Tuesday, August 30, 2011


The Storm has passed. But for an actor ‘passed’ means ‘passed into memory,’ where significant details are filed, either by writing them down – or through linking them to other memories.  I’ll get to ‘linking’ in a minute, but first a suggestion about writing things down.

For many actors who haven’t a great association with formal education and intellectual pursuits, or don’t like writing, the idea of keeping a journal is intimidating – or just plain repugnant.  It’s true, though, that keeping notes on experiences you would like to remember is helpful. So here’s a useful tip I actually learned in a school: keep a very small notebook with you at all times, men have pockets and women have pocketbooks. When something strikes you as ‘significant,’ write a note to yourself.  Be sure to date your entry. Our memory for ‘where we were when’ is often good, although we may have forgotten the exact piece of that memory we need to remember.  I find that having written down a lot of ‘stuff’ in notebooks of varying sizes – yes, I do keep a journal, but not consistently – my skills at ‘linking’ are always improving.

Okay, what’s ‘linking?’ An example: last night and early this morning, I was experiencing hurricane Irene in various ways. I remembered hurricanes Carol and Edna from my childhood in New England, where hurricanes were a big deal. A large, swift-moving river was literally in our back yard, so the tide came whooshing across less than a hundred yards of marsh land and right into our cellar during hurricanes. I must have been around ten years old, living with my ancient but intrepid grandparents when Carol and Edna hit.

Both hurricanes, within ten days of each other, were Category 3, two one-hundred year old elms crashed to the ground in our backyard and the power went out, but I don’t remember being frightened. Obviously, my grandparents were pretty good at acting brave – although they were far from having any actor sensibility.  I thought the whole thing was really exciting, except for mourning the fallen trees.

Not so last night as I waited for Irene to strike.  Having sealed our windows against the impending storm, I felt stifled by the heat and a curious smell that comes before a tropical storm, as if the air is burning up. I was deeply concerned about a call from a close friend who just evacuated her family house in Long Beach, and confided in me a dream she had a few weeks ago. She was flying, as one does in dreams, and as she approached her house she saw that the Ocean and the Bay had conjoined into one unbroken expanse of blue water.   At 2 AM, I awoke to Irene pounding in earnest against the glass and attempting to shake our out-of-date windows from their casements. I was frightened, but knew this emotion was linked to something deeper. I did what I always do in such moments, tried to link the fear to its source within myself – because I know this process can be valuable to acting and writing.

Of course, Edna and Carol came immediately to mind, so I got up to see if any of the trees perched on the terraces of the forty-five story monstrosity across the street had been blown off, I was relieved to see that so far they were holding to their pots. But back in bed with my husband’s arms wrapped firmly around me, I still felt the presence of something BIG AND SCARY.

So I breathed deeply and concentrated on how my body felt.  Giving my mind a focus frees my intuition from the obstruction of thinking. Also, putting attention on how the body feels helps significant memories to surface. I could feel the tightness in my stomach and jaw, and it took concentration to move my breathing down in the direction of my legs…  Suddenly I remembered Shakespeare. The Tempest was the first to surface, Act I, when Ariel is regaling Prospero with details about ‘The Perfect Storm’ he has created. My mind moved on to King Lear, the beginning of Act III, where the old king is exposed to the horror of the raging elements reflecting the disorder in his mind:

            Blow winds and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! 
            You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout 
            Till you have drench’d the steeples, drown’d the cocks! 

That seemed closer to my own state of mind because it reminded me that I see evil as a force, like the wind or the tide, using people as conduits – or the way cancer is an alien cell that gobbles up the body, but is not ‘of the body.’

At that moment I made the connection; I thought of the Shakespeare play with the BIG IDEA that could turn my BIG FEAR into something creative! As it turned out, it had nothing to do with a storm, but rather with the statement made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The Shakespeare play that came to mind was Macbeth, and I will demonstrate more about ‘linking’  and how it can be used creatively in my next blog. Stay tuned…

Saturday, August 27, 2011


Our work as actors is especially difficult because, for example, how do we define a ‘mistake’ as opposed to a ‘misstep’? Once detected, a misstep can increase our awareness by pointing to something we’ve overlooked.  

