Monday, December 19, 2011

Blog 20: Recovering from Audition rejection… Acting as ‘anti-therapy.’

So to continue where I left off last week… I was speaking of Karen, in training for about a year or so, who just auditioned for a workshop production with a monologue from T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party. In our first meeting we found the objective, which I’ll discuss now in more detail.
Basically, the situation concerns a young woman has been told by her lover that he’s going back to his wife. She is heartbroken, obviously, because she’s in love with him, but the deeper reason is much more devastating. Not only is she betrayed by the abandonment, but she realizes that he was never the person she thought he was in the first place. And this discovery leaves her without anyone or anything to believe in.  The works of T.S. Eliot deal, in general, with dark, existential questions, but this play, in particular, puts human love into the picture, and how its withdrawal can destroy a life. The Cocktail Party is heavy drama and it ends in a death, so the actors have to dig very deep – or turn a person into a holy martyr, depending on one’s point of view. 
I gave Karen my sensory CD in the first session and told her to work frequently with it, so she could access her fundamental ‘sensory complex’ – which is composed of interrelated ‘sensory objects.’ We had decided that the character’s objective was to make the person she was talking to ‘prove that he had not lost his humanity, that he was still the person she thought he was in the first place – even if he couldn’t be with her anymore.’ But the man she’s addressing has no line of defense – he really is more like the ‘beetle’ she compares him to than the person she had thought he was before he told her he was leaving her.
We had done a little sensory work in our first session, and Karen had discovered the person she thought she would be addressing in the scene. I warned her not to ‘expect’ who that person would be – or even that it would be a person.  Sometimes, our primary sensory object is a place, not even a person – and the most important thing is to let the unconscious give us its suggestions without any interference.  Since we hadn’t much time in our first session and Karen’s audition would be coming up in a few days, it was possible that she had rushed the process without knowing it. When she went home and did the sensory work on her own with more time to relax, she came up with a different ‘object’ for the person she is addressing; something or someone that will take her a long time to comprehend in all its psychological ramifications. (Note: An ‘object’ can be anything based in sight, sound, taste, smell, touch or personalization. A ‘personalization’ is an actual person; ‘personalizing’ means basing something/someone in a text – or improvisation - on personal experience.)
When we met for our second session, I wanted to set the beats, which we had only touched on in the first session, find the actions and get the monologue to move smoothly toward its objective. But I could see that my student’s ‘discovery’ had thrown her into something I call ‘the down-going.’ This is a very important moment, when the actor discovers that their life is actually based in something other than what they had originally assumed.  My second blog refers to this experience in my own life, which came about when I was practicing the same monologue from The Cocktail Party as the one Karen is working on.
She wasn’t ready to set up ‘actions’ until she had worked through a lot more about the person she was talking to. As well as calling it ‘the down-going’ I sometimes refer to it as the ‘anti-therapy’ moment. Have you ever seen a small dog kick up a big spray of dirt? Well, that’s what actors are doing with their psyche when they have the stamina, focus and patience to practice sense-memory correctly. After they kick up all this dirt, they feel confused and sometimes upset. Acting training stirs things up, but acting teachers are not trained to analyze and organize each clod and tiniest stone that has been displaced. We can be a rough lot, us acting teachers! I do my best to keep it bearable…
Unlike the therapeutic process, the artistic one just goes on kicking and kicking. Of course, actors do organize the material, but as they move along in their work, they kick up and re-form constantly. Good actors – and I’m not going off on that tangent right now, trying to explain what a ‘good’ actor is – anyway, as they mature, ‘good’ actors gain the strength to maintain their sanity while constantly tearing themselves apart. Contradiction in terms? Yes, resoundingly, yes!  But art has its own rules – and perhaps they are individual to each artist. If they are wise, ‘good’ actors who cannot organize or deal with their dirt, eventually give up acting or move on -depending on how they look at it - or come to a sticky end. Some of the latter are very famous.
In the case of Karen, she felt that her audition was a ‘spray of dirt’ – and it probably was. They ended up putting her on tape, and she didn’t like what she saw. ‘Judging oneself on film,’ can be very subjective.
When the building blocks of acting fall into place, it is possible to feel comfortable with the job one is doing. (James, at least, felt good about the audition, itself; quite possibly it was the fog that surrounded the ultimate rejection that bothered him so much.) Karen, now at the beginning of her career, is learning how to deal with ‘the shock of the real,’ but it doesn’t ‘feel real’ yet.  I believe that the insight she had in her sense memory exercise is a real breakthrough, but she has to integrate this new perspective on her entire life. If she continues to go down the path of personal insights, she will probably gain the strength she needs to face the rejection when she doesn’t manage to do her best. She will understand that sometimes she needs to fail, in order to learn something new. Acting is precise, which brings me to the third person I connected with on the subject of ‘audition blues.’ More on what it means to be  a ‘true actor’ in the ensuing blog.
Have a lovely holiday! ‘Outing the Actor’ will be back at the beginning of 2012. By the way, I just found out that Karen got the role in the workshop. Go figure…

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Blog #19: How can I get through all this audition rejection? It makes me feel as if I’m not really an actor…

