Archive for Actor Lessons

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

Happy New Year from the Student blogger!

I’m going to break from the usual format today, though it has a purpose, so bear with me.

Today I want to know about YOU.

More specifically, I want to know about you so that you can know about you.

And even more specifically, I want to ask a really stupid question that actually isn’t really that stupid once you think about it. I know, because when someone asked me the same question three years ago, I thought it was stupid. The question is, and once again PLEASE bear with me because I know you are going to shutter even reading this, but the question is this:

What is your New Year’s resolution?

I know. Trust me, I know what those words look like, and I know what they sound like, and three years ago I would have gladly thrown in my lot with an angry mob and been on the back end of that pitchfork chasing myself. But the thing is, I owe a lot to that question. This year I competed my first marathon. I finished my acting reel. I put together a website. I went on the most audition of my career. And I might have never gotten around to those things, certainly not this soon, if not for that question.

I owe my conversion to a sociology teacher I had in college (along with a basic understanding of broken window theory and the ability to slip the term latent function into casual conversation). The year after graduation we had a facebook conversation that went something like this:

Sociology Teacher: Alright everyone, what’s your new years resolution?
Tim: Haha, lol, new years resolutions are stupid, nobody ever keeps them, hahahahaja. Also I know everything about EVERYTHING
Sociology Teacher: I try to set goal oriented resolutions. You should give it a shot.
Tim: EVERYTHING ABOUT EVERYTHING!

Her argument was that people tend to set resolutions and goals for themselves that are unrealistic, general, or that they have no direct power over. For example, my goal that year was to *que originality* get into better shape! How? Well, um, the gym maybe, and then some running? No morning pastries?

Here’s where her take on resolutions came into play. She suggested I set an actual, tangible, achievable goal that would further whatever the resolution was. I knew I could run a little, so decided I would run a 10k race in January 2012 which satisfied tangible and achievable . The training was only a few miles every couple of days, the time was far enough off that I could prepare without much trouble. And on January 29th I crossed the finish line of the Relay for Her Life charity run in Century City, California. I would go on to complete 9 more races that year because I changed my goal to doing one race a month and because there are no rules to how resolutions work.

Likewise, in 2012 I set a resolution  goal for my acting career. I wanted to go on more auditions, to get my foot in the door more often. But because I have no DIRECT power over how many people call me in for an audition I set my goal based around what I knew got other people auditions. I decided I would complete my acting reel and website before the end of summer. Granted, I already had some usable material for my reel, but knowing I wanted it finished encouraged me to submit for projects that would add more depth to it. I started taking more pictures on set. I started asking for clips and stills I could use. By August I had both a website and a reel.

We actors are by nature grand dreamers. But the gulf from amateur to professional in this industry is a wide one, and very few can cross it in a single bound. For the rest of us there is the grind, building a bridge out of our toolbox and our talent. The other side of the gap is our resolution. The bridge is made of the goals we set.

Want to find an agent this year? Great. Tangible and achievable is maybe committing to three agent workshops in the spring. Feeling rusty and you want to book a job? An acting class once a week will help get the gears turning. I can recommend a great teacher if you are in New York.

It’s time to get off my soapbox, but before I do I’ll ask one more time. What is your resolution this year and what goals can you set to achieve it?

 

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 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.