Archive for Student Blog – Page 2

What do the Royal Shakespeare Company and Snowboarding have in common?

“Mammals are born with two instinctive fears;  sudden loud noises, and fear of falling.”

What does this have to do with acting? I found myself asking this question when Cay brought it up this last week.

“When a child is born their immediate instinct is to grasp anything near them. Grasping is the natural reacting to falling, a fear ingrained in us from our time spent living in trees. Actors like to grasp two things: moments and preparation.”

Moments seems easier to understand. For anyone trained in Meisner repetition this will sound familiar because it is exactly the habits that repetition is supposed to take out of us. In repetition you react in the moment, instinctually, and then let it go just as fast and move onto the next. Holding the same moment over and over in a repetition exercise is death. It becomes boring to watch, and boring to do.

The preparation is perhaps a little more difficult to understand. Cay explained it like this.

“Before a scene you prepare. You ground yourself in your preparation, and then you walk onstage and you let it go. You listen to your partner, react, and trust that you prepared deeply enough that it is still there. But you have to let go. Actors have a tendency to grab the preparation and hang on, but you have to just trust that it’s there and go!”

“It’s like snowboarding, right?” asked Migina. “Like switching edges, and in the moment you’re not on an edge you don’t have control. But you can’t try to grab it back or you fall. You just have to ride it.”

“Exactly!” said Cay. “Or like the first time you rode downhill on a bicycle. Letting go is a learned skill, one necessary to be a truthful actor.”

And let’s face it, it’s a lot more fun to let go onstage. All of my best memories come from performances where I stepped off stage or off camera and felt like “Woah, where the hell did THAT come from?”

I recently got to see the difference between these two an actor grasping and not grasping in two Broadway productions. The first was Ethan Hawk’s Macbeth at Lincoln Center. I saw it with my classmate, Annie, and when we walked out we were trying to figure out what went wrong with the show. Certainly the actors seemed emotional. They had choices. But the show wasn’t engaging, and hard to follow even for Annie who just appeared in a small stage version in Long Island City.

The second was Mark Rylance’s Richard II with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it quickly revealed what Macbeth had been missing. Rylance and his fellow actors were incredible to watch. He worked off the reactions of the audience, of the fellow actors, of the props and costumes in the space. He was having FUN, and the audience was having fun with him. It made him interesting, and detestable, and a blast to watch.

The actors of the RSC had broken themselves of that human instinct to grasp and hold on. They had learned to let go. They were riding the snowboard, and when they hit the edge they were just going with it.

 

 

Why didn’t I get that job?

A few weeks ago I went in for an audition and was pleasantly surprised to see a director I knew. This was my second time being seen by this director, and though we had never actually worked together,  they had just wrapped up a project that a good friend was working on. I liked this director. We had a good connection, they communicated their notes well, and the experience felt less like an audition and more like a rehearsal in which I was free to explore and make choices. Even more importantly, I felt appreciated. My time and my choices were both clearly valued by this person. Personally, as an artist there are very few things for me that feel better than walking out of an audition knowing it was time well spent.

Cut to the call back, an equally pleasant experience. Again I felt valued, free, and (hopefully) my choices and connection to the material reflected that. I went home that night confident that I had given the best interpretation of the character that I could.

Now, here’s the kicker: I didn’t get the job.

I would like to say that I shrugged it off, but let’s face it, I’m human and I’m an actor. I dissected my call back from top to bottom over the next week. Was I too confident? Not confident enough? Did I really give it my all? Did I somehow offend someone in the room?

And then I stumbled on this wonderful little video from one of the greats of our generation, Bryan Cranston. Seriously, if you do nothing else for yourself as an actor all week long, watch this clip:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1WiCGq-PcY

Did you watch it? I’ll know if you’re lying.

One minute and thirty seconds of life changing advice. My job wasn’t to walk into that room and get a job. My job was to walk in that room and create a character, let him live his life, and then walk away. If I managed that (and I think I did) then my work was done. I don’t need to worry about why I didn’t get a job because, as Master Cranston says, that’s out of my control.