Isn’t this how actors feel when they’re faced with the ugly phenomenon of auditioning and not being cast? Yes, ‘ugly’ is the only word for the rejection that most actors experience when they compete for a role and someone else is chosen. It makes many actors feel as if they were inferior to the person who gets the part. Sometimes, it is true that an actor is judged and found to be lacking, but many times that is not the case.  I would like to look at the various causes of ‘not getting the part;’ either you are responsible for the negative outcome or you aren’t - or it is a combination of factors, which, within reason, you can figure out. Once the process is demystified, it becomes easier to make a decision about what happened and move on.
This week I answered an e-mail and had two conversations, all of which required in-depth analyses on the subject of ‘audition rejection’ or ’failed auditions’ or however one wants to put it. Out of my three discourses on this subject, one with someone who has trained a lot but performed rarely, one was with a seasoned actor,and one who is basically a beginner.  I’m going to take them one by one and analyze each case.
1. Let us begin with James, whom I’ve discussed in my last couple of Blogs.  He is disappointed and discouraged because he gave an excellent audition for a part he was designed to play – a comic version of the Devil, if you remember.  The comments from both writer and director were highly complimentary – although the writer said that he wasn’t sure that James was ‘right’ for the part. 
I prepared James for the audition, and this is my take on what happened. I believe that he did an unusually good audition and that he was perfect for the part.  However, the writer said that James came across as a ‘gangster’ and he hadn’t intended the character to be played that way. When I was coaching James, the writing suggested that this particular Devil was basically a salesman type, who played it pretty smoothly until the end. It could be that the writer saw this Devil as more ‘urbane,’ more ‘up-scale,’ than the way James was playing him. If this is the case and they liked his audition so much, then why didn’t they ask him to do it again and make a character adjustment. It’s quite possible that the part was already cast and they were just looking for back-ups. They asked James to audition for another role, but he wasn’t right for the part– wrong age for one thing – so in the end he didn’t get it.
What exactly makes James so upset about this audition? Disappointment stings, but he’s experiencing actual depression. It seems that he is wounded, not recovering easily, and that there is even a possibility of going into a downward spiral. It is very important to avoid this negative situation.
What can James do to improve his situation?
a) Firstly, he has to ask himself whether there was anything he could have done better in his acting? From what I can tell his acting was fine, as far as it went. However, with more experience and knowledge of the whole acting process, there’s something James could done when the writer said he didn’t see the Devil as a ‘gangster.’
b) James could have asked how the writer saw the part, and then requested to read again with the adjustments the writer indicated. Knowing James, I see two reasons, legitimate ones, why he didn’t ask. It probably didn’t occur to him because he’s an inexperienced auditioner, and he doesn’t have enough skill yet to confidently change his interpretation at a moment’s notice. He needs more instruction on the interaction between subtext and actions, and in this case it would have required him to play a different ‘character adjustment.’  This is a complexity for which James is not yet ready – at least, not at a moment’s notice. There is another possible reason for his ‘disappointment’ to turn into ‘depression.’ 
c) In doing the sensory work for this role (the Method approach), he may have probed a deep area in his psyche, which left him vulnerable to criticism – and not getting the part is perceived as the ultimate criticism!  This often happens during the long period in which actors have to incubate their sensory awareness - a very sensitive aspect of the work. In James’ case, if he works at his technique I think he’ll get beyond it in time, but it can slow him down for a while.
2. The first of my two conversations on the ‘Failed Audition Phenomenon’ this week was with a young woman, Karen, who has been acting for only a year, or so. She recently attended a prestigious college, graduating with honors in a scientific subject.   She accesses her emotions easily and therefore decided to work with the Meisner Technique over the last year - since it is especially helpful in strengthening one’s ability to fight for one’s objective, while listening and staying connected to the partner.
This time, Karen came to me to coach her in a monologue for a workshop that includes performance.  We agreed, after working on the piece that she had chosen for the audition, that it wasn’t a good choice for her at this time and decided on another passage - by the same author, T.S. Eliot – from A Cocktail Party, a piece with which I am familiar having struggled with it long ago for my own auditions. Karen’s first reading was good, emotionally rich with a strong sense of intention. The audition was coming up very soon, so we immediately decided on the character’s objective, which proved difficult to pin down – more on that later. Then we had a quick discussion about finding her way into the sensory work, very important for this particular material. I gave her my CD, which contains a section on the physical relaxation that is essential for sensory exploration.
To be continued next week…

Monday, December 5, 2011

Blog 18: Beginning to talk about character adjustments – and some thoughts about getting back on the horse that has just thrown you…

In my last blog entry, I described coaching James for an audition in which he would be called upon the play the Devil – a wonderful scene for him to show the many facets of his considerable talent. During our work, we concentrated on finding the objective, which involved a lot of sensory recall, focusing on whose soul James’ personal ‘devil’ was addressing in the scene. It turned out to be the person who had cast James out of the place he remembered as a sort of ‘paradise’ when he was very young.  Interestingly, this material brought to our minds the fact that God, when Satan challenges his power, throws him out Heaven – and that the Devil never gets over this.  James had been brought up Catholic, so this awareness gave him a strong, realistic basis for how the Devil ‘feels.’

As we progressed with the sensory work, we also returned again and again to pinpoint the objective and the various actions of the scene. Because James was grounded in a child-based memory, we were able to understand the ‘illogical’ leaps from one action to another.  The character didn’t seem to progress from one action to another in an adult fashion, but instead seized upon a series of ploys, like a kid desperately trying anything he can think of to get what he wants. At one moment, this Devil was attempting to get his way by offering his prey dazzling gifts, and the next switched without any transition to brutal, threatening tactics. He displayed an energetic cheerfulness throughout, never showing any consciousness of weakness or fear that he might lose.  

Because time was short, I found myself suggesting to James that he smile a lot – this is an example of a character adjustment, something I hadn’t yet had time to explain to James. I could see that he didn’t feel like smiling at all, but he looked very funny when he did it, and it definitely increased his chances of getting the part.  I laughed spontaneously when he did it - and James could feel that it was a good choice.  Also, I insisted that he not show any rage until the very end, when his character knows his mission has failed. He was able to incorporate these ideas, but they were impositions, rather than organically elicited responses.

As it turned out, James did a brilliant audition! He was the last actor to go in, and the writer, who was also the other actor in the scene, said, “The best was saved for last!”  The director also laughed in all the right places at James’ conception of the role. But then the writer said something that dampened James’ enthusiasm; he wasn’t sure that James fitted his concept of the part – and they had him audition for one of the other parts – for which he was definitely not suited.  They shook James’ hand enthusiastically when he left, and it was clear that they were definitely considering him.

James sent them a ‘thank you’ e-mail a couple of days later, and they actually wrote him back, again saying very complimentary things about his audition.

When I didn’t hear from him for a few days, I knew James hadn’t gotten the part, but I e-mailed him to enquire. My instincts were right, and of course he was disappointed. But I could sense that he felt something more negative than disappointment, although he did his best to hide it, even from himself.  He was depressed by what he perceived as a failure.  And he has a right to feel whatever he feels, but there is more to this than immediately meets the eye.

It would be productive if James could have his unavoidable disappointment but skip the depression part. Some people will always be prey to this negative reaction, no matter what because of their psychological pre-disposition or trauma from previous situations. But there are ways of lessening this unproductive syndrome – which is a huge time and energy waster in the long run.  Confusion is the culprit. Until an actor has a good grasp of all the elements that go into acting and how they work together, not getting what they want most in the world is going to have this effect.

