Friday, July 19, 2013

BLOG #62 Reviewing Some of the Work from our 3-Month Integrated Acting Class…

I wrote this blog entry a few weeks ago, but as I am severely electronically challenged I couldn’t figure out how to send it from the little town in southern Hungary where I was vacationing with my beloved grandchildren. Hence the photograph of fluffy chickens with feathered trousers!

            6/29/13: On the train back to NYC from several fascinating drama-crammed days in Williamsburg, I feel rejuvenated and ready for a new set of frays. This is a feast for the blog, but first I would like to revisit the final Saturday of the three month Integrated Acting Class.
            This has been my first attempt to integrate the major acting disciplines into one class. For the first leg of this venture, I concentrated primarily on Meisner and Method. With the scenes that moved along more quickly, I was able to do a little work on ‘actions’ and some rudimentary blocking. Why did some scenes evolve toward completion faster than others? There are a bewildering number of factors involved in this question.
            The actors in this class were unusually open and serious about their work, so it was not a question of ability. (I avoid the word ‘talented’ like the plague; there are so many factors that contribute to what we designate as a ‘talented actor’ in a learning situation, and it usually comes down to whoever is quickest at absorbing whatever the teacher is dishing out.)  Some scenes were more intricately constructed than others, although all presented complex difficulties. The line-up included such playwrights as: Pinter, Rabe, O’Neill, Shepard, along with John Logan’s Red and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Curiously, the Pinter was easier to figure out than Rabe. Sometimes a playwright is getting at a problem that hides itself from the viewer as well as the characters – who are usually in the dark long after the viewer has figured out what they are battling about - if not, hopefully, the solution to it.
            Rabe’s Hurlyburly , for instance, is almost impenetrable. The actors in this scene worked very hard separately and with each other to find the key to the scene. They sometimes had trouble meeting for private rehearsals and one had other plays he was performing during this period - a frustrating situation for both the actors and the teacher, but there is no way around it unless actors have the means and the time to commit to a program where they are required to attend every class and are in a position to refuse all outside acting commitments. Personally – although I find this situation annoying – I believe that we are all essentially on our own as actors and must learn to deal with all kinds of legitimate problems that actors face. The profession is so difficult that the only person one can ultimately depend on is oneself.
            It was getting close to the end of the three-month class period and we still hadn’t cracked the big confrontation between Eddie and Mickey, which occurs near the end of the play. The actors had done some good improvisations, connected to some extent with the inner life of the characters, but they were still up in the air about ‘what was actually happening in the scene.’ Why was Eddie, the character with the objective, so violent in his attempts to get Mickey involved in explaining the friend’s death? Why was Mickey so withholding of help and cryptic in his replies?  Why did he melt away at the end of the scene instead of putting up a fight for his position.              
            I divided the three-month period into semi-private classes between partners and full group classes where students could view each others’ progress and problems. Just before the last semi-private class between the Eddie/Mickey actors, I did what I always do when an ‘acting mystery’ persists - I go into a sensory meditation. In this case, I did it almost unconsciously, and it started the day before their class.
            I prefer, after initial work on scenes, to see if actors can find their own way to solving the deeper questions – depending on their amount of experience, of course.   I had chosen the scene because of its difficulty, challenging both actors but especially to move the actor playing Eddie to a new level. I was also interested in finding the ‘truth’ of the scene for myself. Over and over again I asked myself, ‘What is this whole play about?’ After the scene is over, Eddie goes into a coked-up rant about a type of atom bomb that kills people but leaves objects intact. That image was somehow behind everything as I meditated, concentrating on my breathing, body, and senses… And the personal image that finally emerged from this work was my childhood home; specifically I was sitting in a particular chair where I was always placed by my grandmother and made to stay until I stopped acting up. The reason I misbehaved was the loneliness I felt always and forever after my mother died. It was the sensation of rocking in the chair that finally brought about an understanding of the play and revealed the significance of this penultimate, most important, scene.
            Hurlyburly is actually about a ‘family situation’ – the last thing you would expect from a cast of characters that includes a couple of casting directors and a fringy group of wannabe actors and other LA hangers-on. Of course, one would get it right away if it had the usual ‘family’ labels. On the surface this play signals nothing but activity between a random conglomeration of disparate entities..  The scene itself concerns the disintegration of a friendship after the suicide of Eddie’s crazy protégé; but playing it depends on grasping the enormity of pain that Eddie feels after he has put all his energy into trying to save the dead guy. Mickey, for his part, is totally invested in having a reciprocal friendship with his grief stricken partner, who eternally ignores him in favor of the other members of the ‘family’ – currently the friend who has just killed himself.
            The scene – and the whole play - unraveled before my eyes once I felt myself rocking in my childhood chair. Obviously, the whole point is to get the actors to feel these things on their own. But it is extremely hard to get actors to do the work necessary to grasp these painful, embedded ‘objects’ that yield the truth about our own lives, which finally we can transfer over to the character. The actors playing Eddie and Mickey didn’t get further than walking the scene through on its feet. Instead of ‘finishing’ a scene without truly grasping its roots, they had begun a meaningful journey which can be completed when the class starts up again..           
            In my next blog, I will discuss my eventful theatrical adventure in Williamsburg, Virginia…

