Archive for Acting – Page 2

Tap Dancing Elephant Seals and a Student Blogger invade Monday Night

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?

Caitlin and Kaija in the first scene of the night from "All That Intimacy"

Caitlin and Kaija in the first scene of the night from “All That Intimacy”

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.

Alex and Geoff rehearsing "Blue Surge"

Alex and Geoff rehearsing “Blue Surge”

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.

Kieran in "Belleville"

Kieran in “Belleville”

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.

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“Belleville” second rehearsal

Ana in "Belleville"

Ana in “Belleville”

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.

Thoughts on “Hamilton” and why you should have seen “An Octoroon”

Last week I wrote that I had been offered an opportunity to see “Hamilton” and that it was “exactly as good as they say it is.”

Well, because I have had some time to process the experience, and because I am, for better or for worse, me, I’ve been rethinking that line.

In college I was offered the opportunity to teach a class on whether or not art is subjective by one of my professors. I took him up on the challenge, probably because I was a know it all, and also probably because there was a girl in the class who I had a massive thing for. If memory serves, my brief tenure as a Theatre History teacher was lackluster to say the least. I remember very little of what I talked about and I remember quite bit of what it felt like to have sweat creeping like cold fingers down my back as I stood in front of a class of my peers, many of whom were at least as smart (if not more so) as I was, including the girl who I had a massive thing for who would go on to do an MFA at a prestigious West Coast school.

What I am trying to say in a round about way is that I believe art IS subjective, but I believe great art is, on some level, objective. While I can’t tell you whether or not Hamilton is the best thing to hit the stage since the stone age, I can tell you what I actually think about the show as opposed to copping out with “it’s as good as they say it is”. In the grand scheme of things this little blog might not be a huge soap box on which to stand, but it is my soap box, so I’ll stand on it.

Hamilton is a good show, but if I understand anything about Theatre History, it is not a great show. Yes, it primarily utilizes actors of color in non traditional roles, and thank god it does.  Back in my World of Warcraft days there was a weapon called the “Unstoppable Force”, a comically large war hammer shaped like a wild boar. Christopher Jackson’s powerhouse George Washington probably could have gotten away with carrying it. Thomas Jefferson has never been as funny or relatable as he is in the hands of Daveed Diggs. And of course, Lin-Manuel (who for my money actually was one of the weaker voices, though only noticeable in the company he keeps) lent the title role a character arch so strong that it was not difficult to believe he aged 30 years from the time he took the stage to that time he took the fatal bullet in the final act.

Pictured: The Unstoppable force in the hands of what may or may not be the first President of the United States of America.

Pictured: The Unstoppable force in the hands of what may or may not be the first President of the United States of America.

But there are legitimate gaps.

Where are the strong female roles in a play that is supposed to be one of the most progressive to hit Broadway in years? There are two powerful females. Renee Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo are excellent women’s voices in a stage overflowing with men. But Goldsberry is limited to two songs. Miss Sue, who plays Eliza Hamilton, is far and away the most emotionally affecting actor on the stage…in the few number’s where she has the opportunity to be.

I know the counter argument to this point would be that a play doesn’t have to take on ever social justice issue of it’s time in one fell swoop. Indeed, to do so would be to invite a failure of it’s own kind, that of generalization over specificity. But I think Hamilton had a shot at being more than just an entertaining and educational musical featuring actors of color, and it missed its chance. I wonder what the voice of Martha Washington would have sounded like camping with the troops at Valley Forge. Could the many letters of Abagail Adams have been included somewhere? There certainly was quite a bit dedicated to the Continental Congress, and most historians agree that her husband’s political philosophy was strongly based on his communications with her.

To bolster my point, I’d like to write about a different production.

Last year, my birthday present to myself was a ticket for the Theatre for a New Audience’s production of “An Octoroon”. For anyone who did not catch it, Octoroon was an adaptation by Brendan Jacob-Jenkins of a melodrama written in the 1850’s by the same title. The play featured some of the most clever dialogue I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing delivered by a masterful ensemble, powerful imagery (including a ship that “explodes” on stage in a shower of white foam balls, covering the first 6 rows of audience), and music by a string quartet seated just to stage right of the action. Ben Brantley’s review describes the production more eloquently than I will ever be able to. For me, Jacob-Jenkin’s adaptation can be summed up in 3 words: Fire on stage.

Hamilton is an objectively good show, but I think Octoroon was an objectively great show. Great in the sense that nobody in that audience walked out and did not feel a seismic shift in their perception. When I encounter people who saw that production their eyes light up as if I were describing a long lost lover. “Oh, you understand!” the conversations seem to say.