They ask themselves: Did I do something wrong? Why did they like someone else better than me? Could I have done something more in the audition to increase my chances? And on and on in this vein.  Next week I will continue to demystify the ‘failure’ phenomenon – as well as discuss ‘character adjustments’ and how they can frequently add to the problems of the uncertain actor…    

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Blog # 17: Integrating the Devil into the subtext…

I had occasion, recently, to coach James, a character actor, who was auditioning for the role of the Devil in a smart, well-written dramady, at an up and coming downtown theatre. If they liked James, even if he didn’t get the part, he’d have his foot in the door with their casting director.  

James has had a lot of training – mainly Meisner.  Initially, he had come to me to strengthen his overall technique, but when the Devil came along, we switched abruptly to coaching.  I had played the Devil once, myself, in an adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, Part II at the Marymount Theatre. My part was Mephistopheles in disguise as a hideous monster named Phorkyas, humpbacked and possessing only one tooth – I had a great mask and I got to direct the scene myself! James, on the other hand, was auditioning for the undisguised Devil, who is characterized, on the surface at least, as a Devil-may-care sort of tempter.  Fortunately, James had had a couple of months to begin grounding himself in basic sense memory before this opportunity to audition came along.  In a moment, we’ll get to why that’s important.

We were only able to Skype a few times before the audition, so we had to work quickly.  We discussed the concept of the Devil, as he appears in various guises from The Devil and Daniel Webster, by Stephen Vincent Benet to The Exorcist, and we decided that what he wants is power. So the actor’s objective in the audition scene is to get the other character to submit to his will.  Once that was established, we were able to move on to the ‘actions’ he uses to obtain this power.

As we began to set up the ‘actions’ an interesting complication occurred. James found that when he shifted from one ‘action’ to another – for example, switching from ‘upsetting his balance’ to ‘tempting him to abandon his lover’ - every line was still sounding more or less the same. At this point, we needed to work on subtext. Making a clear distinction between these actions was crucial; we couldn’t wait until the second beat of the scene where the Devil ‘warns’ the other character – because the first beat is at least two pages and requires at least one action change to keep it moving along dramatically.  The scene was well-written, which helped.
And then, we discovered something particularly helpful about the way the Devil thinks – a major characteristic that makes him… well, the Devil. As long as he gets what he wants, his manner is rather pleasant and he can be quite amusing in his use of irony. But why is he like this?  We must pin it down, get to the psychological basis of his behavior. I remember asking James, “What makes the Devil different from everyone else?”  James was stumped and time was short, so I explained that the Devil is only interested in power and control. He doesn’t care about anything else. Nothing gets in his way – and he loves to play the game of gaining control. He’s good at it and it’s fun! James agreed, and his Devil began to smile, which helped immensely. But it didn’t really work until we talked about subtext.

I spent years figuring out subtext and how to teach it.  My difficulty was rooted in oversimplification – something to which I’m not usually prone! It turns out that there are two subtexts. One is the deep subtext – this is where sense memory is essential; the other is the kind that is generally thought of as subtext - the one that gives intention to each line of text.  The first ‘subtext’ is part of the actor’s preparation before actually entering into the scene.  The second ‘subtext’ is composed of what the character actually means – not the words he says. It is an entire script which underlies the actual text.  All acting takes place in conflict, so the deeper the problem, the more oppositional these subtexts become.  (Don’t worry if this is confusing; I’ll be going into this in much more depth.)

James is an intelligent actor – also one who comes from a Catholic background - and he had said something earlier in our discussion about the Devil, which returned to my consciousness as we were talking about subtext.  He mentioned that the Devil’s first incarnation had been as God’s angel, Lucifer – which, by the way, means ‘bearer of light.’ He was cast out of Heaven for trying to rise above God. This gave us a basis for figuring out the bottom subtext before we moved on to the subtext for the actual speaking of the lines.   Since James was already aware of sensory recall, it wasn’t too difficult for him to go through the process that brings up an ‘image’ or ‘object’ from the unconscious. Once he had that in place, he not only knew what the scene was about, he was absolutely sure of the person to whom he was talking.  Then he could figure out the other subtext which always supports the action that is being played. For example, let’s say your ‘action’ or ‘intention’ is to undermine, and the line is:

‘That’s a nice suit you’re wearing:’

A suitable subtext would be: ‘God, you look awful!’
But, of course, you’re the Devil, so you’re enjoying yourself – which brings us to ‘character adjustments,’ which will be one of our future subjects. I think we need to spend a little more time on ‘subtexts.’ And we’ll have to see how James worked it out and put it all together…

Monday, November 14, 2011

Blog #16: An example of integrated techniques: how the Japanese are doing it at The Flea Theatre

So, I’m resuming my discussion of the Integrated Acting Process; I will approach it in a roundabout, decidedly un-pedantic way by working back from results to causes. Last night, I had the good fortune to see an excellent example of ‘integration’: Kurotama Kikaku’s production of Kutsukake Tokijiro, brilliantly directed by Jun Kim.  

A colleague of mine, Jan Mizushima, who has been engaged in the lengthy rehearsal process, had from time to time endeavored to describe how this musical play was being prepared. She said the usual sort of thing about being asked to experiment with her character, only to discover that most of the time the director had something else in mind.  I was intrigued by the fact that someone as attractive and youthful as Jan was playing the old Innkeeper’s Wife. So I had no idea what was coming, as I entered the august precinct of The Flea Theatre, where I’ve seen a lot of good avant-garde theatre over the years, including a star turn by Ruth Malaczek in a Mabou Mines production – whose name escapes me and, irritatingly, I can’t seem to find on the Internet. 

Down went the lights and for the next seventy-five minutes – although no one was counting – I was transported to a Japanese universe, where I felt completely at home. No, I’m going to resist writing a review, although I encourage anyone who reads this to rush right down to the Flea Theatre for a deeply satisfying evening of singing, dancing, comedy, intriguing visuals, based on a deeply moving old-time story that resonates with all the joys and miseries of today.  (On second thought,  before rushing down, you better make a reservation at

The evocative music, imaginative lighting and video images and expert direction – all are inspiring, but it is each individual actor and how they work together that keep an audience on its toes, eagerly watching each new development.  And this is especially necessary because this isn’t Broadway or even Off-Broadway with real funding.  No, this is homegrown talent and very, very hard work for no pay. These are skilled actors, who know how to move and characterize.  We, the audience, are so close we can almost feel the actors’ impulses in our own bodies.  And last night I felt myself caring about the ‘good guys’ – while at the same time feeling comfortable enough to laugh at the antics of the often hilarious ‘bad guys.’ 