Let’s take a look at one of my recent blog entries; the one about ‘Objectives.’ To refresh your memory: I used Blanche Dubois’ character in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire as a basis for researching ‘Objectives’.  We decided to make a list of her ‘actions’ in order to help us find Blanche’s ‘overall objective’. They were as follows:
a) Persuade Stella and Stanley to let her move in with them on a permanent basis.
b) Persuade Stella to side with her against Stanley.
c) Persuade Mitch to marry her.
We discovered that these ‘actions’ conflict with one another, and that Blanche’s ‘overall objective’ - as a non-functioning alcoholic - is ‘finding someone to save her’.  

I still think that is essentially true, but I have egg all over my face because I left out one particularly important action, without which this character might be interesting, but not really Blanche at all!

I made this discovery while working out on my elliptical - I try to exercise every day, and while my arms and feet commit themselves to a boring, tiring routine (I’m not a very athletic person, to put it mildly) my mind is wholly occupied with the movies I obsessively rent from Netflix.

On this particular occasion, I was absorbed by a recent film, Dare, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2009. One of the leading characters, Alexa Walker, a prudish misfit, played by an excellent Emmy Rossum (The Day After Tomorrow, The Phantom of the Opera), is desperately trying to find the key to Blanche’s character for a performance in a scene showcase at her high school.  Alan Cumming, in the role of Grant Matson, a former student of this drama class - and the only one to make it to Broadway - condescends to attend a rehearsal.  He praises the boy playing Stanley, but cruelly disdains Alexa’s pathetic attempts at Blanche.  She’s determined to find the essence of the character, and corners Grant after the rehearsal.  In what is probably the movie’s best scene, Grant proceeds to do to Alexa, albeit without physical contact, what Stanley does to Blanche in the rape scene. Because of this encounter, Alexa goes on to success in the scene at the expense of her well-being and the happiness of several other characters.

Watching Dare and the amount of wattage that Cumming projects over this timid, but desperately willful kid, I realized that I had missed the most important ‘action’ employed by Blanche in Streetcar, i.e. sexual pursuit.  She stalks Stanley – just as she attempts to gobble up Mitch, although any comparison between the two men is like putting a dragon next to a lap dog. There is one genuine, significant difference – she is physically attracted to Stanley – although, simultaneously, he terrifies and disgusts her.  Nature takes its course, and because of her eroded mental condition - plus the fact that Stanley is her beloved sister’s husband – Blanche descends into madness. 

But, let’s back up a minute. Since we are principally concerned with the ‘objective,’ what difference does it make whether all ‘actions’ have been considered? The most obvious answer is: since ‘actions’ support the ‘objective,’ leaving one undiscovered might make us stumble onto the incorrect ‘objective.’  But even in this case, where the objective remains the same in spite of the oversight, we must be vigilant and include all the actions in our pursuit of the character, and this is why: a character is a person – an entity, a whole into which all its various parts are integrated. Awareness of all ‘actions’ is necessary to the ‘wholeness’ of the character; without it the viewer comes away feeling disappointed, knowing that something is missing - a hole in the ‘wholeness’.

Cumming is unforgettable in Grant’s one crucial scene, because he conveys a disappointed, rageful, chauvinistic sadist. This man, in order to make himself feel powerful, will devour any woman who comes too close.  Grant is a small part, so the actor playing him has to imagine the reasons why the character behaves this way – hence the intelligence and good fortune in the casting of Cumming, who must bring about a believable reversal in Alexa’s behavior, which in some ways mirrors the real Blanche.

In order to play the character of Blanche, Alexa, who is too young and inexperienced to find the character honestly, loses her way.  As a result of Grant’s manipulation, Alexa becomes sexually active before she is mature enough, causing harm to herself and others – in some ways mirroring the real Blanche.

This element of the ‘sexual predator’ is knit into the fabric of everything that Blanche Dubois feels and does. Along with all the other actions that Blanche employs, her need to sexually conquer every man she meets – if not actually have sex with him – is manifested in her sensuality, the colors she chooses to wear, the perfume she sprays to attract Stanley, provocative body movements, voice with its husky Southern draw.

In French, ‘blanche’ means ‘white,’ the color of purity, and ‘Du bois’ means ‘from the wood.’  The name Blanche Dubois conjures an image: a white creature, dainty and innocent, in a dark wood, where the big animals are closing in.  Her objective - ‘to persuade/charm at least one of the other bigger animals to save her’ - becomes much more playable, when we add on to Blanche’s other actions ‘using everything in her body and nature to attract the biggest animal, the leader of all the others.’  

