authority or wisdom. As a means of directing the attention of others.

I first understood the importance of the sentence to actors watching my friend Jenny Bennett conduct an exercise using Shakespearean text. Jenny had set up two chairs, about 12 feet apart from each other. She had an acting student who had committed a speech to memory sit in one of the chairs, and speak the speech. She then told her to do it again, but this time as soon as the student came to any punctuation mark in the speech, commas, periods, colons, whatever, she should stop speaking, get up and walk quickly to the next chair, sit down in that chair, and resume speaking until she reached the next punctuation of any kind, at which point she should stop, rise, and cross back to the first chair, rinse, repeat. It was important, if I recall correctly, that the student get up until she had stopped speaking, and not resume speaking until her butt was in the seat.

It was fascinating to watch. The fact that the student was forced to stop speaking and exert herself physically at each punctuation mark seemed to have the affect of “reining in” the speeding mind of the actor, and when she sat and resumed speaking each time, she was remarkably centered and committed.

But what came next was even more interesting. When the student had completed the speech following these instructions, Jenny asked the student to repeat the speech, this time stopping to move between the chairs only at the periods, not at commas or any other punctuation. What was remarkable was that the student brought the new intimacy with the various elements of the sentence purchased in the previous run-through of the speech to bear on this second exploration, but this time, because she was moving through the sentence to the period without inhibition, those newly-vivid individual elements were placed intelligibly in relation to each other as the sentence was uttered as a whole, and suddenly the sentence was undeniably, irresistibly alive, both in the delivery of the words and also in the way those words animated the body of the actor. The experience made a big impression on me.

Flash forward six or seven years. I was working as a teaching assistant to Evan Yionoulis at the Yale Summer School Acting Program. (Evan is on the faculty at the Yale School of Drama and chaired the program their for five years.) Evan was teaching the students about what we call playing action. To do that, she was having a pair of them stand, again about 12 feet apart from each other, and say their lines from their scene to each other, and as they said the lines, they were to toss a playground ball on the last word of each sentence to their partner. Evan was adamant that the ball be tossed on the last word, not on some operative word in the middle of the sentence, not just before the last word, and not just after it. On the last word.

Again, it was striking. Having to throw the ball on the last word deterred the students from backing off of the commitment they were making in their sentences. They had to stay engaged through the whole thing. It also helped them with what we call “releasing” the language, which means propelling the words through space to have a desired effect on their recipient. And once again, the exercise threw into relief the way in which the sentence is the basic building block for the actor.

In working with the ball exercise in class over the years, I have come to see how incredibly revelatory it is about where an actor is with their work. Some people extend their arms just enough to release the ball and get it to the partner, and then pull the arms back, rather than following through and truly releasing the ball. This indicated a discomfort with fully extending to the partner. Others would throw the ball an instant after they had said the last word, which betrayed a desire to separate the act of releasing from the act of speaking. Some would take a step as they threw, but they would lock their hips as they did so. This had the effect of “freezing out” the lower half of the body from the act of throwing, and they would do they same when they spoke a line. Others would insert arbitrary pauses in the middle of the sentence, which indicated a need to obstruct the release. Others would resist taking a step when they threw, not wanting to risk balance, to allow themselves to fall towards the partner.

It was working with this exercise over the years that I came to see the sentence as a gesture, almost in the sense of Michael Chekhov’s psychological gesture. A gesture has a completeness and an integrity, and so does a sentence. That’s what the period signifies. The importance of the sentence as a basic unit for the actor was also illuminated in work Evan did with the students on poems that they chose to prepare as monologues. Evan taught them to “run to the full stop”, the full stop being the period. With poetry, there are all kinds of enticements to break up the flow of the sentence: dense imagery, the end of the verse line, and punctuation. When an actor was falling prey to those enticements, and Evan would remind them to run to the full stop, they would suddenly produce great clarity and luminousness, because running to the full stop meant that they had to keep the full import of the sentence in view as they spoke it. They had to treat it as a complete thing. Running to the full stop doesn’t mean rushing; it was imperative that the words containing imagery were specifically imaged, but at the same time, the actor had to prove that they grasped the way all those words hung together as a whole.

A sentence, like acting itself, is simultaneously assertive and receptive: it commits to a meaning, and asks for a response.

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the actor and the sentence2024-01-24T03:23:56-08:00

the right work

When I was at the Drama School, I watched as actors were cast in one or two School productions, and then often did a Yale Cabaret show after hours. This was on top of a battery of classes. So everyone stayed very busy.

And because everyone stayed very busy, everyone felt very virtuous about how busy they were, and how hard they were working. They felt certain that because they were working so hard, their work must be good.

In reality, it seldom worked out that way.

They may have built stamina and endurance, but in the meantime, I saw a good deal of mediocre work happen at that illustrious institution. People were stretched too thin, and so they couldn’t really do justice to anything. And if you ask me, many of them liked it that way. It gave them the perfect means to avoid actually having to look squarely at anything, and ask themselves what it would take to really do something well. Instead of just giving what they felt like they could and hoping for the best.

One of the great experiences I had at the Drama School was three semesters as assistant to a master acting teacher and director, Evan Yionoulis. I remember discussing this issue with her, in a slightly different context. We were talking about students in the class who buried themselves in work, but were not actually working productively. The key, she said, is doing “the right work.”

Feeling busy doesn’t mean your time is well spent. Not at all. Sometimes, though, slowing down and paying real attention is just too frightening to contemplate.

the right work2011-04-23T01:31:43-07:00
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