Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Importance of Being Honest

So much of what we do as freshmen studying theatre here at my school, is about being "honest", and opening up, and inhabiting the lives of the characters that we are supposed to portray. We spend very little time talking about the technical aspects of acting. That comes later. But an interesting question came up a few weeks ago during the rehearsals for "The Pillowman".

One of the characters, who spends the majority of the play insulting everyone and showing everyone that he is in charge, reveals something very personal towards the end of the play. His son died, fishing on his own. He tells this horrible secret to another character who he absolutely does not care for. When I read the script for the first time, I took this as being that character's one moment of redemption. He isn't just a heartless and violent man. He is, as many people say, "three-dimensional". There is depth to his character. He has a past, a background, that quite possibly feeds into why he is the way he is today.

At a rehearsal however, the actor playing the character suggested that maybe his character is lying. Maybe he never had a son that died. Now, as actors, it is our job to make specific choices about our characters. If something is not explained in the pages of the script, then it is the actor's responsibility to fill in the gaps with specific and relevant details that may turn out a richer and more interesting character. However, we all disagreed with this actor's choice. We all asked why would this character lie? What reason would he have for lying about his son drowning? How does that further the character's action, or get him closer to his objective? The actor said that we were making a big deal out of nothing, and that in the end, it really doesn't matter whether he chooses to make the son's death true or not. His reason: we will never know whether or not his character is lying or telling the truth.

This floated around my head for so long. Even now I can't help but think about it. If what he says is true, then everything that we do in terms of character and script analysis is useless. There is no point in filling in the gaps of the character's background because the audience won't be able to tell the difference. I have to disagree with this. Okay, maybe something small, like what kind of music the character listens to, may not have a very significant impact on how you play the character, but something as big as whether or not a character's son has died, that is an immense decision.

The reason why multiple actors playing the same character produce different results is because of their unique interpretations and choices. But a choice should never be made just to fake out the audience. An actor should never impose a choice on a script that may contradict the playwright's intentions. Choices should only be made to further along the play's objective, and the objectives of the characters within it. If we start adding to, or taking away from, our characters just for the sake of making an interesting choice, that may signal the end of theatre as we know it. The goal is not to entertain yourself or the audience, but to be honest. And the only way to achieve this is to make yourself vulnerable to the imaginary circumstances created by the playwright. It's a scary process, but one that is so satisfying that you will never want to work any other way again.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Immortalizing the Theatre

My senior year in high school I was cast as Tevye in our end of the year production of "Fiddler on the Roof". After our final performance, for the first time since I began acting, I felt genuine sadness at having to say goodbye to a character that I had grown to love over the past few weeks. Tevye the milkman is one of my favorite characters in drama, and I think it's because so many people can relate to him. He reminds many of us of our fathers. He shouts and is demanding and strict, but if you ask him the right way he will eventually give in. I remember sitting in my Economics class after closing night, daydreaming, and feeling this sense of loss. I was never going to be Tevye again. He was gone.

I bring this up only because it has happened again with my recent production of Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman". I played the character of Katurian, and after working on this play for five months, having to say goodbye to him has proven to be quite difficult. I loved being him every night. The great transformation that he undergoes within the two-and-a-half-hour running time of the play is a testament to McDonagh's spectacular skill. I miss Katurian, and his brother, and the two detectives. And it is a strange feeling to know that that world is one that shall never exist again. Sure, there will be many more productions of the play throughout the world, and I may even be in one of them, but this particular production will never be again.

It is one of the unique traits of the theatre that most everything created by it exists only for an instant and then is lost forever. Novels and poems and films and music can live for decades, become immortal. But a moment of magic on the stage will only live on in the memories of the people who were there to experience it. Some people try to get around this by filming their performances, or documenting them down in a journal. But the truth is that theatre artists create work that is, for the most part, temporary. We rehearse and work on a piece until midnight for months and months, only to have it exist for a few minutes before a live audience. And once the audience has left, our work is gone.

It is a sad concept, but one that I think drives us all to create something so incredibly provocative and honest and unique and memorable, that it hopefully does in fact become immortal, but not in the pages of a novel, or the verses of a poem, but in the hearts and minds of the people who were lucky enough to be there.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Art of Power Yoga and Acting

So as a theatre major at my school, I'm required to take Power Yoga as one of my courses. We won't be taking any movement classes until our sophomore year, so Power Yoga serves as a kind of introduction to the kinds of things that we might be doing next semester. Having been in the class for about two months now, I have seen multiple parallels between what I'm doing in acting class, and what I'm doing in Power Yoga.

