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.