Author Archive for Vivienne Leheny

Dynamic Bodies

Carol Reynolds gives her Body Dynamics’ students two homework assignments at their first class: (1) to take full-length photos of themselves from the front, sides, and back, and (2) to do a simple drawing, nothing fancy required, of how they view themselves, how they see their bodies. At the end of the three-month course, she assigns another round of photos and drawings and students then bring their Befores and Afters to the last class.

Rachel is hardcore. This is her fourth time doing the 12-week course and for the final class of this session, she’s brought in the photos and drawings she did over the four cycles.

Rachel’s photographs clearly chart her body’s physical changes over her 18 months of Body Dynamics work. Her shoulders no longer slump forward, her posture is notably different, and her entire person radiates a quiet strength.

But it’s Rachel’s drawings that show the true magnitude of her change.

Rachel sets her drawings, one by one on the floor, from earliest to most recent. As she places the last one down, the rest of us gasp. The evolution of her figures is almost as dramatic as Rudolph Zallinger’s classic “The Road to Homo Sapiens.”

Her first “self-portrait,” from October 2016, is of a sitting figure, viewed from the side, legs and arms crossed, back hunched, long hair dangling over a featureless face. It’s a desperately sad, curled-in and closed-up figure. Three months later, Rachel depicts herself standing straight, face forward (still featureless), palms flat against the thighs of her clothed body. The figure is contained, but present. The difference between her before and after is painfully, beautifully expressed.

Her next self-portrait is from late January 2017, at the start of her next three-month course. She is standing but turned slightly to the side, head tilted down, arms slightly akimbo. Her face and body are still featureless but the figure no longer appears to be hiding under clothes. By the end of March, for her final class, her figure is back in clothes but rendered with more shape and definition. Her hair is loose and wild, she’s facing forward, head straight, arms at her side with palms up and open to the world, inviting.

Rachel began her third round of Body Dynamics in April 2017. As always, her face is featureless but her hair is loose, her arms are held up and out at her sides, palms open, just like Michelangelo’s powerful Vitruvian Man. Rachel couldn’t locate her “after” drawing for this session ending in June 2017, but I’m guessing it was at least as compelling.

Body Dynamics’ students get a rigorous workout. Carol’s classes feature a lot of very specific, very targeted relaxation, stretching, and alignment work. Carol invited me to join in on this last night of class. It had been a couple of years since I’d taken Body Dynamics and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be up to the challenge of a final session. But I also remembered how revelatory the course was, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to jump in.

Carol is a keen diagnostician. Between her eagle-eye and acute touch, she misses nothing. During the ball work that releases muscular tension, stimulates energy flow, and reconnects the body to feeling and thought, Carol gently reminds someone (i.e. me) to “notice you’re clenching your jaw” and “notice that you’re not exhaling.” Carol is also funny. When “someone” gives her the fish-eye, she adds “I’m sorry to interrupt you while you’re holding your breath. But don’t hold your breath.” As we wrap up the ball work, Carol checks-in to see if any of us have something to report. “The subtlety of the ball work. . . it just really grounded me today,” Valerie, one of the other students, says.

We move on to partnered hands-on work. This was something that scared me when I started Body Dynamics lo’ those many years ago, but it became my favorite part. It’s learning to truly relax and trust a partner as you alternate physically assisting each other through stretching and manipulation. Articulating to my partner what type of touch or hold I need in a given moment, supporting what my partner needs, and understanding, as Carol puts it, that “we’re all codependent” – all of this was huge for me. It was discovery work that’s had a lasting impact on my acting.

And speaking of lasting impact . . . back to Rachel’s sequence of drawings.

Rachel began her fourth cycle of Body Dynamics this February with a fascinating, expressive self-portrait. Here, she faces forward. Her right arm is curled up and back, palm apparently resting behind her neck, and her head inclined against her upper arm and elbow. Her other hand rests on her upper chest. The only other feature is a slight indent at her right armpit. The image feels wistful.

