Wednesday, May 23, 2012

BLOG #39: Daenya begins to transform a ‘breakthrough’ into ‘methodology’ through Berniece’s character in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson…

(Please refer to blogs #37 & #38)  It took Daenya a year to return to class after the revelation that her whole adult life she had used distancing to cover the anger she felt at the age of seven, when her mother left Jamaica to work in the States.  When we connect the ‘feeling of anger’ to its true source – not just the things that make us angry every day, while we leave the underlying reasons unexplored – our whole equilibrium is affected. How we see the world changes, and we often need time to adjust.

I was surprised to see Daenya again; you never know which students will have either the stamina or the real desire to act after they have a big break-through like this. Daenya’s stamina and desire are joined at the hip. Along with an ‘artist’s intelligence’ (a particular combination of IQ and EQ, a subject which I will soon tackle in this blog) are the biggest part of what people call ‘talent’ – plus hard work, of course!

At first, Daenya tackled another monologue, from Poof by Lynn Nottage, before finally returning to Berniece. In fact, she wasn’t sure she would ever go back to it. I did not offer an opinion, because I don’t push in a situation where there is so much pain. It was soon obvious to Daenya, however, that the lighter tone of Poof – a play about a woman who causes her husband to crumble into dust by standing up to him - did not exempt her from getting in touch with her own feelings about the darker subtext, which in one way or another underlies most ‘serious comedy.’  Daenya eventually came back to Berniece all on her own, and it was then that she made the connection which finally opened up the deeper part of her early experience vis-à-vis her mother; the area that needed to be explored to provide a permanent matrix for her acting.

Intuition is an important tool for an acting teacher, so one day at the very end of a lesson when Daenya was about to take her daughter on a two-week vacation to Jamaica, I instinctively found myself asking  – “Why do you think your mother decided to go to America when she did?”  Daenya looked as puzzled as if I had asked her a question about higher mathematics. Before she could shut down completely, I added, “I know it was to make money for the family, but why then, specifically? Do you think it was after the murder of your young cousin?” 
When she and her daughter returned from their vacation, where Daenya was able to re-establish relationships with relatives and see for herself the beauty of the island - as well as the aspects of the culture that made it impossible for her to even consider living there again. She had found the kind of ‘meaningful connection’ that carries over to all characters from all societies and walks of life.

She had understood that her mother had not ‘abandoned’ her; instead, she had spent four lonely years – how difficult it must have been for her to leave her two daughters, especially little Daenya, and husband behind – while she established a beachhead in America. In fact, her mother was a hero, who had done all this so that the same terrible fate that had befallen her poor little cousin would never happen to Daenya, who was the same age.  And somehow, Daenya found the strength to accept the fact that her mother had died without a reconciliation having taken place between them. This was the hardest part, but it connected her forever to the ‘abyss of losses’ that Berniece carried around within her. Although Daenya did not have a direct parallel to the slavery background of the African American experience, now she could personally relate to the situation of ever-present danger from crime, the shame felt by citizens who are not protected by laws. She had finally felt her own close relationship to Berniece’s ‘abyss’ from the one that lay beneath her own childhood back in her home country.

We were all set to process that information into acting when life suddenly threw Daenya another curveball. The dentist she was working for could no longer maintain his office and had to join a clinic. He managed to salvage her job by bringing her along with him, but now she was always on-call – even on Sundays. I also began teaching seminars, and was unavailable one Sunday each month. We were both under pressure; Daenya started sending texts to cancel the day of class. It was too frustrating, and I gave her an ultimatum.   No more canceled appointments on Sundays without prior notice. But somehow the ultimatum didn’t stick.  Art trumps convenience in my life, and we found a compromise solution so Daenya could continue.

