A good piece at the theater blog A Poor Player, about the “indie actor”, which is where most actors start out and many remain, if they remain actors at all. I consider myself an indie acting teacher, so I feel y’all on this one.
Anyway, apparently there was survey done recently by an outfit called the New York Innovative Theater Awards of actors working in Off Off Broadway in New York. It’s, um, not pretty. The blogger at A Poor Player summarizes the outlook thus:
if youâ€™re now in college studying as a theatre major at the graduate or undergraduate level planning to break into the theatre scene in NYC via the indie route, the statistics say that, for your educational and monetary investment, hereâ€™s what statistically you are/will become: a white, female, single, childless degree-holding actor holding down two or three jobs, and making $18.37 an hour at the career you educated and trained yourself for, all the while living in one of the most expensive geographic areas in the US. The stats also say that by 40 years old you will have left the indie scene at the very least; the odds are you will have moved on to something else entirely.
So you can’t say we didn’t warn you.
But I can also say that if you have found the thing to do in life that, after you have done it, you feel a palpable contentment, like you have done what Someone put you here to do, that’s a very precious gift, and warrants a fair amount of adversity to keep on keepin’ on.
In my travels through the twittersphere (I just made that up!), I kept seeing this acronym pop up: GTD. I had no idea what it meant. I imagined it was some type of software that required special skills to operate. Well, I was wrong. GTD stands for Getting Things Done. It’s an approach to, well, getting things done. The core principle is summarized by wikipedia:
GTD rests on the principle that a person needs to move tasks out of the mind by recording them externally. That way, the mind is freed from the job of remembering everything that needs to be done, and can concentrate on actually performing those tasks.
When I read this, it resonated immediately. One of the most important things I have ever done was a year of private lessons in the Alexander Technique. I worked with this remarkable instructor. She noticed my occasional “absent-minded professor” tendencies, and suggested that I get a planner to carry with me, so that I could record things I needed to do as they arose. She explained that this would reduce the mental strain involved in my day-to-day existence. I took her advice, and found she was right. Things were much easier when I knew that I had recorded things. I knew I had the information SOMEWHERE, so there was no pressure to keep it all in my head. I felt free to be more present.
Another example: when I am watching students do a scene in class, and I write down notes as I do. Sometimes, I will notice something very minor: a slight error in the lines spoken, or some of the actor’s hair getting in her face. The hair is actually kind of important, because if it continues to distract me as I watch the actor, I am less effective as an instructor. Also, if the student is not made aware of the issue, she will eventually get up in front of people when the scene is presented at the end of the class with her hair getting in her face a bit, and this will distract everyone trying to watch her work. It’s not significant in terms of her craft as an actor, but it does constitute an intrusion of sorts. I used to find myself having little debates with myself about whether to write such things down. After all, while I was writing this down, I would not be watching the actors, and so I would be missing out on some other possibly much more significant part of her work or her partner’s work. But I have learned that no matter how minor the issue, the best thing to do is to write it down immediately. By writing it down, I let the issue go, for the moment at least. This frees me to return with a clear mind to what is happening in the scene. If I don’t write the issue down, then it will continue to nag at me, and I will be less fully available to what I am looking at. And if I do write it down, I can address it once the scene is over, and hopefully it won’t be there to distract me the next to time through.
A third example from my own experience: I try to keep the production of content for this blog pretty steady. However, I never know when ideas for posts are going to come to me, and I also never know I am going to get to the actual writing. But as soon as an idea occurs to me, I go to my blogger dashboard and I create a new post. Possibly it will just be a title or a title and a link, but then I have a placeholder for it. I can come back and actually write the piece when I am ready to do so. I can come back to it whenever I need to. And my unconscious knows that too. It knows it can let go of that issue for the moment, and move onto new things, which will, we hope, lead to new ideas being generated.
What does this have to do with the actor? Well, in the approach that I present in the class, the process begins with a careful, thorough study of the text, to attempt to glean as much information as possible about the character from what the writer has provided. There is a framework for organizing this information as it is collected, called the “Who-am-I” or the Five Questions. Interestingly, this is very close to the first phase of the GTD work sequence. According to wikipedia:
The notion of stress-free productivity starts with off-loading what needs to get done from one’s head, capturing everything that is necessary to track, remember, or take action on, into what Allen calls a bucket: a physical inbox, an email inbox, a tape recorder, a notebook, a PDA, a desktop, etc. The idea is to get everything out of one’s head and into a collection device, ready for processing. All buckets should be emptied (processed) at least once per week.
Allen doesn’t advocate any preferred collection method, leaving the choice to the individual. He only insists upon the importance of emptying the “buckets” regularly. Any storage space (physical inbox, email inbox, tape recorder, notebook, PDA, etc.) that is processed regularly by the individual is acceptable.