In the final drawing, the one that drew the collective gasp when she set it at the end of her sequence, an entirely new Rachel emerges. She faces us, hands to her side. Her hair is loose, her head tilted slightly in contemplation. We know it’s contemplation because, for the first time, Rachel has eyes, a nose and a mouth. She has breasts and pubic hair and a seam of definition running between her ribs down to her belly button.

She looks like the Rachel standing next to us, except Real Rachel isn’t naked.
Either way, she’s beautiful.

When I ask her later about her experience of Body Dynamics, Rachel says “When I started, my body was a giant shell that kept a lot from coming in and also from going out. I’d learned to disassociate – I guess a lot of us do.” Carol would remind her that she no longer had to “defend” herself. Rachel tells me she keeps returning to the Body Dynamics work because “I want to experience life happening. . . flowing through me.” Working with Carol, “I’m retraining my body for the world.”

 

The sequence of Rachel’s drawings are up on Cay’s twitter feed @cpatstudio. If you aren’t yet following Cay’s tweets, now is the time to start.

And you don’t have to wait until September before getting a taste of Carol’s Body Dynamics goodness! Carol’s got a four-week Ball Class – a key aspect of BD work – starting in June:

Ball Work with Carol Reynolds:

The class will be open to all (subject to interview), rather than limited to students

who have previously completed the 12-week Body Dynamics course.

The fee will be $200 for four classes, and those four classes will be from

6 to 9 p.m. on Friday, June 15, Friday, June 22, Friday, June 29, and Friday, July 6.

Mask Work

It’s really hard to hear your own voice,
and every lie you tell
makes your voice harder to hear,
and a lot of what we do is lying.
Especially when what we want so badly
from other people
is for them to love us.
~ Nora, A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath

Flashback: February, 2001

We had just finished our table read. I don’t remember the play, or which wonderful actor was sitting across from me in scene study class that afternoon. Cay was quiet for a long moment. “Vivienne, you’ve been studying with me for about a year now?” I nodded. She appeared to choose her next words carefully: “Not only have I not seen who you are as an actor . . . I can’t say I’ve seen who you are as a human being.”

Ouch.

When I approached Cay after class, unsure how to find this thing – this “me” I didn’t realize was missing – she said I didn’t need to search far. I was there, she said, but my “social mask” was obscuring me.

Cay’s words landed. I believed her. But I didn’t fully understand what she meant. I was too bound up in how I’d learned to represent myself. I’d come to believe this representation – what Cay called my social mask – was my truth.

I couldn’t hear – or maybe, recognize? – my own voice.
The revelation was scary as shit.

* * *

I’ve been wrestling with this post on the social mask for over a month. I’ve worked four different drafts of it, all crumpled at my feet — or would be, if I still wrote pen to paper. I’d get as far as that moment from 2001. After that, my writing would stall.

I started working on A Doll’s House, Part 2 for class and read the passage above. Nora is explaining to Torvald how, after she left him, she decided to live in total silence until she could free herself from all the voices she’d internalized, the ones telling her how to think, how to speak, how to be. The voices warning her against the inappropriate. After two years of silence she could finally hear her own voice. “I could think of things that I wanted that had nothing to do with what anyone else wanted.”

I realized I was resisting this post because my acting is still compromised by my social mask.

Since that afternoon in 2001, yeah, I’ve done a lot of work on myself and yeah, there’s been a huge improvement in my acting, thanks to Cay. But all these years later I can feel myself making nice when I fear getting moments wrong – because being “ugly” (in all senses of the word) means I won’t be loved. I slip behind my mask.

There’s a lot of shame in this. Worse, it short-circuits my self-awareness. A director or Cay might ask “What do you want?” My mind goes blank. I think: what do I want? What do I feel, in Cay’s words, “for real for real”? I get static – white noise – in reply.

