Yale School of Drama at the Oscars

Posted in Uncategorized on March 9th, 2014 by Andrew

It was great to hear the Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress, Lupita Nyong’o, thank the Yale Drama School in her Oscar acceptance speech.


I think it’s not uncommon for successful Hollywood actors to want to de-emphasize that they were trained; they want to seem to have been endowed with something innate and mysterious, not to be the possessor of a skill for which they sweated. So it’s gratifying when actors receiving awards acknowledge that their training was important. Lupita seems to have that kind of appreciative spirit and wisdom. Best of luck to her! I am sure this is only the beginning of a spectacular career.

Uranium Madhouse presents The Duchess of Malfi

Posted in Uncategorized on January 9th, 2014 by Andrew

Super-excited to be working on this incredible play, with current and former Mother of Inventioners Mandy Acosta, Cris D’Annunzio, Katelyn Rydzewski, David Bauman, and Wes Andrews.

Uranium Madhouse Presents The Duchess of Malfi – project teaser from Andrew Utter on Vimeo.

Best of Mother of Invention Blog: 2013

Posted in Uncategorized on January 3rd, 2014 by Andrew

These are the high points, in my sometimes humble, sometimes not-so-humble opinion. ;)

  • the four actions, or, all we ever do
  • the energy garden
  • I love the smell of vindication in the morning
  • “the muscle of the soul”
  • 18 reasons to take acting class at Mother of Invention
  • an inconvenient truth
  • lessons in acting from an unlikely source

    Posted in Uncategorized on November 29th, 2013 by Andrew


    Meet Hudson, my new chocolate Lab puppy.

    I spoke to my accountant not too long ago, and I asked her, jokingly, if expenses incurred in acquiring and caring for a dog could be written off in my case, as I am a trainer of actors, and I was curious to know what lessons training a dog might yield for me in what I do. As I said, I was joking, as people and dogs obviously have to be approached quite differently, and tasks involved are not at all comparable, and yet I felt in my bones, that insofar as training entailed communication, there would be some real resonances. And I am happy to report I have already discovered one.

    Various authorities on teaching dogs to follow instructions will caution against repeating instructions. The owner will put forth their best assertive “Sit!”, and when the dog does not immediately comply, the owner will likely feel a strong impulse to repeat the command, and likely at progressively louder volumes: “Sit! Sit! SIT!” If Cesar Millan, the “Dog Whisperer” is right, dogs respond to what he calls “calm-assertive energy.” So repeating the command with mounting frustration at louder and louder volumes is likely to have no result. I very quickly found this to be true in my case. I would tell Hudson to sit, a command I knew he knew, and when he didn’t immediately oblige me, I found myself under a powerful pressure to repeat the command, a pressure to which I yielded, expressing a good deal of exasperation in the process, but to no effect.

    I remembered what I had read about repeating instructions. I was a little unclear about how not repeating them was going to work, if the dog ignored the first command, but I knew that I wanted to avoid the public spectacle of repeatedly enjoining my dog to do something to no avail, so I resolved that no matter what, I would not repeat instructions, at least not without a substantial pause. The next time I wanted Hudson to sit, I issued the command…and as was often the case, he ignored it. Or so it seemed. Because at this point, my acting teacher spidey-sense took over, so even though I had completed issuing the command verbally, something told me to keep issuing it non-verbally. What did that mean? It meant that in the silence following the command, I continued to project my intention that Hudson sit by paying visible attention, with body, gaze, and manifest intention, to whether or not Hudson would sit…and after a moment, he complied! Success!

    Now, obviously, it would be better if he complied right away, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, he is a puppy, and there were some significant distractions happening. SO I counted it as a victory. And the key to the victory was that it was important to Hudson to know that I was watching what he would do in response to the command. To use the parlance of my class, I was receiving. Receiving means paying close attention to how a particular prompting you have issued is responded to by your partner. In this case, I was making the choice to issue the command, and then direct my attention physically, again using the orientation of my body and my gaze, to how the command was going to be dealt with by my partner, the puppy. I realized that when I had been merely repeating the command, I had been paying more attention to my own disappointment and frustration than to the puppy’s next action. Further, I was omitting an extremely important part of issuing the directive: communicating to the recipient that I care about how he is going to respond. In fact, the receiving is a part of what we call the sending, or the issuing of a prompt, whether it be a command, a request, a plea, a confession, or whatever. The receiving and the sending interpenetrate each other.

