Thursday, November 29, 2012


I’ve seen a lot of Albee’s plays; recently I was deeply moved by his A Lady from Dubuque in which he so perfectly encapsulates the world that revolves around a ‘cancer victim,’ as well as the victim herself. But nothing prepared me for the latest presentation of Virginia Woolf presented by The Steppenwolf Theatre Co. that recently opened on Broadway.  What I’m talking about and what is so stunning about this production is the attitude of George toward Martha, and George’s reasons for his seemingly vicious attack on and betrayal of her at the end of the play. In my opinion, George not only understands Martha’s pain, nymphomania, and inability to hold her drink – as opposed to him – but his love is strong enough to include an  awareness that his wife’s imbalance comes from a source so deep and so connected to her past that she has no hope of survival unless desperate measures are taken. 
            Both the acting and the directing suggest that this is a correct interpretation of this latest revival; Martha is not depicted as a tough, harridan type, as in previous Broadway incarnations of the play, but instead as a woman who is trying to force her husband to take her in hand because she is incapable of doing it for herself. And take her in hand he does, by forcing her at the end to face the ‘fiction’ in their lives, so, possibly they can uncover what their ‘truth’ might be. They do love each other, that much is clear.
            In this interpretation, George, beautifully played by Traci Letts gains our sympathy in spite of his apparent cruelty toward his wife, because we sense the compassion beneath his mordant wit. The younger couple - a ‘driven’ husband and his wife, a ‘mouse of manipulation’ - come into focus as ‘a drawing’ of the older couple who will later become ‘the painting’ that is George and Martha.  And I feel in Letts deeply intelligent performance of George, that Albee depicts not a weak, failed ‘man of letters,’ but one who actually cares for his wife at the expense of an all-out, go-ahead thrust toward a career. In his treatment of the younger professor, one can see that, yes, George is jealous and angry, but the driving force is a set of warnings, dished out with large doses of hilarious cruelty.
            Ultimately, the villains are neither George nor Martha, but a society that cripples the will of intelligent women, who are hopelessly trapped in views of the wife/mother model. And when they can’t bear the pain of feeling that they have failed in this ‘crucial area of womanhood,’ - and Martha is already drowning herself in misery, as well as alcohol, before the play begins - they will damage themselves and everyone around them in an attempt to escape their rage and depression.  
            Take the play’s namesake, Virginia Woolf, for example; a decent husband and a successful career weren’t enough to stave off a deadly depression.  There are several theories about her suicide, but she wrote incessantly about the difficulties of women, and one can safely assume that she would have stood a better chance of survival had she not been confined in a man’s world and had she been allowed to express her love of women more openly.
            In order to play characters of this complexity, actors must be very sure of their technique and know that the meaning of what is written on the page may demand precise and informed scrutiny. Take, for example, the brilliantly constructed British import, Harper Regan, which unfortunately is closing soon. Buy a copy, it’s worth reading. The playwright wrote the prizewinning Bluebird, also produced by the adventurous Atlantic Theatre Company. I would have given Harper Regan a prize too, not only for its ingenious construction but because the female protagonist - the play bears her name - translates terror into actions of all sorts. She’s not noble, but she’s imaginative and consistently courageous.
            This is the kind of contemporary play that really turns me on. I have a very personal reason for saying this. Harper is the kind of woman I would like to be if I had been born thirty years later. My generation shifted out of the girdles and Maidenform bras of the ‘fifties’ into the bra-burning, ‘let-it-all-hang-out’ liberalism of the ‘sixties.’ But most of us had no idea how to negotiate this ‘freedom’ we preached. We got family or husband to rescue us when we couldn’t navigate the train wreck of child care vs. career and never got either one quite right. I’m not saying that thirty years later – or even today – these problems have been solved, but it became easier to take risks. Society was much less of a problem – not everywhere, of course – but there were places to go where women could break out of whatever mold held them prisoner, particularly the one in some unconscious part of their own brain.  Harper is one such woman!
            During the early part of the play, she commits herself to a series of actions, some of them bizarre and highly questionable. But the play is so intricately fashioned that only near the end, do we discover Harper’s biggest challenge. It’s like Chinese boxes, except the smallest gives us a new viewpoint that erases all our perfectly logical assumptions of Harper up to that point. We see that everything she does relates to one Big Question. She always maintains her ‘human’ if not her ‘practical’ responsibilities. Skating on the thinnest ice, she skips around looking for whatever ‘truth’ exists in her situation. Entangling herself, trying out crazy stuff, but then finding out it isn’t what she needs, she moves on. So when she ultimately returns to her family, she is not going back into the fold.
            There are no answers in this play; but Harper Regan is able to see that family is the most important ‘undiscovered country’ that life can offer. Unlike so many husbands of yore, she returns not out of guilt, but because she genuinely finds family the one challenge she must face in life – in which love plays only a part. Because the darkness is so palpable in this play, the rays of light shine true and bright.
            I don’t think New York is quite ready for plays like Harper Regan – although it did extend its run slightly. It was well-regarded by the Times, but panned by the New Yorker in an outrageously dismissive review. It’s time will come; Cock is another play that’s a little ahead of New York’s timetable. It deals with gay issues in a completely new way. Ah, those Brits!  Well, they’ve been around a lot longer than we Americans… They have a right to their little jump on us.
            Of course, Albee isn’t contemporary or British – so much for theories and generalizations.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

BLOG #53: Taking note of two terrific shows recently arrived on NYC Stages, and why acting is so demanding these days…

