Mea Culpa

(Originally posted on HOWLROUND.COMMay 25th, 2015)

Seth Lepore, you’re right—I am culpable. We in higher education theatre programs are academically narcissistic. We are complacent behind the walls of our institutions. Our curricula are woefully irrelevant, our rubrics for student achievement are mal-calibrated and worst of all, we have spent the last decade of rapid economic change trying to argue for the protection of our state of affairs.

But the situation isn’t hopeless.

Ten years ago when I was approached by an American university to interview for a tenure track position in a BFA program (in fact, they declared it to be a “conservatory program”), I thought I was prepared. I had come from the UK where I was freelancing in conservatory-style “Drama Schools” (think The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), Bristol Old Vic, Guildhall, London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), etc.). I was already working in literal conservatories in the UK, so an American BFA program was similar, right? Five years into my first run on a tenure line completely reversed that confidence in myself. Largely due to a frightening disconnect between the curriculum and the industry demands.

I’m aware Seth’s article was targeted mainly at masters programs. Although I may be speaking to BFA programs, make no mistake—the faculty teaching in BFA programs (and the marketing teams promoting them to parents and students) firmly believe that a BFA is a terminal degree for a performer. The implication being, if a student graduates from a BFA program then pursues an MA or MFA, it was for one of only two reasons: 1) The student wants to teach, 2) the student can’t “hack it” as an actor.

Our Business is Not a Meritocracy
University curricula for performance majors rely heavily on one way to prepare students for the industry: have them act in great plays. The assumption is, by “wrestling” with great works of dramatic art, a student develops the requisite skills to build a career within the industry.

By this reasoning, the actor who best wrestles with this material (and/or most wrestles with it) is best prepared for the industry. But that only works if the business is a) a meritocracy, and b) has objectivity enough to notice and reward meritorious performance ability. What constitutes the “best” acting in an industry as diverse as ours? We can’t ignore that in theatre, television, and film, “most marketable to a target audience demographic” is often the decider. Which is filthy for university professors to entertain, as our entire curriculum is built on the promise that great acting a) can be taught, and b) more acting classes will prepare you to be a “leader” in the industry.

Students about to graduate have asked me how to use digital audio software to make voice-over samples. And they had taken a class in voice-overs. But the emphasis of that course was on “acting,” so the students weren’t taught how to record themselves, edit, duplicate their work, package it, distribute it, or post it on their website…They were taught how to make funny voices.  

We Don’t Teach “How,” We Only Teach “What”
Now I want to start using the word “entrepreneurial.” I realize it has been overused. When the new economy’s tech billionaires began to offer their working methodology to universities, the expression “entrepreneurial” was whispered around every campus in the country. As universities looked to raise their rankings, their board of trustees became populated with these high-achieving, new economy CEOs. They spent many expensive dinners telling the president and provost how millennials need to be taught how to be entrepreneurs (and—spoiler alert—they’re right). Within a semester, colleges were overhauling their curricula and websites to reflect this new focus on “entrepreneurial” skills. But there were no metrics in place to assess that entrepreneurialism, or identify what that meant for each discipline within a college. So the word has been left overused and under-identified, particularly in arts’ colleges.

Despite this vagueness, however, in order to successfully enter an oversaturated industry like ours, performers need more diverse “tools” than an acting process. I have had students, about to graduate, ask for meetings with me to teach them how to use digital audio software to make voice-over samples. And they had actually taken a class in voice-overs. But, because the emphasis of that course was on the “acting,” the students weren’t taught “tech stuff,” like how to record themselves, edit themselves, duplicate their work, package it, distribute it, or post it on their website—basically any of the core skill sets needed to actually gain value from a voice-over. They were taught how to make funny voices. And that class was held up as an example of entrepreneurialism because it taught “diverse approaches to the industry.”

Similarly, I am inundated with former students already working in the business asking me how to make websites, how to break into motion capture work for video games, what grants and/or internships are offered, reputable theatre companies that are not in New York City, Chicago, or Boston, how to make apps because they’ve got an idea, what they should pay for a headshot, how to edit a video for a Kickstarter. One person called me to ask what Kickstarter was. I get these calls because I have a reputation and interest in “technology.” The truth is, I’m not really interested in technology, but in how you use your training to get work. Theatre departments seem only to embrace technology if it is onstage, or in the booth. It certainly gets mention on departmental websites. But not the kind of technology that involves funding, marketing, developing, or sharing your work. Let alone diversifying your education into other disciplines.

This returns to Seth’s point of “academic narcissism.” We in higher education promise students in our syllabi and curricula that we give them a “tool kit,” (oh, how overused that phrase is—and I’m as guilty as anyone else). Truthfully, the only “tools” we give students cannot be used until after they’ve landed a job. Audition workshops are not enough, because they assume we all can get auditions, or that auditions are the principal way actors today land jobs. Assumptions like this push us behind the eight ball.

We Wait Until It’s Too Late
The response from my colleagues to these claims is predictable: “We offer arts administration classes!” “We require that students take a business of the business class!” “We have a showcase performance for industry leaders!” “We have casting directors come and talk to our students!” Helpful, without a doubt. But they are too little, too late. Because these “industry interventions” are not placed at the center of the curriculum. Which means, the skills taught in these classes aren’t considered core skills for a performer. What university program offers a business of the business class in the first year? Who offers audition classes to freshmen? Which university requires all performance students take a grant writing class?

The current curricula share another problem: they are all focused towards a narrow element of the business, namely the part that involves agents, managers, and casting directors. How about crowdfunding? What about career development grants? Or starting your own company? Or building your own website? Or marketing yourself? Or brand recognition and development? Or accounting as a self-employed artist? Or how about simply how to professionally put yourself on film, edit it, and post it online?

The first semester of a freshman’s training should be the start of the entrepreneurial tool kit. While priority can be placed on acting technique, a young actor needs to be taught the complex requirements demanded of them by the industry. The earlier we alert an acting student to entrepreneurial demands, the sooner they can plan their class schedules to cover the areas they need, rather than waiting until two weeks before graduation to ask “what cities have fringe festivals in the summer?”

Program or Be Programmed
Doug Rushkoff’s book Program or Be Programmed has a surprising and yet immediate resonance for acting students today. Rushkoff rightly points out that as digital tools become more and more the means of our economy’s production, failure to be fluent with them means we will find ourselves at the mercy of the technology designed to serve us. Rushkoff is also quick to point out that we are being forced into the image of our technological tools and not the other way round. Like Rushkoff, I think we must engage with these new tools if we are to subvert or personalize them. As I associate technological tools with entrepreneurial tools, this means requiring our performance students to engage with technology as part of their training.

Rushkoff’s argument is actually like a classical conservatory’s mantra of education— learn the tool, become fluent with the tool, reinvent the tool. The overworn comparison to a jazz musician holds: learn your musical scales, become fluent in them, and then break their structure to more fully express yourself. We in the university system have so fully discounted the entrepreneurial demands on our students that we have failed to include teaching those “scales” to them. What hope do they have of becoming fluent in them, let alone molding them to fit their needs?

Walk Your Talk
Some responses to Seth’s article included comments from current university professors who explain that an ongoing contribution to the industry is a necessary part of their being a professor. While this is true in theory, the reality works out very differently. Tenured professors in theatre programs are required to offer extensive administrative service to their institutions, and their teaching load is frequently heavy (especially in BFA programs). Not to mention that the university’s upper administration frequently struggles to notice any faculty activity as “contribution to the field” unless it is funded research or a peer-reviewed book. In theatre’s case, that means review by other research-heavy tenured professors speculating over micro-topics within our business as a whole. Where are the tenured professor books on industry demands, networking within the industry, effective self-marketing, running a small company, or developing original work?

It would seem, then, that within theatre departments, the faculty who are most engaged in the industry are either nontenure track or untenured. As tenure is the decision-making engine within higher education, that means those who work most within the industry seem to be making the fewest decisions about the structure of the curriculum. Therefore, industry contribution is the leastvalued quality when constructing a theatre department’s curriculum. That is not to say it is not valued at all. Guest speakers/lecturers are usually left to be responsible for “industry relevance.” Because guests are the only one with the necessity to engage with the industry on a regular basis, and can offer more insight than the faculty.

Brief coda: What I write holds true more for performance faculty. Design faculty tend to be extremely involved in the industry. Their timelines of production are very different than a performer’s. A designer can hire assistants and drop in and out of the production process until tech week, whereas a performer cannot. Unless a university is located within a bustling theatrical community, or active filming community, consistent engagement with the industry while maintaining a teaching and research load proves almost impossible for performance faculty.

Change the Curriculum
Where are the guest artists who have started their own theatre companies? Where are the alumni who built a personal training company when the acting work dried up? Where are actors who work exclusively in motion capture and/or voice-over? Where are the working actors from regional communities?

Our metrics for assessing student success in our industry are ill-informed, because we are not involved thoroughly enough. When is the last time we wrestled with choosing a play for a season that would ensure a minimum of 60 percent audience capacity? When was the last time we had to structure an audience development strategy? When was the last time we made a video to fund a personal project we wanted to do? When did we last update our own website? When did we last check web traffic analytics on our site to chart viewership or subscription levels? Can any of us name the projects slated to be filmed in our area over the next year?

The more we avoid these very real entrepreneurial demands of our industry and outsource them to the business school or worse, relegate them to just being “life skills,” the more irrelevant our experience becomes. And, to return to an idea posited earlier, our industry is not an objective meritocracy. It is built on experience and opinion. So let’s make sure we’re responsible with those experiences and building our opinions on evolving data from the industry around us. Let’s put entrepreneurship at the center of the curriculum, and not an addendum before graduation.

 

Building a Better Response: On the Tenuous Relationship Between Theater and Technology

(Originally posted at THE LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS, April 14th, 2014)

"The development of cinematic staging and editing in the 1910s were not attempts to lay the basis for a specifically cinematic approach to narration, but the pursuit of goals well-established in the nineteenth-century theatre with new means."

— Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs

¤

TECHNOLOGY AND THEATER are currently negotiating an ideologically uncomfortable relationship with one another. To begin with, they can’t even find a comfortable expression for describing their relationship. Theater is quite sure about what it is and what it means, but technology struggles a little. And by “technology,” I do not mean simply projectors and cameras. There is plenty of that in the relationship.

“New media” is the first problematic phrase, because there is very little about “media” (i.e. technology) that is actually “new.” As R. Luke Dubois recently pointed out:

We’re pretty sure people starting building interfaces for musical expression (i.e. instruments) around 40,000 years ago; we started notating music around 3,500 years ago, if not earlier; the acoustic properties of performing arts spaces were on the mind of literate individuals at least 2,000 years ago; recording and amplification are 19th century technologies that were perfected in the past 100 years. Every civilization uses the maximum level of technology available to it to make art, so please don’t tell me “technology” in the arts is a recent phenomenon.

“Multimedia” is an equally unhelpful term, because, semantically speaking, ifany performance has electric illumination and audio in addition to the performance itself, it constitutes a multimedia production. “Interactive” is suffering a similar indignity in the computational and digital art realm, so I want to stick with “technology.” Used like this, I’m not limiting technology to what Dubois describes as “electricity and computation.” Technology has always been used in the theater in some form or another. The expression “deus ex machina” comes from the classical Greek theater’s penchant for hoisting their gods onstage near the end of a play (Ex Machina also aptly titles theater visionary Robert Lepage’s company, which has never shied away from using technology in performance).

When I use the word technology, I’m really trying to encompass the two systems within the phrase. The first system is a “prescribed system.” This is a simple master/servant relationship between the operator and the technology. An example would be a crew member pushing a button on a lighting board. This system of technology makes lights turn on whenever the operator commands it to. The prescribed system is particularly well-suited to theater, as most theater performances rely on a prescribed script and prescribed staging, both of which require the same technological support each time the performance is enacted. This system is what the overwhelming majority of theater practitioners will describe as “interactive.” However, the only real interaction is between an operator and a button. There is a sociological and political tinge to this model, as well. It casts technology’s role as that of a servant to its operator, and not a collaborator.

The second system within technology, known as a “responsive system” actually fulfills the linguistic promise of “interaction.” Responsive systems may monitor human biology, speech, and behavior, then react in response.  Responsive systems better balance the authorship of a performance betweenhuman and technology, enabling a partnership (albeit an uneasy one) rather than the master/servant relationship of a prescribed system. A responsive system might monitor a performer’s heart rate and, when it lowers to a certain point, respond by shifting the level of the lights. A responsive system removes the human button-pusher, who, realistically speaking, had as much agency in the piece of theater as the inert lighting board with the button did.

Over the past 40 years, the rapid development of digital technologies (which, when coupled with computation, are predominantly responsive systems) has outpaced much of the training available for young artists interested in becoming professionals in theater. I have spent the last 15 years working in and around post-secondary educational iterations of “drama training,” both conservatory models and liberal arts models in the US, UK, and Canada. These programs are more similar than their exclusive reputations might suggest, as they all are built on the same fundamental value: live performance (and all that surrounds it — design, writing, management, funding) hasgreater intrinsic artistic and social worth than any project that involves a camera, or to reuse my earlier term, technology.

Chris Salter articulated this suspicion of technology being coupled with theater in his excellent book Entangled: “Are we holding the mirror up to nature, as requested, or up to culture?” The “as requested” qualifier refers to Hamlet’s advice to the players. Salter’s question distills the challenge a theater artist waves before technology, which is perceived to have a far shorter history than theater does, hence making theater the more “natural.” What is interesting about invoking that particular passage is that in it, Hamlet is imploring a company of stage actors not to over-act, something which the vast contemporary public at large will cite as a reason why they no longer go to the theater today. “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature.” As technology-based performances frequently require a far greater attention to “the modesty of nature” due to the involvement of lenses and High Definition camera formats, the argument theater makes against technology weakens. Traditional theater apologists label the theatrical “nature,” and yet the technical demands of technology-based pieces actually deliver more “natural” performances.

And yet, in higher and further education theater programs, theater will stick its head in the sand and dogmatically insist that it is the more natural and essential. In fact, technology is cited by most within the theatrical establishment as the antithesis of “art” both on and off the stage. Students and audiences are reminded frequently by the theatrical establishment that technology is:

a) vacuous
b) commercial
c) seeking to pacify their humanity

This last point is worth lingering on a little. “De-humanization” is a common refrain used to critique technology’s role in the theater, and it lingers from an explosion of interest in mechanization and rudimentary computation that began in the early 20th century. The theater was simply responding to a social and scientific movement and responded accordingly. This culminated in the 1960s when there was a wide-scale rejection of technology in live environments, as it made for “dead theater,” a term coined by theater director Peter Brook (a director who wanted desperately to be a director of films) in his seminal theatrical manifesto The Empty Space. His argument is basically that theater’s essence is the live interaction of ideas and passions, which binds humans together more richly. Hence words like “communal,” “authentic,” and “arresting” were, and continue to be, used to describe the theatrical experience. Expressions like “cold,” “technical,” and “slick,” however, are used to describe a piece of theater that has the audacity to utilize a projector or camera onstage.

Despite Brook’s mammoth impact on the trajectory of live performance since The Empty Space, there have been notable exceptions to his vision of the live theatrical landscape. Two particular examples spring to mind: large scale commercial theater (Broadway musicals, touring franchises, etc.) and the theatrical work being created specifically with technology in mind. This second example encompasses the work of individuals and companies such as The Wooster Group, Richard Foreman, Reid Farrington, Jay Scheib, and The Builders Association, among others. While intellectually invigorating, and a much needed counterpoint to commercial theater (semantically ironic that “commercial” theater rarely utilizes the supposedly culturally commercial influence of technology), the aforementioned theater artists are relegated to an intellectual ghetto within the theater world called something like “devised work,” “downtown theater” (alluding to the Manhattan postcode of many of these groups), or even the now-tired “avant-garde.” To work with these groups is to all but divorce oneself from the rest of the theatrical world, let alone the world of commercial digital media. There are exceptions – notably Frances McDormand and Willem Defoe (The Wooster Group), and recently Sarita Choudhury (Jay Scheib). But this branch of the theater is often (negatively) associated with the art world, and therefore becomes lost in the rhetoric of “performance art” (also sadly ironic, as performance artists roundly reject “theater” as what they do).

The final level of estrangement between technology and theater occurs at the commercial level of contemporary digital media. Television (either network or cable), movies (either independent or studio), internet series, and even commercials are all estranged from the theater. Forty years ago, very few in the television and film world would have ended up where they were without some kind of training, frequently from a theater program. Today, however, there is no inherent correlation between attending a theater training program and working in the digital media industry. Writers, designers, directors, and actors can come from all sorts of different backgrounds. Some come from training that directly addresses the form of commercial digital media, like communication studies, cinema studies, and film school, while others enter via seemingly disassociated disciplines. And yet, despite this, theater programs are still producing many industry leaders across the digital media field. But what is all too apparent is the absence of a definite link between theater training and practice in digital media. Architects, for example, are accredited by their training programs, which grants them the ability to practice.  But a degree from a theater program doesn’t mean a graduate is qualified to assume a working role in the digital media industry.

This sets a hopeful young professional on edge ethically, as the instructors in their training programs will usually emphasize the greater value of liveperformance, though the students are most likely consuming far greater quantities of digital media. At the very least, the instructors assert that theater training is the “foundation” of an industry like television and film. If we take Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours model of mastery as legitimate, young students of the theater (or in similar departments that use the more awkward title “drama”) will achieve 10,000 hours of exposure to digital media far faster than they will to live media. This, of course, is not 10,000 hours of making digital media. But it is exposure to the tools and craft of digital media, and particularly visual storytelling that exists well outside the Western theatrical canon. Couple this last detail with the additional fact that by the time a student is a freshman in college, they are well on their way to clocking many more hours engaging with technology around their daily lives than with live performance.