    To help people experientially grasp what sending and receiving is and how it works with language, I often do an exercise where I have scene partners throw a ball back and forth as they say their lines, but they have to throw the ball on the last word of each sentence. It has to be at the precise moment that they speak the last word, not on some operative word in the sentence, not after they finish speaking the sentence, but on the last word. But what is often telling is what happens in the instant after the ball leaves the actor’s hands. In many cases, the actor will pull their hands back towards their torso: the effort to throw the ball has left them extended and exposed, and so they have an instinct to protect themselves and draw their arms back towards themselves. But acting is about vulnerability and exposure, not about protecting ourselves. So pulling back the arms is the wrong thing to do. But it’s also wrong from the point of view of throwing the ball: I can remember coaches and my father teaching me as a kid that when I throw, I should always follow through. It seemed kind of pointless at the time: the ball had left my hand, what difference did it make what my arms did at that point? But the point was that the follow through insured that I wasn’t anticipating the ball leaving my hand, and starting to reduce my exertion to throw it before it actually did leave my hand. The follow-through maximized commitment. In the language of the class, following through meant playing to win. And here’s the thing: following through also promotes true receiving. Because when we receive, we must be receiving with our vulnerability, with our need, with our core need for belonging, not from a vantage point of safety and aloofness. When we follow through, we are extended, exposed, vulnerable. Which, as actors, is where we want to be.

    What I had learned with Hudson was that part of issuing the prompt, in this case a command, was following through, receiving: Hudson needed to know that I was watching what he did before he responded. When we engage and assert ourselves in a scene by asking for what we need from our partner in the scene, an integral part of doing that asking is paying attention to what the response will be. Of course, we should care about the response because we are invested in a visceral need that we are attempting to meet with the partner, but that isn’t always happening when people are just learning to act. We have to start somewhere. Fake it till you make it, right? If an actor hasn’t yet learned to stand in that visceral need, she can at least act as if she cared about how her partner responds to what she is offering. If she does that often enough, that openness may coax her own need for belonging to come out and play, and will likely have a salutary effect on her partner as well: nothing shuts an actor down faster than the awareness that the other person isn’t listening to them.

    So stop, look and listen, after you speak your next line. You’ll find there’s a whole world waiting to be discovered.

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    a terribly demanding pursuit

    Posted in Uncategorized on November 8th, 2013 by Andrew

    Here is Kim Stanley, one of Tennessee Williams’ favorite actors, on what acting asks of us:

    I don’t know how to speak to people about acting if they don’t recognize it as an art, as a high calling, as a terribly demanding pursuit that will require not only more than you realize but more than you will ever possess. This is a terribly daunting thing to say to students, particularly young people who want so badly to learn, to create a life they’ve dreamed about all their lives, but they simply do not understand how much will be required to just maintain the schedule of living, much less the rigorous demands of filling a part and keeping your mind and your heart and your body alive to the merciless thing they’ve asked to marry.

    You can read her complete remarks here. A must.

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    be not too tame neither: relaxation and the #actor

    Posted in Uncategorized on October 28th, 2013 by Andrew

    “…in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness…but be not too tame neither…” –Hamlet’s Advice to the Players

    In Chapter 6 of An Actor Prepares, Tortsov, the Stanislavsky figure, is at great pains to demonstrate to his fictional students the profound negative effects of muscular tension for an actor: “You cannot, at the beginning of our study, have any conception of the evil that results from muscular spasms and physical contraction”. We think of muscular spasms as some kind of medical condition, but surely this is a translation issue: the full chapter makes it undeniably clear that Stanislavsky is talking about the garden variety muscular tension that afflicts actors constantly, and not a charlie horse.