If you have been following this Blog you will know that I am right in the middle of a very absorbing task: integrating the spirits of Meisner and Method acting techniques into a consistent teaching system. Other great masters such as Grotowski, Adler and Michael Chekov will be discussed at a later date. But right now I’m focusing on the great schism, which developed between Meisner and Strasberg, both of whom drew on Stanislavsky for their inspiration.  
            Hopefully, my attempt will help students, some of whom, like me, cannot learn a discipline unless it consists of a set of principles that fit logically together. If an actor is lacking a solid method of preparation, they run the danger of being confused when faced with a really difficult role, particularly when asked to play a character they despise.  I’m not just presenting a synthesis of the two teaching methods, but showing how each spurs the other on and their opposition is the very thing that makes them necessary to each other.
            Genius went into the creation of these techniques; before Stanislavski and the various schools that grew from his groundbreaking ideas, there was no philosophical/psychological system for acting instruction. The time has come to take these building blocks of information from the past and place them in a modern perspective so they become relevant to the work that is emerging today.
            It is interesting how serendipitous life is; last week I happened to view two plays, one fifty-two years old and the other brand new that exemplify the application of the most advanced analytical thinking to direction and acting.  The ‘old’ one is the highly acclaimed Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,  and the contemporary is Harper Regan, by the much-lauded British playwright, Simon Stephens, at The Atlantic Theatre Company. I was very excited to watch the way both embody everything that is energizing about the new way of viewing relationships in the second decade of the new millenium.  
            Great art is the embodiment of change and always contains elements that are not perceived at the time it is birthed. In the early ‘60’s when Albee wrote Virginia Wolf, the great changes in attitudes toward women which were about to happen, hadn’t yet. Wendy Wasserstein’s Uncommon Women and Others, set in a progressive women’s college in the ‘70’s makes abundantly clear how even the most ‘advanced’ women’s views about themselves were still seriously unsettled even ten years after Virginia Wolf.
            In the traditional well-made plays, exemplified by great writers like O’Neill, Williams, Ibsen, and Shaw, the problems of women generally arose from men attempting to dominate them or stereotyping by society pushing them to ‘break out’: Mourning Becomes Electra depicts a woman bored in her marriage and driven into villainous behavior; in William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Maggie is married to a man who ignores her, and when she misbehaves, casts her aside, Hedda Gabler commits an atrocity because she is maddened by a conventional marriage and then finds another man has stuck her in an even worse situation, St. Joan is done in by politics, but the hook they use to get her is an accusation of ‘witchcraft.’ 
            Moving into the latter part of the 20th Century and first decade of the 21st, the role that society plays is less evident in the conflict between men and women, but women are still depicted as pitting themselves against men in an unequal battle. If you look at the work of Mamet, Rabe, Shepard, Foote, Shanley, you see women struggling to be strong – or trying to ‘bring men out of themselves’ and be more communicative. These are stories of struggle; even if the men and women end up  staying together, which they almost never do, it’s the ferocity of the battle that counts - and the playing field is almost always uneven, favoring the man.  At the moment I’m not discussing the women writers – except for the brief reference to Wendy Wasserstein. They are very important and need a discussion all unto themselves.
            For a moment, I would like to return to Virginia Wolf - and later Harper Regan. I saw the original production of Virginia Wolf. No doubt, I said to my friends that it was, ‘Really cool, man.’  Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill boozed it up and yelled at each other in a wonderful, crazy way, and, of course I was a mere babe in the woods in those days and hadn’t much idea what was really going on. My father took me to see it; he was in Academia, and we laughed over the idea that this kind of booze-infused activity probably went on after we’d left the hosts of the faculty parties we used to attend together. (It wasn’t unheard of in those days for a daughter to accompany her father to a party!) I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing Virginia Wolf again, but I got tickets for my husband and daughter, who had never seen it. And they were very moved by the production and insisted that I go and see it. Well…. I was amazed at the difference between the version I had viewed and this one. I thought about it a lot, and finally pinpointed exactly how the interpretation had changed.
            This is getting long, and I will continue in my next blog entry…

Friday, November 2, 2012

BLOG #52: Tweaking Meisner and Method to create a workable method:

            In the last Blog entry, I talked about the importance of backing the Meisner Knock-at-the-Door exercise directly with personal sensory work rather than ‘making up a story’ and then backing that with personal material. In this way, one has only two stories, the one in the script and one’s own, and the task is to ‘feel’ them as one. Sometimes it can feel like chasing the Minotaur, but – to mix metaphors – for the true actor there are many pots of gold throughout the labyrinth.
            Working in this way – without made-up circumstances - partners are required, through sensory work, to dig deeper into themselves and find a personalization of the other actor; this process of ‘searching the self’ puts one’s own feet onto the trail of the character and brings one directly into the situation in which the relationship with the partner is embedded. As I have said before, this is a very complex idea, and I will continue to describe it from different points of view in order to make it clearer. It cannot be grasped all at once.
            To continue on from the last entry; Actress A was beginning to show signs of feeling more comfortable with the idea of the Voices and how they translated into ‘objects’ from her own life. Actor B was going through a similar process; his question was different, of course. He had to ask himself ‘what was his most difficult memory of having to break away from someone he loved.’ Or put another way, ‘when had he felt the necessity to follow his own path, however the devastating the consequences might be for someone close to him?’ The second is better because it opens a clear way to Actor B’s/Dunois’ objective.
            Both characters have very strong objectives. Although technically Joan probably has the stronger need, Dunois feels at this point that he stands to lose everything if he continues to fight for her cause, but he also knows that he is abandoning her.  So the scene – or in this case the two monologues can be approached through improvs, in which the actors switch between ‘pursuing an objective’ or ‘dedicating him/herself to an activity’.
            So far, we have principally discussed how the actor who has the objective prepares his role. Now we must show in detail the preparation of the actor who is more ‘acted upon;’ the one who is satisfied with the situation as it is. This is an odd word to use vis-à-vis Joan the Maid, who was never ‘satisfied’ a moment in her life. However, before the moment in which this scene takes place, Dunois has lead her armies to victory , so one could certainly agree that his generalship was satisfactory. Now, however, he is shifting his position and asking Joan to accept his decision to drop out of the fight against the English.
            She has no inkling of his altered stance at the beginning of the scene and continues for quite a while to be her ebullient, confident self. Even in her monologue, she doesn’t appear to have accepted his withdrawal of support – clearly she is still of the opinion that she can change his mind. (There is another monologue at the end of the scene by which time she is fully conscious of the trap into which she has fallen, and line by line she resigns herself to her fate with immense intelligence and dignity, at no point showing even an ounce of self-pity.) But at the point in the scene under discussion, her objective is to win back Dunois, so one could say we are observing one objective up against another objective.
            Since this is the case, why can’t we leave out the ‘activity’ altogether? Because the ‘activity’ is not called an ‘activity’ for nothing. It’s certainly not called a ‘passivity!’ And even when I didn’t know why I was doing it - I have always required students to rehearse scenes from both points of view: first, ‘taking the objective’ and then ‘doing the activity,’ or vice-versa.
            Meisner defines a good ‘activity’ - for use in an improv - as something difficult to execute that leads to a necessary result. Example1: you have broken a dinner plate that is part of your mother’s set. She has a dinner party coming up immediately and you have to glue it back together. Example 2: your finicky boyfriend’s birthday is coming up in a few days and you’re shopping on the Internet for a present. Your girlfriend has just broken her leg and you’re trying to write a poem to cheer her up.           I used to attend a very good Meisner class and knocked my head against these improvs over and over again. I spent hours and hours behind a door creating imaginary circumstances. And then I began teaching classes of my own, perpetuating what I had been taught. I have always felt that the premise was right, but that it required ‘something more’ and ‘something different’ while going along the same general path. I think it’s always like this with methodologies. They fit the time in which they are set up, and then as things change, they morph slowly. And, of course, there are actors who do better following one method more deeply as opposed to another. But that is not my subject here - another blog entry-in-the-making.  I will state, categorically, that most actors need both Meisner and Method – and lots of other things too, but these are absolutely basic.
            This is my thinking – I may have said this before, but not quite like this: Method is me, myself and I taking in the world and being affected by it from over here where I stand, while Meisner is me being tossed around by the world and endeavoring to hang on for dear life to a piece of me, myself or I.
            So, to get back to Actor A and Actress B and their improvs on St. Joan; they alternated struggling with their activities and bursting in through one another’s doors for several sessions. However hard they tried, the work kept falling into lifeless and unfocused patterns. The actors were becoming bored and almost despairing. This is not unusual, as human beings are not machines and our systems need to adjust slowly Finally, I did something I avoid when there is more than one actor present.  We had a discussion about the ‘sensory objects’ they were using, Actress A for her ‘activity’ and Actor B for his ‘objective.’
            In the next entry I will take a little breather from this subject to discuss a couple of plays I just saw, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf and Harper Regan - and their relevance to this discussion…

