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.