    And indeed, relaxation is vital for the actor. The actor’s “instrument”, that is, his body and voice, is charged with constant responsiveness to the world around her: she must apprehend with her senses, process with her mind, and answer with her voice and body. This is a sequence that must be constantly cycling for the length of the performance. And as Stanislavsky demonstrates in the chapter by having students attempt to add numbers while lifting a piano, physical tension inhibits mental activity. So the more tension in the system, the greater the risk that the cycle of responsiveness will be disrupted. When it is so disrupted, the the tendency is for parts of the body to check out by holding whatever muscular tension they have incurred at that moment. Rather than respond, they are seized with rigidity. This means more tension in the system, which in turn means greater inhibition of mental activity, and so on. Not the direction in which we want things to go.

    It’s for this reason that approaches life the Alexander Technique are so valuable. They help the actor develop an awareness of tension, and to acquire a practice of cognitive self-coaching that invites the nervous system to reconnect with intrinsic design of the skeletal system so that tension is released. If this self-coaching is practiced over time, it begins to seep into unconscious habit. This is the ideal for the actor: that her neuromuscular system becomes trained to monitor itself for unnecessary tension, and to trigger the release of said tension. During a performance, she doesn’t want to be focused on muscular tension, but on the imaginary world of the play. So if the release of tension can happen “in the background”, to borrow a metaphor from information technology, then she gets to have her cake and eat it too: she can allow herself to be fully absorbed in the imaginary situation of the scene, and her unconscious mind keeps scaling back the physical tension, begetting the temperance that may give it smoothness that Hamlet referred to,

    All well and good. Essential, in fact. But there is another side to this. Hamlet’s second admonition is “be not too tame neither…”. It’s possible to be too relaxed. The problem with this condition is not so much the relaxation; it lies with a couple of other things. One is self-consciousness: an actor who is trying to appear relaxed is being self-conscious, because his attention is on himself and how he is being perceived by the audience. It is a studied version of relaxation, and truly poisonous to acting. As uncomfortable as it can be to watch someone strain and push and overdo something, having to watch someone self-consciously relax his way through a scene is, in my experience, much moreso. The self-consciously relaxed actor is putting out a message that tells those watching him that nothing in his situation, the situation of the scene, is worth bothering about: move along, nothing to see here, this actor is announcing to the world. So not only is he (often painfully) self-conscious, but he is tacitly undermining the work of everyone else in the scene in question.

    The goal is actually to engage the core muscles in the abdomen, the transverse abdominals and the ilio-psoas, to do what we are given to do as actors. The participation of these muscles in whatever we are doing attests to the importance of that endeavor: these are some of the most powerful muscles in the body, and are intimately connected to our breathing. And at the same time as we engage the core, to have the extremities, that is, the arms, the jaw, and the legs, engage as necessary but no more. As the Alexander technique teaches, we often use more muscular effort to accomplish whatever we are trying to do than we actually need, and the act of speaking is no exception. Often, actors overwork the jaw when they speak, which will usually mean that they will appear to be working too hard, and that the core is not participating as it could be, as the jaw is trying to do all the work. With no core involvement, we, the audience, understand that what is happening is not dangerous or urgent or vital.

    Similarly with the shoulders and the arms. Many people are unable to gesture with the arms without the involvement of the shoulders. But the truth is that the arms are capable of moving and gesturing in most cases without any assistance from the shoulders. So there is unnecessary excess effort, but additionally, the involvement of the shoulders usually means that the core is not participating in the effort at hand.

    Being able to engage the core (which should always be happening, even if in a minimal way) and to remain as relaxed and easy with the extremities as is possible is a bit like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach: it requires different parts of your body to act in what can feel like contradictory ways. It’s actually a challenge in coordination. But an actor who relies fundamentally on the core and whose extremities act to execute and complete impulses that originate in the core achieves integrity in their physical life while acting, which in turn affords them a physicality which is marvelously expressive and deeply satisfying to watch.

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    I love the smell of vindication in the morning

    Posted in Uncategorized on October 24th, 2013 by Andrew

    Yesterday I wrote about Jeremy Rifkin’s thesis that our need for social connection and relationship is our deepest need, our most fundamental priority, and the implications of that for the understanding of acting. And this is far from the first time I have written about this.

