Archive for Inspiration

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.










The Actor’s Vow

kazan-elia-03-gElia Kazan’s Actor vow is something I stumbled across a few weeks ago for the first time. For me it has served two purposes. The first is as a validation of the frustration we sometimes experience in the acting process. The second is a reminder of the power that comes from committing fully to pursuing truthful work in every class, audition, and performance. You can find it hanging on the bulletin board inside the studio.

I will take my rightful place on the stage

And I will be myself

I am not a cosmic orphan

I have no reason to be timid.

I will respond as I feel; awkwardly, vulgarly,

But respond.

I will have my throat open.

I will have my heart open.

I will be vulnerable.

I may have anything or everything the world

Has to offer, but the thing

I need most, and want most, is to be myself.

I will admit rejection, admit pain, admit

Frustration, admit even pettiness, admit

Shame, admit outrage, admit anything and

Everything that happens to me.

The best and most human parts of me are

Those I have inhabited and hidden from

The world.

I will work on it.

I will raise my voice.

I will be heard.

-Elia Kazan

Why we take class

As actors we often take for granted how strange what we do actually is. I’m not talking about the job itself, although a whole separated blog could be dedicated to that subject. I’m talking about the in’s and out’s of our daily lives. Hours spent at Kinko’s printing up and stapling resumes to head shots. Sitting with an open script on the subway and silently mouthing lines to ourselves. Time requested off of work to run to every audition, call-back, and student film that comes down the line. Sitting where my friends are (that is at the end of a cozy bar sipping craft beer every Monday night while I am running late to a last minute rehearsal) my life looks pretty chaotic. And then, of course, there is class.

Class is time consuming and expensive. We’re talking four hours for the class itself, two rehearsals a week, and that’s not even counting doing your own work alone on your scene. And then there is the cost. On the low end a class can run several hundred dollars. On the high end, you are looking at quite a bit more. So why do we do this to ourselves? Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but I do have a theory.

On my very first day taking Cay’s class, wet behind the ears with a brand new pack of ball point pens and a moleskin, the first scene I experienced was from Uncle Vanya. It was what we in the acting world would call a “Monster”. Long, emotionally complex, and requiring a subtlety that is shockingly difficult to find sometimes. The actors in this scene were Migina and Christina. It was an excellent experience because I learned very quickly that Cay wouldn’t be pulling any punches. They were several weeks deep in working this particular scene and, to put it bluntly, it came off flat. They knew it. Cay knew it. And Cay was not afraid to let them know that they were doing work that was well beneath their capabilities as artists. Fast forward four weeks, past increasingly stronger rehearsals, and the girls had the scene as if they were born playing the parts.

Now another fast forward, this time one year later to present day. In our last class Migina and Christina have again been paired up on a Monster. This one is from Othello, when Desdemona sends Amelia away before the climax. On Tuesday they ran only their second rehearsal, and guess what? It was miles ahead of the work I saw last year that was four or five rehearsals in!  They already had blocking, had made strong choices, and they knew who they were to each other. I’m not saying it was perfect, but it clearly showed an advancement in the speed and depth at which they are now working compared to this time last year. They had grown as artists and the growth was impressive.

Back to my original query: why do we take class when we could be sipping craft beer in Brooklyn? Well why do painters do dozens of pieces in the same style? Why do professional athletes hire personal trainers? Why do composers often work within the same genera? I think it’s because there is ALWAYS room for growth. Being able to do something once is luck. Being able to repeat it is proficiency. Being able to tap into it anytime is mastery. It’s fitting that the quote “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity” is by Seneca, a Roman Playwright. We actors recogonize that we are first and foremost artists. Any self respecting artist knows that there is as much value in the practice of art as there is in the execution. Class is about the opportunity to practice, to work over and over on those places we know are weak. It is a safe place to try out every choice and impulse and quite often to fail spectacularly. In the failures we become stronger, learn to work faster and more fearlessly, and when that opportunity eventually presents itself, the actor who has preparation is going to beat the one who doesn’t every time.

Notes from Tuesday Evening

This week I caught up with the Tuesday night’s class.

First up were Kayla and Pam, working on Craig’s Wife by George Kelly.  In the scene, Kayla’s mother is terminally ill. Kayla has a strong preparation for the inner object of the mother and was able to access it effectively. Pam found the rehearsal made clear what was working and what inner objects still needed to be created.

Second up was a reading from The Scene by Theresa Rebeck. Lesley and Frank were relaxed, connected and the first read was very funny.  When Cay asked the actors what they were working for, Frank said he was working for who Lesley is to him; he was concerned that he could feel it come and go.  Cay had these words for approaching this substitution.