Having sat in over 400 hours of faculty meetings, the source of this shame becomes quite evident to me. Faculty who teach in theater departments across the Western world seem convinced students:

a) are too connected to their phones and computers
b) are ‘ignorant’ of the rich history of live performance
c) value “fame” far too much  (and by fame they mean jobs in the digital media industry)

…and therefore

d) are entitled

The last one is particularly baffling to me. Whom do we (the faculty) think the students learn their entitlement from? Surely it is we who are entitled — we who carved out departments that promised a career in the performing arts through rigorous attention to the art of theater, only to ignore the industry developing around us as we sat in our black boxes. How could a generation be capable of suddenly developing a problem with entitlement, unless it was passed onto them by the culturally entitled generation before them? We who made the syllabus that probably looks like our syllabus looked when we were students. We who attempted to assume the form left by those who trained us. We who watched theater lose its voice and influence over 40 years, yet kept insisting we were a primary cultural institution.

We have far more agency in this state of affairs than we care to permit ourselves. Can we really argue that early filmmakers were plotting the downfall of theater with their cameras? For the pioneers of film, Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs write, “[T]he cinema strove to be theatrical.” The same was true for television. Early television was live, in an attempt to recreate the live theater inside the living room of viewers at home. Lynn Spigel writes that: “Whereas film allowed spectators imaginatively to project themselves into a scene, television would give people the sense of being on the scene of presentation — it would simulate the entire experience of being at the theatre.”

As film and television both developed, however, they found the constraints of the Western theatrical canon inadequate for the unique opportunities of emerging media. Three hours broken up with a 15-minute intermission (The Theater Model) wasn’t optimal for a movie, let alone television. Both artistic and commercial demands altered the direction of film and television, allowing each to explore programming structures that better fit the medium. What is interesting is how resistant theater has been to alter its own structures in the face of its audience’s changing viewing habits. In film and television, when the viewer/audience began to change, so too did the medium. Not so much in the theater. New plays are written every year that are the same 3-hour-with-one-15-minute-intermission structure of the 19th century. Plays written by Aeschylus are shorter than most plays written in the 20th century. Theater is content to un-alter its structure and effectively transform into a wax museum instead of a vital, engaging, contemporary live event.

It is sadly little surprise that I’ve had many former colleagues and collaborators wistfully mourn the “lost days” of having a play on television, yet angrily decry the use of any kind of technology onstage. This argument seems contradictory — surely a televised play is decidedly not live performance and is instead “media-ted” (sic) by technology, namely the microphones and cameras? Placing those same microphones and cameras onstage, though, crosses an ethical line for many and therefore mutates a live performance into something inhuman. Recently I’ve watched the chatter on my twitter feed from theater professionals loudly praising the “return of live theater” to television with NBC’s recent Sound of Music broadcast. These same professionals dismiss recent productions both on and off-Broadway that used cameras and projectors onstage. The supposed “industry leader” in this dichotomy is the televised Sound of Music — certainly not “inhuman and intellectual” like a live show that used technology onstage.

If an aspiring designer, writer, director, manager or actor wants training to become an “industry leader” themselves, they likely will need to attend a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program. These programs exhaustively weed and cull their students from thousands of hopeful applicants. The selected students then spend the lion’s share of their training working in theater. Programs need to relentlessly roll out production after production to give their students experience. Usually in the final year of training, there will be only a single class that offers students an opportunity to use cameras. This inevitably means a faculty member explaining how a three-camera setup works for television, what shots are, maybe a little on lenses, but then moving swiftly into how a film set works, who holds which job, and so forth. Unfortunately, this model is as much of a history class as a “History of Theater” class is. The faculty is well-intentioned, as many of its members have worked in sitcom television, soap operas, and maybe even on a film set or two and have some valuable experience to pass on.

Anyone living in 2014 with even a parsing interest in our business, though, would be able to point to the problems with the model I have just outlined. Few television shows use a three-camera setup anymore, except game shows, talk shows or soap operas. Scripted television shows spread cameras around set ubiquitously, allowing editors and producers to develop a story and style as they go. Digital formatting means takes can go on and on, reducing the need for protocols like a director shouting “action” and “cut.” The entire architecture of a scripted piece written for television is evolving, in much the same way that independent film turned upside down 10 years ago. Large sets with lots of crewmembers are reserved for franchise films or high budget cable shows. These productions are increasingly over-populated by an older, established generation of performers who have engaged repeatedly in camera-based media. This effectively shuts out a younger generation, especially one with limited experience on set.

Let’s return, then, to that aspiring student. Let us assume they’ve been accepted into a BFA program of repute. They will shortly be subjected to their faculty belittling camera-based media (in the worse case scenario) or promised access to “industry standard practices” (in the best case scenario) only to be stuck in a classroom with a hulking great standard definition broadcast camera that is 15–20 years out of date. In addition to this, our aspiring student will be over-committed to their school’s season of plays. This frequently bars them from taking the multitude of classes outside of their program that offer introductions to cameras, editing and programming. The real kicker, though, is that our aspiring BFA student may now graduate with up to $250,000 in student and private loans. What should be most unsettling about this, at least to the educators, is that the one part of the industry best fit to financially alleviate that debt is the same part of the business that their graduate is least prepared for.

What has the BFA degree actually done to prepare the student for the breadth of the industry? A university can drain a student of hundreds of thousands of dollars, only to leave them without any of the basics needed to get work: a website, headshots (if they are a performer), experience on set, access to representation, and a starter network of working professionals to make contact with. But these are the simple building blocks, and not the wider range of knowledge and skills that could truly define them as leaders. What about programming languages? Or video and audio editing? What about social outreach? What about a second or third language? A BFA curriculum can be so crammed with theater-specific content, but what does a theater student actually know about the scope of their industry, the peers they will collaborate with and the tools each will use to create over the next 40 years?

I do not and cannot challenge the value of mounting works by traditional playwrights like William Congreve or Aphra Behn. I have done that myself. But these historical examinations must also be balanced with meaningful industry engagement. After all, that has been the history of theater training prior to its being accredited by university programs. Aspiring Victorian theater students were not forbidden from performing in gaslight and instead instructed only to perform in the sunlight because that is what Aeschylus did. Why then do we label the world of our contemporary responsive technology as “inappropriate” to explore with aspiring artists?

Former students will frequently call me apologizing for work they are being offered or taking. But those calls are only for jobs in digital media. Not a single former student has apologized for taking a job onstage, even though it rarely pays them what they need to pay their loans, let alone live. Graduates struggle with deep ethical turmoil for needing to take a commercial or a few lines in a crime procedural show on television. Why the shame? Technology is not the enemy of theater. Neither is the film and television business. Neither is the internet, nor social media. theater’s foundation is live, immediate interaction. But theater’s foundation is also the technology of the time. Technology is a creative tool, and it is shaping the world’s relationship to itself. In fact, technology was created by us to better understand us. How can that threaten an art form created for the self-same purpose? A deeply ingrained resistance to engage, on theater’s end, is what threatens theater most.

Firewalking & Acting

(Originally posted May 16th 2013)

In 2000 I signed up for a firewalking workshop. My grad school had ended three years earlier, I was slowly working as an ‘instructor’ and so I was going from school to school across the UK to teach students and parents of all ages. So driven by the fear of being called a phony, there seemed a greater responsibility on my part to really know what I was talking about. And yet ‘talking’ had never really been the hard part for me. I needed to ‘walk the walk’. And what more harrowing ‘walk’, than a firewalk?

The firewalking also seemed emblematic in a very narcissistic way. Walking across fire and hot coals was, and still i,s a form of ‘truth trial’ in cultures across the world. As a teacher, I said to myself, my responsibility was to teach ‘truth’. And actors are constantly searching for ways to be ‘more truthful’. So why not use a time-honored, centuries old system for truth telling like walking across fire?

I also knew someone who had done the firewalk. They actually ran the educational consultancy I was working for. His recounting of the experience was apocryphal – he’d been a secondary school teacher for years, then became an advertising guy… and then had a huge consciousness shift. After fire walking. He returned to education, this time teaching teachers how to teach better as well as teaching students how their brains worked and so how to learn more effectively. Being the greedy little narcissist that I am, I wanted a story like that to justify becoming a newly-minted teacher myself. So I signed up.

The workshop was supposed to take three days. Knowing that, my brain invented an itinerary, even though no actual itinerary had been forwarded to us. In my mind, a three day firewalking workshop would culminate in the firewalk. On day three. So you can imagine my surprise that as I registered on day one, I was handed a legal waiver to sign and told “you’re walking tonight.” It was 3pm. The panic was physical and immediate. How I didn’t soil myself is still something of a mystery. But I signed the waiver and waited to see what would happen.

The workshop began with 4 hours of intriguing, arresting and interesting material about the brain and how humans make decisions. I took notes. Nodded my head a lot. But couldn’t help but notice a distinct lack of skills related to walking across fire. Specifically. It wasn’t until 9.00pm that evening, half an hour before we were supposed to walk, that we got ‘the knowledge’ to walk across fire. And then, at 9.30pm, we paraded into the parking lot where rows of burning coals lay between the slightly ominous array of ambulances, presumably a ‘precaution’. At 9.42pm it was all over – I was standing barefoot in a parking lot trying to figure out how to get back to the seminar room we came from to pick up my bag to go home.

What happened in the half hour between having no firewalking knowledge and firewalking continued to rattle around in my head long after the workshop. Particularly as it pertained to acting. It seemed particularly significant that professional actors for the stage are called half an hour before a performance, the same allotted time to learn how to firewalk. And the more I have taught acting since that workshop, the more I think I have arrived at a way to make the experience relevant to an actor. There are five ‘rules’:

  1. Generate a physical/vocal state
  2. Look higher than the coals
  3. Control your inner dialogue
  4. Strut, don’t run
  5. Wipe your feet when you’re done

Rule 1: Generate a physical/vocal state

Walking over coals hotter than your home oven usually gets is daunting. It instantaneously elicits fear, which tenses and shocks your body. Therefore, the firewalker needs to warm up and prepare their body for the shock of the hot coals. The voice is used in tandem to exercise the whole instrument towards one daunting and seemingly impossible feat.

This seems fairly intuitive to any actor who has to walk in front of a couple of hundred (or thousand) people. For those who have had a lot of training, you know how powerful the right warm up exercise can be to your performance. Even if you are not singing or dancing in your show, warming up your voice and body readies the instrument for the impending shock on your system. Apparently, firewalking is no different. For our walk we actually created a physical ‘trigger’, comprised of an action we created and associated with succeeding. We then attached a word (spoken passionately) to that physical cue and repeated it until the first step onto the coals.

My actor-nerd brain became peaked at this idea, surely as a way of avoiding my possible impending barbecuing. But this specific preparation sounded a lot like the Michael Chekhov work I had been exposed to. This specific technique all lay in physical manifestations of metaphors. Instead of an abstract idea of a character’s ‘action’, Chekhov insisted the performer needs a physical sensation of that action. So actors would create living sculptures of their actions (often with lines from the text) as a way to warm up for a scene.

I’ve come to rely on the Chekhov work for just this reason – the ability to make real the interior choices of an actor. It’s also a much more effective way of assessing your own choices. An actor can stare at their script and their choice to play “to insist” on the page. And they can even convince themselves that’s what they’re playing. But the Chekhov work confronts the actor’s intuition with the choice. Does the choice ‘read’, in other words : does it affect your partner? Or is the choice only intellectual, and your own body cannot find a way to follow through with it?

Rule 2: Look higher than the coals

When you play sports at school, there are a lot of social rules and constructs to navigate. The one I remember most particularly is that ‘injury’ is not something to indulge in. And as school sports is highly competitive, it is usually ‘high stakes’ for whoever is playing. So it is not unusual for a kid to only realize upon returning home and finally looking at the injury to actually feel any pain. Seeing something frightening (like a personal injury) is paralyzing, and can even induce the body to go into shock.

Going into shock would be a very bad thing when walking across hot coals. But also when walking onstage. Many actors (and very experienced, good actors) have been racked with stage fright throughout their careers. It is a horribly debilitating condition that is also an entirely revealing one. Because debilitating fear is the manifestation of the perfect foil to the actor’s fundamental purpose – to ‘act’. And even if ‘performing’ isn’t the problem, an actor can have equally debilitating fears before performing (self consciousness with a choice, insecurity around the language of the play, thinking they are a ‘phony’, etc).

In firewalking, one solution offered was not even looking at the problem – look slightly higher than the problem. The fact of the situation is clear and irrefutable : the coals are hot, and can burn you. Looking at them confirms this ‘reality’ to your brain, which then braces itself for inevitable pain. By not looking at the coals, though, gives your brain a different focus ( a high stakes distraction, if you will), and almost fools you into ignoring the coals. It’s like the self-helpy cliché says: “Aim higher, because even if you miss the moon, you’ll still hit the stars”.

Rule 3: Control your inner dialogue

This is the biggie. Imagine the scene : you’ve been learning how to firewalk for half an hour. You’re told it is now time to “do it”. You walk barefoot into a parking lot filled with the smell of smoke. Burning lines of hot coals fill the lot, along with the flashing lights of Ambulances (just in case). People around you are chanting, clapping and generally ‘psychic themselves up’ for the experience (Rule 1 above). Behind each line of coals are lines of people ready to walk. No more than 10 per line of coals. When it comes time to assign you your line, you are at the very front. 9 people behind you, equally nervous, needing you to start and give them hope. You step up to the line of hot coals. You’ve got your physical/vocal prep (Rule 1). You look higher than the coals (Rule 2). But then the heat of the coals hits your face. Your nose actually burns a bit, instantly neutralizing Rules 1 and 2. Then you hear others’ screams, but don’t know exactly what they are (Success? Failure? Cheerleading for someone else?). You now need to take the first step, but are overwhelmed with new last minute obstacles.

This is when your inner dialogue will save you. No matter what the new reality is, you now need to control your own mind and not let it fall prey to the thousands of other distractions that will overwhelm you and undermine your choice. So what should that dialogue in your mind be? Well, what is theopposite of ‘hot coals’? Often people say ‘ice’! But ice is uncomfortable to walk on, too. And sometimes skin can stick to ice, which would really suck if you were walking over hot coals. Instead, “cool moss” was a great inner dialogue. It is short, sensually specific for your frightened brain, and most importantly, when you take your first step, your brain can scream “cool moss, cool moss, cool moss, cool moss, cool moss, cool moss, cool moss, cool moss…”  LOUDLY inside your head, drowning out the other voice in your head screaming “Im burning! This hurts! It’s all over!!!”

The real lesson here for the actor is that final and essential component to stepping out onstage and serving your play is actual denying a large part of reality. Your brain has to leap the mental fence that keeps reminding you that you are wearing clothes that aren’t yours, you’re pretending people aren’t watching and that you’re about to enter a space with fake real life. Instead, you have to insist to your own brain that this IS a real life, and need to act truthfully within it.

Rule 4: Strut, don’t run

When I have told people that I have walked on hot coals, the first response is usually “you must have run, right? That way, the coals don’t have time to really burn you.” Some really dodgy physics are then quoted to justify this response. But quite the opposite is actually true. If you run on cylindrical objects, guess what happens? You roll and slip. Which sucks. That really sucks when the cylindrical objects you are slipping on are hot coals. Instead, you need to walk calmly and surely, like a kind of ‘strut’.

Good for an actor to remember. ‘Effort’ is something we all use in the creation of our work, but when it is time to share that work, the effort needs to be hidden. Does anyone really care how ‘hard’ we have worked? Is that why people go to the theatre – to witness and reward how many rehearsals you’ve had? No. An audience wants to watch you do something incredibly hard, in an incredibly effortless way. A calm tightrope walker is more compelling than a tense one. A tense tightrope walker also tends to be a falling tightrope walker…

Rule 5: Wipe your feet when you’re done

Surprisingly, many firewalkers make it across the coals without injury, only to get burned after the walk. Stray embers can get caught between the toes and when the walker changes their physical/mental state back to ‘real life’, the embers can suddenly catch the walker’s brain by surprise, destroying the inner dialogue and causing a nasty burn. To help prevent this, we were all told to wipe our feet on the mat as we finished. Assistants would spray our feet with water as we did this to extinguish the embers.

How many actors do you know who need to ‘let go’ of their work once it is done? And not only they get burned by that, but anyone who gets too close to them, too. Any actor harboring mental, physical or vocal remnants of their performance is effectively carrying burning embers around in their toes, and its only a matter of time before it’ll burn them. Actors have literally been driven crazy by not dropping their performance work. Actors have been driven to addiction and self-loathing by refusing to leave their work onstage, onset or in the rehearsal room. Better to wipe your feet and extinguish it.

Last July, 21 people got burned in a seminar hosted by the same guy who taught me how to firewalk. The ensuing ridicule and dismissal for Tony Robbins was as inevitable as it was swift. It must have been terrifying for those who were injured, and equally confusing for those who were not. The incredulity I went through after completing my firewalk was as intense as the fear before doing it. I have never checked my feet so often in my life, especially as we were all ‘in state’ (as Mr Robbins describes it), so screaming was still everywhere around me. And the Ambulance lights were still running. I couldn’t actually tell if some people were hurt or not, because I was in state myself. However, 10 minutes after I finished my firewalk, I was paying for parking and driving home. 30 minutes after the walk I was having my feet inspected by my girlfriend at the time. Neither of us quite believed it.