How do these actors succeed in not only entertaining us but also transporting us emotionally to their exotic Japanese Universe – half the play is in Japanese with supertitles? Many of the actors are Japanese, but there are some non-Japanese, as well, and they manage to achieve a seamless style.  This is no mean feat.
As an acting teacher, I have some thoughts on this. Apparently, the actors all know what the play is about. I’m sure that each actor or actress would say it in their own words, but I would put it this way: the world has been and always will be pretty horrible. Most of us are neither good nor bad, a lot of what we do to get on in life is absurd, and the possibility of love, wealth or whatever one’s ‘joy of choice’ is gives us the energy to survive.  

With all the fun and action on hand that a musical play needs to muster,  I was still aware at every moment while watching Kutsukake Tokijiro of the deep underlying tragedy of Japan at this moment in time – and I could relate to it, because I feel America is going through some ghastliness as well, and I think we are all wondering, wherever we are in the world, what is coming next.

The central performance by Yasu Suzuki, as the reluctant gangster, is in turn romantic, humorous, and violent.  But it is his steadiness and depth of character that sustain the play, connect us to its meaning and move us in so many ways. As I watched him, I couldn’t help thinking of Japan losing the war and the recent horror of the earthquake and tsunami, but more than anything the cover-up about the leakage of the nuclear plant at Fukushima– which, in turn, brought to mind America’s debacle in Vietnam, our ten years’ war based on those unavailable ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and our blood-strewn search and final recent capture of Osama bin Laden. It also brought to mind The Trojan War, initiated by the capture of one king’s wife, and carried on infinitely by ‘heroes.’ 

This vibrant entertainment was made possible by actors who connect to their characters personally and possess the technical proficiency to play on many levels simultaneously. Imagine if our leading man had played his ‘subtext’ of melancholy on the surface, without the humor and specificity of constant switching between charming, tricking and terrorizing everyone around him.  All the actors contributed mightily to the over-all effect, including my colleague, the Inn Keeper’s wife, showing a wonderful balance of underlying intention, human spirit and vulnerability – as well as a ridiculous fallibility – energized by technical facility in working toward clear objectives, furbished by fully realized character adjustments. 

One senses a sturdy, collaborative spirit on the Asian/American theatre and film scene these days. In the space of a couple of weeks, I’ve seen three delightful examples: two of them I’ve written about; Kutsukake Tokijiro and the excellent film, God’s Land, and the third is the very funny and insightful production of Chinglish, currently running on Broadway. All three are comedies, laced with tragedy, containing cohesive multi-national casts – speaking in different languages (hurray for supertitles) - and very relatable for American audiences. 

Is there really some hope for the world?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Blog #15: A Detour into God’s Land, a film by Preston Miller

I’m not a critic by any stretch of the imagination, but after viewing Preston Miller’s film, ‘God’s Land,’ at the Quad Cinema, where it has just finished a short run, I knew I had to write about it.

A year ago when I was undergoing chemotherapy, I needed to find someone to relieve the tension that had developed in my neck. My student/intern, Olive Hui, suggested her friend, Shing Ka, who is both an actor and a massage therapist. During our sessions, we had long talks - about Shing’s family in China - both his parents were doctors - and his experience with the healing arts, which he balances with his acting career. Shing is outwardly a very calm man, but I could sense excitement when he described a film he had just finished shooting – more than the perfunctory enthusiasm actors are trained to exhibit so their own performances will be viewed.

I try to keep an open mind, but when he said that the film was based on the beliefs of God Saves the Earth Flying Saucers Foundation and took place in Garland, Texas, I imagined something along the lines of Saved – or if I was lucky, a Monty Python imitation. But then Shing said it wasn’t exactly a comedy - and gave me a rough cut to take home.

Viewing it on my little TV set – with interruptions from phone calls, trips to the kitchen for snacks and picking up stuff my cat kept knocking over - I found myself intrigued by the likable, well-acted characters and respectful treatment of its spiritual theme, along with some tastefully comedic elements. My general impression was favorable but somewhat hazy, and I was not overly delighted when I received an invitation to the opening and felt obliged attend.

Certainly, I was in no way prepared for the stunning impression I received from seeing the final cut of God’s Land in an actual movie theatre! As I’ve said I’m no critic, but I do read the NY Times reviews religiously every day, and I feel that the criticism of God’s Land– which I had read the very morning of the day I saw it in the theatre – missed the point. Here is the sentence which concludes the review, “… Mr. Miller is far too leisurely — and takes far too much time — with a story largely blind to the sometimes fatal cost of fanaticism.”

I beg to disagree. In my opinion, the story doesn’t avoid the problem of fanaticism; instead, it provides much food for the thought that this particular cult may not be fanatical – although they propose ‘unreasonable’ ideas and wear funny hats. Many of the ‘apparently normal’ people in this film, under Miller’s prodding, exhibit extreme behavior – like a father and son from India, whose deep fear of the cult provide a touchingly ludicrous moment.  They, along with the Garland, TX police, believe that the group may be suicidal – although the spokesman for the group, in a wonderfully modulated performance by Wayne Chang – gives sensible assurances that they are not. There is a refreshing balance and lack of stereotyping to this film. It reveals strong personal attitudes about being black, white, male, female, elderly and youthful – including a sly, amusing portrayal of an Asian child by Matthew Chou. Miller uses an interesting device – yes, it adds to the length of the film, which by the way isn’t overly long, and I wasn’t bored for a second – that lends depth and illuminates the fundamental purpose: the main characters, at various times, peer into the camera for a long moment. They seem to be regarding us, wondering, perhaps, who we are and where we stand in relation to them and what they are experiencing.  I can’t recall a film in which I’ve felt an interaction like this. It invites us to contemplate, rather than judge, deepening our reaction to the film’s message about the possibilities and limitations of spiritual belief.