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Blog #61: How the Image of a Tree Can Help Meisner’s Knock-at-the-Door Exercise

           The last few blogs are really ‘de rigeur’ before starting an in-depth analysis of ‘activities’ and ‘naming behavior.’  We’ve spent a lot of time demonstrating that ‘sensory meditation’ reveals our own personal ‘life objective,’ and how this force propels us forward, for better or worse, whether we are aware of it or not. Actors are greatly helped by being able to pinpoint this activating principle. Trauma is always involved, like death of a parent, fighting between parents, abandonment such as a younger child taking the mother’s attention, abuse, incest, etc. Pain and confusion are inevitable fallout from digging into the depths of our being – even through the delicate and safe, and often excruciatingly slow, process of ‘sensory meditation’. But ‘true actors’ will do anything for their art and persevere. I think all real actors go through this journey in one form or another, although the level of difficulty varies greatly. Some boast that they don’t need it, but they may fall into it so naturally, they aren’t even aware that they are doing anything at all. Most of us are not this fortunate…
            One cannot wait for ‘sensory meditation’ to kick in the desired results, hence all the other techniques should be brought in simultaneously; conflict exercises with partners, text analysis, research, body and voice training, etc.
            Next on our list are ‘activities’ and ‘naming behavior.’
            What does an ‘activity’ consist of? This is the general idea:
(a) Accomplishing the activity should involve a certain amount of difficulty.
(b) It is something which needs to be done in a certain time frame.
(c) It is very important
(d) There are personal consequences if it is not finished.
            Let us think once again of the tree analogy, with the roots offering the original impulse to push the trunk away from the ground which we can compare to the actor’s objective – and all the branches, twigs, leaves. etc. are part of the rush toward the sun.
            Where does the ‘activity’ fit into this image.
            Aren’t the roots, themselves, also the ‘activity?’  They ground the tree and keep it from being split and broken apart by an outside force, usually the wind.  This is an opposite impulse from the original urge to grow upward, to be as high and mighty as it can be.
            Suddenly, we can see how a scene is a shared organism.  People in conflict become one tree in a storm. The upper part is pulling away in response to the effect of the wind. But the roots are desperate to ground the organism. In a scene both parties have a tremendous need to express themselves. There is no harmony; one element, the roots, need to resist the negative force of the other – branches, even the trunk in a desperate situation – which is trying to pull the whole thing up into the air. Where there may have been harmony at one time, now a negative situation is developing. The tree is a good symbol because it shows that an argument is of equal importance to the two sides; if one wins the other ‘dies’. This death is often/usually only metaphoric, but at the moment of the argument, it should feel like life and death to the actor.
            In an argument, we are two parts of one organism, one pulls down into itself in order to be safe, or keep things as they always have been, and the other needs to change its situation, even if it imperils the life of the entire communication between the two parties. 

            Like a relationship, if the forces pulling it apart become too ferocious, a tree will crack apart. The victory will never be complete, therefore in a sense both sides will be destroyed. One’s only hope is that the storm will subside before that happens – in other words a compromise will be reached before one side totally crushes the other. It’s important for an actor to deeply consider this analogy. Remember, you will have to play characters with opposite points of view from very different places and walks of life.  

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Blog #60: (2) More Info on Entering Into and Staying Connected to the Knock-at-the-Door Exercise…