Saturday, October 20, 2012

BLOG #51: Meisner helps move St. Joan along but without losing its sensory roots…

This entry follows along from numbers 49 and 50.
            The next time we met for class, Actress A (Joan the Maid) and Actor B (Dunois, the General) were prepared to engage in a Meisner Knock-at-the Door improvisation; this was to help them identify with their characters in two monologues, both of which came from the same scene, in Shaw’s St. Joan. As I mentioned in the previous Blog, I keep the set up very simple - just parent, lover, friend, etc. - so each partner can slip in their own personalization of their ‘adversary’ in the scene. Yes, the partner always becomes an ‘adversary’ in one way or another, because all drama is based on conflict. And the actors are asked to be very specific about how they personalize each other and the situation in which they find themselves - and a myriad of other details, which I will describe in a moment.
            As I have mentioned before the actors had been working for some time on these two monologues. Along with extensive sense memory work, they had  also engaged in Meisner Knock-at-the Door exercises.  We began each two-hour session with a discussion of how their preparation had worked for them and what problems they encountered during the week when they worked by themselves on their monologues.  Usually, they expressed a kind of ‘general confusion,’ which almost universally grips actors, who have the courage and stamina to grapple with their roles as if they were dealing with their own lives. I insist that they stick to their guns, no matter how much their own experience may appear to differ from the characters they are endeavoring to play. 
            Although this process requires imagination, I believe that the actual facts of our lives must be the basis for relating to the facts of the character. I do not believe in ‘pretending’ that we have had the same experience as the character or that we should try to match our experiences to those of the character.  Instead, I believe we need to identify our deepest area of trauma and how it sends each one of us on a search toward an objective, which evolves constantly from our creative work.  A true actor works from the complex premise that human roots are an entity, which can be ‘felt’ - if not totally comprehended – across eras, cultures, races, gender preferences and all other divisive factors. It’s an extraordinary trip but not for people looking for quick results or an easy ride…
            In order to encourage this process of identification, I ask questions about the text that cannot be answered simply. They can only be arrived at through a series of steps, which in turn raise more questions; all of which eventually lead to a deeper understanding of the script itself.  It arises from the actor recognizing things in the character that are particularly relevant to their own life. 
            I tend to harp on the negative, not because I’m a sadist, but because it is incredibly difficult for actors – or anyone else for that matter - to dredge up their primal pain. Yes, primal pain – not anything recent. After all, the seeds of our trouble lie in our early years; and for many of us we only managed to survive that period by burying the details of childhood in a deep fog of forgetting.  Therefore, it is really counter-intuitive to go chasing after those memories and bringing them to the surface. 
            But what makes this process for acting particularly difficult is that figuring out the ‘source of tragedy’ is only the beginning.; one needs to continuously fight off the ‘flight from pain,’ as the actor must often dwell for extended periods in that ‘shadow land’ of discomfort and fear. For instance, how does one honestly ‘get down’ with St. Joan, who spent the entirety her teenage years under the stress of obeying a set of extraordinary demands from Voices that only she could hear and then faced imprisonment and trial followed by a horrifying death. The actress playing her in our society, today, has to battle against a kind of moral imperative to turn away our conscious mind from shameful or deeply painful occurrences. The need to ‘be cool,’ as well as our survival instinct, instructs us that ‘we need to stiffen our upper lip’ and go on.  How many times I used to censor myself as a young actress for ‘wallowing in misery’ when attempting to get to the bottom of my character’s motivations. There is a myth that one doesn’t have to suffer for one’s art, and it’s so prevalent that it gives ‘Method Acting’ a bad name. Humph!
            Here is a series of questions I asked Actress A about St. Joan. How did the Voices start? What did the Voices sound like to her? Why did she feel that she had to do what they said?  How did she find a way to deal with the difficulty of putting into practice the imperative to do ‘impossible’ tasks? At first, she couldn’t even imagine how to go about it, so I kept encouraging her to ask herself this question, “When have I had an experience like this?” Pretty weird, eh?  “When have I had an experience like listening to ‘Voices’? Whenever I suggest that a student ask themselves this sort of question - which I am forever doing - I close my own eyes, breathe, ask myself the same question and go into a brief meditation…
            I’ve just done it now, since I’d forgotten what came up for me when I asked Actress A to meditate on the Voices… Asking and meditating, however briefly on my response, turns a ‘good idea’ into real experience.
            I must test myself each time to make sure that I’m in the same ball park as the student. I can teach only from a position of ‘discovering for the first time.’ It gives an edge of energy and excitement, even if the memories are upsetting – especially when they are upsetting. The process can be annoyingly slow and confusing for students, but for me nowadays, the answers pop up quickly so can encourage my students that this process actually works. After a while, these memories fit into the pattern of one’s whole life, bringing the character directly into line with oneself.
            I’ve discussed this process elsewhere and will refer to it again and again, attempting to make it clearer and more accessible; for the work at hand I’m endeavoring to explain how we segue from it into the Meisner improvisation, which will be the focus of my writing for the next blog entry…
            We will continue this analysis next time in Blog #52. Please stay tuned:

Monday, October 8, 2012

BLOG # 50: How to play Jeanne the Maid before she became St. Joan. Combining Method and Meisner helps us detect tricks of the mind…


