Monday, March 26, 2012

Blog #32: A Fourteen-Year-Old profits from acting training –just not for acting…

Blog #32: A Fourteen-Year-Old profits from acting training –just not for acting…
Please bear in mind that in this writing I am not referring to teaching professional children and teens. By ‘professional’ I mean kids who have agents and managers who regularly send them out on auditions, and who usually show up with copy for speaking roles in one or more of the following: commercials, TV shows, films, or theatre. Although I always hope to find a very quick way to reach the mysterious – children and adolescents do not reveal themselves easily - frequently small and beneath their professional calm, frightened young creatures who face me in a coaching session; it is my job to focus primarily on the copy.
Here, I am describing my experience with kids who are exploring the possibilities of acting, both as an art form and a means of self-expression; this process, if successful, may assist them with all manner of issues relating to personal growth and/or bring out their acting talent.
I remember Bonnie with great fondness; an attractive girl, no affectation, at every glance her blue eyes suggesting an eagerness for experience. Her mother brought her to me when she would have been a freshman in high school – except that she had always been home-schooled. At first, this may have been the main reason for the acting lessons. Bonnie had done some children’s theatre and the lessons gave her something to do that was interactive
She started at fourteen and we spent an amicable four years working together; her acting progressed through three interesting stages. During the initial period she continued with children’s shows in her hometown, playing small roles that required minimal assistance. So we talked a lot, which can be a good thing to do with kids because the manner in which they express themselves, not so much what they say, is the basis for their acting. It is actually from children like Bonnie, who are able to tune in, that I finally learned how to listen with my whole being – very important for an actor - because that is what they are doing. Absorbing and mirroring; receiving and giving ‘authentic impulses’ is an acting exercise in itself.
Establishing trust with Bonnie was like falling off a log. There was little initial shyness; she looked forward to lessons and thought of them as ‘a good time,’ even when she was required to do difficult emotional work.  Mutual trust and respect are important when working with young actors – helpful with adults, as well, but absolutely essential with kids. Hardly ever does one know for sure what a young student actor is going to do later on – so few of them actually enter the profession. But I teach them ‘seriousness of intent,’ as I would an adult.  Otherwise, there is no point in doing it at all.
The difference between teaching kids and adults lies in how the curriculum is presented. With adults, one has a program – mine is the Integrated Acting Process (see detailed description in earlier blog entries). It is the basis for teaching kids, as well, but how kids get connected to the ‘concept of acting’ is totally individual. This is why I teach them privately, or in very small groups after getting to know each individually.
For the first year and a half Bonnie and I continued to talk a lot, read through scenes and monologues, using baby steps of the Meisner and Method approaches to acting. She became interested in going to high school instead of being home-schooled, and her mother was helpful, filling out the applications for two public high schools with professional programs. Bonnie’s worked hard on her audition monologues and was admitted into a prestigious acting program at the junior year level. It was a smooth transition, for several reasons. Her mother, who at first opposed the idea, when she realized the seriousness of her daughter’s intent, became a willing collaborator in facilitating Bonnie’s decision and bringing it to a successful conclusion.
The third phase of our work was the two years our classes gave support to Bonnie’s acting training at her high school. The private coaching calmed her fears, which were not grave, but reflected the shock of attending a large school for the first time when she was already a teenager. It also gave her a more profound understanding of the scenes and plays in which she participated, by providing more thorough discussion of complicated questions that the teachers at the school didn’t have time to address.
In the end, she and her parents decided she would not enter a college program for acting, but instead would seek a liberal arts degree. She was accepted into one of the SUNY colleges, and in the end decided to major in writing.  One thing I want to stress before I close, her mother was on top of what was happening without being pushy or interfering. Their relationship had the usual mother/daughter ups and downs; but in the end her mother listened and was on the side of Bonnie’s ‘true self.’
More about kids in the next entry and what it means for parents to nurture their children’s ‘true selves’ in relation to acting…  

Monday, March 19, 2012

Blog #31: ‘Shinsai’: Japan mourns at 47 Great Jones St…

I’m going to take a little breather from talking about teaching kids – back to that next time.