There are many ways one can use ‘Sensory Meditation’ (SM) as a basis for the Knock-at-the Door (KatD) improvisation – with an infinite number of personal variations. Once you’ve established enough familiarity with SM to understand how it works at all, you can begin to concentrate on using it before and during KatD. 
            It is important to state, even at this early stage, that as you go along  you will need SM less and less during the improv, until eventually most people drop it altogether and work only ‘in the moment off the partner.’ It is individual to some extent and depends on what scene you are preparing.
            It will become apparent that you are getting somewhere with the SM process when you keep flashing on the same memory or set of memories, which seem to relate to each other in some significant way – although their collective message may not be discernible at first. You can place your improv in the same place that your SM occurred. That place usually isn’t very exciting, as I’ve probably mentioned before. It’s apt to be the ‘same, old,’ ‘same old’ and you realize that’s part of repeating the same stupid mistakes over and over, which is what the exercise is all about. As you go deeper with the exercises, you become more ingenious at placing your partner- for whom you usually substitute a family member from your very early years.
            As you practice this exercise more and more, you can be less strict about using early substitutions. Eventually your mind understands that later life is a repeat of earlier life – especially the traumatic aspects. The conflicts we get into replicate the past, which means that you are repeating the same old arguments over and over. Remember that as soon as you exit the conflict you end up ‘discussing’ not ‘conflicting’ – and that just isn’t dramatically interesting.
            As I’ve said many times, conflict is a particular ‘state of  being,’ in which one is endangered, frightened and imprisoned. The more deeply you enter this work, the more you comprehend why you have to follow strict procedures to get into it and why people will do anything to avoid pursuing acting in this manner – everything from going to sleep to attacking the methodology as unnecessary and absurd. Since the memories on which this work is based are from long ago, often in the beginning we feel far away and totally alienated from them.
            Let us say that you have reached the point where you can initially enter the KatD Exercise with some ease, but find it very hard to keep up the necessary level of intensity. When you feel ‘out of it,’ it means that you have stopped listening and reacting to your partner.
            In reality, when we are in an argument, we are often overwhelmed by the other person – there is no question of ‘not listening’ – I’m not talking about listening to the words, but rather to ‘the entire being,’ (more on this later).  It is at this point that we ‘name’ as in ‘naming behavior.’ This is the whole basis of the exercise. You are supposed to feel all sorts of negative things like ‘out of it,’ sad, angry, disgusted, like giving up, etc. You want to win but are unable to – that’s a very unpleasant state to be in. Even when you reduce your partner to tears, they are ‘winning by losing,’ because it is their duty – and yours – never to give in. (There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare and will be explained at a later date.) When you finally master the technique, these feelings meet more or less with your approval; i.e. your conscious mind grudgingly accepts their unpleasantness as something ‘acceptable,’ if not actually ‘good.’
            One thing I started noticing after I’d worked with these techniques for a long time was the difference between ‘inducing conflict’ and being ‘actually in conflict.’ They are completely different, as they should be. One is related to acting, based on the past which you have, at least to some extent, resolved. The ones that occur in your present life belong to the present, although they are always rooted in the past.
            I’d like to make a slight digression here and use a personal example. Two nights ago, my husband and I went to see an outstandingly good movie, Before Midnight – some of you may have seen it. A long argument takes place between a husband and wife; it contains a severely knotted series of familial and work-related issues. The wife, to whom I related deeply, is voicing a fear that at some time in the future she may be manipulated into moving from one continent to another. Her husband remains more or less charming and helpful throughout this seriously fraught interchange. Many people watching this, especially men, obviously, would  find him much more sympathetic.  I related to her - not that I have anything against men - but because I am a very difficult person who is apt to give in ultimately out of guilt for having behaved like an absolute bitch.
            The movie touched on a nerve for me, and after we returned I went into a slow burn about an issue that has bothered me for many years. It is initially rooted in the abandonment I felt when my mother died, but there are many instances since then which bring up the fear and pain of that early wound. Just seeing this movie, which had nothing directly to do with my early problem, but which reminded me of an abandonment-related subject connected to my husband, started a fight the next evening - one that upset me very deeply and was unpleasant for him.
            I’m still recovering, but at least I know why I reacted that way. One of the things you find out during this particular learning process for acting is ‘what actually happened in the past.’ This gives you a measure of satisfaction – even if what you discover is worse than your child memory could comprehend. Often it’s sadder but less anyone’s ‘fault.’ You are learning about the human condition.
            The reason for using the ‘seminal’ or original memories is that we can relate them to the ‘human condition.’ They make us sad but are usually attributable to a collective failure and not only the fault of one person or even one group of people. Also, we find that we have not been singled out, individually, for a particularly horrible fate.  These long-ago memories are the actors’ food for endless chewing. This is not the same as grinding over someone’s bad behavior – even our own. When we allow this information to arise from the unconscious during an SM, instead of waiting for someone to randomly activate us, the objects or images connected to the memory give us an opportunity to study them more coolly, more scientifically, if you will.
            However, if we are in the middle of studying a role – or trying to write a Blog about studying a role – real life intrudes and we find ourselves getting really upset, as I did! That sort of remembering is ‘hot’ and truly upsetting. We cannot help but have them in ‘real life’ and when we are working on a role, but they don’t wear well for the actual ‘act of acting.’ That’s why ‘inducing’ memories is so much more effective, and worth the trouble to learn. We want the control that comes from ‘bringing it on’ rather than having it ‘invade from the unconscious...’

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Blog: # 59: Discussing how the Integrated Process deals with Meisner’s Knock-at-the-Door Exercise. (Referred to as KatD Exercise)