Reading entry #49 will facilitate an understanding of what I am writing here. In order to understand how Method and Meisner can work together, we are using as examples monologues, spoken by two characters in a scene from Shaw’s St. Joan. On the one hand, we have a nobleman and general of the French forces, Dunois (Actor B) – also known as Batard, because he was the illegitimate son of the King’s brother – and Joan the Maid, (Actress A). In Dunois’ monologue, he tells Joan that he is no longer willing to lead his troops against the English because they have no chance of winning.
          In my previous blog, I demonstrate how ‘reasons’ can also be excuses, and list possible ulterior motives for Dunois’ behavior.  I suggested that Actor B do some relaxation work and ask himself questions in order to find, within his own life, a situation that would help him discover the character’s true objective. Historical research is very important for acting in a play like this one, from a former era, set in a foreign country, but the actors must still dig into their own lives to find the roots of their characters. 
          Now, we will take a look at the Maid of Orleans, as Joan was called, and see how she was shaped by her family and her very unusual personal character. My student, Actress A, found it daunting even to begin a search this complicated. Nothing about the character lends itself to easy analysis. Joan is a peasant girl, a young teenager – she was no more than nineteen when she was burned at the stake five years after she first heard her Voices tell her to save France. She never learned to read or write and, of course, had no training in sword fighting or military strategy. Her entire life after the age of thirteen was guided by the Voices of her saints that softly spoke in her ear.
          For two months now, I have been working with Student Actors A and B on this medieval puzzle, with its seemingly remote characters and plot lines. In spite of concentrated sensory work, the actors are still having a lot of difficulty finding personal connections to these historical figures. So we decided to set up some Meisner Knock-at-the-Door improvisations. Since they were working on monologues within a scene and not on the scene itself, I had them trade positions each time we met. One time, Actress A would perform the activity and Actor B would come in with the objective, the next time we’d switch it around with Actor B doing the activity and Actress A coming in with the objective.       
          I have changed some elements in the way I teach Meisner from the way I learned it; for example, carefully researched sensory objects play an important part both before and during the improvisations. (I’ll go into more about this later.)  Another way in which I have altered the approach is not discussing situations between the actors ahead of time. Relationships are defined only in general terms, father, daughter, friend, etc.
          Over the years, I have trained myself to observe life very systematically, in order to relate it to acting. The actual way that cause creates effect is quite different from the way we think it works. (This is a broad topic which, in time, will get its own explanation.) However, there is one thing I have noticed that is particularly relevant to this discussion - relationships dissolve into chaos when conflict arises.  Everybody knows this, but it happens to a much greater degree than we would like to think. Objectivity decreases as the severity of the conflict increases. Finally coherent thought disappears altogether, and only the point of view of each person remains and is manifested in his or her behavior. The worlds of the two antagonists cease to be shared in any way. This usually creates great danger for at least one character, who may be almost totally unaware of what is going on.      
          For example, Joan, a peasant, dreams of a France that is based, ultimately, on democratic principles. She fights to the death for this outcome in each and every scene of the play. Obviously, there are other factors that come into playing her character, but this determination is first and foremost, and the actress playing her has to relate in one way or another to it before she can get into the Joan ‘ball park’.
          Dunois is an aristocrat, flawed from birth because he is a bastard son, but none-the-less a nobleman, with all the attendant qualities of concern with prestige and property. So what does he want above all else? Well, one thing, he doesn’t care about is the integrity of the entity called ‘France.’ He’s not at all sure that fighting for it is in his best interests; not if too many of his men are killed and another big landowner, the Duke of Burgundy, in this case, prove too powerful an enemy; one who would swallow up Dunois’ lands if he got in his way. Up to this point in the play, Joan and Dunois have fought side by side, now they are sharply divided by their interests.
          This is the heart of the matter; the sort of thing actors can sink their teeth into. It’s very difficult to grasp, but it is right there. Often, I talk a lot with students in order to help them find something in their own lives that will move them into the very spot where the character lives. In my next blog entry, I’ll discuss how Actress A and Actor B go about preparing and executing an improvisation that will help them identify with their characters and identify the source of the energy that motivates their conflict… 

Friday, September 28, 2012

BLOG #49: Cobbling together Method and Meisner: well not exactly…

That’s just the point – these two techniques are not stuck together but rather wound around each other like strings of DNA. I’m searching for ways to describe how actors can achieve the best results from working their way through these, seemingly, diametrically opposed acting systems. Is it boring? Let’s see…                                                                          In Blog entry #46, before I went off on my diatribe about the NY Times criticism of Sam Shepard’s play, Heartless, I compared the differences between Method and Meisner to the way in which Freud and Jung approached the new field of psychology. This is what I said:
          Freud’s ideas created the first big break with the past when he unveiled the theory that we have an ‘unconscious mind.’ Jung then split from Freud by postulating the ‘collective unconscious.’ Freud constructed the first model for psychological analysis, and Jung, rather like Meisner, discovered that the space occupied by our psyche is a shared one – that as individuals we are part of a collective and are interacting even though we think of ourselves as being single.
          The best way to clarify this incredibly complex idea is with an example. Not that the example is simple in any way, but more engaging than dry description and hopefully will make the whole idea easier to grasp. Two students, a man and a woman, have been working on one monologue apiece from a scene in G. B. Shaw’s St. Joan. This scene is the turning point of the play, just before the French literally ‘sell’ Joan to the British, although she has performed all sorts of ‘miraculous’ feats that have allowed the French to defeat the British enemy, who still occupy French soil. Joan, played by Actress A, does not know of the French plan and the Dunois, played by Actor B, so far her loyal general, will refuse to fight from this moment on. Shaw, being the great playwright that he is, has written two monologues, where none of the ‘facts’ are discussed. Rather, he allows the characters to speak ‘from the heart.’ 
          Joan, the ‘maid’ of Orleans – not yet St. Joan, who will have already been burned at the stake and thereby probably learned a thing or two about diplomacy – is still innocent of the shrewd plotting that will soon cause her appalling death. Dunois, a few years older, a nobleman, and wise in the ways of the Court will betray her because… well, he would lose his position, his lands, and quite possibly his entire family would be wiped out if he didn’t go along with the King’s decision to throw in his lot with the British at this point. (Although Dunois is closely related to the King, he cannot afford to go against the royal plan.)
          Now, this kind of research isn’t particularly encouraged in either Meisner or Method training – it might be considered a little ‘old fashioned’ to worry so much about nobles and peasants and French and British history of the 15th Century. Why not just update it to now? I’m not against that at all; however, one must know the facts of the original, in order to update anything. Some of it comes from a careful reading of the play, but Google fills in a lot more and is very accessible. There is no getting away from the fact that an actor must learn to do research, but that is not the subject being discussed at this point. Suffice it to say, Dunois’ relationship to Joan and her plight was a lot more complicated than Shaw describes in his play, but he got the essential points So, we move on.
          Actor B is preparing a monologue in which he tells Joan that he will no longer fight for her. Basically, he says that God is unpredictable and that their side can only continue fighting if he believes that they can win, and now that he’s stopped believing that he has decided to quit the fight. Otherwise he will be sending his soldiers into an unequal battle to be senselessly slaughtered. Abruptly, he changes the subject and accuses the King, also present in the scene, of not giving him enough credit for his role in winning the battles for France up to this point.  This suggests that he may be a little jealous of Joan and trying to win more credit with the King. Having been her devoted supporter, he now effectively switches his position and undermines her determination to fight until all of France is under one King.
          The first big problem that Actor B faces in working on this monologue, whatever method he uses – since they all agree on this point - is figuring out the character’s objective. Here is a brave person who has fought hard for a leader he believes in – and now all of a sudden he’s changing his position, using an excuse that doesn’t really hold up. He never thought their side could win, he just believed in her. Why doesn’t he believe in her now? This is the kind of situation that causes an actor to tear his hair out. Here the character is letting down his comrade in arms and he’s whining to his ‘commanding officer’ that his contribution isn’t sufficiently valued. How does the actor get on track with this? First of all, what is the character’s over-all objective? He has to be clear about that before he can figure out the objective in the monologue. Meisner won’t help here. Well, maybe a little, but sense-memory will be a lot more effective.
          Actor B can ask himself the question: when have I been in a situation like this? Then he can concentrate on the breathing and relaxation process, focus on his body and his senses, and see what comes up for him – what situation in his own life he slide into the character’s dilemma and believe in wholeheartedly. He came up with an ‘as if’, which we will get to very soon. And you will be surprised as it has nothing directly to do with generals and wars.
          In the next entry, I will discuss Joan’s position and what issues she is dealing with in her monologue. Then we will examine how their differing objectives lock the two characters in opposition to one another. One can use the Meisner Knock-at-the-Door improvisation along with the Method work-on-self. But the whole process has to be organized and each piece has to fit into the other. If the approaches don’t dovetail, the whole system breaks down in confusion and hopelessness. We’re all familiar with that! Let’s find a way out of it…