It’s of course essential that the actor actually WRITE DOWN the information that she is gleaning from the text. No matter how much I stress that, though, both explicitly and by example, it’s often difficult to see the importance of doing that up front. It’s only later in the process that assuming that “Yeah, I read the play, I know what happens, I don’t need to write it out” has consequences, and the need for discipline and exhaustiveness at this phase is made indisputably clear.
The benefits of writing down the information are manifold: first of all, by engaging in the physical act of writing, the body is engaged, and this begins the process of transforming textual information into experience grasped in a bodily, physical way. Once it is written, the actor can look at it, and this may trigger valuable questions or intuitions. That particular bit of information is then out of her head, and she is then fully receptive to other pieces of information. She can move through all of the scattered information in the text that may be relevant in a somewhat linear way, dealing with one issue at a time, and placing it in a “bucket” where it can be found easily later.
The hardest part of all of this, probably, is the fact that you don’t necessarily see the payback right away. But it is precisely this recognition, that learning to act well involves sustained work over time, which doesn’t always immediately result in a payoff, that is the beginning of the actor taking command of her own working process.
Unfortunately, I think that much of the time actors view the director, consciously or unconsciously, as someone who needs to be endured until the show opens, and then, so the thinking goes, the show is really the actors’, and they can really relax and enjoy themselves. Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t fault actors for this attitude. I fault directors. The director has authority, and with that authority comes the opportunity to define the relationship with the actors in such a way that the actors enjoy the interaction, and are nourished and emboldened by it.
William Ball, the legendary founder of the American Conservatory Theater, has this to say in his book A Sense of Direction:
You have known directors to come into rehearsal crying “I want this. I want that. I see it this way. My entire concept…I need so many people on this side. I want you here.” This is an amateur at work. He once overheard himself being praised as being a director who “knows what he wants.” He uses the rehearsal as an endless opportunity to tell everyone what he wants. He puts the word “I” at the beginning of all his sentences…If he uses the word “I” recklessly and compulsively, the likelihood is that he is untrustworthy.
And what, according to Ball, does a good director do? He follows Ball’s principle of positation, by which:
we say yes to every creative idea…we say yes because we understand that to do so is the practical way of sending a message to the intuition that every creative idea will be valued, respected, and used. And when the intuition gets that message often enough, it will send us its most perfect and most pure creative ideas. That is why, whether we like it or not,saying yes to everything is the most creative technique an artist can employ.
I’ll let that sink in for a moment. Ball is saying that the skilled director says yes to everything that an actor attempts or proposes, not just the ideas that are congenial to the director’s vision or understanding of the script.
A tall order. Directors do have vision and points of view (famously), and being willing to put this aside to promote the actor’s flourishing and intuitive expression requires a lot of maturity and patience. It’s kind of like good parenting.
Ball claims that the director does not need to prune the bad ideas, because the bad ideas will “fall out of orbit by their own weight.” This is probably sometimes true, but it may be a trifle utopian to think that it always works this way. However, Ball’s vision of the role of the director sets a benchmark against which directors can be measured, even if absolute conformity to it is unrealistic. The bottom line: a good director is very generous, very patient, and very appreciative of those with whom he collaborates. An actor who finds herself working with a director who does not comport himself with these virtues knows that she is working with someone with some major professional liabilities. I encourage my acting students to read Ball’s book, so they will know what a real pro looks and acts like.
An oft-quoted proverb says: “The best leader, the people do not notice. When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”
Truly great leaders…recognize how silly it is to believe that a coach or a leader is the key to an organization’s success. The best leaders understand that long-term results are created by all of the great people doing the work â€” not just the one person who has the privilege of being at the top.
And sadly, most directors harbor this false picture about leadership. I actually think that in this regard we are better off in the US than they are in Europe. Living in Germany, I often heard tales of directors who were notorious for screaming at those who worked for them, and the fact that they behaved in this way was offered almost as a badge of their “realness”. In the US, there is less tolerance for this outright abusiveness, even if the director is still able to put himself first, much of the time.
So, if you are an actor, and you find yourself working with a director who falls short of Ball’s vision for the director, what do you do? Evan Yionoulis, the Obie-award winning director who chaired the Acting Program at the Yale School of Drama for 5 years and who still teaches there, had this to say: “Render to Caesar, that which is Caesar’s, and render to God, that which is God’s.” These words were originally attributed to Jesus Christ, of course, when the Pharisees were attempting to trap him into recommending Jews pay taxes to imperial Rome. For actors,this means: the director is an authority that has to be reckoned with, and you will make your own life very difficult, as well as damage your future employment prospects, if you do not supply him with what he wants.
Having this obligation to please the director does not relieve the actor of her obligation to “God”, so to speak. That is, to her vocation, to her spirit, to her own integrity. The actor must take care that she is appropriately invested in the cares and concerns of the character, that she is engaged in arduously pursuing what the character needs, and that she is doing this moment-to-moment. The truth is that there is almost never a conflict between giving the director what he is asking for, and doing what the actor needs to do to make sure she is living up to her own high personal standards. The director, in some sense, should be seen as an extension of the writer: the director is continuing to define what it is that the actor must do. The actor must then find the need in herself to do what must be done as the character in the scenes in which she appears, and then she must do it.