One of my students, K.B., wrote this after the last class, where I introduced the KatD improvisation: Caroline… escalates the process. I only wish that there was more time! She takes what folks do for years and compresses it into a provoking index of astonishment and wonder.
            I sympathize. The principal difficulty in all this is putting all the various methods that are usually taught separately into one improvisation - the KatD exercise. The KatD exercise involves the efforts of one person, who is trying to change an entrenched position of the other – irresistible force meets the immovable object - which bars any possibility of discussion or resolution.  Therefore all the essential psychological aspects of a real argument in life have to be present in the improvisation. There’s absolutely no way to separate the elements and they all have to work seamlessly to create chaos!
            Another student, TM, describes succinctly what happens in a successful scene: It seems that acting is like a tug of war between two people. One person pulls and gets a little closer to his goal and the other person gets further and further away.
            Argument is an eccentric phenomenon, in which truth is at best a limited player. It is not to be confused with pure discussion or debate. These other forms of disagreement may be heated, but there are rules – except for one side in the last Presidential debates, but we won’t go into that right now!
            The KatD Exercise is fiendishly difficult, one that bewildered me when I was studying Meisner; I didn’t have any systematic sensory system at that time, and relied on my ability to define my partner’s behavior.  Without a sound psychological basis for my attitudes, however, I was really just working in a vacuum. Later, I spent years figuring out ‘sensory meditation’ and then came the almost insurmountable task of joining effective sensory work with ‘naming behavior.’ (Soon, I’ll be adding more components to the KatD Exercise, but for the time being there is already enough confusion just as it is!) 
            I would also like to mention in passing that it’s easy – and in a way necessary - to mix the work with other disciplines: therapy, religion, politics, etc., but I make absolutely no claims to its efficacy outside acting. However, that said, observations made about oneself and others along the way are certainly interesting, helpful to the acting, and possibly facilitate one’s life in other areas, as well. (In other blog entries, I may eventually go into this, but we have enough on our plate for now.)     
            The success of the KatD Exercise is obviously dependent on listening closely to the partner, but it should always begin with oneself becoming focused through a ‘sensory meditation.’ With this in mind, I would like to talk about the importance of finding the objective, leaving the particulars of the ‘activity’ for our next discussion. (Those who have the ‘activity,’ will have to be content just for now with what I have said before: i.e. the activity includes its own objective: to either finish the activity or receive the desired effect from doing it, which precludes interacting with another – the partner in this case, - until this process has run its course.)
            Here is what S.K. as to say about ‘objectives.’ Having the objective sucks… When you have the objective you really have to move the scene forward. There are so many things to factor in and I forget and I feel stupid. I hope it’s something that gets better as I continue to have the objective.
            S.K. is certainly not the only one having this problem. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something that people will think is crazy. Through my own experiences - and from getting to know many students personally, as I often teach one-on-one – I have come to the conclusion that each of us has one basic objective in life. We are like trees: we burst forth from a seed and all our branches come from one trunk. I’m going to discuss my own experience of this phenomenon in a moment, but I would like to point out that defining the objective this way makes a huge difference in all of acting. It means that once you get the hang of it, you never have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to ‘get into the feeling of a role.’ You’re already there; all that is required, then, is to relate the objective of the character’s life to your own.  The character could be your polar opposite, but because you’re already ‘in feeling’ you can play that person. I know this doesn’t make any sense right now, but it does work. It takes a lot of patience to get there, but it can be done.
            My whole concept of acting - and therefore my ability to teach it – changed when I realized that everything I do in my life is an attempt to recover my mother, whom I cannot actually remember. She was a highly successful actress, who was also a writer, but made her living from acting. In my case, I wasn’t good at anything when I was young. Unlike my mother, who was a prodigy – she was starring in a play in London’s West End and published her first novel when she was only nineteen - I was dull and stupid. But I didn’t like being that way, and the only thing I could figure things out was try to act, since that seemed to be the most glamorous aspect of my mother’s life. Eventually, I accepted the fact that I was not really talented at acting, but teaching it seemed like a good bet. It gives me an income and frees me from the onus of doing something I would never be really good at, while staying in the world of my mother. I have the temperament of a teacher – I derive pleasure from seeing students succeed at what they love, but I wasn’t even good at teaching in the beginning; most teachers take time to mature, like everyone else. Being particularly slow, it took me years to figure out what I was doing. Of course, I thought I was good or I couldn’t have gone on at all. Ah, the hubris of youth…
            When I finally began to figure out the ‘one life objective’ theory, I realized that the ‘sensory meditation’ lead me to one set of early childhood memories, and finally settled on a particular event. Most of the students who have worked with me in any depth know about this memory, but I prefer not to go into it here. Now, I can always enter the life of a character in a text through touching on it.  Also, a side benefit is that within the first moments of talking to anyone – especially students – I can usually sense the situation that motivates them. I don’t ‘reach’ for it and often I forget as soon as I sense it. The person or student has a right to their privacy and I want to respect that, but if I get to know the person or the student chooses to work with me, my instincts are inevitably correct.
            Another very, very important benefit of thinking along these lines is that it works for analyzing the motivation of any well-written character. Even the most difficult material, scripts from bygone eras - as well as the most modern material, which often provide characters who think and speak ahead of the curve - can be ‘felt’ through this approach.
            This way of working lead me, eventually, to the ‘child improvisation’ theory. If your most useful memories come from early childhood and your preparation takes your there, it stands to reason that your nuclear family and the place(s) where you lived are the best way to find your relationship to the scene you are playing. You don’t have to take my word for this, if you do your sensory meditation on a regular basis and don’t lose your focus and rush through it. In time, I am happy to tell you, it speeds up a lot, but in the meantime patience is essential and regular practice a must.
            Always do ‘sensory meditation’ – it can be an abridged form – before you begin the KatD Exercise with your partner. Agree to prepare when you meet or prepare before you arrive to start rehearsing. But always get ‘tuned-up’ before you start.
            You must never, ever try to shock or push yourself in the ‘sensory meditation.’ The unconscious is impervious to such tricks and will fight back by disappearing and ‘pulling its hole in after it,’ as my grandmother used to say. And when your unconscious stops playing ball with your conscious mind, the game is over, and you feel as if ‘nothing is, nor will, ever happen.’
            There’s so much more to say on this subject – and other aspects of the KatD Exercise, but they will have to wait until next time… 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Blog #58: Introducing Meisner: how the Rx of ‘repetition’ can immerse the actor in a maelstrom of conflict.

