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Best of this Blog: 2014 and more...

Best of this Blog: 2014

This is ordinarily the kind of thing I would publish at the beginning of the year. But I got sucked into…something.

 

So, better late than never. Actually, there was quite a lot of good content in 2014. (Which means I’d better get cracking for this year!) But here, in my humble opinion, are the highlights from last year:

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working loose, working tight

Someone recommended Jon Jory’s book to me, Ideas for Directors. On the one hand, I had been taught, by a certain mentor who shall remain nameless, to smile derisively at the notion that books had anything to teach about the art of directing a play. And to some extent, that’s actually a healthy attitude. To the extent that directing (or acting) can be taught at all, such teaching depends on the right-here-right-now immediacy of the classroom, and no matter how good a book is, it can’t give you that.

 

That said, I did encounter William Ball’s book A Sense of Direction a few decades ago, and I learned a lot from it. I still didn’t find much in it that in any way communicated what I had learned from the great classroom experiences I had had, but I did discover some new perspectives on things that had never really been a part of my classroom directing experiences. It was, in fact, extremely valuable. So when someone suggested Jon Jory’s book, I decided to give it a look.

I haven’t read it cover-to-cover, but it’s not really designed to be read that way, I don’t think. It’s more like a loosely organized compendium of brief meditations on various aspects of a director’s work. One distinction that I came across that resonated with me was his notion of “working loose” versus “working tight”.

Working loose means giving the actor input that helps her get oriented towards a scene, such as important aspects of the circumstances, or significant objectives that they might pursue as the character in the scene. The idea is that the actor will take this input and then explore it in rehearsing the scene, without any fine-grained, moment-to-moment, line-by-line input from the director. As the director, you’re directing the actor’s attention to certain key elements, and then letting her run with those. Ideally, much of the rehearsal process would get accomplished in this way, with the director providing input about creative priorities, and the actor exploring and discovering through the process of rehearsing.

Working tight means rolling up your sleeves, as a director, and giving actors that fine-grained direction that you avoid providing when you are working loose. “The important word in that line is xxx.” “Don’t turn back until you have finished saying xxx.” “Let him have it with that line!” “You don’t need a pause there.” While it might sound intrusive, Jory points out that when it is done well, most actors actually appreciate this kind of input. It’s almost a type of grooming, and most actors know that a director with a good eye and a way with words can help them in ways that they can’t do themselves.

Directing is different from teaching, but there is an analogous distinction in the acting classroom. In my Essentials class, I don’t actually “work tight” with students at all until the second time they put a scene up. The first time they put their scene up, I grill them (yes, grill them) on the given circumstances of the scene, and on what they have found to pursue as the character, based on those circumstances. Usually, this amounts to exposing (kindly and respectfully) holes in the student’s preparation (hey, if there were no holes, they likely wouldn’t need the class). The hope is that once the student fills in those holes, through a closer look at the text and the application of imagination in the appropriate ways, the next time they bring in the scene, the closing of said holes will have made a significant difference in their work.

Sadly, this is rare. The first time through the class, students don’t really know, yet, what it means to have something to pursue, what it means to actually pursue that something, what “throwing the ball” or playing an action means, how to sustain the playing of an action rather than simply following the vicissitudes of the dialogue, the difference between responding and reacting, the importance of eye contact, etc. Without all of that information, it’s very difficult (though not impossible, with heart and effort), to begin to know how to apply the insights gained when getting up the first time, the insights about the circumstances and what the actor needs to pursue in the scene, the “working loose” insights.

Even students who are not taking the class for the first time, or students in my advanced class, often have a hard time taking the “working loose”-type insights and translating them into choices about the scene, and then fulfilling those choices. The ability to move from understanding to action involves quite a few different skills, and if one of those skills is still undeveloped, then this will likely be a barrier to translating that understanding into implementation, into choices and fulfillment of choices. So why bother with working loose, in classroom setting? Because to do otherwise would be an injustice to the actor. It’s important that they begin to build some skill in understanding where strong choices come from, and how a text can be successfully mined for these choices, even if they still have lots of practice (and failure, what Wittgenstein called “bumping one’s head”) ahead of them before they can do that mining successfully and translate it into strong choices that they can actually execute and fulfill. Working tight with them without first teaching them at least the basics of where to find the insights that are foundational for their work amounts to spoon-feeding, and while it may lead to results more quickly, it leaves the actor with little or no understanding of how those results came about. The experience of doing good work, of fulfilling a scene, is powerful, and not to be dismissed. But in the best of circumstances, the student has that experience AND gains some understanding of where the thinking that underlies that good work comes from, so that they begin to be able to do some of that thinking themselves, and can start to see how that thinking (the framing of the scene based on circumstances) enables them to do the good work they are doing.

Call it playing both ends against the middle. With time and practice, those ends get less and less far apart, and the student actor, nourished by both approaches, can perhaps find true freedom in the craft.

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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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