I have  one more story, and though this is a borrowed one, it feels like it belongs here. I know someone who was loosely involved with auditions for a major acting school last year. A young man who was trying for a graduate position at this school gave a phenomenal audition. The audition panel was extremely complimentary after he left the room.  They said it was one of the best performances they had seen in years. And in the end he didn’t even make it to the first round of callbacks.

Why? I kid you not, he was too good. The panel felt he wouldn’t learn anything by attending their school, and they should use the slot for someone who needed to grow.

This young man doesn’t know why he didn’t make it in, and he probably won’t ever find out. I’m not saying we don’t get the role because we are always too good (though my ego would like to believe that!) But we can appreciate that not getting it is out of our hands. Auditions are tough, but as long as we walk in, create a character, and behave truthfully, we can walk out with our heads held high and ready for the next one.

 

When you’re ready to hear it.

One of the funny things about life as an artist in class is the number of times we seem to get the same note. And the number of times we seem to get the same note from varying teachers. How many times have you heard this conversation in class?

Teacher: “You need to be doing ________ .”

Outraged Actor: “I was doing ________!”

Guess what actors? In a total reversal of the “it’s not you, it’s me” dating paradigm….

It’s not them, it’s US. Because this isn’t dating. It’s class.

I have my own running list of notes that seem to be a theme for my work. Oh, how often I’ve stood on the stage thinking “YES! I’m doing it!” I’m not. And Cay can tell when I’m not. It’s her job to know when I’m not, and it’s my job to not get defensive about it. Which is why I go to class. It’s sort of masochistic awesome and it works. In class a few days ago I had a wonderful rehearsal on stage with my scene partner Laura, and afterwards I brought this up:

“It’s amazing how many times I can get the same note and not really hear it, and then at a rehearsal like this I suddenly understand.”

As soon as the words left my mouth they were affirmed by a crescendo of agreement from the class. Cay sat back in her chair and nodded in agreement.

“You hear it when you’re ready to hear it.”

 

 

Sometimes you don’t feel it

This week I got to spend the afternoon in the Monday class as an observer which, if you have never done as an actor, I would highly recommend. I had the pleasure of watching other artists in action, I didn’t have to worry about my impending scene, and I didn’t have to beat myself up afterwards. It was glorious.

The first scene up was from Streetcar Named Desire, by the late great Tennessee Williams just in case you have been living under an artistic rock. In the scene Blanche and Mitch return home from a date.

Half way through the first beat of the  the actors stopped themselves to reset. Then a third of the way through the actual Cay stepped in and stopped them again.

“I don’t understand what’s happening here. Let’s go back to the beginning.”

The actors reset themselves outside the apartment. Blanche looked at the stars while Mitch opened the door.

“Okay, what’s happening here?” asked Cay.

“I’m looking at the stars.”

“Okay, and how do you feel?”

“I don’t feel anything.”

I felt for the actor.

“Ooookay” said Cay, “so explore that.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Not feeling anything IS feeling something!”

That statement struck me as particularly insightful this week. The work involved with emotional preparation can be difficult, especially when it comes time to listen to your scene partner, respond truthfully, exist naturally in the environment, put away the analytical brain. It can be exhausting, and it can drive you crazy. But all of those things are SOMETHING that you are feeling. Bored, tired, annoyed, hot; right or wrong, in the moment an actor can use those as a jumping off place.

Cay was careful to say that those things might not be what the scene is about, or what it will end up being. But it grounds us in an emotional reality and in doing so frees us up to find those things that the scene IS about.

Let’s talk about being prepared

I’m going to tell you a story. And I’m not going to tell you the name of the actor in the story because, quite frankly, he is rather embarrassed by the whole situation and it’s hard enough for him to sit here and write this without worrying about anonymous judgement. Plus he should have known better. So all names have been changed to protect the identities of the innocent and any similarities to real world people or events are purely coincidental. Especially to the writer of this blog.

This story has three main characters. The first is the aforementioned actor. The second is the rather large and ugly ego of the aforementioned actor. The third is a pair of shoes that should have been thrown away weeks ago. Seriously Tim, throw the shoes away.