Saturday, September 8, 2012

BLOG #48: In Heartless Sam Shepard digs into one of the most critical personal and political issues for our time…

How does Sam Shepard’s play, ‘Heartless,’ deal with the man/woman issue, and why does it matter so much? (For fuller comprehension, please read Blog entry #47.)
          By the way, I am well aware that this blog is aimed at actors and not meant to furnish a critical analysis of playwriting. However, I think that actors should be constantly researching drama through viewing films and plays - whenever possible - and reading them, as well. It is extremely important to know how a script is birthed by a master playwright/screenwriter. Remember that the character you must identify with as an actor has been conceived by the writer and printed onto the page – although many changes may occur during rehearsal and shooting.  You need to know the precise relationship of your character to the objective of the script. I’m spending all this time with Heartless because I think it holds crucial insights into some of the most important personal and political issues of our time.  Actors need in-depth knowledge of how to bring both heart and mind into their comprehension of a script.
          So we have established that Heartless principally explores male/female relations. The battle between the sexes has always been fertile territory for playwrights.   Good dramatic writing on this subject usually shows women doing their best to stave off the effects of male thoughtlessness, selfishness and cruelty – whether overt or subtle – and losing (tragedy) or winning-by-losing (comedy). The tragic version takes center stage in A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen – Nora can never see her children again after she leaves her husband, Torvald. The comic variety is present in, well… just about everything ever written by Noel Coward – and just about every television sitcom.
          Other types of dramas that involve internecine conflicts between husbands and wives include women who are put upon and then do ‘evil’ things to their husbands, like Medea killing her children or the ‘cold killer’ type like Bette Davis in the film, Another Man’s Poison. But the point is women either die or horrible things happen to them as a result of their ‘folly’ in retaliating against negative male behavior.
          The suggestion is that women, however bad the situation may be, are not allowed the dramatic license of murder unless they get caught or destroy themselves. Women who walk out on men usually pay a price, but men frequently leave women and go on to do other things without having to account for their behavior. Shakespeare often shows us this pattern: Brutus in Julius Ceasar emotionally abandons Portia, who ends up killing herself, and then there’s Ophelia, whom Hamlet is contracted to marry until he’s consumed by the need to avenge his father’s death. Ophelia kills herself. And what about Antony leaving Cleopatra because the war takes him away? Another suicide, by asp, this time. Do we condemn these men for their actions? No. We are inclined to nod our heads sagely and say, “They had more important things to do.”
          There is one notable reversal of this behavior in Shakespeare – trust the bard to ring all the changes on human behavior – and that’s Cressida in Troilus and Cressida.  She abandons Troilus for Achilles and gets away with it. But, do we respect her? Perhaps, but she didn’t do it for a noble cause – and she was absolved of her ties to her former lover by Pandarus, who has a whole school of bad behavior named after him on this account!
           So Shepard has a bevy of current and classical writers raking over the same subject of man vs. woman, man always wins. What makes his angle so fresh on this well-worn subject?
          His first major play on the war of the sexes was Fool for Love in 1983. Returning Man begs Woman #1 to let him stay – after walking out on her for Woman #2. We’ve seen it a million times. But seldom has this issue been so wittily presented, with both protagonists apparently equally strong.  Nor does it usually feel like such a slap in the face when the man ultimately abandons her again – although the evidence of betrayal is there from the start, and the man never logically refutes it.
          The fact is that we are fooled by his charm and a sense that he, himself, believes in his ‘repentance’ – although he never really repents. We are transfixed by his need to return, and by the need of the woman, although she does everything she can to appear independent of him. She has, in fact, taken up with Guy #2, who shows up in the play, and although he actually has a job and treats her nicely, he isn’t half as cool or good looking as ‘Returning Man,’ who is such a charismatic loser, women in the audience drool over him, and the men would give anything to be him – so they could get the women, if not for any other reason.  Shepard’s dialogue in this play goes way beyond amusing, actually; it has the flavor of the American West and the spirit of ‘can-do.’ We fall for Returning Man who’s actually a total louse and loser, because he is, quite simply, the personification of the American Dream Man – the one the American Dream is built on. Without him, we’re bored and everything we want doesn’t exist. The play doesn’t solve anything, but it shows us exactly the dream/nightmare in which men and women were engaged at that moment.
          Twenty-seven years have passed since the writing of Fool for Love and now it’s time for the full-blown nightmare of Heartless.  Curiously, or purposely, the play has a feeling of Greek tragedy, although it still takes place in Shepard country: the spacious, mountainous Far West of great views and fresh air. One of the characters actually jumps off a mountain – and lives. Could it be that she is already dead?
          The delightful, clever dialogue we associate with Shepard is present only fitfully, and he is still cagey about anything too factual. Our leading man is no longer charismatic and witty. He’s confused and aging, but one thing we know for sure is that he’s deserted his wife and children.  The women – all four of them attack or give him the cold shoulder to begin with, but he is persistent in his attentions to all of them.  Only one sees through him, the mother, because she’s too old to be attracted, has seen it all, and was probably married to and deserted by a man exactly like him. Besides, she is wise enough to hold everything together while the man is causing chaos. (I’m not going to give away the plot, because I seriously hope anyone who reads this, will go and see the play if they haven’t already done so!) Two of the women are horribly maimed, and according to their scars, it isn’t just in the area of their hearts. It is suggested in a hazy Shepardian manner that the third is in the process of falling prey to exactly the same predator as the other two.  The point of all this is that women don’t change their position in relation to men because they have been ‘predatorized.’ They make every effort to do so, but something stops them. Again, Shepard shows us this horrible fate without attempting to explain it.
          We are the Chorus in this heartfelt Greek Tragedy. Obviously, not all of us fall prey to this hideous male/female machination. Some avoid it altogether, and others realize what’s going on and their fate combined with their own characters allow them to make choices so they can eventually escape. 
          In this particular election year - taking into consideration that half the electorate are women - a play that addresses the subject of women passively allowing men to violate the sacred space of the female body should be taken very seriously. By the way, many women are not deterred from aborting unwanted children by making it illegal. They find ways that are often extremely painful, life-threatening and frequently leave them unable to bear children when they are ready and desire to have them. Whether Sam Shepard had any of this in mind when he wrote the play is up for grabs.
          What is perfectly clear is that one of our foremost playwrights feels compelled to write about the fact that women – complicit or not - are still at the mercy of frequently unmerciful men. There’s an unseen character in Heartless, who is none-the-less ever present: the man’s dog. Is the dog ‘stupid’ because it fails to bite the hand that betrays it? Or does it just need more time to figure out its options…

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

BLOG # 47: More on Sam Shepard’s Heartless NY Times Review. “The man who became to drama what the Kleenex was to the handkerchief…”

I first encountered Sam Shepard in 1970. Some guy I was mad about – probably my first husband - and I went down to the Astor Place Theatre to see Shepard’s Forensic and the Navigators.  I had no idea what it was about, but its total madness drove me wild with delight.  Clive Barnes wrote of that production:
Despite my worst instincts, I cannot prevent myself from mildly loving the plays of Sam Shepard…  Mr. Shepard is perhaps the first person to write good disposable plays. He may well go down in history as the man who became to drama what Kleenex was to the handkerchief.