This feels like a cop-out.
It may be a cop-out.
But there it is. As Nora says, “every lie you tell, makes your voice harder to hear.”

The social mask afflicts a lot of us. I think girls learn early on to fashion their thoughts and feelings in service to the ‘higher good’ of making others comfortable. This can muck us up for a lifetime. Many of the heartbreaking #MeToo stories I’ve read touch on an element of this dynamic and the self-doubt about what’s acceptable, what we allow ourselves to experience, what we allow ourselves to say. American men face their own oppressive set of expectations – be strong, be stoic, don’t lose.

If we’ve internalized these expectations, the social mask begins to wear us. As actors, as humans, it gets harder and harder to recognize our own remarkable voice.

 

(This post was running on and I’ve more to say on the ways the social mask can trip us up in our acting so, following the lead of A Doll’s House, Part 2, there’s a Mask Work, Part 2. Look for that in a week or so if you’re interested. Meanwhile, I’d be curious in any thoughts or stories you’ve got to share about the masks we wear.)

Drill, Baby, Drill (or “Mmmmm, Chocolate”)

I’ve been watching for 10 minutes. And I’m wondering why Fred Waggoner leads drill class relaxation with his students seated in chairs. I’ve only done relaxation work splayed on a floor or slumped against a wall, so I’m curious how you find full relaxation while trying not to topple sideways off your chair.

“There’s a certain amount that has to keep us in the room,” Fred explains. “If you’re in an audition situation you need to find a way to relax.” This prompts Paul to ask how he should handle chatty fellow auditioners when his goal is to quiet himself and achieve a relaxed state before going into the casting room. “What if they think I’m rude?” he asks. “What someone else thinks of you is none of your business,” Fred says.

Direct and simple. Which pretty much sums up Fred’s no bullshit, insightful and compassionate approach to all the work happening on this particular Friday afternoon.

Once the initial relaxation exercises are done, the six students embark on their own specific sense-memory tasks. Arnold is creating a place – and he sits upstage, stretched out between two chairs, doing some imagined journal writing. Justin and Mae are each working on a private experience of pain, Paul is working on substitution in a particular place, Brian is exploring an animal, and Kaija is conjuring a cup of coffee. Fred reminds them to vocalize “to physically unstick yourself.” Moans and yelps begin to puncture the quiet of the room.

Mae is gingerly investigating a pain on the side of her torso. I wince as Justin breathes into and feels out what seems to be a busted nose and lip. During a lull in sound, Fred says, “When you’re working, sometimes you’ll wonder, ‘why am I stuck in this scene’? Well, it’s probably because you’re physically stuck. There’s a tension somewhere.”

Brian is now on his feet, moving his large cat (I’m guessing) up into his human body. His physicality has entirely changed but it’s grounded and true. A distinct character is emerging, one that’s Not Brian. Fred asks him to move his animal vocalization into some text. As Brian begins to speak, Fred calls up to Arnold – “I want you to find a song, start singing it.” At first, Arnold is discombobulated by the direction to sing while still keeping to his journal writing. But before long, he’s integrated the tasks and settled into the exercise, his legs rocking slightly to the rhythm of his low singing.

I look at Kaija, who’s holding her coffee a little above her head. Her absorption in each moment, considering the bottom of her imagined mug, gently testing its weight, is weirdly soothing to watch. Minutes later, I glance back at Arnold, and I’m struck by how relaxed and private his work has become. He’s completely given over to his tasks. And I feel a spark of guilty pleasure, like I’ve snuck up and caught him being utterly himself, for only himself.

A guttural longing courses through Brian’s next bit of dialogue, startling me. He spins out this skein of sound and dialogue a bit longer. Suddenly he stops. He sinks down on his haunches. Then he drops to the floor. Fred crouches next to him, checking in. Brian tells him that’s he’s feeling lightheaded. After a few minutes – and a few bites of chocolate (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYSBPo_mAD0) – Brian rejoins the fray. Later, as the individual exercises wrap up, Brian confirms he’s okay. “It was really, really good there, Brian,” Fred says, then adds with a smile: “til you almost passed out.” Brian nods. “I was vibrating.”

