Christopher Aruffo, MFA, MBA, MSc, PhD
Acting Instruction 2: Establishing a Common Language
I consistently underestimate the conditioning that students undergo. Although I said jokingly that I intended to "scare off" students with a draconian attendance policy, after today (the first day of class) I realize that I didn't need to do that. That is, in the morning section, I made the attendance policy sound scary, and then pointed out that it was necessary. In the afternoon section, I made it sound scary, pointed out that it was necessary, and added that the result was honestly to everyone's benefit.
But I didn't need to make it sound scary; I could have (and should have) almost ignored the "grading" consequences altogether and focused entirely on the benefits that accrue and the problems that are averted-- because the bad news would have done the work by itself. I didn't need to play it up; even downplaying it, the bad news would've been detected as easily as a fresh cow pie on a mowed field. Students are attuned to everything that affects their grade; I could've talked about the rationale for fifteen minutes, said two sentences about the grade, and those two sentences would have been all they remembered. Although I shouldn't have to discuss grades in the future (except, in the next session, to clarify the attendance policy), I'll have to keep in mind that I only need to say as much as is necessary; anything more is a waste of time. I can have the prettiest philosophy in the world, and nobody cares. They just want to know "what do I have to do?"
This, I imagine, will be the only class in which I talk the whole time. Talking is necessary for communicating information, and today I had to provide the information of what the class will be doing (I'm not so sure I did a good job of explaining what to expect, though). But what we really pay attention to is stories, and experience, and engaged dialogue. People talking at us, no matter how sincere, are impossible to focus on for any length of time.
I needed to explain that we're doing one-acts instead of "scenework", and that anyone who doesn't want to do a one-act should drop the class. I needed to describe how I don't intend to teach anything, but will instead take advantage of who they already are. I forgot to mention in the morning class (and remembered in the afternoon) that the first five weeks is showing them how to do the shows and the next seven weeks are actually doing it.
Somehow that managed to take 20-30 minutes. I'll have to work on reducing that.
I enjoy entering the classroom and not identifying myself as the instructor. I sit in a chair and wait with the other students, and then begin at the appointed time by saying something in a rather loud voice which answers the question on everyone's minds ("so where is the teacher?"). This is mainly a reaction against the teacher's typical habit of setting barriers between themselves and the students-- insisting on being referred to as "Mr. Aruffo" instead of "Chris" (even as I use your first name), making a physical separation between "me" and "all of you" by standing or sitting at the front of the class, or deliberate isolation behind desks and podiums. This is going to be a collaborative relationship, and setting myself up as The Teacher would only drive us apart.
Besides, it's fun to surprise everyone. I was actually "outed" both times today; in the morning class, one of the students recognized me from plays I'd done last year (which was kind of flattering). In the afternoon class, though, I accidentally did myself in. It happened two ways. The first was that, when I arrived, everyone was waiting outside the empty room. Apparently someone had tried the door and thought it locked; they didn't know that the airflow in that corridor practically creates a vacuum seal on those doors which has to be struggled against. So I had to initiate our entry into the room, which was of course suspect. Once we all filed in, I made the second mistake-- I don't like sitting in chairs, and given the choice I won't. The moment I sat on the floor, I saw heads turn. Oops.
I noticed, in both cases, that what identified me as the instructor is that I actually dared to do something different. Everyone is so well-trained! Entering a room or sitting on the floor are not in themselves remarkable accomplishments, but they're simply Not Done. Anyone could, and everyone does have the impulses, but they're trained to ignore those impulses, stifle themselves, subject their personality to self-mutilation. My greatest challenge in working with anyone (actors or non-actors) is assuring them that they have the freedom to be themselves, and to follow their impulses, even if that does make them stand out as different... heck, especially then! [One of my instructors said he hated to have me as a student because he doesn't know what I'm going to do, or where I'm going to sit, or what's going to catch my attention next. With two important exceptions, I'm sure the rest of my teachers agreed.]
I have decided on a structure for the first part of the schedule (the non-rehearsal part). I knew what we needed to cover, and I'd put those on a schedule, and then I kept moving them around until they made sense as a sequence. I'll present the actual schedule later (tentative as it is), but the sequence is this:
basic mechanics of communication
my contribution as director
their contribution as actors
how to interpret text
and then we're off, into the rehearsals. The first part of rehearsal is "table work", where we discuss our approach to the play and our individual perspectives on it; then we'll get on our feet.
I used to think that not knowing names could help students get to know each other better, but not any more, not after today. Stella Adler technique and perceptual attentiveness say that when you use a name, you ignore the individual traits of the named object-- so I thought not knowing names would encourage students to discover each other more fully. Now that logistics have forced me to do the name-learning right away, I see that students have more freedom to speak together when they can address each other by name. A name isn't a perceptual barrier; socially, it's an open doorway. Now that I think about it, why else would HELLO MY NAME IS stickers be a necessity at parties?
I don't have those stickers, so I use a game to learn names. One person says their name and two facts about themselves; the next person along the circle* repeats that information and adds their own name and facts. The third person remembers everything about the first two and adds theirs. This goes around the entire circle until everyone is identified. But this is not a memory test! One rule is necessary to prevent failure: when someone can't remember, anyone can help them. It's not embarrassing to forget and be reminded, because it happens to everyone. Those who make wrong guesses aren't embarrassed; they know they could've asked, so they know it was their decision to take the risk. There's no chance of failure. In a safe classroom, there never should be a chance of failure.
This morning I inadvertently made it possible to fail. During a different exercise, I thought it could be more interesting if each student chose who went next-- but everyone balked at choosing, searching carefully for the most harmless choice; and, once chosen, some students were distressed because they weren't ready but didn't want to make the student who chose them look bad. Fortunately, with this exercise, it was only a minor problem, and I won't make that mistake again. The mistake wasn't allowing the students to choose, though. My mistake was not taking away that choice once I realized what was happening.
If someone doesn't want to be put on the spot, you should take them off the spot immediately. It's destructive to keep goading and urging; you'll only get whatever response will make you leave them alone, and the process of extracting that meaningless response is intense and stressful. When a student refuses to cooperate, then either you're asking for something unreasonable or the circumstances are wrong. Unless you can immediately see which of those to change (and how to change it), the best response is to drop the issue and let them discover when the circumstances are right.** If what you've asked them to do is something worth doing, they will help you by monitoring their own circumstances and alerting you when the opportunity arises.
But what about when a student is already on the spot, and gives the wrong response? That's usually a setup for failure; tell a student they're wrong and, regardless of any respect they may have for your authority (and right to say so), they'll immediately become defensive and resentful. But avoiding the problem is extremely easy-- all you have to do is assume that anything they do "wrong" is your fault.
More specifically, it's the fault of the instructions you've given them. It's a logical assumption. If you instruct them to do something beyond their capabilities, of course they're going to do it wrongly, and it's your fault for asking them to do something they can't. And if it's something you know they can do, the only explanation for a "wrong" result is that they're following bad directions correctly.
This afternoon, the main exercise started wrongly. In the morning class, everyone had told brief stories; here, instead, each student spoke only one sentence and stopped. After five single-sentence responses, I realized that I'd asked them to "tell us something that happened to you" instead of "tell us about something that happened to you." They had already sensed from my body language that something was wrong, and my interruption caused looks of concern. I quickly explained that I'd told them the wrong thing; I modified the instruction, we reversed the direction of the circle, and each of the single sentences expanded into something much more interesting. And they were definitely interesting.
Because I pretended that I was watching a series of monologues, every student appeared to be a talented actor, just as I expected. But I'm not assessing how "good" they are; I'm paying attention to how each of them naturally communicates. I need to know who they are before I can direct them in their randomly-assigned roles. If I were auditioning, I would try to cast people who best embody the characters as I already imagine them. With random assignments, I have to figure out how the scripted character can emerge from the performer's personality. I noticed that, this time around, a character I imagined as coarse and vulgar has been assigned to a very nice, polite girl. My job is not to try to change this girl to fit my preconceived image of the character. Instead, I need to make sure that this actor can use the scripted words to tell the story in a way that is real and meaningful for who she is already. It actually works to our advantage when someone is randomly cast "against type" because that way a character's most obvious traits-- the ones built into the script-- are flavored and enhanced rather than merely amplified. Random casting opens new possibilities that couldn't have been planned.
In telling stories about themselves, everyone did at least one notable thing which an actor would've been proud to do. One fellow told a story about getting hit with an orange peel, and he let the story tell itself (instead of "making it funny"). Another guy talked about getting splashed with water in his car, and with instinctive and impeccable timing he demonstrated exactly where and how the water hit him. And one girl kept talking right through a series of distractions which would have broken the "focus" of any actor. After everyone had finished, I revealed that I'd been watching their stories as monologues; I told them, you've proven to me that you are the actors I thought you were.
This is a fun get-to-know-you exercise, I continued, but it has a point. Ask yourselves this rhetorical question-- how aware were you of the words you spoke? Answer: Not at all. You gave no thought whatsoever to the actual words you were saying. The words spilled out unthinkingly because you knew what you had to say. By contrast-- I asked one guy to read a paragraph from his newspaper, and posed another rhetorical question: how aware is he of the words he's speaking now? Answer: completely. He's totally focused on those words. I also pointed out: Did you hear how his voice lost its natural sound and rhythm? Did you see how his body became uninvolved? Did you, in essence, see how he stopped being himself?
Acting is backwards. When you speak normally, the words come last. When you pick up a script, the words come first, and all the life and reality and intention which causes you to speak normally does not exist. So you speak abnormally. This is what you just saw, I explained, when this guy was reading. Reading and speaking are two totally different processes (speaking is production, while reading is reception) but because acting starts with a script, most people treat acting as a reading process and never see a problem with doing so. They devote all their time and attention to finding the best possible way to say their words, but it's all misplaced effort. Nobody in real life ever thinks about how they're going to say words. Consequently, the more a person tries to give a better reading, the more unnatural their performance becomes.
The only time you're speaking honestly, and truly acting, is when you are entirely unconscious of the words you're speaking.
This is why it is utterly, totally, completely, Mission One critical to learn the lines. By the beginning of rehearsal, you need to be familiar enough with the words that they do not distract you; by the end of rehearsal you should be completely unaware of them. Every instant in which you think about the words you're saying is an instant in which you've stopped acting and started reading. If you do not know your lines, you can not act. Period. Once you can ignore the words, then you can start acting.
And, without knowing it, everyone was doing a damn fine job of acting. If only you could have seen what I did, I gushed. But after the morning class, I began to wonder... well, why shouldn't they see it? There's not enough time to go around twice, so in the past I've just told them what I saw and left it at that. But today I wondered: what if I told a story? Would they see that there's no difference between that and a monologue? At the last minute I convinced myself to try it. When you watch me tell this story, I said, pretend like you're watching an actor do a monologue.
I described my most vivid early memory. When I was two years old, I fell and cut my chin, and the doctors stapled it together without anaesthetic. I still remember with total clarity the hallway where I fell, the hospital where I was taken, the hard operating table they put me on, the painfully bright light shining through the white cloth over my eyes, and the PACHUNK PACHUNK PACHUNK as they stapled the wound.
As I began***, I realized that I could make it even more blatant by speaking with theatrical energy, intensity, and voice (so I did). Afterwards, I asked them to consider-- was that a true story, or was I reciting a monologue? I let that question hang in the air a moment before I reassured them it was true. I'd told them beforehand that it was a true story, but I hoped my theatrical presentation had created some doubt.
I think it worked. There's an undergraduate theater major who's auditing the afternoon class-- he intends to direct a show next semester, and hopes that this class will give him some ideas. I'm glad to have him there; I'll appreciate some additional perspective on which exercises work (and which don't). I'd advised him ahead of time to listen to everyone's story as a monologue, and he definitely saw that; when I asked him about my childhood memory he said that it certainly seemed like a true story, and that my involvement and precise delivery had made him think that it must've been rehearsed and prepared like a monologue (which it wasn't at all). That's just what I'd intended.
To tie off the day... I was surprised today to discover that the attendance policy doesn't seem to have scared anyone away. That's both good-- I must've gotten the desired message across, even if it was "backwards"-- and not so good, because in the morning class I now have three men without roles. Now that I'm looking for plays with three people, I find that when there are three people in a play, it's almost always going to be two of one gender and one of the other; that is, two pals and one spoiler. When there are three men, they're generally going to be middle-aged cronies where their life experience is a plot point. I think I'll have to do what I did last semester, which is to select a play I like and recruit theater students to fill the missing parts. That's preferable to choosing a play I don't care for just because it has the right number of people in it.
*I always prefer people to be in a circle so they can see and talk with each other.
**If it's important to get a response, you might ask them to reconsider, provided that in the same breath you assure them that nothing bad will happen if they refuse. If something bad will happen from their refusal, either you're already in crisis mode (and everyone should be aware of it) or there's something you've allowed to go wrong with the class environment.
***As I was getting ready to tell my story, bursts of wild applause came through the wall from the studio next door. After the third interruption, I knew what they must be doing-- it's a game where everyone stands in a circle, and one by one they jump into the middle to announce some banal fact ("I ate a cookie for lunch!") after which everyone claps and cheers as if that were the most wonderful thing they'd ever heard in their life. I think theater games like this can be a delightful way to play together; but in a class or in a rehearsal, I don't believe they're a productive effort. I do think that learning is best accomplished through game-playing, but unless you can make it directly and explicitly contribute to some learning framework, a theater game is not the best use of class time.
This week introduces the most important concept in acting technique.
A short exercise (do this yourself, now):
1. Say something. Anything at all. Just speak some idea, like "my shoes are tight" or "I watched the game last night" whatever occurs to you. Don't just think it-- say it aloud. Got it? Done? Good.
2. Repeat the exact same idea, but don't use any of the same words. (I might say "the footwear I sport is wrongly sized.") Say this out loud, too.
Notice how you were looking for those new words? You were examining this thing in your head. That thing is the idea. Your idea existed before the words; and, especially the second time around, you can feel how you used your idea to create the words. Make sure you feel the presence of that idea in your head, separate from the words. If you aren't sure, try the exercise again with a very simple idea, like "my shirt is white." The simpler the idea, the more difficult it is to restate it, so the more clearly you can see yourself studying the idea in your head.
When you read, that idea is missing. Last time, everyone's stories showed that we speak ideas, not words-- but we also listen to ideas, not to words. We respond to ideas, not to words. And that's what we started on today: dialogue.
First I needed to demonstrate how a scene is normally read. I selected two students at random and gave them a one-page audition scene to read aloud.* I know exactly what will happen: they will read the scene. With very few exceptions, they will pause at the end of every sentence, and they will pause after each other's lines before starting their own. Today, I counted the pauses on my fingers as I heard them; when I got to twenty I stopped the reading and explained what my finger-count was for.