Barnes went on to recommend that’ people go and see for themselves what this young upstart      was up to.’ But Kleenex, indeed! If we were going to make a comparison today, we could say perhaps   that Shepard is to American drama what Jasper Johns is to the American flag.             
Whatever Shepard is trying to get at it, he intrigues us with a simultaneous layering of equally outrageous story-telling and action. Atrocities of a highly political nature are all but concealed in an infinite repertoire of often absurdly rendered personal crimes. And he succeeds in making this phantasmagoria seem almost natural by embedding it in the details of everyday reality.
             Of course, he changes things around, but he always links the horrors of the past to the brutality of the present.  In Fool for Love, an old man – long defunct – sits in the corner spying on and in some way controlling the vicious quarrels and prurient antics of a young couple, both of whom may possibly be his grandchildren. Buried Child makes unacknowledged infanticide the cornerstone of daily misery for the whole family. When, finally, the youngest living member flees into the night he sees all of his forebears pushing up against the windshield until they become“…faces I’d never seen before but still recognized.” Lie of the Mind presents mirror families; the attempted murder of a young, beautiful woman, fought over by two violent men who end up in a Mexican standoff. A third, less testosterone- infused, barely manages to slither out between them to claim the lovely lady. Directly impinging on the action of the protagonists is a host of mothers, fathers, a sister and a dead grandfather - who looms even more gargantuan in memory than the living - with alcohol supplying a constant source of negative energy.  And then there’s, True West, an audience favorite, which embodies all manner of fratricidal tendencies, not only the familial variety but also the ‘brotherly hate’ that poisons the American way of doing business and conducting all manner of public and private affairs.
             By making his points elliptically, always a little fuzzy or absurd, he keeps us amused but also forces us to ‘figure out’ what he’s talking about. A major example of this technique is the dead child in Buried Child – the play which won Shepard a Pulitzer Prize.           
When I saw it back in 1979, I had no idea what he was actually getting at, but it was fun to watch and I sensed there was a deep something-or-other going on. To minds more scholarly and mature than mine was at that time, it was obvious that the dead and hidden child was real, but it also represented a ‘collective past of unacknowledged and helpless victims’ and the ruckus on-stage could be, with a little shuffling of characters, any American family dealing with its poisoned roots. How and why the child died is spelled out in a way, but it seems that incest themes in Shepard might be a way of describing too much closeness from one’s forebears and lovers – a closeness that is like dynamite and creates explosions. And I’ve always had a hunch that Shepard is also making an oblique reference in this play to the murder of the Native Americans and the stealing of their land. In any case, he is showing how atrocities from both our personal and collective history collide with present day reality.      
             All in all, Shepard’s writing encompasses the horror and humor that many of us experience growing up and living in America. But like Jasper Johns’ flags, Shepard’s plays ring many changes on the American dream, because unfortunately, that’s exactly what it is – a dream.  And serious plays, like serious art, at least tweak and often turn our dreams into nightmares – because at the bottom of it all we need someone to show us the truth, unvarnished at least, if not harsh and ugly.
             And on that note, in my experience, no play of Shepard’s, has been harsher or uglier than Heartless. But I find it the most truthful and dead-on, literally, in its themes. In fact, as I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, it is like a Greek myth, only the ‘hero’, Roscoe, played by Gary Cole, is a total anti-hero. He doesn’t have the charisma, suavity, good looks, youthfulness or humor that we associate with Shepard’s bevy of leading gents. And this is because Shepard wanted him like that – he’s an ‘everyman’. Not that every man is like this character, but he represents the majority of a certain male breed, very prevalent in America, which up to this point has promoted itself as a bastion of equality in relations between men and women.
             In the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, while America was having its way with Vietnam, at least at home it was successfully challenging religious beliefs and societal prejudices in order to win legislation that allowed women to claim sovereignty over their own bodies.  Steady gains have been made in the area of women’s rights for decades, in just the same way as racism has been so diminished that we were able to elect an African-American president. But now, suddenly, there is a tremendous push to erase all this good work, as if these were just words on a blackboard.
             How is it possible that after all this time, the freedom of women over their bodies is being called into question? How can it be, here in the new millennium, that an American male politician –regardless of the party to which he belongs - can get away with saying openly that a fetus conceived from rape shows that the women’s body gave consent?? How can he do this without being immediately scuttled by his party? It’s as if the fundamental human status of women’s equality to men had been spirited away in the dark by little male gnomes.
             Or are there little female gnomes, as well?
Since we’re talking about a year in which there is an election campaign, these questions all lead to THE BIG QUESTION: how in the year 2012, in a country where we have one vote for each person (let’s leave out the issue of poll tampering for the moment) and women are at least half the population – how come these politicians who hold such inhuman, atavistic, and misogynistic views aren’t afraid of alienating the majority of the female population?? What makes them think they can still get the votes they need in spite of their highly public obsession with women’s private parts? (In an economy where many middle class families are already hitting the poverty level – you’d think women would be thinking smaller, not bigger, families.) This aim, ready, fire at women’s sovereignty over their own bodies is the $64,000 – or is it the $1,000,000,000,000 question - in America today. And Shepard has the guts, intelligence and heart to explore it in Heartless.
             From where I’m sitting, this is an issue that the NY Times failed to address in its revue – and it’s an unforgivable oversight, considering the immense danger of America electing a government next November that will marginalize women. Could a playwright find an issue more relevant than this one to explore right now? Even if a critic disagreed wholeheartedly with the argument put forth in the play – not to even mention it in a review? Really. More coming on Shepard and Heartless in a few days.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Blog #46: Forging the first links between Method and Meisner

