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