Friday, October 28, 2016

Smartphones and Teaching Acting

This is an edited version of an email exchange between me and a former student who teaches acting.

I am learning so much from teaching…it’s the strangest, most energizing relationship…my students look to me as if I have the answers and I am looking at them to see what questions need answering. 
[Wise Alvina Yoda Krause once said that a teacher’s job is not to provide the right answers but to ask the right questions.]

I am now teaching the Sophomore Acting for the Musical Theatre BFAs and Acting for Film which I’m treating as an advanced BFA class. I would like to build some classes around photo journalism. So often I see pictures online and in newspapers that I would love to use to discuss character, story, bodies, relationships.
[Save them. Send them to your students. Point out what they illustrate about human behavior. Get them to improvise their favorites in class. Here’s a photo of the guy who sells newspapers at the stand on the corner. What is he doing that reveals “merchant”? or “just doing my job” or—whatever. Get someone to improvise it. What do they discover about him? Now find an opposite in him in the photo. Be specific. Improvise that. Take a few minutes in each class for someone to bring in a photo they took and do the same kind of work with it.
Goal: How do we reveal who we are through our behavior?
Then: Assignments from plays. Find a photo of Juliet’s Nurse. What specifically will you look for? How does this photo reveal what’s important to the nurse? Now improvise that. Get them to discover revelatory sensory response to specific stimuli.
Where are you likely to find Melchior Gabor from "Spring Awakening"? Mimi Marquez from "Rent"? What will they look for in specific behavior? Why?]

I remember using some pretty dramatic pictures in your class when we were exploring the Greeks. Can you describe other ways in which I could spark interest through these photos?
[Plays ask us to deal with driving passions, elemental forces—avoid the word “emotion” as it gets people to huff and puff and you want to focus on deeply motivated behavior, not just feelings. Ask three people to bring in photos that illustrate Grief. Improvise the photos. How does each express Grief? 
Then: Turn those photos into Electra keening over the urn that contains Orestes's ashes. 
Look for photos and videos that demonstrate Betrayal, Rage, Ecstasy, etc. Is there a Medea somewhere in today’s deep indignation regarding recent responses to rape? Even if they aren't studying Greek tragedy, working on this can help them to discover depths of passion beyond simple--however intense it is--emotion.]

I’m wondering how I could use what the students have with them always, their phones, to make an assignment that asks them to capture a story in a picture…and then…? I want to have a small series of classes in which we see some pictures and we improvise the life leading up to the shot.
[Absolutely. Embody the people in the photo and then: what responses to what specific stimuli in the environment determine the experiential path that ends up with the photo? It will illustrate that people exist in response to stimuli in their world. 
Try: Someone creates a photo or video essay of their subway ride from home to school. The class improvise the ”story.” Maybe one of the students brings a photo series illustrating a narrative through a dramatic situation in her home life. The class improvises. The student responds, clarifies, etc.
Then: Hamlet takes his phone with him as he goes through Elsinore, creates a photo essay of what's going on. What does Claudius see when he does it? What does he think important enough to include in his photo essay? Why? Polonius creates his own photo essay. Gertrude does it. Hand Ophelia a smartphone. She looks to her father for help.
This has terrific potential to get young people to use the extension of self that smartphones have become. They could shoot short videos as well.
Send them out to photograph moments of realization (what literally happens during a realization?) and decision. What exactly will they look for? It's in moments of realization and decision and consequent action that drama happens and where lives change direction. Where in the play does Uncle Vanya fully realize that he has wasted his life? (Create a photo of this.) Plot the moments of major realization and decision that take Marchbanks in Shaw's "Candida" to the final realization that makes him decide to leave the house. 
Get your students to identify the major realization or decision that happens at the end of a scene in a play and then create it as a photo or video. Start with this end photo and then all responses lead to that photo. Begin with the first realization of the scene; then each "beat" ends with a realization and they grow in importance on the way to the big one, the major final photo op. (Try this: Start with the end of the entire play. Then see how the end of one act leads to the end of the next, right on to the final curtain. Then within each act, the ends of each scene add up, etc. What is inevitability?)
Try discovering/creating the sequence of realizations that take the characters through these scenes: 
Nina and Treplev in the “I shot this seagull” scene (leading to the gunshot at the end of the play)
Hamlet and Ophelia in the nunnery scene (leading to "The rest is silence")
Tartuffe’s entrance and scene with Dorine (leading, it would seem, to the officer's arresting of Orgon--and then the sudden reversal)

How do all the moments of a scene in a musical lead up to the big song in the scene?
What are the major responses photo ops within the song?]

