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on launching a new Uranium Madhouse project: Neal Bell’s Cold Sweat and more...

on launching a new Uranium Madhouse project: Neal Bell’s Cold Sweat

I will have been teaching for eleven years in October. In the first class I taught, in San Francisco in the fall of 2004, I assigned two-person scenes from three plays, and one of them was Neal Bell’s Cold Sweat. It’s a play I had been thinking about since the mid-nineties, when I considered doing it as my thesis production at the Yale School of Drama. I opted for a Peter Handke play that I knew that no theater would ever engage me to do. I felt that I might someday persuade a theater that Cold Sweat was worth producing.

 

And here I am, lo these many years later, embarking on a production of Cold Sweat with my very own theater cabal on the east side of Los Angeles. It’s our fourth production in as many years, and we have the battle scars to show for it. We are in the process of scheduling auditions, and the response from actors who have read the script so far has been unbridled enthusiasm. They know a juicy, chunky, succulent piece of dramatic writing when they see one. It’s a difficult play to characterize: the heroine, Alice Franklin, a surgeon in Vietnam as the play opens, faces wrenching and harrowing developments from the first moments, but she and the people she meets confront it all with a wry sense of humor and verbal relish, so that the piece is infused with a comic spirit even as painful and even devastating losses are sustained.

I have continued to work with Cold Sweat in my classes, and veterans of the class can attest that I have come to know the lines of many of the scenes with infuriating precision. Bell’s ear for dialogue is impeccable, and the comedy is as much in the rhythms of those exchanges as it is in quips and wisecracks. The humor that the play reveals amidst a barrage of traumas and losses make the piece endlessly satisfying to work on.

So it’s with great excitement that I approach producing and directing this play. I think it is an unjustly neglected work, perhaps because its subject matter is as challenging as its tone is surprising in the face of that subject matter. The play presents the kind of extremity of circumstance, worldly and spiritual, that embody the Uranium Madhouse aesthetic. So I welcome the challenge.

I worked with Alex Fishkin, who has composed music for our last two productions, to create this video that offers a taste of the piece:

 

As you can see from the end of the video, we are soliciting donations from our friends and community in support of this worthy effort. I hope you, dear reader of my blog, will consider joining us and becoming a part of this effort by making a donation:

We would be very grateful, and we think you will be very proud.

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cocaine and the rat park

Interesting piece in the Huffington Post on some new thinking about the causes of addiction. It’s interesting for actors because it throws into relief the central place that the need for social connection and belonging occupies in understanding why people do what they do, which is a subject I have written about extensively.

 

Briefly, if a researcher put a lone rat in a cage with a choice between water laced with cocaine and water, he would fixate on the cocaine water and become an addict.

But put him in the Rat Park,

a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want.

and a funny thing happened:

The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

These are rats, though, not people, right? Not so fast:

At first, I thought this was merely a quirk of rats, until I discovered that there was — at the same time as the Rat Park experiment — a helpful human equivalent taking place. It was called the Vietnam War. Time magazine reported using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended.

But in fact some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.

I have heard a different explanation of why these soldiers successfully shook the addiction than the one being pushed here, but this result viewed in light of the rat experiments and the other results described in the article underline that the need for human beings to feel a sense of belonging and connection to a social world is so strong that they will go to self-destructive lengths to compensate if they are deprived of this connection. That’s how strong the need is. And that is the need that we try to touch and leverage in scene work at Andrew Wood.

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Auditions for New Uranium Madhouse Production: Cold Sweat by Neal Bell

I am excited to make the following announcement:

 

Project: Cold Sweat (Play)
Author: Neal Bell
Company: Uranium Madhouse
Director: Andrew Wood
Production Venue: Atwater Village Theater
Production Dates: 5/29, 5/30, 5/31, 6/5,6/6,
6/7
Contract: AEA Los Angeles 99-seat Plan
Submissions: casting@uraniummadhouse.org

4W,6M

Logline: In this edgy comedy, surgeon Alice Franklin makes a reputation for herself as an advocate for the right of the terminally ill to know the truth of their situation, but when she meets a charismatic faith-healer who appears to be able to connect with the dead, she must decide whether to abandon all she has achieved for the possibility of reconnecting with those whom she misses most.

CHARACTERS:

ALICE FRANKLIN — 35, female, white. Surgeon, fiercely intelligent, loves to crack wise, swears like a sailor, yet very high-minded, self-effacing, tender-hearted. One scene calls for her to start to unbutton her blouse and hold a cigarette up to her breast, but full toplessness is not required. Exposure can be kept as minimal as possible.

JAMIE — 35, male, white. Surgeon, introspective, unapologetic, assured.

GORDON — 35, male, African-American. Surgeon, generous, caring, has a very sensitive bullshit detector.

DR. HANSON — 55, male, white. Doctor, hospital administrator, Alice’s boss. Prides himself on running an effective department and handling high-strung doctors with a light touch. But will draw a line when necessary.