I realize that I have to go slowly as I attempt to develop this idea.  I hope that you will bear with me on this. It’s easy to generalize and toss around ideas about acting that seem to make sense but when you try to put them into practice they fall apart. I remember when I was first teaching, I wasn’t even aware that Method and Meisner appeared, not only on the surface but even as you penetrate more deeply into the whole structure of the art form, to be, well… diametrically opposed if not downright mutually exclusive! And they were meant to be, at first, for reasons I’m not going to discuss here because I’m not an expert on the history of acting training.  My area of knowledge, and the focus of this writing, is to make the ‘process of learning acting’ as clear as I can, but sometimes a little history doesn’t hurt.
          Another momentary digression – it has a purpose: my mother appeared in a play on Broadway directed by Lee Strasberg.  She couldn’t stand his direction, although I can’t remember exactly why. Perhaps she didn’t say, because it would have been obvious to the person, my father, to whom she told me the story.  Here’s another story that goes along with this one – and I’ll get to the point of all this in a minute. My mother and father attended the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire.  As they were walking away from the Schubert Theatre, they ran into Marlon Brando, who was sitting on a doorstep, looking very concerned about something. My mother stopped to congratulate him and tried to talk to him about the play. But Brando was completely immersed in showing my parents his finger, which had been hurt – apparently not seriously, according to my father – during the course of the show that afternoon.     
          Somehow the fact that my mother didn’t like Strasberg as a director and the story about Brando’s involvement with his hurt finger had become conflated in my father’s mind. I think it had to do with the accusation of ‘self-involvement’ that has always been hurled at Method Acting. My father was not an actor and had probably taken his cue from my mother. So why didn’t she like Method Acting? She was an established star by the time she worked with Strasberg, and I don’t think acting methods any longer interested her. It was a job, and she was entirely wrapped up in writing novels - and trying to have some family life in the time that were left over. If she had lived, I imagine she would have become interested in the ‘actual methodology’ of Method Acting.
          One criticism that can be leveled at the teachers of Method Acting is misusing the information that one inevitably acquires about the actors, whom one is teaching. Knowing something about someone doesn’t mean that one necessarily understands them or can ‘help’ them in any particular way. Obviously, acting teachers find out the sort of things therapists discover in the course of treatment, but don’t have the same kind of training. Teachers can help students psychologically in a human way, but not in a professional capacity – and they can be extremely harmful if they turn the information they have been given by a student against the student. Even with the best intentions, teachers often don’t realize how much power students give them, and they aren’t careful enough. I was guilty of this myself in the early years of my teaching. One must remember that back in the 1940’s when Method Acting was in its infancy, teachers made mistakes all the time, unwittingly. Another problem was the position of women in those days. Without even thinking about it, male teachers often assumed they were intellectually superior to the women in their classes; but even worse, women were apt to think of themselves as ‘below’ men, especially a famous, or not even famous, acting teacher. They gave them power – and they did the same thing with female teachers, of course, but for different reasons. Female teachers are often unconsciously viewed as ‘surrogate mothers,’ which is okay as long as the teacher understands that a transference can take place, but knows full well that she is neither the student’s mother nor a therapist!
          Here is a third reason that Method Acting got a bad rap; it was so new there hadn’t been time enough to begin ironing out the bugs in the ‘methodology’ behind the ‘method’. This is a subject I will pursue in depth as I go on with this analysis of Method and Meisner. Please note that I do not say ‘Method vs. Meisner,’ unless I’m referring specifically to the battle –which I consider no longer necessary - being waged between them.
          Consider the fact that Stanislavsky’s ideas backed both techniques (He introduced others also that became identified with individual teachers, including Adler’s script analysis and Grotowski’s physical/vocal disciplines.) This revolution in acting training was embedded in the transition from the 1800’s to the 1900’s. Looking at the whole picture, it becomes clear that Stanislavsky’s influence on the Art of Acting was part of a huge wave of political and social changes we call ‘Modernism.’
          Again, I am not any sort of historian, but as a child of the mini-revolution of the 1960’s, I have experienced a lesser version of these seismic shifts in art from one era to another. First the bliss of the surge followed by the inevitable recoil of disappointment from the problems that such a bold movement inevitably causes.
          I think that the split between Method and Meisner can be likened somewhat to the difference between Freud’s and Jung’s psychoanalytic views. Freud’s ideas created the first big break with the past when he unveiled the theory that we have an ‘unconscious mind.’ Jung then split from Freud by postulating the ‘collective unconscious.’ Freud constructed the first model for psychological analysis, and Jung, rather like Meisner, discovered that the space occupied by our psyche is a shared one – that as individuals we are part of a collective and are interacting even though we think of ourselves as being single.  I feel that in both cases – Method/Meisner and Freud/Jung - all elements have value and that they are ultimately interdependent. These comparisons are far from exact but they are worth exploring – and explore them I shall as I proceed with my analysis.
          Eventually, bridging the gap between Method and Meisner will give us a unified perspective that will greatly enrich our knowledge of acting. Splits are necessary and inevitable, but if we don’t heal them we descend into the chaos of perpetual civil war.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Blog #45: Superlative Acting in Sam Shepard’s Heartless and Annie Baker’s version of Uncle Vanya at the Soho Rep.

Before I plunge in further with my plan to discuss segues between Method and Meisner, I need to talk about two superlative acting ensembles I had the privilege to witness over the weekend: Sam Shepard’s Heartless and Annie Baker’s version of Uncle Vanya at the Soho Rep.  
          It’s valuable to analyze why a work of art succeeds – and what we mean by ‘success’ in this context. A reaction to a work of art is not entirely ‘personal’; although I have often disagreed with the critics, they have helped me over the years to understand a ‘pattern’ that makes audiences and critics alike feel a very special kind of excitement when viewing a performance.  I strive to bring about work in my students that is able to transform an audience from passive viewers into active participants. I mean this in the sense that the audience actually feels what the characters are experiencing and that the play is in some way about them and their life.
          Heartless hasn’t opened yet and I don’t want to give away anything about the plot. Please go and see it for your own good. It is not an easy play to watch. We were seated almost under the stage and I had to crane my neck, which was already sore, in order to watch the action. But after a while I felt that my discomfort was actually contributing to my personal involvement in this superb play. Two outstanding elements make it, in my judgment, ‘successful.’ Actually three, now that I think about it. I was going to say the writing of the script and the sensitive acting, but then I realized that the brilliant direction connects these two like the third leg of a triangle.
          Shepard has always been able to boil down earth-shaking themes such as brotherhood, ‘familyhood’ and corporate greed and feed them through simultaneously believable and crazy characters  - and then make the whole stew go down easily with a liberal sprinkling of humor.  But here Shepard takes on a man vs. women theme with the intensity of a Greek tragedy and pulls it off through actors, who literally turn themselves inside out. There’s no preaching in this play. People talk, well… not naturally, but in the way people might actually speak when they have a lot on their minds, and they do plenty of interesting things and by the time they’ve reached the end of the play, they reveal that the qualities they seemed to project at first are the polar opposite of who they really are. The ensemble work of the actors is terrific; whether utterly attuned or viciously dissonant they continually speak ‘from the heart or heartlessness’ that defines their core. The emotional life is so tangible that we can’t disconnect for an instant. If we allow ourselves to listen, we are riveted – and when it is over we know that we are them and they are us – and in one way or another, the terrible arc of their lives is ours. I can imagine what it must have cost Shepard to come up with this kind of honesty, but it is hard to imagine how the actors go on night after night shivering with emotion like leaves in a particularly icy wind.
          Annie Baker’s Uncle Vanya at Soho Rep is another wrenching treat for theatergoers. Others more qualified than I have extolled the virtues of this particular presentation - how the stage area extends into the audience as if we are at times transported to, and at others literally trapped inside, a rural Russian living room of the late nineteenth century . And what goings-on we encounter!  I thought to myself, we, the audience, are a Greek chorus of helpless bystanders, only allowed some laughter and a hell of a lot of sadness at this so-called Chekhovian 'Tales of Country Life.' 
          Actually, I could write a dissertation on this wonder-inducing production of a play, I know almost as well as my own life from the amount of times I’ve worked on it with students. But in the interest of brevity, I will concentrate on the ‘core resonance’ of this particular performance, which, in my entirely personal view is built upon the axis of Vanya, fueled by fury and crammed into an armor of irony – except when he explodes like a bomb - in Reed Birney’s steely portrayal, and the sinuous, seductive, tubercular and ultimately achingly disappointed Astrov, unveiled by the masterful Michael Shannon.  Running courier between them is Eve Best’s adorably hopeful and equally despairing Sonia. The other characters definitely do more than ‘swell a progress’ but they are mired – and to some extent saved - by an ignorance of their desperate lot. The three prime movers, however, are acutely aware – Sonia only in the final moments – that they will never experience love and fulfillment in their lives. In this way, they presage the ‘end of days’ horror that will descend upon Russia in the next few decades and annihilate the landowning class. Vanya seethes with rage at the knowledge that he wasted valuable possibilities in his youth, Astrov is a man of action but the action leads nowhere because of the vast ignorance and laziness around him, and Sonia girds her character with faith in a spirit world beyond the grave to face abiding sorrow on this plane.
          Shannon’s portrayal of Astrov is astonishing; at times he was standing only a few feet from my seat, and I could see the curvature of his spine and the grimace of pain on his face. He was the embodiment of a man who masters illness, commits himself to courageous action and loves with all his heart. He is everything we admire and could wish for in a man today. These are his words, The Russian forests are literally groaning under the axe, millions of trees are being destroyed, the homes of animals and birds are being laid waste, the rivers are becoming shallow and drying up, the wonderful scenery is disappearing forever…
           Does anyone hear him? No. He is a voice in the wilderness, which will die out, as will so many millions of other Russian voices, those of the ones murdered by dictators in the years that followed. And the earth will be laid waste, most notably in Chernobyl. But Uncle Vanya will live one, interpreted by artists who truly understand the importance of reminding us that ‘those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.’ Or even more frighteningly, history will always repeat itself no matter what we do, because history is the result of Human Nature… 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Blog # 44: Daenya’s life problems halt our work on Berniece’s monologue. Moving on to figure out the steps for combining Meisner with Method.

