Sunday, January 29, 2012

Blog # 24: Shakespeare: A Search for the ‘Necessary’

Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream
I’ve had the pleasure these last few months of working with a young student, Paloma, from South America. She has been preparing audition pieces for college acting programs in the New York area. In her early twenties now, Paloma has been playing leading roles in professional companies in her native country since she was eighteen. An accomplished singer/dancer, her repertoire includes musicals as well as straight plays. She speaks four languages and, having lived in America for the first decade of her life, speaks English without an accent. She proposed Juliet’s potion speech, for her dramatic Shakespeare piece and we decided on Phoebe from As You Like it for her contrasting Shakespeare monologue - two Shakespeares were required for one of her auditions.
As Paloma was attracted to Juliet, of course I agreed – for auditions it’s always best to do what you feel strongly about.  But in the back of my mind a little voice said, ‘Juliet, huh, she’s sweet, but where do we go from there…’  And a slightly louder voice said, ‘Phoebe could be fun, but it’s very hard to figure out her behavior and point of view so the whole piece actually hangs together…’ 
Paloma and I Skyped before she arrived in NYC for the last month of preparation. Physically, she is petite, charming, very pretty, lively – all the things you’d want to see in a Renaissance ingĂ©nue, but the Bard is hard I thought to myself, all those weird characters spouting archaic language.
I, myself, had a so-so start with Shakespeare.  The first monologue I remember learning was at my father’s knee - Juliet, as it happens, the balcony scene, ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ I memorized it before I could read and babbled it obediently, when requested to do so, but probably not in front of anyone other than my father, since I suffered from crippling shyness. My next foray into Shakespeare was at an all-girls boarding school, where I played Henry in Henry V.  I actually remembered all those lines and enjoyed waltzing around in a cute pair of pointy boots. At Columbia University, I got to play Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and carry on about how, as Queen of the Fairies, her fight with Oberon was screwing up the weather!
But I was already beginning to obsess about something with which I would struggle for decades; ‘What am I supposed to feel as a verse spouting fairy, fighting with her husband about their joint responsibility regarding the weather?’  (Actors really do have to ask themselves the most ridiculous questions!)  Exactly how were you supposed to get satisfying results when ‘doing’ Shakespeare. Honestly, his plays didn’t hold my attention when I was living in London and attended performances by the great classical actors like Olivier and Guilgud at the National Theatre.  Their diction and physical actions were impeccable, but they didn’t seem fully ‘alive,’ and I either fell asleep or my mind wandered.  The one time I truly loved a Shakespearean performance was Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Company. And it wasn’t just because he put the lovers on swings, it was because the actors actually seemed to be talking to each other about something they really believed in.   
I thought my Shakespeare problem would be solved when I got into RADA.  But their technique of teaching ‘poetic language’ confused me even further. I got all balled up in figuring out the stresses and rhythms of scanning the verse – and then that mess got inextricably entangled with something awful called ‘rib reserve breathing’ – that I couldn’t act any more.  When I played Adrianna in A Comedy of Errors, I even forgot my lines! It was the nadir of my artistic existence…
I think Shakespeare had a lot to do with my finally becoming a teacher – and the fact that what intelligence I possess comes more from my ‘animal’ side than anything human. What I mean by this probably has nothing to do with animals and humans, but it feels as if it does.  If something is ‘bad’ for me, I will eternally seek a way to get away from it, but usually by going back to it again and again until I grasp the one simple thing I’m doing wrong. After that, I lose interest.  If I get a taste of something ‘necessary’ to me, I will never stop trying to ‘own’ it, in one way or another. Of course, most of the time I’m wrong and the thing isn’t ‘necessary’ at all, and the way I find that out is by getting it and not wanting it in the end.  Shakespeare, however, has continued to be ‘necessary’ no matter how many times my experience with it has been painful, if not downright humiliating.  And throughout my life, other actors, very occasionally a director, but mostly from trying to teach it to my students, I have been shown ‘the way into Shakespeare.’
My streak of bad luck with the Bard began to turn around when I encountered Andre Gregory and later went off to Poland to work with members of the Polish Lab Theatre. That’s a long story, which I’ll get into another time, but I will take a moment to talk about finding my voice - Shakespeare doesn’t work, unless one’s voice is centered and available.  I found mine late one night when I had a ‘primal’ experience in a workshop, lead by Ludwig Flazen, co-founder of Jerzy Grotowski’s Teatr Laboratorium.  Another break-through occurred during a period of rehearsal when Andre was toying with the idea of producing Macbeth. One of the actors noticed that I was struggling with Lady M.’s monologues; he showed me how to read the Letter speech and the Sleepwalking Scene with the correct scansion. Suddenly, it made sense. My major problem was due to two simple facts I had failed to grasp among all the endless ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ of versification; never stress an unstressed syllable, and if you have to, it means that the line is irregular.
Next week, I’ll describe a couple of learning experiences I’ve had teaching Shakespeare and how I’ve gradually developed a profound kinship with the world of his plays, culminating in my recent work with the very gifted Paloma.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Blog #23: Resistance: Some Strategies