EMMA — 55-65, female, white. Earthy, raised on old-time religion whether or not she still believes it, urban blue-collar, mind like a steel trap.

BESS FRANKLIN — 55-65, female, white. Alice’s mother. Educated, sharp, opinionated, with a kind heart underneath it all. Can be a bit of a clown. Fiercely devoted to her husband and afraid of aging alone.

COURT FRANKLIN — 55-65, male, white. Alice’s father, a fatalistic charmer.

FAY — 30, female, white. Describes herself as a permanent temp, sharp as nails, a match for Alice in that department. A liberated woman. Well-endowed (this is discussed in the script), one scene calls for her to remove her bikini top for a time.

LEON — 35, male, doctor, white or Asian. Extroverted, wry, thoracic surgeon. A swinger, but ready to give it all up for the right woman. Secure enough to let an alpha woman be the alpha.

RAY — 55-65, male, white. Emma’s erstwhile husband. A charismatic faith-healer. Swagger and a shit-eating grin.

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simon says

Social by Matthew LiebermanI finally finished reading Matthew Lieberman’s extraordinary book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect. I have written about it a few times already, namely here and here. The book makes use of brain science research, which has advanced in sophistication very quickly in the last few decades thanks to major technological advancements. (NYU, the alma mater of Michael C Hall and of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, has recognized the importance of brain science for acting by collaborating with leading neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, as the Hollywood Reporter recently reported.) Lieberman uses these findings to demonstrate that the most fundamental human drive is social in nature. It is a drive for connection with others and meaningful relationships of all kinds. This insight has been an emerging consensus in psychology for some time now, but neuroscience has caught up, and Lieberman relates study after study supporting this view.

It’s an absolutely fascinating work, and should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in understanding human motivation. But I wanted to discuss something that comes up near the end of the book. Lieberman describes a study that showed that subjects in an experiment who had been given a task to do regularly that challenged their visual-motor self-control, that is, their ability to respond quickly and accurately to signals and to immediately STOP responding when instructed (think of a game of Simon Says on a computer), showed greater ability to regulate their emotions than those in a control group, who were given no such task.

What we were interested in discovering was the effect of visual-motor self-control training on emotion regulation ability– even though these two things seem to have little in common. Indeed, there was a relationship for those in the training group. Individuals who had received self-control training with a visual-motor task had significantly better emotion regulation ability at the end of the study than they had at the beginning, even though there was no emotion regulation training in the study. To examine whether motor self-control could have been driving this effect, we looked at the relationship between motor self-control improvements and emotion regulation improvements. The better an individual got at motor self-control over the course of the eight training sessions, the more emotion regulation ability improved.

This finding is extremely important because, as Lieberman explains elsewhere, success in almost every endeavor depends to some extent on the ability to regulate the emotions. Now, acting is not about regulating emotions, exactly, but a trained or experience actor has acquired an instinct about what kinds of impulses within herself to respond to and what kinds to ignore or inhibit. And this process is something akin to emotional regulation. So these findings are relevant.

One part of their relevance points to the importance of physical training for actors. While that’s not the kind of training I offer in my classes, mostly, I do emphasize the importance of some kind of movement training for actors. I regularly bring teachers of the Alexander technique to class to introduce what they do: helping the mind and the body to harmoniously interact. I teach an exercise that my students have dubbed “eyeball-to-eyeball” that entails reading the lines of a scene aloud but only speaking when you have eye-contact with the partner. This means you have to stop speaking BEFORE looking down to get the next line, and, having looked down and gotten a line, you have to refrain from starting to speak before re-establishing eye-contact with your partner. Harder than it sounds, and most definitely an exercise in visual-motor self-control.

I also often remark to my students that acting is more a feat of coordination than they typically expect. We must engage our voice and body to affect our partners, but we must also be receptive. We have to alternate between these two modes, in the way that our exhale alternates with our inhale. We must continually open our senses to find the prompt for speaking in the messages emanating from the partner, but we must commit fully to sending messages in response. Our physical self, specifically, both core (abdominals) and extremities (jaw, arms/hands, legs/feet) have to engage in what we are doing. We have to leverage the strength and stability in our cores, even in our most delicate moments, and the extremities have to support and direct the energy generated there appropriately.

Vulnerability and emotional truth arise as a by-product of this integration of the parts. Out of the cacophony of noise that mind and body continually generate, the trained actor knows how to pluck out the sounds that will allow him to make music with the script and with his fellow actors.

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wax on, wax off

mr miagiOne of the many surprises in The Karate Kid is that the seemingly menial chores given to Daniel to do are actually training him, in various ways, to face enemies in the upcoming fight. Daniel wants to learn to punch and chop and kick, and instead he is told to wash a car using the seemingly simple motions of “wax on, wax off.”