The very first day of class, our yoga instructor told us that to pass the course it was not necessary to be able to fold and twist perfectly into all kinds of odd shapes and forms. Instead, there were only two things required to do well: breathe, and stay in the present moment. I cannot say how many times I have heard these two directions throughout my theatre training.

I remember sitting in chorus class in elementary school, and having my teacher tell us that when we breathe in, our stomachs should go in, and when we breathe out, our stomachs should go out. For many years, I had gotten it into my head that this was true. It wasn't until my first year in a high school drama class that I learned about the diaphragm. After many years of breathing with my diaphragm, it has become second-nature. It's just how I breathe now. Many people call this "deep breathing", or taking in air with the diaphragm so that the stomach expands and the chest does not rise, and then exhaling so that the stomach returns to its initial state.

This kind of breathing allows for much deeper relaxation, and it helps immensely when performing on the stage. It is very easy to run out of breath in the middle of a show when your adrenaline is going through the roof and the lights are causing you to sweat and hundreds of strangers are staring at you. Without noticing, you'll realize that your breath has become short and choppy, or "shallow". This isn't because you are necessarily nervous or anything like that, but simply because the tasks that an actor is expected to undertake sometimes require a much more controlled and efficient method of breathing. These yoga classes force me to pay attention and "listen" to my breathing, so that diaphragmatic breathing is becoming more and more of an involuntary thing.

Now about the whole staying in the present moment thing. I just got out of rehearsal with my scene partner a few hours ago, and one of the things that came up at one point was a certain disconnect between us at specific points in the scene. It is so easy to let your mind wander during a scene and just recite your lines without thinking about it. It can happen for a number of reasons. Maybe a cellphone went off in the audience, or maybe my eye just caught my mother sitting in the audience, or maybe I'm worried about an upcoming event in the scene, or maybe my scene partner did something that they have never done before. Whatever the reason, it is never a good thing. As I act more and more, getting distracted is becoming less and less of a problem. But still, the importance of living in the present moment cannot be underestimated.

In yoga class, the moment you look around the room to see how well you are bending or balancing or twisting compared to the other students, is the moment you fall on your ass. I have come to learn that I should never judge myself in that class. Nothing good will ever come out of it. There will always be somebody more flexible than me, and there will always be somebody less flexible than me. In the end, it does not matter. The only way to succeed, is to focus on what you are doing at that exact moment.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A New Way of Rehearsing

For a lot of people, rehearsals serve as a means to set things in stone. You are given a monologue, or a scene, or a play, and you rehearse for hours and hours, memorizing lines, the blocking, the delivery of the lines, your reactions to the other actors' delivery of their lines, etc. For the past however many years it is that I have been taking theatre classes, this is precisely what I have used my rehearsal time for. To smooth everything out, so that when show time came around, there would be no surprises. Everything would go exactly as planned. Little did I know that I was doing myself a huge disservice.

For our "mid-term exam", the students in my acting class have been paired up into groups of two to perform a duet scene. So for the past few weeks, we have been going through specific phases. What I mean by this, is that my professor didn’t simply give us a scene and say, “Here are your scenes. They are due on this date,” and then leave us to our own devices like so many acting teachers do. No, instead, he has been gradually guiding us through the rehearsal process.

The first day he gave my scene partner and I our scene, he set up a time for us to meet with him privately outside of class. During these fifteen minutes the three of us had together, he had us sit in front of each other, knee to knee, and engage in a variation on Meisner’s word repetition exercise. As we had only been assigned our scene a few days before, we were not expected to have our lines memorized. So the exercise was this: sit in front of each other, and stare into each other’s eyes. Make contact. Connect with one another. Then, when it is your turn to say a line, look down at your script, read it over to yourself a few times until you know it, and then look up, connect with your scene partner, and recite the line, never taking your eyes off of them. Do not rush. This is not a performance. This is simply to have you guys connect. Do not preoccupy yourself with emotion or "acting". Just connect and say your line. Whenever you speak your line, look into your partner’s eyes. Do not lose the connection. If you are not the one speaking, do not look away. Look at your partner, and listen.