Have a wonderful Memorial Day!  Outing the Actor will return the following week. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

BLOG #38: While working on Berniece from August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, Daenya has a revelation…

(Please refer to Blog# 37) Daenya in the early days of her acting studies had difficulty identifying with Berniece’s refusal either to sing and accompany herself on her piano or to get rid of the piano altogether.  There’s a stubborn rage and intractable grief  in the character that the actress couldn’t locate in herself. In spite of her own hardships, at least the ones of which she was conscious at that time, Daenya copes with life  through cheerfulness and  generosity toward others. We put in many long hours of hard work with relaxation, meditation and sensory exercises. Confrontational Meisner exercises between her and the actor playing Avery helped her understand the dynamics of the conflict in their relationship, but she never got below the surface of the character’s ‘Big Problem.’
One day I asked Daenya when and how her family had reached the shores of America.  She told me that when she was a child her mother had left Jamaica to stay with relatives in the States, working in child care and later as a nurse’s aid in hospitals and for private individuals. Daenya explained that she had been very close to her grandmother, her mother’s mother, who had taken over when her mother left Although the closeness wasn’t there with her mother – whom she had rejoined in America at the age of eleven and who had passed away recently, it was apparent from Daenya’s manner and the look in her eyes how much love and admiration she had felt for her.  It seemed to me that the distance she had put between herself and her mother might be a way to avoid confused and painful feelings.  
And then I remembered a story Daenya had told shortly after we started working together. I always ask questions about an actor’s background. Usually, right at the start something is mentioned that tells me the ‘defining incident or relationship,’ the one that will come up again when the time is ready for that all-important ‘break-through into oneself.’ I also call it the ‘negative pole’ or the thing that each of us is trying to get away from as we aim for the ‘positive pole’ - our objective in life. These ‘poles’ are complicated; they need to be re-examined again and again and then coordinated with other aspects of the training as it goes along, but the more precise we make them, the easier it is for an actor to get his ‘foot in the door’ of any character he’s required to play.  
So I reminded Daenya, “Do you remember telling me about your cousin, the one who used to baby sit you, the one who was killed?” Daenya was surprised that I remembered; she had actually forgotten having told me, since it was something she rarely talked about. Now that I knew Daenya better I could pry a little. “Is there anything more about that time you can remember?” Daenya didn’t say anything for a moment; I could see from her expression that she was feeling and thinking simultaneously – a state difficult to achieve and a necessity for actors.    Finally, she said, “There was talk about a possible rape, that maybe the police had covered it up. Of course, nothing was ever proved and the case was closed. That’s the way things are down there.” I was sorry to bring it up, because I knew how agonizing it was for her, but acting takes one into some very unpleasant places one needs to explore and then ‘catalogue’ as sensory objects.  
I asked Daenya to close her eyes, breathe and ask herself, ‘What do I remember from that period?’ I cautioned her not to try for any particular type of memory but to go with the first thing that came into her mind. Immediately, she thought of her mother, seeing her from the back in their kitchen preparing dinner. After concentrating on this image for a few moments, Daenya became very emotional.  I urged her to speak through her tears, not wait until she had mastery over herself – akin to the process of using the muscles of a knee on which an operation has just been performed. She managed to do it. “I am just realizing now that I was always very mad at my mother for going away. I think I really hated her for that.”
You’d think this would be the end of the story, but for Daenya, the actress, it was just starting to unravel. I think it was shortly after that she left class for a while. It was a very shocking for her to realize that she was angry at her mother, not just detached from her.
Next week we’ll continue this analysis of Daenya’s discoveries about acting while working on Berniece from August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

BLOG #37: Why Acting is so Bloody Hard… Daenya tackles Berniece from August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.