The actor must take care to safeguard her own passion for her work, and not to allow anyone to snuff that out. An abusive director who will not mend his ways is a reason to quit a job. It will not often come to this, but an actor facing a truly abusive director should always keep in mind that quitting is an option. Creativity is too precious a gift to allow someone to squash it with contempt and abuse.
Finally, I’ll mention that while directing and teaching have much in common, they are not exactly the same endeavor. A director is on a timetable to produce a finished product; a teacher’s primary concern is the growth of the actor’s command of the of the practice of acting. Because there is no final product for the teacher, there is more opportunity to challenge people to shed habits and re-examine their most fundamental beliefs about acting and about themselves. You can do very little of this as a director before you run the risk of undermining someone’s confidence as they attempt to prepare to appear before the public. Never a good idea.
As an educator, I still regard it as important to express appreciation for my students’ efforts, even when they are not the most successful efforts, even as I challenge them to fulfill the role more fully. But the imperative for appreciative expression is not as great as it is for the director, who, without it, will very quickly run aground.
Ball dedicated his book “to the well-being of actors everywhere”.
I’ll leave you with a video from William Ball’s 1976 production of The Taming of the Shrew. It’s plain as day here: the man knew a thing or two about directing. (PS This is only a short snippet, but if you click through to the youtube page you can watch the full scene).
Famous brain scientist Paul McLean came up with a model of the brain that still has some currency today. In this model, there are three areas. The first is called the “R-complex”, so named because it is the part of the brain that resembles the brains of reptiles. It controls “the four F’s” (fighting, fleeing, feeding, and f*cking). The so-called “lizard brain” is attuned to primitive matters, matters of survival. The second portion of the brain is the portion we have in common with other mammals: the limbic system. The limbic system is the source of pleasure and pain, of maternal behaviors like nursing, and the urge to play. Finally, the “neo-cortex”, or new brain, is most developed in humans, and is the source of reason, logic, and abstract thinking.
Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, in Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, writes that our five senses at any moment take in over 11 million pieces of information. Our conscious minds can handle about 40 pieces of information per second.
This unconsciousness presents a challenge for the actor: this means that an actor can be mentally alert and engaged in a scene, but his limbic system and R-brain can be disengaged, and it won’t feel at all unusual to him, since he is used to those being unconscious processes anyway. However, if the limbic system and the R-brain are asleep, those of us in the audience watching the actor will feel similarly disengaged. We will see an actor who appears to be engaged and responsive from the neck up: the portions of the anatomy that have to do with forming intelligible language, with talking and listening, may be active, but the rest of it will be inert. The truth is that when we watch something, our lizard brain and our limbic system are watching too. And if the corresponding portions of the actor’s brain are not engaged, we are likely to disengage as well.
It is common to see actors whose “limbic” or emotional system is alive and well, they are not only talking and listening but visibly “feeling” things as well, and yet, they leave us largely uninvolved. In watching them, we are aware of some kind of activity in their chests: they register emotional pleasure or pain in that part of the body (“the heart”). We recognize the range of emotions that they pass through, but we are not moved to feel with them, to empathize. This is very common. Such acting can be totally “believable” and totally uninteresting at the same time. It often suffices in television and film, where editing and musical accompaniment can compensate for the shortfalls of the actor. But it is not acting that inspires anyone, it is not acting that is particularly memorable, it does not make anyone feel more alive.
The actor whose R-brain is engaged is viscerally alive. We sense a vitality in the actor’s stomach and pelvis that we register in those regions of our own anatomy. It is in this part of the body that the four F’s actually take place (eating in the belly, operation of the legs (for fight or flight) in the hips, and the genitals for sexual activity) Our lizard brain is very attuned to the state of those around us, and when we sense that they are viscerally alive, engaged, or threatened, we come to life as well. It is this level of engagement that prompts us to say that we were “gripped” or “compelled” by an actor’s performance.
I remember, long before I knew anything about acting, being in an acting class and watching a student do a monologue from The Matchmaker. This student, I recognize now, was viscerally engaged. At the time, all I knew was that it seemed like something was happening inside her body while she was acting, in a way that seemed totally different from what went on when everyone else was acting. I don’t mean inside her body in the sense of “feelings”, but rather it seemed like there were moving parts that were moving for her but that stayed still for most people when they act. Looking back, I can now say with certainty that what I was registering was the engagement of the Pilates core, that network of muscles in the pelvis which are responsible for supporting the spine and maintaining balance.
The imperative of getting the R-brain or lizard brain active is the reason why in the approach that I teach, we attempt to understand every scene through the prism of need. If we can find a “hot” need to pursue, and truly understand the way in which we attempt to influence our world in the scene in order to get the need met, we are well on our way to waking up the sleeping serpent. And who doesn’t want to watch something in which a sleeping serpent is roused?