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love regained and more...

love regained

I just finished the first novel I’ve read in years. What a tonic, what a thrill, what a lark! The joys of total immersion. I had forgotten.

 

I wrote a dissertation on novels, which I finished in 2010. That left me sated with literary fiction for quite a while, and that’s really the only kind of fiction I am interested in. I keep myself pretty busy with teaching, running a business, writing a blog, keeping an eye on the spectacle that is American politics (somebody’s got to!), directing plays, raising a puppy, cleaning the house, and reading books. Not novels, not short stories, not fictions of any kind. Non-fiction about brain science or empathy or mastering a craft, things that might help me become a better acting teacher or at least a more knowledgeable one, and also give me grist for the relentless blogging mill. In short, I had let fiction come to feel like a luxury I just didn’t have time for.

However, after a while, my conscience woke up, for deep inside, I knew that not reading fiction was a form of self-neglect. Fiction had been a mainstay of my younger self, and had gotten me through some rough patches in life, in a surprising variety of ways. It was perhaps the supreme form of mental and spiritual self-nourishment, I had found. Whenever I moved to a new place, I immediately unpacked my books. They were a constellation of old friends who helped to remind me that although I was in a new place with new surroundings, with new pursuits and new priorities, some element of who I had previously been persisted.

2666 by Roberto BolanoA few years ago, a friend with a taste in books that I found congenial recommended Roberto Bolano’s 5-part epic 2666. What he told me about it made it sound unlikely that I would like it, but I liked its numerical title, its five volumes, and, I suppose, its German connection, which my friend had mentioned. I could also tell that my friend’s passion had been aroused by it: he felt the need to talk about it, and although he was thoughtful enough to restrain himself from asking me to listen to too much about it, his need to talk about it made an impression on me, and I filed the title away somewhere.

A couple of years later, I was heading on a holiday road trip, and someone (my mother?) suggested I get an audiobook. So I got 2666 and listened to the first 10 hours of narration on the road. Then the road trip was over, and I had no further context in which to listen to audiobooks, so I set it aside. I had enjoyed what I had heard, but not so much that I found that I could not put it down.

But I like to finish what I start, where I can, and the book had planted some seeds that had aroused my curiousity. So I resumed my listening, after a break of six months. This time, I found my way into the dark, pulsing core of the novel, and joyfully rediscovered the thrill of total immersion. I came to know why this book had been so acclaimed, and found myself wanting to write a novel, even though I have always found making up stories to be extremely difficult. Still, the complexity and mystery that inhered in this book had hit me like a thunderbolt, and I knew it had changed me. I had become a lover of Roberto BolaƱo.

But what I wanted to say here, on this blog, is that with this experience I had recalled what a valuable thing for actors reading fiction is. With every novel that we read, we deepen our sense of what people and characters are, but also what words and sentences are. More precisely, we sharpen our sense of what is possible with people and with characters, how they (and we) might answer what confronts them (and us), and what is possible with words and sentences, how words and sentences can help us to answer what confronts us. Such possibilities are the medium in which actors swim when they work on scenes, so greater intimacy with such possibilities is pure win for actors.

No more self-neglect. I will be making time for the reading of novels from now on.

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on looking at text

My sense is that much of what goes by the name of “script analysis” today is actually not very helpful. Actors often sense that “not-helpfulness” and end up ignoring their analysis of the text, or skipping over it altogether. This has some dangers, most notably, what my teacher at Yale, Earle Gister, called “playing the language”, which seems to me to be what Howard Fine is talking about in The Common Mistakes section of Fine on Acting when he talks about “acting on the lines”. The actor believes she can just look at a line of text and know what to do with it, how to deliver it. So a line like “How dare you!” should be said indignantly, and “You’re so sweet!” should be said affectionately, and so on. This leads to banal delivery and ignores everything else that might be going on, apart from what is being said.

 

Then actors will notice that often, the most interesting deliveries are those that cut against the explicit meaning of the line. So they will conclude that they should always speak the lines in a way that cuts against the explicit meaning of the line. But in the end this amounts to the same thing. The actor is being responsive to the line and only to the line, and not to relationship, circumstance, need, or anything else. The difference between this and the first approach is only superficial, at best.