One day several weeks ago the actor received an email from a casting agency who claimed he had submitted for a previous project they were working on. The message read like many of these emails do. It named a location and time for the actor to audition for a commercial. And the actor did his homework….sort of. He looked up the casting agency, located in Pennsylvania. He sort of checked out the location where he would be expected to arrive 15 minutes early. And then EGO, the second character in this melodrama, entered via the trap door center stage. Ego whispered in the actor’s ear:

“Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out. You’ve done this a thousand times. What’s happening on Facebook?”

And the actor, comfortable in his illusion of experience, spent an hour coming up with a clever status update rather than doing his research.

And then the day of the audition arrived. As the actor started to dress himself he realized that he had forgotten his audition shoes on the set of his last short film. He felt a cold chill creep down his spine. Fortunately, Ego was close at hand to sooth the actors fear.

“Don’t worry! It’s just going to be another silly audition for a small role in a half thought out concept. You’re the ACTOR! Why don’t you wear the black sneakers instead?”

“Really?” asked the actor. “The ones with the holes near the little toe and the frayed laces?”

“Sure! They’ll be so impressed with you they won’t even look at your feet.”

“Okay. Then maybe I’ll do some vocal work for a few minutes.”

“Um, yeah, you could do that. Or you could check out this awesome youtube video that just went viral off the chain!”

 

30 unproductive minutes later he walked to the train, in his awful sneakers, and rode to the appointed stop in Chelsea. And then the actor meandered down 24th street towards the Hudson with Ego holding his hand telling him how good his work is.

They arrived together at the location. They walked down the long hallway to the elevator. The private elevator. For the company. Private. Elevator. Ego hesitated.

“Hey man, I’m going to go get a latte. I’ll catch up with you in a minute.”

“Are you sure-”

“Yeah man, I’ll be right back. You do your thang’ actor man!”

And then the actor was alone. He rode up the private elevator and signed in with the secretary in the waiting room. He sat down in the comfortable, plush leather seats, underneath a plethora of prestigious awards and recognitions. His knee bounced at roughly 300 mph. Across from him sat another actor of roughly the same age and look. This other actor looked great in his new shoes.

Twenty minutes later the actor exited the private elevator. Ego was waiting in the lobby.

“Hey dude, how’d it go?”

“Well, the place was huge, I was totally off my game, and the casting assistant definitely took note of my crappy vans. Why didn’t we set out clothes out the night before? Or spend some time warming up this morning? Or look this place up?”

Ego shrugged.

“Don’t look at me man, I’m just the Ego. You’re supposed to be the actor here.”

 

The shoes have since been replaced.

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.

On committing to a moment

“Okay, hold it there.”
Migina has just walked into the scene. Max is sitting on the floor, cross legged, up center, and she stands over him. They are on the second run of this scene, and Cay has stopped them roughly half-way through, and not for the first time today.
Cay: “Okay, Migina, I want you to crouch down. Get closer to him. And now Max, reach out and grab her. And I want you to hold onto her, alright? Don’t let her get away. What line do you want to take it back to?”
They start again, this time Migina is crouched very near to Max. He reaches out and wraps his arms around her neck. Migina holds there for a minute, and then gently starts trying to pry his arms off. She succeeds, stands up, and backs away, leaving Max on the ground.
Cay: “Stop, stop. Max, why did you let her get away?”
Max: “I held her, but she pulled my arms off.”
Cay: “Yes, and then she got away. Why is that?”
Watching from the seats I can empathize with Max. He looks exhausted, hot, and unhappy that he will have to redo this again. As actors we have all been in this moment. We make a bad choice, we drop a moment, we don’t commit to fully connecting with our partner. And then we are told it’s wrong, but we want so badly to BELIEVE it’s right. We start getting tired and agitated. This is always a dangerous moment in class. You pause for a moment to take a deep breath and channel all of that agitation into the scene, or you can get frustrated and shut down emotionally. I have experienced both myself and I have seen both happen to very good actors. The first usually results in an excellent learning experience; the second in an afternoon of self-pity.
And as much as I would like to be on Max’s side in his frustration, I can also see that Cay is right. The moment was good but somehow it wasn’t RIGHT. Which can be perhaps the most frustrating part of being an actor. Going back and watching a project you have completed and then realizing afterwards that “oh man, THAT was the choice I should have made” or “why wasn’t I connecting with her when I said that?” It’s enough to drive you crazy.
Cay: “Okay Migina, do the same thing. This time Max do not let her go!”
They take it back again. It starts much the same way, Migina crouched, max desperately holding her neck. And then she pries one arm off and it immediately goes to her knee. He hugs her knee first with one, then with both arms, his faced pressed against it in desperation, and Migina pauses for a second to roll her eyes.
Cay: “Yes! Yes, that’s it!”
And she is right. We all laugh at the moment because it is so REAL. Max, sobbing against Migina’s knee, Migina trying to play the balance between delicate and forceful, and this scene is suddenly as funny as it is pathetic. His lines are touching, her’s are hilarious, and it’s right.
Cay lets them play through the end of the scene, and we all breathe a sigh of relief when it’s over because it is now obvious why she stopped them so many times. Afterwards she asks Max how that felt, and he tells us what we were able to see which is that it changed for him. This is the moment that actors live for. The stage suddenly isn’t a stage, it’s an apartment, or a park, or a dining room, and for a performance the world outside doesn’t exist. All that exists is the moment, the connection with your partner, and the inner life you feel sitting across from them. And he was led to the change without being told about it, left alone to discover it for himself. Which is why, as she would say herself, Cay makes the medium money.