What I will admit is that Hamilton is a musical that is one hundred percent accessible. A person who has never sat through a live production in their life could walk off the street and find themselves wildly entertained. Octoroon on the other hand is a much more formidable beast. It required an active audience, one that is not willing to be spoon fed but is hungry to feed themselves on the mental nourishment that it offers. The ultimate irony? One ticket to an Octoroon ran me $40. Hamilton is selling for upwards of $600.

Yes, Hamilton is providing a venue in which young artists can see a cast that is not loaded with white male actors playing parts written for white male actors. It is easy to imagine a ten year old Alexander Hamilton sitting in those seats and being inspired by what he is witnessing. But Hamilton the poor, orphaned immigrant would  have to get in line behind people who can afford to pay for a single ticket what some people are paying for a month’s rent in my neighborhood.

If I were told that I would only get to be a part of one major production in my life, and the choice were between these two plays, I know which one I would choose. That, for this actor at least, answers the question of which is the greater play.

All my friends are getting married or written up by the Times, and I’m just over here scoring tickets to Hamilton

My classmates are blooming. Fitting for an unseasonably warm winter.

One is racking up frequent flyer miles on regional theatre gigs, another is all over my television trying to sell me prescription drugs, the third is swinging in an Off-Broadway production that was was written by a the fourth (who is also starring in it); their production received rave reviews from Ben Brantley over the weekend. Our singer just took off to tour for her new album, and the final two just polished off a few scenes from “Gruesome Playground Injuries” that I would have paid good money to watch a full mounting of. In other news, I scored tickets to “Hamilton” at my work over the weekend. For the record, it’s exactly as good as they say it is. So maybe bar tending isn’t so bad after all.

 

Migina and Sean in "Gruesome Playground Injuries"

Migina and Sean in “Gruesome Playground Injuries”

I remember a director of mine saying that this career gets really fun once you start seeing your friends names in the New York Times. My first taste this wasn’t the Times, it was the New Yorker, and it was a blurb less than a paragraph long that lauded praise on a friend in a small production. I carried the copy around with me for a week.

Now I see the names of friends in print almost weekly. The LA Times, the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Village Voice, Playbill and Backstage…familiar monikers displayed in size 12, Broadstreet font.

A few weeks back I went to the “Greater New York” exhibition at Moma PS1. They are displaying a piece by the artist Glenn Ligon entitled “Housing in New York: A brief history 1960-2007”. The piece is made up of a series of essays about the various apartments the artist has occupied, beginning with his birth in 1960. I am pulled now to the final two lines of the last essay, which read:

I was born here in New York, and like many other New Yorkers I lack imagination: the idea of living somewhere else has never occurred to me. Indeed, to live in New York is to have lived everywhere.

-Glenn Ligon

I think the same thing could be said about being an actor on the New York stage. Hellenistic Greece had its day, Elizabethan England saw the birth of the Globe, and for better or for worse, this is the anointed city of modern theatre. One could easily make the leap and replace the words “live” and “lived” in Mr. Ligon’s essay with the words “create” and “created”. To take the stage in a play in this city is to invite the eyes of the world upon yourself and your work; to take the stage in this city is to invite the eyes of history upon yourself and your work.

“Waiting for Guffman” portrayed a group of attention craving, small town community theatre performers hoping that their production will be picked up and carried to Broadway by a big name producer. While Christopher Guest’s mocumentary can easily be dismissed as a satire of the actor ego, I believe there is a larger message to be gleaned; art made for the sake of recognition will leave its creator disappointed every time.  Truly great art comes from a pure place, a place that does not require laurels and acclaim.

I have a friend who drags a piano from another friend’s SoHo loft down to the West 4th street station to busk for money. Should you find yourself at said loft around 6pm most nights of the week you will hear him say “time to go to work” before loading several hundred pounds worth of wood and keys onto a trolly and pushing it down the cobblestone street to the nearest elevator entrance. His music is transcendent, his salary dependent on the fickle moods of passing commuters. Fortunately for his wallet, it is difficult to stay ambivalent once one has heard the melodies his skilled fingers coax out of a beat up Wurlitzer spinet.

My friends are out there making art. Some are being recognized for it, some are not, but either way it is an honor to say that I know people who are creating great work.

 

Identity Crisis

I worry that my expiration date for working in the food industry might be close at hand. “Two lattes for the Princesses,” my coworker, let us call her B, mutters and we both laugh.