The experience still serves as my principal lesson for confronting potential danger by overcoming fear. The fear of stepping onstage is not really much like that of a firewalk, at least when looking at it rationally. But every actor is dealing with fear of performing on some level. And fear is incredibly useful, because even at low levels it modifies behaviors and holds you back. After all, it thinks it is protecting you. But that kind of protective measure is holding back a performer from exploring the character, and in turn their own talent. It also builds a wall inside the actor which will lay out endless justifications for why they work the way they do. Which is often cases just a justification for not exerting the necessary effort into changing and adapting to a character or situation they are ultimately afraid of. So maybe a little more firewalk preparation is the way to go….

Kool K.A.T.S

(Originally posted May 14th 2013)

[author note : the projects listed in this post have now expired. However, there are now more projects for actors on CrowdFunding sites than two years ago]

In the past two months, the mainstream film industry has dipped its’ toes in the Kickstarter waters more than once. I’m going to assume that if you’ve made the time to read this, you know about Rob Thomas’ ‘The Veronica Mars Project’ and Zach Braff’s “Wish I Was Here Project”. Both grossed multi-millions within hours. And yet, both projects represent properties that exist within the ‘traditional’ industry model that is funded through studios and/or independent backers. Pundits and journalists have offered far more intelligent insights to the implications of this development than I could. There has also been a tirade of critical blowback, particularly for Zach Braff. But none of that concerns me for this.

Something else has been weighing on me over the past two months. The escalating cost (and ultimately debt) of a higher education degree. Despite constant rhetoric and research insisting that a college degree improves the quality of your life, the national burden of student debt has the potential to crush more people than it does to help them. There is an additional bad news if your desired major doesn’t lie within ‘STEM’ – Science, Technology (WHETEVER that means), Education and Math . Despite Yo Yo Ma’s passionate case for adding the Arts to this (and hence transform the ‘STEM’ to ‘STEAM’), we as a society aren’t responding.. But again, this is a larger issue, and doesn’t concern me for this.

What concerns me is an aspiring actor who wants the industry credibility and benefits of a well-respected college, but cannot afford either the tuition or inevitable debt.

ONE year at a top tier college Drama program averages $41000 (without accommodation, books, fees, meal plans, etc). With conservatory programs continuing to insist that it takes 4 years to complete your degree in acting, that starts you off at $164,000. Add housing, books and meal plans to that number, and it is not impossible to be staring at $200,000 of debt out of the gate. And this is before the cost of headshots, reels, ongoing singing, dancing and acting classes (which are insistedupon by many in the industry). I know former students who have loan payments of $2200+ a month. If they aren’t working in a part of the industry that is paying them at least union wage, the weight of that debt becomes devastating.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics claims that the median annual wage for an actor hovers around$50,000. But that amount drastically rises if the actor is working in film, television, video games and voice over. So working in these mediums, rather than the theatre, seems like a financially prudent first step into the industry. Of course, the part of industry that is most lucrative is also highly competitive and ‘fickle’ with its’ aesthetics. However, this industry certainly ‘feeds on youth’, so being a young up-and-coming actor can work in your favor.

Conservatory programs at universities rarely offer more than a semester in ‘Acting for the Camera’. And that is not entirely a bad plan – core skills like movement, voice, acting and stage combat are stressed. This is usually followed up with stage productions to synthesize the classwork. And while I see the value of this approach, the elephant in the room is that Theatre is a predominantly middle-aged medium. To start with, roles are older. How many awkward fake beards and age make-up jobs have you watched during college productions? Why subject students to this? It bears NO resemblance to the industry. Theatre is predominantly populated with older actors and the audiences are often older than the actors.

A young graduate with a performer’s degree in 2013 is certainly well-prepared for the Theatre, who unfortunately wont be ready for them for another 15/20 years. But that graduate is also holding a debt of $200,000. And the single best option for them to pay down that debt and begin to establish themselves in the industry is in a part of the business that they only had one class for at College. There must be a different way

Allow me to offer an alternative – the Kickstarter Actor Training System (K.A.T.S for short). The approach is fairly straight forward : instead of a conservatory degree, invest in a top level bracket for a Kickstarter film/television project and use the backer reward offered for that level to be your training. Over two years, you can buy in (as a backer/co-producer) to a range of projects that will:

  1. Give you experience in front of the camera/microphone
  2. Give you experience working with Industry professionals
  3. Begin your professional network inside the most lucrative part of the industry
  4. Build your IMDB page
  5. Participate in the revolution of how movies are funded and will be funded over the next ten years (at least)

This will not be a program that trains you with classes. It is an apprenticeship model, targeted primarily at film and television. Rather than taking an internship making coffee for everyone on set, you instead pay to participate in the project-making process as a performer. And there’s plenty of projects to choose from. Here are some that have already come to fruition:

1. Burma exceeded their initial $10000 request. If you backed the project at the $2500 level, you got an Acting lesson, and audition lesson and an opportunity to pitch a project for the Producers. You would have been listed as a co-producer and gone to screenings and parties with the cast & crew. Burma went on to garner critical praise and awards at film festivals such as the SXSW in Austin.

2.Charlie Kauffman’s Anomalisa was a stop motion project that offered backers at the $2500 level to have a Skype conversation with Dan Harmon & Dino Stamatopoulos.

3. Star Trek: Renegades gave $10000 backers a Red shirt commanding officer role that dies onscreen!

4. Fat Kid Rules the World gave $10000 backers “ten days of filmmaking mentorship to help you create your short film. Two days to discuss and consult on script and casting. Two days of soft prep… Two days of location prep…Two days of shooting. And two days of editing.” If you are an aspiring actor and think this doesn’t sound like something relevant to them, this project was directed by actor Matthew Lillard. The movie went on to play festivals as well as getting a release On Demand, in Redbox and also on Netflix streaming.

Like all industry-based training programs, KATS has potential pitfalls. Projects don’t always get funded. There have also been situations where backer rewards have not been followed through with. These are rare, and to help combat the chances of it happening to you, I’d suggest looking for projects that are asking for a ‘substantial’ figure. This is NOT because a great film cant be made for, say,  $4000. It’s just that we’re forming your early career here. Which means you should pick and choose the pedigree of ‘teachers’ you’ll be working with.

Also, in film and television, an actor’s calling card is their ‘reel’ of previous appearances on camera. Straight out of a university, you’d be lucky if you have a couple of professional projects and a varying amount of student films. With KATS, every single ‘class’ is another scene for your reel. If you choose your projects carefully you can shape a really strong reel of respected projects.

I need to stress – to provide an actual ‘education’, KATS will require ‘augmentation’. One option is to take an acting coach – something all actors will at least entertain after they graduate. So why bother going to university when you can learn from graduates of those schools for free in an acting class? And why acquire a $200,000 debt taking acting lessons when you’re only going to go out into the world and pay for more? An acting coach is another option. A coach can give you one-on-one training, tailored to your own needs. And it costs significantly less than college.

There are also online options – below I’ve included a YouTube curriculum that runs in tandem with your KATS. There are acting classes with masters like Uta Hagen and Sanford Meisner available online, as well as voice classes with Patsy Rodenberg and even memorization coaches who can teach you how to learn your lines (a skill most universities do not teach at all). Be careful, though. Stay away from INSIDE THE ACTOR’S STUDIO…

The final component is a meaningful reading list. If you are backing a significant number of Kickstarter projects, you will be acting a LOT. So you need to supplement your activity with skills and craft from the best in the world. However, most books on acting fall into one of two camps: a) Memoirs where actors describe (at length) how great they were in past roles or b) wishy-washy so-called ‘practical’ guides which simply recount exercises that all vaguely resemble all the other exercises in the book. So keep it simple. My recommendations are:

  1. Routledge’s ‘Basics’ Series (Acting: The Basics by Bella Merlin, Stanislavsky: The Basics by Rose Whyman and Theatre Studies: The Basics by Robert Leach)
  2. The Actor & The Target by Declan Donnelan
  3. A Practical Handbook for the Actor by Bruder et al
  4. Auditioning by Joanna Merlin

KATS strives to balance real-world experience working on productions with industry professionals as the ‘instructors’, with online ‘virtual’ training provided by industry giants (like Sanford Meisner) who are quoted by university conservatory programs across the world. You can tailor your syllabus to best suit the elements of the industry you are most excited by. Whether you want to be involved in stunt work, voice-over, comedy, science fiction, or something else, there are enough projects on Kickstarter that need investment that can suit your needs. And as more high-profile projects come to Kickstarter, more online traffic comes to the site which in turn brings more projects for consideration by that online traffic.

And the numbers are less daunting than a university degree. My initial investment suggestion has a bill of $48250 over two years. Granted, you wont be eligible for Student Loans for this curriculum. But this amount will get you an appearance/involvement in 10 projects over two years and ten IMDB professional listings. The professional network you will accrue over that two years could prove invaluable, not to mention the experience of working as a performer in the industry. You will be well poised to flourish as a performer in Film & Television with your 10 project reel. Most importantly, though, by learning through Kickstarter you have entered the business at the leading edge of the industry as it changes radically over the next five years. It give you experience in the new funding model that, though resisted by many studios, is certainly not going to go away anytime soon.

Rather than $250,000 of debt, you have under $50,000. Rather than playing characters twice your age in school productions for embittered faculty, you have worked with industry professionals and had your work circulated and consumed by the world at large. And rather than the most lucrative part of the industry for a young performer being mysterious, it is actually the most familiar environment, as it has been your classroom.

Here’s the syllabus:

Kickstarter Campaigns

*top levels of investment ALL include Producer Credits, which will reflect on your IMDB page

Veronica Mars Movie

$5,702,153 of $2,000,000 goal

$10,000 – speaking role

Wish I Was Here – Zach Braff

$2,459,348 of $2,000,000 goal

$10,000 – speaking role

Cyanide & Happiness Show

$770, 309 of $250,000 goal

$10,000 – 2 day voice over role

Video Game High School

$808,341 of $636, 010 goal

$3000 – Film making Boot Camp. Curriculum designed for you and your needs.

SAVE Blue Like Jazz

$345,992 of $125,000 goal

$1000 gets you onset and a minor role in the movie

Cowboys & Engines

$114,758 of $100,000 goal

$5000 – speaking role in the film (with Malcolm McDowell, Walter Koenig & Richard Hatch)

Basic Adventuring 101 LARP Webseries Pilot

$6781 of $5,300 goal

$1500 Combat training and role in an episode.

The Origins of Wit & Humor

$6,580 of $17,000 goal

$5000 – speaking role in the film

The Frontier

$37,779 of $50,000 goal

$1,500 onset for 20 days. Credit in the film & IMDB page

The Discoverers

$53,902 of $100,000

*already a movie, needs a theatrical release

$750 gets you video chat with Oscar nominee Griffin Dunne

$1,250 gets you session with Casting Director Patricia DiCerto

(Wood Allen’s Casting Director)

 

Online Classes – sample

Patsy Rodenburg (voice): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ub27yeXKUTY&list=PL6677FEE9579B65CC

Kristen Linklater (voice):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrrwXHcwz_A

Memorization:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5c_sxO2ih58

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5c_sxO2ih58

Uta Hagen (acting):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7v5zB-jg40

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpzLLv-7_JE&list=PL28BEDACC5E38DB3B (series of 5 videos)

Michael Chekhov (movement/acting): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjooI15cOZE&list=PL98C28414886B42BE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPOk7rd8HFU (7 parts available)

Sanford Mesiner (acting):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNuFSrsYfpM (7 parts available)

Uncanny Valleys

(Originally posted June 4th 2012)

My classes are over until September. Which only means that now I need to plan and create classes, instead of teach them. But being a horrendous procrastinator, I started reading a new book instead –The Uncanny Valley by Lawrence Weschler. I had heard him talking on Bullseye with Jesse Thornand was intrigued by the subject. For those of you who may not know, ‘the uncanny valley’ was a term invented by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori to describe the profound ‘creepiness’ of artificially generated humans – either robots or CGI. His theory is that an artificial face that is (up to) 95% lifelike is compelling. But once it reaches 96% lifelike, the face loses it’s endearing qualities and instead becomes repulsive and threatening. This tiny percentile of change is enough to tip our entire emotional connection to the artificial being. And until that ‘tipping point’ is resolved, the being is trapped in an ‘uncanny valley’ where they no longer look like a human-like robot, but a corpse-like human…

And even though Weschler’s book had been chosen as a distraction from my need to write a syllabus for an acting class, it immediately became the source for it. Because I think actors have always been struggling with the uncanny valley. All actors walk the tightrope between their audience’s repulsion and endearment. After all, what are we all judged against, other than being ‘lifelike’? Notice I don’t say ‘realistic’. At least, not yet. This is an important distinction that will become more important as I get closer to the present. But let’s start with some history

Actors are required to be living proxies for an absent individual. This ‘otherness’ has been emphasized or de-emphasized most obviously with masks. What more elegant solution is there to embodying another person than by wearing their face? If you were Hannibal Lecter saying that last sentence, your skin crawls (The uncanny valley’s ability to turn a human corpse-like can happen purely linguistically!). But actors have done just this for thousands of years. Performers have worn everything from the skulls of animals, to clay renditions of the gods and leather versions of human faces. These masks present an immediate challenge to an actor – namely, that a ‘face’ also needs a body to be believable. If you are wearing a mask of Poseidon, but are only able to shuffle and scratch yourself, you are in danger of creating a riot amongst your audience. Because that would be creating a dis-harmony between what the mask you’re wearing is promising and what your body is delivering. Both need to create a unified character, and to split them is to drop the audience into an “uncanny valley” where the character looks like Poseidon, but moves like an awkward teenager at their first school dance.

What are all the deciding factors, though, that form an audience’s ‘sense’ that there is a unified character of Poseidon in front of them? Because the uncanny valley for a live performance is predicated on many more factors than just your face and body. The writing needs to be recognizable as ‘true’ in some way to the character. The other actor/characters also need to treat you as if you are Poseidon. You probably should dress like him, though that isn’t always important. Actors are often granted ‘proxies’ when performing live : a ‘king’ may only need a foil ring on their head instead of a crown, or may only need to mime their cloak, rather than actually wear one. However, that mime better be ‘believable’ and consistent…

But there’s another factor – the stage itself. The performer is not solely responsible for the perception of the character they play. The audience must contribute their own investment of faith into the whole illusion if we are all actually able to call what you’re doing ‘acting’. And that means the audience’s relationship to the audience will change what they perceive as ‘believable’. If I’m sitting at Epidaurusin Greece with 14, 999 other people, large gestures may be necessary for me to even notice what the actor is doing, let along believe them. However, if I am leaning on the front of the Globe Theatre in London, I may think such gestures “saw the air too much”, as Hamlet advises his players. A medieval pageant may need a mask with a phallic nose to convey my character’s buffoonery, but when I’m in close up with an HD camera such a nose will completely overpower the frame.

As stages change their size and function, the threshold for ‘believability’ changes with it. As you change the audience’s relationship to the character, the actor needs to change their craft to better unify their work to create a ‘believable’ character. Masks went from paint on our faces, to skulls, to large clay structures in outdoor amphitheatersto leather half-masks for the Commedia dell’Arte… and back to paint on our faces. This follows the stage – from fire, to village gathering, to amphitheater to pageant wagon, to outdoor theater to indoor theatre to indoor theatre with artificial lighting. And then to a camera lens. With each shift in live theatre’s venue, the measure of audience believability has changed with it, and so has the actor’s craft. Acoustics change, sightlines alter and expectations of the audience develop. The Greeks went to the theatre once a year for a religious festival, which perhaps accounts for a very different expectation level of their audience compared to Restoration London where you could see a different comedy or tragedy every night of the week.

So the threshold for an audience’s repulsion to an actor shifts with their proximity to them. This must also be true for humanoid robots – if you are a great distance from a robot, the details of their construction are less affecting than their ability to execute their functions (just like an actor, by the way…). The problem of the uncanny valley occurs as we get closer to them. Exactly what I think has become the problem with our relationship to some actors – they are fine at ‘function’, but when we get closer, their work appears ‘artificial’ and ultimately inhuman.

Much is made of the difference between acting on stage versus on camera. Actors themselves are constantly in a state of flux over the specifics. I have known actors who ruthlessly mock a fellow actor in a live show about their ‘over-the-top’ delivery of a line. And yet, those same mocking actors proceed to employ very similar histrionics in their own performance. I suspect this is because of their proximity to the mocked actor – they are on stage with them, and not far off in the audience. When these mocking actors need to deliver their own lines, however, they ‘pitch’ their performance to an imaginary distant member of the audience, and temper the ‘size’ of their performance for them. Again – the proximity of the audience to the performer affects how believable they are.

Now imagine a world where a device is created that immediately turns someone into a performer, even if they don’t ask to be. Simply switching it one and pointing it at somebody causes others to gaze at them and their behavior. Let’s call this ‘the camera’. Now imagine a world where there are so many of these ‘cameras’ that they have erased the divide between the performer and the audience. Because there are so many of them, and what they record is so prolific to the culture that everyone is ‘performing’ and ‘audience-ing’ all of the time. So cameras are not so much a device, but instead a kind of ‘schemer’ (to quote Golan Levin) across the landscape and all kinds of performances, at different scales, are simultaneously occurring in front of that schmear. Let’s call this ‘the present day’.

Ask people why they don’t go to the theatre and the answers are sobering : “I can’t understand all those people up there shouting”, “It’s uncomfortable for me, how artificial it is”, “the acting is boring (and even funny) when it is supposed to be sad”. And that’s before we get into why people don’t go to see musicals. Or Opera.