Notes from Monday Afternoon

This week I caught up with the Monday afternoon class.

Anna, Jeff and Ross were working on, The Scene by Teresa Rebeck. The actors had a really good rehearsal, they were on top of the material and the scene was cooking. Jeff had great success in his character body work. It was so specific, that as soon as he saddled up behind Anna we knew instantly what kind of guy he was. Both Jeff and Anna felt they had something going for the place, they felt it come and go but overall it was strong. Anna felt improvements in her listening and her relationship’s with the other characters. Ross was working at exploring the second half of the scene and found some hilarious behavior, “egging” on and luring Anna’s character. It was funny and exciting to watch.

Also in class, Sarah and Matt were reading from Venus in Fur by David Ives. Sarah is newer to class and has felt a major improvement in her work. She commented that she is able, “to stay with the other person more, click in and access the character more easily”. Matt had a lot going for the character already and feels his next step will be to figure out who Vanda is to him. Because the character of Vanda changes so drastically over the course of the one act play, Matt had questions about approaching his personalization. Cay suggested that he could either use two people from his life and morph one in to the other or go for a “twofer”, finding someone that he knew at two different points in their life or someone who his opinion of changed over time.

During class, Cay shared some great advice for actors in their beginning stages, although it easily applies to actors at any stage. An actor in class commented that, “the more they worked on a scene the more they felt stuck”. Cay said that this was a common experience a sort of, “peaking too soon” and the best way to combat this was moment-to-moment work.

“You have to value the specific moment you are in above all else. The solution to anticipation is to go back to the proceeding moment and not slide ahead until the proceeding moment is over.”

Notes from Tuesday Afternoon

In Tuesday afternoon’s class, Tim and Migina had a fantastic rehearsal. They are working on a scene from Venus in Fur by David Ives. Both actors were solidly prepped, working well off each other and the scene took off. Tim found hilarious behavior to express his mounting frustration with the scene and with Migina’s character. In a particularly funny moment, captured above, he grabbed a couch cushion, screamed into it and banged his head against the wall for about 15 seconds. It was truthful, specific, ballsy and it really worked. Cay commented that Tim had made a huge breakthrough a few weeks earlier when he started using his real girlfriend as the person on the other end of the phone. She felt that he had learned the power of specificity as a force that will ground him while simultaneously freeing him and the improvement in his work was just staggering. Congratulations to Tim!

Cool rehearsal tip from Caymichael Patten:

Cay had Max doing some serious character body work in class this week. Before she led him through a physical exploration she had him do the “X” exercise to make sure he was physically connected. Here’s how you do it. First do a good physical warm up, focus on stretching, alignment, connecting your breath and freeing yourself from as much physical tension as you can on this particular day. Lie on your back with your arms and legs spread in an “X” formation. Wiggle your right hand. Can you feel it in your left foot? Wiggle your left hand? Can you feel it in your right foot?  Repeat going from side to side, hand to foot and foot to hand. Once you can feel the diagonal wiggle you are physically connected and ready to go!

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!