“Two Princess lattes coming up,” I reply, and moments later feel the familiar weight of guilt come to rest across my shoulders like a yolk. On the inside of my left wrist I have a tattoo of the Lewis scale molecular model for water, H2O inked with letters, lines, and dots. The tattoo is an homage to the David Foster Wallace essay “This is Water,” a piece that encourages a reactive mindfulness in human interactions. Wallace offers an alternative to anger in the form of more compassion for those moments when people frustrate or hurt us because we do not and can not comprehend the circumstances of their life.

Princess number 1 and I got off on the wrong foot over the summer when, during our first interaction at the restaurant where I work, I handed her a coffee and she insisted that nobody ever charged her for her drinks. Now, I’ve given out a lot of free coffee in my day, but it will be a cold day in hell when I do so because someone insists they “never have to pay.” Logically I can recognize that the mature response to B.’s comment would have been not continuing to stoke the flame, but in that moment it felt good to diffuse my frustration with a coworker.

It’s getting harder for me these days to grit my teeth and bear it. Direct conflicts are becoming more common, including an hour before the Princesses walked in when a woman pointed to a table we were holding for one of the big shots who dines weekly at our little spot.  On the table was a large piece of paper with the word reserved exclaimed in capital letters and bold print, underlined for good measure , and still she had to grab my arm to ask “Is this one reserved?”

So poorly masked was my astonishment that she actually asked if I thought hers was a  dumb question, and so thin is my patience that I actually replied in the affirmative. “I want to believe that you are a thinking, feeling human being, but you’re making it very difficult.” To her credit, she took my insult with more dignity than I would have mustered under similar circumstances, choosing a different table nearby, one sans reserved sign.

The NPR show Studio 360 aired this interview today with the actor Michael Ian Black about his career path, and two quotes stood out to me. The first was this:

“My mom was Hell-bent on me getting some kind of vocational career that I could fall back on and I was like, ‘No, because that’s what I’ll end up doing. I don’t want to teach theater at a high school. I want to be an actor.”

Relatable in so many ways. I really do enjoy bar tending. There is a rush you get from being slammed for hours on end, from the conversation, from the perfect night when you walk out the door with a fat wad of cash in your pocket and your head still buzzing from the music and enter the relative silence of a city sidewalk at four in the morning. It’s a sense of ownership that is not unlike stepping off stage knowing that you did the work. By the same token, there will be no tears shed on this end on the night that I polish my final glass. My hands are scarred from cuts and my hearing is likely permanently damaged from blaring speakers; my blood is in the bars that have supported me through this phase of my life.

Over Holiday break from the studio, I spent time in Florida with my girlfriend’s family. Half way through our Christmas dinner (Italians, the lot of them — think industrial amounts of ziti) one of her Great Aunt’s friends leaned across the table. “So Tim, what do you do in the city?”

My answer, so practiced : “I’m an actor and a writer but bartend to support myself.”

“Hmmm,” he leaned in closer. “I understand. Your time is coming.”

My time is coming. I wanted to fire back with indignation, the righteous zeal of a person who finds value in all three of the primary ways that I spend my time, but I couldn’t because truthfully, he was correct. I’m getting tired.

Who knows, this could all be a phase. I keep reminding me that any way I spend my time might eventually have value. My first gig out of college was a project for a mentor of mine who was directing at USC. They needed a fight choreographer/movement coach for a play about World of Warcraft. My teen years spent playing various RPG’s plus my undergrad stage combat classes were being called up for action! Combine those things with a high school stint as a competitive fencer, and suddenly I was the most uniquely qualified movement coach in Los Angeles,. Everything happens for a reason, I keep telling myself. Everything happens for a reason.

A few months ago I saw a copy of that play on the shelves at the Drama Book Shop. The playwrights name typed out in fresh ink on the cover, which was a beautiful shade of Tangerine orange (I’ll always be a sucker for the pallets of Sam French.) I leafed through its pages, reading the familiar dialogue, remembering sitting side by side with the playwright during the process, watching her change lines on the fly to better suit the stage action, lines with were now codified in my hands. I could see where our little production had stood in the path of this play making it to these shelves, and even though my name was not in those pages, my blood was in the project as well, a little thumbprint left over the course of three weeks worth of rehearsals in the USC drama building.

What would have been the better move in the situation with the woman who asked about the reserved sign? I’m not sure if I know the answer. The tattoo just up the arm from my water molecule reads, in an homage to another mentor of mine, “To thine own self be true.” I truly want to treat every person I encounter with dignity and respect. I also truly sometimes want to (figuratively) strangle people who ask dumb questions about reserved signs.

Back at the restaurant, I call B. over to me and tell her about my interaction. “Do you think I’ll get in trouble?” I ask, the people pleaser in me cowering. “No fucking way. It was a stupid question” she replies.