Speaking of ‘inviting,’ I felt, as a viewer, that the protagonists were asking me to join with them, not only in their criticisms of each other, but in understanding how difficult it is for them to disagree with the people they love – and there is an abundance of genuine love without a smidgen of sentimentality, in this film. And here I come to why I feel that a discussion of this sort belongs in a blog about acting. It is seldom that I have an opportunity to see a film where actors are directed this well – especially when working under such difficult, low-budget circumstances. Families act like families, and in close relationships alternate between gentle probing and bursts of anger, but when push comes to shove the agony of shame and loss is sharp and definite. The principle relationship between the husband, Hou Ming-Tien, who believes in the cult, and his doubting wife, Hou Xiu, is given a steely performance that turns suddenly heartbreaking by the expert Shing Ka, with his movie star good looks, and the poignant, Jodi Lin, who illuminates each moment of her character’s vacillations. Outstanding also, is Jackson Ning, giving a very un-fanatical and credible performance as Teacher Chen, the leader of the cult.  He is caring, while seeming to float above it all and is supported by a well-written characterization and an extraordinary defining moment – which, by the way, gives a terrific jolt to those of us who are following the rapid extinction of species. The aforementioned Wayne Chang maintains a cheerful naiveté without a whiff of caricature, and Gloria Diaz, who plays the not-entirely-skeptical teacher of English, Maria Ruiz, gives a performance, which is both warm and consistently astute.

There are times when this film reminds me of Vera Farmiga’s ‘Higher Ground,’ in which nuanced attitudes toward relationships are challenged by spiritual matters. There is one bedroom scene between Ming-Tien and Xiu, which brings to mind the complications of a similar scene in Charles Burnett’s heart-wrenching ‘Killer of Sheep.’

Unfortunately, ‘God’s Land’ has left the Quad - but do watch it when it comes out on Netflix. Just turn off your phone and give your cat a tranquilizer - this film demands your full attention!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

BLOG #14 THE INTEGRATED ACTING PROCESS: (3) A Slight Detour into Why I Think Learning a Personal Acting Process is So Important

As I have mentioned before, my acting training began at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, arguably the most famous acting school in the world. I’m not sure how I got in – or, in fact, how almost anyone else in my term made it through those illustrious doors – we were a shockingly lazy and untalented lot.  My audition was forced and showed nothing beyond earnestness and the ability to remember my lines in spite of crippling nerves. During my sojourn of two and a half years at the Academy, I gained very little information about acting other than the ineradicable belief that I wasn’t any good at it – I even lost the ability to remember my lines.  There were some good things about the school: the opportunity to perform  Shakespeare, learning the social mores of Restoration Comedy, a good speech teacher from whom I gained a grasp of British accents, but as far as a useful acting technique, itself, was concerned – nada.

Other people fared better – I had the opportunity to play a small part in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano with David Bradley – an excellent actor, most famous for his portrayal of Filch in the Harry Potter films.  Michael Kitchen, star of the popular PBS series, Foyle’s War, was obviously able to cope – he was a term below mine, but we had occasional chats. And some others – Leigh Lawson from my own term - have made good careers for themselves in England.  Of course, there is a long list of famous RADA graduates.

So, why do some acting students thrive in a school that lacks a systematic, comprehensible acting technique and requires them to perform constantly in an atmosphere of intense competition and criticism? One answer is that these students are so confident and/or talented that they would do well anywhere. But in the case of my experience at RADA, I would say that I was at a grave disadvantage being an American. (I just checked the RADA list of famous graduates to see how many might be American, and noticed that they fail to list several British actors I personally know, like David Bradley - although they did include Michael Kitchen - so I imagine the list would be even less reliable in relation to Americans, although I did find, among them, Maggie Gyllenhall.) The fact is RADA frowns upon accepting Americans; I was told when I was there that one reason I did not do well was my ‘American-ness.’ Also, during my time, they actually forced out a student, who had the courage to ‘come out’ as a gay man.  However, they couldn’t come up with a logical reason why they were unable to train either one of us.  In the case of the gay student, it was prejudice, and they felt entitled to act upon it. In my case, it was more subtle and more baffling, both for them and for me, why they couldn’t just ‘knock me into shape.’ They certainly tried.  If corporal punishment had still been allowed, I would have had one helluva bruised a**.)

Subsequently, when the shame began to wear off, I realized that there was something about being American that made it impossible for me to get my foot in the door.  The structure of RADA itself and most of the plays we studied there were based in the British class system, which I understood intellectually, but had no ‘feel for;’ in fact, I had an unconscious antipathy towards it. There is a reason why the psychological acting techniques, which I encountered later, took root in America and not in Europe. They may still lack popularity in Europe, although I have little knowledge of current European acting, aside from the Eastern European physically based methods, such as Jerzi Grotowski’s work in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties.  

Why does the ‘class system’ – or any kind of social ‘system’ make training more manageable.  It creates order out of chaos for the student actor.  I had been brought up on the idea that we are all created equal. It was in the air I breathed – although I experienced inequality all around me – racial prejudice, poverty, class and gender distinctions in operation - but I was taught that it was wrong. It was written in the Constitution of the United States (except slavery, but we didn’t know about that then) and every sentimental Hollywood movie pretended that America punished people who ‘put themselves above others.’  So when I entered RADA’s hallowed halls I was deeply confused about this issue. The plays I worked on at RADA critiqued inequality, and my fellow students, being mostly British, knew exactly where they stood in relation to the system in which they lived. I had no idea where I stood in relation to anything.

While I was struggling with artistic representations of these lofty concepts in England, my fellow Americans were staging sit-ins at the Berkeley and Columbia campuses. Multiculturalism was about to burst on the American scene, but I was caught psychologically between two worlds – trying to understand the expressly stated class system in which I found myself, before I had an opportunity to deal with the ‘fake ideal of equality’ in the society in which I had been raised.

I suffered mightily from my inability to find any personal basis for the artistic concepts I was supposed to be learning at RADA. I suppose this is why I have endeavored to create an ‘acting process’ that allows universal personal values to operate as a basis for the art and the technique of acting.   

Next week– before continuing with my analysis of The Integrated Acting Process – I will discuss a wonderful film some of you may have heard of called God’s Land, directed by Preston Miller, and starring Shing Ka, Jodi Lin, and Matthew Chili along with some other wonderful actors…. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

BLOG # 13 WHAT'S IN A NAME: (2) Why The Integrated Acting Process?