First, I would like to thank everyone in my class for their kind comments about my teaching. I am deeply touched by the originality of their perceptions and the care that went into each contribution. Every actor in the class deserves all the individual attention I can possibly give. Working with them makes me feel that I have one of the best jobs in the world: i.e. imparting what I believe to be important artistic truths to receptive people for whom I feel boundless affection. Several responses also included references to confusion caused by the Meisner ‘repetition’ exercise, which was the focus of the second group class in a three-month series.
            Why is the ‘repetition’ exercise so damn difficult? ‘Repetition’ was my introduction to Meisner – as it usually is for everyone – but it turned out to be the last element that made complete sense! Therefore, the weight of the more advanced exercises and my attempts to use them, first as an actor and later as a teacher, produced a result that felt wobbly and unfinished.
            There are reasons for this that speak to the heart of the ‘problem with Meisner.’ I would like to say, however, that I have nothing  but great admiration for the inventor of this technique. The principles that underlie all its aspects – including ‘repetition,’ ‘naming behavior’,  ‘knock at the door’ improvisations and the use of the fabulous The Spoon River Anthology - require nothing short of genius to enlist them in training actors.
            However, let us put ‘repetition’ under a microscope. Pure ‘repetition’ isolates ‘following one’s impulses,’ and therein lies the reason why I couldn’t master it for so long – and why most people find it so difficult. It is counter-intuitive to isolate any one element of the human psyche. But repetition is the only acting exercise I know where it is useful to do just that. We are all familiar with the expression to be ‘beside oneself.’ I think that in ‘pure repetition,’ one enters a state of total reaction, which mimics being at the extreme of anger or, less likely, hurt – with fear attaching itself to both. (Positive emotions are not discussed here, since we are talking about feelings that relate to conflict.)  And obviously, being ‘beside oneself’ is not the same as being ‘inside oneself.’ In other words, we have separated from ourselves as we know ourselves to be. It is a state of attack that is rarely attained – fortunately – in normal life.
            Even if one has a quick temper or a tendency toward hurt or depression, it is unlikely that we will be flipped easily into these states by another actor pushing us. Why not? Well, most actors aren’t crazy – despite all evidence to the contrary. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist…) Like most everyone else, we have our guard up against the dangers of extreme emotion. So our deeper inhibitions keep resisting the requirements of the ‘repetition’ exercise, speed and strength – dare I say ferocity - of reaction.  According to whichever our tendency is in life, we will err on the side of withdrawing from the conflict or pushing ourselves into it, instead of reacting truthfully to the negative stimulus that is coming straight at us.  There is no way to speed up our ability to do this exercise; we can only practice it and follow the critique given by a – hopefully –  informed teacher.
            In the way that I teach the technique, we move on very quickly into ‘naming behavior.’ This is very confusing to the student – and from this point on, my use of Meisner’s great discoveries would be anathema to a strict Meisnerian. What I am doing is quickly integrating aspects of Method training with Meisner.  Why drive everyone crazy by doing it so fast? Well, an easy explanation would be a comparison with cooking a lemon filling. The eggs have to be spun about immediately with the butter, sugar and lemon – otherwise you get lumpy yolks, more useful for a salad than a pie.
            Now for the long, boring explanation. Sorry but I’m still figuring out how to make this really clear. In acting techniques which do not include systematic memory recall, it is believed that memories comes up automatically and inform everything we do. Yes, as long as what we are doing is ‘real.’ But acting is only partly ‘real.’ That’s why it’s called ‘acting,’ not ‘reality.’  I suffer from both a terrible temper and depression, which caused a lot trouble when I was learning to act. And I’ve had students who couldn’t control their rage and who were unable to drop the anxiety and grief when they weren’t working specifically on their acting. The former type I had to let go from my classes and the latter usually drop out of their own accord.
            So acting isn’t just ‘natural feeling’ and scripts have to be analyzed in order to uncover the appropriate spectrum of emotional responses for each character. Even if scripts were completely ‘real’ and not artistic compilations of fact and imagination, we would still have to analyze them; the difference would be that the element of conflict would not be constantly present. Characters would not continually mislead, often unintentionally, as people do when they are in conflict.  Sometimes, characters lie on purpose, but they only do it because they believe on some level that this is necessary for survival. Rarely can anything that is said in a good script be taken at face value. Characters say the opposite of what they mean, and without close analysis of the text, an actor can become totally confused. So how does the next step in the Meisner technique, ‘naming behavior,’ help with all this?
            Our upcoming Saturday class will be coping with this question, and I’ll be back with new information in our continuing exploration of integrating Meisner with other acting techniques…

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Blog 57: Three Month Group Class in the TTL Integrated Process now underway…

