There is a power that comes from knowing what it feels like to be truthful and vulnerable onstage. Conversely, there is a sense of frustration that goes along with that power when an actor can sense that they are not as truthful and vulnerable as they are capable of being. Both Kieran and Ana of the Monday night class are of this tribe, as are many of the students who work with Cay. Recently I got together with a friend who has been taking an acting intensive at a different studio. The instructor at this studio worked through aggressive pursuit of the truth, often stopping scenes before the first lines of dialogue had been spoken. The friend recounted stories of being told to describe deeply personal events in front of the class, of being asked to strip naked, of moment after moment of being forced to step out of his comfort zone. Is this crazy, he wanted to know? Should he be concerned?
The Monday night class at the beginning of this month featured two guests. The first was myself, sitting in the back row, scratching away on the pages of my notebook.
The second guest took the form of a repetitive stomping sound upstairs, which may or may not have been a cross fit class designed for elephant seals.
“There’s a BUNCH of them!” Kieran muttered at the ceiling, before charging out of the room to fulfill his duties as class monitor by asking the elephant seals to tread a little bit lighter.
(This was one of many excellent quotes by Kieran on Monday night. Highlights include “Does anyone know how to break a heartburn pill in half?” before class began, and “Maybe there was a strong gust of wind?” in reference to his [slightly] tardy scene partner.)
Magic happens when an actor takes an environmental distraction that is out of their control and turns it into a circumstance that feeds their scene. It takes a disciplined type of artist to not become flustered, and during Alex and Geoff’s “Blue Surge” scene the drumming would have been a distraction if not for a well timed glance up by Geoff during a particularly tense moment. With an upwards flick of his eyes our little studio is suddenly believable as the squalid apartment of Geoff’s character stuck in a dead end policing job.
Kieran’s own scene was from “Belleville”, a play that I hold near to my heart after my own work on it with Migina last year. Their scene comes from the end of the play, an epic sequence that begins with the revelation of a lie and ends in a suicide. It is in Cay’s own words, a monster of a scene, and after a pair of starts and stops in the rehearsal process he and Ana (who did not get blown away by a strong gust of wind) manage to get through the whole piece. They are both visibly frustrated when they finish.
Cay offers Ana the chance to speak first.
Ana: I feel disconnected…like okay, I don’t know what’s happening here, and I don’t want to swallow the whole chunk…
Cay: Well, what I’m seeing is that you are working off the moment without any inner objects in place. Sometimes working off the moment is is enough. But this play is a massive role, and this is a dramatic moment, and I think it would be difficult to get enough from just the scene.
Ana: I’m still looking for the feeling of…
She takes a moment and uses her hands to indicate the whole room, her partner, herself.
Cay: Well I don’t think you have to look for feeling, I think you have to look for a stimulus.
Ana: What’s the difference between stimulus and a feeling?
Cay: A stimulus causes a feeling.
Ana: My fear is that the stimulus won’t always be there.
Cay: When you find the feeling does it always stay?
Ana: Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.
Cay: What I’m saying is with a feeling you’ll recognize that the engine is going, the the feeling is there and now it’s time to act. You want to get something that has a handle that you can pick up and return to. Those things can be phrases, a piece of music, a moment of physicalization…
She pauses for a second to think.
Cay (cont’d): Have you ever been hung over? What is the dominate physical response?
Ana: It’s in my…
Her hands find the top of her head, and then move to massage her stomach.
Cay: Okay, that is what you’re working for here. The desire to eat, to lay down, the pain in your upper back.
At this point, Cay tells us a story about one of the few times she has ever been truly hung over. She tells it somewhat regularly in class, so I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me sharing some minor details here, including the punch line which is that after spending hours on a couch in a hangover hole she finally pulled her faculties together enough to find who the tiny voice in her apartment crying “Help. help.” for the last few hours had been. The answer was herself.
In response, Ana relates a personal story about the experience of being hung over during a particularly difficult day. One detail sticks out in particular, a trash can, and after she finishes her story, Cay has the class trash can moved so that it is next to her on the couch.
Cay: Okay. Look at the trash can. Does it give you anything?
Ana: It makes me really sad. Because I remember the funeral.
She begins massaging her stomach with her open hands.
Ana (cont’d): I have something but I don’t know what it means yet.
Cay: You don’t need to know what it means yet, you need to know that it gives you something.
Kieran and Ana’s begin the scene again, this time with a new level depth that had been missing previously. Not that their scene had lacked it entirely. I sometimes compare the process of discovery in Cay’s class to wood working; the use of a physical object for stimulus was a planer shaving off another layer of warped surface to reveal the healthy, raw grain below.
Cay asks Ana how this rehearsal felt compared to the last rehearsal.
Ana: It’s the same thing every time, Cay. I’m like here, and then I’m all over here, and then I’m like “okay Ana, let’s calm down and listen to the nice lady…” I was afraid to go there one hundred percent. Most of my life right now is auditioning, so I’m used to tying things to people and memory.
Cay laughs at this.
Cay: The nice lady does know what she’s talking about sometimes. When you looked at the wastebasket it seemed to give you something. What I was trying to give you was that there could be stimulus outside of yourself, and if you find a stimulus that can get you there it will be more reliable than simply looking for a feeling. The stimulus can take you to the people and memories.
To return to the question I posed at the top of this piece, is there a difference between the teacher that my friend is now studying with and what the teachers at the Caymichael Patten studio are doing? Is one better than the other?
For whatever my opinion is worth, no, it’s not crazy, and neither way is more or less correct. Acting defies decryption at every turn, in the same way that painting and music and all other art forms do. You can not understand because you can not crawl into the head of the individual performer.
Again, for whatever my opinion is worth, a good acting teacher will tell you at first meeting that acting can not be taught. It can be rehearsed, it can be experienced, you can try at it and fail at it and try again and succeed.
With rare exceptions, a piece of woods will not turn itself into a chair. It requires a carpenter to guide it, to shape and smooth it, to apply layers of lacquer or wax as a sealant.
One of the other moments that caught my attention on Monday night came from the very first scene from the play “All This Intimacy”. Caitlin and Kaija played two sisters, one seeking the other’s blessing for her impending wedding. After the first run Cay poses a question to Kaija about what her character wants out of the scene.
Cay: You want something. What do you want? You want her blessing you tell her straight out. You want your family to be there for you.
Kaija: Unless you don’t.
Cay: Unless you don’t. But why would you as an actor lower your stakes like that?
It is easy to imagine, in a different class setting, a teacher yelling the words “RAISE YOUR STAKES!” at an actor who isn’t quite invested enough in their character’s needs. It is easy to imagine because I have been in those classes. They are using different tools in the pursuit of the same result: artists who know how to behave truthfully under imaginary circumstances. When I last spoke to Cay she told me Ana had recently booked a role on a pilot. I was not surprised.
The teacher the friend in the story at the top was describing is the woodworker who prefers the mallet and the belt sander. Cay’s tools are the hand planer and the carving knife. Each will get the job done, in time.