I was invited by a colleague to view a staged reading of Kurotama Kikaku’s Shinsai, which took place yesterday, March 11, the one-year anniversary of Japan’s devastation by the earthquake and tsunami. The director, Jun Kim, wrote in his program notes that “…the biggest purpose of this event is to convey to New Yorkers ‘what is now happening in the society of those who experienced the earthquake’ through theater using the actor’s body.” While climbing the steep wooden staircase to La Mama’s rehearsal space at 47 Great Jones’ Street, memories from thirty years ago flooded back. Ellen Stewart’s presence is felt in every nook and cranny of that precious cradle of America’s avant garde civilization, which apparently burns with the same steady fervor under the new leadership of Mia Yoo. La Mama has always encouraged a collaborations with Asian companies - as Ellen nurtured theatre artists from all over the world - but yesterday’s presentation brought a whole new dimension to the rapprochement of the American and Japanese sensibilities.  

In referencing his quote, Mr. Kim encourages his actors to embody the terror of people, whose actual bodies and homes have been permanently poisoned, forcing the survivors, who may be dying themselves, to desert their indigenous culture and everything that mattered to them and their beloved ‘missing’, who in their minds may not even be dead. Nine evocative plays have been chosen to represent Japan in this endeavor, and they engage us without resorting to sentimentality or pathos. Each play is a gem in itself, and as each deepened my knowledge of the tragedy, I found myself more and more engaged with the human aspect of Japanese culture. I come from a generation brought up on the horrors of WW 11. We think of Japan attacking Pearl Harbor, their treatment of the Chinese at Nanking, as well as lasting unease about our decision to drop bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  All this history has tended to distance us from the awareness that all people are people and do not represent the actions of their governments. Certainly, as a citizen of America, I would not like to be judged on the basis of our engagement in Vietnam or Iraq. And yet it’s not judgment that I’m talking about here, but rather a lack of kinship, a lingering coolness toward a former enemy. I think this is cruel and wrong, and one of the purposes of art is to pull us across our mentally constructed no-man’s land and wake us up in the middle of the other fellow’s devastated hearth and home.  

We must be cornered, however, into relating. It’s natural to avoid unpleasant matters – when they’re not sugar-coated with ‘heroics ‘ or ‘escapism.’ We know about the effects of the earthquake and subsequent  tsunami, resulting in mass drowning and deadly effects of radiation from the damaged plant at Fukushima. Or at least, we think we do.  What more can they tell us about it?  We settle into our theatre seats and feel – not think – that we’ll do a sort of penance for the next hour and a half and then we’ll be released feeling more virtuous from our efforts.  Shingsai immediately insinuates itself between our inner self and our well-upholstered defense mechanism. In Abandon Home, the first play, a house wife puts up a seemingly ridiculous argument for not leaving her home in Fukushima. Her husband has brought along her brother to try to persuade her. The acting is superb; you feel compassion for everyone and their frustration with each other, but most importantly, the viewer begins to feel the complexity of the issues. The play is very short - and there is gentle humor in the performance of the wife’s brother – and yet we begin to ask ourselves questions we’ve never seriously considered before. What would I feel if I had to abandon my house and treasured belongings? Could my husband leave the only job he has ever known and actually find work somewhere else? How would I feel if the land, the nature that I love so much, was being systematically destroyed by an invisible killer and my government was lying to me about it? In the second play, A Problem of Blood, we are faced with a man who wants to donate blood but has been exposed to radiation. He threatens the nurse, who refuses to take his blood on the pretext that he is too weak to give it. And perhaps he is, but he is furious/terrified as he forces her to tell him the truth. And all this misfortune has come about through no direct action of our own.

We are American and many of us fear that our present system of government isn’t working, but we are not immediately dealing with these issues. But what if one of our nuclear plants malfunctioned, just that - no earthquake, no tsunami - couldn’t the same thing happen to us? As the program proceeds play after play, we wonder how we would behave if we were faced with people who have been exposed to radiation, rendering them dangerous to the touch?  What at first seems absurd becomes possible. People can bear only so much fear and sadness before the mind starts bending truth in order to preserve sanity.

One of the most touching themes is denial relating to the people who are ‘missing.’ In The Remaining, perhaps the saddest of the group, a mother ‘sees’ her dead child and the two other characters in the play humor her. Again, there are delightful touches of humor that make it all the more human and therefore sadder. She is determined to wait for her husband, whom we know has drowned; at one point she asks, “If he’s dead why do they use the word ‘missing?’”  Another play, The Sonic Life of Giant Tortoises, brilliantly summed up the situation through the metaphor of a woman, who simultaneously works at a computer in an office and hurtles along under the city, riding in a subway car. This play made me think of a situation in which one is alive and dead at the same time; randomly switching between the position of a totally detached watcher and someone who is frenetically engaged in an insane activity. 

