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Let's End the Specious Argument of Beloved Dead Masters

In particular, let's end the "argument" between Adler and Strasberg.  There is no substance to their false reasoning upon whi...

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Clifford Odets, Avi Steinberg and Barbara Cook?

The Group Theatre produced Clifford Odets' play Golden Boy on Broadway in 1937.  The film version, not written by Odets, was produced in 1939.  Earlier this year Avi Steinberg's cartoon appeared in The New Yorker.  For a moment I thought Mr. Steinberg might be referring to the play, and captured the essence of what I had always thought was false in it with just one image and one sentence; perhaps he was referring to it. Golden Boy was produced at Lincoln Center as recently as the 2012/2013 season.  Perhaps not.  Regardless, thinking about the play again now reminded me of my years of study and how often scenes were used from Odets' plays by student actors because he was such a good dramatic scene writer; his dialogue crackled with passionate imagery.

For example, here's the end of Act III, Scene 2 from Golden Boy:

LORNA:  And now, tonight, here, this minute - finding yourself again - that's what makes you a 
       champ.  Don't you see that?
JOE:  Yes, Lorna - yes!
LORNA:  It isn't too late to tell the world good evening again!
JOE:  With what?  These fists?
LORNA:  Give up the fighting business!
JOE:  Tonight!
LORNA:  Yes, and go back to your music -- 
JOE:  But my hands are ruined.  I'll never play again!  What's left, Lorna?  Half a man, nothing,     
LORNA:  No, we're left!  Two together!  We have each other!  Somewhere there must be happy boys 
       and girls who can teach us the way of life!  We'll find some city where poverty's no shame -
       where music is no crime! - where there's no war in the streets - where a man is glad to be
       himself, to live and make his woman herself!
JOE:  No more fighting, but where do we go?
LORNA:  Tonight?  Joe, we ride in your car.  We speed through the night, across the park, over the
        Triboro Bridge --
JOE;  (taking LORNA's arms in his trembling hands):  Ride!  That's it, clear my head.  We'll drive
        through the night.  When you mow down the night with headlights, nobody gets you!  You're
        on top of the world then - nobody laughs!  That's it - speed!  We're off the earth - unconnected!
        We don't have to think!!  That's what speed's for, an easy way to live!  Lorna darling, we'll burn
        up the night! (He turns and as he begins to throw his street clothes out of his locker)

                                                                  Medium Fadeout

In the final short Scene 3 that follows, his family learns that they were both killed in the car; it crashed on Long Island; and the last line of the play is:

MR. BONAPARTE (standing, his head high):  Joe...Come, we bring-a him home...where he belong...

                                                                  Slow Fadeout

In the final scene of the film, Joe and Lorna come home, alive, to embrace Mr. Bonaparte.  "I'm home," says Joe, and in the scene just prior, none of the ideas in the scene from the play were used.

Clifford Odets described this play as "symbolic", and, as he expressed, and as has been written about him, once he was lured to Hollywood, his guilt about compromising his ideas and his talent never left him.  Clearly, Golden Boy was intended to be symbolic of that conflict, but, as is so graphic in Steinberg's cartoon, one can't wear boxing gloves and play a musical instrument simultaneously; it's either one or the other.  However, the compromises Odets had to make were not so clear-cut; they were ambiguous.  How much more difficult it would have been to get closer to the central conflict, the actual ethical dilemma with which Odets was grappling!

Actors who study with me are frequently reminded to try to get close to the bone of the action, closer still, to the marrow of the bone of the action.

In the Barbara Cook treasure trove of videos on YouTube, one can hear her say, "If you can get to the point where you are ready to use every joy, every death, every lover who has left you...If you are willing to explore that within the song, you cannot be wrong."  And especially when her disjointed sentence told a student, "The very place where safety lies for us is the same that seems most dangerous, and the sharing - the courage to let people really, really get into what life is into -- and sets it free."

I encourage you, during these difficult times, when our central conflict is camouflaged, to not permit yourself to fear, but rather, in your life and work, to explore ever more deeply what you truly think and feel and share it courageously, remembering that it is indeed where safety lies -- where you are most safe and free.



Friday, November 3, 2017

Nag, Nag, Nag.....

not Joyce DiDonato, me!  I don't know if she nags, but I definitely do.  Ms. DiDonato says "process"-- "don't go for the result".  Our technique uses different words: action, objective, or need (per Kim Stanley).  I've been using the word need because I think it's more powerful, and every action should be as powerful as possible.