For some reason, as I start to write again about resistance, my mind conjures the image of a man from behind, a laborer.  He has taken off his shirt and his back is muscled but conveys weariness. Yes, I like men’s bodies, but there’s a specific reason for this image. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s something I haven’t thought of yet. I know that.  
Shortly after I returned to America from England to continue my studies in acting, I met Pierre, a director, who was my dear friend for many years until he died of AIDS. He is never far from my thoughts – in fact I’m in the middle of writing a poem about how he furthered my appreciation of Samuel Beckett and helped me to ground myself eventually in the physical theatre work of Jerzy Grotowski. Very early in our relationship, Pierre introduced me to an acting teacher, who was proficient in Method Acting. From Pierre and his friend, the acting teacher, I began to learn how to focus my mind on what my body was experiencing and from there segue into memories and meditative patterns that are useful creatively.   And later, much later, I found ways to use this ‘meditative process’ to bridge over into whatever character I was working on.  Over at least half a lifetime, I continued to refine this process, so it works for writing as well as acting – in fact, it has changed my entire perspective on life.
But right now I’m concentrating on how one can use this process to avoid the fatal interference of entrenched resistance. I say fatal, because resistance can put one in a maze, running in circles, clueless as to the direction one should go to ‘get inside’ where the creative urge can find its way. The only way out is by escaping into another activity.  And if one is continuously sabotaged by this mechanism, time is lost and one can’t move forward.
So, what to do?  A moment ago, as I began working on this Blog, I didn’t try to think out how I would begin. However, all this week the continuation of writing about ‘resistance’ from last week has been in the back of my mind.  My body/mind connection has been gestating the subject, and today when I knew I would write it this evening, I’ve been careful not to try to ‘think’ it out so I could ease into the process with a relaxed body and hopeful mind. Just before I started, I had a little ‘dawdle’ at the computer with e-mails and almost bought something on-line, but gently disengaged myself so I could start before the time arrived when I would absolutely have to start cooking dinner. 
And I was rewarded by the image of a man’s muscled back conveying strength and weariness. The fact that I was able to stay relaxed allowed me to ‘read’ this visual cue so it would transform itself into what I actually wanted to say. The association of that image is positive for me, and I think it has to do with the paintings of Thomas Hart Benson, who often depicted steady, patient laborers, working long hours at physically demanding jobs.  Therefore, the qualities these men possess make me visualize them in particular. But why not women’s bodies? Are they not also capable of patience and hard work? Apparently, my unconscious puts the men ahead in this regard. Men from my particular background, who by the way are not generally laborers, have the ability to work more steadily than the women, who are apt to be spoiled, rather the way I am. But the logic of this intuitive process is often anything but logical, unless you subject it to rigorous analysis - subject for another Blog. For me, right now, I had to relax enough to allow the image of a man’s back to come to the surface of my mind and to identify it as the ‘way in’ to writing about resistance.  In other words, whatever causes you to feel strongly and consistently can effectively break down your resistance to taking action.  Patience and strength in the face of hardship is what I admire in the laborers. That gets me going, and I seek to emulate it, and although I don’t work with my hands – except for cooking – I can transfer over their application of ‘physical’ strength to a similar endeavor on my part in the ‘mental’ arena.
Another way I have found to overcome my extreme fear of failure and resistance to ‘mental effort that I think is beyond my ability’ is by subjugating myself to a regimen of daily exercise – and I do not use the word ‘subjugating’ lightly. Unfortunately, I do not enjoy energetic movement, aside from a brisk walk in the country on a fall day, an option which is not often unavailable to me.  But aerobic exercise keeps me fit and as I grow older I consider it absolutely necessary to my well-being both mentally and physically. The fact that I can overcome my repugnance to exerting myself in the physical arena makes the effort available to ‘transfer over’ into the scarier areas of creative endeavor. And believe me, concerted effort in the mental area is much more difficult for me to successfully box myself into than the discomfort and boredom of physical exercise!
But then, why on earth would one want to do something one has to ‘box oneself into?’ Well, when I succeed, to be really corny about it, I soar on the wings of fulfillment. I am certain that I am doing what I am meant to do, when I engage in this process I’ve just described.  The high that I get from buying a new outfit, or even going to a play/film that I enjoy, is not the same.  The buying of an object I crave is like satisfying hunger with junk food, and the pleasure derived from experiencing a work of art conceived by someone else can be compared to eating an organic meal.   But much as I like feeding my body, conceiving something creative from my own self feeds my soul.  When I allow resistance to stop me, I’m not even sure I have a soul…