Ultimately, I found myself thinking about 9/11.  For many months afterwards, I wondered, as did many other people, why hardly anyone showed up at the hospitals. For weeks, we had all wandered around at night looking at the candlelit walls covered with photos of the ‘missing’  and the names of people to contact with phone numbers when their relatives were found. One day, many months later, someone spoke of the subway train that was crushed as the buildings descended – and it was only then that I finally understood what had happened.  This play made me feel the plight of people, permanently displaced from their homes, mourning loved ones on whom one building has probably already descended, as they themselves possibly or probably await the crushing weight of the other ever-descending building. 

I trust that this magnificent set of hugely meaningful plays will find a full staging at La Mama or some other appropriate venue.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Blog #30: Trying to avoid the ‘snake charmer routine’ while attempting to enlighten kids about acting…

Once upon a Time I worked with a very lovely young girl – shall we call her Cordelia?  She looked like a beautiful child out of a fairy story; flowing chestnut hair, cornflower blue eyes, luminous complexion, sculpted features, long graceful limbs – in other words, the whole nine yards. She was signed with a powerful manager, who was sending me a number of clients.  Cordelia was destined for great things; there was only one problem, she couldn’t act very well. In spite of being ‘perfect for the part,’ she didn’t understand the scripts – not the way an actor does, from the inside – and she tried to match her acting to what she thought the adults were trying to get out of her.  Unfortunately, that game doesn’t work. Monkey see, monkey do, creates a performance that looks exactly like, well… what the words imply.
Then, there’s the other teacher/student game; the ‘you’re not one of us unless you get this right’ routine. It implies superiority on the part of the teacher, not only in acting, but in everything – the guru syndrome. If played with determination and subtlety, children - many adults, as well – can be mesmerized into a kind of imitative behavior that passes for acting.  To be honest, I’m not quite sure how it works, since I’m incapable of doing it – but one can see this sort of thing depicted in the Black Swan film.  It’s a bit like the snake charmer routine, only in reverse; the snake charms the kid.
In the case of Cordelia, her manager wanted results. I was slowing things down too much. Large, lucrative roles were being lost while I ‘fooled around’ trying to find a genuine basis for this child’s acting. Often, in the case of a child who either isn’t cut out for acting or needs real training, but is instead being groomed for ‘commercial’ purposes, the child becomes insecure and angry.  Cordelia was smart; she knew I wasn’t buying into the myth that she was a ‘great actress waiting to happen.’  She would do everything she could to get me off topic during our lessons, while thwarting all my attempts to get to know her with bland, stock responses.  “My dad is so sweet! He’s taking us to Disney World next weekend. You know which rides I want to go on?”
In group classes, Cordelia created a competitive atmosphere by lavishing her friendship on the ‘cool’ ones, putting the younger and more vulnerable children into a pecking order and crushing the weakest. She managed to destroy the class and ruin my relationship with the manager. Of course, I wasnt thrilled with having her around, but I refrained from retaliating. Not because I’m a particularly nice person, but because it wouldn’t have done any good. Also, I’ve made it a hard and fast rule not to undermine a child or an adult, if I can help it.  The only time I break that rule is when I lose my temper, but it’s direct and I fall all over myself apologizing afterwards.
One time, I taught two boys, brothers. Generally, I teach children who are at least eleven years old, but in this case they were eight and ten. Their mother tried to tell me how to do my job, praised the elder to the skies and tortured the younger. Both children were very talented; the elder could take any script and make something of it. He was born to act, and he cheerfully did what he was told. I had the impression that he didn’t care too much about acting, but enjoyed the privileges it gave him – and it kept his mother happy.
The eight-year-old was extraordinarily talented, but refused to play his mother’s game.  She was trying to get him to ‘show more enthusiasm’ when he was auditioning for commercials.  He could have done it, but refused to cooperate because of her attempts to force him into a mold.   I tried to explain this to the mother, but she was incapable of listening.  In spite of the fact that the family desperately needed money, she was so obsessed with gaining control over the boy’s mind that she prevented him from using his talent to make commercials.
He also worked with me on a complicated, dramatic film audition.  I was treading delicately and only mentioned that the scene was ‘emotional.’ He looked me straight in the eye and asked, ‘Do you want me to cry? Because I can if you want me to…’  I replied that, given the situation, the character would probably break down. So he said, ‘Give me a minute.’ I did, and he produced a perfect reading with absolutely genuine tears. I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since…
Next time, I’ll discuss how, over the years, I’ve searched for an effective way to help kids enter into the acting process.