Now that I think about it, I missed an opportunity there. I should have told everyone to count the pauses they heard. One thing that I've been astonished to discover is that, most of the time, neither the audience nor the performer notices the pauses! I've done this before, where I did ask everyone to count the number of pauses-- after a two- or three-minute reading, my pause count was usually about 20 or 30 higher than theirs. If you do this, though, you have to be careful how you ask for their answers. Do not ask straight out; this forces them to commit to answers which will be proven wrong, and makes them feel stupid. Instead, reveal the "correct" number of pauses right away, and then ask how many people counted that high. When no one responds, everyone knows that counting too low is normal; then they'll be free to share their actual counts with you, and they'll wonder how everyone managed to miss hearing so many pauses. The answer is that the audience is also unconsciously evaluating the scene as a reading, not as a conversation-- but how does this happen?
It happens because grammar is a lie. We only speak in complete sentences because we've been trained to do so; when we listen, we ignore the sentences altogether and listen for the idea. If you pay attention to any conversation you'll ever have in your lifetime, you'll notice this. As soon as you get the idea, you stop listening, and your mind fills in the rest, whether or not the person keeps speaking. In class, I usually demonstrate by saying "I don't even have to finish this..."; everyone notices how they invent a word to end the sentence.** They got the idea; any additional words would've been ignored as superfluous. That's what our minds do naturally in normal conversation.
But when people read scenes, they listen to every single word. This means that they wait for the end of every single sentence-- until the words are done-- before they prepare to speak their own line. This creates the unnatural pauses I'm counting. To turn written dialogue into a real conversation, an actor needs to respond to the ideas. This specific concept is what, last semester, I realized every acting method back to Stanislavski has been trying to teach. I originally thought I was the first to have noticed it; instead, I learned I'm the first to describe it in this particular way.
The answer is right there on the page.
Look at any sentence-- you can see exactly where the idea ends and grammar takes over. Just ask yourself as you read: how much of this do I need to hear? On which word can I stop listening and still have the sentence make perfect sense? Find that word and underline it! Here are some quick examples.
"I want some paper towels
to clean up the spill."
"This throw rug used to be in my kitchen
before I brought it in here."
"Where are you going
with that gun?"
The word you underline depends on what your character needs to hear. If you're surprised I want paper towels, you won't stop listening until you've found out why.
"I want some paper towels to clean
up the spill."
Or maybe you need to know what's being cleaned.
"I want some paper towels to clean up the spill."
Your cue is not the end of the previous line. It is the underlined word. Yes, sometimes the underlined word is the last word-- which creates a natural pause after it-- but nine times out of ten, it's not.
Here's some sample dialogue from Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw. I'll present it here without marking; as you read through it, look for the idea-ending words.
GERALDINE: Please forgive me, Doctor. I wasn’t meaning to suggest that your attentions were in any way improper.
PRENTICE: (feeling her legs) As I thought. You’ve a febrile condition of the calves. You’re quite wise to have a check-up. Undress.
G: I’ve never undressed in front of a man before.
P: I shall take account of your inexperience in these matters.
G: I couldn’t allow a man to touch me while I was unclothed.
P: I shall wear rubber gloves, Miss Barclay.
G: How long would I have to remain undressed?
P: If your reactions are normal you’ll be back on your feet in next to no time.
G: I’d like another woman present. Is your wife available?
P: Mrs. Prentice is attending a more than usually lengthy meeting of her coven. She won’t be back until this evening.
G: I could wait until then.
P: I haven’t the patience, my dear.
I have seen this bit of dialogue done with a pause between every single one of these lines. But the author wrote in only one pause, and if you look at where that pause occurs you can see why.
GERALDINE: Please forgive
me, Doctor. I wasn’t meaning to suggest that your attentions were in any way improper.
PRENTICE: (feeling her legs) As I thought. You’ve a febrile condition of the calves. You’re quite wise to have a check-up. Undress.
G: I’ve never undressed
in front of a man before.
P: I shall take account of your inexperience
in these matters.
G: I couldn’t allow a man to touch
me while I was unclothed.
P: I shall wear rubber gloves,
G: How long
would I have to remain undressed?
P: If your reactions are normal
you’ll be back on your feet in next to no time.
G: I’d like another woman present. Is your wife
P: Mrs. Prentice is attending a more than usually lengthy meeting of her coven. She won’t be back
until this evening.
G: I could wait
P: I haven’t the patience,
I don't ask actors to cross out words like this. I'm doing it here to illustrate that the audience has stopped listening as well. The actor needs to respond at that underlined word because the audience already has. The audience is moving on; if the actor doesn't keep up, they lose the audience. Think about how many times you yourself have been in a live theater performance and found your mind wandering--? This is why. You've stopped listening, but the actors aren't doing anything else yet. There's nothing happening on the stage, so your mind detaches from the performance.
Look at how much nothing is in this scene! More than half of the words are crossed out! If the actors bother to listen to all those words, this scene can be a total drag. For example, Prentice doesn't need to wait until "improper" before he hurriedly squeezes Geraldine's legs; if he responds at "forgive", he could be fondling her legs the entire time she was speaking... and her line could actually be funny, because she'd be saying it while receiving his improper attentions.
The essential skill is to respond at the underlined word. If you miss that word, you've flubbed it.
In class today, I paired everyone off and gave them scenes to underline. Once they'd finished underlining and begun reading, I went around to listen to each pair, to find out if the instructions had made sense. Here are some typical misunderstandings.
When I see whole sentences and paragraphs underlined, I ask them to explain why they've underlined more than one word. Usually they tell me that they've underlined "everything I need to hear." I confirm that yes, they've got the right idea, but I advise them to be aware that it will be important later to underline only the final word.
If a student only ever underlines the last word of every sentence, I give them this additional instruction, and it's usually enough. I ask them to speak the first word alone, then the first two words, then the first three, and so on-- each time asking them "Does that make sense by itself?" Once they say yes, I tell them that's the word, underline it.
Often, students will understand which words to underline, but will still respond to the ends of sentences when reading aloud. When I hear this, I tell them "When that underlined word hits, be ready to speak. Don't listen to the rest of it; that underlined word means they're done and it's your turn." Then they read it again, and they normally get it.
If a student is reading along fine and I suddenly hear an unnatural pause, I'll cut in immediately. Which word did they underline? If they'd underlined the last word, I can usually show them where the idea actually ended (with the word-at-a-time strategy), or sometimes they'll have a legitimate character reason for using the last word. Otherwise, I ask, did they feel how they missed the word they underlined? If they did notice, that's fine; if they didn't notice, I ask them to do it again, to feel how they missed it.
At this stage, nobody needs to be able to do this flawlessly. They just need to be able to recognize the difference between hitting it and missing it, to recognize when it's "in" or "out". I bring everyone back together and have them each read their scenes, and as we begin I encourage them to listen for this, because now they'll be able to hear every one of those unnatural pauses. And everyone does hear them.
With this underlining strategy, all I'm doing is showing you how to talk normally using a script. I'm not really showing you anything new. I'm not asking you to learn a new skill. I'm just pointing out that this is how you already communicate. I try to say this as many times as possible during the class period; this is mainly because I want everyone to recognize that the whole point is to feel the scene and the script as a normal conversation. Because this is a class environment, students often believe they're trying to follow directions correctly, and so they'll ask me questions that they could answer themselves just by listening to their own conversations.
The most common question is "Does this mean I cut him/her off every time?" This is a character choice. If your character wants to talk over the words, do so; if you want to be polite, be ready at the underlined word but wait to speak. I've answered this question many times now; I find that if I just keep talking, invariably the questioner will interrupt one of my sentences and let me finish another. I rely on that to show them they already know the answer.
So that's how it works. This perspective is the fundamental core of my acting technique. But this explanation, as it stands, is incomplete.
For most of last semester, I used this underlining strategy to coach all the actors I worked with. I thought it was enough. In the classes I was teaching, I didn't see any problems-- but in the directing class I was taking, I was becoming increasingly confused and frustrated. I had been delighted to snag seven of the department's best actors for my one-act play (to the annoyance of my classmates)-- but as we continued to rehearse, they kept getting faster and faster, and they often seemed to stop listening to each other altogether in their panic to get to the end of each scene. I told them that our goal wasn't to eliminate all pauses; I told them repeatedly to slow down; I told them to just relax and let it flow; but no matter what, each time they ran through it they just kept going faster and faster until the show dissolved into a meaningless blur. I knew that all these actors were fantastic performers who normally had great timing; I had to admit that this problem was, somehow, entirely my fault. The underlining strategy was somehow causing this problem.
But this strategy is the foundation of my own technique, I wondered, and I don't do this. At least... not any more! I suddenly realized that, when I arrived at this school, I did have this exact problem in my own performance. I blazed through my first few scenes at an unnatural breakneck speed. I started to ask myself, how did I change this? What did I do? My technique seems to have evolved beyond its own explanation! As the performance date drew nearer and nearer, I puzzled over the problem.
The turning point happened while I was rehearsing with my students. I was rapidly learning, with each of the six one-acts, that I'd overlooked the most vital ingredient of a performance: energy. You can create an excellent show, but if the performers don't have the energy to reach the audience, the show stays stubbornly mild, flat, and dull. Once I realized that oversight, of course I urged each of the casts to use higher energy. One cast didn't quite seem to understand what I meant by "energy", even though I thought I'd explained it quite plainly. I decided to use a trick that my movement instructor had used with my class; I asked everyone to play tag. After a few minutes of running around and laughing, I stopped the game and announced that this is how it's supposed to feel when you're performing a scene. They took a moment to absorb that, and then one of them turned to me and asked "But.. how are we supposed to make that happen when we're not playing tag?"
Answering that question solved the problem. Because the problem can occur when using the underlining strategy alone, I deliberately chose scenes today that were arguments (which lend themselves to going quickly and interrupting each other). But answering the question provided the explanation for the technique I'd developed, and that answer is what I'll be covering in the next class session. I've never tried to explain it to more than one or two people at once, but since this concept is the basis for everything we're doing this semester I'm sure there will be plenty of time to refine it. The answer I'm speaking of came in the form of a magic word:
*To minimize their fear of failing to read it "correctly", I confirmed that they were okay with reading aloud and assured them that I did not expect them to do a "good job"; after they finished, I emphasized that we would've gotten the same result no matter who'd been reading.
**My favorite example, though, was on a day that my director had asked me to do a workshop with our cast. Before the workshop, he gave us all a morale-boosting talk. He implored, "I really need you to support each other, to be there for each other, to really help each other out. Now, I'm not asking you to wipe each other's--" (and here he paused a moment) "--tears, but I really want you to work as a team." As I began the workshop, there were titters all around when I confirmed that, in that split-second pause, everyone's mind had indeed filled in the obvious word.
Last night I jotted down an outline for today's class. I rarely need outlines; when the class is a rehearsal I don't need one, and when it's a "class" I try to involve the entire group in exercises which have obvious structures. Ultimately, everything I teach must be translated into exercises which somehow involve everyone; the nature of the material is that unless you actually experience it, to "get it into your body" (to use the dancers' phrase), it will not make sense. You might think you understand it, but you haven't learned it-- you can't learn it-- until you have physically done it yourself. But I've never taught this stuff to more than one or two people at a time. Because I only really understood the need for it at the end of last semester, I've only explored it with the occasional person who showed interest or whichever people were the scene partners I'd drop in on (by request or by happenstance).
So I needed to write the outline to clarify my thoughts and distill the material into only what was absolutely necessary. Because I didn't know how to involve everyone at once, I figured that the best I could do would be to demonstrate the basic concepts and then encourage them to explore it themselves. The less time I spoke, the more time they'd have to explore. I acknowledged the possibility that only the people I was demonstrating with would understand it at first, but found solace knowing that, because we'll have the entire semester, the demonstration will at least provide the vocabulary we will need to work together later on. And by adhering strictly to what I had written, I could be certain of not going off on tangents which might seem interesting or relevant but which would actually just be more intellectual information to be forgotten. And I did stick strictly to the outline (I had to rein myself in quite a few times), so here I will start with the fleshed-out version of the outline, and then describe what happened when they tried it themselves.
I had to put this session into perspective straight off. As you watch these demonstrations, I explained, remember that I'm not actually teaching you something new. Everything I say in any class is an attempt to show you what you already do. I'm not giving you instructions to follow, or a formula to apply; I'm showing you new ways to observe how you actually communicate and behave in real life. A critical implication of this is that if you're feeling lost, it's never going to be because you don't get it or can't do it. That's impossible, because I'm just trying to describe what you are doing. If my explanation doesn't make sense, it's because you and I think about the same thing in different ways, and therefore I will need your help to figure out what words I can use that will make sense to you. Knowing that, we begin.
What is energy? Energy is an essential ingredient of any performance. Watching a performance that has no energy is like listening to music with the volume turned down from 10 to 2; all the musicianship and orchestration can be there, but it's muted. The audience has to strain so hard to extract information from the signal that they're likely to give up on the performance. Everyone agrees this is true: shows need energy. But rarely will anyone tell you what energy is; typically, it's one of those things that's either there or not. One of the acting faculty here despises the term "energy" because nobody knows what it means. But I believe I do know, and this is how I define it. Energy is how much of your body you are using.
I'm speaking with low energy right now, I said. I gestured to my head; notice how when you look at me, you can see that all I'm using to talk with is my head. The rest of my body is uninvolved and uninteresting. And now-- here I began emphasizing my words with broad gestures and large steps-- you can feel that I have "more energy", and this is merely because I'm moving my body as I talk. But I can also stay perfectly still and engage my body, even without overt movement; if you look at me now you will perceive me as an entire body, instead of just a head. (As I did this, I noticed some amused smiles from the students who were surprised to see that this was true.)
To show how energy works, I called for a volunteer who "didn't mind jumping around."* We gave him a sentence ("I love Barney") and I asked him to say it with only his head. Then he said it again while engaging his head and shoulders. Then head, shoulders, and left arm. Then head, shoulders, left arm, and right arm. Then head, shoulders, left and right arms, and torso. And so on, down to his feet. As we added more body parts, it was undeniable that the sentence was being spoken with increasing energy; he even began spontaneously singing the sentence to release more of the energy that was being created. In the morning class, I finished the demonstration by asking the girl to stand still and say the sentence one last time. When she did this, it was obvious that more of her body was engaged than the first time she'd said it, and everyone could see how this was making her speak with "more energy". This, I pointed out, is why actors do warmups; they want to make their bodies engaged and active, just as you see she is now.
To get everyone engaged and active, I started a game of tag. It was fun-- they didn't want to stop playing!-- and when I had stopped it, I told them what I've already written on this webpage. My movement instructor had done this for us last semester, and I did it for my students last semester, and that's what put me on this track: this is what performing a scene should feel like, and now I'm going to show you how to do that.
Everything relies on the impulse. Impulse is the fuel, the foundation, the core, the spark, the life-blood of every performance. Impulse is where it all starts, and impulse is where it all comes from. Every person on stage is an impulse generator, a gusher of energy ready to be tapped; every breath you take is a charge of excitement. Impulse is the basis of all true acting.
So... what's an impulse? That's the tricky part. I can't explain it; I can only demonstrate it. It's always there-- once you look for it, you feel it; once you feel it, using it is unbelievably easy, because using impulses is exactly what we do in every moment of our waking life.
