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gut churn and more...

gut churn

I recently came across a piece by Thomas Frank, a regular contributor on, which skewered the general triteness of so much of the contemporary writing on creativity these days. I generally agree with his assessment:


What our correspondent also understood, sitting there in his basement bathtub, was that the literature of creativity was a genre of surpassing banality. Every book he read seemed to boast the same shopworn anecdotes and the same canonical heroes. If the authors are presenting themselves as experts on innovation, they will tell us about Einstein, Gandhi, Picasso, Dylan, Warhol, the Beatles. If they are celebrating their own innovations, they will compare them to the oft-rejected masterpieces of Impressionism — that ultimate combination of rebellion and placid pastel bullshit that decorates the walls of hotel lobbies from Pittsburgh to Pyongyang.

I’ll leave you to decide whether or not you want to follow Frank down that rabbit hole, to the somewhat disturbing conclusion that he reaches about what all this creativity blather is all about. But having read this piece recently, I was decidedly skeptical when I saw a post turn up in my Facebook feed with the title Science, Storytelling, and “Gut Churn”: Jad Abumrad on the Secrets of Creative Success. Was it going to be more of the same blather that Frank had mockingly exposed? I didn’t watch it right away, as I feared the worst. However, the title stayed with me, as regular readers of this blog know that lighting a fire in the gut of the actor is what I am all about. Eventually, I had a spare moment and let the video play.

I was pleasantly surprised. The talk is by the creator of Radiolab, a show on NPR. I have heard it before, and know people who are big fans. I am not a huge fan, but I like radio shows in general, and so it got my attention.

I found the talk to be thoughtful and honest, and the vulnerability that the speaker evinces, the amount of not-knowing that he is prepared to cop to, impressed me. His candor about the amount of sheer terror that creative endeavor can entail, and the physiological consequences of that terror, that is, “gut churn”, was bracing. And what makes this quite different from the kind of writing that Frank was deriding was that in this case, it was a creator looking back on his own experience of creating something and reflecting on it. It was not about “the science of creativity”, although he does invoke some science along the way. And to that point, he doesn’t offer prescriptions, but he does offer some useful insights, like: “pointing arrows”, things that show a way forward out of what seems like a hopeless morass, sometimes appear, or, sometimes negative feedback can mean you are doing the right thing. It is presented in a spirit of thoughtfulness and humility that I really appreciated.

Anyway, here it is, in the event that I have piqued your curiosity:

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it changes your life

Today, on NPR, from a review of the career of Ben Bradlee, the editor at the Washington Post during Watergate:


Bradlee wasn’t introspective, but in an interview with his friend Jim Lehrer of PBS late in life, he sought to pin down what animated him.

“It changes your life, the pursuit of truth,” Bradlee said. “At least, if you know that you have tried to find the truth and gone past the first apparent truth towards the real truth, it’s very, it’s very exciting, I find.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

And I LOVE what Mr. Bradlee had to say about the first apparent truth and the real truth. This is what we struggle with all the time in class when looking at a script. There is one truth that presents itself to us as readers, initially, as we stand outside the story and take in the unfolding events. But the more we project ourselves INTO the narrative, and see things from the point of view of the character we are seeking to embody, the more we discover how superficial that initial truth was.

And getting beyond that superficial truth, getting to what Bradlee calls the real truth, is such a thrill. So emboldening. So energizing. It really does change your life.

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Cris D’Annunzio on The State of Affairs

Congratulations to Andrew Wood Acting Studio alum Cris D’Annunzio (seen in the recent Uranium Madhouse production The Duchess of Malfi) for landing a recurring role on the new NBC show The State of Affairs. Way to go Cris!


acting class los angeles alum Cris D'Annunzio appearing on The State of Affairs

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we can work it out

Everyone, in every relationship in which they engage, is trying to make it work. Everyone is trying to make every significant relationship they have work. Until the moment when they leave that relationship for good, they are trying to make it work.

This is an incredibly important insight for actors. Actors work on situations involving conflict, almost all of the time. And it’s often easy to look at a scene and think that from the point of view of her character, everything would be fine if the other person would just STOP DOING [THAT THING THAT THEY DO]. So the actor looks at the scene as the struggle to stop the other person from doing something, to mute them, in some sense. To shut the other person down.

The problem with looking at a scene in this way, any scene, even a scene in which you are trying to get someone to STFU or holding a gun to someone’s head, is that the actor is looking only at what the other character does that is wrong or offensive, and ignoring what they offer, what they bring to the table. And what the other character offers or brings to the table is the basis of the vulnerability in the scene. And vulnerability is what makes acting great, first and foremost.