“It’s like a leaf in the wind. Sometimes you see the underside, sometimes the top of it, sometimes you see just the side. Don’t try to hold it fast, let it appear and disappear.”

In the first reading Lesley was very connected to the inner object of the baby her character is planning to adopt. Cay asked her to try this rehearsal technique:

“Tap into what is strongest (in this case, the baby), and start again, even if you think it ”wrong” for the circumstances at the top of the scene.  You’ve got to get the hook in you.  Then you’re “underneath” and can find the shared space between you and the character.

Lesley was much more connected, her truth was infectious and both actors made discoveries.

Third up were Lauren and Ryan doing a reading from Great Falls by Lee Blessing.  Ryan was comfortable and relaxed, working well. Lauren is new to class; after the first read Cay asked her to do it again working for her listening and responding, allowing the scene to grow and change. Lauren took this note really well and both actors were more open and receptive to each other the second time through.

Caroline and David were working on The Proposal by Anton Chekhov. The actors had a very successful, very funny first read. The scene demands a certain tempo, it culminates with one of those zippy comedic fights  that builds and builds till both characters are shouting single word phrases at each other. Cay reminded the actors to make sure that they don’t get seduced by the tempo in their early rehearsals. Even though it is crucial to make the comedy work, like everything else they must first find what things mean to them  and work moment-to-moment.

The class ended with Ronell, a new student, doing a monologue from Before Hits Home by Cheryl L West. After his first pass, Cay had him do it again directing it to another actor in class. Ronell found that the second time through he felt much more genuine and connected. The piece was from a monologue book and Cay encouraged him to find material from an actual play. She said the piece had a, “feel sorry for me” quality and that those pieces in the audition situation make the auditor want to distance themselves from the actor. Not what you want to go for in the audition!

I believe in the personal

While I was thinking what I wanted to write about in my first blog for our revamped (thank you James Donegan and Mike Levy!) website, I went hunting for a quote I love from Eudora Welty about the task of the artist. But before I found it, I came across another of hers that struck so deep a root in me that I changed my plans.

Here it is:

“I believe in it, and I trust it too and treasure it above everything, the personal, the personal, the personal. I put my faith in it not only as the source, the ground of meaning in art, in life, but as the meaning itself.”
— Eudora Welty

It’s only logical that I would find inspiration for actors in the words of a writer advising other writers, because I observe, like many others, that the actor now has a different role in the creative process. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the work of the actor expanded as playwriting changed and required greater inner life. Think Chekhov. With the advent of psychology, the audience became more aware of a character’s interior journey. With electricity in theaters, actors could now be more brightly lit than the audience, isolating them in light. While there still were pieces that required presentational performances, the demand for truthful work grew as audiences watched films and fell in love with the close-up, where the camera took them into the character’s personal space.

I am reminded of a class I recently taught, and of the repetitive nature of the notes I was giving. “Personalize, personalize, personalize.” It had turned into a “theme” class because the work felt very safe. The actors made choices that were “correct” for the material, and though truthful, seemed opaque to me. They lacked that extra something that brings things truly alive. As we worked through their scenes for each of them to find that hook that connects one deeply to the role, the characters seemed to jump off the stage. Those generous actors left a little of themselves up there.

Who could ask for more?

What Makes Somebody Right for Something?

“The casting director told me I wasn’t right for that part.”
“I’m afraid of being ‘typed’.”
“My agent keeps sending me out on stuff I’m not right for.”

You’ve heard those expressions many times. But do you know what people are talking about? Do you know what you’re right for as well as what you’re not so right for?

A few thoughts.

You are right for something when you make the material work better with you than without you, when several of the following elements illuminate the role in that particular project. These elements are always in flux and have
different ascendancy in each actor at different times in their careers: physical type, training, life experience, work experience, personal quality and being ‘ready to work.’ There are more, but these cover the basics.

To define these elements:

Physical Type: The genetic recipe you’ve inherited and what you’ve done with it. These things about your person cannot easily be altered for a given production, including height, weight, body type, coloring, distinctive
physical or facial characteristics. Some actors are more changeable than others and some projects have the luxury of more time and money to help an actor in this regard.

Training: The younger the actor, the more important the training is in this mix because it gives you the window through which you view the a role and helps determine what tools you have to execute your discoveries. The more
you work, the more you live, the more kinds of actors and directors you’re exposed to, the more classes you take, the less prominent the initial training becomes.

