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…