This is much harder than it sounds. After we did this for about fifteen minutes, a very long fifteen minutes, our professor asked us how that felt. I was honest and said that I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I was so intent on not putting any emphasis on the words, and on doing the exercise right, that I wasn’t really paying attention to what I was saying, and was even less attentive when my partner was speaking to me. My professor said that that was perfectly fine. That the purpose of this exercise is to make you are aware of this disconnect we oftentimes have when acting. Staying in the present moment is a challenge, and this exercise makes it all the more apparent.

So our next step, was to memorize only the first page of our scene, rehearse it, and then perform it in class. My scene partner and I decided that this first rehearsal should be a time to experiment. So that is exactly what we did. We both had our first page memorized, so when we got together to rehearse, all we did was run the scene multiple times, but each time we would approach the scene differently. We would come in with a different set of choices. I would be expecting different things from her each time we ran the scene, or I would be nervous, or excited, or confident, or unsure. And she would do the same. Every time we did the scene, we would each enter the scene as a slightly different variation of our character. And we would never tell each other what choices we were making for ourselves, so that if one time she came in and was extremely physical, it was a surprise, and if she came in another time and was extremely distant, it was an even bigger surprise. This was a way of rehearsing I had never taken part in, but it provided instant gratification for me. We were experimenting, and playing around, constantly surprising each other in the middle of the scene, which is always a good thing.

Our assignment was to perform the first page of our scene twice in class, one right after the other, and each time we had to enter with a different set of choices. So that is exactly what we did, and it produced two very different scenes. Afterwards, our professor mentioned some specific behavioral observations he had made. Our positioning on the bed was different in both scenes, our use of props changed, our proximity to one another. But when he asked us what the choices were that we had made, he pointed out a flaw.

The scene is from Kenneth Lonergan's This is Our Youth, and it deals with this guy named Warren (me) and this girl named Jessica (my scene partner) who just finished sleeping together for the first time last night. Warren has returned to his friend’s apartment where he is staying, and is awaiting Jessica's arrival, who he is supposed to be having brunch with today. When she does arrive, it is to cancel their date. Apparently she is having second thoughts about what happened the night before, and regrets having rushed into something with someone that she barely knows. So when my professor asked, “What choices did you make Ruben?” I said that I was playing around with how much of his excitement Warren was willing to show. I just finished having sex with this beautiful girl, and I am on top of the world, but maybe I don’t want her to know that. So the first time we did the scene I chose to make Warren a bit more reserved. He pretended that he didn’t care about her, and that it wasn’t a big deal that they weren’t going to be able to go out. The second time we did it, I decided to make Warren want to let his excitement shine. I ran up to her as soon as she entered, and I put my arms around her, and I pulled her towards the bed, so that when she said we couldn’t go on a date, it naturally led to me getting angry.

This is the flaw my professor observed with those choices: the questions I was asking myself had nothing to do with her. An actor’s choices should always revolve around what they want from the other person in the scene. You must need something specific from them. If your goal is to get something from the other person, then you will stop at nothing to get it. You will utilize all the tactics at your disposal to try and acquire whatever it is that you are after. So he gave us a moment, and asked us to do the scene one more time.

This time I told myself, "You want to take her to brunch. But before, you just want to kiss her. You want her to come in through that door, and sit down next to you on this bed, and you’re gonna take her hand, and she’s gonna lay her head on your shoulder, and you’re gonna kiss her. Last night was a dream come true for you, and you want every day and night to be like that." That was my new choice. So when she walked in, I was delighted. She sat down, and we talked. I was being so nice to her, so calm, and understanding. So what if we can’t have brunch today? We can go some other time, it’s no big deal. Nothing was going to ruin this for me. We can reschedule our date. But then, she stood up, and walked away towards the door, and something that had never happened before rushed through my body. I was shocked, and hurt, and surprised, and dumbfounded. Every time we had done the scene, she had always stood up and walked away at that moment, but for some reason, this time, I had actually expected her to stay with me. So when she left, it was genuinely a surprise for me.

To be shocked and surprised on stage is a beautiful thing. The trick to achieving this is to expect the unexpected. If the actor knows that the play turns out one way, then the character must expect it to turn out another way. This is the essence of conflict. If this rule of thumb is followed, then genuine emotion will not be far behind.

I'm really looking forward to the next step in this scene project. I am being introduced to a whole new way of approaching the rehearsal process, and I can't wait to make more discoveries.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Is Technology Making Us Violent?