Total Theatre Lab: Pretty boring name, actually. And sort of grandiose. It would have been nice to have been all clever and elliptical with something like ‘Telephone Repair Service Acting School’ or ‘Malibu Mines for Actors,’ but our primary purpose is to instruct, so our name, I think, should reflect our intention. ‘Elevator Repair Service’ and  ‘Mabou Mines’ are the names of first-rate avant-garde theatres – they are producing art and their names reflect the off-the-wall nature of their creative output. But our purpose is to produce actors, who can act – and get jobs.  It is necessary to state our intentions clearly, reminding us of our mandate to create a ‘laboratory,’ a place of experimentation and searching, related to the ‘totality,’ or all- encompassing nature of theatre. The fact that this ‘acting process’ is also appropriate for film and television comes, I believe, from the fact that acting is always basically acting, whether it appears on a stage or in front of a camera – much as the way in which both ballet and hip-hop are ‘dance.’ Of course, major adjustments are required to accommodate different media.

I had been teaching for well over a decade when I began to feel the necessity for naming the technique I was teaching. I have always believed that artists take whatever they can from teachers, but in the end what they gain from the teaching is more than the sum of its parts. Without really thinking about it, I assumed that I was doing the same thing – taking from the various acting techniques I had studied and read about, including the avant-garde methods that focus on the use of voice & body, and that my teaching method was an amalgam of these various influences.  They were taught in separate classes – Meisner, Sensory, Voice & Speech, Cold Reading, Text Analysis with Subtext, Grotowski –based Physical Workshops, etc.

Eventually, however, the idea of an ‘amalgam’ proved too vague. In order to teach something, it has to be precise. Meisner, for instance, is ‘Working off the partner’ using ‘Repetition’ and ‘Knock at the Door,’ which is great, but when we get to ‘Preparation’ I was moving over to ‘Sensory Recall’ which is anathema to any devout Meisner-ite.  I’m not saying Meisner ‘Preparation’ is wrong, I just don’t find it specific enough for the job nor is it a natural fit with the other more spontaneous Meisner exercises.  

There is nothing wrong with any of these techniques in themselves, but it has been my experience that with every new generation the world changes and the way we teach artistic methods must roll along with the times. There was an era back-in-the day, when Meisner and Method, although they were at war with each other, could be employed separately and then stuck together.   Basically, and this is a gross generalization, if you were an introvert feeler, it was better to study Meisner, since it pulled you out of yourself. However, if you were more in touch with the outside world, it was necessary to get into yourself through ‘Method.’  Obviously, these generalizations are crude, but they worked – sort of. Good teaching for receptive students of either methodology could help students develop into decent actors.

But the longer I taught, the more the world changed. Gender discrimination, racism, class distinctions, differences between old and young – were being significantly reduced, it seemed.  Television, the great purveyor of fake homogenization, told everyone what to feel – but not how to think. (One of the reasons why people failed to notice the 1% taking off, while leaving the other 99% in the dust.  Or is it 2% and 98%? ) This has been very confusing for actors –  their characters no longer have ‘norms’ for their feelings. They have to actually separate one individual character from another. We’re no longer rich and poor, white and black, upper, middle and lower – it was always more complicated, but now that complexity, itself, is incrementally more complicated.

One might say of the great acting techniques – principally Meisner and Method with their opposite approaches, which are reflected in one way or another in most of the others, except for those that are primarily physically based like the Michael Chekov Technique - that all roads lead to Rome. By this, I mean that if you go all the way with one technique you’ll run into another at the other end. For example, if you do enough sense-memory, you’ll end up working spontaneously off your partner. The problem lies in the fact that the roads aren’t going to Rome any more. We need to get to London, Paris and New York and the methods have become too cumbersome for the journey. 

I can see it may take several weeks to even scratch the surface of how the Integrated Acting Process came about. I hope you’ll continue the ride with me next week…       

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

BLOG #12 WHAT'S IN A NAME: (1) Why Total Theatre Lab and (2) The Integrated Acting Process?

Back in 1989, when I first got the idea of having my own acting studio, I thought a lot about what I would name it. At that time, I was deeply involved with the teachings of Jerzy Grotowski and The Polish Lab Theatre. In the earlier part of the decade, I had traveled to southern Poland, and attended life-changing workshops both at their center in the city of Wroclaw at Rynek-Ratusz, 7, and in the forest at Brzezinka.

So ‘Theatre Lab’ came directly from their name ‘Teatr Laboratorium’ in Polish - and Grotowski described all aspects of his theatre work as ‘research,’ in the same way as a scientist  in his laboratory deduces principles from patient study and practice.

I added the word ‘Total’ for two reasons. I wanted to stress the importance of supplying a training that could be used in all media from ‘Commercials to Shakespeare’ as I said in one of my ads.  And I was determined to provide a system that included a ‘totality of methods.’

As an acting teacher, I struggled with the same issues that I had encountered as a student; i.e. how could one method dovetail into another without crippling confusion – since they often appeared to be mutually exclusive – but all useful in one way or another. Honestly, how could two approaches appear more different than ‘Method’ and ‘Meisner.’  The first includes a lot of ‘navel gazing in order to feel stuff’ while the other devotes itself to ‘pushing other people around and screaming at them to get them to do what you want.’  Aficionados would have you ‘put acting into the body’ and of course it has to be ‘expressed in the voice.’ On top of all this there is the text, which has to be explored and broken down into objectives, beats, actions, subtext, and research has to be done on ‘the world of the play!’

Slogans abound such as:  ‘Acting is other people.’ ‘Being yourself in imaginary circumstances.’  ‘Acting is doing, not thinking.’ ‘Acting is believing.’ Mamet, one of our greatest playwrights, has gone so far as to say: “There is no character. There are only lines upon a page…,” which makes some people rejoice and others wish he had stuck to playwrighting.