So, I will not view my oversight as a ‘mistake’; instead as a ‘misstep’ which, when it is corrected, becomes a major step in the right direction – and that’s what we actors call ‘process’…  

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


I’ve written a bit about sensory recall, bitten off a morsel, one might say, and left it hanging in the middle, and I will return again and again to that subject. ‘Doublethink’ has also been mentioned, but for the sake of balance I’d like to begin investigating the gravitational force that pushes us outward, while sense memory does the opposite, pulling us inward.

I’m talking about ‘objectives.’

This is a term all actors can agree upon, one would think. When you play a part, you need to know the character’s objective.  That’s true, but what does this question really mean?

Let’s work with an example: Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  What does she really want when she arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister, Stella, and brother-in-law, Stanley?

Does she want to join them in their home? She hates the apartment where they live.  In the first scene between the sisters, Blanche  calls it ‘a horrible place,’ and when she finds it consists of only two rooms – without even a door between them – she is as disgusted as she is distraught.

Does Blanche want Stella to belong to her? In other words, does she want to take Stella away from Stanley? But we see immediately that the sisters have opposite likes and dislikes; they have never gotten along.  Their bitter fight over which one is more to blame for the loss of Belle Reve, the plantation where they grew up, reveals the deep rift between them and the irreconcilable differences in how they view the past and issues of responsibility.   At first, Blanche is unaware of the extent to which Stanley, with his blue-collar prejudices, rules her sister’s life. She is so much in the dark that noticing Stella’s ragged cuticles, Blanche asks her if she has a maid to repair them. When Blanche finally realizes that Stella is in the hands of an enemy over which charm and breeding have no effect, she calls Stanley, ‘an animal’ with ‘an animal’s habits’ and exhorts Stella to cling to ‘such things as art, as poetry and music’ and ‘tender feelings’.  Clearly, Stella has no interest in art, and Stanley has long ago numbed her feelings, tender or otherwise, with a constant barrage of selfish desire.

Is her objective to get married, with Mitch as the one she fixes on? Looking at it realistically, how long could Blanche with all her flair and fine inclinations be able to live with a man as devoid of imagination as Mitch, who works at a steel plant in the precision parts department and lives with his mother?
You could argue that all these possibilities are Blanche’s objectives, and she goes through them one by one.  But a character doesn’t change objectives. A character tries to reach their objective through a series of steps.

Why do I say this? Because I believe each of us has an overall objective in his/her life, and each time we think we’ve pinned it down it seems to change. The reason we are interested in acting comes from our attempts to figure out our own objective – and then relate it to whatever character we are working on. It is our relentless striving to understand our own inner force that ultimately leads us to the objective of the character.

Years ago I was assigned Blanche Dubois in an acting class, but the work kept falling apart. It wasn’t until I understood that the character is an alcoholic at the end of her rope, who grasps at one straw after another to save herself, that I could get it moving in the right direction. She is the one who is destroying her own life, while her mistaken objective is trying to get other people to save her in various ways. She wants to be saved –that is her objective.  And the way I arrived at that knowledge for this role and many others will be the subject of further blog entries.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Why is it important for an actor to take speech lessons, aside from the obvious reasons – to get rid of an accent and be understood more easily?  The other main reason for an actor to learn speech is to facilitate learning accents, when they are required for different roles.  It is difficult to acquire an accent if one doesn’t know how to activate the jaw, tongue and soft palate, and how they work together.

‘Speech’ cannot be improved by itself, and I always include breath work – which automatically involves the element of ‘Voice.’ In major acting programs, voice and speech may be taught in different classes, with the respective teachers conferring about the students’ problems and progress.

My first speech classes were at RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London), where my teacher, Mrs. Pursey, made perfect sense of the work.  She was a marvelous teacher, I was so lucky! I spoke ‘American’ of course, and the other students had many varieties of Cockney, Midlands, North Country, Scottish, Welsh – we even had someone from Turkey.  By the time we completed the two and a half year course, everyone could not only pronounce their Shakespeare in what passed then for Standard English – now it would seem a little affected, as the rules have relaxed –but they could also speak in each others’ accents!

