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….