To discover the impulse, call volunteer number two. We each got a line: my line was "That's what I tried to tell you yesterday," his was "Yes, I know you did." I asked him which word he would underline in my sentence; he chose "tell" (in the afternoon, the girl chose "you"). All right, I continued. I'll say the line; when you hear that word, I want you to feel the impulse that hits you, and use that impulse to respond. I said it; he did it. He didn't know what he'd done, but he did it.
To help clarify the feeling, I'll give you the line again, I said-- and this time miss the impulse. Feel it, but don't respond; let the impulse pass and then reply, after I've finished speaking. I said it; he did it. Did you feel how that was lower energy than before, I asked? He wasn't sure, so we went round it a couple more times: hit it, miss it, hit it, miss it. By the third time, he realized that he did feel it, he had felt it all along, and he could easily tell the difference between when he used the impulse to reply and when he let it dissipate.
Once he sensed the impulse, we played around with it. Use the impulse again, I said, but this time notice how I'm actively giving it to you with your underlined word. I did this by deliberately emphasizing tell, shooting the impulse straight at him; he caught it and replied. Okay, now I'm not going to give it to you, but on that word, take the impulse and use it. I spoke the sentence rather blandly, and he yanked the impulse right out of the word. Then I asked him to amplify the impulse, to give it more energy before he returned it (he did); then I gave it to him with high energy and, with his reply, he channeled that energy into a smaller impulse. I asked him to throw it back at me; I asked him to throw it on the floor. He did all these things-- and each time he did, it was so obvious that all I had to do was turn to the class and shrug. No explanation necessary. I thanked him and gestured him back to his chair (I probably could have pointed out that this gesture was itself delivering an impulse, the energy of which moved him toward his chair).
This process is, literally, what it means to listen. Have you ever had a director who told you to "listen to each other"? I've seen many actors confused by this instruction, because they remember hearing the other lines perfectly well. But "listening" means receiving the impulse. With a different volunteer, I demonstrated this; I gave him a line and asked him to say it to me a few times. Each time, I responded at the same word, with the same reaction-- but I alternated between ignoring the impulse and accepting the impulse so everyone could (I hoped) see the difference between listening and not listening.
Pre-planned reactions become real when you use the impulse. I gave a student the line "Chris, you're the dumbest person I've ever met," and announced that I would use "dumbest" for my impulse and "What do you mean by that?" as my own line. I first responded with hurt, then with anger; the third time, I caught and held the impulse, slowly turning and advancing before speaking. Although I knew in advance how I wanted to respond, I let the impulse cause the response, which made the response real and alive.
Volunteer number five helped demonstrate spontaneity.** My line was "Where are you going, young lady?" (she chose going); hers was "I have to go to the bathroom." We exchanged the lines once, then again with more energy. For the third round, I instructed her to try to duplicate precisely what she'd just done-- respond at the right time, but don't worry about the impulse; instead, try to use exactly the same inflection and exactly the same gesture. She did. I prompted her to do this a few more times, and then turned to the class and pointed out how her line was becoming less real, more mechanical, more "empty" with every repetition. Then I asked her to use the impulse again, and her response immediately became honest and real.
When you're working with impulse power, it is impossible to over-rehearse and get stale. Most amateur actors (and some professionals, for that matter) believe that the purpose of a rehearsal is to find the "correct way" to perform the show, so whenever they have one good rehearsal they try to repeat exactly what happened. Trying to "get it right" like this, though, is a mechanical repetition which ignores impulses. By using impulses, responding to the impulse that's right there, you can perform the same scene over and over, and the five hundredth time will be just as spontaneous and real as the first.
Impulse also fuels emotion. Directors often say "I need more ___", where the blank is filled with some emotion word (anger, pity, love, whatever). What usually happens is that the actor creates the sounds and "feeling" of what they believe will demonstrate that emotion; this, of course, takes them further away from the scene, because they're working internally to create something that has no connection to the reality around them. If a director ever says this to you, you should know that what they're really asking is for you to amplify the impulses that cause you to feel the emotion, and to give more energy to your responses.
That was the end of the demonstration. I asked everyone to haul out their scripts and find a partner with whom they have a scene. Take any two lines, I said, and practice playing with the impulse. On the board, I had written
Small -> big
Big -> small
Throw it back
Throw it on the floor
I told them that it was most important to do the first two, so that everyone can feel what it's like to hit it (and get energy) and what it's like to miss it (and go flat). The others are just there as some suggestions for you to explore and play around with. Then, both classes proceeded to surprise the heck out of me.
The biggest surprise was that they really did explore. Anyone who teaches non-actors will sympathize with the fact that non-actors do not explore. They receive some instruction, they do once what they think that instruction is, and then they stop and look at you to find out whether they did it right and are they done and so can they sit down again or maybe class is over and can we leave now? Sometimes, without direct coercion, they don't even bother to try, but sit and chat until you come over and ask them to please do it. Then they do it (so you'll leave them alone again and they can get back to their conversation). But not this class. Not either class, in the morning or the afternoon. I'm sure that it might have been a factor that they were using the scripts they know they'll be performing, but as I weaved my way around, I was delighted to see that they were genuinely having fun playing with the concept.
The best part was when I saw three of the girls sitting next to each other and chatting animatedly. I figured that they must have tried the exercise once, figured they were done, and were now talking about random things. I wanted to make sure they'd tried it at least once, so I approached to ask if the exercise had made sense. They replied yes, it made sense, and now we're chatting. I started to say that I honestly don't mind if they chat-- it helps them bond as castmates and become more comfortable talking with each other-- but that I'd appreciate it if they did keep exploring with impulses for at least a little while longer. I started to say that. Halfway through, one of them corrected my understanding. They had been chatting, yes... with their lines. They were getting a kick out of the fact that it could feel so comfortable and natural to say the lines to each other. And, of course, when I saw them from afar, that's exactly what I had seen. I was thrilled; I gave them the thumbs-up, gave myself the shut-up, and I moved on.
Unlike the previous session, I didn't listen to whether or not they'd "got it". I initially thought I might, but quickly discovered that they knew perfectly well whether or not they got it. Although I had started by asking everyone to use only one line each, to feel the hit it/miss it most strongly, almost everyone continued with dialogue because they found it to be such an interesting effect. One of the girls I approached said with excitement and pleasure that it was really wild, because she was saying these lines with her partner and it was just like having a conversation! I grinned and clapped in agreement.
I spotted one fellow who appeared not to be doing the exercise, but was studying his script intently. He told me that he was trying to figure out which were the right impulses and what the right responses were before he tried it. I attempted to explain that the "right" response could be anything, and you only find out what works and what doesn't once you try it, but I'm not sure that made an impression, because he continued to pore over the script instead of exploring with his partner. I didn't press it; I think at that point he knew what he needed better than I did, and we will have the whole rehearsal process to explore.
Another guy asked me-- how you can retrieve the impulse after someone throws it on the floor? I asked him to throw one on the floor and I'd show him; I did, using high energy to retrieve it and keep it going. Okay, now speak your line again, but this time give the impulse to me instead of the floor. I used his impulse to emulate what I'd done a moment before. Same energy level, but less effort, because I used the impulse. If you're passing the impulses around, nobody has to work so hard to pick up the energy; when you're using the impulses, energy keeps itself up.
There was one girl who did not get it. There may have been others-- my wandering about was not thorough-- but there was this one who had the courage to tell me. I tried a few of the exercises with her, but they didn't make anything clearer; she clearly felt the shock of each impulse (I and her partner tried giving it to her very strongly) but even when her body visibly responded to that impulse, she let it dissipate before replying instead of using the impulse to make herself reply. Because everything I tried was getting the same result, I decided to leave it for today. She asked if maybe she wouldn't get it; I reminded her that she does get it, and I've seen her do it (I alerted her to it a few times while we talked), and it's the way I'm trying to explain it that doesn't make sense. I'll need your help to figure this one out, I said; perhaps if you start paying attention to your conversations and listen for what you think I mean you'll be able to tell me what words make sense to you. I don't know if she'll have some cosmic revelation overnight, but at least we know that there is a language failure there for us to overcome.
*If I pick someone to help and they show the slightest hesitation, I assure them that they don't have to do anything, and accept if they choose to stay seated.
**As I anticipated would happen, she understood the concept but didn't yet have the body knowledge. I ran us through the "hit it/miss it" cycle; she got it at once and we proceeded.
Today we recorded the plays. I'll be editing them over the weekend, and each student will receive an audio disc of their show. The disc may be helpful for learning lines in the same way that so many people know Monty Python and the Holy Grail by heart. It's unlikely that anyone who's memorized that movie actually sat down and tried to learn all its lines, but after repeated listenings-- active listening, with full attention-- they absorbed the lines into memory. I've learned that my brain usually memorizes something after about 45 repetitions.
I always record my lines for every part I play, but in four stages. First I record the entire play, speaking very slowly, and edit out pauses. Then I silence all of my own lines, leaving everyone else's. Then I take both those versions and speed them up by 135% (the equivalent of playing an LP on 45, for those who remember what that means). So I've got full script slow, silenced-lines slow, full script fast, silenced-lines fast. If I proceed through this cycle, speaking along with the recording, by the time I get to the fourth stage I'm reinforcing what I have now memorized. If I could I'd make all four versions for each student, but I don't have the time.
Not everyone can learn lines aurally. Some people learn their lines visually, looking at the script and away again; others learn them by tying the words to the motions that accompany them. I used to condemn learning-by-motion, because I believe that tying your lines to your blocking will stifle your freedom of movement. But if you connect the lines to the movement impulses they cause, that could be an effective way to learn blocking and lines at once.
Naturally, the recordings have a second function; I get to hear everyone read the script for the first time. Before recording, I give everyone the specific instruction to read neutrally. By "neutral", I explain, I mean read it meaningfully but don't try to act it; it's too early in the process to condition yourselves towards an interpretation. As I was listening to some of the recordings this evening I paid attention to what qualities I noticed as important.
- Articulation. Mumbling and dialect are usually what catch my attention.
- Freedom. Are they expressive or do they place themselves under constant restraint?
- Style. How does their neutral self influence the character?
- "Acting." If they depart from neutrality and start performing the words, even mildly.
That last one is usually the result of previous stage experience. In "acted" lines, the reader is speaking as they believe the lines would be spoken if the character were feeling the way they suspect the character would feel. But since the speaker is only imitating a pretense, rather than living a reality, their "acting" is obvious. Each time I've heard "acting", now and in the past, I've been concerned that the bad habit may be too strong to break; this is usually how young actors are trained to behave. But each time I've approached it as a problem, I've been able to show these actors the difference between what they are doing and what they could do, and (so far) each of them has chosen to change their habit.
Of these four things I notice, I have strategies to work with all but the second one. I'm not a counselor; I don't know what enables a person to release their body from the box they put themselves in. For now, I listen to the recordings and I make note of which voices are tentative and small, who sound like they may need specific encouragement to allow their impulses to be visibly and audibly expressed.
After the recordings, a student who'd been missing on Friday took some extra time with me to catch up on energy and impulse. It was a bit easier, if a bit rushed, because I was explaining it to only two people (I'd borrowed another student to help demonstrate). The session worked exactly as it should-- within five minutes she clearly felt the difference between grabbing and missing the impulse; in another five minutes she was able to use the impulse to change her energy level; by the time we were done she was using the impulse to keep predetermined emotional repetitions real and alive. I forgot to do the final step of taking this knowledge to the actual script, but we'll have plenty of time to do that as we go along.
While we were at it, she made some sharply insightful remarks which I wish the rest of the class had been there to hear. I probably should've written them down immediately, because she stated them so concisely, but at the time I was mainly thrilled that everything was so clear to her (a triumph both of her intelligence and my exercises). Perhaps the most important of them was when she observed that she'd been anticipating an impulse so intently, and become so wound up in that anticipation, that she distracted herself from being able to feel it when it occurred! It's a lot easier, she said, when I don't try to do it but just let myself feel it. I enthusiastically agreed and tacked on some of my own words.
That's one bad habit I'd like to break myself of. Teachers, unfortunately, do this all the time. When a student says something relevant-- when they've made an observation or drawn a conclusion that they're surprised or pleased or proud to have discovered-- why is it that the teacher feels obliged to repeat the same damn idea right back at them with twice as many words? They got it. They just told you. Unless you have some additional idea that expands their comment in a meaningful way, the correct response is to say "Yes! That's it!" and then stop talking. For one, if a student learns that everything they say to you will be answered by five minutes of redundant babble, they will start trying to avoid saying anything to you. For another, when you explain it back at them, you imply that they didn't understand the whole picture-- and part of the educational process should be to convince the student that they can judge their own work. I was re-reading How Children Fail today and encountered this quote:
Asking children questions that required them to do something, rather than merely say something, was still no improvement if, having tried to do what we asked, they still had to depend on us to tell them whether they had done it right. What we needed were tasks with an evident goal, like puzzles-- unlock the rings, make the ball go in the hole, etc. No one ever asks "Have I done this jigsaw puzzle right?"
In short-- my purpose as a teacher/director is to turn these plays into "tasks with an evident goal." If the students understand the shows and their part in it, then they won't need me to tell them whether or not they're doing well; their success will be self-evident. This started to emerge today. While one cast was waiting to record (I had three casts and only two working microphones), I explained how I wanted our "restaurant patrons" to intrude on the main action without totally disrupting it. One of the cast immediately suggested we have someone randomly take away the saltshaker from the main characters' table. I gleefully acknowledged that that's exactly the kind of thing we'll want to do, but they didn't need me to tell them; they could tell that it made sense. If the problem is well-defined, then everyone knows how to contribute to the solution.
This quote also helped me understand what had been nagging at me about a "Fundamentals of Dance" class that I'm taking. In the class, the instructor has asked us to perform various types of movements, and everyone is gamely attempting those movements-- but I keep wondering how these movements are supposed to teach me things about dance. After reading this quote, I considered the fact that everyone in the class is doing what they think the instructor wants them to do, but nobody really knows for sure. Maybe the instructor tells us we've done it well-- but then we don't know what made it good. We don't know what we're supposed to be learning. As we began a walk-across-the-floor-in-this-funny-way exercise, I overheard two girls whisper to each other, "Why are we doing this?" "I don't know. ...I guess it's good practice if we ever want to be ninjas." And when we'd finished the exercise, we were told that we shouldn't have let our elbows droop or our feet turn, but how were we to know that? And why did it matter? There was no context, before or after, to help us understand why drooping elbows or turned feet were undesirable. All in all, the exercises we're doing are not unpleasant (at worst, they're harmless); the main thing is that if we ever do learn the context for these exercises, we will already have done them-- so if we want to understand them we'll have to go back and do them again anyway. This is what I'd inadvertently done last semester when I did all those exercises before actually working with the scripts.
This morning, life just got a little more interesting. One of the other grad students has left the program, and I'm now teaching one of his classes. It was hard enough to find these six plays-- can I possibly find three more? And even though it's only been two weeks, I'll want to catch everyone up on everything you've seen here so far! I had said that I needed to work on condensing it all... well, here's my chance.