Remember every technique that’s been around for a while was developed in response to the material being written and the technology the actors had to use. So it only makes sense that different people respond to different
techniques and different material calls for different techniques. You can’t work on Greek drama and a contemporary slice of life screenplay with only the same tools.

Life Experience: Here’s a good example of how life experience plays and doesn’t play into the notion of what you’re right for. Years ago, in one of my first jobs as a casting director, we got to call backs with three men
being seriously considered for the role of “Bruno,” a New York City cop, age 29 who still lives at home. Bruno moves out at the end of the play.

These three were excellent actors, but of very different kinds. Two of the men were 36 years old but both certainly looked young enough to play 29. However, one of them came off as too old because his physical life was very parental. It communicated something that said this guy didn’t still live with his mother. And even though he was given the note before call backs to alter some things physically, it just didn’t work because he was a parent in life, and he was the kind of actor who drew heavily on himself. He couldn’t lose the paternal stance without losing something truthful in the work. The other 36 year old was considered not so right physically, that he was a little too finely grained or fragile for a NYC policeman. The last actor was in his 40’s, looked too old for the part but had come up with a great interpretation. He too was a parent, but he had greater physical training and didn’t have to use himself as he did in daily life. He worked more from his imagination and his physicality. We could have gone with him despite his being wrong physically because of his work.

We wound up casting the second actor. He’d come up with a terrific idea that I might describe this way: he was on his way to leaving the family home, he was just a little slow. It took him the whole play to get out the door. We used him because his idea made the material work the best. Every second of his performance agitated from his intention to get out on his own.

Some actors personalize in a way that draws heavily on their life experience, some work more from the imagination or a created sensory reality, some work more from the intellect. I think good actors need some of all these techniques and the industry need all kinds of actors.

Work History: I think this is fairly obvious. You grow from each role you do, each situation you’re in, each set of actors, directors, writers, designers, etc., that you work with. This gives you more to draw from.

Personal Quality: I would define it as that which comes through, no matter what role you’re working on or what techniques you’re using. Some actors have a very strong personal quality, some are more mutable, but you all have one.

Ready to Work: I could do a whole piece on this subject by itself. You’re ready to work when you have the skills to execute what you are cast as; you’re ready to work when you can be hired to perform a service — bringing this part alive — without asking the business to solve some unconscious dilemmas for you. For example, to use a cliche, lots of people go into acting because they want some sort of approval. It’s very hard to stay in acting for that reason.

Hope this offers some food for thought.

The Callback

You got called back? Great! Now what?

It’s been my experience that the most common mistake people make in the call back is in NOT CLAIMING THE PART.

What’s claiming the part? Going far enough with your choices that a real interpretation emerges. Putting your stamp on a role. Doing enough homework so that you can reach a little farther than some one else, in essence saying, “This part is mine.” Connecting enough with director, writer, producer that they know you’ll be an asset, a contributor to the production. Getting real life in you for the role and being up to whatever technical requirements the material demands.

If you’ve got this going for you, you cannot be denied.

But very often, I see actors sabotage themselves in the call back by trying to repeat what they did at the previous audition instead of ADVANCING what they did in the previous audition.

The actor is probably doing what he or she has been taught: do what you did
before and don’t change anything! This is fear-based thinking. I think people who give this advice are forgetting that the auditors’ expectations have risen, often unconsciously, during the course of casting. Look at it this way: when you’ve seen a scene over and over, either in class or performance, you come to understand the material very deeply. And no matter how terrific the actors are, no matter how much you try to give over to them completely in this moment, you know what else is possible. The auditor knows too and can’t pretend they don’t. And they don’t have the actor’s training to stay in the present and unring the bell.

So what do you do if you get called back?

  • See if you can get some notes or guidance for the next audition from the director or casting director.
  • If you can’t get that, continue in the same direction, but make your
    choices deeper, more personal and more specific.
  • Wear the same thing if it helps you, but don’t be afraid to wear something different if your interpretation has advanced. If you can’t tell, do your preparation and go to your closet. See what feels right.
  • Do the work, do the work, do the work. Being less than prepared is a good way to soothe your ego if you don’t get the part, but it’s a lousy way to build a career.
  • It’s a subjective business, so don’t take it on if you don’t get a part. Chances are, it has nothing to do with what you can control. Control the things you can: your level of preparation, your commitment and concentration.

Take the adjustment that the part is yours. And it is. For those ten minutes, it’s your baby. Make it your own.

