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on into the woods from oregon shakespeare festival at the annenberg and more...

on into the woods from oregon shakespeare festival at the annenberg

My senior year in high school, the great Robin Bennett took me and a group of enthusiastic Thespians to the Big Apple to see some shows. The highlight of the trip turned out to be the original Broadway production of Into the Woods. I found most of the other stuff we saw, which included Phantom of the Opera, Burn This, and Fences, to be either tedious or incomprehensible, to be honest. But Into the Woods was every bit the enchanting and thought-provoking evening that the soundtrack had suggested it would be.

 

The show loomed large in my life for quite a while after seeing it. It looked at so many things that were so important to me at the time: sexuality, romance, ambition, social context, narrative: it seemed a virtually bottomless mine of insight. I found the songs supremely witty and sly, and I loved discovering the way they interlocked, through leitmotiv and allusion to each other. I listened to them endlessly, so that they truly emblazoned themselves on my soul.

However, time moved on, and I did as well, and neither Into the Woods nor Stephen Sondheim loomed as large in my personal mythology as they once did. But when a friend let me know that she had an extra ticket to a touring production of Into the Woods playing at the Annenberg in Beverly Hills, I leapt at the opportunity to revisit it.

The production was admirable on many scores. Its staging was inventive, eschewing any sort of pictorialism for basic ladders and platforms. The clothes were a thoughtfully-selected hodgepodge of contemporary and fairy-tale garb, and the vaudevillian “trunk-show” was the reigning conceit. It was briskly paced, and the performers did an admirable job of bringing the fun of the script, with all its winks at the audience and ribald jokes, to entertaining and theatrical life. On all of these scores, the production was far more successful than the revival staged on Broadway a decade ago.

All of the actors could sing beautifully, but what I noticed was noticeably lacking was an awareness on the actor’s part of the depth of the material. The whole idea of going into the woods has to do with facing the unknown and the frightening, particularly the fear of facing sexual maturity (Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, a kind of Freudian reading of Grimm’s fairy tales, had been an important inspiration for the show). The songs in the first act are recountings of that process, culminating in a lesson learned. The songs were sung admirably, but totally lacking in any of the angst or tremulousness that such spring awakenings inevitably involve. The songs are melodious and clever enough that, if they are well-sung, as they were in this case, the lack of dramatic interest may be overlooked by an audience that has been successfully seduced by the many ingenious gambits of a production, as was the case here. But knowing the music and the material as well as I do, I knew what was missing, and I had a feeling that this deficiency would become more glaring in the second act.

And my suspicions were borne out. In the second act of the script of Into the Woods, shit goes down. Really important people die. Not what most people expect from a musical. And I knew how impactful these deaths could be, and I sat and watched them NOT hit me, in one instance after another.

The production had simply not taken the characters seriously enough, in its rush to make sure that everyone was laughing enough and things kept moving at a good clip. These characters have real, human problems, real puzzles that have to be unraveled, internally. By neglecting these elements and treating the play as a romp and a spoof, the production fails to prepare us to accept the loss and grief of Act Two as real. I watched the audience in front of me grow progressively more fidgety as the second act wore on. Soon it was over, and many people leapt to their feet to give the production a standing ovation. In that moment, I felt myself very much to be living in the provinces. This is not how I usually feel in Los Angeles, and I didn’t like it.

It was a strange evening for me. On the one hand, hearing those songs that had once been emblazoned on my soul again was incredibly powerful, and I felt tears welling up in me more than once. But I knew this was a personal reaction to the songwriting, and could see at the some time how much was being left on the table by the performers onstage. I certainly fault the director, but I also fault the actors. Somehow they had failed to SEEK the drama and the reversals in their songs; they were like tourists in Rome who sought out Starbucks for coffee and The Gap to shop for clothes. They were missing the whole point of the place. The songs in that show are not charming little diversions that periodically interrupt the forward movement of the story, they are necessary tellings by people who have snatched victory from the jaws of real danger, and can barely believe they are still alive.