My suspicion is that we have a more profound uncanny valley between actors and their audiences than ever before. And this is because of three things :

  1. Saturation of camera-based storytelling and screen-based media
  2. A ‘skipped generation’ of theatre-goers.
  3. Actor training that rests on a method developed for Victorian theatres and their respective audiences.

If we can agree that as an audience’s relationship to their performers changes their threshold for believability, a camera-based media world that emphasizes close-ups and micro expressions must have altered the audience. We’ve reached a kind of critical breaking point where our visual literacy has developed exponentially, changing our expectations of all those who wish to perform. Even ourselves.

'Spearhead' or 'Lightning Rod'?

(Originally posted April 27th 2012)

Yesterday I went to a talk between Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan Opera, and Robert Lepage. Without question, Lepage has been the defining figure for my work over the past 10 years, though I have been acquainted with his work for longer. When I was an undergrad I saw Needles and Opium, Polygraphe and Tectonic Plates, as well as his movie Le Confessional. I also wore a plastic raincoat for his mud-soaked production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the RNT. However, at the time, these pieces annoyed me more than they inspired me. His work upset me. I couldn’t draw the line between what he called ‘theatre’ and I called ‘tv and film’. Everything seemed ‘clever’, with audiences gasping like kids at a magic show. He would change the perspective the audience viewed a scene from, like we were the lens of a camera that could be shifted. And there was always a slow, steady tempo which I found maddening.

It also needs to be said that all of my juvenile responses to Lepage’s work were heavily informed by an initial awful exposure of mine to media technology onstage. Without getting too specific (or libelous), it was a scene in a Shakespearean play where a character watched scenes from the movie Legend. Endlessly. I didn’t know why – and still don’t know why. As the actor lay in forceful repose, gazing at a Kubrick-like monolith of tv screens playing the movie, I just became irritated. And that irritation became triggered forever after that point by any technology onstage. If I saw cameras or screens, my eyes would begin rolling into the back of my judgmental and self-righteous head. Case closed.

Then in 1996 I was in London doing my post-grad in Directing. And I went to see The Seven Streams of the River Ota. Or rather, was dragged to see it by director Geoffrey Reeves. I had avoided Elsinore (Lepage’s one-man show investigating Hamlet) the year before, because I could not face more Shakespeare butchered by cameras and screens. Luckily, my pouting had no effect on Geoffrey Reeves, who I was assisting at the time on a production of A Clockwork Orange. Even before the show started I was fidgeting like a three year old and moaning about what was to come. Geoffrey had a particularly unique way of being direct, unpretentious and yet kind. “Maybe you’ll like it, Matt”, he said, glaring at me over his glasses. I had nothing in response and so went quiet. As if the evening was going to be some kind of invasive medical procedure I may have ‘needed’ but didn’t want.

But it took no more that 10 minutes for me to be won over. In fact, not since an earlier production of King Lear (which I had seen when I was 9), The Seven Streams of the River Ota have I been so shaken up by a piece of theatre. I was delighted, I was upset, I was mesmerized – sometimes by the story, sometimes by the craft of the performers and sometimes by the stagecraft. By the end, I was overwhelmed. Lepage and his remarkable company had smashed apart my damaged psychological ‘baggage’ for technologically advanced theatre. And I was much better for it. Geoffrey just turned to me as soon as it wen to black and said “Let’s get out of here. The parking lot will be a shitstorm.” Thank goodness I had been to see the show with Geoffrey, because he’s probably the only person who was comfortable with complete silence in the car. I didn’t want to talk. At all. If you know me, this detail is probably the most disturbing part of the story. The production had literally blown out my previously held unrelenting lexicon of pre-packed derogatory quips and semi-intellectual takedowns of those attempting to merge the filmic and the theatrical.

At this point I need to make a quick pit stop : If you didn’t see The Seven Streams of the River Ota, it is still possible to see. The New York Public Library at Lincoln Centre has a copy you can book to view. The plot is an examination of destruction, through the atomic attack in Hiroshima, European concentration camps and the HIV virus. There is also a script of it for sale. However, that doesn’t help much. When you read a play, what you read is the words the characters speak. In only a few exceptions, a play is told through the spoken words. If you take an ‘acting for the camera’ class, one of the first things you learn is that film and tv scripts don’t work like that. Instead, the story is told through the descriptions of what the camera will see and how it moves. When you try and read the script for The Seven Streams of the River Ota, you are confronted with an object calling itself a play, and yet it needs the craft of reading a film script to begin to make sense of it. Like a combination lock that actually only opens with a key.

By the time Geoffrey had let me out of the car, I was able at least to thank him and I could start to put myself back together. I became intensely interested in Japanese theatre training, particularly Tadashi Suzuki and the actor Yoshi Oida (who I would meet 2 months later). I returned to a script I had started working on while an undergrad. It was a version of D.M Thomas’ Pictures at an Exhibition, a Holocaust novel that weaves the past and present together in an attempt to understand the urge to destroy or heal. In other words, I was ‘aping’ Lepage – I was effectively working on remaking The Seven Streams of the River Ota by pillaging his source material! It didn’t last, though. I followed his work passionately, but stopped short of imitation. If I was going to claim I learned anything from watching Lepage’s work, it needed to include the necessity of contributing myself and contributing what I interpreted to be Lepage’s self!

The man is a true genius of 21st century theatre. He is exactly what a 21st century director of the theatre should look like : actor, director, writer, designer, tinkerer, researcher and dancer. If I recited that previous sentence to anyone in the theatre and asked them to name who I was talking about I bet they would all answer the same way : Robert Wilson. Clearly an influence on Lepage, Wilson needs to be a part of the conversation anytime one discusses Lepage. But Lepage has transcended imitation of Wilson, and resides in a very different artistic landscape than Wilson. Because, where Wilson acts as central command for multiple disciplines in his work, Lepage blends with them.

When talking about rehearsal, Lepage insists “everybody is present on day one. No matter what you do [in the production]. Because even if it isn’t clear what you need to do in the first hour, over time you will quickly figure it out. This also smashes useless hierarchies in the theatre : the idea that there first is a ‘director’ and a ‘writer’, and perhaps under them a ‘designer’ and then way below them are the ‘performers’ and finally, the lowest of the low, ‘the technicians’.” And yet, the idea of hierarchy in the theatre Lepage talks of is exactly Robert Wilson’s model. This is partly due to Wilson’s strong hand in architecture and design for his productions. Lepage, however, blends with his company as much as works to ‘command it’. Lepage is equally adept at designing as Wilson, though Lepage will sooner ask Alexander McQueen to make his tights for him, despite his ability to design some himself. Peter Gelb pointed out how many different production teams Lepage works with, between Peter Gabriel concerts, Circe de Soleil shows, operas, new plays and large scale installations (like the brilliant The Image Mill in Quebec city), Lepage has a vital, but equal role to play in each team.

And it is here that the detractors of Lepage’s work begin to sink their teeth. By favoring a ‘blending’ of disciplines within the theatrical world, along with a fondness for challenging a theatre audience’s visual vocabulary, he is often attacked as focused on technology and not on ‘art’. As this is just a blog, Im not going to delve into his critics much. Instead, I’ll favor an analogy with the food world. In cooking today there are two polarities that seem to be at odds with one another. On one side you have the ‘slow cooking’ movement: organic, sustainable, natural and in many ways a return to a now lost intimacy with the growing, cooking and eating of food. On the other polarity is molecular gastronomy: editorial, reductive and mind-bending. This is more of a complete re-imagining of what food is and how it can taste. Returning this analogy to the theatre, many put Lepage in the ‘molecular gastronomy’ camp of theatre. This is a conflict within the theatre and opera worlds, because as ticket sales continue to dwindle in both theatre and opera, people still going to the theatre and opera tend to be in the ‘slow food’ camp. They see Lepage as a potential threat to their movement, which has already been so bedraggled by film and tv over the past 20 years.

But I don’t think Lepage is actually in either of these camps. He is slow cooking and molecular gastronomy. In fact, he is not a ‘camp’ at all, but the axis that joins them. He is as likely to use 500 year old water puppets as he is a custom designed Infra Red sensitive floor. The act of putting any kind of scenery onstage was considered ‘technology’ a relatively short time ago, all that is different with Lepage is kind of scenery he is using. What is most important and remarkable about Lepage’s work is that technology, old or new, is not the subject of his work. It is one medium by which the real story is told. And this was how he ‘healed’ a terrible early experience I had with technology onstage. What confounded me about actors watching Legend onstage was, in that particular case, the technological spectacle was the story. Lepage has far more interesting stories to tell than the technology he can use. In another revealing moment in the conversation yesterday, Lepage spoke of the need to often show the audience the technology he is using. If an actor uses a harness, he does not try to conceal it. Because, as he says “when the audience can see how the illusion is made, it actually gives them a choice between the illusion and the reality. In that moment, they have the choice of being in a theatre or not. And the eye favors the fantasy!” In the play The Far Side of the Moon Lepage had a giant mirror hung at 45 degrees over the stage. During one sequence he rolled on the floor in slow motion. When viewed in the mirror, this movement appeared to be floating. And though the audience sees the mirror and the actor rolling on the floor, they instead look at the image in the mirror and gasp at the illusion.

Near the end of yesterday’s talk, a critic launched into a gentle, but naked dismissal of Lepage’s work. Lepage listened carefully and intently, and instead of being defensive or retaliatory, he responded with “Whenever you try something different, especially blending disciplines together, you become the target of a lot of criticism.” This was as much a comment on the attacks on him in the press over his recent production of Der Ring des Nibelungen as it was an answer to the comment made in the talk yesterday. And his answer left me thinking : Is Lepage a Spearhead or lightning rod? The first suggests he’s built for a war, the other suggests he’s built to ‘trick’ his critics and syphon away the energy of their attacks. Or, is the third option that he’s not interested in either of those, and is just working the best way he knows how to? After all, by Lepage’s own definition technology is “a tool to bring disciplines together”. So I hardly believe he would use technology in his work to actively provoke criticism. Instead, I think he provokes dialogue in an intuitively nourishing way. Film is really an act of intimacy – human faces take up huge screens, silence and ambient sound is amplified, and the dark of the theatre isolates us. In the theatre, however, that kind of intimacy is impossible to maintain. The audience’s responses are thrown back to the performers and the other audience members. So by blending theatre and film onstage, Lepage is teasing out our intimate responses into a more public forum for (potentially) explosive dialogue. I should know – I hated his work for a long time. At least, I thought it was his work I hated…

It's Time

(Originally posted January 11th 2012)

“I find it crazy when actors come in self-prepared. And then they make this comment : “…MY character…” So I say “Look – it’s not ‘your’ character, ok? It’s ours.”

STEPHEN DALDRY

On January 8th, an article by James Franco appeared on Deadline Hollywood. In it, he makes a case for the need to acknowledge the performance capture work of Andy Serkis as ‘acting’. Moreover, Franco insists Serkis’ work is “innovative” and that “he has elevated this fresh mode of acting [performance capture] into an art form.” Franco’s article seems to be a branch of an ongoing campaign in the industry to ‘reward’ Serkis, in some way, during the upcoming awards season. The campaign has adopted the title “The Time is Now”, and recently placed an advertisement in TIME magazine.

The opposition to this kind of thinking is deafening:

“Actors will be rendered obsolete.”

“What about the animators? Surely they are the ones who actually make the performance on screen.”

“What does James Franco know about ‘art’, anyway? He doesn’t even know how to properly use a comma!”

“Performance Capture is simply a ‘technical’ process– and nothing more.”

But these arguments are haunted by something more specific : The idea that an actor could ever be responsible for artistic skill while working within a technical framework. And both polarities of this debate seem to to be struggling with this same haunting idea. Actors who fear their demise see that you can either be an actor or an avatar, and only one of those involves ‘real’ acting. The self-appointed animator lobby struggles with the same issue – how could a dumb actor ever be credited for hard work, when animators slaved over their screens for hours rendering frame-after-frame? In 2009 when Brad Pitt was nominated for an oscar for his role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I asked my (then) acting class if they could, in all good conscience walk onstage and accept the oscar if they were Pitt. Because three other live actors had played his part while shooting, not to mention the literally hundreds of digital animators, renderers and data engineers. This resistance to embracing actors partnering with digital animators & engineers (and vice versa) has a more worrying fear at its’ heart — the fear of having to share responsibility for a ‘performance’. The challenge to reward Andy Serkis may actually be about resistance to collaboration, which I see is the unstoppable and inevitable future for performance involving any kind of media. But not everyone is frightened of that.

When I have been in a performance capture studio, the animators and engineers have always expressed a preference for that process, rather than rendering from scratch. They value the collaboration with an actor, as well as the nuance and specificity an actor in a suit can bring. Even Motion Capture libraries have failed to provide the same unique and observable advantage that animators can glean from performance capture data. And ‘specificity’ is the key word here. Acting Method-Man Konstantin Stanislavsky famously stated that “generality is the enemy to all art”, and this is exactly why performance capture can be called an art form. Because it is data generated by the specific movements of one performer. Yes, at the end of the day, the animators only receive data from the (terrifyingly expensive) cameras in a performance capture studio. And that data can be manipulated into very different, equally specific movements. But that has been happening with performances on camera for years. An editor can alter a performance in post production, as can a composer. Color correction can change the entire mood of a performance. Animators have added subtle elements to a performer’s work (such as glistening eyes to suggest tears). Light rendering in post production has been placing performances in entirely different virtual locations for a while now.

Therefore, this debate surrounding performance capture, is actually relevant for all performances on camera-based media. The truth is that every performance is a collaboration, and not sole property of an actor or animator. George Lucas famously began his career in animation because he perceived it to be “pure directing”. As if animation was the product of one mind. But that is an illusion. Despite the fact that a Pixar film like “Toy Story 3” does not put Tom Hanks or Tim Allen in performance capture suits, I hope no animator on that film would claim that Hanks’ or Allen’s performances in the studio contributed nothing to the final cut of the film. Any project committed film needs so many people to make it work, that the suggestion that someone can claim responsibility for a single element is a delusional. Even in so-called ‘classic’ films, performances were being manufactured and altered. In“Bus Stop”, director Joshua Logan sat suspended above the frame, feeding Marilyn Monroe her lines. Does that mean Monroe is not responsible for the performance, or that the directoris responsible for it? Neither. It was a collaboration.

As technology permeates more and more of our lives, we might just have to accept that holding onto an idea that one person can credited for their work is dangerous. And in the entertainment industry, we must accept that art can be created through technical processes involving actors and animators. Awards are a just colosal abstraction from the reality of filmmaking. That’s why winners get an acceptance speech – it is the one acknowledgement by that the organizers that winners are merely perched on the shoulders of others. So the winners are granted the opportunity to identify that fact. However, the speeches are always kept to a strict time limit, otherwise viewers might get the awful notion that perhaps the ‘winner’ is in fact a slightly arbitrary member of a collaborative who just happened to be called to the stage. There is art and craft in the work of everyone involved in a performance. And though I agree that the process of making a film has strictly defined roles and tasks, by the time the film is assembled, you cannot separate the strands of the component parts to comprehensively state “this performance is the property of person x.”

So let’s give Andy Serkis his due. Especially as he is everything an actor’s actor would want to be leading the journey into the new territory of performance capture. Mr. Serkis is an extremely experienced and talented actor. His stage and television work is a testament to his skills in what some would want to call ‘pure’ acting (I guess that just means “acting without animators”). He is a fantastic  ambassador for this new art form. It’s about time we accept that, let alone reward it. And with accepting that Serkis has contributed to the ‘performances’ of his digital characters, let’s also accept that performance now may mean the result of a team, and not an individual.

Thank You, Stephen

(Originally posted Novermber 16th, 2011)

Six years ago I was sitting in the office of my college Acting teacher. Yeah, I just capitalized the word ‘Acting’. The teacher I’m talking about is a particularly special and insightful one, so the least I can do is capitalize what he teaches. His name is Stephen Malloy, and he tirelessly demanded more depth from every student actor, without needing to indulge in any of the craziness of theatricality. He continually emphasized ease of the actor, staying present with other actors, simplifying (and hence strengthening) your actions onstage, having a contemporary perspective on classical work, treating each choice with rigor and thoughtful contemplation. And above all, Stephen insisted on staying playful, no matter what was going on.

Stephen’s effect on me was profound, though that sounds either hyperbolic or pretentious. Despite the strength of his impact, it didn’t mean I nodded and stepped in line to what he taught. Most of the time I was either arguing with him for my own mediocrity, or I was fishing my foot out of my throat. There are really two responses a human being can have to new learning : one is saying “yes” and accepting it, but the other way is saying “no, but…” and falling love with your own bullshit obstacles to something you haven’t thought of. I was the latter in Stephen’s class. His patience with me must have been herculean (yeah – another hyperbolic and pretentious word). However, twenty years later, every mediocre and half-baked self-righteous theory of mine that Stephen suffered through has been replaced with his thoughtful, considered response. If I had only said “yes”, I would have avoided hours of embarrassment.

So, when I was sitting in his office again six years ago, I was ready to say “yes” to whatever he had to offer me. I had just completed my first semester as an acting teacher at an American University. He asked me what I was covering in class. I launched into a long-winded explanation. I suddenly heard myself in my head: I sounded like a self-righteous student again. So I stopped. And I asked him what he was doing instead. He grabbed a very small, skinny paperback book and said “I’m spending a lot of time using this.” It was a book called Charles Jehlinger in rehearsal. “Do you know this guy, Matt?” I didn’t. And I’d never heard of the book.