So much has already been said on this subject, why am I sinking my teeth into it? Well, because I’m obstinate and once something comes to mind I think needs writing about, my fangs start rattling like Hannibal Lechter’s…
You need strength to write about acting; it’s an EQ, IQ sort of subject. You have to lay yourself bare to the deep angst that lies at the base of every actors’ psyche while simultaneously giving swift, pithy, precise mental punches for your words to be of any use.   If you say one thing, then you immediately have to say the opposite mirroring the crazy imbalance of human nature, while trying to make sense.
Today, I was working with Daenya, an actress of a certain age, who is still very beautiful. Originally from Jamaica, she arrived in America when she was eleven. For the past twenty years she has worked as a dental technician. Her husband left her ten years ago and, as a pedicab driver, has never been in a position to pay alimony or child support for their daughter, who is now fourteen. Daenya’s been taking classes with me for almost five years. She loves acting – learning about the artistic process itself, although she is often invaded by despair since there is no room in her life for auditioning let alone appearing in a showcase or even shooting a student film.
The Big Depression that began in 2008 – sorry, I refuse to call this catastrophic diminution of wages and quality of life a mere ‘Recession’ - has made Daenya’s already difficult life incrementally worse. Her problem is not principally financial, although that is certainly a factor, and she is not particularly oppressed at work. One of the signs of a ‘true actor’ – or perhaps any artist - is the need for a holistic life – one in which the pieces fit together. The parts of Daenya’s life have started pulling away from each other, leaving gaps that only the firmest resolve can bridge.
Daenya is aware of other people – she cares for the dentist she works for. His business dropped off significantly when the actors who formed most of his clientele were impacted by the downturn in the economy. Gone are the days when he was making thousands of dollars a day improving the smiles of thespians. Daenya is grateful that she alone retained her job, although it means she is run off her feet six days a week. The train she takes into the City from Queens for her Sunday acting lessons is often out-of-service and her husband can no longer take their daughter for a couple of hours because all the former office workers are now moonlighting as pedicab drivers, and Sundays are the only day anyone can make money, etc., etc!  Daenya has gone from disadvantaged person (sub-standard education and accented speech) with a dream to oppressed person, refusing to give up.
From time to time Daenya has given up her lessons for a few months , but she always returns. Considering her life difficulties, I neither encourage nor discourage her continued participation, but I am very happy when she returns and deeply moved by the continual progress of her acting in spite of everything. At her lesson this week we were attempting to put together elements of Berniece’s monologue from August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. Daenya has been working at solving its problems, on and off, ever since she started studying with me.  In group class, she tackled the scene where the preacher, Avery, who is in love with Berniece, is trying to get her to play her piano and sing again. During the last couple of years when she’s had time only for private classes, Daenya has returned again and again to Berneice’s monologue from that scene. 
It can be hard for non-native black actors to identify with the deep wound that still festers from the time of slavery in America.  Obviously, African Caribbeans have had similar experiences with matters of race and color, but it hasn’t been ground into their bodies and minds – and August Wilson would certainly say souls - by a white majority for an extended period. Racial prejudice still exists in this country and was up front and central pretty much into the 1980’s.  (I don’t mean to say that there haven’t been deep and very painful issues of race in the Caribbean – it’s just different. I’m not an authority and I don’t know enough of the history for an authoritative discussion.  All I can say is that as an acting teacher, I observe a greater ‘rage connected to race’ in African Americans than African Caribbean’s.)
In my next entry, I’ll explain how Daenya eventually found the roots of the character within herself and was able to think and feel her way into the character of Berniece… 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Blog #36: Why acting for kids isn’t a substitute for therapy. When acting class can help and when it can’t…