If you didn’t listen to that interview above, I’ll save you the last two minutes. The interviewer asks if it might not be better to have a back up plan; after all, not everyone who is working for a career as an artist makes it, right? In response, Black tells him that out of all his friends who stuck with their passions through the good and the bad, the vast majority of them are now doing something that is artistically fulfilling. “Wouldn’t you say the same?” he asks. The interviewer concedes that he would.

This weekend was good at the bar. Saturday was slammed, lining my pockets, and Sunday was dead so I had plenty of time to finish a friend’s book that I’m helping edit and work on my lines for class on Tuesday. “Not the worst life in the world” I tell myself, and it’s true. While printing a headshot and resume for an audition at Kinkos today I watched a man in a business suit frantically fielding phone calls in a telephone meeting. Over my dead body.

My smug sense of artistic self righteousness was quickly repaved with indignation at the $115 parking ticket I managed to wrangle in front of a No Standing sign at the audition location. In moments like these a good plan B would look awfully tempting.

Thank god I don’t have one.

Scar Tissue

Sometimes loss seems to seep it’s way into our lives more heavily than others. The reaper is always there, of course, his shadowy figure looming on the fringe of our awareness, but occasionally his presence becomes palpable.

When I started this post Sunday night, reports were just coming out of Paris about yet another series of gun and bomb attacks, and as I finished it the next morning we knew 136 people lost their lives to senseless violence, including the 8 attackers.

We are actors. I think it’s safe to say we possess a strong understanding of a wide spectrum of emotions as they relate to our own human experience, including frustration, anger, even hatred.

I don’t understand the mindset of someone who takes a human life. That goes doubly so for someone who does so in the name of “religion”.

On the macrocosmic level, around the world today people are asking the question “What about Beirut? What about Palestine? What about the displaced victims of the Syrian revolution, or the one million people who have lost their lives since the start of the U.S. occupation in Iraq?

On the microcosmic level, I have a dear friend whose mother is dealing with the final phases of terminal cancer. A director I worked with over the summer lost her father last week. My own family is processing the upcoming second anniversary of my Aunt’s suicide. And most recently Fred, Cay’s loyal companion, our long time unofficial studio mascot, the undisputed King of the Upper West Side, finally left us earlier this week.

How do we survive an injury? How do we ensure we heal stronger than before? If there is a definite answer to that question, I don’t know it. Part of the recipe seems to be time. Part seems to be determination to overcome that injury. Part seems to be surrounding ourselves by the people who love us, the passions that fuel us. Art seems to play a part, as is eluded to in Cay’s own blog. And part seems to just be a function of nature’s own healing process, the processes that knit skin back to skin, bone to bone.

In one of the many New York Times’ articles about the bombing, a young French man told the story of how he, along with a group of his friends, has committed himself to meeting once a week for a beer at the café across the street from where one of the attacks took place. It was reminiscent for me of another Time’s piece, this one about a day in the life of Tim Gunn, who after the September 11th attacks began drinking Manhattan cocktails in the Twin Towers’ memory, a tradition that he keeps to this day.

My personal vow in the wake of my aunt’s death was to spend the anniversary each year reading through my journals. Last year, on that day, I woke up early and hauled my moleskins to my neighborhood coffee shop. What I found in their pages was evidence that, given enough time, healing does happen. My entries in the months after were almost exclusively about her. I watched as the Tim of the year before first struggled with sadness, and then terrible anger, and then more sadness, and so on and so forth, until eventually the entries about Margo began to get fewer and further between…until they diminished to almost nothing. Many times in those pages I had written that I had found peace, only to turn around the next day and rail at the unfairness of such a senseless death. The reality was the peace came after I stopped writing about it.

This is what Cay said last week after Sean and Migina’s second read through of their new scene from “Gruesome Playground Injuries”.

“Scar tissue is the strongest tissue the body can make – if you survive the injury then the scar left behind is much more resilient than the tissue which it replaces.”

I don’t know why the lessons from class sometimes seem to mirror the happenings of the world outside our little studio door. Perhaps it is an example of our human tendency to apply narrative to our own circumstances in order to understand them better, or maybe it’s something greater than that…and maybe it’s not terribly important to know either way. Maybe it’s enough that it exists.