It turns out Charles Jehlinger was the second director (1918-1952) of the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts, the oldest ongoing school of acting in North America. He never published a book himself – instead, the book is a compilation of verbatim quotes from him in class and in rehearsal. They are not connected by theme, production or student. Instead, each quote rings out in it’s own unique way, re-focusing the reader to a different set of priorities from what pattern they may have already created for themselves. In this sense, the book is similar to Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards (something I would learn about from another great teacher, Golan Levin).

Stephen then read aloud a few quotes which quickly silenced me and turned my mind towards confronting the ‘process’ of acting, rather than the ‘product design’ of an actor. So much of my acting class had become about how to shape a moment/performance in a way that could be palatable to an audience. They were ‘directorial’ solutions that I was offering – namely, they were an objective outside eye suggesting adjustments to an actor that altered the design of their ‘product’ onstage. What Stephen was offering was a way to teach a student actor the core skills and alert them to the priority the actor was giving each skill. By that I mean all actors learn script analysis and physical actions (to name just two skills). However, some actors will place physical action above script analysis in their process. This defines them as an actor. Stephen’s genius here was to realize that once an actor is made aware of how they use their skills, they have the power to re-arrange the priorities of those skills. This literally re-defines the talent of an actor.

To this day, most acting teachers (including me) don’t do this. Instead, we insist class is about either ‘developing’ skills or not, which means you are either adding skills or failing to add skills. Stephen (through Charles Jehlinger’s work) was saying that you already had the skills, you just need to be aware of how you are using them and perhaps shuffle them. Like Eno’s oblique strategies, Jehlinger’s notes are not the theatrical equivalent of learning new vocabulary in a French class. Instead, the notes are like grammar, and so challenge the actor to use their existing skill in different ways. The effect of this is a dampening of the actor’s crippling self-doubt from the process. Instead, the actor just attends to the business at hand, which is to rearrange the skills they already have. It is liberating and cumulative – for, this is a process an actor can continue to explore throughout their career.

Recently I’ve been overwhelmed by some extremely generous responses to both my work and my posts on this site. Some may have even held my words ‘higher’ than perhaps they deserved. It kind of scared me. So I stopped. As I cautiously return, I wanted to start by showing my hand. That is to say, that anything I’m writing here has been said before, by those smarter than me. I am forever indebted to Stephen Malloy, and his introduction of Charles Jehlinger. An introduction he made 10 years after Ileft his class. Few teachers’ lessons have longevity, and Stephen’s are those I keep learning from even today. Thank you, Stephen.

Here’s a few of my very favorite of Jehlinger’s quotes.

You must have a tremendous antidote against the artificiality of the theatre, a superb humanness, naturalness, truthfulness, sincerity to fight the suction of the whirlpool of “theatricalness.” The artist is never “theatrical.”

There is a great need for sensing the humor of situations.

You are the character. You can’t have two brains in one head or you are a monster!

You cannot teach acting. You can only teach the laws of human behavior.

Human impulse is the only thing that counts, not stage directions.

Keep your head cool and your heart warm.

Unless you develop as women and men, you cannot develop as actors.

There is no limit to the art of acting. You need the understanding of all human nature, the sense of beauty of the artist and the poet, the sense of rhythm of the dancer and musician, the mentality of a philosopher and scientist. It is the universal art.        

A performance is merely an incident in your development, a means of showing up your weaknesses in order to remedy them, merely an experience to give you the “feel” of an audience.

You must take your text and study it. We don’t memorize when we study. We absorb.

Don’t let yourself be a fool and just pronounce words. Mean something.

You can feel the deepest emotion without moving a muscle.

It is better to be crude and sincere than to be refined and insincere.

You cannot please your audience with labor.

We talk with our intellect, not our voices. ‘Reciting’ is not conversing.

Effort is the confession of failure.

The brain must be thinking of something, but not of acting.

No, I don’t mean louder or softer; I do mean natural, easy use of your natural intelligence.

Stop acting – listen!

There is nothing so powerful as simplicity.

Never let your man be whining or weepy. Your audience will despise instead of like you. 

Don’t worry, just yield. It will all handle itself if you surrender. 

Bryan Cranston on staying busy

“As an actor, you’re going to be offered roles that are appropriate for your age. I was. So first I got offered ‘the college kid’, then it was ‘the Dad’ and now I’m old enough to be a grandfather. So through your career, you’re watching roles and behaviors and people differently than you were  when you were a kid. The actor’s job is observation. And so what I tell young actors is “Shame on you if you’re ever ‘bored’! Actors should never be bored. There’s always work to do. Watching and studying human behavior. File it away and at some point during your career you’ll be able to go “O, I know what I can do with that!” And that ‘something’ will be appropriate, interesting and…different.”

-Bryan Cranston on why he’s one of the best.

Ryan Gosling is a Movie Star. Deal with it....

(Originally posted September 22nd 2011)

There has been a quiet, but insistent cry behind casting here in the USA over the past ten years : “where are the American men?” It’s an interesting issue, and also quite a thorny one, too. So I want to throw out a few thoughts about it.

Firstly, let’s be clear – ‘man’ doesn’t mean either ‘misogynist’ or ‘instrument of death’. It is not ‘man’ in the David Mamet definition of the word. ‘Man’ is also not the opposite of ‘woman’. ‘Man’ does not have to mean ‘antagonist to woman’. Instead, I’m interested in ‘man’ as defined as ‘movie star’, in the sense that Paul Newman was a star, or James Dean, or Steve McQueen. ‘Movie star’ also implies ‘hero’ or ‘male ingénue’, which is separate from a so-called ‘character actor’ (Phillip Seymor-Hoffman [author note : this was written before Mr Seymor-Hoffman's tragic death in 2014] is a great example of an exceptional American character actor). And ‘ingénue’ does not mean ‘meathead’. They must be able to both carry a movie and carry the audience’s empathy.

A male ingénue must also be under 30. So, for the purposes of my post, I am ruling out Jonny Depp, Leo DiCaprio, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and their peers. Being a male ingénue necessitates youth, which in turn can mean inexperience. Having the right balance of vitality and experience to carry a film is tough. It is hardly a surprise there are only a few actors in the world who can fit the bill. That hasn’t changed. Nonetheless, the ‘hero’ as archetype in movies is still a trope that requires a voice. ‘Hero’ does not have to mean ‘man’, of course. Nor should it. But it would be valuable for the voice of a  ‘hero’ to at least have the option of being male.  Finally, if the movie is American, it might also be nice to have an American male capable of voicing that role.

Every year tens of thousands of guys decide to become actors. Some go to LA or NYC, some go to university acting programs, some make a movie right away, some use the connections they already have and some go into a related field and build a pathway towards a career in acting. So there is a lotof choice for casting directors. But from what I hear, and from what I read, casting directors are finding it harder and harder to find an American actor to play a ‘hero’. How hard can it really be to find an American leading man?

‘Exhibit A’ to the disappearance of the American leading actor is almost every superhero/comic book movie made in the last 5 years. Batman, the new Superman, the new Spiderman, Wolverine, Conan, Thor, Magneto, Professor X, the 300 – all foreign. Captain America actually had to enforce a restriction on foreign actors from being considered for the leading role. As if it were a presidential race.This trend prompted an interesting article in New York Magazine examining the phenomena. But it left a number of gaping blindspots in the argument. The first one is the omission of actors of color. While Leonardo diCaprio struggled to leave behind his boyish looks, Denzel Washington was immediately able to fill the shoes of a ‘hero’. He just wasn’t considered to be ‘like’ Leo, casting wise. A more recent example would be Anthony Mackie, who has proven his capability for playing a ‘hero’. However, the industry blinds itself to actors like this, even in 2011. ‘Hero’, therefore, becomes partly a question of race.

Television fares a little better with leading American males. Joe Manganiello and Matt Bomer (go Tartans!) are both mentioned in the NYM article. But that also reveals another ‘blindspot’ to their argument. There are many capable young leading actors of color who could be cast, but instead lots of older white men are cast. John Hamm, Brian Cranston, Mark Harmon, Timothy Olyphant, Charlie Sheen/Ashton Kutchner and pretty much any lead of a CSI franchise are all doing fine as ‘heroes’. But they’re all in the forties, at least. ‘Quirky’ guys can also do very well on television and can carry a show. However, ‘quirky’ can also occasionally used as a pseudonym for ‘gay’. Neil Patrick Harris can boost the ratings of anything he appears on, and the success of Glee and Big Bang Theory must be taken into consideration. But this point reveals another oversight of the NYM article, because what they mean by ‘leading actor’ is ‘straight leading actor’. You can be a leading man on tv if you are gay, just don’t act gay….

So perhaps the real cry of casting directors is “where are the young, straight, white American leading men?” But that sounds offensive when you articulate it like that. Fewer groups are more empowered in 2011 America than young, straight, white men. So maybe we need to delve into who is consuming popular media, and what do they want to see. A far more insightful article circling this subject peaked my interest this week. It’s focused on the changing ‘positioning’ of women in television. Author Hannah Rosin points out that the emphasis for this fall season is on empowered women and pathetic men. By ‘pathetic’ men, I mean men who overstate their manliness, though are consistently subjugated by their wives/girlfriends. This plays on two tropes that are tired : posturing misogynists and ‘whip-cracking’, ball-busting women who seek to control their men. But looking at the schedule for the tv season this fall, that is where the money has gone. We’ve freed ourselves, it seems, from someof the institutional misogyny of television’s past. And yet it has left an undeniable gap in the storytelling landscape.

This gap is not unrelated to the arguments being made about American men in film. Because it is not only superhero movies that are hunting for leading American men. Director Gavin O’Connor recently spoke of his casting process for Warrior. Ultimately, he cast two foreign actors (Tom Hardy & Joel Edgerton) in the leading roles. He justified this decision by stating that the demands of these particular roles were clearly not within the skillset of American actors. He had no problem casting an American as the patriarchal father (Nick Nolte), though. Probably because Nolte is older, and older white guys in leading roles is not a situation Hollywood is going to alter anytime soon. But the younger male roles were a problem, and this is something I’d like to pull apart and examine.

What does O’Connor mean when he states that the “demands of these particular roles” were beyond the skillset of an American actor? Given that the movie is set in and around the world of Mixed Martial Arts, I presume he means that America doesn’t have a handsome, tough and emotionally complex actor who can be convincing. The expression ‘triple threat’ has been used for actors in this country for a long time, and it refers to ‘acting’, ‘singing’ and ‘dancing’. Maybe in 2011 the ‘new’ triple threat for a young, straight, white male is being handsome, tough and emotionally complex? Plenty of actors today are one or two of these – Jessie Eisenberg is emotionally complex and arguably handsome, ‘The Rock’ is tough, Shia Labeouf is… well, he’s in movies that are financially very successful… I simply cannot believe that there are no American actors capable of tackling roles that require a ‘triple threat’. Too many actors are out there. This is also hardly a ‘new’ issue. Remember that it was a Canadianand then a Brit who captained the Starship Enterprise. Instead, it is we the consumers who don’t want there to be any young, white, straight leading men. I don’t want to dwell on why that is, though my first instinct is to say that many of us hardly see ourselves as young, white, straight men with a ‘triple threat’. We therefore find it hard to empathize with anyone who is. Perhaps these male ‘ingénues’ are a symbol of a sordid past of sexist, racist, homophobic entertainment? Or perhaps they return us to our own sordid past of being bullied in school (is it just me or does every star in entertainment right now have stories of how they were unpopular in school and bullied? Why is everyone so keen to victimize themselves for an audience?). The consumer for American entertainment, for better or worse, has been cast in a role, too : outsider. Geek, nerd, weirdo, wimp, brainiac, stoner, goth… the list goes on and on. I think an American audience wants representation in what they watch, rather than just archetypes to aspire to (or perhaps accept that they are?).

The last strand of this issue I want to reference is an actor close to my heart – Ryan Gosling. He’s Canadian, so I can swell with pride for that. He’s also a hell of an actor. His work in The Notebook is often reduced to little more than that of ‘heartthrob’. What that accusation really means, though, is that his work in The Notebook is only as good as people who like the movie. In an article for The Atlantic, those people are apparently “13 year old girls” having “sleepovers”. The article is titled Ryan Gosling is Not a Movie Star, and it addresses my final point about a supposed ‘lack’ of American young ingénues. The article’s author asserts that Ryan Gosling and the publicity surrounding him may beinsisting that he is a star, but he really isn’t. Ryan Reynolds has been accused of the same thing. Ray Gustini dismantles Gosling’s career to quippy one-liners, dismissing his work in Half NelsonLars and the Real Girl, and even Blue Valentine. It also dismisses his work in Drive, which Gustini seems to insist is a great movie in spite of Gosling’s performance.

What is so revealing about the article, though, is Gustini’s resentment that Gosling could be (or may already be) a ‘movie star’. And I interpret his use of the term ‘movie star’ as meaning ‘young, white, straight leading actor’. I don’t think Gustini wants anyone like Gosling to be a movie star. It isn’t justthat he’s Canadian (though that is also lampooned and condescended to in the article), it isn’t just that he’s the ‘triple threat’ I spoke of earlier (though the writer denies Gosling is capable of emotional complexity), it isn’t just that he’s had a diverse career that has included a few very successful and critically acclaimed movies – it is in fact all of those things. “Here”, writes Gustini “[is] Hollywood’s long-awaited blond, hunky savior, custom-built for prime placement on freeway billboards.” But Gustini simply refuses to accept that fact, and denies Gosling’s skill, career and track record. I’m sure Gustini would argue he is asserting that the ‘Emperor has no clothes’. But this particular ‘Emperor’ does have clothes. He just doesn’t have the clothes the writer wants him to have. Gosling is a movie star, if you will let him be.

For the past 50 years, ‘foreigners’ in American movies usually meant one of two things – an exotic love interest (female) or a villain (male). British actors playing bad guys for years didn’t seem to upset critics that much. These British actors were also taking away jobs from thousands of perfectly qualified American actors, and usually they were taking the best written roles (as villains frequently are). However, now that foreign actors are taking leading male roles, the issue is suddenly being fretted over. My appeal is to stop blaming the actors, their generation, their training, their parenting or their country of birth. The problem is the audience and what they want to see. What they won’t look at or aren’t looking at (leading actors of color, gay actors, foreign actors who are clearly stars and even American leading men) are just waiting to solve the supposed ‘problem’ of fewer American ‘triple threats’. Will you let them?

Fail. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better

(Originally posted September 16th, 2011)

Why can’t I figure out how to start this post?

It’s about something I have talked about innumerable times : failing. That means this post is also about something I have done myself hundreds of thousands of times : fail. Failure is a deeply personal and revealing process that can either stop or propel your work. Why can’t I begin?

Let me try this :

About 12 years ago I went to the National Studio in the UK. John Barton was running a workshop/symposium on verse speaking. Very important people in the theater world were there. Actors, directors, educators and designers all struggled with identifying root causes to why verse speaking (circa 2000) was flagging. Educators blamed directors. Directors blamed actors and audiences. Actors blamed educators. Educators then blamed designers… Round and round it went. However, every so often there would be a piercing and poignant exchange between John Barton and the rest of the assembly. One of them is particularly relevant to my post today.

Actress Harriet Walter asked John Barton “What is the best way you know of to improve your speaking?” He thought about it long and hard and replied with “Lay in a warm bath and read the text out loud slowly, one word at a time.” We all giggled, which I suspect he bristled at. So he threw down the gauntlet with another suggestion. “Come up here, Harriet” he urged. John Barton handed her a piece of paper. “It’s the third chorus speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “Thus with imagin’d wing our swift scene flies…” (John Barton is so knowledgeable about Shakespeare, I suspect he can quotemost of the great speeches from memory).

He then continued with his challenge. “You need to go outside and learn this speech off-book [ie direct to memory]. As soon as you have learned it – the instant you no longer need the script, come back in here and no matter what we are doing, begin the speech.” Silence. Then Harriet began to shake a bit. “But John, you know I have dyslexia and struggle with this.” Interesting but true point : Harriet Walter has played most of the great female roles of Shakespeare, but usually learns the lines by audio, rather than by reading them (she speaks candidly about her process in Other People’s Shoes : Thoughts on Acting). “I’m not interested,” shot back John Barton, “get out there, learn the speech and come in when you’re ready.” Harriet Walter’s jaw tightened and she thumped out of the room. John Barton then began to work on a scene from Othello. He asked actor Danny Sapani to recite a speech, and invited input from all of us to best help the actor rehearse the speech further. And the directors and educators in the room then began talking and Danny Sapani didn’t say another word. For 15 minutes. Directors argued about intention of the character, the tone of the language, the period of Shakespeare’s writing that the play cam from, etc etc. And John Barton was supremely quiet. Then, without any warning, the doors to our studio flew open and a frantic Harriet Walter entered.

“Thus, with imagin’d wing, our sift… SWIFT scene flies!” She had entered as requested – as soon as she could put down the script. She spoke the speech with intensity, passion and yet always involved us, like she was wrestling our attention away from any other distraction. She stumbled through the text, constantly correcting the text or reading on our faces that the word she had just uttered perhaps wasn’t ‘right’ so she re-spoke the word to ensure it was valid. She paused mid speech, mentally fighting to find exactly the right word Shakespeare had used. And when she was done, she breathed so deeply we all leant forward in our chairs.

Simply put, it was the most arresting and beautiful moment of live verse speaking I have ever seen. It was messy, sure. It was chaotic, definitely. But it was invigorating and revealing at the same time. We had watched an actor do something almost impossible – learn an epic speech in 15 minutes, only to perform it instantaneously, without any direction. And succeed. After our applause died down, John Barton smiled and explained the past 15 minutes had been designed to show us how easy it is to get it ‘right’ with verse speaking : learn it, and do it. The whole Othello experiment had proven the opposite – how confining and unproductive it can be to discuss ‘intention’ with an actor, rather than just do it. In fact, there had not been a ‘discussion’ at all. Danny Sapani had stood silently for most of that particular process. With Harriet Walter, however, she had been given a simple but frightening direction : learn it, then do it. John Barton then said something that has stuck with me for years

“99% of directors get in the way of starting. Instead, you must create a situation where you and the actors can get it all ‘wrong’.”