Going for the result results in listening to yourself.  Once you do that, you're not present, you've left your action, and you've effectively ruined the necessary progression of the series of actions provided by the writer that tell the story.  You are responsible for the dramatic actions of the story, not a narrative version of it.

Learning and practicing technique avoids the accident of a good moment or scene performance.  Technique frees the performer; it doesn't constrain the performer as so many actors I meet seem to think.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Broadway's Dreamers: The Legacy of the Group Theatre

Just to review: anecdotal, memories, dreams, yes, and definitely not the whole story, but please also review my article in Backstage (link provided below) in comparison, noting in particular the brief remarks by Strasberg, Adler, Lewis, and the influence of Stanislavski, on their study.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Rep. Nydia Velazquez's Additional Lesson

Rep. Velazquez reminds the actor in this speech of the importance, the necessity, of finding the right words to convey the images/thoughts that are driving those words to make the person who listens to her see what she sees in her mind's eye.  Note the clarity of the words and her emphasis on words like troops, fight, kick, blood.  When the actor understands and is determined that her partner perceives her ideas, she won't smudge or contract the words of a sentence as do so many actors who are performing today.   Note as well the lesson here that emotion is derived from cognition - always!  The actor who reaches for an emotion or a "mood" is bound to deliver an indicated performance.

Monday, October 2, 2017

"Don't Open Your Mouth Until You Know What Image is Driving the Thought,"

is what I've said many times to actors.  I think it's very difficult to learn to practice this when the actor begins studying the text, mainly because the actor hasn't been taught that this is fundamental in order to prevent representational or indicated acting. 

It's interesting that Stanislavski and his colleagues, as well as the members of the Group Theatre intuited that thought precedes speech; not that other actors hadn't done so before them, but they addressed it in their practice and wrote about it.

Interestingly, in 2013, on YouTube, during the Q&A of a lecture by Professor of Linguistics, Noam Chomsky, titled "Grammar, Mind and Body - A Personal View," I heard him respond to a query as follows:  "Language is not communication.  Language is meaning with some kind of a thought system.  Language does not give us the full capacity, anywhere near the capacity, to express what we're thinking, feeling, hoping for.  There's an awful lot of thought that goes on that doesn't come out the mouth and probably can't.  You know you get it right by the effect it has."  I hope Professor Chomsky has been made aware that actors have much to learn from him.  He has said that among linguists he has his critics regarding how he defines language, but, whenever I read that quote to actors, a smiling recognition is communicated by their facial expression.

Consider Al Pacino's reminisce about Jobn Cazale in my December 20, 2016 post regarding Cazale's question to Lumet:  "Why do I say I'm not a homosexual?"  Or consider Simon Callow's remark to Charlie Rose in an interview a few yeares ago - that if he can think the thoughts of the character, he can play the character.  Yet, consistently, in numerous productions, I've observed many excellent experienced actors rely on some sort of instinct rather than technique and then deliver lines rather than thoughts, which causes not only indicated acting, but an abandonment of rising action, of progression.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

"I Will Mumble This Only Once" or Being Heard Two

One of my earliest posts discussed the need to be heard.  There are a few links below; if you google the subject, you'll find numerous articles about it.  Apparently, actors who mumble the words of a drama are now prevalent throughout English-speaking countries.

One of the article links below faults "Method" acting, a meaningless term, and goes on to fault Marlon Brando in particular for being a "proponent" of this trend.  The writer had apparently not viewed Brando's performance as Mark Antony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and referred to Guys and Dolls and The Godfather.  Even with cotton in his mouth as Don Corleone, Brando can be heard and understood.  To suggest that he did this to make himself less intelligible is uninformed and misleading.  He once credited Stella Adler with having taught him everything he knew about acting, and she taught that "...there are no throwaway lines."

As I wrote in my original post on this subject, not being heard or understood is related to the actor's not understanding the importance of playing the action.  In addition, I'd say the importance of needing to make one's partner understand, see what one sees in their mind's eye; of the actor understanding the importance of the progression of each succeeding sentence that the character utters.

I think the mumbling (as well as not pronouncing consonants*, or contracting and connecting individual words and sentences) is due to the actor not having learned the basic technique, and is related to my other post and article in Backstage regarding the error of isolating the individual exercises of Strasberg, Adler, Meisner or Hagen, incorrectly naming them techniques, concentrating on mainly those exercises, and giving them precedence over the fundamentals of the technique the Group Theatre adapted from Stanislavski.