That experience of being physically overwhelmed during a sense-memory exercise can be scary. And like all the delicious, scary-safe stuff – vulnerability, great sex, roller coasters, great sex on roller coasters – it’s intoxicating. You crave more of it.

I was itching to clamber into a chair, not tip out sideways, and give over to letting my body and imagination guide me. What the students were doing individually and collectively was beautiful to witness. I wanted to be part of it.

At one point, Paul, Kaija and Justin, eyes closed, were simultaneously vocalizing and extending their left arms above their heads – an inadvertent synchronized expression. Their voices and arms hung in the air an achingly long moment. And though I was strictly an observer, something physically unlocked and released in me as they sighed out and lowered their arms in oblivious (intuitive?) unison.

 

Drill Class with Fred Waggoner meets on Fridays from 2pm to 3:45 pm. It’s a great steal – and a great gift to yourself – contact studio for pricing.

 

Bale on Body. (And soul.)

Back when presentational acting was still a thing – before Chekhov and Stanislavski and The Group and The Method – the actor’s work was performed from outside–>in. The physical expression was all: gesture gave form and form gave feeling. (That’s roughly the idea.) As a focus on the psychological and emotional life of the character gained traction (inside–>out), a nonsensical debate arose that acting technique is essentially binary. It’s either outside–>in or inside–>out. And never the twain shall meet.

When I was a young actor, I often heard this binary choice framed as the difference between British and American training. The Brits start with fake noses and the right pair of shoes; Yanks start with “remember the day your dog died.”

I thought about this false choice earlier this month when I read an interview with Christian Bale in The Guardian. The English actor spoke a little about his approach to characterization. He was out promoting Hostiles, in which he plays a bigoted US Army Captain working (terrorizing) the western frontier of the late 1800s. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jan/04/christian-bale-i-was-asked-to-do-a-romantic-comedy-i-thought-theyd-lost-their-minds

He arrived for The Guardian interview in a very different body than that of the soldier he portrays. Apparently, he was also unrecognizable as Christian Bale. The interviewer describes sitting down with an “imposter” with “a shaved head [and] heavy paunch.” The body belonged to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Sorta. It was the body Bale grew himself into to play Cheney in Backseat, the film he’s now shooting.

Bale is known for the physical transformations he undergoes in pursuit of character, starving himself to emaciation to play The Machinist, then muscling up to play Batman in the The Dark Knight:

The actor rivals Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis for diving deep – physically and psychologically. He doesn’t do it for fun. “There is a much easier way, but I can’t do it. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t have any training. I see actors who can just be themselves and then switch and give these really incredible performances, and then switch back to being themselves. I find I start laughing because I’m too aware that it’s still me. So I try to get as distant as possible. Otherwise, I can’t do it.’

People who cling to the binary would argue Bale’s approach is to create character from outside–>in. He manipulates his body in order to find the man. But as Bale talked, he revealed his process isn’t exclusive:

In playing Cheney, Bale sought “pathways to understanding” George W Bush’s vice-president. “What you discover when you start investigating any person is nobody is singularly bad or singularly good. He’s a wonderful family man, by all accounts. He didn’t hesitate for a second when his daughter Mary announced that she was a lesbian despite the fact that was complete anathema to his party at that time.’

Bale alters his physicality not so much to fool the audience as to fool himself. But to fully inhabit that new body, to give that body its soul, he has to understand his character’s emotional life. This suggests an interiority of process that draws on Bale’s own emotional life.

Outside–>in or inside–>out? The question informed how many of us thought about technique for too long. Most actors draw on elements of both, crafting their own idiosyncratic ways into character.

Different roles can require different tools, different ways of working. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to limit ourselves, thinking there’s only one way in.