In spite of the difficulty involved, I continued to work at creating a workable system. And as the years passed, thirty by now since the very beginning with four students in my living room – one has dropped from memory, another disappeared, the third became an editor of books on the performing arts, and number four a Broadway producer – I have had some success linking the various methods and belief systems. I am able now to teach the four main areas - as I see them – of acting training, switching frequently from one approach to another, while easing students through the transitions. Actually, it’s not so much a question of transitioning as shifting points of view.  It seems to me that at the end of one methodology appears the beginning of another.  Or, you could say, all methods are constantly present supporting one another, but the awareness of the actor has only one focus at a time. In the beginning one tries to plan this out, but ultimately, with a lot of experience, the focus shifts back and forth with the ease of a major league player throwing, catching, pitching and hitting a baseball. And each actor is a team player, who excels at one part of the game, but must be highly skilled in all areas

Next time I’ll discuss how I formed the ‘Integrated Acting Process’ out of the four major elements that made up the ‘Totality’ of teaching methods at Total Theatre Lab.   

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

BLOG #11 ACTING COACH OR ACTING TEACHER? (2) How are they the same? How different? Does one need to be good at both to be good at either?

Well! Just because someone is a good actor doesn’t mean they are good at teaching it.  The fact is that very few acting teachers get teacher training. And the old adage follows us around like a bad smell: those who can’t do, teach!  In my case, I didn’t want to act any longer; I actually thought teaching would work better for me. I was a single parent with a small child at home and needed a steadier source of income.

At the start, a good proportion of my clientele were models. One of the leading actresses in the film, Anna, which I had just cast, was a beautiful young model. Her name was named Paulina Porizkova.  She is still in the public eye, due to her recent stint as a judge on America’s Next Top Model.  Paulina was signed to the Elite Modeling Agency, which seemed to have an endless supply of gorgeous young men and women. And through this connection, I came to the attention of talent agencies, such as Gersh, Innovative Artists,  Barbara Andreadis, J. Michael Bloom, Don Buchwald & Assoc., etc., who all sent me their prettiest and handsomest in the hopes that they would become stars. Unfortunately, models have no more likely to be good at acting than the rest of the population.

Contrary to popular belief, good looking people who succeed as actors usually have to work very hard at it. Very few of these attractive and often charming people, with whom I enjoyed working very much, even made it as far as speaking parts in commercials. There is an absolute divide between people who can act at all and the rest of the world. However, I treated each and every model as if they were the next Andie MacDowell or Aaron Eckhart.

Along with these actor-models, who were represented by agencies and managers, hundreds of actors without representation, answering ads I placed in ‘Backstage Newspaper,’ joined my classes.

I treated everyone the same, and for many years had hopes for all. I did my best to teach them. And here we come to the difference between teaching and coaching. Almost everyone professed to want actual training. Very few said, “I want to do only commercials.” Many were interested in film as opposed to theatre.  In vain, did I tell them that as beginners, it made absolutely no difference where they wanted to end up until they learned to act! 

What does Teaching Actors entail?  (I want to be clear that this is my personal viewpoint – not a general definition.)   

I believe it is the dedication coupled with the ability of the teacher to convey to the performing arts student:

A) A highly structured set of principles.

B) The way these principles interact with one another.

C)  And how they impact behavior and communication..

These principles concern the connections between the body and mind, conscious and unconscious, and possibly the soul – if one is a believer.  (Some days I am, some days I’m not.) 

The teacher’s job is to coordinate this overwhelming complexity into some sort of comprehensible system. However, the student must have both the interest and the capacity to enter into this kind of exploration and commitment.

What is involved in Coaching Acting? The process is similar to teaching – but it is usually effective only after the performer has learned how to be ‘believable in imaginary circumstances.’  (Some people, very few, are able to do this without training, but their skills are more limited and they generally don’t last very long in the business. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule.)

Here are some of circumstances in which coaches can be useful:

Inexperienced actors need coaches to bring the weaker areas of their technique up to the level of their strengths. Remember, however, that it is very risky for a coach to introduce major changes in an actor’s approach when he/she is under the pressure to perform.

In helping an actor with a role that requires a lot of character adjustments. For example, how Renaissance culture impacts a Shakespearean character, or being in a gang affects the way a gang member thinks and behaves.

The psychology of particular genres of material such as soap operas, prime time, sitcoms, thrillers,  commercials, etc. The actor needs to understand how these various scripts are written for the particular audiences that watch them.  The writing is not original – they are tailored to particular specifications and newer actors need to understand how to find originality within the pre-ordained set-ups.  The actor must be able to be ‘real’ even when the material is not.

Leading roles which require tremendous psychological energy. Coaches can help actors, even experienced ones, to dig into the depths of their own being to play murderers, victims of incest, torture, and various kinds of abuse.

Of course, there are coaches for accents, special physical requirements, vocal adjustments, etc. Some acting coaches have other specialties.  For example, I also specialize in Classical Acting (Shakespeare, Restoration Comedy, Greek Tragedy) and Voice and Speech as well as Acting Training/Coaching.

Clearly, it is my belief that acting teaching ideally precedes acting coaching.  In the real world, however, I have often been called upon to coach actors with deeply flawed – or non-existent – technique, usually for auditions, although occasionally for jobs, as well.  This brings me to next week’s topic:

How did I develop The Integrated Acting Process - and why would I recommend learning various acting techniques simultaneously?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


People contacting me for the first time have often had a questioning tone in their voice when approaching me about coaching for commercials or an audition for Law and Order, a role in Centerstage, their final call back for A Streetcar Named Desire.

But no one has ever asked me if I teach acting - when they’re looking for an acting teacher. Does this mean that teaching acting is considered less complicated than coaching or possibly that a teacher is subsidiary to the person who actually positions an actor to get – or perform well in - a job?  In other words, you start out as an acting teacher and then you gain the skills to be a coach.  Or in even plainer words, the person who connects you to a paycheck is thought of as a coach rather than a teacher.

And how is the art of acting differentiated from the skill of acting in this hierarchy? Does art really matter? There are at least eleven definitions of art in the dictionary, but they seem to agree that art is the ability to make or create something. Nowhere do I see the definition of art as the ability to imitate or follow what someone else thinks is the way to make or do something…  I wonder if anyone has ever been coached into being a good actor. Even in sports, athletes have trainers as opposed to coaches when they have to work on a particular aspect of their overall technique – or get one aspect to integrate with another.

So what is the difference between an acting coach and an acting teacher – really?  Well, I can state categorically that one of the greatest frustrations in my work as a private acting teacher is that I’ve often been called upon to coach actors who hadn’t had the opportunity or desire to learn basic acting.  Indulge me in a little digression here…

Like so many things in my life, I got into teaching through the back door.  For the first ten years of my acting career it never occurred to me that I would ever be an acting teacher.  A director that I was working with on an avant- garde production of Goethe’s Faust had more work than she could handle, so she asked me to help some of the actors with their parts. So I did, and it was fun.