I just cobbled together a short note about learning lines and sent it out to everyone. I figured that there was enough information that, if I tried talking about it in class, I'd only have to give them the written page anyway-- so why waste the class time? I used to have a more complete treatment of how people (not just me) learn lines, but I can't seem to find that document.
Today, in my Fundamentals of Dance class, we were doing another one of those "walk-across-the-floor-like-this" exercises (including the "ninja" move from before). The number of students was uneven, which meant that one girl soon discovered that she was the only one doing it, and that twenty-two pairs of eyes were now fixed directly on her. She startled and faltered, but feebly and sheepishly (and hurriedly) completed the cross.
The instructor seized the opportunity. Congratulations to you for not giving up, she said. Why, the other day, one girl was only halfway across and just gave up, and walked normally to the other side of the room. You should always complete the cross, said the instructor-- because if you don't, she emphasized, that's disrespectful to the teacher.
A couple days ago, I commented that "non-actors don't explore." I'm now surprised and a little embarrassed that I blamed the students. It's the method. It's always the method. My dance instructor's comment made me realize why we're doing these exercises. We're not doing them for us because they enrich our understanding of dance and movement; we're doing them for her because she told us to. We don't explore because we can't explore; the instructor tells you "do this", you do it, and... well, what's next? Is that it? Are we done? What was the point of that? Even though I am an actor and I normally do explore, today I found myself deliberately taking the largest strides possible just to get it over with. If doing this will teach me something, well, then, there. I've done it. Now tell me what I was supposed to learn from that. Do it again? (sigh) All right. Now am I done? If the most compelling reason to complete the exercise is merely to avoid the instructor's disapproval, this attitude is inevitable.
You can only explore when you are not trying to follow instructions. When that girl realized she was out there alone, she panicked. The fear in her face and body was intense, because now everyone could see she had no idea whether she was "doing it right." Once she assessed her situation, she continued-- but full of tension and anxiety, carefully trying to do exactly what she'd been told. As I watched this, it seemed highly likely that she wasn't paying the slightest attention to anything but following instructions, so it seemed highly unlikely she could be learning anything. I also considered that she was so fearfully staying within the boundaries of the prescribed actions that she had no freedom to discover anything. I compared this to the girl I worked with last Friday, who told me how much easier it was when she didn't try to follow my instructions; and to the other students, who on Wednesday began exploring their scripted dialogue without my prompting them to do so. When you're following instructions, nothing else can happen, because there's only one "right answer." When you're exploring a principle, where there are no right or wrong answers, then anything can happen. That's what makes exploration possible; that's what makes exploration fun.
Think of it as giving your students a new toy to play with. There's no right or wrong way to use a top, but most of the time you'll end up spinning it, because that's how it works. If I gave a rubber ball to a three-year-old who'd never seen one before, and left him alone, I'd bet that within a minute he'd be bouncing that ball all over the place and loving it. Or maybe he'd chew it, or try to stand on it, or try to roll it at a target-- and why not? That's part of what a ball can do. But if I showed him exactly how to bounce it and insisted that he only do so at this height with this force, I'd guarantee he'd just as quickly get bored and annoyed, and he'd never find out what else a ball is good for. If you let your students play with an interesting toy, instead of telling them "what to do", then they can't help but learn; and they will do so at their own pace, in their own way, with interest and delight. (For a real-life illustration, check out this article.)
This morning, early morning, was the first session of my new class. As you've seen, with the other two classes I didn't waste any time diving right into it; as I contemplated how to approach the new group, I wondered how I'd manage to fit in everything they'd missed. Looking at the calendar, I was pleased to discover that really, the first week had been my explanations of how the class works and all the get-to-know-ya stuff; if I didn't bother with that, I figured, then this schedule would only be two days behind the others. This would be my chance to condense the information from the first couple days, as I've said I thought should be done-- and by doing so, I was happy to see that the new group could start right in on the underlining strategy and hit the ground running.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Their expectations of me were far too strong. They hadn't been told of the instructor swap, so they all arrived prepared for the usual business. It didn't matter that I began by telling them we were going to do one-acts, and that we'd use the class time as rehearsal; because I swept so quickly into the underlining exercise, and proceeded forward with such intensity and vigor, I gave them no time to consider that any fundamental change might have occurred. As far as they were concerned, this day's session was simply one more meaningless activity in a continuing series of confusing exercises, and I was just one more lecturer to be humored and endured until the time was over.
The result was almost frightening. Up until now, I'd compared the morning and afternoon classes as relatively low versus high energies; but compared to the dead, blank responses from this early session, the morning class is a Spike Jones revival. It definitely was not because of the time of day, although that can't have helped. It was because they knew this was another session of show up, follow instructions, go home. When I spoke about the new schedule and new assignments, they listened with benign interest because it affected their grade. When I asked them to go around the circle and say something to the group, they were so afraid to speak, even saying something as simple as "I ride a skateboard", that almost none of them could be heard more than two seats away. When I introduced the underlining strategy, some of them found it interesting and others just did it-- the exercise does hold some intrinsic value, regardless of context-- but the moment they had demonstrated their competence at the exercise, they'd fulfilled their obligation. They began lifting backpacks and checking watches, resentful of the people who came after them for prolonging their time there. And whenever I said anything, at any time, everybody zoned out almost immediately. Nobody listened; nobody cared. Why should they bother to listen to the explanation for exercises that won't matter after today and won't have any application to anything they ever do?
Yes, I am exaggerating in saying nobody, but that's a minor point. There were a couple students who seemed amused and pleased to step into the new groove, but generally I received overwhelming impressions of boredom, fear, impatience, resentment, and restlessness. It is possible that I'm magnifying my perception of them, too, because until this morning I hadn't experienced the difference between this kind of response and how, in talking to the other classes, they actually do listen and they do care-- within reasonable attention spans (I still do tend to go on more than I need to)-- presumably because they know I'm trying to tell them something that bears direct relevance to their upcoming performances.
So I've hastily revised the early schedule (I'll refer to the classes as "early", "morning", and "afternoon" from here on in, I'm sure). What today showed me with intense clarity is that the process here really is a process that needs to begin at the beginning. Rather than hit the ground running and drive rapidly through, as I imagined, it'll be necessary to head all the way back to the start and move forward calmly and through the full process as with the other classes. We'll lose a week of rehearsal, but it's obvious that without the introductory part of the process, anything I'd try to show them would be just another task to be finished and forgotten.
It's not the time of day. 8:30 is a ridiculous, rotten time to have an acting class, but as long as I keep us active, we should be able to draw energy from each other. The morning and afternoon sessions are helping me to see where the point is made and I can stop babbling. Trying to help everyone stay awake in this early session will sharpen that further.
And I'll be back tomorrow to write about today's morning and afternoon sessions... which were really cool.
Today I demonstrated my function as director: set up the circumstances and get out of the way.
The first game was quick and simple. Everyone randomly received a printed number, and pinned that number to their neighbor's back; then I instructed them to line up from lowest to highest, but without talking or touching each other. The goal is so clearly defined, everyone works together with swift and efficient coordination. Once they've finished, they all look at me, and I have to laugh-- it's always fun to see how they figure it out. Each group who does this develops their own unique gestural shorthand to represent "you go there". I know by now, though, what will stay consistent.
From the moment it begins, nobody is ever confused or lost. Did you notice, I told them, how you never wondered what to do? You all knew what had to be done, and everyone found their own way to the same goal. Some of you became traffic cops, some of you looked to see which numbers were missing in case you could fill the gaps, and those of you already in place kept looking around to find the people who should stand next to you. And you never wondered, at any moment, whether you were "doing it right". When it was over, you all looked at me, not for my approval or to wonder whether you'd done it, but because you knew you had succeeded.
This game shows how the director and actor tell the story of the play. A director says "this is what has to happen" (the event), and an actor chooses an action that makes it happen (the objective). This game's event was "line up from low to high"; each student invented an objective which they knew would best support that event. The event was so specific and so clear that nobody had to wonder or worry if they were doing the right thing; they just did it, and although everyone was obviously pursuing a different personal objective (traffic cop, find-my-neighbor, etc), anyone watching would see a coherent, unified scene. This is the symbiosis of director and actor.
The next game demonstrated objectives. I set up tables as a convenience store, and put real candy bars on the tables. One student became the customer and another the clerk; I provided an objective, instructed them not to talk, and prompted them to start. The no-talking rule is very important-- I discovered early on that, since they are "on stage", students often feel obliged to spout words, even though in this same real-life situation they'd rarely say anything more to each other than "here's your change" and "thank you." Taking away the words is actually a huge burden off their shoulders, because then they don't have to worry about what to say. The rule becomes self-explanatory during the game, so I don't bother to explain it in class.
First objective: buy the candy bar. I gave the customer a prop-- a dollar bill. The customer entered, bought the candy bar, the scene was done.
I asked some rhetorical questions of the two performers (first announcing that they were rhetorical): Did you feel at all self-conscious? Did you feel lost or confused or wonder what you should be doing? Did you wonder at any moment whether you were doing it right? Of course the answers were no. And did you notice, I asked the entire class, how the scene ended the instant the candy bar had been purchased? The customer didn't bother to go out the "exit"; she had accomplished her objective, so the scene was over. I encouraged the class to pay attention to the second objective.
Second objective: eat the candy bar. I gave the customer the same dollar bill. The customer entered, bought the candy bar... and the scene was not done, as he began to eat the candy bar. We kept watching, wondering if he was going to eat the whole thing (to end the suspense, I cut the scene short).
Your objective is what defines a scene. As we've just witnessed, a scene begins because you start pursuing an objective, and the scene ends because your objective is done. If your objective is not done, the scene continues. If I'd allowed it, we would have watched until the very last bite of that Twix bar.
I didn't give objectives to the store clerks either time. I pointed this out to the class, but reminded them that the clerks were never confused or lost about what to do, either. I had not given objectives to the clerks because I knew they would discover their objectives from their relationship to the customer.
Relationship is another one of those "fuzzy words" (like energy) that people can't usually define. My definition is blunt: "relationship" is what you want from the other person. The more I've thought about it, the more I believe this definition extends beyond theater, but for the moment I'll just stick with its practical application. We can actually use this definition-- if I want someone to fetch me a baked potato, I will relate to them in an entirely different way than if I want them to bear my children. In this case, I said, notice that the store clerk's relationship to the customer is so obvious-- I want you to give me money for that candy bar-- that it gives them everything they need in the scene. As we do this again, I suggested, be aware of how the clerk's actions arise from his relationship to the customer.
Third objective: eat the candy bar. But this time, I did not give him a dollar.
This is when it got interesting. The customer entered and loitered around the tables, his back to the clerk, waiting for an opportunity to stealthily sneak one of the bars. He tried first one table, then the other, but under the clerk's watchful eye it wasn't happening. So he returned to the first table and-- whoops! A misstep, a stumble, and as he caught his balance his hand just happened to slide right over one of the candy bars. With his body between the bar and the clerk, he began to unwrap it as quietly as possible. The clerk was no dummy, though, and approached the customer to tap him on the shoulder. The customer turned around, wide-eyed, caught red-handed; after a moment of indecision, he suddenly shoved the unwrapped bar into his mouth as far as it would go (to the delight of the class, who whooped and applauded). The clerk first insisted on money, but the customer indicated he had none. Then the clerk decided that he'd settle for what remained of the candy bar, and reached for it-- and as soon as the customer realized this was happening, in a panic he jammed the rest of the bar into his mouth (the class again burst into laughter). With the candy bar gone and no dollar to be had, the clerk gave up and the scene was done.
And all I'd told him to do was "eat the candy bar."
This game has fascinated me since I first tried it in Oral Interpretation. Students whom I am certain would protest that they "can't do improv", and who would surely fall to pieces if asked to improvise, will come up with the most amazing and naturally inventive scenes. These examples I've just mentioned are from the morning class, because they most closely followed the template I was expecting (so I can more easily describe its linear progression); the higher energy of the afternoon class led to equally fascinating results.
In the first afternoon scene (objective: buy the bar), the customer started by examining the nutrition information, and spontaneously decided she was going to try to shoplift a second bar. Suddenly a desultory scene became intriguing and tense.** Did the clerk notice? Would she get away with it? How much did these bars cost, anyway-- would the dollar be enough? Once she reached the counter, she and the clerk haggled and gestured; first she protested innocence, then she bargained for both bars at one dollar; then, seeming to accept defeat, she relinquished one of the bars (along with her dollar) and turned to go. But her turn was only a feint; as soon as the clerk relaxed his guard, with a quick dart she nabbed the bar off the counter and dashed out the door. The class erupted in applause. [don't forget, this all happened in pantomime!]
In the second afternoon scene (objective: eat the bar) the customer decided that, even though she had a dollar, she didn't want to pay for the bar. So, after making sure the clerk saw her dollar, she surreptitiously began unwrapping one to eat it. As soon as he saw this, the clerk-- who happened to be an athlete-- walked directly to her and towered behind her menacingly. She was so absorbed in the candy bar that she didn't notice, and the class guffawed in anticipation; when she turned to discover him, they laughed even harder at her startled surprise. After some sheepish looks and gestures, in which she tried to get him to let her eat the candy bar without paying, she finally handed over the dollar to end the scene.
The great thing about this exercise is that every time you do it, something new and interesting happens. I've seen the store clerk, tired of waiting for the customer to make a choice, turn on an imaginary TV and begin flipping channels (and responding to what she saw!); I've seen the customer defiantly eat the bar three inches from the clerk's face; in one instance the customer, deprived of my dollar bill, whipped out her wallet and handed over a debit card. Everyone you meet is an excellent creative problem-solver; as a director, you can harness that by defining the problem as clearly as possible.
Today's third activity illustrated the alternative, which is unfortunately what most directors do. I asked for a volunteer ("Who here has been to New York?") and cautioned them that this was going to make them look silly. Then I led this person through a series of movements, something like this:
Raise your hand.
Hold it forward.
Lower your hand.
Raise your arm.
Pull your arm back.
Turn to your left.
Of course, doing this, they look ridiculous, and I don't hesitate to say so. Then I return them to their initial standing position and say: "You're on a New York street. Get a cab." I confess I am always amused by the recognition that grows on their face as it dawns on them that this is essentially what they just did-- they know they've been had. But of course they understand that that was the point, so they give me a dirty look and continue.
And even this simple task becomes fascinating to watch. Without my constant interference, they create their own reality and make that reality come alive. Inevitably, they'll repeat some of the movements I'd asked them to do before (because that's what you do when you get a cab) and everyone sees how now those movements are now free, natural, meaningful and real. But more than that, their reality is so much richer than anything I could impose on them! Last semester, a student gave herself an imaginary business suit and briefcase, and got ticked off when a passing car splashed and soaked her; another student got into a pantomimed argument with the taxi driver. This afternoon, the student found herself on a very busy street, and after the first two cabs passed her up she favored the third by following it with a calm but potent middle finger (the class, of course, dissolved into laughter and applause).