It’s so satisfying when I can talk to parents without fearing they will misinterpret my observations! I don’t have the training of a therapist, and can be clumsy just when I should be clever - especially when I’m annoyed!  But often my interactions with parents have been really good. Bonnie’s mom, for example, was very receptive and the work progressed, not into an acting career but a better understanding of art and lif .  But Bonnie didn’t have really bad problems; her life was fairly serene – although she might disagree with me on that!
Acting teachers hear important confessions and we have to use our judgment when we should or should not pass along information to parents. Is a kid exaggerating or are they really in trouble?  In my experience, young people feel that a private acting class is a place where they can let their hair down and exaggerate if they feel like it – after all we’re working on drama!  Sometimes, although rarely, a student asks me to intervene with their parents on matters that have no direct bearing on acting.  However, the issues have a de facto relationship to acting – since acting requires an understanding of behavior and how we feel about things.
Take the case of Peter, who started working with me when he was fifteen. By the age of sixteen, tension between him and his mother had turned into all-out battles for control in almost every area of his life. His father was around and definitely involved, but the sparks flew on the maternal side. When I met Peter, he had already shot a couple of dramatic scenes in major films and was under contract with a well-known manager. My job, ostensibly, was to get him to the next level, so he could book speaking roles on a regular basis. The boy seemed to have potential; when he read scenes, he grasped the point quickly and put in some effort. He was called back several times for an interesting film role; it entailed playing the part of a famous actor when he was a child. He got the part, but when I watched the finished product, his acting didn’t ‘pop.’  He just wasn’t interested enough to put in the work – tall and rangy, his heart belonged to baseball.
For a while he remained attached to our classes; we worked on scenes and monologues about family conflict, but honestly most of the time he talked about his mother and when it got so bad she locked him out of the house he ended up persuading me to talk to her!  At first, I resisted, but in the end she and I had several good conversations, and I think just the fact that we were able to communicate helped him to relax his demands and do a few more chores around the house, which in turn caused her to give him a little more freedom. During that time, he had also shared stories about another family member who caused a lot of trouble for everyone; it was the sort of thing he couldn’t talk about with most people, and he got it off his chest. Eventually, the lessons petered out, but later, when I was ill, he called me to wish me well.  I believe that the acting lessons helped him to have a sense of humor about the whole thing and work through a bad patch of adolescence – we spent a lot of time on Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs.  It helped that his mother was a fundamentally reasonable woman who always had her son’s best interests at heart.   
Twelve year-old Jack faced a very different situation; a kid with a gift for singing, who was enrolled in an outstanding middle school and should have been getting good parts in their lavishly produced musicals.  But Jack had ingrained problems; he was overweight and lacked confidence, and the parts kept going to the more outgoing kids. His dad had studied with me some years before, and thought acting lessons might help his son gain some confidence. Jack was intelligent, already in therapy, and threw himself into some very complex material, including Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys, even mastering the South African accent. It seemed that he was beginning to understand more about his life, but then marital difficulties erupted between his parents. There were fights about everything, even who was supposed to pick him up after class, and Jack became too upset to benefit from our slow, concentrated work. I invited his father to come to class and do a scene with him, but the boy shut down like a deer in the headlights. I lost track of him and have often wondered what happened. Nice kid. Hopefully, he got a chance to show off his musical talents
My final example is an unusual case; an agent sent me a teenage girl, Anya, who had emigrated five years before with her parents from Ukraine. She came for acting lessons, but most of the time I was coaching her for a variety of film and television scripts. Her work was colorless because she always played the words, never the subtext, and was incapable of embodying her characters. In life, Anya showed feeling, mostly anger - but at least that would have been a start! Knowing that the best way to connect in acting is through awareness of one’s relationship to family, I kept trying to get her to relate her audition material to her own life. She was more resistant than any other young actor I’ve coached. When someone fights getting into their own story that much, it’s always based in fear.
Finally I managed to discover what I had begun to suspect, that on one side, her mother’s I think, she was Jewish. During Anya’s childhood, living in the USSR would have been difficult. Her parents were Russian Orthodox and they had kept her mother’s Jewish blood secret from their daughter when they lived in Ukraine.  Anya remained in the dark for several years after she came here until an aunt had finally told her. When I told Anya that she needed to look into this part of her life, she was enraged. “I’m not Jewish, I just have Jewish blood. And she refused to accept that being in any way connected to ‘Jewishness’ was of any importance to her life or her art.
It seemed to me that she had ‘caught’ the fearful situation that her parents had endured in their former home, in the way that one ‘catches’ a disease. And this fear appeared to seal her off from herself. She resisted me with such anger that I had to back off.  Her acting didn’t improve, the auditions dried up and she left. No question of therapy here; her fear was so strong that it dominated common sense.  Or was Anya actually protecting her parents’ position; keeping her mother’s ‘secret’ secret even from herself.