Tuesday, April 24, 2012

BLOG #35: Yes, acting training can be therapeutic – but never a replacement for therapy…

Can anyone, at any age, who is primarily focused on the negative action of ‘avoiding criticism’ rather than the positive act of ‘doing something for its own sake’ be able to act? That’s a big question, but I do know that poor, terrified Chantal, whom I’ve mentioned before that there was no way for the characters she was supposed to be working on to breathe, to live. And the heartbreaker was that this intelligent, diligent, tender young person, who was endeavoring to do everything perfectly, knew she was failing. There wasn’t anything I could do because her mother had indoctrinated her with the idea that auditions – and probably everything else in life - were win/lose, pass/fail situations. And it made no difference that I did everything I could to help and encourage a radical change in this point of view; it was lodged in Chantal’s psyche, as if had passed into her through her mother’s milk. 
If there is something really wrong, usually the lessons stop of their own accord because the boy or girl loses interest in the classes. They don’t do their homework or find it interesting to relate our conversations to the scenes and monologues we are working on.  For example, Simon, who was one of the saddest cases I’ve ever run across. He was already experiencing behavioral problems, having been expelled from a couple of middle schools, when his mother died very suddenly of a heart attack. It’s possible that he felt his behavior had lead to her death, although he never said so. He was a freshman in high school and had already been suspended at least once. I never found out what he had done to create so much trouble.  His father was an executive in the fashion industry and often traveled on business to the Far East. Simon was tall, full grown already, good looking, charming and very manipulative. 
I think he was sent to me because an agent had seen him and suggested that he take some classes to see if he had talent. We did absolutely no acting work at all; each of the four or five times I saw him, whenever I would try to interest him in the script, he would interrogate me aggressively about the acting business and then suddenly drop the fa├žade and become a real fourteen-year-old, mourning the fact that he was all alone in the apartment for two weeks.  He disappeared for a while, and then his father called several times trying to set up appointments which never came to fruition. I wanted to talk to the father about his son’s difficulties, but I knew the schools had already made an effort to persuade him, and I could hear in the father’s voice that he would have crossed me off his list if I had tried to say anything. My hope was that I could keep the boy coming for a while and maybe get close enough to suggest therapy directly to him. One late night, a few months after our last appointment, I received an anonymous, incoherent phone call from someone who was high on alcohol or drugs – it sounded like Simon’s voice, but I couldn’t be sure. I felt terrible for the boy but there was nothing I could do…
Simon was an extreme case, but there have been other less unhappy, albeit problematical situations where choices had to be made about how far to go in trying to help a student.  It took me a long time to figure out the line between an acting teacher and a therapist. So many stories involving incest, drugs, alcoholism, anorexia, prostitution, even questionable deaths, from both kids and adults with difficult lives, who were trying to figure themselves out through acting.
There are several factors here that have to be seriously considered. Does the student have a genuine interest in acting? Is their personal agenda so heavy that it precludes acting at this point in their lives?  Should I speak to the parents or, in some cases, the manager/agent?
Next time, I will give further examples of young people who can benefit from acting training, those who can’t – at least not in my class – and/or those who need therapy…

Sunday, April 15, 2012

BLOG #34: At the Signature Theatre, Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque. Great acting pulls us into a cancer story…

Whenever an Albee play is on, I try to get there. Only once was I really disappointed, when I went to see The Play about the Baby. It might have been a case of both miss-casting and miss-directing.  When it comes around again, I’ll give it another try. 
My reaction to the current production of The Lady from Dubuque, at the handsome new Signature Theatre complex, was laughter and then tears and more tears, still mixed with laughter.  Both Ben Brantley’s review in The New York Times and John Lahr’s in The New Yorker were favorable – very unusual since the two publications seem to make a point of disagreeing on most theatre!  In this case I may have a leg-up in appreciating the extraordinary acumen of Albee’s response to the situation of the play; i.e. a woman dying of cancer and the reaction of her friends and family. I am, myself, a cancer survivor, so obviously I didn’t die of it, but my mother and paternal grandmother did. OK, what does all this have to do with acting?  
The mind plays tricks on us, and actors must discover and nurture, not only an understanding of these subterfuges, but a mastery over the use of them for the sake of characters, who are facing immensely painful situations like madness and deathly illness.  Initially, it is only natural that people who are learning to act repress their feelings. Usually, that’s the end of acting for them but the select few, like the ones in this performance of Albee’s play put themselves far beyond the call of duty to drag us laughing and sobbing into the epicenter of the cancer world.
By the way, why do we talk about cancer survivors – I’ve never heard of ‘heart attack’ or ‘cirrhosis of the liver’ survivors? Cancer isn’t a disease –it’s not an infection or a malfunction. I see it more like a vicious, deviant element in a society - in this case the body - that has to be destroyed by a bloody revolution. In many cases like mine, radical cutting is required, followed by a poisoning of the entire bodily system through chemo and radiation. Even in the mildest cases, receiving a diagnosis that there is any cancer present in one’s body makes the ‘idea’ of death a ‘reality.’ Cancer is a clever ‘evil’ that possesses the body in all sorts of ways. Not just physically, but mentally it overcomes us with terror. It is so frightening that in former times, people were shunned when they had it – one could not speak of the ‘unmentionable illness!’
There are many plays about cancer, and it’s metastasizing all over the place on popular TV programs.   Usually, it is soft-pedaled or treated as a back drop for other drama, because the reality is excruciating and people don’t want to watch its true horrors unfold. It’s too scary! Often we assume we know about cancer because we’ve read a few articles or know people who know people who’ve had it. We like to leave it at that. So why is this revival of a full-blown cancer play getting such critical acclaim and packing them in?  
Albee has achieved the near-impossible in brilliantly constructing a ‘comic tragedy,’ and this aspect has been covered in the aforementioned reviews, which are available online. But I would like to go deeper into the actors’ contribution, which of course would not have been possible unless the director, David Esbjornson, had not found a subtext that is utterly in concert with Albee’s intentions. However, each actor must embody the specific pain or reaction to impending death they are facing and draw not only on technique but deal with the humanity that drips from every line. Each one makes us believe that the absurd behavior we are watching is something that could actually happen or we would not laugh and cry, sometimes literally at the same moment.  
While the protagonist is howling with pain, a guest is berating her for not being a good hostess! Of course, it’s a metaphor, as is the presence of death embodied by a handsome, white-haired ‘mother’ embracing her child isn’t likely to become an actuality. But those ‘metaphors’ happen psychologically. They do. Believe me, they do!  Sometimes, the difficulty of the situation brings out the best in people. When my grandmother was dying horribly from cancer, my father dropped everything to envelop her in kindness. In my own experience of the illness, certainly there was much kindness, but often the expectations others had of me – even the ones I had of myself - when I was undergoing chemotherapy were ridiculous.
The actors in The Lady from Dubuque are emotional acrobats. They are a bit like clowns, who are basically very sad losers, but make us laugh with their antics.  Maybe no one, certainly not all, in the cast are ‘cancer survivors’ nor have they necessarily been exposed to the illness through a loved one.  But they enter that dreadful world through personal identification with the character’s experience and make it palatable to us by ‘playing’ the humor.  They have worked very hard to reach this level of skill – and they are very brave to put themselves through ‘their own painful reality’ in order to bring the ‘reality of the play’ to their audience. They certainly make it look like the Devil’s work. It’s hard to believe that God could be involved in this awful business…