As your director, I must not make you into a puppet, I said. Far too many directors do this; even though an actor might not look as overtly ridiculous as your classmate did, by trying to follow a director's instructions ("emphasize this word", "get angry there", "grab his arm on that line") an actor stifles and suppresses their natural reality. Furthermore, did you notice how, after each action, she had to turn and look at me? She didn't know what she was doing; she didn't know what came next or why. All she could possibly do was what I told her to do. If a director turns the actors into puppets, the actors can do only what the director instructs and nothing more. Instead, the director should establish the goal and the circumstances, and give the actors freedom to handle it in their own natural way.
This doesn't mean a director shouldn't direct. If there must be a specific movement or a certain reaction at a certain time, the director can help an actor find the impulse which causes that movement or reaction. If an actor is behaving in a way which harms the scene, then the actor does not understand the scene or their function in the scene. Clarify the event, clarify the objective, clarify the relationships. I believe from my experience so far that if the actor understands these things, there's no way he could choose to do something which would ruin the scene.
After these demonstrations, I handed out my analyses of each script. I'd already divided the script into "beats"*; now I explained how the beats were the structure of the show. Each show has a "superevent"-- this is "what happens"-- and, collectively, the beat events are the story of the play. Here is an example of my analysis of one of the shows; notice how each beat event relates directly back to the superevent, and, read consecutively, tell the story of the superevent.
Superevent: A. gets used for the last time.
Beat event 1: A. gets ready to take a chance.
Beat event 2: A. offers herself as damaged goods.
Beat event 3: A. gets spooked.
Beat event 4: A. decides she needs help.
Beat event 5: A. gets trapped.
Beat event 6: A. gets kicked aside.
Beat event 7: W. prevents A. and M. from reconnecting.
Beat event 8: D. and G. take over.
Beat event 9: A. and M. are forced (further) apart.
Beat event 10: D. uses A. to put the screws on M.
Beat event 11: A.’s attempts at making peace get hammered.
Beat event 12: M. gets fed up.
Beat event 13: D. reveals that she is using A.
Beat event 14: A. and M. are violated.
Beat event 15: G. and D. revel in their victories.
Beat event 16: A. is isolated.
Beat event 17: M. uses A. to protect himself from D.
Beat event 18: A. is told that she is nothing.
Beat event 19: D. gets M. by the balls.
Beat event 20: A. realizes what she needs to do.
Beat event 21: A. rejects the intrusions.
Beat event 22: A. takes a stand.
The actors' task is to invent a superobjective which supports the superevent, and to create beat objectives which support the beat events. I took a little time in class to make sure that everybody understood how that worked, and I also wrote a handout to make sure I didn't overlook anything.
One of the students brought up an important point. He told me his objective, and I asked him how that objective supported the event. He thought a moment before giving me his answer, at which of course I nodded my understanding. He responded with mild concern, "But you could justify any objective like that!" I leapt up and took that opportunity to tell the entire class that yes, you can justify any objective like that. That's what you're supposed to do as an actor. There are a limitless number of objectives which could be justified, so it's up to you to decide which you think will be the most effective.
When I asked everyone to create one objective, I made sure they knew this was not some kind of pop quiz! They didn't have to prove anything to me. I wanted to make sure that they felt confident in how to do this, so they could do it on their own without wondering whether or not they'd "done it right," and so they could ask me honest questions knowing that I would give them honest answers, and wouldn't judge them as smart or stupid, success or failure.
One final observation for today. In the morning class, I thought it harmless to arrange the seats into an "audience" so that they could watch the scenes; I placed all the chairs in two rows, all facing the same direction. I was subsequently astonished to discover how this alone managed to suck the energy right out of everyone. I've mentioned that I prefer to have everyone sitting in a circle so that they can more easily see and speak to each other; if you think of energy coming from impulses, and impulses coming from your classmates, then you can visualize how making everyone face the same direction sends every one of their impulses in the same direction-- out front, into the empty air. All the energy from the class literally evaporates. When the students were "performing" their scenes, that created enough impulse energy to keep the audience alert, but when it was just me in front I couldn't possibly keep all these people charged up, and everyone gradually sank further and further into their chairs. At the end of the session, I called one of the students forward to turn toward her classmates and see what I saw (which she did, immediately) and I promised everyone that I'd try not to do that to them again.
*In the afternoon class, I thought it would be a good idea to explain what I meant by the words "beat", "scene", and "pause", because these words are often confused for each other. This turned out not to be a good idea, because, not having any previous exposure to these terms, nobody was confused by my usage of these words-- until I started trying to explain them. Fortunately, I think my explanation was clumsy enough to be easily forgotten.
**Later in the evening, I realized that there was another point I could have drawn out of the exercise, and I e-mailed everyone.
You probably noticed that the third candy-bar scene was the most overtly entertaining-- this is because there was an obstacle in the way of the objective (i.e., he had no $). It's a known rule of theater: Obstacles are what make the scene interesting. The more difficult the obstacle, the more you have to figure out how to overcome it, and the more interesting the scene becomes. Although we won't explicitly deal with obstacles until we're actually rehearsing, I'd encourage you to consider in each scene what the main obstacle to your objective might be.
Today I roller-skated to school. It's 2-3 miles, mostly along bike paths.
This is partly because I love the feeling of skates on my feet, and partly because I can use the exercise; but as I was contemplating whether to skate or take the bus (I was awfully tired) it occurred to me that if I wanted to give the impression that there was now something different about the early class, moving around on skates would probably help. And it did-- I didn't take the skates off until the class period officially began, so my students saw me carrying chairs around and preparing my materials, stopping by the drinking fountain and coming down the hallway, all on roller skates.
So as you might imagine, when I began speaking I had their attention. When I explained that the material was structured differently than the usual acting-non routine it was a bit easier to believe. And, as I had hoped, the fact that their instructor wasn't so serious after all really helped to loosen everybody up.
All we did today, then, was the name game. The difference between this experience and Wednesday was staggering-- and wonderful. In this session, I appreciated more than I had before the value of each person saying two things about themselves; if a person says something simple ("I'm wearing an orange shirt") everyone is pleased to have something so easy to remember, and if they say something unusual ("I was born without a collarbone") it becomes a point of interest and sparks side conversations. This simple game helps everyone to become a real person to each other, and the fact that anyone can jump in at any time subtly emphasizes that in this environment they're not supposed to be mute little zombies, but to let themselves be free to speak. By the time we got all the way around the circle, almost everyone was chatting and laughing together-- a total reversal of the previous session, when they just wanted to shut up, pack up, and go home.
The game also helped erase the fear I'd observed in Wednesday's class. There were still a couple students who didn't want to put themselves on display, and they tried to say their name and two facts as quietly as they had spoken on Wednesday; of course, this was instantly met with a chorus of "What? Speak up! I can't hear you!" and they were obliged to open up and actually connect with their classmates. And, having done so-- finding their words accepted and even welcomed-- they discovered that this was okay.
The underlining and impulse techniques demonstrate how we listen and respond to ideas. Today I began demonstrating that we also speak in ideas, not words. The session proceeded just as I planned-- no great surprises-- and here's that procedure.
I ask someone to haul out their script and read one of their speeches. It doesn't matter which speech, as long as it has more than four or five sentences in a row. It doesn't matter which person, because I know that everyone will do the same thing. Without any explanation, I ask them to read it as they normally would, and they do.
Then I ask the student to read it again, without changing anything. This time, I tell the class, listen to how at the end of every statement they come to a complete stop. As the student reads, I emphasize each stop with a violent downward gesture, and it's obvious to everyone that I'm just making visible movement out of what we're hearing. I stress that this is a perfectly normal reading, and I could have chosen anyone to get the same result. Here's a sample passage from a play I used last semester. Try reading it out loud, yourself, and you'll probably hear yourself making that same complete stop (and fresh start) at every period-- and probably at the comma, as well.
I'd like to introduce two typical human beings. John and Mary Doe. They're not extraordinary in any way, which is exactly why I chose them. John and Mary live with their two children in Dayton, Ohio.
Start-stop, start-stop. Thud. Thud. Thud. The pattern is blatant.
Now I ask the same student who just read: can you please give me directions from here to your house? After they finish, I turn to the class to say-- did you hear how this entire speech was one continuous thread? Even though the directions had at least as many sentences as the script, you heard how each sentence did not stop. The entire description stayed "up" and didn't come down until we reached the end of the journey. You heard the difference.
Why does this happen? Again, it's the difference between reading and speaking. When we read, we absorb each sentence as a new and different idea. Absorb, speak. Absorb, speak. Start-stop. Start-stop. Thud. Thud. But when we talk normally, we have one idea to convey, and we keep peeling new sentences off of that same idea until we're done.
I ask everyone to dig out a pen and paper. Partner up with the person next to you; one of you describe the first thing you did this morning, in three sentences or more. The other one write it down word-for-word. Then switch, so you both have a paper with three or more sentences on it. Let's use this sample:
I woke up and hit the snooze alarm. Then I fell asleep again. Then the snooze alarm woke me up again.
At this point I remind everyone that what I'm about to ask them to do is not a new skill-- it's something you do every day, all the time, and the only thing that's new about it are the words I'm using to describe it. Do what you think I mean, I say, and you're probably right.
The rest of the class period is going around the circle speaking different permutations of these sentences.
First: Say all three sentences as one idea.
Sample becomes: I woke up and hit the snooze alarm then I fell asleep again then the snooze alarm woke me up again.
I usually have to gently coach the first couple speakers; I generally suggest that they talk without pausing at all (which is easiest to do) but sometimes I ask them to avoid ending the idea when they pause.
Second: Say all three sentences as two ideas.
Sample: I woke up and hit the snooze alarm then I fell asleep again. Then the snooze alarm woke me up again.
OR: I woke up and hit the snooze alarm. Then I fell asleep again then the snooze alarm woke me up again.
Third: Say all three sentences as three ideas.
Sample: I woke up and hit the snooze alarm. Then I fell asleep again. Then the snooze alarm woke me up again.
This sometimes surprises students who read their three sentences as written and don't realize that they've used a comma to create a fourth idea.
Fourth: Say only the first sentence, and make it one idea.
Sample: I woke up and hit the snooze alarm.
This fourth round is just so that everyone can hear the sentence.
Fifth: Say the same sentence and make it two ideas.
Sample: I woke up... and hit the snooze alarm.
You may have realized that there are many different ways to break sentences into different ideas. This sentence could become "I woke up and... hit the snooze alarm" or "I... woke up and hit the snooze alarm" or even "I woke up and hit... the snooze alarm" and still be only two ideas.
Sixth: Say the same sentence and make it three ideas.
Sample: I woke up... and hit... the snooze alarm.
By now, there's probably someone in the class with only a three-word sentence ("I got dressed") who wonders what's coming next-- can they break three words into four ideas? But I don't ask them to try that. What no one has really noticed is the fact that every one of them has been separating their ideas with pauses. So
Seventh: Say the same sentence, and make it three ideas, but without pausing.
This is where reading and speaking diverge. There's no way for me to represent this with punctuation, because there's no punctuation mark that represents it. In class this instruction is always met with surprise and mild confusion-- I am always asked to please demonstrate what I'm talking about. So I pick up a script and say the same sentence first as one idea, then two, then three, four, five... if the sentence allows it, I'll chop it into a new idea for every word. For example:
[I woke up] [and hit the snooze alarm.]
[I] [woke up] [and hit the snooze alarm.]
[I] [woke up] [and hit] [the snooze alarm.]
[I] [woke up] [and hit] [the snooze] [alarm.]
[I] [woke up] [and] [hit] [the snooze] [alarm.]
[I] [woke] [up] [and] [hit] [the snooze] [alarm.]
If you want to try this yourself, right now, you might want to try speaking the broken sentences above following this instruction: make each bracketed word (or word-group) mean something different. And don't pause when you do it. By the time I get to the last example, myself, it's perfectly obvious what I mean for them to do; but I make sure to warn them, let your body stay loose, because you can't do this without energy. Then everyone goes around the circle and does it.
All this together makes the singular point: we don't talk in sentences. We talk in ideas. Because you start by reading your script, absorbing and repeating one sentence at a time, it's a common trap to think that each new sentence is one new idea. But many sentences could be one idea, and one sentence could be many ideas. It's up to you, the actor, to discover the idea-groupings that will generate a clear, natural, and honest interpretation of the text.
That's the procedure.
I've told you a half-truth-- in the afternoon class, there was some deviation to the procedure because there were so many people. In addition to the enrolled students (six more than the morning class) there were also three undergraduate theater students and two additional invited visitors. I skipped the second and fifth permutations, which fortunately didn't seem to harm the process; there were also two useful examples which hadn't manifested in the morning class.
One girl couldn't say the different ideas without pausing. This gave me the opportunity to explain why this requires energy. You haven't noticed, I said, that as listeners you're detecting each new idea by some kind of change. As we continue around the circle, I said, pay attention to how each person changes the pitch, tempo, or stress pattern of their voice in order to indicate each new idea. But the change doesn't have to be very much, I said. Then I repeated "but the change doesn't have to be very much" with exactly the same inflection, and turned my head at the word "be"; from that, everyone saw one idea become two.
In this case, I continued, notice how she's not moving her body at all (no energy), and she is not changing her voice in any way. This means that the only way she can indicate separate ideas is by pausing, so she is instinctively doing that every time. Try it again, I encouraged her, but this time let your voice and your body be free to change. She did-- and the pauses immediately disappeared.
Following this, I was pleased when another one of the students decided to speak his three ideas by saying the middle of his sentence at an abnormally high pitch. Everyone laughed (including me), and I pointed out, this is a great example of why I asked you to say three ideas instead of change the way you talk. When you speak different ideas, your voice will change naturally and normally; but you heard how this fellow's sentence didn't resemble any kind of normal speech. Give it another shot, I asked him, but this time think of it as three different ideas instead of a funny way to talk. He did so-- and even though his voice ended up hitting the same pitch levels, this time it sounded like natural expression.
What I didn't have everyone do, going around the circle: speak a group of sentences as one idea, but with pausing. That's a little trickier, and that's what we'll be doing in the next session.
To introduce the next session, I ended the class by performing a monologue about receiving a sweepstakes letter. My technique is strong enough that nobody actually knew I was performing a monologue until I'd finished and said "okay, that was a monologue" and showed them the paper; then I performed it again. The first time I had spoken to them as though I thought it was a scam; the second time I said it as though I believed I'd just won the million bucks. Over the weekend, I said, look at your scripts and find a group of sentences that you can speak with two totally different ideas. We'll do that on Monday.
A bit of preamble:
Because I'm still developing this work, the morning class is usually where I learn from my mistakes. The same thing happened last semester when I was teaching a 3pm and a 4pm class; I'd make mistakes in the first class and correct those mistakes for the second, which naturally affected everyone's experience of their respective class. The feeling and the energy of the two classes this semester are practically identical to last semester's. So it's probably not the time of day that makes the difference; rather, I think my actions and approaches in the first session are more hesitant and wordy, and I haven't yet identified vital stumbling blocks. Fortunately, last semester, the quality of the shows did not differ between the 3pm and 4pm class; so I can be reasonably confident that my mistakes don't get in the way of the overall learning process.