These are the things that I do know: The gaping hole at Ground Zero that I first saw through the eyes of a visiting fourteen-year-old once contained only earth movers and rubble, and now at twenty-seven, less than five miles from where I write this, it is the site of a memorial that receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. I know that during the two years I lived in Japan, my favorite spot to sit and write was on the steps of a river bank in Peace Park, a stones throw away from the gutted Atomic Bomb dome that stands as a memorial to the destruction reaped on Hiroshima in August of 1945. How unlikely it would have seemed then that two generations later I would be put in charge of a class of kindergartners in a country that my grandfather went to war with. I know that, sometime this week, a group of friends will meet in a café in Paris and clink glasses in homage to living a life without fear. Being human, I’m sure some of them will be afraid, but I know they will do it anyway. I know that tonight, somewhere on the Upper West Side, Tim Gunn changed into a monogrammed bathrobe and mixed two ounces of whisky, a half ounce of sweet vermouth, and a few dashes of bitters into a cocktail that is as much of an acquired taste as its city namesake. I know that in a few short weeks I will be setting an early alarm and hauling my load of moleskins to the coffee shop. I know that I will find more evidence of my own healing in those pages.

Finally, I know that I will miss Fred’s presence in class and our snow day walks together. We often joked that Fred’s suffering was great. What an awful life for a dog, to be lovingly doted on by class after class of gushing, over emotional actors week after week? How did he survive the abuse? The reality is Fred was suffering by the illness that racked his body, yet when Cay would ask “do you want to go see your friends?” the mighty King would still manage to make his way to the studio. He would still lie silently at our feet during each scene, the most attentive audience anyone could ever ask for. This post is for you, big guy. Thank you for your presence; you brought us so much joy and light. You will be missed.

Devour Power

You all have either heard it from Cay or have been the unfortunate if likely deserving recipient of the comment, “Guys, the least effective use of me is as a police woman,” meaning, you didn’t do the work, you know you didn’t do the work, and she’s calling you out. Blech.

But what about Cay at her most effective?  After observing Tuesday’s day class, I don’t wonder what that looks like, and I don’t need a pithy quote to summarize or remember it by.  And it also happens to make perfectly logical law-of-creativity sense: When even one person dares to really bring their fullest selves to the rehearsal–to dare to fail, to reveal themselves, to admit their truth and express it, they tacitly give others permission to do the same, and the chain reaction to that is a marvelous thing to behold.  When a whole classroom does it?  In Cay’s words, and I agree with her, they were on fire.

It’s so easy to take our smallness as a matter of course.  To make it precious even–our personal struggles, the things we have to overcome in our work in order to deliver.  But our big-ness?  Our power?  I am reminded of a quote by Marianne Williamson here:  “We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” The best actors I think either instinctively get this or have consciously worked to internalize it.  In class Cay referenced what a friend once observed about Meryl Streep on stage: “onstage, she eats the space.”  She steps into her power, she owns it, she claims it. Because this isn’t just about liberating your fellow classmates to do their best work (although obviously in the studio’s context this is vital)–it applies to what we bring to the world when we work.  You have no idea what kind of creative spark you may have just ignited in audience member number thirty-seven, film viewer number seventeen who just came more alive because you came more alive.  And the world needs more people who come alive.

When we bring our A game, Cay is at her finest.  When we do our bravest work, she does her best work, and we get the most out of her.  It’s a symbiotic growth process and everybody wins.  So as a PSA, please know that you, yes you, have what it takes to fire it up.  Your light is a great service to the world.

So by all means, bring it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do you act?

Obviously this is such a personal question.  But I really want to know why you, (yes YOU, actor-reader!), why do you act?  And more to the point, why are you still doing it?  Still, as in, you had your chance to cut out, you’ve thought it over long and hard and you’re still at it.  I really want to know.

Because I can guess well enough why you got into this in the first place.  Some personal need that was met more effectively here than anywhere else.  Something that often feels unique to us but isn’t: maybe we needed attention, or we discovered a narcotic that didn’t have to involve needles, maybe our need to be liked spiked a little higher than the other normals.  Perhaps we needed to prove something, be better than, best at, belong, what have you.  Or we needed a way to examine and/or expiate the dramas we grew up with.  And better yet, maybe along the way we found a sense of belonging and community, maybe found some catharsis, a connection to something outside of ourselves, a safe place and medium to express and even surprise ourselves.

But that’s what got you into this.  And I know from my own experience, it is in no way enough to sustain you.  Once the often cruel demands of the business sink in, once the demands of what it takes to do deep, honest, truthful work sink in, the financial investment, the personal toll, the risks, the reality that to some degree or another the hustle never stops, it occurs to you that other lifestyles and art forms exist outside this maddening grind –these things that got you into it cannot and will not hold.  Every actor comes upon the precipice (some of us more than one time), in which we have to reconcile what got us started, and either drop it and find the thing that’s worth staying for, or drop it and find something else.  Either way, some sort of death and birth occur, and for those of you whose rebirth involved staying, what had you stay?

What keeps you going?  Why do you do this?