Monday, January 16, 2012

Blog# 22 Dawdling and Resistance:

Sooner or later most actors have to face this knotty problem. Some actors work very hard at their profession, but many haven’t a clue how to even begin this delicate process, whose secrets are often hidden from the self and have to be hunted down and seized upon. Self-motivation is key because a lot of this work is done alone: thinking about the character to be portrayed and how best do approach it. But throughout the years, I have often encountered actors who will not/cannot embrace the specific aspects of the work that will benefit them most. Through all sorts of ruses they avoid doing the homework of burrowing into the areas of themselves that need to be understood and freed so they can move forward. They tend to come around when there is a part to be coached, but are allergic to doing the groundwork between jobs, particularly weaknesses in script analysis and how to relate to a character through their deeper selves.  I’m going to make a confession about my own process to try to get to the bottom of this.
I have been writing a poem during two and a half of the three hours I set aside to complete this blog, which is supposed to be published tomorrow. Why do I do this to myself. I take the blog very seriously and I enjoy writing it and yet the actuality of writing it makes me feel claustrophobic. Probably this is because I require myself to write it – and artists often dislike requirements. It doesn’t mean that we are exactly undisciplined – this problem has to do with ‘meaning’ – the origins of why we do anything. We are aware that there is something underneath or supporting our effort that we must grasp in order to make the work worthwhile. Reading a blog written by someone who is merely filling a requirement is not interesting.  We must write it because we have something to say that is of urgent interest to our readers, but we must find out why we need so urgently to do something for ourselves before we can fulfill our obligation to others.
I find it hard to write about my ‘dawdling’ because it’s not a pleasant subject – I hate the fact that I can’t get things done without constantly straying and then having to rush to completion at the end. It’s childish, it makes me feel ridiculous – and worst of all, I’m not sure where I’m going with all this, even as I write it - and if I will lose my way in getting to my ultimate point. I know that I will have to dig and come up with bits of truth that I’ve spent my whole life covering up. Otherwise, I could glibly put down some pithy statements on my subject and get on with all the other things I have to do. Ah, something’s just come to me – rage and hurt are involved. It’s a sense that I’m not going to be good at what I have to do, so why make things worse by trying and failing. My vices are connected to it, as well. The worst thing about dawdling is that I’m not really dawdling at all, I’m actually actively engaged in doing something other than what I’ve decided to do. When I was child, I would sit by the hour chewing my cuticles until my fingers looked like bloody stumps.  I ate a lot of food containing sugar - I didn’t gain weight, because in those days I had a fast metabolism, but I ruined my teeth. Later, I would obsess by the phone waiting for some boy or other to call and ask me out and day-dreaming about what the date would be like if he did. In fact, I spent most of my life day-dreaming about what I ‘would do’ until I realized that I would never do anything unless I actually ‘did’ it.
That awareness scared me into action, but even though I stopped day-dreaming, I wasn’t able to do much ‘real work’ for a long time. By ‘real work’ I mean creative output – in those days it was acting. Instead, I became more productive about cooking, taking care of paper-work, cleaning and making sure I kept up social activities with my friends. When I finally began to work more consistently, I found that I was unable to grasp the solution to questions about dramatic texts, character motivations and continually the problem of ‘identifying with the character’ would come up. I had to face the fact that I was failing.
I wish I could tell you that this problem goes away. It’s a horrible feeling and I would do almost anything to get away from it. Even though I realize that ‘dawdling’ is a way not to face my worst fears of failure, I still find myself buying items on-line or writing e-mails as a way to avoid the grip of facing the worst – I just can’t do this task. Sometimes it is impossible to move ahead at all, and I have to wait until I feel better. But I don’t like this course of action, and it can be quite impractical in the long run.  What happens when there are new things to do tomorrow, and you have everything left over from today.
It’s midnight and I’ve just finished this. I wanted to get along further in this analysis, but it would have been impossible without laying the groundwork first.  Patience and thoroughness – not very sexy, but necessary when attempting to communicate something useful about a problem as complicated as this one.  Next time I’ll discuss stratagems for actors who want to break through to more effective ways of exploring their work and capitalizing on the results. I’m a plodder so if you’re seeking a quick ‘how to’ this won’t be for you…

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Blog #21: Is Emily really an actress? Acting In the New Year – or is it Acting Out the Old One?