As you may recall, in my last series of Blog entries, I have been examining sense memory technique as applied to the work of my student, Daenya, on the character of Berniece from August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. At the end of July, Daenya abruptly lost her long-term job, when her dentist employer was diagnosed with diabetes and had to take an early retirement. In order to survive, Daenya took a severe cut in pay and is spending all her spare time looking for a second job to support herself and her daughter. I hope she eventually finds decently paid employment so she can have a better life and we can work together again.  I miss her; it was a pleasure to watch her considerable talent unfold over the years we worked together.
          But since this has happened, I will now re-focus the Blog to discuss a major aspect of acting training that I have touched on but needs to be explored in depth. I am referring to the integration of Method and Meisner. An appropriate synthesis of these techniques, along with other aspects of learning to act such as voice, speech, bodywork, etc., is essential to the kind of quick preparation required for television and film acting as well as the long-term consistency required for theatre roles.
          As I have said in earlier blogs, both Method and Meisner – as indeed most current training techniques – are derived essentially from Stanislavsky’s formulation of the Art of Acting.  But Meisner seems to have sprung from a schism with Method that engendered what amounted to a civil war, engendering recriminations and bitterness on both sides. Perhaps this opposition has quieted down recently - for years I remember trying to work with students who had previously trained in one or the other and were incapable of switching their allegiance.  These days Meisner appears to hold sway, mainly because it is suited to larger classes and on the surface might be easier to teach.  (As students often discover to their chagrin, many classes are based on the profit motive and employ simplistic teaching methods which profit no one.) The fact is that, as with civil wars, eventually compromises are reached; usually both sides are right about some things and wrong about others. But it is an individual matter, as it is with each actor trying to find his/her own path through the thorny do’s and don’ts of acting techniques. Of course, there are others training methods – most notably the Stella Adler technique - that focus on specific factors, which will enter this discussion, but the main psychological division is Method vs. Meisner.
          Instead of starting out with a theoretical discussion, I would like to begin the investigation of these complicated and incredibly confusing theories by using two examples of young people with whom I have worked recently. Let us give them the names Sam and Robbie.
          My first session was audition coaching with Sam, an actor whom I was meeting for the first time. His agent had told me about him, praised him to the skies – and I was not disappointed. He was everything she had described; very photogenic in a trendy way, smart as a whip, every line of his sides were memorized, and polite without a trace of arrogance about his looks and talent.  We talked for a bit; I asked the usual questions, about previous training and some stuff about family background. He had attended seminars but not received any consistent training, and the family on his mother’s side was from Belarus, which could be a clue since experience has shown me that often Eastern Europeans bring a lot of intensity and intuition to their work.
          But the readings of this young teenager, although solid with the text broken down into beats, actions, and objectives, remained unimaginative and uninspired. He took the directions I gave and adjusted quickly and professionally. The material was suspenseful; the character was basically attempting to avenge the death of his father with some supernatural help – a la Harry Potter. For a moment, I thought about just tweaking the workmanlike but rather pedestrian performance he had already achieved. Instead I found myself jumping in and spending most of the session talking to Sam about the need for learning about and using sense memory. He listened attentively and did his best to take in what I was saying.  In one short hour of coaching, however, there is no way he could have even begun to understand much beyond the fact that someone was telling him he needed to learn a big technique he’d never heard of before and didn’t sound very appetizing. We’ll see what happens.
          Yesterday, I saw Robbie, also a young teen, and one of the most outstanding actors I’ve had the privilege to meet. He’s already a triple threat, with years of training and performance as a singer/dancer under his belt.  He also likes to write – so his critical thinking is developing quickly, a skill which is absolutely essential for good acting. It’s amazing how this kid seems to know as much about his parents as they do about themselves. One factor contributing to his early awareness is the fact that both parents are in the business; one is a director and the other a screen writer.
          Robbie was preparing a monologue for a theatre program at a school. Unlike Sam, he had not attended a lot of TV and Film audition classes, so he had not picked up ‘tips’ about how to change his ‘delivery to make him sound more interesting.’ I have a phrase for this kind of haphazard approach to acting – ‘get rich quick schemes.’  Therefore, although Robbie is still unskilled, his monologue was connected to his inner self. We’ve been delving into sense memory for almost a year now, and as soon as he got the monologue, he had already begun to find connections to ‘objects’ from his life about which he felt deeply. It’s difficult with kids because everything is so present tense, as opposed to adults who have more distance into the past. In my next Blog entry, I’ll begin an analysis of connecting Robbie’s sense memory ‘objects, to the situation in the monologue through a Meisner exercise, which involves, ‘working off the partner.’ I just found out that Robbie was told on the spot that he got into the program he was auditioning for!