It sounds pretty grand, doesn’t it? By the way, I’m sorry I’ve been desultory about this blog recently – well not exactly ‘desultory,’ just incredibly busy trying to get everyone and everything together so this class will work. There are good reasons why most classes don’t combine techniques in this fashion. Meisner and Method, in particular, seem to be at war with each other. But I don’t see an alternative; if actors learn different techniques separately, how can they be effectively combined in practice – especially at a moment’s notice, for an audition? How can you be working moment-to-moment off a partner that’s actually in the room with you (Meisner), while you are concurrently remembering someone in your past who brings up a deep, emotional response (Method)?  Of course, this is not actually what you should do at all – but if you take the two techniques and attempt to simply cobble them together, it’s is a recipe for total failure.
This can be especially daunting when the actor opposite you – or reader, if it’s an audition – fails to make you feel anything at all!  I, for one, have the greatest admiration for both techniques - but combining them can be a problem that many actors wrestle with their entire creative lives. However, with some significant alterations one can arrive at a ‘doable’ solution, in which both schools of acting can be employed successfully. This is one of the major issues I am endeavoring to confront through the Integrated Process. Each class is four hours long and there are supposed to be twelve students – one dropped out so another is doubling. This allows for six couples to work on their scene, each for a half hour, while leaving an hour for warm-up, break and wrap-up.  For me this is the barest minimum amount of time in which to develop richly complex material. Even simple scenes are difficult unless one has already attained a strong technique, but, in spite of everything, we managed to accomplish quite a lot in the first class.  
These are the playwrights and plays we are working on: Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes, David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, Theresa Rebeck’s The Contract, John Logan’s Red, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, and Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class.
All the participants were personally invited; for this particular three-month workshop I chose students with some knowledge of acting, even if it is mostly intuitive, and a sense of humor about the work and themselves.  In addition, I looked for two very important characteristics – which are the first qualities I try to access in any prospective student – i.e. a heart that never stops opening to an ever-increasing multitude of emotional discoveries and a mind that steadfastly grapples with wildly contradictory information and systems of logic. A tall order? No one ever offered actors a rose garden…
          For our first class, I began by asking the actors what they hoped to learn over the next three months. Several mentioned, in various ways, the problem of synthesizing and taking further what they already knew about acting, and the newer ones expressed anxiety over identifying with their characters and the situations in which these characters find themselves.
          We read through all the scenes and discussed each one in some depth. I chose scenes with particular actors in mind, so the difficulties would be great enough to give each actor something to reach for, without creating so much stretch that the less experienced would be confused and fail.
          For example, I gave the Pinter scene, Ashes to Ashes  – almost indecipherable in its complexity - to Teresa and Richard, who already have a strong grasp of ‘acting in general’ although they are not entirely familiar with all the methods we’re employing. Teresa is easily able to exteriorize her feelings – and the character is clearly in deep pain about events which are not set up in logical succession and often seem to directly contradict one another. The actress playing Rebecca has to figure out exactly what is happening in the text at all times and support these choices from events in her own life.  
          But the value of this scene for Teresa, in particular, is related to what I call ‘the math of acting.’ This refers to working on a scene in the way you might assess a math problem in, say, addition.
          Your ‘objective’ would be the ‘answer’ to the problem.  One should know everything that supports or, in a sense, ‘adds up’ to the objective or answer – a combination of researching the script and then basing this knowledge in one’s own life.
          Next you decide on the beats, or in other words the various approaches, which the character employs in trying to reach the objective. This could be compared to placing each number into the equation.
          Each beat has an ‘action’ that puts pressure on the numbers moving them toward the ‘answer’ or ‘objective.’   
          Lastly, you have to know the value of each digit – in other words, its exact size and weight – and I think of that as the ‘subtext,’ which I will describe ad nauseumin a later blog.
          I want to reiterate here, so there is no misunderstanding, that all this work will come out dull as ditchwater or dry as, well, a math problem, unless it’s drawn from the actor’s ‘real life experience’ – i.e. something personal the actor believes in – which is arrived at by doing ‘sensory meditation.’ Another main factor is a precise technique for moving the intention (action) toward another actor or toward ‘objects’ it places on the fourth wall. This latter part can be rehearsed and understood through the ‘Meisner’ repetition and knock-at-the-door.
          Now that all this is clear as mud, we can move on. No, seriously; the only way I can make this material comprehensible for the actors in my class or you, gentle reader, is by constantly moving between the particular and the general. It does make sense, and it can be metabolized very quickly, once the actor has worked and worked and worked to personalize all the factors that go into ‘the doing of acting.’
          A very famous Polish director, Jerzy Grotowski, with whose group I had the incredible good fortune to work both in NYC and Poland many years ago, called actors ‘doers.’ Think about this word ‘doing;’ how many people actually ‘do’ - or ‘act upon’ -as opposed to ‘talk about.’ Actors must strive to ‘do’ in every possible way, since ‘acting upon’ is the most all around ‘act-ivity’ there is.
          Stay tuned for more in-depth coverage of my ‘Group Class in the Integrated Process…’     

Saturday, February 16, 2013

BLOG 56: So what happened already in the Meisner/Method Seminar? (Spoon River comes to the rescue…)

Well, I can say that I approached the whole Seminar thing with a lot of trepidation! Through a credit card glitch I lost the space I had reserved two months before and had to squander the time I had put aside for final preparations on a frantic search for a new venue – one that would be both affordable and appropriate to my needs. I was lucky when Shetler Studios came to the rescue with the Bridge Theatre – my home for classes and productions back in the beginning of the century!