I hadn’t seen Emily for some years; she is a successful, highly skilled actress, although she hasn’t done much recently, due to pressing personal commitments. In NYC, to work on a film for a few days, she came by and knocked on my door – to my great delight.  She was one of the ‘easiest’ people I’ve had to teach. She seemed to accept that acting is a holistic process, and neither tried to push ahead nor lagged behind, and her steady progress reflected this sanguine attitude. She was as patient as she needed to be!
She auditioned steadily, but did her homework faithfully for class, while trying to get a job. This went on for quite sometime, well over a year, without her booking anything, and then she started landing roles for high profile projects with stars. But she always had trouble with auditions – even back at the beginning when she was doing so well. They freaked her out– they still do – and over the years has proved a big impediment to her career.
Why is this happening to someone so accomplished?  Either it’s a deep psychological reason, which is beyond my provenance, or it’s a fault in her technique. Probably the two are merged in some diabolical fashion. But she gave me a clue, mentioning that she fares better when she can latch on to a deep sensory connection than when called upon to audition for a middle-of-the-road character. It seems, according to her, that she shies away from an in-depth analysis of ‘subtext,’ which gives specificity and texture to lighter characters and makes them interesting.  But when confronted with a very emotional part, once she locates the character’s center in herself, the technical details come easily. (Most of us would give our right arm to be able to do that! But the fact is that often audition material is subtle, requiring the kind of skill that allows the character’s deeper needs to shine through a filter of misleading possibilities.) Emily is very smart and capable of learning skills, so I’m making an educated guess that Emily’s problem doesn’t lie with acting at all. It points to the possibility of self-sabotage for deep personal reasons. This raises the further question; is Emily perhaps not really an actress? Or does she just need to keep on digging? It is one she is asking herself right now…
The on-going struggles of Emily fit right into the way we approach the New Year. Even if we think New Year’s resolutions are a lot of hooey – I raise my hand – well, doesn’t it force us just a little bit to think how nice it would be if… ?  Who wouldn’t like an excuse to turn over a sprig of holly, so to speak? Last night I went to a New Year related party, and I managed to entangle myself in a heated argument with an actress I’d never met before. She had some odd ideas about acting, to which I paid little attention, much too involved in my euphoric reaction to an excellent glass of Prosecco.  But then we got onto the subject of weight loss – near and dear to my heart for reasons not germane to this blog. In any case, I became incensed when she categorically dismissed the possibility that a box full of powdered food measured out for a month could possibly deter an over-eater from returning after the month had ended to their former over-enthusiastic intake of calories. Voice raised and gesticulating with my glass, I, for my part, insisted that weight loss has nothing to do with food and everything to do with why the person overindulges in it.  “For God’s sake,” I ranted, “alcoholics can’t have any alcohol at all, so does that mean that if they go to AA for a month, they’ll just start guzzling again when it’s over?”  
We would like to think that someone could give us a blueprint to follow and - poof! - the one pattern that makes us feel horrible, and we all have at least one, will vanish.  Obviously, that doesn’t work most of the time. However, please excuse me for preaching for a moment, but I have discovered from personal experience something that makes my horrible pattern of endless dawdling slightly less intransigent for me – less impenetrably, relentlessly resistant to change.
Fooling myself.  
In other words, letting the ‘fool’ in myself – as in Shakespeare’s fools, there’s a subject for a blog - have its say.  Like most of us, I’m two characters, at least. I’m “the one who wants to do it and feels that she can” and I’m “the brat.” Like most “brats” she won’t do anything she’s supposed to unless I can ‘fool’ her into thinking it’s her own idea.
I know I’m on to something here but we’ll have to wait until the next blog to find out what it is…   
By the way, in parting, the actress and I pecked each other on the cheek, and I apologized. You can’t go away mad from your first party of the New Year.