So what’s an actor to do? Knowing what to do with text emerges from examining that text, those lines, in the context of circumstances and need. I have discussed this at length in other posts, but I want to say a bit more about the text itself right now. What the character says is not unimportant, it just has to be viewed in relation to those other elements. But if it is important, how is it important? If the explicit meaning itself does not determine what to do with a line of text, but is nevertheless somehow important, in what way is it important? How does it matter?

One thing that is useful to do is to look at a line in relationship to the other lines the character says before and after it. A line like “That’s interesting.” can be delivered in a million different ways, but once you see the other lines that come before it and after it, that may narrow the field a bit. That’s because when looking at a scene from the point of view of action, that is, the basic feedback message an actor is offering someone else about how the other person is engaging in their relationship, things don’t usually change all that often. We, that is to say, people, tend to hold on to our view of others rather tenaciously, and change our view of them and what they are doing, and therefore, the feedback we are offering them, only infrequently. So the points in the scene where the actions changes, where we truly start to give a different kind of feedback to the other person, usually come pretty infrequently. Keep in mind, there are exceptions to this, but I am talking by and large now. These points where the actions changes are milestones of a kind. So that means that generally, when we look at a section of text, the odds are that the action, and therefore the basic message we are sending to another person about what they are giving us, will be the same across the adjacent section of text. Of course, we could happen to be looking at one of those milestones, where the message/action changes substantially, and in that case what I am saying does not apply. But in many cases, the line in question will be a part of a longer section in which we keep offering the same basic message, tweaked from moment to moment based on what the partner is sending back to us.

Once we see a line as a rephrasing of things said before and after the line in question, we can begin to recognize what, in fact, we should do with the line, how we should attempt to use it in the pursuit of what we need. Now, even this narrowing of the options is not going to be decisive, as things always have to be considered in light of need and circumstances, and properly considered, need and circumstances can often change our view of whole sections of lines in significant ways. But at least having some awareness that lines are often reiterations or tweaks of things we have said previously or will say subsequently will give us some sense of what the force of the line is, what is meant by it.

The point I am making about looking at lines in relationship to the lines around it basically corresponds to the “script analysis” recommendation that actors draw lines in the script at the point where the “intention” or “tactic” changes (the scare quotes are there because I think most of the time these things are not well-defined, so an intention could be anything from “to tell someone how I feel” to “to seduce someone” “to get someone to join my side”, three very different kinds of statements of motivation.) However, in my experience, the issue comes up practically when actors are up on their feet, the script analysis has been discarded, and the actors are trying to hammer out the scene. They come to a line and simply don’t know what to do with it. It’s at that point that it’s useful to remember that typically, the lines before and after will be illuminating.

Also: actors are sometimes told that they need to change what they are doing constantly in order to be interesting. This is WRONG, since if there is constant change, none of that change is meaningful. It’s only when there is change in the context of no-change that the change can be seen to be important or significant. Now, that said, that an actor plays the same action across significant swaths of a scene, that doesn’t mean that there is no development from moment to moment, only that the changes are relatively small, incremental responses to what the partner is providing, not major changes of approach. We may play a single action across a long stretch of a scene, but the playing of that action is specified moment-to-moment by the receiving and measuring of the partner’s responses during that section of the scene.

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Andrew Wood Acting Studio featured on Backstage

acting studio los angeles  -Andrew Wood Acting Studio profiled on Backstage.comRight here.

 

Great to receive some attention from such a high-profile website! Thanks to all of my students over the last ten years who have enabled to me to share the insights that I love so much!

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the vulnerability confusion

I was a on website for actors that publishes advice columns from various eminences in the industry: acting teachers, agents, casting directors, and others. I saw one such column from a prominent acting teacher in town who was recommending to actors that they try to be more vulnerable in their lives. This teacher was telling actors that during their day, when something embarrassing happened, an episode of clumsiness or cluelessness or whatever, the actor should make a conscious effort to be vulnerable in such situations: to face the witnesses to the moment of awkwardness, and in the process, maybe form a connection or at least have a moment with someone that would not otherwise have happened. The suggestion seems to be that in this way, the actor practices exercising her vulnerability muscles, and if those muscles get strong enough, she will be able to leverage them when an audition calls for true vulnerability.

