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simon says and more...

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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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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