One 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.