Monday, March 5, 2012

BLOG #29: Teaching kids, learning the hard way…

When my son was a teenager, he joined my acting class. At the time, I didn’t have a class specifically for kids, so he mixed in with the adults. He made one extremely lucrative commercial and signed with a good manager. He seemed to understand the work; I helped him with auditions for films and tv, which became scarcer and scarcer as her failed to book anything significant. He was not bothered by this, as his high school was very demanding and he had other interests - friends, girls, sports. He wrote an interesting play, in which he played the lead and for which I hired a professional director. I wrote a play with a part for him and we put it on. This was the period in which personal computers were in their infancy, and he recompensed me for classes by designing and printing flyers, programs and brochures. In his final year of high school, he dropped out of my classes altogether to perform interesting plays like Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, Gogol’s The Inspector General ­- in which he played the inspector, and in college he directed T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. And that was it, case closed; he majored in philosophy, bummed around for a few years, and then took up an academic career.
I consider this a perfect trajectory for someone who’s not a born actor, but whose life is enriched by a youthful excursion into the exploration of acting.  Did I want my son to be an actor? Well, it would have been nice if it had worked out that way, but I definitely was not tied to it.  Unfortunately, I was about to encounter a much less felicitous experience, when I overreached myself in trying to produce an original play with a group of elementary and middle-school age thespians.
I was planning to start a new acting class for kids in the fall of 2001.   My program had been going for a little over a year, and I honestly wasn’t very pleased with it.  The children were of various ages, which was a bit difficult and some were only there because their parents pushed them. But the worst problem was popularity vs. unpopularity; there were two ‘glamour girls,’ who were the social arbiters, and had it in for a slightly younger girl…  I’d been scratching my head trying to figure out what to do about all this. Then, a day or two before the first meeting of this class, the unthinkable happened – 9/11.  I postponed the start date for a couple of weeks, while trying to figure out if there was a way I could use the training to help them deal with the horror was tearing all our lives apart.  I came up with something and called it The Kids’ Happy/Sad Show.
To our first meeting, I brought a paper bag filled with small, innocuous things like a paper clip, wallet, woman’s brooch, nail, hinge, pen, etc. and I asked the kids to close their eyes and take out one of the objects. I told them they all attended a very special school, ‘The School of the Future’ – it turns out there’s a NY Public School actually called that, which I didn’t realize at the time.
Then I explained that each object was an ‘artifact’ they had been allowed to remove from Ground Zero. We spent several weeks improvising dialogue around these objects – I worked with each of them individually and we met once a week to devise group scenes. In the end, I divided the group so that some of them created ‘sad’ monologues around their objects – they were ‘sad’ by the nature of the event on which their stories were based. Others devised scenarios from ‘happier’ – albeit emotionally complex situations - in their lives. I wrote some songs and set them to music, and invented an ‘assistant-director’ part for a fifteen-year-old girl, who wanted to participate in the class.
In my naiveté, I thought this play would be a cathartic, creatively stimulating, exercise.  The kids were initially involved and interested, but as we began to rehearse more seriously, it became obvious that they regarded this as ‘play time’ not ‘acting time.’  Most of them, who had any acting background at all, got it from modeling or commercials, and in the end, I realized that the children’s efforts were stuck between ‘stage mothers’ and parents for whom this was only an ‘outlet’ for their child. Neither group understood the kind of support their children needed to participate in a decently rehearsed show.
Two days before we were scheduled to go up, the father of the fifteen-year-old, ‘assistant-director’ – who appeared in every scene and was the glue for the entire show - withdrew her. I decided, against all my principles, to cancel the show, but the parents, finally, threw in all their support, begging me to find a way to go on. Fortunately, I had an excellent eighteen-year old girl in my adult class, who was a very quick study.  She took over the part and by the second performance was able to go on without the book!   But I had learned my lesson. From then on, I have worked with kids mainly one-on-one or in very small groups.
Next time, I’ll discuss what I’ve discovered about teaching acting to kids; what works and what doesn’t…