Today's morning session was effective-- but awkward. The most perplexing moment was when one of the students turned to me, after trying the exercise, and asked had she done it right? I wasn't sure how to respond, and I tried to reword what she was doing to make it more clear; but after a minute or two of struggling to make sense I had to move on. After the morning session was done, I tried to figure out where the exercise had been weak or confusing, and started with this incident. I slapped my head when I realized that I could have just sidestepped the problem altogether by explaining the purpose of the exercise; she could have seen how her uncertainty had actually helped her.
Then it occurred to me that I hadn't explained anything to anyone until the class was over. The exercise was completely finished by the time I told them why we were doing it. Admittedly, this was deliberate-- I hadn't wanted the explanation to affect their natural behavior-- but that was the wrong decision for me to make, for two reasons. One, it prevented me from making suggestions which would help them to explore further; two, it meant that their understanding of the exercise was mostly intellectual, because all they had to go on was my verbal explanation and their memory of what they'd done. So the morning class did understand it, but I'll undoubtedly be reinforcing it individually during rehearsals, and that's when they'll feel the power of the technique. In the afternoon class, though, I explained what we were doing before we began the experimental section, and as a direct consequence the session was absolutely exhilarating.
The lesson for me as a teacher is to always make sure the explanation comes before the experience. As I think back on what's happened so far, it seems that the only reason to withhold an explanation is when I want the class to receive only a general impression. If there's anything specific that can be observed, this should be explained before starting the exercise-- otherwise, both the exercise and its explanation will only have to be repeated later.
Now to the meat of it.
Today's exercise was to take a piece of text and "put two different ideas behind it." That is: read the same thing twice, but each time give yourself a different reason for speaking it. Then we went around the circle a second time, and each student read the same text again using a random idea pulled out of a large envelope. Quite a few students hadn't prepared to do this (I had not been clear in the previous session) but fortunately, this exercise works best with as little preparation as possible.
This exercise forces you to truly act. The underlining and impulse technique shows how you listen and respond to ideas, not words; the segmenting technique (from our previous session) shows how you think in ideas, not words; this exercise completes the picture by showing how you speak ideas, not words. Every moment you are paying attention to words on stage is a moment you are not acting; doing this exercise, speaking the idea instead of the words, you are acting. Honestly, fully, naturally, you are acting.
The first go-round, I did not explain anything more than was necessary to do the exercise. I figured it was enough for them to see the general fact that the same piece of text could be read in two different ways (I've changed my mind about that for next time). In the first round, there are four possible results.
1. Both readings sound exactly the same. When this happens, I ask what their ideas were. Usually the ideas are either unhelpful, or not very different, or both, such as "I'm a little sarcastic" versus "I'm less sarcastic"-- in which case, without telling them why, I offer a totally distracting idea and ask them to try it (such as "you have a horrible pain in your foot"). There's no need to explain why; everyone already knows why-- the student because they weren't sure how to come up with ideas, and the class because they just heard two identical readings-- so talking about it only wastes time and potentially makes the student feel like a failure. It's better just to create a success.
2. One reading sounds fake, the other natural. This is something which I could've asked everyone to watch for. This happens because when a student first reads the text, they get the obvious idea and "hear" in their head how that makes the words sound; so when they present that to the class they're essentially just reproducing the sound. But the second time, when they speak the idea they haven't already "heard", their words come out naturally.
3. Both readings sound natural. Everyone hears it, so we move on to the next person without further comment.
4. Both readings sound fake. This happens when the student thinks of two ideas, pre-interprets the words according to those ideas, and then attempts to reproduce those sounds instead of speaking the idea. This actually didn't happen in either class today, but did with a student two semesters ago, so it's worth mentioning as a possible result.
There's a "1a" to go with this-- if the readings are exactly the same, but the ideas were different. This happens because the student has low energy; even though they might be thinking about the text differently, they're not using their voice or their body to show it, so nobody can detect the difference. This happened once today; I probably should've simply asked for more energy, but instead I gave him an idea which implied high energy. We didn't get the energy, but his attempt demonstrated something I hadn't thought of and wasn't expecting: if I (as the director) clearly define the context, then the actor can give a totally neutral reading and the audience will still appreciate the actor's performance.
So I began the second round with an explanation. The point, I said, is to plow ahead totally unconscious of the words. I further urged them to let their bodies get involved so they could have the energy to make the idea happen. If you don't have any energy, all you can do is talk; when your body's involved you can do anything. And this explanation made a world of difference.
For the first half, I often had to urge "Don't think! Just go! Find out what happens!" In the morning class, because I hadn't allowed myself to explain anything, one or two people paused first to "hear" the words, and then they reported what the words had sounded like in their head. They wanted to make sure they "got it right", so they didn't want to take chances, and I hadn't given myself any room to guide them away from that. In the afternoon, though, by the halfway mark everyone was eager and excited to plunge ahead blindly, because they understood how they and everyone else would discover the words together.
With the paired directions of "just go" and "give yourself energy", the readings we got were fantastic. Simply fantastic. I wish you'd been there to see them all-- but I'll have to settle for highlighting just a few of them.
In every speech, we saw that movement ("blocking") takes care of itself. In far too many rehearsals (and performances!) actors often stand stiff and immobile, rooted to one spot, wondering when or how they're supposed to move, only budging if the director insists. Nobody wondered about it today. Using the idea "you're talking to a guy who reeks", one performer roamed over the studio in a way that would thrill any director's heart-- weaving in and around the chairs, really using the entire space, and finally almost leaving the room.
We all saw that speaking the idea is natural and honest. Partway through her reading, one girl said "oh wait a minute, what was it?" and, until we saw her reach for a piece of paper, everyone (including me) thought that these words were part of the script. There was no difference between her "performance" and her natural speech-- she was speaking honestly the whole time.
We saw how speaking different ideas gives the text meaning and makes it come alive. There was one fellow whose speech was an apology to a former girlfriend; his readings were variously sarcastic, impassioned, and pleading, but not really remarkable. On a hunch, I suggested that he was actually gay and was leaving her for another guy. Suddenly every one of his lines twisted into a fascinating double entendre, each of which he played to the hilt. The class was amazed.
Once everyone had finished, I laid it out: this is not an exercise. This is how you do it. The uncertainty, the discovery, the excitement, the meaning, the sheer entertainment value-- this isn't just playing around in class. We're not going to stop doing this and get back to acting. This is acting. And you've just shown us all that you're damn good at it. (I told you so!)
I'm entirely confident this all could have happened in the morning class as well if I'd approached it differently. In a way, it did happen-- just with less energy, so it wasn't as blatant. What I'm curious about now is what will happen when we try it in the early class a few days from now. In today's early class, I just asked them to tell stories; although I can feel that the fear is more or less dissipated (thank goodness!) we now face the twin demons of apathy and lethargy. In the morning class, everyone's been moving around for a couple hours; in the early class, everyone's just gotten out of bed. Their bodies, for the most part, don't want to move. This was the first time I've done the story exercise and found that some people's stories were difficult to hear. They aren't energetic enough to connect, and their audience isn't energetic enough that they'll bother to ask-- if I can't hear you, I'll just let you talk while I get a few extra minutes of sleep. Today I expect to try the underlining exercise again, with their actual scripts (four new plays, none of which I've analyzed yet); I think I'll try to make myself wait until Friday to actually talk about energy, because then we'll be working with impulses and will actually be able to do something about it.
(These are the random ideas which we used for the second round.)
Read a book at preschool storytime
Try to seduce someone
Make up excuses to your parents
Plead for forgiveness
Lecture to a huge class
You’re talking to someone who reeks and he keeps coming closer
Get rid of a sleazy guy who’s hitting on you
Try to remember what happened
Break up with someone
You're going into labor
You’re a crazy homeless guy talking to “the voices”
You’re stoned off your ass
You really have to go to the restroom
Try to impress your date
You’re five years old doing show and tell
You’re talking to a total moron
Make this person feel like scum
The traffic cop outside is about to give you a parking ticket
My basic worries about the early class have been alleviated. I still anticipate having a problem with getting people to the class-- no matter what the enticement to wake up, it's sometimes impossible not to just roll over and hit snooze-- but once we're there, I'm sure we can use each other to create the energy we need. When I arrived this morning, I was dead tired and wanted to be anywhere except that classroom, but by the end of the session I was awake and excited from our activity.
In the early class, we took another run at the underlining strategy using their actual scripts and assigned parts, and this time the response was not frightening. It did take some effort for everyone to get focused on the task-- that wasn't just because of low energy, but because (as I had expected) half of them forgot it immediately after that first session and needed me to go over it with them again-- but once they applied themselves, it was a great relief to discover that they were not doing it just because I asked them to. When they finished underlining, they kept at it by reading over it a couple times; when they were reading for the class, they monitored themselves and felt how it worked; when others were reading, they listened and heard how it worked. This time they had context, relevance, and purpose; this time they could understand what it was for; this time they did it because it mattered.
In the other two classes, I made my first-ever attempt at approaching "character". Until last night-- well, right up to the class itself, really-- I wasn't sure what I would do. I've been examining and exploring "character" for the past couple of years, and never really tried to communicate my process of character to anyone before. Last semester, I chose only one play which required any kind of character depth, and even in doing that play we didn't really try to examine, describe, or codify the process of character development. So for the past two weeks I've been trying to distill what I believe are the basic points of character development, and attempt to turn them into exercises. By today's class I only had figured out one exercise; by the afternoon class I'd figured out a second exercise, but (with their larger number) there wasn't time to do it.
Which meant that the class was mostly demonstrative, rather than participative, and I apologized for that to the morning class a few times as I saw them zone out while I talked. I know you can't help it; I'm trying to figure this out as I speak it to you, so I'm saying a lot more words than you need to hear, which means that (as I've been saying!) your mind will naturally tune me out if you feel you've "got it." I'm sorry about that, and I don't take offense because I know it's my fault for not being sure of what my main points are and how to condense them, or of how to involve you directly in the learning process for this particular concept. But I'm working on it. By the time I got to the afternoon class I had figured out how to turn many of the talking points into actual demonstrations. A step below participatory experience, but a step above plain talking.
Before we began, I offered a disclaimer-- which I probably should have just said once at the beginning of the semester-- that even though I'm going to talk about this stuff as though it is True, it's actually just what I've made up based on my best guesses. It's not "what actors learn."
So here's what we did. I wrote an outline for this one, too, to keep myself on track-- and what you see there with all its lines and arrows is its second draft, even, which I continued to consider and revise throughout the day.
The first thing is to find out if anyone is incapable of visualization. It might seem odd to you that anyone would not be able to see images in their mind, but it happens. Ask everyone to close their eyes and imagine a red square. If they can't see it, they should let you know by raising their hand (while everyone's eyes are still closed, so that they don't feel singled out). Pick one of the students who didn't raise their hand, and explain that during the exercise you're going to ask this student some questions. This student is the only person who should answer out loud, but everyone should think of their own answers to the same questions.
I lifted this exercise from Keith Johnstone's Impro. I decided to start with this because its effect is so intense and surprising that I figured it would get everyone's attention and capture their interest, so that when I began talking they would forgive me if it got a little boring. Everyone closes their eyes, and once I'm sure they're all closed (it's odd, but there's usually one or two students who respond to the suggestion "close your eyes now" by staring straight at me) I begin a short narrative:
You're on a city street. [Pause.] Just walking down the street. [Pause.] You see a man who's walking toward you. [Pause.] Suddenly, there's a loud sound in a nearby doorway, and the man turns to look.
Now I say the name of the student I picked out earlier, and ask him to answer these questions. The student will be sincerely amazed that he does in fact have answers to all of them.
What color is the man's shirt?
Is he wearing a hat?
What color is his hair? (How long is it?)
What kind of shoes does he have on?
Look around the street-- how many of the windows are boarded up?
Where's the nearest streetlight?
Are there any animals nearby?
Do you see any cars?
Is there a parked car near you?
What color is it?
If you walk around to the front of it, can you see a license plate?
Do you see any letters on the plate? Can you read them?
Then I stop and ask everyone to open their eyes. Everyone is astonished-- not merely by the fact that the reality was so real, but because their answers were different from everyone else's. Often they'll talk with each other about the things they saw ("I was in New York!" "I was in my home town!" "I was looking at a Volvo!" etc.) because they were actually there, and that's an exciting experience. And they were there.
There's no difference between your imagination and "reality", except that one is mediated through your five senses and the other isn't. To your mind and body, your imagination is just as real-- and can be more real-- than the world around you. The only trick is to allow yourself to see it. In the afternoon, the student answered each question by saying "Now that you mention it, I see it." Unless you pay attention to what your imagination gives you, it is not there, but once you look, it's there and it's totally real. Every time I've done this exercise, the student has responded to "Where's the nearest streetlight" by actually moving their head to look around (yes, with their eyes closed!) and then lifting their arm to point at the light.
This exercise is potently relevant to today's discussion of character. Character is divided into two major aspects: Shape and Psyche. Today we'll deal with Psyche.
I define "character" as how we process impulses. As I've described already, any impulse initiates a three-part transaction-- receive, process, return-- and how we do that is our character.* Shape is more obvious than Psyche, so even though I didn't intend to work with Shape today I started by using Shape to illustrate the three-part process. I gave a student a line ("Hey, you!") and gave myself a response ("What do you want?"); I told everybody to observe the three parts of the impulse transaction.
Shape 1 was a snooty waiter.
Receive: My body snaps to attention as though I'd been hit by a lump of something nasty.
Process: I evaluate the speaker disdainfully, as though to say "You're not worthy to talk to me."
Return: (extremely condescending) "What do you want?"
Shape 2 was an idiot I created for a play some years ago.
Receive: I slowly realize that someone said something.
Process: I look around, wondering if there was someone else being spoken to.
Return: (with genuine confusion) "What do you want?"
Shape 3 was a Gollum-type weirdo. I bent over double and let my limbs and neck go totally loose.
Receive: My head whirls around with a gleeful grin.
Process: I scuttle directly up to the speaker's face.
Return: (far too close for comfort, with a creepy laugh in my voice) "What do you want?"
Notice how it's the same motivating impulse and the same response line each time, but a different Shape will handle the impulse transaction in a totally different way. Everything you saw me do came entirely out of the Shape's response to that impulse.
We'll get back to Shape on Friday. Here's an example of Psyche. I gave a different student the line "Regarding Hurricane Katrina, President Bush will now take full responsibility," and gave myself "Well, it's about time." Watch how I respond to two impulses in the line, I said, one at "Katrina" and another at "full".
Psyche 1: I grew up wealthy in a die-hard Republican household, and I've supported the President since Day 1.
Receive: with bemused interest.
Process: a quick burst of increased energy.
Return: (with a "kick ass!" enthusiasm) "Well, it's about time!"
Psyche 2: I grew up in a one-parent suburban household with a mother who was always bitching about Republican policy.