The next thing I knew I was being invited by a Polish director friend to cast an independent film called Anna.  And, as I mentioned before – indeed, I have already mentioned all of this - the leading actress, Sally Kirkland, did a marvelous job in the leading role and was nominated for an Academy Award. In fact, that unusual stroke of luck afforded me the opportunity to commence my career as an acting teacher and can only be explained by the phrase, ‘Only in America!’  It had nothing to do with my ability as a teacher, but rather that agents and managers supposed I would continue to be a casting director and sent me students in the hopes that their clients would be cast in film and theatre roles! 

But casting was not for me – for one thing I didn’t have an office – a friend, Debby Brown, who was a real casting director, had kindly allowed me to share hers when I was casting Anna. In any case, I didn’t find casting anywhere near as interesting as teaching, which I took to like a duck to water.  I had studied how to play characters when I trained at RADA, and I’d had a good background in Meisner, as well as scene breakdown, from the Neighborhood Playhouse teacher Mordecai Lawner, and I’d explored some very helpful vocal and movement techniques in workshops with Jerzy Grotowski and his associates, but I didn’t have a clue in those early days how all this training fitted together into a usable acting technique.

So when I say I took to it like a ‘duck to water,’ that’s not exactly true. Ducks hit the water and they automatically coordinate so they don’t drown. I went through some pretty fancy footwork in the beginning in order to learn to teach the skills – which eventually turned into the artistry - of acting.  When I worked on acting just for myself, I got mired in a lot of navel gazing, but as soon as I started projecting acting training onto other people, there was enough objectivity for me to see how the process of acting could be accomplished. And I was immediately fascinated by the precision of the discipline and felt a great obligation – and desire – for my students to learn this amazing, well, art. Through teaching others from this new viewpoint, I was finally able to grasp for myself what had so frustratingly evaded my comprehension when I was trying to learn acting for myself…

In next week’s entry, I will discuss my views on teaching vs. coaching the art of acting. 

Monday, September 26, 2011


In Blog 8, in which I began the discussion of commercial acting, I said this:

In most cases, actors have to make do with commercial classes, often taught by people who aren’t real acting teachers. This is a mistake because commercial copy isn’t written like normal dialogue – and it’s really difficult to master.

I’d like to amend this statement a little – it sounds categorical and preachy. Commercial classes are useful for meeting industry people, and often the cost is covered by the extra work they offer.  They can be useful to actors, who are already trained but have no experience of commercial acting and need to work both in front of a camera and get an idea of how they look on-camera.

That said, I stick to my guns that acting is acting – and trying to learn ‘commercial acting’ from someone who isn’t an acting teacher is a short-cut that almost never works.

I also said in my last blog entry that I would discuss the Wonderbread commercial I did for the Ted Bates Advertising Agency. In those days, I was going out for commercials almost every day. Sometimes I had several calls one right after the other. My acting teacher, Mordecai Lawner (Morty), had taken some time from our scene study class to work on commercials, since many of us needed get cast in them to pay our bills. I, myself, was a single mother with a young son - and I wanted to provide him with as much as I could.

Morty explained that a commercial has an objective in the same way as any other script. Of course, the objective was usually up-beat and positive – not dramatic and ‘dark’ except the occasional public service commercial.

He also demonstrated how it should be broken down into beats, each one governed by an action, and every line needed to be supported by subtext. If the commercial was only one line, the actor should have three ways to say it. For the sake of brevity, I will discuss the thirty second spot - these were the ones I was generally called in to audition for.

When I arrived at Ted Bates Advertising the morning of the Wonderbread audition, there was quite a crowd. I always thought the women – ‘girls’ we called each other in those days -  were prettier than I, ‘smarter’ – that meant better dressed – and I had a sense of inferiority around the ones who worked all the time. On that particular day, I felt dwarfed, as usual, but did exactly as Mordecai had instructed us – went to the Ladies and sat in a stall with the Copy. It looked long and scary – here it is:

TEACHER: I want everyone’s lunch eaten before we get to the museum.  I’m their teacher – everyday I see the same thing… kids don’t always eat what they bring for lunch.  Mine do… Now that I pack their favorite sandwiches on their favorite bread. Wonder. There are cheaper breads - -but they’re not always this fresh’n soft.  The way kids like bread. When you send yours to school, send Wonder.  Try fresh Wonder English Muffins too.   

I sat in that stall and broke it down the best I could, and then feeling that I’d accomplished nothing rushed back to the waiting room, worried that I wouldn’t be there when my name was called. To my amazement, no one was there! Something was wrong with the camera, and we were all supposed to return the next day. I rushed home, delighted at the opportunity to take my time studying and memorizing the Copy.

It took me a while, but I found the three beats. I put actions to them and subtexted each line. Sensory work – or preparation, as Morty called it, being of the Meisner persuasion – was easy since my son went off to kindergarten with his lunch every day. At first, I balked at the thought of promoting Wonderbread – I thought it was morally wrong to support a product I knew to have minimal food value. However, I pushed past my reservations – it might be more difficult now, since I know so much more about how important nutrition is for children – but then I just substituted the whole wheat bread we baked at home for their white version. I drilled it into my brain, going over and over the Copy until it felt conversational.

When I auditioned the next day, my hard work paid off. The casting director brought me in for the call back. I was incredibly nervous in front of the nine or ten advertising executives sitting before me. But I did it!  I held on to my intention of bringing something really nutritious – my ‘homemade’ substitution – to American kids. Fortunately, I was a mother with a young child, so I didn’t have to make any major ‘character adjustments.’

They gave it to me, and it ran and ran and ran.  I thought I had it made, but I was still very nervous and couldn’t get really comfortable in the short time we were generally allowed to prepare for auditions.  I just wasn’t confident enough in those days to make the killing at commercials everyone thought I would. And perhaps I did have too much unconscious resistance to sell things I didn’t believe in or thought might be harmful.

Later, when I became an acting teacher, I figured out a formula for teaching commercials that is really practical and simplifies the process of grasping that particular kind of text. But when I teach it, I must say I find that weaknesses in the overall acting process often make the actor stumble – just as he/she would with any other kind of script.