It’s such a personal fucking question.  But since I’ve asked, I have to answer it myself.  So here goes.

When I observed the Monday day class last month, something about watching Lesley work reminded me  of myself in earlier incarnations of my actor-hood.  Cay talked to Lesley about how smart she is, that she makes smart and accurate choices about her character, that she obviously understands the material, but that the access to her work was still largely cerebral and I thought, “Hoo boy but I know what that fucking journey is all about.”  And if they’re gonna deliver the goods, every heady actor has to find a way to engage the whole system–not just the computer, as Carol Reynolds* so affectionately refers to the expensive machinery above the neck.  Cay in her wisdom and experience offered Lesley some gentle ways to begin to do this for herself.

Then I remembered.  I act because this is the place I get to choose to deliberately let go of control.  That sounds super lame, but I think it’s a little more than just, “ah, letting go.”  It’s passive at a certain arrival point but the space of passivity, and how it is arrived at is an entirely deliberate act; a choice, and that feels worth mentioning.  I actually think I’m pretty chill about most things in life (apart from the toddler regimen–Mama runs a tight ship. Also my eyebrow upkeep–very type A).  But I guess the logistics of plain living, to-dos, surviving, budgeting, the day to day grind–it’s a lot of upkeep just to do the regular things in life.  And when you get good at the juggle, there’s a kind of addictive high to productivity.  But that’s a lot of left-brain-in-charge activity.  When it’s time for me to act, I have to–no–I get to–stop, get very quiet with my chatty mind and body, and actively, deliberately choose to allow access to the murky waters, the dark Jungian jungle of the underbelly of what is or isn’t there, be available to the unpredictable ever alive present moment, to throw the spear into the proverbial darkness and send my own internal troops to retrieve it, to engage the atavistic, the inner child, the inner crone, the feelers, to let the right cortex take over for a while.

Acting calibrates me.

For a time asking this showed up as bad news in one way or another, but I’m confident now that this is a good and necessary question to that will be asked throughout ones life and career.  I’m confident this answer will grow and change as I do.

So I showed you mine.  What about you?  Why do you do this?  You can comment below!

 

* Carol is the Body Dynamics teacher at the studio and general all time exquisite human being–if you haven’t taken her class, what the hell are you waiting for, seriously.

 

Through

Dark-Doorway

What’s on the other side?

In keeping with the inimitable Tim Bell, I also love a quote that is on Cay’s wall, one by Robert Frost. I realized after having taken an extended hiatus from Cay’s class (life, gigs, pregnancy, a baby), that I have been perpetually misquoting it.  Like, a lot.  I’ll meet a young actor with young actor stuff going on and if we get into it I’ll churn this puppy right out.  So as someone who has a deep reverence for words (and for Frost, no less!), I’m embarrassed now that I have gotten it wrong so much and to so many.  It reads, “The best way out is always through.”  But I remember it, or more accurately, I cannot undo it in my mind to be anything other than, “The only way out is always through.”

And you know what?  I’m keeping my revisionist version.  Because in my experience, it is not a matter of degree–good, better, worse–there is simply that you either choose to go through, you choose your fear as your co-pilot, you choose to lend yourself to the work, you choose courage, or there’s no going through. Not really. Don’t get me wrong, you can get a surface result, and if you’re very crafty you can even make it look pretty darn close to the real thing.  But we’ve all been there when it actually is for fucking real in front of your very eyes and that kind of power doesn’t need equivocation, it doesn’t even merit a conversation about itself because it is undeniable.  And for that stuff?  There are no shortcuts.  There is no hiding, there is no going around it, there is no access to the truly good stuff by playing small and staying safe, and the really bad news is that in the end no one can go through it for you.   You go it alone.  And if you’re very lucky, you get a teacher like Cay who says, I know it’s dark, I know it’s scary, but here’s the door.  Here are a couple of ideas on how you might want to open it.   Here are a couple of more ideas on how you might want to walk (stumble, sprint, scream, dance, leap) through it.

But she won’t do the walking for you.  I should know–there was a period of time in my young actorhood that I tried–oh Lord in all sorts of ways direct and indirect, subtle and overt, aware or subconscious–that I begged, borrowed, pleaded with Cay to please just walk through it for me.  I don’t want to do it.  I don’t want to do it alone.

I have had the great privilege of having Cay be my teacher on and off now for over ten years (!), and to look back on that scared kid versus the grown ass woman I am now proud to have become, I see this is one of the great gifts Cay ever gave me and it is also what distinguishes her from other teachers.  Every other teacher I had had to that point was willing to direct, show, puppeteer every beat and squeeze the life out of the work and the actor in order to make a piece work.  And yes, sometimes that was effective…but only for that particular scene, in that particular class.  Cay was the first one to essentially posit, when you’re backstage, when you’re on set, when you’re in the green room, when you’re about to make your entrance, when you have no one to lean on but your bad self, what then? Other teachers tell you which questions to ask.  Cay teaches how to ask the right questions.

