Archive for Tuesday Class

Every class is a rehearsal

There’s a famous story of the Royal Shakespeare company putting up a production with no set, no lighting, and entirely in rehearsal dress. It’s a popular story in actor circles, and I remember hearing different versions from various teachers throughout my time in school. The moral being that actors with a rehearsal mindset rather than a performance are more likely to act spontaneously and work on impulse, thus opening themselves up to real discoveries in performance.

Every class is a rehearsal, not a performance, and on Tuesday I was reminded of this during Max and Christina’s rehearsal of a scene from “A Hatful of Rain” by Michael Gazzo. In this complex scene about a husband and wife in their fourth year of marriage during the 1950’s, Christina’s character works to discover the source of her husbands mounting distance from their relationship. Her assumption is he has been having an affair, but the reality that he hides is much more sinister: a mounting debt and loss of his job resulting from his heroin addiction.

This was their first rehearsal of the scene on its feet after an initial table read last week, and after a bumpy first half Christina paused and looked at Cay.

Christina: Can we stop?

Cay: Yes. What are you working for?

max and christina2

Christina: I was working for the argument and for who he is to me.

Cay: Okay, do you have the argument? Do you know what it was about?

Christina: Yes.

Cay: And do you have him?

Christina: Yes, I feel like that’s really strong for me.

Cay: Okay, I think you’re trying to do too much right now. You should be sitting.

At this point Christina stood and began shaking herself out. Max, sitting on the couch, looked thoughtful. He had spent the scene curled up on the couch under a blanket.

Those words, You’re doing too much…you should be sitting. I had heard those words before from Cay on more than one occasion. It can be difficult to know when the right time to get on your feet in a scene is. What Cay often talks about is the event of the scene, finding that moment when both you and your scene partner feel what the scene is about and feel that occur organically between you. But in my experience, sometimes you can have the event of the scene and jump forward too quickly. From where I sat on Tuesday that’s what it felt like had happened between Max and Christina; they knew what the scene was, they were just working ahead of themselves. In these situations I feel out of my depth on stage, but I will find myself hesitant to stop the scene and take it back or to just sit and work off of my partner.

Cay: What about you Max, what are you working for?

Max: I think I was working too hard on the dope sick and leaving her out of it.

Cay: And do you know who she is to you?

Max: It’s getting there.

Cay: Okay, give yourself one symptom of the dope sick. Take it again.

Christina moved herself to the table. Max took off the blanket and began rubbing his legs uncomfortably, then pulling at his shirt. After a moment he took his shoes off and rolled up his pants, agitated. He was clearly working with feeling hot and uncomfortable, as if suffering from a fever.

Several moments from this new rehearsal popped out this time around. After a few lines they hit the moment where Max admits to having lost his job. “They told me where to go,”and with the pretense of performance off of them, Christina dropped into a quick repetition exercise. “They told you where to go?” “They told me where to go.”

“Maybe I didn’t give you what you needed…fuck!”, Christina exclaimed, breaking into an emotional turn in the scene but not quite convinced herself that it was right. Cay stepped in to help guide her.

Cay: Find the moment. Don’t rush.

She took it again, “Maybe…I didn’t give you what you needed.” This time it was slower, more thoughtful.

Max would have his own moment of guidance later while telling a story about his character’s father. He began pacing frantically gesturing toward Christina, now perched on the edge of the couch.

Cay: Slow down, slow down. Really see him.

maxandchristina1Max takes a deep breath and kneels, leaning across a chair between him and Christina and sagging with memory. The moment the monologue feels more personal. The scene ends with Max and Christina back on the couch, her leaning his head against him in what appears to be recconcialiation before he reveals in a final crushing line that he has to go out that night. Christina moves away from him on the couch and the gulf between them becomes that much more visible to the rest of us.

Cay: Good, how did you feel? You find things?

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Max: It’s splitting the scene between the sensory stuff and the scene. If I’m overly in pain, she can’t know right?

Cay: Right, you have to hide it. But you have to have it before you can hide it. You need to give yourself stages of rehearsal. You need to have a rehearsal where you can fully express it, but then one where you hide it entirely. How do you feel Christina?

Christina: Not great. I don’t want to say much.