I've had enough foreign students to know that the Group Theatre teachers' exercises are taught in many countries.  If the bad habit of perpetuating dogma in place of curiosity and inquiry continues, acting students will continue to be deprived of the opportunity to fully realize the nurturing of their talent.

*Robert Lewis pointed out that if the actor says, "I killed him" without pronouncing the d, he changes the plot.




Friday, June 16, 2017

Diversity, Talent, Technique, Opportunity and Samuel L. Jackson

Samuel L. Jackson's reference to the nuance he thought an African-American actor could bring to the role of an African-American character that a black British actor might not achieve, whether in a portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. or a contemporary character, drew me to the controversy his seemingly off-handed remark elicited when I saw how widely it was discussed and argued on the internet and in the American and British press.  

Although this subject relates to the art of acting and its technique, unless I missed a thorough discussion of it except when it was expressed that British actors are "classically" trained and have more stage experience than American actors, and therefore could present a more artistic (my word) performance, I read only one.  If I'm wrong, please send me the link!

Richard Brody, in the March 21, 2017 issue of The New Yorker (see link below) expressed several points of view regarding the art of acting, none of which were accurate, but not unusual for educated professionals in the arts who have not been specifically educated in acting technique to express ideas that demonstrate their ignorance.

It is absurd to claim that British actors are classically trained and by inference that American actors are not.  What does classical training mean? Until those who use this odd definition define it for me, I don't intend to speculate particularly because the rigors of technique as taught in the United States are sought by hundreds of students from all over the world, and by our teachers who are invited to teach in other countries.  Further, stage experience does not develop a good actor unless that actor has been trained in the basics of the art of acting.

There are two approaches to the art of acting Western dramatic literature.  Life experience, substitution, imagination, are some aspects of Stanislavski and his colleagues' technique that was developed by the members of the Group Theatre and of which I've written elsewhere on this blog, is one of the two.  It emanated from the need to find a way to perform the realistic dramas of the 19th century.  In A Challenge for the Actor Uta Hagen defined realistic performance as one "...in which the actor puts his own psyche to use to find identification with the role, allowing the behavior to develop out of the playwright's given circumstances, trusting that a form will result, knowing that the executions of his actions will involve a moment-to-moment subjective experience."  The other is formalism as Uta Hagen defined representational acting, "...in which the artist objectively predetermines the character's actions, deliberately watching the form as he executes it."

Formalism is the technique that was taught in British drama schools in 1935, when Uta Hagen attended RADA.  Today one sees the curriculum at RADA to include "Stanislavski-based" exercises. From a quick perusal, one sees aspects of Stanislavski and the Group Theatre training in some of the major British acting schools.

Life experience and heredity shape an individual psyche.  Unless the particular circumstances of a fictional character resonate for an actor, that actor can't achieve a subjective experience, and there are degrees of resonance, depending upon the life experience of the actor.

Substitution and imagination occur when the actor executes the actions of the fictional character.  The more specific the resonance, the more nuanced, to use Mr. Jackson's word, the actor's performance will be.

Of course a British actor is capable of creating an American character; many have, and American actors have successfully created British characters when that resonance was present. However, when even an analogous life experience isn't integrated into the actions of the fictional character, hasn't carved itself into the guts of the actor, the actor is left with a reliance on his intellectual understanding, his sympathy (as Uta referred to it) for the character, and his resulting performance will show us the character, which is vastly different from a subjective performance.

Mr. Jackson's use of the word nuance was as subtle as the meaning of the word, and he wasn't wrong.

For all American actors, particularly those who aren't Caucasian, the opportunity to work occasionally, let alone consistently, is rare or non-existent.  This is ludicrous for a performance art that requires rigorous practice.  Nevertheless, I can make an impressive list of excellent American character actors of any ethnicity whose occasional performances are consistently electrifying. However, the only place an actor can train and exercise consistently is in the studio or in class.  Aside from free membership in the Actors Studio, there is no American college, university or drama school that is affordable for the poor or middle-class actor.  I've seen the websites of only a few of the prominent acting schools in England; their tuition seems unaffordable as well.

I welcome all responses and I'm particularly calling for colleagues to join collectively to teach at nominal fees that don't present an obstacle to study.  I'm imagining a place where seemingly opposing ideas such as Adler/Strasberg/Meisner are presented under the same roof and where the most diverse* talent can find expression.