Acting students have all seen a lot of acting by the time they come to my class, and they can’t help but form expectations about what such a class will be like: what will be asked of them (crying real tears! showing emotion! ), what kind of feedback they will get (“you’ll never make it in this town, give it up!”, “you have what it takes!” ), etc. These expectations are usually unhelpful, and much depends on the students’ willingness to let go of them.

One of the first things I teach is a framework called the Five Questions, which helps students look at a scene, extract vital information about the character’s situation from it and from the the script it is a part of, and then arrive at what are essentially priorities, things they might focus on that will engage their minds, bodies, and souls, for lack of a better word, in productive ways that help to facilitate good acting.

They are many guidelines to be followed in generating a strong and solid Five Questions document, and the work of developing that document can seem, at times, kind of menial. Kind of like waxing a car when what you want to do is learn how to fight. And when it’s not menial it’s…frustrating, because it often involves trying to catch sight of things that are hiding in plain sight, staring you mockingly in the face. Kind of like trying to catch flies with chopsticks.

Accepting this menial-ness and this frustration are central to the students’ moving past their preconceptions and towards some skill in acting. The tasks are apparently menial and frustrating because, metaphorically speaking, we are looking for things to shift at the molecular or even atomic level in the students’ understanding. Metals have properties such as malleability, the ability to be bent or shaped, and ductility, the ability to be drawn into a wire. These properties depend on the atomic characteristics of the metals in question. No matter how much copper you are working with, its ability to be drawn into a wire depends on its atomic structure. And so it is with a student’s acting: what shows up depends in large part upon the student’s picture of what is going on when she acts. For almost everyone that comes into my class, that picture requires at least some revision, and in some cases in requires a total overhaul. But no matter how much change is ultimately called for in the student’s understanding, those changes happen through seemingly trivial changes in the way students talk to themselves about what they are doing, and ultimately in the way the way they understand what they are doing. A tweak here, a tweak there, and sooner or later you’re talking about foundational transformation, what is known as a sea change in the student’s work. But such sea changes can’t happen without the student’s willingness to embrace these small, seemingly meaningless changes, and to trust that they have an importance that may not yet be visible.

Getting students to accept and embrace the menial and the frustrating is the first step. The next step is getting them to embrace steadfastness, constancy and doggedness. The writer Ursula Le Guin, who in 2014 received the National Book Foundation’s 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, commented on the indispensableness of this virtue in her acceptance speech:

If you haven’t learned how to do something, the people who have may seem to be magicians, possessors of mysterious secrets. In a fairly simple art, such as making pie crust, there are certain teachable “secrets” of method that lead almost infallibly to good results; but in any complex art, such as housekeeping, piano-playing, clothes-making, or story-writing, there are so many techniques, skills, choices of method, so many variables, so many “secrets,” some teachable and some not, that you can learn them only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice — in other words, by work.

Methodical, repeated, long-continued practice. In other words, by work.

I encountered Le Guin as a kid; I read the three books in her Earthsea trilogy, which I understand has been expanded beyond the three novels I knew. The first book had an apprentice wizard as its protagonist, the second a young girl learning to be a priestess, and the the third a young prince. All three embark upon the learning of a kind of craft, and all three have to learn the importance of patience and the danger of overreaching, of hurrying, of grasping at capability that has not been acquired by building on a solid foundation.

I remember hearing an interview with the great Cherry Jones about class with the late, great Jewel Walked at Carnegie-Mellon, back in the day. She talked about how he asked them to do an exercise that involved carrying a serving-tray across the room and setting it on a table, over, and over, and over again. At the time she couldn’t believe that this was what her tuition dollars were funding. But later she realized (and these realizations do generally happen later) that he was teaching them what she referred to as “the value of a completed action.” She didn’t expand on this, and probably it would be almost impossible to explain the meaning of it in an interview setting. It’s the kind of thing you need a classroom for.

Take a good Meisner class, and you’re going to watch repetition exercises until your eyelids curl. You’ll likely be bored out your mind in the process — and that’s a good thing! Because it’s only by realizing how truly boring disconnected work is– and what it takes to do work that is genuine, sincere, honest, open, responsive, vulnerable– that you’re going to get the value of the training.

As much as I teach actors what makes for a good objective or what it means to play an action or how to order the circumstances of the scene in a way that is conducive to high stakes and undeniable vulnerability, I feel that the deeper lessons that I have to teach — and also to learn, over and over again, are these: the acceptance of the menial and the frustrating, of the need for resolute steadfastness, or doggedness, what Le Guin elsewhere calls “the obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition, leading to skill in performance.”

Training that does not require the acceptance of the menial, the frustrating, and the need for the “obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition” is just not good training. It’s snake-oil.

Or, as Nina says in Anton Chekhov’s great play The Seagull: “…I understand, finally, that in our business — acting, writing, it makes no difference — the main thing isn’t being famous, it’s not the sound of applause, it’s not what I dreamed it was. All it is is the strength to keep going, no matter what happens.”

Wax on, wax off.

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