My biggest worry was how to fit all the work into seven hours. I kept searching for a format that would integrate both methodologies. I was sure of one thing; starting the seminar with what I am now calling ‘sensory meditation’ – a phrase coined by my student, Vince Bandille (he is kindly allowing me to use it).  After relaxation and sensory exercises, the class would  be ready for Meisner improvisations; ones that deal with ‘objectives’ and ‘activities.’ [If you’re interested in reading some background for this process, take a look at Blog entries, #11-#13, in which Total Theatre Lab’s Integrated Acting Process is introduced along with my views on combining Method, Meisner and other basic acting techniques.] My concern was whether students would be able to absorb such opposite approaches in so few hours.  

For some time, I had been preparing for the seminar by training two students in using both techniques to practice scenes; later we started researching monologues – both drawn from one play - in the same fashion.  They would prepare with knock-at-the-door-exercises followed by their characters’ monologues. [Blog entries #49-#52 are a step-by-step chronicle of how we pursued this work.] So I thought I could do something like that in the Seminar. But how would I be able to pick the right scenes for everyone, when I had only briefly met – in person or on Skype - with some of the actors who would be participating? And what if someone cancelled at the last minute – how would I pair off the remaining partner with another  appropriate scene? And then I had a Eureka moment!

I suddenly remembered working on the Spoon River Anthology in Mordecai Lawner’s class. (Morty trained as an actor and later as a teacher under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse.) This collection consists of over two hundred poems, each written from the point of view of a different person. They all take place in Spoon River, a fictional town in Illinois still recovering from the Civil War and deal with the social and political changes of the nineteenth century as it moves into the twentieth. I’d forgotten exactly which poem Morty had assigned to me, but recalled how sincerely I’d labored over the adventures of a very discontented woman, breaking the verses down into actions, figuring out my objective and desperately trying to tie it into my own life. All the characters in these poems are deceased; some were miserable when they were alive, while others wished they’d had an opportunity to further their experience of life.

For the life of me, I was unable to think of the author’s name! I searched my bookshelves for the Anthology; finally discovering it under M for Edgar Lee Masters, I grabbed the grubby paperback, blew off the dust and began feverishly reading through all the poems.  To my delight, I discovered that I was enthralled by Master’s richly endowed perceptions of this mid-Western small town.  Although it was published around the time of the First World War, the focus was more on social and political issues related to the ravages of the Civil War, and the inevitable changes; a primary one being more freedom for women. And the backlash it produced.

It occurred to me that I could use these monologues instead of scenes for the Seminar! Even though they weren’t characters in a single play, they were often obliquely or directly connected to each other. Masters’ point of view on relationships was psychologically sophisticated and deeply human. Sarah Brown speaks to her lover from the grave telling him to go to her husband and explain that she loved both of them, and that There is no marriage in heaven, there is only love. The writing is deft in its depiction of human foibles and the inescapability of suffering. Mrs. Benjamin Pantier chafes at her husband’s lack of artistic feeling and odious sexual advances, but in another poem Benjamin is defined by the love he felt for Nig, his dog, and how his wife’s rejection caused him unbearable grief. There is humor too, dry as a bone. For example, Lydia Puckett states that her lover didn’t run off to the War to avoid being arrested for stealing hogs (!) but rather because he was told of her affair with a married man. Immediately following is a poem from the hog stealer’s point of view that says nothing about the Lydia affair, only that he would have preferred being arrested and going to prison over dying on the battlefield! I stayed up all night for two nights reading the poems and picking out three possibilities for each student.

When the actors arrived for the Seminar, I handed each one a packet, which included a strongly worded suggestion to pick out neither the most difficult nor the easiest poem, but the one that attracted them the most. Everyone spoke their poem aloud, followed by a short discussion, after which the class was directed to ask three questions. What is this poem about for me?  What is my objective and, finally, who am I talking to? I cautioned them not to hurry into any decisions about the questions, although obviously ideas were beginning to form. Then I guided them through a physical relaxation and sensory meditation during which their ideas became more concrete. The final step of the morning session was a second reading of the poem. It turned out quite as I had imagined from previous experience of working in this manner; the results were subjective and mostly held inside.

While everyone was eating lunch, I divided the group into pairs. In the afternoon, we put the characters ‘into motion’ through improvisations that followed the basic ‘knock-at-the-door’ exercise: one person with an objective while the other concentrated on an ‘activity. No one in the group was new to acting although they had varying degrees of experience with different techniques. To my great relief, however, they all worked well together. The improvisations were lively; I won’t go into detail at this point, but everyone threw themselves into their work.  And when the seminar concluded with everyone reciting their poems a second time, it was clear that the partner work had helped them gain more ‘outward’ focus, while retaining their inner intensity.  It seemed that the two methods had been combined successfully into a unified approach.