Here are some examples from the original Broadway production, for which Joanna Gleason won a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical.



I’ll always be grateful for that production. It taught me so much, both about the theater and about life. Whatever else I think about this new production, I can at least be grateful that it has brought all of this up for me again.

It will be interesting to see what the movie is like.

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on Foxcatcher

I was deeply impressed with Foxcatcher, which tells the story of eccentric money man John Du Pont, scion of one America’s most well-known wealthy families, and the Schultz brothers, Mark and Dave, Olympians of working-class origins. Much of the discussion of the film in reviews casts it as a parable about the sense of entitlement among American oligarchs, and while that is not an inaccurate gloss of the film, Foxcatcher struck me at a deeper level. I saw it as a myth of the devouring of innocence that looks back to The Great Gatsby, and even further back to the Greek tragedy of Hippolytus, the story of a noble youth destroyed by his step-mother’s lust.

 

The innocents in the tale, the Schultz brothers, are devotees of a craft: the ancient art of Greco-Roman wrestling. Mark (Channing Tatum), the younger, is the archetypal initiate: he is wholly devoted to the development of his skill. We see him in his cheerless apartment dining on Ramen noodles: he is a twenty-first century ascetic, dedicated to a practice that we come to understand is at the core of his being. In the moment when he tells his brother that he extracted “the largest number I could think of”, $20,000 a year, from his fabulously wealthy future patron, we learn that Mark is lost in the the world outside the gym, but Channing Tatum’s soulful silences, and the opening sequence in which we watch Mark wrestle with a dummy, make it clear that the world inside the gym is world enough for Mark.

Not so for Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who is a gifted wrestler but also a father and husband. More importantly for the story, he is a gifted mentor. He is a true master of the craft in which he instructs Dave and others, but also possesses the psychological insight needed to develop young male athletes. He is gentle and nurturing with his charges, a far cry from the “tough coach” cinematic stereotype. It’s clear that this light touch is exactly what the sensitive and troubled Mark requires to blossom.

The delicacy of the brothers’ loving relationship, devoted acolyte and wise adept of an ancient craft, is what makes the growing, insidious menace implicit in John DuPont’s patronage exquisitely discomforting. I won’t say more than this about the story to avoid significant spoilers, but I don’t need to say any more to get at what I want to say. What is important about this film is its understanding of the rarity and fragility of the deep bond of trust and love between dedicated students of a craft (such as acting!) and the mentors to whom such students decide to entrust themselves. The film further understands that such relationships usually require some kind of context in which they can exist: often an institution of some kind. But institutions sometimes attract those whose true priorities are power and self-aggrandizement, so serious students and teachers who seek refuge in such a context are often subject to the caprices and whims of administrators with no understanding of, or interest in, the priorities of the teacher and student. The desire to learn and the desire to share understanding through teaching have a purity to them. It is the film’s great achievement to render this purity in the brothers’ relationship on the one hand, and the besieged status of this purity in a world whose ultimate priority is the consolidation of power on the other.

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sending and receiving: a psychologist’s view

Interesting article in Business Insider on what a psychologist has learned about what makes the difference between enduring marriages and those that fail. John Gottman has been studying the subject for decades. What he found affirms the importance of what we, in the technique that I teach, call sending and receiving.

 

Gottman first invited newlywed couples to come to a lab, where he wired them up and recorded physiological indicators as he asked them to talk about issues central to their marriages. He found that the couples broke down into two groups, which he dubbed the masters, who turned out, when Gottman followed up six years later, to still be married, and the disasters, whose marriage had ended at the time of the follow-up. The masters and disasters exhibited contrasting physiological signals during the monitored discussion:

When the researchers analyzed the data they gathered on the couples, they saw clear differences between the masters and disasters. The disasters looked calm during the interviews, but their physiology, measured by the electrodes, told a different story. Their heart rates were quick, their sweat glands were active, and their blood flow was fast. Following thousands of couples longitudinally, Gottman found that the more physiologically active the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated over time.