This came up in Monday night’s class.  Caroline was working on The Norwegians with Athena, and Cay asked her about who Athena’s character was to her.  And Caroline, being a very savvy actor, asked a good and legitimate question: who do I or have I had in my life I’d want to out a dark secret to?  Like I said, good, legit, smart actor question.

But Cay said, see I’d ask something like, who do I like and always want to be like, and no matter what, they’re always mean to me?

Let’s talk about what’s behind these questions.  Caroline’s question belongs, for sure, and it might even serve as a hook into the scene, but it is just a piece–how that character feels just that night, that moment.  Cay’s question comes from examining the nature of the essential relationship between these two characters.  It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s with these examples that we learn, oh here’s how I can excavate more efficiently, ask the questions that get me to the root of it, to what’s actually happening.  I guess what I’m saying is if the scene is a tree, Caroline was asking a branch question (a steady, hearty branch–a branch one would miss. say, if it was sawed off or zapped in a lightning storm), but Cay’s was a root question–grounded in the deepest dirt and earth of the relationship.

Caroline knew nearly instantly who Athena was to her, and the scene came to life.

Why do I point this out?  Because here, Frost’s original quote holds: there are good and then better, more efficient ways of getting at the thing.  But then as Ann Lamott writes, all truth is paradox.  There might be weaker and stronger ways of getting at it, but the willingness to go there, to go through, there are no degrees, there’s just the leap in the dark.  I wrote above that that is the bad news .  The good news is that this eventually becomes the thing you welcome.  Doing it, going through the woods yourself is the most vital, life-affirming, challenging and rewarding thing you can do as an artist.  You discover you, (yes you!) actually have something to offer this universe.  And that to your astonishment and relief, you still exist after having risked your emotional self so fully. So then the following risk-taking is microscopically easier to entertain than the last.  And the next easier than the first.  And before you know it? More good news: it gets easier.  OK it definitely doesn’t.  But you get better.  You start to even look forward to the challenge, the engine revving, the burn.  It’s emotional weight-lifting to have to confront your own crap on a regular basis and channel it and express it through this bizarre, ingenious medium.   And like any muscle, the hardest part is the beginning, and then you learn to like the burn, and then you learn to crave it, and then your body learns how to burn faster and more efficiently.  You just gotta keep at it.

Keep at it.

Lookit them acting guns.

 

 

Nothing human runs unmingled.

Last Tuesday I found myself looking around the studio, taking in as much as I could of my last class with Cay for the next few months. I’m off to the DC Fringe festival which will take me out of class until August at the earliest.

My eyes fell on a quote we have pinned to the board by Saul Bellow. It reads “Nothing human runs unmingled.” How funny, I thought, that after almost three years and countless hours in the studio, this was the first time I really took in that quote. Like how in working with Migina on Belleville over the last three months I still found things that surprised me in every rehearsal, both in the material and in a scene partner who I consider a dear friend. Like how even now as I write this blog in a coffee shop I visit every day I am just now noticing the shapes of lighting fixtures (little red saucers) that have kept me company on many a morning writing session.

Nothing human runs unmingled.

This piece will also mark my last (official) post as the student blogger. When I took over the blog I was a different person. Different apartment, different job, different value system. That’s the thing about writing; A writer can literally look back in time at the person they were then, hold up their past lives for examination. It’s equal parts terrifying and thrilling. Most people have an abstract idea of who they were based on memories, the memories of their own and those around them. Writers have physical evidence.

I would be lying by omission if I didn’t admit that I sometimes go back through these posts and other pieces I’ve written and wonder “what the hell were you thinking?” But I’d also by be lying if I didn’t admit that I sometimes look at them and think “man, you were were really onto something there.”

I try not to worry to much about what I’ve written or failed to write in the past and I try not to worry too much about what I will write or fail to write in the future. The dominos fall moment to moment and nothing human runs unmingled.

To any students of the studio I will say this:

Take drill. Just do it. Drill, in conjunction with scene study, is a powerful force to be reckoned with.

Acting classes are expensive and they are an investment in yourself. You are paying yourself to be an actor right now, so make time to do the work you would expect if you were getting paid.

Take Body dynamics. Carol Reynolds will change your life. There is no way to put into words what happens in that room.

When it is easy, keep going. When it is frustrating, doubly keep going. When it is a wall then under no circumstances are you to stop going. It’s like long distance running: the days when you WANT to get up to run are not the ones where it’s most important that you DO get up to run.