But not so fast. Vulnerability is not, at bottom, an attitude we adopt towards a situation. In one sense, yes, we can choose to stay open or close down to someone. So there is something to this. But this is the tip of the iceberg. And we are interested, as actors, when it comes to vulnerability, in more than just the tip.

For an iceberg is an underwater mountain. It weighs tons, literally, and extends downwards into the depths. As human beings, we come into every moment, in which we might decide to throw that switch and make ourselves vulnerable, from somewhere. This is true in a literal sense: we come from Zimbabwe, or from Soviet Georgia, East St. Louis, or from Paris, or we lived across the street, to paraphrase a band I like. But we also enter into present moments from already-existing situations and contexts: our family, our education, our ongoing and discontinued relationships. Because of these contexts that already exist, we have a whole set of commitments or investments: people we care about, political convictions, passions, fetishes, even phobias and prejudices. If this moment when we might choose to throw the vulnerability switch is one in which we are interacting with someone previously known to us, then we are likely invested in that person in a particular way: we look for certain kinds of treatment from them, certain kinds of recognition of who and what we are. We may also have expectations about what various kinds of strangers, of various races, genders and occupations, may offer us. In either case, our vulnerability to the other person is baked into the cake: we are vulnerable to these people, whether we like it or not.

Vulnerability is about both our basic need for connection and relationship, which I have written about frequently here, and about the way in which we have become accustomed to (not to say addicted to) engaging in these relationships with others. I was reading about empathy the other day, its history as a concept in our language, and apparently it was derived from the German word “Einfuehlung”, which, translated literally, means something like “feeling into”. We have “felt into” the people we are vulnerable to, and they have “felt into” us. They have, to take a metaphor somewhat more literally than it is usually taken, gotten under our skin. They have become a part of us. They have tamed us, to use the language of the Fox in The Little Prince. “I’ve grown accustomed to her face”, croons a heartbroken Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Vulnerability is something that grows in us, as Higgins grew accustomed to Eliza fetching his slippers. So you can see how actors need another way to think about vulnerability than practicing not turning away from people in front of whom we have managed to look less than cool. If vulnerability is something that grows in us, there is something misleading about modeling it as something that we can bring to bear in any moment through an act of will. There is some truth in this picture, but it’s the easy kind.

I suppose you could say that the teacher on the website I alluded to earlier was talking about vulnerability as something that we do, whereas I am saying we need to concern ourselves with vulnerability as something that exists in us, that is in fact fundamental to what we are. This is what truly makes the difference in our work as actors. In our own lives, we all possess an array of people to whom we are vulnerable. The rub is: how do we become vulnerable, in this second sense, to those with whom we interact in a script in a series of pretend situations? How do we pretend to be someone who has “felt into” the other (fictional) characters in his life? How do we find this inherent vulnerability in ourselves and leverage it, rather than attempting to throw the vulnerability switch that we’ve been practicing throwing with people we happen upon in the course of our day?

Come to class at Andrew Wood Acting Studio and find out!

actbetter@andrewwoodla.com

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Does it run in the family? Sadly, no.

From a review of Amy Poehler and her brother Greg’s new show, Welcome to Sweden:

“Welcome to Sweden,” about a man who leaves his high paying job as a celebrity accountant to move to Sweden for the love of his life, was created by Greg Poehler, brother of “Parks and Recreation” star and comedy veteran Amy Poehler. The elder Poehler cashes in a few favors from the likes of “SNL” veteran Will Ferrell and “Parks and Rec” co-star Aubrey Plaza to bring some much needed talent to the show, as well as appearing as an evil version of herself on more than one occasion. She, as always, is a delight — as are most of the celebrity guests, who occasionally save some subpar writing — but a much harsher “d” word comes to mind when watching the character her brother portrays on the show.

Unlike his sister, Greg has no formal training as an actor, writer, or producer (he and Amy serve as executive producers). Sadly, it shows. While plenty of family members are funny in their own right, it appears Amy’s wealth of experience in the UCB improv theatre, years writing and acting on “Saturday Night Live” and many diverse roles in television and film have actually helped her hone her craft and become one of the funniest people on the planet. Her brother, however, did none of these things, instead relying on whatever inherit[sic] charm and perseverance was within him to churn out a comedy series based on his own personal experiences moving to Sweden.

Big surprise: it doesn’t work… “

Hard work. Dedication. Stamina. There are no short cuts.

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