    I heard a teaser this morning for a segment on KPCC, a local NPR station, for an interview with UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman, whose new book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. This is how the book is described on Amazon:

    In Social, renowned psychologist Matthew Lieberman explores groundbreaking research in social neuroscience revealing that our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental, more basic, than our need for food or shelter. Because of this, our brain uses its spare time to learn about the social world – other people and our relation to them. It is believed that we must commit 10,000 hours to master a skill. According to Lieberman, each of us has spent 10,000 hours learning to make sense of people and groups by the time we are ten.

    Social argues that our need to reach out to and connect with others is a primary driver behind our behavior. We believe that pain and pleasure alone guide our actions. Yet, new research using fMRI – including a great deal of original research conducted by Lieberman and his UCLA lab — shows that our brains react to social pain and pleasure in much the same way as they do to physical pain and pleasure. Fortunately, the brain has evolved sophisticated mechanisms for securing our place in the social world. We have a unique ability to read other people’s minds, to figure out their hopes, fears, and motivations, allowing us to effectively coordinate our lives with one another. And our most private sense of who we are is intimately linked to the important people and groups in our lives. This wiring often leads us to restrain our selfish impulses for the greater good. These mechanisms lead to behavior that might seem irrational, but is really just the result of our deep social wiring and necessary for our success as a species.

    Based on the latest cutting edge research, the findings in Social have important real-world implications. Our schools and businesses, for example, attempt to minimalize social distractions. But this is exactly the wrong thing to do to encourage engagement and learning, and literally shuts down the social brain, leaving powerful neuro-cognitive resources untapped. The insights revealed in this pioneering book suggest ways to improve learning in schools, make the workplace more productive, and improve our overall well-being.

    This is essential for actors to grasp: every scene has a conflict, but conflict must be understood as the breakdown of an otherwise meaningful, or at the very least potentially meaningful, connection. The vaunted stakes of a scene can only be grasped by seeing the scene in this light.

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    the source of “stakes” in #acting

    Posted in Uncategorized on October 23rd, 2013 by Andrew

    In acting classes, actors hear a lot about “stakes.” Stakes need to be “high”, stakes need to be “raised”, the scene needs “urgency”. Unfortunately, though, actors often aren’t given a whole lot of help with how to accomplish these instructions. “Raise the stakes!” At worst, actors walk away with the notion that raising the stakes means they should “act harder”, do the scene more “urgently”, in a more “high-stakes” way, as if they had an internal “stakes” knob that they could just turn up to 11. Such an approach is doomed to fail; for one thing, it invites the actor to put his attention on himself and his own performance, which will produce self-consciousness and artificially revved-up work, not work informed by deeply personal investment in the situation at hand.

    Some approaches will tell the actor to use what they call an “as-if”: the actor is told to come up with some kind of hypothetical situation involving cast members of the actor’s real life to somehow inject the imaginary situation of the scene with gravity, urgency, importance. This invites the actor to divide her awareness between the as-if scenario and the situation of the scene. She can focus on the scene, but then she is not getting the stakes from the as-if, or conversely, she can focus on the as-if, but then she is not being truly present to the scene. How about this: find a way of looking at the scene, understanding it, that reveals the human interest, the drama, the compelling aspects of it, so the actor can give the scene her full attention and have it be suffused with urgency that gets her juices flowing and ours?

    How about that?

    Nothing like having your cake and eating it to, as a mentor of mine at Yale used to say.

    The point of departure is that any situation that anyone has bothered to put into a script, to dramatize, to ask us to examine, is inherently dramatic, high-stakes, and compelling. And even if, for a given scene in a given script, that is not the case, we have little choice but act as if it were. So what we need to do is articulate those stakes for ourselves, describe them, characterize them, so that our way of looking at the scene and the situation of the scene prompts us to act it in a way that honors these stakes. Not a simple thing to do; in fact learning to develop such a view of a scene is a whole skillset in itself that needs to be studied and practiced, but we can at least, with what have said so far, see the soundness of the goal of mastering this skill, as it will allow us to give an account of what is at stake in the scene that does not require us to focus on anything other than the scene at hand to achieve deep investment and existential urgency in our acting work.

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