Therefore, I am delighted to announce that I am organizing a Total Theatre Lab group class in Method/Meisner scheduled to begin in the spring… Details to follow. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Blog #55: Happy New Year! Starting off 2013 with some big THANK YOU’S and a few words about my upcoming Seminar: Integrating Method and Meisner.

In writing this blog over the past few years – and especially the last few months of 2012 - I’ve been sneaking up on the thorny subject of teaching Meisner and Method simultaneously. I mean, actually in the same class. I am fortunate in having a group of students with whom I have developed a rapport – and a few new ones, who have studied before and have some professional experience - on whom to spring this ‘bright idea’ of mine.  I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I think of Meisner as ‘method-in-motion.’
            So, what’s so difficult about putting these two techniques together? Everything, actually. Each is incredibly complicated all by itself, so you can only imagine how tangled explanations can get! I’ve often tried to ‘put it all together’ before, but I, myself, have needed to develop a deeper understanding of the psychological root system that produces both techniques.  One of the reasons for my eventual clarification of the ‘Meisner/Method connection’ is the brilliance of some of my students. Yes, good students benefit their teacher as much as the other way around. I think there’s an absolute mathematical ratio in how the learning curve improves on both sides for teacher and student, when there’s an enthusiastic and positive interchange.
            And I’m extremely grateful to my friend and colleague, Jenn Lederer of Dream Management – with whom I had the incredible good fortune to hook up over the last year.  She has provided me with a number of talented and interesting actors, the sort of students who produce this mutually productive interaction. And since it’s the New Year, I’m going to continue to give credit where credit is due, I would not have met Jenn if it weren’t for Piers Mathieson, whose skills lie in marketing for the performing arts; he happened across some of Jenn’s videos – the ones where she gives excellent tips to actors on marketing themselves. It occurred to Pier’s ever-fruitful brain that she might be interested in working with an acting teacher who knew a thing or two, and he took the trouble to get us together. Thank you, Piers!
            Anyway, getting back to my thorny subject of Method/Meisner; calling Meisner ‘method-in-motion’ helps to keep in mind the integrity of each technique. In other words, the ‘method aspect’ remains embedded, intact, in the ‘observers’ pov’ while the ‘Meisner part’ fanatically attaches itself to ‘changing the other person or people.’ I know this theory sounds like gobbledygook, but if you think about it and work on it enough, it can be very useful. Making them work together is a bit like focusing the eye of a camera. The way you seem to just push buttons and the camera does all the work. However, it’s not simple at all, because we have to become the camera; which means we have to first understand and then manage a ‘mechanism’ by which we can be both one thing and its opposite.            
            There’s a play called I Am a Camera, (which, in turn, became the musical, Cabaret). It is based on Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical set of short stories, titled Goodbye to Berlin. The character, Isherwood himself, is seemingly passive in recounting the events he watched unfold. But the power of the story - one of the most evocative depictions by an Englishman of Berlin in the ‘30’s - is how he juxtaposes the determination of the characters, to lead the ‘gayest’ possible life – with double meaning of the word intact – against the hideous encroachment of Hitler’s fascism.
            One of the reasons this story has enjoyed several dramatic incarnations is that the ‘gaiety’ and the ‘horror’ are equally real. Isherwood achieves this by writing his own character from two points of view: the impartial ‘camera’(objective master or cover shot) and the involved young man (subjective close-up). All his characters were living their lives to the fullest, including Isherwood himself, but a part of Isherwood acted as the lens of a camera; aware of the oncoming doom,  not experiencing it consciously, but  enabling it to record the ‘truth’ of the entire experience.
            This is what a very good actor is capable of doing; going full bore toward an objective, but at the same time reflecting the inner obstacles that are pulling him/her back, AND fully interacting with the other characters. If all the entire cast is engaged with equal skill in this process, you get a wonderful result - like the production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, currently in previews on Broadway. Scarlett Johansson plays Maggie like an total steamroller, without losing any of the aspects of the character. The first act is a tremendous challenge; Maggie’s character has the job of setting up the show, exposition, etc. while, as a character, establishing purpose, compassion for others and vulnerability. A pretty tall order! I saw one of the first previews, and I’m sure Johansson will loosen up and balance the pacing a little more, but she’s got my vote!
            I know that none of this is particularly enlightening about how I will present the Method/ Meisner work in my seminar - but where would the surprise be if I told you all about it ahead of time? No, seriously, it’s impossible to explain, except in boring and wordy terms, how one is going to teach something until one is actually doing it.  Afterwards, we can discuss how it was done, including the responses of the students and that makes it much more interesting. So the subject of integrating Method/Meisner will definitely be covered in great detail in later blog entries. I’ve begun a discussion of this process in earlier ones, so if you’re interested you can scroll through some recent headings which announce the contents of the blogs.
            By the way, one more detail, relating to Piers Matthieson and how he came to introduce me to Jenn Lederer. Years ago, when Piers was a teenager he was studying acting with me. For a brief period he was homeless - I had completely forgotten this - but he reminded me that I offered him my living room couch for several weeks or months.  So, curmudgeonly as I may be, I must admit that there is something to ‘What goes around comes around…’