Now, a word about vulnerability: vulnerability is not something “squishy” or “soft”. It is not a way of behaving. It is an awareness that the other person provides something of value, something precious, something worthwhile, that will be LOST if the connection to the other person were to be damaged. So you can be ripping someone a new one, or threatening them with a gun, and still be vulnerable to that person. Are you going to take me seriously as someone capable of using this gun? Are you going to take my threats and insults seriously, and mend your ways? Or are you going to ignore them? These questions reveal the vulnerability in some situations that we would not normally associate with vulnerability.

So again, looking at a scene as being about shutting the other person down in some way ignores the vulnerability in the situation of the character being played. In any scene, we have to look for a way to look at the situation such that we can get something good, in fact something vital, from the other character. So we can still try to get the other person to STOP DOING [THAT THING THAT THEY DO], but it’s in order to get back to the time when the connection between the two characters was sound, was strong, was a source of value and meaning. So the message has to be not “STOP THAT!” but “STOP THAT! DO THIS INSTEAD”, even if the lines all are saying “STOP THAT”.

That’s why at Andrew Wood we place a strong emphasis on defining the underlying objective for a character, which is the character’s way of naming, immediately and compellingly, what she needs from the partner, what it is that the partner can offer her that is good, that is vital, that she MUST HAVE. And then we work on the whole scene as the pursuit of that need. It’s easy to get lost in all of the “stop that!” or the “do this for me!” or the “leave me alone!” or the various ways characters try to transform their circumstances, and in the process lose sight of the importance of the relationship between the characters, which is in the end what the quality of the actor’s work depends on.

So remember: no matter what your character looks like he is doing, he is trying to make the relationship in front of him work. Always remember that. The relationship in front of him is valuable, and your character knows it. And he is working on saving that relationship, making it work. So that’s what you need to be working on as well.

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the uses of fame

It’s banal to say that we live in a celebrity-obsessed society. Even those of us who have no interest in the latest high-jinks of the rich and famous can’t help but absorb a fair amount of it, if only by osmosis (for example, I know that Kim Kardashian got married). And needless to say, a lot of it is frivolous nonsense. Life is too short.

But once in a while you hear of someone doing something with their fame and influence that is both laudable and original. For example:

Allison Janney is involved with an organization called Justice for Vets , which seeks to intervene to stop the downward trajectory that many veterans of America’s wars find themselves on as they turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with all that they have to cope with. The organization provides legal advocacy for veterans when they get into trouble with the law, and helps get them assigned to rehabilitation programs rather than prisons.

It’s an incredibly noble effort, in my humble opinion. We all have a debt to those we as a society put in harm’s way. But it takes the kind of compassion that we could stand to have more of as a people, frankly, to recognize that in many cases, the dive into drugs and alcohol that some of these veterans take is something that we as a society contributed to, and that therefore it would be the right thing to do to seek to intervene to stop that nosedive at the outset.

It’s a great cause, but I found it particularly interesting that Janney, as an actor, was involved in this. A serious actor (like Janney) explores how people find themselves in situations that they never would have imagined or expected for themselves, and in which they don’t recognize themselves. Dramatic and comedic stories explore departures from the normal, deviations, even downward spirals. And a serious actor is painstaking about tracing the steps and developments that lead to these surprising and revelatory predicaments. We speak in class about “the path” through a role, which refers to the triggers, prompts, or stimuli that a character encounters at each step that provide the reason for the subsequent step. In other words, actors become experts on How I Ended Up Here. The natural consequence of understanding how someone got where they got is empathy, in a word. Anyone can have empathy when it is obviously deserved, but actors, through their work on a role, are often asked to empathize with people who are not obviously deserving of empathy. I begin each class cycle by having students read A Streetcar Named Desire, and then we work on developing a framework for playing Blanche’s first scene in the play. The students are inevitably challenged by the proposition that we have to view ourselves-as-Blanche non-judgmentally, even though the writer has given us so much to judge. They find it hard. But if they become real actors, they get good at it.

But somehow, it seemed to me like a natural fit for someone like Janney to take up a cause like this one, that intervenes on behalf of people who have often broken the law and are on the way to jail. I wondered if it was her empathic faculty, which she has developed over years in her career, that enabled her to see the importance and the necessity of this work. That’s not to say that someone who wasn’t an actor couldn’t see it, but I could absolutely see how an actor would.

So thanks to you. Ms Janney, for your generosity of spirit, and for showing your community the great uses to which celebrity can be put. May you inspire many more.

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