Cay: She has an interesting way of loving even though he’s cheating. But she tolerates a great deal of it.

Christina: I understand that too, but to what extent?

Cay: I think the pregnancy has a lot to do with it, and her love of him. If when working together you need to go back and stop and start then I think that’s well within the rehearsal here.

Max and Christina’s work on Tuesday was a good reminder of that concept that I mentioned at the beginning, every class is a rehearsal. That time on stage is for you and you alone. When you are able to look at class that way then it frees you up to try new things, to work organically, and to not be afraid to stop the work when you need to and just sit down and talk to your partner.

I remember for a short period of time one of my classmates would start every rehearsal in class by turning to us and saying “Screw you.” Did she literally mean screw us? No. What she was saying was “This is my time. This is my rehearsal. I’m not up here performing for you, I’m up here rehearsing for me.

Shayna and Max bring down the house.

If you had been in the Tuesday afternoon scene study class last week, this is a small snapshot of what you might have seen…

I’m laughing so hard my stomach hurts. In front of me Annie is doubled over gasping for air. Cay is lifting her glasses to wipe away a tear.

On stage Max is staring at a smashed cake. He holds himself like a man defeated, frosting clinging to his normally perfectly-mussed hair. Shayna sits next to him, oblivious, wiping crumbs from her fist. The fist that just crushed the aforementioned dessert. Though she is picking with a napkin between her fingers there isn’t much to find; the majority was wiped off on Max’s head.

Shayna and Max week 3 rehearsal

Shayna and Max week 5 rehearsal

 

It should mentioned at this point that Shayna and Max are not ACTUALLY     fighting. No one has been harmed, except perhaps for one cheesecake. They are on their 5th week of rehearsal for a scene from Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise, a play by Harry Kondoleon.

And why are we all laughing so hard?

acting

Acting indeed, Patrick. Prior to his unfortunate death by AIDS at age 39 Kondoleon was compared stylistically to playwrights like Christopher Durang and John Guare. This scene  involved Alvin (played by Max), a husband unable (or unwilling) to acknowledge his wife’s affair with his best friend, and the wife of said best friend, Adele (Shayna).

Extraordinary characters in ordinary circumstances. Allow me a brief but relevant segue here.

A few weeks ago I went to see the dark comedy How to Make Friends and then Kill Them at the Cherry Lane theatre. Friends featured two sisters of an alcoholic mother and their manipulation of themselves, one another, and a desperate girl from their school. I don’t want to ruin the ending for anyone who might get the opportunity to see this play staged, but I will say at the play’s most intense moments the actors had to deal with incest, manipulation, and murder.

Once again, extraordinary characters in ordinary circumstances.

I walked out of Cherry Lane that night, and indeed spent the next few days, wondering “How does an actor prepare for a role like that? How do you make it truthful?”

 

Max's frustration, week 4 rehearsal

Max’s frustration, week 4 rehearsal

Well, over the last few weeks I got to see how Cay guided these two actors into a large, hilarious, outrageous, and perhaps most importantly, truthful rehearsal. I won’t try to describe their rehearsal because, as anyone who has seen terrific work knows, it would be impossible. But it was electric. And it all came back to listening (for real for real) and responding (for real…well, you know).

In the discussion afterwards they were asked by Cay why this week was different from prior weeks:

Shayna answered, “I was worried before that I might be pushing.”

“You’re not pushing. It’s in the going too far that you find the stimulus.”

Cay went on to talk about how the connection to your partner feeds the scene.

“It’s like an electric current. The circuit starts with yourself, then the moment, then the text, and your partner. You work inside to outside, not the opposite way around.”

Shayna and Max spent two weeks table reading this scene. They didn’t get up until they has found that connection with themselves and then the moment, or as Cay likes to say, the event of the scene. They were building the start of the circuit.

“It becomes different once you have the hook in you. You get the hook, and then the hook drags you through the circuit.”

Their third and fourth weeks were spent on their feet, trying different blocking, trying to get different things from each other, working with physicality, and making sure they were always connected even when the scene felt a little off. They had their “hook” in themselves and the moment, and they were playing with the text and partner connection.

And then in week five they brought the scene to life for us.

“The actor’s job is to live. Connect to one another and live it out onstage.”

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.”