The Click

One of my colleagues told me a story about working with Liza Minelli, and some advice she passed on to him that she’d gotten from her father, the wonderful director, Vincent Minelli. “Do something interesting in the first minute you’re on.” We both laughed at the simplicity and difficulty of doing just that. And I told my friend how that corresponded to something I’d learned as a young director: Make sure you build in a moment that really works during the first few minutes of a performance, so the audience can give over to the actors. There’s a distinct click that takes place when the audience surrenders, and that’s got to happen in the first few minutes or you’ve lost them.

What happens?

In a comedy, we recognize the click in the first solid laugh; in a drama, when they grow quiet and settle in to listen. But you can’t just drop your pants or enter weeping to get them involved. If you do something extravagant without it being IN CONTEXT, you’ll alienate the audience.

So how can actors apply Mr. Minelli’s advice? Good actors, not just writers and directors, care about these early moments of their work, in performance, in auditions, even in rehearsal.

My theory is that THE AUDIENCE SURRENDERS WHEN THEY FEEL THE ACTORS HAVE MASTERY OVER TIME AND PLACE, over circumstance. Remember the delicious feeling you get when you’ve stolen away to an afternoon performance and become completely absorbed? You’re actually shocked when you leave the theatre and discover it’s still daytime! Because you weren’t in the theatre, you were WHERE and WHEN the actors made you believe they were – Bedford Falls, Ridgemont High or Illyria, lady.

This is true of both realistic and stylized material. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a gritty crime drama or a musical comedy with no fourth wall and the actors directly addressing the audience, you can’t tell a story without establishing time and place. We can’t give up our reality unless yours is more compelling.

Want to try an experiment? Try to tell a story without citing time and place in the first couple of sentences. Try to tell a dream you’ve had, a joke, a memory. It’s all but impossible to set it up without time and place.

“We were on the front porch at sunset when . . . .”
“It was a dark and stormy night . . . .”
“A rabbit and a goat walk into a bar . . . .”

It’s how human beings tell stories.

Of course, actors are more than telling a story, they’re living out an arranged version of a particular story. Accordingly, you’ve got to do more than SHOW us time and place, you’ve got to be embedded in all the elements of circumstance: who, what, why, when and where. In class, I encourage the actors to select an opening moment that establishes time and place, grounds them in “the moment before,” and forces them to commit (you can’t back off a good opening moment). Here’s what one of my favorite students did with a monologue from “The Beaux Stratagem.” She was going to use this in an audition, so she had to be efficient and keep her work somewhat contained.

She enters and sits, carrying two small props that have been concealed in her pockets. She snaps open her fan (and she knows how to use it, so it makes a good and focusing noise), and starts reading to herself from a tiny leather-bound book, possibly a book of poetry. Her sensory work is good, so we quickly understand that she’s an urban person outdoors, trying to do a very indoor activity. Suddenly, she slaps her fan at her book and wrist, killing what seems to be a horrible insect. She turns over her fan, sees the dead, disgusting thing and says her first line, “Country pleasures? Racks and torments.”

Really brings that moment alive. Hear the click?

Rehearsal Parallels Development Stages

I’m one of those who believe that good work in rehearsal parallels the same stages of development that a human being goes through in process of maturation. For example, there’s a baby stage, where the work is about connection, about you and an “other,” a toddler phase when you first get on your feet and begin to explore your environment and so on. Of course these stages aren’t always consecutive, but in a rehearsal period, a good actor can use this premise as a yardstick to feel out what he or she is missing, where he or she needs to go next.

Do You Give Good Audition?

Click True or False.

This is a shortened version of a test I give on the first day of Audition Class.

True  False I hate it when the auditor asks me, “What have you been doing lately?”
True  False I behave professionally and never waste the auditor’s time with chat about something other than the business.
True  False I let the auditor set the tone for the audition.
True  False If I can figure out what they want, I can give it to them.
True  False I repeat exactly what I did in the previous audition if I get called back.
True  False I hate people who sell themselves, but that’s what you have to do to get work.
True  False I have a hard time remembering the names of the  people conducting the audition.
True  False I feel good when I’ve shown my range during an audition.
True  False Acting in an audition isn’t real acting.
True  False If I had an agent with some clout, things would be a lot different.

I think the more often you answered “False”, the better off you are. This isn’t the forum to go into a lengthy discussion about why I think that, but class is.

If you answered “True” to a lot of these questions, if you’re not booking from your auditions, if your work isn’t up to par or if you know you’re either too passive or too defensive to see the business accurately, maybe the audition class is for you.