Fear, insecurity and inferiority were all things Harriet Walter had to confront immediately in this process in order to get to a performance. There was no ‘safety net’. And for every flub or stammer in her performance, we forgave her instantly, because it actually came across more like a character struggling to find exactly the right word, rather than an actor trying to remember the line. We empathized immediately with her as an actor, and were prepared to allow ourselves to be transported by her as a character.

Perhaps Shakespeare knew this by being an actor himself. Asking actors to remember lines then say them in front of an audience is a pretty much a guaranteed recipe for mistakes. And his audience knew it. Add on to this the fact that Shakespeare’s company probably only had three days to rehearse a new play before it was publicly performed. To put that in context, The Maly Theater in St Petersburg can rehearse a play for as long as six months before showing it. The rehearsal process, John Barton argued, is one to begin as soon as possible, and that means creating situations where mistakes are not only possible, but inevitable. After all, that’s what Shakespeare did, and he seems to know what he was doing.

In the modern theater (if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron), we have perfected the art of insulating us from making mistakes. That goes for training all the way up to performance. We penalize mistakes in school, and instead emphasize the competitiveness of the business. Rehearsal periods are bloated by endless discussions that amount to little more than an attempt to prevent every possible mistake conceivable. Technical rehearsals are rushed, leaving neither performer nor designer the option of screwing anything up. And when performance finally rolls around, everybody in the project says the same thing “wish we had more time!” But do they mean that? Or do they mean “wish we had gotten to this point sooner.” Namely, if we had gotten our performance up sooner, we’d all be better able to handle our mistakes.

Making mistakes is fundamental to the construction of any skill. And like the tightrope walker, skateboarder or skyscraper builder, the potential to make mistakes is a crucible to develop your skill. Like some of you, I recently listened to director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) speak candidly on KCRW’sThe Business about how much he learned from making Cuthroat Island, the largest financial flop in cinematic history. He spoke openly about how his adherence to his ego and its’ invincibility led him insulating himself from believing he was capable of making mistakes. The result was being incinerated by the critical fallout of Cuthroat Island. Being reminded how to be humble, he argued, developed his skill and returned him to the business. “Mistakes teach us more than any success”, he insists.

None of us know someone who shuffles around on their knuckles because of early childhood failures to master walking erect. When we’re babies, we mess up constantly and learn that way. We learn to walk by falling over. We learn to talk, by talking gibberish. Interesting that as we begin to lose our capacity to put failure at the center of our learning process, our ability to learn rapidly decreases. Our brains massively slow in growth at about 7 years old – right when we can begin to form sentences like “I’m no good at math because I keep getting the answers wrong”. Or “I can’t sing, because I keep losing the note.” By abstaining from mistakes, we abstain from skill development. Which is also our talent development…

And there is another casualty. As we tolerate fewer mistakes in ourselves, we tolerate them less in others. Making us a nightmare to collaborate with. I struggle with this one daily. If you can’t be generous with yourself as you make mistakes, you will not be generous to others. And accepting you don’t have all the answers is actually the fastest way to endearing yourself to new potential collaborators. But you have to accept your limitations first.

A close friend of mine was recently released from prison. Inevitably, the whole situation alienated him from many friends and some family. It altered his business forever. By accepting his mistakes and the consequences of them, he has actually become a happier person. He’s even been invited to speak publicly about his recent past, as it is inspiring, cautionary and perhaps even instructive. He is a kinder guy, now. He is more aware. He is better at his job. He is very well-read, too, using prison as an opportunity to read over 80 books in five months. His mistakes, therefore, and his acceptance of them led to the single largest point of growth in his skill since he was 7 years old.

So get out there and do something, as an actor. Don’t wait to be invited. Don’t wait to learn your lines. Don’t wait to be told where to stand. Make a choice. The worst that can happen is being offered a different choice by someone else. But that ‘other choice’ is only a response to what you tried to do, and could not have come about had you been too frightened to make a mistake.

Stopping

(Originally posted September 14th 2011)

 

The image above is a levitating lightbulb that is being powered wirelessly. Quieten your curiosity from thinking about the implications of wireless power for a moment and really ‘take in’ this piece: It works through what is absent (wires, lamp to support the bulb) as much as what is present.

It was made by Jeff Lieberman. He’s an artist, engineer, roboticist, thinker, writer, performer, musician… Remarkable talent. We were talking yesterday, and after about 45 minutes of talking about technology in live performance the conversation moved in a very different direction. On top of Jeff’s many skills and talents, he is passionate about meditation and stillness. Not as a ‘hobby’, but as a centre and foundation for all of his work. The sometimes deeply troubling process of separating yourself from your ego that one must confront in meditation is also a process, he argues, that creates inventive, playful and exciting artists.

Spoiler alert : I completely agree.

But how you get to that meditative state is really mysterious. And how could you work while in it? How much of this state could an audience ‘take’ before disregarding the work as ‘zombie-like’? Jeff is a thoughtful, wise and compelling guy, so I needed to listen a little more carefully. Perhaps I was confusing meditation with Czikszentmihalyi‘s theory of Flow? Art making is traditionally associated with ‘angst’ and ‘ennui’ – two very ego-centric emotions that Flow can banish. That makes sense to me as an actor, because ‘Flow’ sounds like the dream state to be in when working. Rarely, however, is that the state rehearsal ends up being. Instead, rehearsal is usually plagued by frustration and agitation.

But Meditation brings up agitation, too. Successfully maintaining a meditative state confronts you with your own emotional attachments to things, which you must then jettison, no matter what frustration may ensue. This could also be a description of the process I associate with acting : being confronted with your own emotional attachment to things (fame, being loved by the crowd, being better than everybody else, having more lines, etc), which you then must jettison, no matter what frustration may ensue. Frustration, therefore, is not the enemy to the meditative state. It is purely a manifestation of your own self. You made that frustration all by yourself, and so you can also get rid of it. “Just keep breathing” advises the mystics (which is also something you will hear a lot in an acting class).

This intrigues me, because I’m still alarmed at how quickly I will avoid frustration in favor of ‘feeling better’. Students I work with will do the same, and seem particularly resentful when I insist that frustration is not to be avoided, but confronted. It is difficult, but is often the only way to transcend your current ability and gain new skills in acting. But what is interesting, is that frequently you must confront your frustration by stopping doing something.

Much is made of how much hard work you need to put into becoming an actor. No argument from me on that point. But there is an equally as important ‘partner’ to that hard work, and that is stillness, calm and stopping. To stop is to invite in all the things your work is attempting to disarm. Stopping, therefore, is always frustrating and empowering. Because the sooner you disarm your own frustration with a project, the more you can work at it and enjoy working at it. This might seem a bit esoteric to you, and you aren’t alone. There is hardly any consistent body of respected research that supports stillness or meditative focus for an actor. But the few who have tried it, have been responsible for some remarkable developments.

The three that jump to mind are the director/designer Robert Wilson, the discipline of the Alexander Technique (still ridiculed and marginalized by much of the mainstream drama community) andTadashi Suzuki. Robert Wilson’s work has always played with speed and tempo. His exercise of taking 30 minutes to walk across an average-sized room can be profoundly unsettling to an actor/dancer. They are focused on maintaing momentum at a very slow speed, which is alarming to the body and consequently the mind. Though, that tension begins to allow the actor/dancer to access a deeper focus, commitment and attention to their work. The Alexander Technique’s emphasis on posture, openness and breath draws criticism for being little more than “learning how to stand up straight”. But that criticism often sounds centered in a deep-rooted discomfort with simplicity of the work. Instead of ‘strengthening’, the Alexander technique requires ‘lengthening’, and that must happen on a neurological level as well as a muscular one.

Finally there is Tadashi Suzuki. His work formalizing a way to routinely confront your body with its’ breaking point once again demands a partial meditative state to execute it. The technique demands the apparently impossible, and so frees your mind and body to explore the unknown. Again, this may sound esoteric, but there is a rising tide of thinkers, educators and artists who are rushing to embrace this way of approaching performance. What would performance look like if performers eschewed their egos and finally become the ‘Artist’ they so desperately insist that they are? Is this possible in a business consumed with the establishment  of the performer as a ‘brand’ (ie ‘ego’)? And what kind of lure is this idea of ego-less performer to younger would-be artists? You ask a school full of kids today what they want to be, and the answer is direct and yet directionless “I want to be famous.” Not howthey want to be famous. Just “famous”. What is that answer other than an ego crying to be loved by as many people as possible? And we wonder why so many famous performers become addicts?

Im not going to attach a religious belief to this meditative performing state. Though Im sure many can, and will. Live performance has been aligned with ‘the holy’ across civilizations and culture for thousands of years. This was largely due to the physical state necessary to perfom. The goal was to to free yourself from your ego and instead access the universal. Performers could become priestesses, shamans and portals. Performance in the past 400 years, though, has increasingly emphasized the value of ego in a performer. This ‘holy’ aspect to performers has been embraced by some notable luminaries of the stage in the past 100 years : Antonin ArtaudJerzy GrotowskiPeter Brook are the first three that come to my male, caucasian, euro-centric mind. And these three are also invoked time and time again in drama schools across the world. And yet, the performers who emerge from those schools are not engaging with the challenge presented by those artists. Who is really committing themselves to work and who is committing themselves to their ego?

The retort has been made that with camera-based media now saturating the globe, performance and performers need to better ‘suit’ that media. And therefore, performers need to be focused on their ‘close-up’, so-to-speak. And while I agree performance must embrace the camera and its’ demands, I don’t think that means we are in an age of ego-celebration. In fact, cameras frequently demand the absence of ego in order to work most effectively. A few years ago I was talking with Paul Debevecabout actors. He has developed a high-capacity ‘light stage’ that can record thousands of lighting angles on the human body. He then stores that data and ‘wraps’ those lighting effects around a digital character. It means an actor can be filmed in a studio, but inserted into a location shot but be lit like they are outside with the other elements in the shot. He and his team were one of the groups involved in the oscar-winning digital work for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”. I asked him what the most valuable skill was for an actor to have. “Stillness”, he said, without even blinking an eye.

Still, reserved and understated performances evoke tremendous emotion in their viewers. And often contrary emotions. Cameras are certainly insistent in demanding understatement from actors. But camera-based projects also have large teams of collaborators to make it finally ‘work’, and so ‘simple’ skills for performers become increasingly important. Like hitting your mark, saying your lines the way they’re written (and meaning them), finding your light, raising you hand to a precise point in space, repeating exactly your movements from the last take… These skills all require a deeply ego-free and focused mind. You cannot ‘feel’ your way through that process so much as you must ‘sense’ your way through it.

My challenge to you, then, is to subtract your ego from your work. I warn you, it hurts. I’m still working on this myself. Jeff Lieberman had a suggestion: talk about your ego like it is another person in the room. “Oh, you want me to do that? My ego is going to hate that…” Eventually you can let go of needing to honor your ego with constant emotional facilitation, because you start to feel like a cross between your ego’s personal assistant and its’ fluffer… So let go of it, and find the ‘zone’ where work is difficult and exhilarating at the same time. Explore stopping and invite in what you are working so hard to find from other people.

Jeff’s suggestion reminded me a bit of the advice of Tony winner Mark Rylance. In 2005 he came to the school I was teaching at, and he begun to talk about using ‘gravity’ as an actor. Some of my colleagues began to bristle and relegate his advice as the unfortunate but inevitable ‘weirdness’ of a respected performer. But Mr Rylance persisted. When you watch a play, he argued, usually the first thing you notice is how much and how loudly the actors are talking. “If we weren’t in a theater and heard people talking like that, we’d assume there was danger coming. Or that those people were crazy. Our bodies, therefore, respond to the actors’ frenetic sounds in the same way they would respond to danger.” This tension between knowing you are in a theater but sensing there is danger makes for a fidgeting and confused audience member. Instead, Rylance argued, actors can do the opposite and stop. Be still. Breathe with the audience. Acknowledge their state as they watch you. He called this ‘gravity’, because rather than pushing out energy, the actor  is challenged to invite energy into them.

“I’m cunning enough now to know that ‘simple’ can carry the day” – Sir Alec Guinness

Polarities

(Originally posted September 12th 2011)

On Saturday I went to the Media Lab at MIT. I walked through the shops and looked at water-saws that can cut through 2 inches of steel. And 3d printers that can carve alarmingly intricate details. Then we went through the various labs. They were an elevator ride up. Each and every project was remarkable – not only in its execution, but more so in their potential applications, particularly (I thought) in live performance. The Tangible Media Lab was particularly exciting. But then again, so were the giant interactive chandeliers that can be played like harps. And the robots (so many robots…). And the ping pong table with projected fish that follow the ball as you play.

What kept nagging at me, though, was how different this was from most of what I have been working around over the past 15 years or so. And I’ve been working in ‘higher’ education for the past 15 years. What I am used to seeing is students and teachers in rooms that are a little bit ‘ragtag’, wrestling intellectually with something. Even in acting classes (where the greatest ‘sin’ is being “too much in your head”), actors are pretending they are being watched by an audience. They recite the lines and make the moves. But they aren’t onstage at all, most of the time. This isn’t an uncommon model – the ‘studio’ is something you see in Music, Architecture and Art. But somehow those three disciplines all still end up making something. When you go to an Acting studio, however, rarely is something being ‘made’. Actors are exercising their craft, but what is being ‘prototyped’? As painful as some plays can be to go and see, they are at least a prototype that has been realized. In the classroom, student actors can bring in some work they’ve worked on, only to be discredited because their work isn’t like something else the instructor liked better. And that is always unseen by the student.

The first thing our guide at the Media Lab (ML) told us was that the philosophy in the ML is “make it, and then we’ll talk about it”. Fabrication is critical. Because the process of fabricating something actually changes the idea you started with. To discuss ideas prior to fabrication is to alter what isnt even there yet. And can quickly kill the idea before it has had a fighting chance. So the architecture of the new ML building is in itself revealing : the shops are all on the ground floor. The Labs are built on top of them. It’s like no matter how great the idea, you always bring it back to the foundation level : how do you make it? In drama schools I see lots of one polarity or the other – we’re either all franticallymaking a show happen, or we are all sitting around theorizing how theater ‘should’ be and what the business ‘should’ look like. The ML seems to have an interesting antidote to that, by forcibly committing the polarities of ideation and fabrication to work out their differences on each and every project, and each level of every project.

So today I thought I’d try and make a tenuous leap from the structure of the ML building, to the value of polarities in the process/product of an actor. Here we go:

To be hugely reductive for a second, there tends to be two major ‘camps’ that student actors fall into. The first is the ‘structured’ actor. They are thoughtful, careful, deliberate and reflective. They write notes in scripts. They learn their lines early in the process, remember their staging perfectly and always say ‘yes’ to their director. They can struggle with finding honesty and clarity moment-to-moment, but can be hugely successful in threading together the arc of a character.

The second kind of actor, however, is the ‘present’ actor. They are instinctive, intuitive and vague. They are quick to respond, and equally as quick to drop a choice that doesnt work. They sense their way through a role, rather than think their way through it. They can produce fantastic moments, but can struggle with consistency.

Every time I sit down to work on a syllabus for an acting class, or prepare to direct a student production, these two archetypal polarities of student actor loom in my mind. How can I help them? The first problem I have, though, is that they are defined as the opposites of eachother. Because if we mean it when we say that we can actually ‘teach’ acting (something I’m not going into with this post), surely structure can influence presence? And then presence (or at least the appreciation for thevalue of presence) can influence structure. Case-in-point, text analysis for the actor. The foundation level of every acting school is not a workshop with CNC routers and 3d printers. It’s not even the theater itself. It is the Stanislavsky system of textual analysis. It is Objectives, Beats and Actions. Rightly or wrongly, a process to analyze a script is the basis for an acting program.

A cry I have made before (but will make again today) is why don’t actors use text analysis as an ‘acting’ tool, only a ‘technical’ one? In other words, why is text analysis only used a structural tool? Too many actors treat text analysis only as an intellectual process. Let’s use the ML metaphor again – text analysis needs to go to the ground floor, and not just hangout in the 3rd floor labs…. By doing that, an actor guarantees that they will remain disconnected from the full availability their potential promises. If acting school was more like the ML, actors would be required to follow an hour of text analysis with an hour of physical/vocal follow-through. Namely, spend an hour manifesting your text analysis into choices you can actually play. If you insist on treating text analysis as an intellectual process, couple it to the ‘workshop’ of physical and vocal choices that stem from it and ultimately carry your performance.

There is also a counter-cry to make : why don’t actors use performance as a ‘technical’ tool? The paragraph above tends to affect the ‘structure’ actors more. ‘Present’ actors tend to avoid text analysis all together, or they alter it to fit their own process (to coin a term form the TV show Community, they ’emotolize’, rather than analyze). Instead, ‘present’ actors get up and make it happen. But that is a bit like staying in the workshop at the ML without any plans. Performing is a process that warrants as much analysis as the text from which it springs. Performers need to be comfortable with both. Because the opposite of the inate process of the student actor (either ‘structural’ or ‘present’) is needed to develop and grow that student actor into a compelling performer.