And have fun. Being on that stage, being in that room, being with friends and fellow artists, all of these things are a blessing. So have tons of fun.

To the new student blogger I will say this:

You will watch your classmates closer than you ever have and you will gain a new love and appreciation for their work and growth.

Your own work will grow by virtue of your closer observance, by listening with new ears, by seeing with new eyes.

You will be amazed by how much sticks without having to write it down.

By the same token, try to write down the things Cay says. Her stuff is good stuff which is why she gets paid the medium money.

You will look back on this blog and you will be sad for all the things you didn’t write. You’ll look back and be proud of all of the things you did.

As Tim the actor,  I say goodbye to the studio for a few months. As Tim the blogger I say goodbye to this project forever. As Tim the artist and student I say goodbye to nothing because I’ve come to understand that each opportunity is a new chance to explore the art, to learn and to grow, to try and fail and try again.  Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

Falling in love with uncertainty

A friend and I were talking this morning about the insane things we had access to while we were in school. A visual artist, she spoke longingly of a massive 8 peddled loom and a free for all 3D printer.

For me it about the space of undergrad and the constant immersion in Theatre. We had 24 hour access to beautiful rehearsal studios, stage combat weapons, boxes and chairs to build sets to our hearts content. Some days I would be in class from 9am until 9pm, movement, combat, voice, scene study…it was an incredible time in my life. But it left me ill prepared for what waited out the doors.

My Survey of Film teacher, a gentleman named Stu Levin, put it bluntly to us on the first day of his class.

“When you walk out these doors in a few years, fifty percent of you will not ever touch a script again. I guarantee it. Five years after that the number will be halved again. In ten years I would be surprised if two of you are still pursuing acting in any way.” I’m no mind reader, but if my thoughts mirrored the others sitting in that room listening to Stu say ninety five percent of us wouldn’t make it as an actor then the zeitgeist was “not fucking me.”

Five years down the road I have to give Stu his due. My social media is filled with friends who kicked around Los Angeles or New York for a few years before settling into something entirely different. And more power to them for doing so. This is a beautiful but tough fucking life. Suddenly the old artists adage that “If you have anything else you think you might enjoy doing as a career, do it” doesn’t seem so crazy.

This is my life now. We had a new bartender quit on us last week which means I worked 8 shifts in a row. I got to work at 5:15 everyday. I poured beer, made coffee, talked to regulars, listened to stories, and at midnight with no break, I started cleaning every machine, every surface of our little bar. At 12:30 I went downstairs to count tips, par out the drawer, and put aside the nightly cash deposit. This usually takes 45 minutes which leaves time between when my responsibilities finish at 1:15 and the dishwasher finishes moping at 2:00 to go over a script, read a book, do some journaling, and surf Facebook.

For anyone not keeping score at home, thats’s about 60 hours worth of my 8 days. In exchange for occasional weeks like this, where I am expected to step up and bear the extra weight of a missing staff member, I get the following: Every Tuesday and Friday off to take class. The money to pay for those classes and my rent and netflix binges with over priced delivery food. Time off when I book a show or a shoot, sometimes with incredibly short notice. A survival job where when (for the most part) I walk away it starts behind rather than leaking through the rest of my day.

This is the reality of being an actor. Theatre school was great, but you know what prepared me even more to step out the doors and into the life of a struggling artist? Having to balance my Junior and Senior years of school with a job in a coffee shop.

I’ve studied with Cay for almost 2 and a half years now. This is longer than I’ve ever held a single job, longer than I’ve ever lived in a single apartment as an adult, longer than most of my relationships. Comparing an acting class to a relationship may seem like a stretch, but truthfully the only way I can describe my experience is through the lens of love. I’ve fallen in love with the work.

I’ve taken classes in how to get agents. How to please this casting director or that casting director. How to walk into a room an charm them as a person and then hit all of the right marks, make all the right choices. Right doesn’t serve the work. Right serves no one. Cay is training artists. Artists with the courage to take “right” and toss it out the window in favor of what serves them, the actor, to find their truth in the character, to leave their finger print on the role.

Recently Annie expressed that she was frustrated with the way she regressed when she left class to perform in a show. This was Cay’s reply:

The path you’re on is “I’m going to be in class when I can and I’m going to work when I can.” And that’s a tough path to be on. But I think it’s the better path to be on. Because you don’t have the time of grad school or a training program where you can only focus on acting. It gives you a more realistic understanding of what the real world is like. When you’re here you have to take the time to do it slow. Don’t obligate yourself to do it right here. Give yourself time.