Receive: with irritation.
Process: a jab of exasperation and frustration.
Return: (with a snort of ironic disgust) "Well, it's about time."
Psyche 3: I am a Katrina survivor. I have lost all my possessions and my home is underwater. I cannot find my children.
Receive: with intense shock and desperate hope.
Process: I imagine each thing I've lost and the horror of my existence today.
Return: (barely contained agony) "Well, it's about time."
This is why you do "character analysis", I explained, as I dispelled my tears.** You create your character's Psyche by inventing biographical information, and Psyche has a direct impact on your performance. We began the class with that imagination exercise so you could see that that's exactly what I was doing while I was processing the impulse (in the third example); it's how you make a "fake" history become real.
Then I asked everyone to do an exercise. Find a line in your script, I said, and invent two different biographical reasons why you would say it. Let the person next to you give you the impulse which causes your line, and respond to that impulse with your biographical choice. This instruction required clarification for some people, but everyone did understand it. It turned out to be very similar to the "two ideas" exercise from the previous session; so similar, in fact, that I was relieved to see that the morning class understood it completely (as I'd hoped). I was also excited when the same student I mentioned in the last session, who had given no energy to his two ideas, took hold of this exercise to give two radically different interpretations of the single word "Yes?"
The exercise finished, I continued with the difference between "being in character" and "breaking character". When you are in character, you respond to impulses with your invented Shape and Psyche. You break character when you abandon your character's process and instead respond to impulses as yourself. I gave an example I'd seen at the Hippodrome's production of Two Pianos, Four Hands. A drunk woman came stumbling down the aisle, and the performer responded in character. When I went back to see the show a second time, I was surprised that the drunk woman had not actually been part of the show.
I was delighted when, in the afternoon class, a couple students interrupted me to describe other examples they'd seen of "staying in character". I'm pleased that they felt the freedom to speak, the excitement of understanding, and the desire to share with their classmates. I'm relieved that, when they'd finished, I didn't feel the need to reinterpret their stories (and thus imply that they had been unclear) but said simply "yes, that's exactly what I'm talking about."
Everything that happens around you should strengthen your character. Think of having a conversation in the student union; there are people walking around, loud conversations three feet away, televisions blaring, music playing-- but you don't "lose focus" and forget your lines and ask to start again please (here I did my impression of an actor doing that on stage), do you? No! You respond by blocking them with your body, trumping them with a louder voice, or fleeing from them to a quieter place; all these impulses feed you and affect you, and none of them prevent you from being who you are.
When you're on stage, no matter what happens, let it feed your character. Don't cut yourself off from life. When I was in this studio the other day, I said, I was fiddling through my papers over here on the floor while two acting students were rehearsing a scene. It was bizarre, because nothing in their bodies or voices gave any indication that I was anywhere in the room. As I watched them, it seemed obvious that they were deliberately deadening the parts of themselves which would have acknowledged my presence, even implicitly; as a direct consequence, they were deadening parts of themselves, deadening the reality of their scene, choking off the sensations of life.
To illustrate the alternative, I turned to one of the students to ask for a favor: would you please get me that eraser from the whiteboard? Once it was in my hand and the student again seated, I asked them (rhetorically): you weren't self-conscious, were you. You didn't wonder whether you were using your body correctly; you didn't wonder if you were standing in the right place or doing the right action; you didn't care that everyone was watching you. Our presence here did not interfere with your "focus." You didn't have to force yourself to ignore us, even though you knew we were here the whole time.
Haven't you ever been so focused on a task that you lose track of time and everything else around you? This is why an objective is essential. Every moment you are on stage is a moment that you're pursuing your objective, and if you're doing that then nothing else matters. David Mamet said it best in his book True and False:
If you "lose focus", your objective isn't strong enough.
I could add that if you get distracted by an unexpected impulse, your character is also not strong enough. In both cases, though, the point is the same: on stage, don't deaden yourself to the impulses of life. Let life create you.
In the morning and afternoon classes, I tried different experiments to take this a little further. In the morning class, I attempted to demonstrate "chemistry"-- I won't describe that now, because I think I'll expand on that experiment later-- and in the afternoon class I demonstrated how, with strong character choices, you can be anywhere you want and you don't need a script or a plan or any kind of direction at all.
I'm going to leave the room, I said, and come back to my seat. I recruited a student to come tap me on the shoulder and say "hi" once I reached the chair. I'm not going to plan anything in advance; as you watch, notice how all I'm doing is letting my character respond to the impulses that I receive.
Psyche 1: I've been studying for a test all night; I haven't slept, and I'm late for class because I'm not done yet. I'd rather be anywhere but here.
I slumped my way in and shuffled to my seat. A couple times I noticed that everyone was staring at me, and I shrugged them off with a defensive "What?" I plopped down; the student tapped me on the shoulder; I gave them an annoyed leave-me-alone reply.
Psyche 2: I'm compulsive; from a very young age, I've been absolutely terrified of germs, and when I was in grade school, they always forced me to follow lines when I was moving through the building so now I'm only really comfortable when I can find visible lines to walk on.
After opening the door with my foot, I found a line on the floor and stuck to it on my way to my seat. Another student was in the way, and I had to navigate around him (without touching him!). Once I reached my chair, I was perplexed because it was, of course, filthy and covered in germs; I finally decided to sit on my backpack (which had been pre-sanitized). The student came up and tapped me on the shoulder, and I shot out of my chair with a yell of surprise.
As you can see, some choices give you "more" than others, I said-- and that's really all we had time for today. I had thought of another exercise-- asking them to do essentially what I'd just done, coming into the room-- but I think we may be able to do that even more effectively together when we've discussed Shape as well.
A couple students asked me if I was going to require them to do a character analysis. I sent everyone my response to that question via e-mail.
* I used to think that processing impulses revealed our character; now I believe that this process is our character.
** I also explained that my body chemistry is unusually responsive to emotion, so they might not expect to so easily make themselves cry in ten seconds.
In my first semester of teaching, I asked all my students to create character voices by selecting a "point of resonance" to talk from. I was soon surprised that this was not something everyone could readily change. I'd assumed that the point of resonance was a self-evident characteristic of speech, and that all I'd have to do was make them aware of its existence; instead, I found that this was a skill I'd unknowingly trained myself to have.
Today I had a similar experience in approaching physical characterization (or Shape). After the morning class, I knew that something was awry, because the exercises I'd thought would help instead made everyone behave unnaturally and feel uncertain-- I was startled and alarmed when one student complained that this was hard to do! This was disturbing because, as with all my other exercises, I had intended just to show them something they already do; so each exercise should result in every student being surprised that it's so easy to do. If anyone felt it was difficult (either to do or to understand) then something was definitely not right. Following the afternoon class, I saw what was wrong: I had unwittingly attempted to teach them something. In the second half of the session, I really had tried to give them a new skill, instead of just activating something they already do naturally.
The new skill was that of "building" a physical character. It is easily described: start from a "leading center" (I believe it was Michael Chekhov who first popularized that concept as the "Center"), decide on a home position for the hands, and then invent one or more distinguishing habits. Sometimes I use animal imagery to give me additional ideas-- one of my latest characters I'd decided was crablike, so I gave him a habitual "pinching" gesture and walked sideways. I had thought this would be easily absorbed by the students-- the reason this "building" process works is that every person has a leading center, a home position, and habits-- but I had completely overlooked the fact that even for me, this is not an automatic process. The specific physical choices gradually emerge from my interpretation of the character, and once I've made those choices I still have to spend at least two or three full days living in the new Shape before it becomes natural and habitual enough that I can use it on stage. So, despite the value I find in this process, I'm going to drop it from my curriculum until I find a situation where I could introduce it one step at a time.
I will continue to demonstrate the process, though, thanks to a comment provided after the morning class. At that point, I wasn't yet sure what had gone wrong, or whether what we had done was actually meaningful, so as this student was hanging out to ask me a question I decided to ask him bluntly whether he felt the day's activity had been worth doing. He said that he enjoyed the demonstration, because he'd previously thought that you needed "talent" to act a character, and today's demonstration showed that what appears to be "talent" is method and technique. I was pleased to hear this, and gratified that he'd spontaneously chosen this explanation, because my entire approach to the field is that there's no such thing as "talent". Yes, certain people enjoy biological advantages (being attractive, emotionally sensitive, etc), but everyone has the skill and the talent to be a fantastic actor. The two necessary components for success are technique and commitment. Even if you know how to do it (technique), your apparent "talent" is based on how much of yourself you're willing to make available to your performance. If demonstrating my character-building technique can increase a student's confidence that acting is a matter of diligence and not luck, then I will continue to demonstrate it. But I won't try to teach it unless someone specifically asks me to.
The first half of the session is what I'll hang on to. I asked everyone to tell a short story (just a few sentences) about something that happened to them; then I asked them to tell it again, but to do so while imitating someone or portraying a stereotype. This is the fastest and easiest way to a complete physical characterization. I cautioned against imitating a celebrity-- if you try to imitate a celebrity, then anyone who knows that celebrity will immediately ignore your performance and focus instead on the accuracy of your portrayal. When you imitate someone you know, the audience only sees a character.
There is a specific value to telling the story first as yourself. Communication is a full-body experience, and telling these stories demonstrates that. Halfway through the afternoon session's first round, I broke in to tell everyone that this is what I was observing. I hadn't said so at the start because I'd worried about making people self-conscious; but I considered how much more meaningful it would be for everyone to observe it directly (instead of just in memory), and I suspected that it was such a natural behavior that people wouldn't be able to keep themselves from using their body even if they knew that's what we were looking for. So I said to notice, as each person talks, how they naturally involve their entire body. And I was right-- nobody got self-conscious, and each new speaker used their entire body anyway, and all of us saw it.
If you ever find yourself wondering what to do with your body on stage, it's because you're not fully communicating.
The second round was as natural and easy as I'd intended. Everyone chose and portrayed a complete physical character, and they let that character (that Shape) tell the story. Some of the characterizations were realistic, but still different from the student's normal behavior; others were marvelously farcical and hilarious; all of them were complete and compelling. After the final story was told, all I had to do was shrug and say plaintively, "See how easy this is?" I made sure to emphasize that this exercise worked, and the characterizations worked, because there was a true reality being expressed through the assumed Shape; I anticipate driving that point home in our next session, which will be about neutrality and honesty, and which will be the final session before the rehearsals begin.
After today's session, I sent this e-mail to everyone:
I realized after the fact that there's something you experienced but which I failed to emphasize as strongly as it needed to be said:
You ARE a physical character. You yourself ARE a "shape".
If you're only playing one character I would not encourage you to create a different physical characterization. While creating a different mental character is critical for living in the world of the play, creating a different physical character is not necessary. If you want to try it, I will be glad to help you, but unless you specifically want to make that effort I assure you it is not necessary. We can take advantage of how your own body, your own "shape", participates fully and automatically when you talk normally.
If you're creating multiple characters I would strongly encourage you to adopt the tactic of either imitating someone or choosing a familiar stereotype. You felt how easy that was today-- how fully it transforms you-- and we don't need to make it difficult. "Building" a character from leading center is, as you felt, an unfamiliar experience, and even I have to spend days living in an unfamiliar Shape before it becomes naturalized enough for the stage. The constructed characters I demonstrated today are ones that, having built them and lived them, I have kept in my body for years. If you want to "build" a character, I will gladly help you do that, but I think you'll find it's much much easier just to go with either an imitation or a stereotype.
Another thing I didn't (and won't) cover in class is that costumes change your "shape" too. If you find and use different costumes, you don't need to change your physical being at all to project a different character.
Of course, if you have any questions, I'm always here.
The early session was our first exploration of energy and impulse. I was pleased to discover that my supposition about early-morning energy was correct; if I can manage to keep the energy flowing between us then we will be able to help charge each other up instead of slipping into drowsiness. It was for this reason that I took a slightly different approach to the presentation; rather than demonstrate everything before asking them to try it, I demonstrated only the hit it/miss it before asking them to pair up and try that much. I went around and confirmed that everyone had felt the impulse before I continued with the rest of the demonstration. It's possible that, having felt the impulse, they were able to more clearly perceive what was happening in the demonstration.
I was more interested in what happened afterward, though. Because there was one person missing, I needed to read for that person, and this helped me understand how they were exploring. Because I'd suggested they try different variations of manipulating the impulse, when I'd done this with the other classes I had wondered why some people were just reading through their script. After reading with this group, I know that the novelty of feeling the impulse is so strong that they don't yet need to try any of the manipulations. It's enough for now just to feel the impulse bopping around from person to person; we'll worry later about what we can do with it.
Today was the final day of pre-rehearsal. During the rehearsal period, each cast that isn't working with me directly will be running lines with each other, so I wanted to emphasize the importance of running them "neutrally". It seemed the best presentation would be to illustrate the process that I've been guiding them toward. Using a monologue I've got prepared, I showed them the stages of our development process.
Stage 1: Learn the lines until you can say them without thinking about them.
I let the words rattle out of my mouth quickly and without pauses, just tumbling forth with no apparent effort or attention.
Step 2: Neutral reading.
Neutral reading, I insisted, is an honest conversation. It's not monotone or deliberately stifled; rather, it's "neutral" because it isn't affected by objective, character, idea, relationship, or any of that jazz. Neutral reading is the plain yogurt, the vanilla pudding, which you can add flavors to.
Step 3: Add the generative idea(s).
For my monologue, I added an objective. I didn't tell anyone what my objective was, because you can't ever tell the audience "by the way, this is my objective." Instead, I merely advised everyone to notice how, once I added the objective, they could clearly tell that I had some reason to speak to them.
Step 4: Add the character.
I layered in the psychological and physical characteristics simultaneously. In hindsight, I could have separated the two, but it probably would have made an equivalent impact, so I suppose there's nothing lost for my having lumped them together.
Step 5: Add the energy.
I stood up and got my whole body involved, and they saw how the layers added up to a final performance.
To further drive the point, I tried a brand-new exercise in both sessions (morning and afternoon) and it worked splendidly both times. I selected a student whose role, I knew, contained a few lines which suggested strong emotion. I announced that first I wanted this person to do the opposite of what we want to accomplish, and that I expected this to sound pretty fake. Read these lines, I said to the student, and read them "angry." They did, and sure enough, it sounded entirely false. I turned to the class: want to hear it sound even more fake? Back to the student: read it again, and get even angrier. And, of course, this sounded even more forced than the first time.
This is how many actors rehearse their lines, I said. They try to practice how they think the lines should be spoken, but there's no reality there, so they have to fake it. This is not what I want us to do. I want us to start from a point of honesty and build from there.
So, turning again to the same student:
1. Select only as much of the text as you can absorb into short-term memory-- "as much as you'll be able to say without thinking about the words." Please read this out loud just so we can hear it.
2. Now say it as though you were just making ordinary conversation, I said. (They did.) I confirmed-- did you feel like you were just talking to us as normal conversation, and not like you were reciting or acting or anything? (They said yes.)
3. Now add an idea. It can be an objective, or a random idea like you'd drawn from the envelope, or anything that gives you a reason for saying it.