Monday, April 2, 2012

BLOG #33: Hey, kid, express yourself! No reprisals in acting class… Some hits and some misses.

When kids take an acting class they dream of being Dakota Fanning or Justin Beiber – and it can happen - but usually, if they are lucky, they end up being… well, a more authentic version of themselves. (‘Authentic,’ in this sense, means that kids become capable of allowing their own instincts and beliefs to guide their behavior instead of unconsciously pursuing approval or just trying to get attention.) I’d like to say a bit more about this and give examples. Adult actors may see elements of their own development from past to present in some of these reflections and stories.
We know that the arts, in general, give a boost to life skills by involving young people in areas they have not previously explored and in so doing capturing their interest and giving them impetus to overcome fears and frustrations. But where does acting, in particular, fit into this scenario?
Well, it affords kids the opportunity to experience and express with their own bodies and voices, all kinds of situations that confuse, cause pain or seem just plain boring.  Less visceral ways of trying to deal with all this negative stuff often shuts them down. But acting class is a place where they are encouraged to openly show shyness, fear of peer rejection, anger, sadness in the face of loss, etc. It’s not ‘real life’ so they can allow their feelings to emerge without fear of actually hurting or provoking real anger. Behaving in an ‘unacceptable manner’ is the heart and soul of theatre games; shouting, tears, deeply involving and enlightening discussions, laughter - all come out of this work. But it’s important that there should be no fear of a negative response or reprisal.  If their efforts are genuinely respected, they are more likely to slowly shift from ‘How am I doing?’ to ‘I’m really interested in what I’m doing and I want to get your response.’
The teacher must always provide a safe environment; by showing disapproval or disappointment over ‘failed’ attempts or, on the other hand, effusive praise for work with which the student himself/herself is dissatisfied, bewilders, angers and shuts kids down – I think that’s true across the board, but it’s fatal with young people.  All expression should be acknowledged as genuine in some way; most children (some adults, as well) do not know the difference between trying to act and ‘acting out.’ At the same time the teacher accepts the effort of the young student, the problems must be recognized and a path toward solving them clearly laid out.
Obviously, violence has to be prevented, but that has never come up in any of my classes with children. Usually when allowed self-expression, kids don’t go out of control unless the class is too big and there are negative undercurrents between children that the teacher is missing. Probably, this is why I prefer to work with kids one-on-one or in very small groups.
I mention again the importance of parents who have a strong impact on the success or failure of acting training for their kids. Here is an example of how a parent/child relationship made things difficult. This is a scenario I find particularly upsetting: a mother, who depends on income from a cute, pretty/handsome, intelligent, willing child who hasn’t the least genuine interest in or talent for acting, or even the kind of personality that makes modeling an easy fit. 
One such case was exquisite Chantal, clothed in pastel frills, her diminutive head arrayed in perfect dreads, ornamented with jeweled barrettes and shiny beads. Whenever her attractive mother, baby attached to hip – clearly no father in the picture - hovered at the beginning or end of class, Chantal’s worried eyes glued themselves to her mother’s every move. I could feel the girl flinching at her mother’s barrage of questions about managers and agents, while she shoved a new batch of professional photos into my hand, ostensibly asking for my opinion, but actually requiring my adulation and approval of decisions she had already made. During coaching sessions for auditions – the mother managed to shoehorn her into every project going for a kid of her type and age – with her lines perfectly memorized and thought out, this sad, tense little girl thwarted all my attempts to open up the possibility of a fresh, spontaneous approach to the material.  When I lost track of her after a couple of years she was still supporting the family through low level modeling jobs and the occasional non-speaking part on commercials.
Next week is Easter. For those who celebrate the holiday, enjoy your roasted lamb or vegan feast!  I will return the following week to talk about my reaction to The Signature Theatre’s extraordinary production of The Lady from Dubuque. After that, more about acting training for kids, how it can be therapeutic but never a replacement for actual therapy…