In Don Tapscott’s book Grown Up Digital, he states that many people accuse the internet and technology of making this generation more violent. He cites the Columbine school shootings as just one example of young teens being influenced by video games to carry out horrible acts of violence.

I’m sorry, I didn’t realize violence and shootings were things created by this generation. Last time I checked, people have been running out into the streets and massacring innocents since long before anybody had even heard of Pong. The idea that technology is making us more aggressive and violent than past generations is absolutely without ground. Guns and gangs are not products of Sony’s Playstation.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Art vs. Money

The theatre department at my school requires us to read the theatre articles in the Sunday New York Times every week. I figured those would probably be good places to get inspiration for new blog posts. The article that caught my eye last Sunday deals with how theater companies around the world are becoming more and more afraid of taking risks.

It has often been said that Hollywood is corrupt. Well, Broadway may not be all that innocent either. The article focuses on the mistrust between playwrights and theaters. Playwrights are up in arms about the fact that more and more theater companies are gravitating towards more well-known playwrights and more popular themes when it comes to choosing what play their theater will produce. I know that Broadway is full of revivals and musicals, but the article featured a staggering statistic that literally made me gasp: between 1920 and 1940 there was an average of 130 new plays on the Great White Way a year, there was an average of 29 new plays a year between 1960 and 1980, and only a mere 14 a year between 1980 and 2000.

It is no secret that producing a play is a huge investment. That is why theaters tend to shy away from plays with large casts or extravagant sets. But really? 14 plays? I understand that this is a business and these theaters need to make money, but another article, I think, may hold the answer. It talks about the Foundry Theater, a company that is known for their experimental theatre. Recently they produced a "performance piece" in a restaurant where the people buying the tickets became the actual actors. They had headphones on through which the dialogue was fed to them. Another experiment taken on by the Foundry was when they produced a "play" in an actual flea market. In February they will be producing a "play" where a single actor sits in a chair the entire time and plays all the roles. With each new venture, the Foundry, and its producer Melanie Joseph, gets so much attention from the press that they can't help but sell tickets. And as Ms. Joseph constantly repeats throughout the article: Nobody has walked out during one of the performances.

Maybe this is the answer. How much can these plays possibly cost to produce? Some of my most memorable theater-going experiences have been the ones in those small makeshift theaters, with minimal set pieces. When stripped down to that level, it is simply actors telling a story, taking you on a journey created by them, the director, and the playwright. There is no spectacle. Simply theatre. Maybe something along those lines won't sell as much as if a theater were to produce The Phantom of the Opera, but at least it will be something new, and exciting, and for once, risky. Art will go nowhere if it sticks to what is safe.

Meisner's Word Repetition

So I’m finally back at school. The break was great. It was almost too long, but I really loved being home with all my friends and family. By the end though, I was definitely very eager to return to school and get back to my classes. So anyways, here I am.

At the end of last semester, we were assigned a few texts to read during the break. I finished reading Meisner on Acting and I don’t think I have ever disagreed more with one of the books we’ve read in class. Sanford Meisner is one of the most famous acting teachers in the world, and his theories and techniques, inspired by Stanislavsky’s “Method”, have been studied for many years across the globe. His theories I believe in. It is his techniques that I have trouble with.

One of the many exercises Meisner teaches his students in the book is the word repetition game. Two students sit across from one another, one makes an observation about the other, and the other student repeats what they just said. The repetition of this sentence should go on without variety of any sort, until something happens that causes one of the students to say something else. Meisner stresses this point. The students must continue to repeat the same thing over and over again, until one of them is moved to say something else. The purpose behind this exercise is to eliminate any and all intellectual or logical thought. There should be no thinking involved. For years, actors have wasted too much time and effort in their heads. Meisner believes that this way of working is detrimental to any actor. An actor must not speak simply because the play says he must. Instead an actor should speak only when he feels he should, when he has the impulse to speak.

In class we started doing a modified version of this exercise. Two of my classmates sat in front of each other. The first one said, “You have black hair” and the second one repeated, “I have black hair.” The first one said, “You have a red shirt on” and the second one repeated, “I have a red shirt on.” The problem with the execution of the exercise was immediately apparent to me: the two students were not taking any risks. If we spend the entire exercise making simple, physical observations then it will go nowhere. Meisner says that we spend the majority of our lives being told what is appropriate and what is socially acceptable. Our parents turn us into proper ladies and gentlemen. As an actor, this is completely useless. You cannot preoccupy yourself with manners or anything of the sort. If you try to come off as likable and respectful, then you are simply putting on a show for the audience’s sake, and not truly inhabiting the character.