Great characters are usually defined by how they change. To resonate with an audience, a character often has to change. Occasionally a one-note antagonist is called for. Though even they are confronted with the chance to change, and don’t. Indicating the character is at least aware that change is an option. If a student actor insists on removing their own polarity from their process, how can they embrace the character’s polarity? All too often, the answer is to mold the character (subconsciously) into a version of the student actor, whether that is appropriate for the character or not. The ‘present’ actor playing Hamlet makes him haughty and visceral, while the ‘structural’ actor makes Hamlet deliberate and sensitive. Rather than both. The ability to change is the defining element for both the actor and the character they are playing. Polarity has to be forcibly engaged by the actor to fully realize their own ability.

The whole process of acting is, in itself, a ridiculous polarity. We bang on and on about ‘truthful’ choices, all while living in a completely artificial world (fake clothes, sets, words and lighting). As Marc Maron points out, our business is about pursuing honesty whilst willfully sustaining the delusion that this business is ‘reality’. If you are going to sustain yourself through a career in acting, you must maintain the delusion that your work stands out from everybody elses and your process is ‘better’. But is it? Really?

My whole understanding of acting developed the day I read the introduction to “Theater of the Oppressed” by Augusto Boal. In it, he argues that to play Iago well, you cannot only explore how you despise Othello. You must do the opposite – Iago must understand how he loves Othello. How he admires and respects him. That gives you the fuel to sustain the awful things he does to Othello. I experienced this personally working on Romeo. Out of desperation with a director who bludgeoned me daily in notes for not believing I was in love with Juliet. So, to spite the director, I erased all of my text analysis and replaced it with all the reasons I hated Juliet. By the time I was ready to go onstage, I was a seething mass of negativity, just waiting to reject Juliet and write myself into the history books as the most disinterested Romeo of all time. But when Juliet walked onstage, all of that resentment instantly turned to admiration. The polarity forcibly engaged itself. After all, that’s what we do in life – we tend not to try and fall in love. We insist that we are not in love, and dream up reasons why we cannot ever really be in love with anyone

The opposite is the key for an actor’s entrance to the inner life of the character. To be a hero, you need to find their villain. To be a criminal, you must understand the character’s deeply held ethics. To love, you must find the character’s apathy. And to hate, you must find the character’s ability to empathize. Further more, each character you play must have consistency and plasticity, sensualityand an intellect, conscious direction and intuition. And a real biggie : every character has what they are aware of, but also what they are not aware of. I saved this one for last, because playing a role is a very personal experience. We defend characters we play as we would defend ourselves. But should we? Everybody has the capacity to fail and be unaware. And yet, those moments are the most endearing and moving for an audience. By allowing your character to fail, to reveal ignorance rather than assurance, is the moment the audience can connect most deeply with you. If all you do is succeed as a character, you are effectively writing a facebook page for your character. And that isnt who they really are…

So the lesson for me from the ML is simple yet difficult to realize : keep your work contentious. Invite polarities into your process and practice. When you are stuck, get in the elevator and either go up to the studio and rethink your plans, or head down to the workshop and make something.

 

“When you ask people about connection, they will tell you about disconnection”  – Brené Brown

Math and the Actor

(Originally posted September 14th, 2011)

Amongst my reading over this past week, I was particularly struck by this article in WIRED. The title pissed people off, and that immediately warmed me to it. As I read more into it, the more I nodded my head in enthusiastic (and borderline spastic) agreement. The parallels to what I do seemed intuitive and immediate.

So I thought for my next blog post I’d plough similar territory, but focussing more on the importance and relevance of math for the actor. I know the original article uses the ‘Artist’ word. It is a word I distrust, especially when talking about supposed artists who are in training. ‘Artist’ is now so overused, I fear it has become a parody of itself. And an actor declaring themselves to be an ‘Artist’ is something I won’t ever get comfortable with. Let someone else call you that (just don’t believe them). Get on and do your work. There is no shame in being a ‘craftswoman’ rather than an ‘Artist’.

Last year I remember sitting in my car listening to director Peter Weir speak to this point. He talked of the master potters in Japan who don’t sign their work. Their argument is that they can only claim responsibility for their work’s ‘craft’. If ‘art’ is inserted into the conversation, they say that they just happened to be have been touched by the divine on that particular day, for that particular piece. But what ‘touched’ them to make their craft become art is separate and elusive from them. The ‘craft’, however, they can always rely on.

So ‘Artist’ aside, what does math have to do with actors, especially training actors? I just left a 14 year run of training exclusively at ‘conservatory’ drama schools. In each iteration of ‘conservatory’, the faculty seemed (with only a few exceptions) emphatic that students needed fewer “distractions” from their discipline. Math was usually characterized as the antipathy of performance. Instead, it was often reserved only for the ‘technical’ or ‘business’ minded. After all, perfomers should be ‘Artists’, and reject base elements embraced by the non-artistic. Their argument went something like this :

“Our students enter school focused and driven on their chosen discipline. The business demands the highest possible level of craftsmanship [they usually say ‘artistry’, but you get my meaning], and we in this school cannot provide that professional level of training unless we have the students for as much time as is humanly possible. That way, our students leave as artists and leaders in the field.”

Needless to say, I disagree with this characterization on just about every level. I will not use this post to passionately defend the merits of a ‘liberal arts’ education. Check this out, instead (she is far more eloquent than I). Let me outline my counter-argument :

1 – ‘Focus’ and ‘drive’ to perform is not the secret sauce that makes a professional. Do you know how many people want to act? Do you know how many kids dream of performing? The difference between someone who is a professional performer and someone who is not cannot be solely put down to how driven they are in college. In fact, many performers didn’t need college at all to honor their ‘focus’ or ‘drive’ to become a professional. And many wannabe professionals are dying (sometimes literally) to be performing right now, were trained in a highly focused ‘conservatory’ school. The fact that they are not working cannot be down to the fact that while at college, their program wasn’t focused enough on acting. Perhaps it’s the opposite – if their program had involved disciplines outside of acting, performers would have more to offer in an audition.

2 – The business does not demand the highest possible level of craftsmanship. The business is vast. And much of it actually doesn’t demand high levels of craftsmanship at all. Instead ‘competence’, ‘willingness to adapt’, ‘a great energy’ and sometimes ‘a really great look’ seem to serve you just fine. Because the business is about collaboratively making something, it is not there to pay homage to an actor’s skill. As Marc Maron recently put it “This business is not a Meritocracy – get over yourself”. The business wants more than ‘craft’. It wants ‘interesting’, ‘crazy’, ‘weird’, ‘sexy’, ‘quirky’, ‘weird’, ‘funny’, ‘obedient’, ‘vacuous’, ‘mesmerizing’, ‘understated’… the list goes on and on. Sometimes craft will get a performer to a few of those. But many times it isn’t necessary, or there isn’t the time to spend on real craft. I don’t think this fact should be celebrated. But to deny it is to make ourselves willfully ignorant in a business that you cannot afford to be ignorant within.

3 – You can train actors their specific craft  in LESS time than four years. That doesnt mean you’ll work, though, I grant you that. An actor needs experience with their craft to learn how to ‘wield’ it. However, let us also be open about how actors train : many times the process is experiential, and not craft-driven at all. You get up, try some choices (often very safe choices) and wait for notes from the teacher/director. If your choices are not off-the-wall, you get painfully few notes (and by ‘notes’ I mean ‘instruction’). The actors who are ‘struggling’, however, get the vast majority of the notes.

Let me clarify here what I mean by ‘struggling’. I am not talking about ability, so much as process. All student actors struggle, irregardless of ‘ability’. And, if we assume there is some truth to what I’ve written above, it is difficult to state empirically that one actor is ‘good’ and another is ‘bad’. Even if you could, they might both work and do well in the business. So to ‘struggle’ in an acting class usually speaks more to the student’s process rather than their skill. This kind of struggling actor watches the behaviors of the students who receive the most amount of attention from the instructor. That may not even be positive attention, just ‘attention’. The struggling actor then infers how they can replicate those behaviors and receive their own share of attention from the instructor. This is problematic in many ways, but I’ll just mention two of them. Firstly, student actors who are copying other student actors don’t look more like the characters they are trying to portray. They look like student actors. Secondly, imitating behavior from students inside a class can result in ego-centric behavior that prevents others in the class from having their own ‘shot’. These behaviors are time hungry – tantrums, sulking, poor preparation, emotionally charged rants, self righteousness, etc etc.

This is a gross generalization, so I understand if you are writhing already. But this refrain is all too common in acting classes : actors with these behaviors get the lion’s share of the “instruction” in a class. The actors who use their craft well, or work hard at establishing their craft, will be supported and encouraged by the instructor. But they are not really ‘instructed’ very much. The actual nuts and bolts of the craft is only outlined, usually through handouts, a reading list and maybe some exercises. An that can surely happen faster than four years. What I think gets in the way is the ‘taste’ of the instructor. Which is hardly surprising, as acting is like any other art and subject to taste. But just using the word ‘craft’ implies the instructor is imparting something that can transcend taste. ‘Craft’ is more structural, and therefore can be utilized by the actor as they need to, and as the taste of their collaborators differ. So the actual ‘craft’ of acting needs an absence of taste on the instructors part, or as close to an absence of taste as the instructor is capable of.

4 – You cannot ‘decide’ to become the training ground for future leaders in this business. Because it’s the future. And the people teaching (myself among them) are from the past. The business will change unpredictably, like our species does. It is a deluded teacher who says with authority that they know that it is their particular expertise that defines “future leadership”. 

Returning to the Japanese potters I mentioned earlier, to call your students ‘leaders’ is to assume you can touch them with the divine each and every time. And that sounds like hubris to me. Instead, let’s keep doing what we do, and if it becomes ‘art’ and ‘leads the way’ for others in our field, that is special. Not the result of the curriculum.

And what do we even mean by ‘leader’? Is ‘the Rock’ a ‘leader’ in the industry because Fast Fivegrossed close to $600m? Or Rosie Huntington-Whitely because Transformers 3 grossed over $1b? How about if you are the body for apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes? Or what if you never went to acting school and favored playing guitar in local bands instead (like Johnny Depp)? What if you’re a martial arts master who found your way into movies – does that not make Jackie Chan a leader in the acting world? And who is the ‘leader’ in The Fighter : the former child actor (who didnt go to drama school) or the former high school drop-out (who also didnt go to drama school)? Or does this word word ‘leader’ really just mean “an actor who acting professors like“? Leader-schmeader….

So let’s go back to math.

Math is a core skill. Acting is also a core skill, though I’ll use another post to argue that point. Math is certainly relevant for every business (the word ‘business’ implies the need for numbers). Actors are no exception, as it is show business. But acting as a process also involves mathematics. Actors are constantly using probability, fractions, proportion, logic, chaos, distributions, game theory, relativity, etc etc. And our scripts deal predominantly with concepts like ‘zero’ (have you read Beckett recently?) and ‘infinity’. Vectors and Trigonometry dictate velocity and accuracy for actors as they work in the movement studio. In my second year of teaching, a mathematics professor spent three months in my class formalizing the actors’ ability to judge positioning in space as a function of trigonometry within their brains. Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicite built an entire rehearsal methodology on mathematical equations while workshopping a new script based on the life of mathematicians Srinivasa Ramanujan and G.H Hardy (A Disappearing Number). An these are just thesimplest examples. Because math is as vast as a language : it is a different way of seeing and relating to the world. I recently ran across this great quote from actor Eric Banna:

“I’m not interested in ‘me’ when I’m playing a character. I’m interested in you; how you see the world”(interview for Meet the Filmmaker)

An actor’s primary responsibility is reach out of themselves and into somebody else. And if mathematics is a way of seeing the world, surely that would be a valuable way to make that leap? Not to mention that because mathematics is a part of many other disciplines, it is a kind of ‘universal language’ to access human experience.

The Greeks put their actors in masks to demand that the performers access something other than themselves. How could an average Athenian singer/dancer/actor (yes, all Greek Tragedians were ‘triple threats’) ever ‘personalize’ the character of Oedipus or Medea? Life was certainly tough in 5th century BC Athens, but they weren’t all murdering their fathers and sleeping with their mothers. Instead, by putting on the mask, they would hide themselves and invite characters in with broader experience than the performers themselves. At the core of acting is the skill to look at the world through the eyes of someone else, and that means not exclusively as an actor, but also as a mathematician, an accountant, an engineer.

Finally, it seems almost silly to have to argue the point that in a business so saturated with computers and technology (built with mathematics, incidentally), a deeper understanding of mathematics facilitates a greater command of the technology that saturates the business. Imagine a world where actors code their own apps with access to their showreels (edited by themselves), headshot and resume. Imagine a world where actors understand basic computer animation, and so can better collaborate with colleagues in the Motion Capture department, or rendering department. Imagine a world where actors do their own CGI for personal projects.

yeah, you’re right – that’s already happening. But not with actors who missed out on math.

How to say Goodbye

(Originally posted on September 7th, 2011)

This has been a long time coming.

Some of you may have followed my facebook/twitter feed. I like to re-post all kinds of interesting and sometimes depressing insights about our business and the artistic condition. As I looked through these posts, though, it honestly has the anxious air of “over-achievement” all over it, which seemed out of place on those particular social networking platforms. A blog seemed like a better option.

So here it is. On top of having info about me and some projects I’ve been involved in, this will now be my online dumping ground for articles, ideas and projects that are stirring up something you might feel relevant.

Let’s start, then:

 

Back in April, I was thrown a lovely farewell party by my former colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama (that’s “the end” I refer to in the title above). During the party, the Head of the School, Peter Cooke, gave me the opportunity to say a few words of farewell. I had agonized over what I was going to say should that very opportunity arise, and yet managed to stumble my way through something that did not completely embarrass myself or the university.

Today I’m starting classes at Northeastern University. New colleagues, new students and yet still I get thrown these parties! And so I am thinking again about what I said back in April. A few of you asked me to type up and post my farewell speech a while ago, though, there was no recorded speech for me 

Matt Gray

mattigray@me.com // 412.596.2992

Polarities

Posted: September 12th, 2011 | Author: admin | Filed under: Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

 

 

On Saturday I went to the Media Lab at MIT. I walked through the shops and looked at water-saws that can cut through 2 inches of steel. And 3d printers that can carve alarmingly intricate details. Then we went through the various labs. They were an elevator ride up. Each and every project was remarkable – not only in its execution, but more so in their potential applications, particularly (I thought) in live performance. The Tangible Media Lab was particularly exciting. But then again, so were the giant interactive chandeliers that can be played like harps. And the robots (so many robots…). And the ping pong table with projected fish that follow the ball as you play.

 

What kept nagging at me, though, was how different this was from most of what I have been working around over the past 15 years or so. And I’ve been working in ‘higher’ education for the past 15 years. What I am used to seeing is students and teachers in rooms that are a little bit ‘ragtag’, wrestling intellectually with something. Even in acting classes (where the greatest ‘sin’ is being “too much in your head”), actors are pretending they are being watched by an audience. They recite the lines and make the moves. But they aren’t onstage at all, most of the time. This isn’t an uncommon model – the ‘studio’ is something you see in Music, Architecture and Art. But somehow those three disciplines all still end up making something. When you go to an Acting studio, however, rarely is something being ‘made’. Actors are exercising their craft, but what is being ‘prototyped’? As painful as some plays can be to go and see, they are at least a prototype that has been realized. In the classroom, student actors can bring in some work they’ve worked on, only to be discredited because their work isn’t like something else the instructor liked better. And that is always unseen by the student.

 

The first thing our guide at the Media Lab (ML) told us was that the philosophy in the ML is “make it, and then we’ll talk about it”. Fabrication is critical. Because the process of fabricating something actually changes the idea you started with. To discuss ideas prior to fabrication is to alter what isnt even there yet. And can quickly kill the idea before it has had a fighting chance. So the architecture of the new ML building is in itself revealing : the shops are all on the ground floor. The Labs are built on top of them. It’s like no matter how great the idea, you always bring it back to the foundation level : how do you make it? In drama schools I see lots of one polarity or the other – we’re either all franticallymaking a show happen, or we are all sitting around theorizing how theater ‘should’ be and what the business ‘should’ look like. The ML seems to have an interesting antidote to that, by forcibly committing the polarities of ideation and fabrication to work out their differences on each and every project, and each level of every project.

 

So today I thought I’d try and make a tenuous leap from the structure of the ML building, to the value of polarities in the process/product of an actor. Here we go:

 

To be hugely reductive for a second, there tends to be two major ‘camps’ that student actors fall into. The first is the ‘structured’ actor. They are thoughtful, careful, deliberate and reflective. They write notes in scripts. They learn their lines early in the process, remember their staging perfectly and always say ‘yes’ to their director. They can struggle with finding honesty and clarity moment-to-moment, but can be hugely successful in threading together the arc of a character.

The second kind of actor, however, is the ‘present’ actor. They are instinctive, intuitive and vague. They are quick to respond, and equally as quick to drop a choice that doesnt work. They sense their way through a role, rather than think their way through it. They can produce fantastic moments, but can struggle with consistency.

 

Every time I sit down to work on a syllabus for an acting class, or prepare to direct a student production, these two archetypal polarities of student actor loom in my mind. How can I help them? The first problem I have, though, is that they are defined as the opposites of eachother. Because if we mean it when we say that we can actually ‘teach’ acting (something I’m not going into with this post), surely structure can influence presence? And then presence (or at least the appreciation for thevalue of presence) can influence structure. Case-in-point, text analysis for the actor. The foundation level of every acting school is not a workshop with CNC routers and 3d printers. It’s not even the theater itself. It is the Stanislavsky system of textual analysis. It is Objectives, Beats and Actions. Rightly or wrongly, a process to analyze a script is the basis for an acting program.