There’s a big problem with the way speech is taught most of the time.  It’s overcomplicated by strict phonetic spellings, which doesn’t work very well for most actors, who often learn better from listening than by studying from a piece of paper.  And there’s another problem, something which should be taught and frequently is not, that seriously stands in the way of progress; it’s what we call placement.

What do I mean by placement?  This is a rough explanation, not very scientific, but it’s easy to understand and it works. Each language has a central vowel. Standard American has a central vowel. Whether the student is a foreign language speaker or a native English speaker, they must find a way to place this basic vowel. From this anchoring point – which can be both physically felt and heard accurately – they can begin to acquire standard American speech.

I tailor my speech teaching to the individual.  In a class situation, I give the same basic exercises, which relate to basic instruction, but focus on whatever needs the most attention. For example, French and Spanish native speakers need to adjust the way they pronounce t’s and d’s. In their native languages, these consonants are pronounced more lightly than in English, so they have to work especially hard to hear the difference and connect them properly to the vowels that occur next to them.  Japanese is a radically different placement from English, and a great deal of effort is required to move the focus of sound to a different spot.

As I mentioned before, breath support – and also pitch – which are related to voice training are of paramount importance in speech training.  Because one is changing lifetime habits, there is a lot of effort required both in production of the sound and in listening to make sure it is correct, which, in turn, demands more diaphragm support. Knowledge of voice production is necessary for providing this added energy - therefore I always refer to my voice/speech classes, never to speech by itself.   

Another confusion that is important to clear up: the use of voice/speech in singing is different because in the latter one sustains the sounds. Speaking requires the breath to start and stop constantly and yet to produce an apparently effortless, unaccented flow of speech.  Of course, singing lessons help very much with understanding how the breath supports sound in general. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011


 What is ‘doublethink’?  Here we go. I feel as if I’m committing myself to these ideas forever, because I was just reading in the NY Times Magazine that once this goes on the Internet, I can never take it back.  I feel that I will never be allowed to change my mind again, and yet every now and then I have a HUGE new thought and everything before is jostled around and has to adjust.  

Before I get into ‘doublethink,’ I would like to give an example of what I just said. For years, I’d been relaxing on my floor trying to figure out how to do ‘sense memory’ or ‘sensory recall.’  I’d read about it and had a few classes. So one day I was concentrating on one of the ‘major monologues’’ I was trying to break into – I think it was Celia from T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party - rather like a two-year-old trying to outsmart the security system Fort Knox.

Here is the passage.

I’m not sure, Edward, that I understand you;

And yet I understand as I never did before.

I think-I believe-you are being yourself with me.

Twice you have changed since I have been looking at you.

I looked at your face: and I thought that I knew

And loved every contour; and as I looked

It withered as if I had unwrapped a mummy.

I listened to your voice, that had always thrilled me,

And it became another voice-no, not a voice:

What I heard was only the sound of an insect,

Dry, endless, meaningless, inhuman-

You might have made it by scraping your legs together-

Or however it is grasshoppers do it. I looked,

And listened for your heart, your blood:

And saw only a beetle the size of a man

With nothing more inside than what comes out

When you tread on a beetle.



Perhaps that is what I am

Tread on me if you like.)


No I won’t tread on you.

That is not what you are.  It is only what was left

Of what I had thought you were. I see another person,

I see you as a person I never saw before.

The man I saw before he was only a projection-

I see that now-of something that I wanted-

No not wanted-something I aspired to-

Something that I desperately wanted to exist.

It must happen somewhere-but what, and where is it?

And I ask you to forgive me.

I went about it doggedly, deciding exactly what it was I was looking for – which is the first terrible mistake, when rooting around in the unconscious.  If one tells the unconscious what to do – well, it won’t.  I lay there, eyes screwed tightly shut, desperately hoping the phone would ring and free me from this hopeless task.  The grocery list for the day kept running through my brain, enumerating items to which others needed to be added – how I itched to get up and write down, brie, herring and whipping cream – and when I finally pictured the man of the moment who was currently breaking my heart and with whose bug-like qualities I was already familiar, I couldn’t for the life of me focus on his cold hazel eyes that turned my flesh to melting butter.