The masters, by contrast, showed low physiological arousal. They felt calm and connected together, which translated into warm and affectionate behavior, even when they fought. It’s not that the masters had, by default, a better physiological make-up than the disasters; it’s that masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable.

Gottman believed that the contrast was due to a climate of trust and intimacy in their marriages, so that they could feel safe and calm around their partners. But he wanted to understand more about how this climate was created by the couples. So he invited the couples to stay at a lab disguised as a bed-and-breakfast, where, presumably, the couples were observed as they vacationed together. In observing the couples, Gottman observed something he found significant:

Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife — a sign of interest or support — hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.

What Gottman is recognizing is central to how we attempt to look at scenes in class. Everything a character does is a bid for the other character to give her a piece of her underlying objective, the single, visceral need the actor has found to pursue throughout the role. The bid can be “Look at that beautiful bird outside!”, as in the example above, or it could be “Do you know the way to San Jose?” or “Leave me alone!” or “This is important!” or even “You are dead to me.” Every utterance has to be understood as a bid for a piece of what the character needs. From our point of view, nothing is said just to describe how someone is feeling, or to express a feeling about what someone else has said. Nothing is mere banter or small talk. Even lines that appear to be intended to end a relationship are bids for the other character to give her a piece of what she needs.

This is what is meant by sending and receiving: while acting, the actor is constantly sending his partner signals about what he needs, feedback about what the partner is sending to him. He is also receiving, which means taking in what is being sent to him, verbally and non-verbally, in the manifest meaning of words as well as in intangibles like tone and intention, and measuring it against what he needs. This measuring is simultaneous with the hearing, they are not two separate processes, but it is important that the actor is both hearing what is said and viewing what is said in light of what he needs. This sending and receiving is what acting is, and it has to go on at all times during an actor’s performance.

I like Gottman’s bird example because this is the kind of innocuous utterance that actors are often tempted to to see as an occasion that calls for “emotion” to be shown. If you ask an actor what she is doing with this line, you will likely hear something like “I am really excited about the bird.” While that may or may not be true and appropriate for the character at that moment, what is important is that the actor comes to understand that in exclaiming about the bird, she is asking her partner to respond and affirm the beauty of the bird, and the partner’s willingness to respond in the desired way means something about the state of play in the relationship, specifically, about the partner’s measuring up to his end of the contract that defines the relationship.

Embracing this view about words, sentences, scenes and acting involves a “Gestalt switch” for most people: their whole way of looking at acting and thinking about it needs to be changed in a fundamental way, and this takes time. It’s one thing to explain all of this conceptually, and it’s quite another to develop a practice that makes this perception the governing principle. Doing that takes a sustained effort over time; it takes looking at a host of scenes both as an actor and as a classroom observer, and examining how the understanding and the execution of a scene is transformed by this view of it. In other words, it takes patience and an active commitment to learning. But the actor who troubles himself to assimilate this way of looking at things will have equipped himself well for the challenges of the work.

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fan mail

Andrew,

thank you so much, I sincerely appreciate this feedback, especially when it’s written out like this. Sorry for the slow reply; I actually saw this email the other day and worked on some of the notes last nite in rehearsal with Lauren.

I was also auditioning today and after a couple takes, the director asked if I could maintain eye contact with my scene partner during a certain portion, which wasn’t getting a laugh previously. Then when I did, it got a big laugh, and it made me think of the scene and the notes you’d given me in class last week about committing to receiving off my partner. In general, I feel like I can decipher director’s notes much more quickly after having studied with you now, and it’s absolutely paid off. It felt great, it’s just very satisfying to see so many things you teach pop up in those moments, and how they help facilitate both the understanding of what’s being asked, and then how to execute it. Anyhow, I just wanted to say thank you again, I really feel like you’ve helped me so much in the short time I’ve been with you!

Steve

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gut churn

I recently came across a piece by Thomas Frank, a regular contributor on Salon.com, which skewered the general triteness of so much of the contemporary writing on creativity. 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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