 

A cry I have made before (but will make again today) is why don’t actors use text analysis as an ‘acting’ tool, only a ‘technical’ one? In other words, why is text analysis only used a structural tool? Too many actors treat text analysis only as an intellectual process. Let’s use the ML metaphor again – text analysis needs to go to the ground floor, and not just hangout in the 3rd floor labs…. By doing that, an actor guarantees that they will remain disconnected from the full availability their potential promises. If acting school was more like the ML, actors would be required to follow an hour of text analysis with an hour of physical/vocal follow-through. Namely, spend an hour manifesting your text analysis into choices you can actually play. If you insist on treating text analysis as an intellectual process, couple it to the ‘workshop’ of physical and vocal choices that stem from it and ultimately carry your performance.

 

There is also a counter-cry to make : why don’t actors use performance as a ‘technical’ tool? The paragraph above tends to affect the ‘structure’ actors more. ‘Present’ actors tend to avoid text analysis all together, or they alter it to fit their own process (to coin a term form the TV show Community, they ’emotolize’, rather than analyze). Instead, ‘present’ actors get up and make it happen. But that is a bit like staying in the workshop at the ML without any plans. Performing is a process that warrants as much analysis as the text from which it springs. Performers need to be comfortable with both. Because the opposite of the inate process of the student actor (either ‘structural’ or ‘present’) is needed to develop and grow that student actor into a compelling performer.

 

Great characters are usually defined by how they change. To resonate with an audience, a character often has to change. Occasionally a one-note antagonist is called for. Though even they are confronted with the chance to change, and don’t. Indicating the character is at least aware that change is an option. If a student actor insists on removing their own polarity from their process, how can they embrace the character’s polarity? All too often, the answer is to mold the character (subconsciously) into a version of the student actor, whether that is appropriate for the character or not. The ‘present’ actor playing Hamlet makes him haughty and visceral, while the ‘structural’ actor makes Hamlet deliberate and sensitive. Rather than both. The ability to change is the defining element for both the actor and the character they are playing. Polarity has to be forcibly engaged by the actor to fully realize their own ability.

 

The whole process of acting is, in itself, a ridiculous polarity. We bang on and on about ‘truthful’ choices, all while living in a completely artificial world (fake clothes, sets, words and lighting). As Marc Maron points out, our business is about pursuing honesty whilst willfully sustaining the delusion that this business is ‘reality’. If you are going to sustain yourself through a career in acting, you must maintain the delusion that your work stands out from everybody elses and your process is ‘better’. But is it? Really?

 

My whole understanding of acting developed the day I read the introduction to “Theater of the Oppressed” by Augusto Boal. In it, he argues that to play Iago well, you cannot only explore how you despise Othello. You must do the opposite – Iago must understand how he loves Othello. How he admires and respects him. That gives you the fuel to sustain the awful things he does to Othello. I experienced this personally working on Romeo. Out of desperation with a director who bludgeoned me daily in notes for not believing I was in love with Juliet. So, to spite the director, I erased all of my text analysis and replaced it with all the reasons I hated Juliet. By the time I was ready to go onstage, I was a seething mass of negativity, just waiting to reject Juliet and write myself into the history books as the most disinterested Romeo of all time. But when Juliet walked onstage, all of that resentment instantly turned to admiration. The polarity forcibly engaged itself. After all, that’s what we do in life – we tend not to try and fall in love. We insist that we are not in love, and dream up reasons why we cannot ever really be in love with anyone

 

The opposite is the key for an actor’s entrance to the inner life of the character. To be a hero, you need to find their villain. To be a criminal, you must understand the character’s deeply held ethics. To love, you must find the character’s apathy. And to hate, you must find the character’s ability to empathize. Further more, each character you play must have consistency and plasticity, sensualityand an intellect, conscious direction and intuition. And a real biggie : every character has what they are aware of, but also what they are not aware of. I saved this one for last, because playing a role is a very personal experience. We defend characters we play as we would defend ourselves. But should we? Everybody has the capacity to fail and be unaware. And yet, those moments are the most endearing and moving for an audience. By allowing your character to fail, to reveal ignorance rather than assurance, is the moment the audience can connect most deeply with you. If all you do is succeed as a character, you are effectively writing a facebook page for your character. And that isnt who they really are…

 

So the lesson for me from the ML is simple yet difficult to realize : keep your work contentious. Invite polarities into your process and practice. When you are stuck, get in the elevator and either go up to the studio and rethink your plans, or head down to the workshop and make something.

 

“When you ask people about connection, they will tell you about disconnection”  – Brené Brown

 

 

 

 

Robots argue about God

Posted: September 9th, 2011 | Author: admin | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

 

Math and the Actor

Posted: September 9th, 2011 | Author: admin | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

 

what Im reading today…

 

[09/14/2011 I have amended this post after some great points raised by the students of David Boevers PTM class]

Amongst my reading over this past week, I was particularly struck by this article in WIRED. The title pissed people off, and that immediately warmed me to it. As I read more into it, the more I nodded my head in enthusiastic (and borderline spastic) agreement. The parallels to what I do seemed intuitive and immediate.

 

So I thought for my next blog post I’d plough similar territory, but focussing more on the importance and relevance of math for the actor. I know the original article uses the ‘Artist’ word. It is a word I distrust, especially when talking about supposed artists who are in training. ‘Artist’ is now so overused, I fear it has become a parody of itself. And an actor declaring themselves to be an ‘Artist’ is something I won’t ever get comfortable with. Let someone else call you that (just don’t believe them). Get on and do your work. There is no shame in being a ‘craftswoman’ rather than an ‘Artist’.

Last year I remember sitting in my car listening to director Peter Weir speak to this point. He talked of the master potters in Japan who don’t sign their work. Their argument is that they can only claim responsibility for their work’s ‘craft’. If ‘art’ is inserted into the conversation, they say that they just happened to be have been touched by the divine on that particular day, for that particular piece. But what ‘touched’ them to make their craft become art is separate and elusive from them. The ‘craft’, however, they can always rely on.

 

So ‘Artist’ aside, what does math have to do with actors, especially training actors? I just left a 14 year run of training exclusively at ‘conservatory’ drama schools. In each iteration of ‘conservatory’, the faculty seemed (with only a few exceptions) emphatic that students needed fewer “distractions” from their discipline. Math was usually characterized as the antipathy of performance. Instead, it was often reserved only for the ‘technical’ or ‘business’ minded. After all, perfomers should be ‘Artists’, and reject base elements embraced by the non-artistic. Their argument went something like this :

 

“Our students enter school focused and driven on their chosen discipline. The business demands the highest possible level of craftsmanship [they usually say ‘artistry’, but you get my meaning], and we in this school cannot provide that professional level of training unless we have the students for as much time as is humanly possible. That way, our students leave as artists and leaders in the field.”

 

Needless to say, I disagree with this characterization on just about every level. I will not use this post to passionately defend the merits of a ‘liberal arts’ education. Check this out, instead (she is far more eloquent than I). Let me outline my counter-argument :

 

1 – ‘Focus’ and ‘drive’ to perform is not the secret sauce that makes a professional. Do you know how many people want to act? Do you know how many kids dream of performing? The difference between someone who is a professional performer and someone who is not cannot be solely put down to how driven they are in college. In fact, many performers didn’t need college at all to honor their ‘focus’ or ‘drive’ to become a professional. And many wannabe professionals are dying (sometimes literally) to be performing right now, were trained in a highly focused ‘conservatory’ school. The fact that they are not working cannot be down to the fact that while at college, their program wasn’t focused enough on acting. Perhaps it’s the opposite – if their program had involved disciplines outside of acting, performers would have more to offer in an audition.

 

2 – The business does not demand the highest possible level of craftsmanship. The business is vast. And much of it actually doesn’t demand high levels of craftsmanship at all. Instead ‘competence’, ‘willingness to adapt’, ‘a great energy’ and sometimes ‘a really great look’ seem to serve you just fine. Because the business is about collaboratively making something, it is not there to pay homage to an actor’s skill. As Marc Maron recently put it “This business is not a Meritocracy – get over yourself”. The business wants more than ‘craft’. It wants ‘interesting’, ‘crazy’, ‘weird’, ‘sexy’, ‘quirky’, ‘weird’, ‘funny’, ‘obedient’, ‘vacuous’, ‘mesmerizing’, ‘understated’… the list goes on and on. Sometimes craft will get a performer to a few of those. But many times it isn’t necessary, or there isn’t the time to spend on real craft. I don’t think this fact should be celebrated. But to deny it is to make ourselves willfullyignorant in a business that you cannot afford to be ignorant within.

 

3 – You can train actors their specific craft  in LESS time than four years. That doesnt mean you’ll work, though, I grant you that. An actor needs experience with their craft to learn how to ‘wield’ it. However, let us also be open about how actors train : many times the process is experiential, and not craft-driven at all. You get up, try some choices (often very safe choices) and wait for notes from the teacher/director. If your choices are not off-the-wall, you get painfully few notes (and by ‘notes’ I mean ‘instruction’). The actors who are ‘struggling’, however, get the vast majority of the notes.

Let me clarify here what I mean by ‘struggling’. I am not talking about ability, so much as process. All student actors struggle, irregardless of ‘ability’. And, if we assume there is some truth to what I’ve written above, it is difficult to state empirically that one actor is ‘good’ and another is ‘bad’. Even if you could, they might both work and do well in the business. So to ‘struggle’ in an acting class usually speaks more to the student’s process rather than their skill. This kind of struggling actor watches the behaviors of the students who receive the most amount of attention from the instructor. That may not even be positive attention, just ‘attention’. The struggling actor then infers how they can replicate those behaviors and receive their own share of attention from the instructor. This is problematic in many ways, but I’ll just mention two of them. Firstly, student actors who are copying other student actors don’t look more like the characters they are trying to portray. They look like student actors. Secondly, imitating behavior from students inside a class can result in ego-centric behavior that prevents others in the class from having their own ‘shot’. These behaviors are time hungry – tantrums, sulking, poor preparation, emotionally charged rants, self righteousness, etc etc.

This is a gross generalization, so I understand if you are writhing already. But this refrain is all too common in acting classes : actors with these behaviors get the lion’s share of the “instruction” in a class. The actors who use their craft well, or work hard at establishing their craft, will be supported and encouraged by the instructor. But they are not really ‘instructed’ very much. The actual nuts and bolts of the craft is only outlined, usually through handouts, a reading list and maybe some exercises. An that can surely happen faster than four years. What I think gets in the way is the ‘taste’ of the instructor. Which is hardly surprising, as acting is like any other art and subject to taste. But just using the word ‘craft’ implies the instructor is imparting something that can transcend taste. ‘Craft’ is more structural, and therefore can be utilized by the actor as they need to, and as the taste of their collaborators differ. So the actual ‘craft’ of acting needs an absence of taste on the instructors part, or as close to an absence of taste as the instructor is capable of.

 

4 – You cannot ‘decide’ to become the training ground for future leaders in this business. Because it’s the future. And the people teaching (myself among them) are from the past. The business will change unpredictably, like our species does. It is a deluded teacher who says with authority that they know that it is their particular expertise that defines “future leadership”. Returning to the Japanese potters I mentioned earlier, to call your students ‘leaders’ is to assume you can touch them with the divine each and every time. And that sounds like hubris to me. Instead, let’s keep doing what we do, and if it becomes ‘art’ and ‘leads the way’ for others in our field, that is special. Not the result of the curriculum.

And what do we even mean by ‘leader’? Is ‘the Rock’ a ‘leader’ in the industry because Fast Fivegrossed close to $600m? Or Rosie Huntington-Whitely because Transformers 3 grossed over $1b? How about if you are the body for apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes? Or what if you never went to acting school and favored playing guitar in local bands instead (like Johnny Depp)? What if you’re a martial arts master who found your way into movies – does that not make Jackie Chan a leader in the acting world? And who is the ‘leader’ in The Fighter : the former child actor (who didnt go to drama school) or the former high school drop-out (who also didnt go to drama school)? Or does this word word ‘leader’ really just mean “an actor who acting professors like“? Leader-schmeader….

 

So let’s go back to math.

 

Math is a core skill. Acting is also a core skill, though I’ll use another post to argue that point. Math is certainly relevant for every business (the word ‘business’ implies the need for numbers). Actors are no exception, as it is show business. But acting as a process also involves mathematics. Actors are constantly using probability, fractions, proportion, logic, chaos, distributions, game theory, relativity, etc etc. And our scripts deal predominantly with concepts like ‘zero’ (have you read Beckett recently?) and ‘infinity’. Vectors and Trigonometry dictate velocity and accuracy for actors as they work in the movement studio. In my second year of teaching, a mathematics professor spent three months in my class formalizing the actors’ ability to judge positioning in space as a function of trigonometry within their brains. Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicite built an entire rehearsal methodology on mathematical equations while workshopping a new script based on the life of mathematicians Srinivasa Ramanujan and G.H Hardy (A Disappearing Number). An these are just thesimplest examples. Because math is as vast as a language : it is a different way of seeing and relating to the world. I recently ran across this great quote from actor Eric Banna:

 

“I’m not interested in ‘me’ when I’m playing a character. I’m interested in you; how you see the world”(interview for Meet the Filmmaker)

 

An actor’s primary responsibility is reach out of themselves and into somebody else. And if mathematics is a way of seeing the world, surely that would be a valuable way to make that leap? Not to mention that because mathematics is a part of many other disciplines, it is a kind of ‘universal language’ to access human experience.

 

The Greeks put their actors in masks to demand that the performers access something other than themselves. How could an average Athenian singer/dancer/actor (yes, all Greek Tragedians were ‘triple threats’) ever ‘personalize’ the character of Oedipus or Medea? Life was certainly tough in 5th century BC Athens, but they weren’t all murdering their fathers and sleeping with their mothers. Instead, by putting on the mask, they would hide themselves and invite characters in with broader experience than the performers themselves. At the core of acting is the skill to look at the world through the eyes of someone else, and that means not exclusively as an actor, but also as a mathematician, an accountant, an engineer.

 

Finally, it seems almost silly to have to argue the point that in a business so saturated with computers and technology (built with mathematics, incidentally), a deeper understanding of mathematics facilitates a greater command of the technology that saturates the business. Imagine a world where actors code their own apps with access to their showreels (edited by themselves), headshot and resume. Imagine a world where actors understand basic computer animation, and so can better collaborate with colleagues in the Motion Capture department, or rendering department. Imagine a world where actors do their own CGI for personal projects.

 

yeah, you’re right – that’s already happening. But not with actors who missed out on math.

 

 

 

To begin, then, at the end…

Posted: September 7th, 2011 | Author: admin | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

[apologies to Dylan Thomas for bastardizing his brilliant writing]

 

This has been a long time coming.

Some of you may have followed my facebook/twitter feed. I like to re-post all kinds of interesting and sometimes depressing insights about our business and the artistic condition. As I looked through these posts, though, it honestly has the anxious air of “over-achievement” all over it, which seemed out of place on those particular social networking platforms. A blog seemed like a better option.

So here it is. On top of having info about me and some projects I’ve been involved in, this will now be my online dumping ground for articles, ideas and projects that are stirring up something you might feel relevant.

Let’s start, then:

 

Back in April, I was thrown a lovely farewell party by my former colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama (that’s “the end” I refer to in the title above). During the party, the Head of the School, Peter Cooke, gave me the opportunity to say a few words of farewell. I had agonized over what I was going to say should that very opportunity arise, and yet managed to stumble my way through something that did not completely embarrass myself or the university.

Today I’m starting classes at Northeastern University. New colleagues, new students and yet still I get thrown these parties! And so I am thinking again about what I said back in April. A few of you asked me to type up and post my farewell speech a while ago, though, there was no recorded speech for me to reproduce. Instead, I can recreate how I know I intended to finish my speech. There were 8 points of advice I offered.

Receiving advice, though, is a bit like being given an apple with a bomb inside. You think you’re getting a juicy apple, and you take a bite, only to find the ‘explosion’ of condescension that lies buried in ‘apple-like’ shell of that advice. Not to mention the fact that someone offering advice is already communicating their perceptions of your ability (or lack thereof) simply by offering advice in the first place.

To overcome the ‘explosion’ part of my advice, therefore, let me assure you that it’s really just for me. I am going over these points to remind myself of what I need to keep in the forefront of my mind as I begin a new semester, with new colleagues and new students. Repeating old mistakes (and I certainly made plenty of those while at CMU) is fairly abhorrent, so I figure I should avoid that…

Without further ado, therefore, here’s what I offered :

[note to self – you really need to learn how to write in a less awkward way]

1. People will tell you again and again that you have a) no talent b) no ability and c) no future in this business. These people will also always speak with great authority.

2. Losing something can be much more valuable than gaining something. Though, losing something is certainly more painful.

3. Accepting your own role in something you find unhealthy is the fastest and most effective way to make it better.

4. Denying your role in something you find unhealthy is the fastest way to convince people around you that you are incompetent.

5. Insulating and isolating yourself is the fastest way to make yourself creatively irrelevant.

6. Everybody – including me – will argue eloquently, passionately and authoritatively against changing.

7. Those with whom you work with are often more important than the work itself. Pay attention to them.

8. Intention is not impact. So open up your awareness and notice your impact. Because smarter people than me have studied intentionality, and ultimately the only real choice we make is either to be present, or not.

 

yeah – that last one is Hamlet : “To be, or not to be.” or even "If it be now..."Wow. Pretentious, hm?

 

Anyway, there it is. Hope it helps.

 

Be sure to keep checking in on this blog, and I’ll be sure to keep it well ‘stocked’ with quality ingredients.

 

Lots of love