Here was a problem I hadn’t thought of before: I, as Celia, am angry at one particular moment – I mean how could you call someone an insect if you weren’t in a rage – but then a few lines later I assumed I’d have to be sad and if I could work it up, crying – although that would be really asking too much - because I realize that Edward is just a projection of someone else. Who might that be?  Celia ultimately gets herself crucified upside down on an anthill, so her projection must have to do with Christ, but that certainly wouldn’t work for me – although, as a child, I had a rather unhealthy fascination with Joan of Arc.
I went to sleep for a few minutes.  When consciousness returned, I still had more time on the clock. I had made it a fast rule that I would attempt sense-memory, whatever happens, or usually doesn’t happen, for at least one half hour four times a week. So instead of jumping up and rushing off to Zabar’s, I stayed on the floor, noticing that my body was considerably more relaxed and I was breathing in a deeper way.  The heat of summer permeated my cells and set my nerves aquiver with unexpected expectation. I stopped thinking about other things and my mind stayed with my body. The traffic on Columbus Avenue purred, punctuated by an occasional acceleration and a faintly sweet aroma emanated from a vase full of lilies, just past their prime.

Without the usual wriggling around, I found myself transported to my childhood bedroom, looking out my window at the road as I had day after day in those early years, and again so many times before during these fruitless sessions, chasing after my own ghost. But with the effort gone, I almost took pleasure in smelling the metal of the old, bellied-out screen, running my hands over the pitted, dirty paint of the sill with its own musty odor.  To the left, I regarded the lonely boat yard filled with half-finished shells of vessels that would never see the water, and those whose extensive damage meant they would never return to the sea. I listened to the occasional old geezer hammering a nail, the sound reverberating in my ear like the shimmering heat of late afternoon. Then bird song cut across the landscape with its yearning – or maybe rage at finding a rival mating in its place. The leaves in the pear tree just outside the window rippled in the humid breeze, revealing their silver backs, suggesting an evening thunderstorm. Loneliness taking root in my solar plexus sent me suddenly to the mirror to contemplate the indented crisscross pattern the screen was pressing onto my nose.

Back at the window again; I now realize the fluttering in my solar plexus is actually dread. I would like to withdraw from but by continuing to breathe instead of tensing, I find my gaze extending towards the road, beyond our lane and into the back yard of the1781Coffin House, its snowy clapboards and fiercely green shutters competing for supremacy with the trees, who’ve stood their ground for even more hundreds of years. For a moment, I study Fred Noone’s wondrously groomed lawn – Carrie, his wife is the Coffin, a staunch member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.  Every flower seems ordered to grow upon each particular stem, in stark contrast to my grandmother’s rioting rose bushes and patches of intensely blue irises rudely jostling at the borders of the new mown lawn that looks like a bad haircut.

The flowers and the freshness of cut grass threaten to overwhelm me with their obscenely romantic odors. At the time I have regressed to, I’m too young to know romance, but the feeling I have, the longing, reflects itself in the wantonness of my grandmother’s permissive upkeep of her garden progeny. The day is passing;, evening, mauve and shadowy, creeps closer and the salty evening breeze of a velvety, summer night along the river entangles itself with the flower drenched air.
I find myself watching Ferry Road – before the bridge there was a ferry connecting Rings Island to Newburyport on the other side the Merrimack River, the only route to Boston and points south if you lived along the shore. My eyes kept veering left just before the road disappears behind Pike’s square white wooden residence at the top of a small hill.  Why did my eyes never go to toward the right where the road went North toward Salisbury, the most northeastern town in Massachusetts with New Hampshire just beyond. This question lingered in my mind as I watched the twilight deepen; in a moment it would be night and the this day’s opportunity would have passed forever.

What opportunity? I was jolted out of my reverie, and at that moment I understood what I was reaching for – but without consciously reaching, just following the uninterrupted thread of memory.  I saw it; the ‘imagining’ of those endless days and evenings, when I leaned against the windowsill and gazed at the road beyond. I was waiting for my mother, not in the abstract, but very specifically, waiting for an open car, touring cars they used to call them, and there she would be in her movie star clothes flanked by movie star moguls, slithering past the Pike’s, and turning into Coffin’s lane, waving regally to Mr. Noone, and finally rounding the corner to stop beneath my window.  She’s back, she’s forgiven me for driving her away when I was four and not interesting enough to make her hang around. We’ll go away now, together, and I won’t be a prisoner of her absence any more.

(Painting by Caroline's talented 17-year-old student Tomi)