4. Now use all that, and add a character-- either imitate someone you know or choose a stereotype. I deliberately said "use all that" instead of "keep all that" so they wouldn't try to repeat what they'd just done.
5. Now use all that, and add energy. You'll probably want to stand up, I advised, to give your body the freedom to participate.
With each iteration, the student's performance became more and more complete, more and more interesting to watch, and it stayed sincere and real throughout. In the morning class, a guy became a valley girl and chatted pleasantly about murdering his family. In the afternoon class, the student found herself moved to put her head in her hands in honest frustration. This, I crowed, is exactly what we are here to do. Start from the neutral reading; then add, layer, enhance, flavor, and mix in everything you can think of. When you start from the neutral reading-- when you start from that point of honesty-- you can do anything.
As I broke everyone into groups to practice neutral reading, I was surprised to see everyone begin talking to their scripts instead of to each other. I went around the room making everyone aware of this. First I simply pointed out how they were talking directly at the paper. Then they'd usually start talking before lifting their eyes from the page; I showed them that this meant they had initiated their impulse transaction with the paper, so they were still actually talking to the paper and not their castmate. Let this process slow you down, I advised. Look at the paper, absorb only as much as your short-term memory can handle, and then look directly at whom you're talking to before you begin speaking. How gratifying it was to hear, so many times today, "I'll be able to do this so much better when I know the lines!" I've said repeatedly that it's impossible to act when you're still thinking about the words; but now they don't need to believe me, because they've felt it themselves. You can't truly communicate when you're reading words.
And to everyone who asked me if they were "doing it right," I said the same thing. The best judge of this is you. You know what it feels like to talk with this person normally. If you're saying your lines to this person and it feels different and fake, just change yourself so you're talking to them again for real. I can't tell you how that works; only you know how it feels, and only you know how to fix it. Neutral reading should feel to you like normal, honest conversation.
This often forces the question: "But I would never talk like this! How can I honestly speak words I would never actually say?"
Yes, I reply, you would never choose these words-- but you would say this same idea using different words. So read the words, mentally transform the words into an idea that you would conceive, and then speak that idea while letting the author's words tumble unthinkingly out of your mouth.
This is actually very easy, and there's a quick demonstration where a student can show themselves how it works. I ask the student if they'd ever say "Heavens to Betsy!" in their normal conversation (I have not yet met the student who would). What would you probably say instead? (Usually it's a curse phrase.) Go ahead and say that. (They do.) Okay-- now think the words you just said, feel the same way, but let the sounds "Heavens to Betsy" pop out instead. They do this, easily, and look at me with surprise. I shrug and say yeah, that's what I mean. Words in themselves are just meaningless sound; it's the idea you're thinking that gives them life, and it's the idea that you communicate, not the words. An idea can be anything that's real and honest to you.
Another aspect of "I would never say this" is when a character has specific vocal mannerisms, such as saying "like, well" every other sentence. For performance, you'd probably want to choose or develop a character who would normally have this mannerism, to take full advantage of the words as written; when neutral reading, though, just throw them in and see how they come out.
For two reasons, I didn't mention that they should expect to use the underlining/impulse strategies when reading neutrally. Reason one: you can't have a normal conversation if you're not responding to ideas, so they'll probably figure that out on their own. Reason two: they're not yet familiar enough with their own words to have them ready to respond at the right time, so I'd rather let them bring the conversation together naturally than focus unrelentingly on good pacing.
Three years ago, I was focused entirely on pacing-- and pauses. Originally, I'd thought that my ability to analyze pauses was a great benefit to the actor, and that my pause analysis (combined with the underlining strategy) was the solution to bad pacing. However, as I tried to teach pause management (in Oral Interpretation) I discovered that, in practice, it was simply too tedious. It was far too much work for too little result. As I continued to develop the impulse approach, pause analysis became even less helpful; because we pause naturally when we're speaking naturally, pause analysis proved redundant in favor of transforming lines into natural speech. I knew that pause analysis was still useful to the director, to handle persistent "dead air" or to strengthen a particular moment of silence, but it was only this week that I finally figured out where pause analysis could be useful to the actor.
An actor can use this pause analysis most effectively when they're forced to take unnatural pauses. This happens most frequently when two or more conversations are interwoven; the actors aren't aware of the other conversations, so they can't participate directly in that impulse exchange-- but they have to somehow keep their own impulses alive and fresh while not communicating with their stage partner. The solution: when the script forces you to pause, choose a specific reason to do so.
A pause is any moment of nothing on stage. It can be any length of time, from a split second to a few minutes. When there are no words being spoken, and no purposeful action being done, then there is nothing happening on stage-- and that's a pause.
I've always abhorred the phrases "fill the pause" and "earn the pause." If an unmotivated pause appears, and you "fill" it, then you've just replaced an unmotivated silence with an unnecessary action. Filling pauses creates filler, and over time this accumulates into a bloated show. "Earning" a pause is a patently meaningless direction which offers no useful criteria or guidance; the same action which "earns" a pause on one night can fall completely flat on another, and no one would ever know why. Managing your pauses effectively doesn't mean "filling" pauses, and it doesn't mean "earning" pauses.
Managing your pauses effectively means distracting the audience from noticing that the pauses exist.
I can summarize it easily. Either make the audience think about what they've just heard, or make them anticipate what's coming next. Either way-- expecting the future or remembering the past-- they're not paying attention to the nothing that's happening right now. I've discovered, starting from this premise, that there are five and only five legitimate reasons to pause. Here's the breakdown.
1. Processing: you have to think about it.
This only works if the audience already knows exactly what you’re thinking about. (Otherwise they get annoyed with you for making them wait.)
2. Searching: Something stops you from talking.
This only works if you know what you want to say.
3. Suspense: You need to make the listener wait for it.
This works only when there’s a payoff of some kind when you finally do speak— and you have to “keep it dangling” until that moment.
4. Impressing: You need to make the listener think about it.
This works only if it’s an important idea, or if it’s an image they need to picture mentally.
4a. The previous line ends with the idea (creating a natural Impressing pause).
Sometimes the idea and the words do end at the same time. Skilled playwrights do this deliberately to create (or eliminate) pauses.
This line creates a pause: “It’s good you came to me for a check-up; undress.”
This line does not: “It’s good you came to me for a check-up; undress now, please.”
You can still eliminate a pause by changing which idea you’re responding to, such as
“It’s good you came to me for a check-up; undress.”
5. Detachment: You want the audience to relate.
This is a dangerous pause. If a pause isn’t any of the other five, it’s this one by default, because it is, literally, nothing. When nothing is happening on stage, an audience member’s mind immediately returns to thoughts of their own life. If you’ve said something they can relate to, they will think about how their own life is like your character’s. Otherwise you’ve lost them.
You can use any one of these five choices, at any time and in any place, to create a "living" pause (yes, without "earning" it!). I demonstrate this with two lines out of a script (any two lines will do). The student says one line and I pause before speaking the second line; then we repeat this three times with the other three pauses-- not including "detachment." Detachment is difficult to demonstrate because it, unlike the other four, cannot be effective without a supporting context and a sympathetic audience.
This is much easier to describe in person than it is in writing, because it involves so much body language; perhaps if you imitate what I'm writing you'll feel more clearly how the pauses work. Let's say I was using these lines to demonstrate:
A: She was arguing with me.
B: About a poem.
After pointing out that I'll get my impulse from "arguing", I prompt the student to read the first line a few times.
Student: She was arguing with me.
Me: [clearly surprised and baffled by the fact that there was an argument] ...About a poem.
Student: She was arguing with me.
Me: [hesitating, because I know this is going to sound really stupid] ...About a poem.
Student: She was arguing with me.
Me: [after a sharp breath in, holding a devilish glint in my eye] ...About a poem.
Then I ask the student to "make it important." They usually do this by looking me in the eye and raising their voice. I call attention to the fact that what they're actually doing is using their body language to keep the impulse "alive" until I take it from them, so I don't have to do anything to make this pause work.
Student: She was arguing with me.
Me: ...About a poem.
Sometimes I'll do a second illustration of the Searching pause, showing that it also works if I have a mouthful of food or something that physically prevents me from saying what I have in mind.
I'll probably expand on these in greater detail later-- I've got over five years of observations which I could discuss, and it's bound to pop up during rehearsal-- but for now I'll stick with only this much, because this is how I presented it in class.
In some of the plays we're doing, there will be people on stage having pantomimed conversations. I showed today how easy this is to do; I surprised a student by pointing at them and saying "let's play impulse tennis!" I used my body language to transmit an impulse, and encouraged them to return it non-verbally; they immediately caught on and we began a natural back-and-forth that looked surprisingly like a real conversation. Once the performers are in their scenes, with characters and objectives and relationships, these non-verbal exchanges will be real conversations. Take another look at my descriptions of the candy-bar scenes from earlier in the term; all those "conversations" happened without any words, through the exchange of impulse.
I noticed one student trying-- and failing-- to help another student understand neutral reading. It had only been a few minutes by the time I intervened, but in that short time I was intrigued to see that the "helped" student had adopted the same defensive tactic observed so frequently in How Children Fail. She didn't "get it." It was too hard, she didn't understand, she couldn't do it. I assured her (after thanking the "helper" for their attempt) that it was much easier than she thought; I asked her to take a single sentence, look me in the eye, and say it to me as though she were just talking to me normally. She did. "That's it, it's really that easy, you've got it," I replied. With renewed confidence she returned to her script and to her scene partner.
The odd thing was, the "helper" student and I were asking for exactly the same result. The helper not only understood the concept, but understood what would be necessary to achieve it; the helper was even repeating the explanations that I myself had provided! Yet the helped student was confused and defensive. I took some time afterward to discuss with the helper what had happened, and how this result had occurred.
From what I could tell, it's a difference in attitude. If I, as a teacher, challenge a student with "I know this and you don't, so figure out what these instructions mean," then they must become defensive, because the implication is "...and if you can't figure it out, you're stupid." Rather than admit to being stupid, they'll blame and reject the activity-- it's too hard, they can't possibly understand it, they can't do it. But even if they try and seem to succeed, my challenge to them is to figure out the instructions, so that's what they've succeeded at. They aren't learning the material, they're getting themselves off the hook. Even a well-meaning teacher can inadvertently place themselves into this situation, as I did the other day when I asked everyone to follow my "simple" directions for using a leading center.
It also doesn't help if I trick them into doing what I want and then jeer at them "see, you did it and you didn't know it." Then they feel resentful for having been tricked, they feel ignorant for not having recognized it, they are confused because they don't know what they did-- and they still haven't learned anything.
The more helpful implicit message is "You can understand this, so let's find out if these instructions will help you." The student is not made defensive, because only the instructions can fail; the student further recognizes that even if they do have to figure out the instructions, the instructions are merely a pathway to understanding, and are not the end result.
Over the weekend I was in a terrible quandry. What could I possibly do about the early class? Until working with this group, I hadn't recognized an important side effect of the exercises that I was doing in the other sections; as I led them through the basic techniques of performance, they not only learned how to do it, but they saw themselves and their classmates succeed at it repeatedly-- and easily. By the time we get to the rehearsal period, everyone believes that they really can do it. In the previous session of the early class, I was stunned when the majority of the class found it difficult to do the three-ideas-without-pausing sentence. The other two sections had to throw themselves into it, yes, but with energy they nonetheless recognized it was easy; in the early section, despite my insisting that the exercise couldn't be done without energy, nobody had the energy to spare, and many of those who understood it nonetheless felt it was hard.
I also was forced to contemplate a message I'd received from one of the students, which read "This was one of those days where you wake up and it is physically impossible to get out of bed, even for a class that I actually enjoy going to." The only reason I've been consistently able to make it to the class myself is that I have stayed up all night on every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday so far (as I am doing right now). The fact is that, no matter what the attendance policy, this morning class will be plagued by attendance problems; although there are those in the session who are "morning people", and their consistency and buoyancy is welcomed, for everyone else just being there is a challenge. During the weekend days, I wondered and worried how I could convince everyone to make the extra effort necessary-- I knew that otherwise, if I maintained the attendance policy as stated, I would at some point be forced to give someone a B or a C by my own rules. I felt I had to do something.
Heading into late Sunday, though, I realized that I simply don't have the strength to swim against the current-- and that I don't need to. I had already told everyone what the result of a poor effort would be-- a poor performance. I don't want to try to whip everyone into shape, and nag and bleat and coax and coerce. I'll give them the opportunity to do well, and I'll let them choose to take it. If their performance suffers from a lack of effort, I will let them know, and help them understand what they need to change to improve it; if they then choose to embarrass themselves I'll let that be their responsibility. In any case, it's not my job to make them do what I think they should; it's my job to give them the opportunity to succeed at what they want to accomplish. (If they don't want to do a play, it's unfortunate that I was thrust upon them after the drop/add period so they could have made that choice.) So in today's session, I needed to make sure they knew that there was a problem and that the solution to that problem is in their hands.
Until I got to the studio, I wasn't sure how to illustrate the problem. Fortunately, when I walked in, I saw the sun shining fiercely on all the chairs lined up against the wall. Rather than move the empty seats into the usual circle, I left them where they were, assuming that the students would leave them too-- as they did. Only one person dragged his seat out of the glare. I began the session by saying "I saw you sit in these chairs, and squint uncomfortably at the blinding light, and even now you're trying to keep your heads turned to the right; but do you notice how many of you have actually moved your chair?" (Laughter.) "This time slot prevents you from doing the things your body naturally wants to do."
So I spent the entire session showing them how to draw energy from the impulses in their conversations. I had them group into their casts and go to it; I interfered only enough to make sure that they were actually making it happen. The most common error was reading to the paper instead of to each other; when this happens, the speaker is failing to deliver an impulse, and the recipient can only ever snatch away the impulse instead of receiving it directly. In every case I insisted-- this isn't so you can "do it right" for my approval. This is the only way we'll be able to get enough energy to rehearse; you need to understand it for your own sake.
One of the things I asked them to do was to pair off and amplify an impulse. Each of them would repeat the same line and amplify the impulse they received, creating a feedback loop that naturally increased the energy level. I ended up having to aggressively guide one pair of students because one of the two typically does not use her body to communicate-- as I stopped and started them, I worried that perhaps I was being too aggressive, and that they'd start trying to follow my directions instead of discovering the principle; but then they began to make it happen, batting the impulse back and forth with their same two lines. I relaxed away from them and suddenly it hit me-- they were now, essentially, doing the Meisner repetition exercise.
We really are all trying to teach the same thing, aren't we. If the same principles are being supported and advocated, I suppose it's inevitable that the same exercises would emerge to illustrate those principles... as they have. I wonder if even the elements of approach which I believe I've invented were already discovered somewhere, in some way, by someone, but like the Fletcher Music Method were never adequately disseminated. It's possible, but obviously we may never know. As it stands, I was amused to see that John Holt predicted my approach to acting in How Children Learn. Replace "smart" with "talented" and that's it in a nutshell.
"Children are born smart. We just have to stop doing the things that make them stupid."