Likewise, if I sit in front of one of my classmates and say, “You have nostrils” and “Your eyebrows are dark”, then we will be gaining absolutely nothing from the exercise. I will be more worried about my classmate’s feelings than about truly being in the moment and simply responding to one another. In Meisner’s book, this exercise seemed ridiculous. In person, it finally made sense. However, it now seemed impossibly difficult.

In An Actor Prepares, Stanislavsky says that an actor must relearn to do onstage everything that we as human beings learn to do offstage. We must relearn how to speak, how to walk, how to sit. He demonstrated this by asking one of his students to sit on a chair on a bare stage in front of him and all the other students. His instructions to her were that simple: sit in that chair. She found it impossible to just sit. Everybody’s eyes were on her. She raised her skirt slightly. She fidgeted this way and that. She displayed her legs a little bit more than she usually would. In essence, she was sitting for the class, instead of just sitting. The other students tried, and failed as well. They simply could not just sit on the chair on the stage in front of their class without becoming self-conscious about it.

Meisner’s word repetition exercise, I think, plays off of this idea. Sitting in front of your classmate, with your professor and the rest of the class staring at you, you feel somewhat disinclined to say anything inappropriate. You censor yourself. You suffocate your impulses. You waste more effort thinking about what to observe, and not enough effort observing. As different students tried the exercise in class, it got much better, but some were obviously struggling to stay in the moment and be completely honest with each other. As I sat and watched, I wondered how I would do it. I concluded that I would be just as self-conscious. These people are not strangers. If I sit there and say “You have such an ugly look on your face”, the effect of that is not going to simply disappear once class is dismissed. I wish we were at that level of maturity and discipline, but I think that most of us would feel somewhat offended.

Finally, everybody in the class had tried the exercise… except me. Damnit! I wanted to try the exercise badly, but I just didn’t know how to approach it. It is so difficult to shut off your mind and just react to another person’s behavior. We are programmed to evaluate and reevaluate every thought in our head before we speak. This exercise asks you to eliminate all these habits and tendencies. I think too much. I constantly worry about what others may think about me. Will the professor approve? Will I make a fool of myself? What do I say during the exercise? How can I simply speak without thinking? How can I react only to behavior?

“Ruben, come on up,” said the professor. And I went up to one of the chairs and sat down. “Who’s going to be his partner?” asked one of my classmates. The professor sat down in the chair before me. Holy crap.

“You can’t believe this is happening to you,” he said without waiting a beat. “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” I repeated. “You are self-conscious,” he said. “I am self-conscious,” I repeated. “You are thinking of what to say,” he said. “I am thinking of what to say,” I repeated.

With each observation he was digging deeper and deeper inside of me. He could see right through me. He always can. It is one of the reasons why I love this theatre program so much.

“You can’t get a word in,” he said. “I can’t get a word in,” I repeated. “You are looking for my approval,” he said. “I am looking for your approval,” I repeated. “You still haven’t been able to say anything,” he said. “I still haven’t been able to say anything,” I repeated.

The class was loving this. The adrenaline was pumping within me. He was shooting those observations left and right, not giving me the chance to speak. I wanted to say something but he wouldn’t let me. Or maybe it wasn’t him. It was me. I wasn’t letting myself say anything. I couldn’t stop thinking. While he was making mincemeat out of me with his spot on observations and I was repeating them back to him, my mind was going a hundred thoughts per second. I wanted to say something but couldn’t think of what to say. Stop thinking Ruben, and just do! Just let go, and do!

“You are trying to embarrass me,” I said. He was slightly surprised. “I am trying to embarrass you,” he repeated. “You are happy with yourself because you finally got a word in,” he said. “I am happy with myself because I finally got a word in,” I said. “You look full of yourself,” I said. “I look full of myself,” he repeated.

And we were off. It went on for two or three minutes, at lightning speed. We laughed, and we paused sometimes. It got silent for a few seconds, and then we would get back to it, and then slow down. It was a thrill ride. No chains were holding me back anymore. I was Kong free in the city after he escaped from Denham. I was Willy in the ocean after Jesse helped him get away from the whaling company. I left the room today as I always do after acting class: feeling completely and utterly enlightened.