You helped us to look at HUMANITY…the vulnerabilities, the habits, the physicalities, the history of a body and a face. I know that without Learning How to Observe the World, my students can’t be as attuned to the specificity that really good acting requires. I want to awake my students to the human drama that is all around them.
[The use of photos and videos on phones and online now is absolutely something to take advantage of for teaching acting. It’s part of daily interactive life so you have to find a way to incorporate it. A video that expresses Nina’s (The Seagull) attitude toward life. A video that illustrates the relationship between Arkadina and Trigorin. A series of photos that show the development of the Masha/Vershinin (Three Sisters) relationship over the three plus years of the play. (Get one of your choreography students to create a dance based on that photo series.) Send someone out to find and photograph Irina Act One. Someone else finds photos of Irina as she changes through Act II, III, IV. What specifically will they look for in spine for each? in relationship to gravity? in eyes? hands? What might she be doing in each that reveals the changes?
Look for relationships: Go to Central Park and find the Polonius/Ophelia father/daughter relationship. What specifically will you look for? Be exact (Note: the two people don’t have to be an older man and a younger woman).]

I’m thinking of an assignment that involves sitting on the steps of a major pedestrian crossroads and picking up/recording bits of dialogue as people walk by…the people who are walking/talking together are in communication mode that is very different from the bits of highly emotional one-sided conversations you catch as people walk by deep in conversation on their phones.
[I love this idea. How about this: they shoot a video of an encounter. They transcribe the dialogue and let two or three groups of fellow students prepare the dialogue as a scene. Note the differences among the scenes when they are presented. Then play just the audio and compare with what the students came up with. Then let them go out with the audio as further info and prepare the scene again. Come back and present to the class. Then show the original video--what the people were doing as "the dialogue" happened. 
And always: apply to a play what this experience illustrates. Take a scene from a script. How can you learn to come as close as possible to “what the play asks of actors who do this”? What if the play came with audio and video as well as dialogue? Note: There is never just one "right" audio and video of a scene. But are there "wrong" ones?]

I want to structure an exercise on observation that incorporates the way that young adults are looking at the world…to help them learn how to observe with their whole being.
[Exactly. And I’d say go beyond observation to true perception, to comprehension in muscles and nerves and bones and organs of perception. Somebody brings photos or videos of his parents doing something typical, revelatory of their relationship. Can you find such behavior/relationship in a play? Then maybe two dancers create an improvised duet right after they see the photos or video.
Try: The Lopakhin/Varya (Cherry Orchard) relationship dance. Or singing their duet.
You must always find something that they can apply directly to a character in a play, to a moment of response, a relationship, a moment of change, etc., in a play.
You are teaching them to become artists who use deeply perceived and comprehended behavior and response as their medium of creation. They are training their totalities to become perceivers of humanity. Lead them to recognize they must embody what it is that a play dramatizes; why it is and what it is that they are communicating with their heightened artists’ totalities.]

I’m attaching a video that my Music Theatre students made. You will love the energy and the joy, while I hope, at the same time understand my challenges.
[They’re terrific. And, sure, since it is Music Theatre Acting, you have to feed directly into that. I don’t know much about contemporary musical theatre, but there must be a few really good things between "Rent" and "Spring Awakening" on one end and "Hamilton" on the other.
If you include a couple of these—maybe a Sondheim or two—will they go along with one Shakespeare (R and J—maybe Hamlet) and one Chekhov (Seagull and if they like it maybe Three Sisters)? A Moliere fer sher for MT students.
It might be a way to introduce them to a wider range of musical styles than they are comfortable with. Once they find themselves doing a couple of real life studies of Juliet and the Nurse, maybe they could find a musical way into the character of each or to express their relationship; perhaps a musical version of the moment when Juliet realizes she can not trust her nurse. It would be freeing for them to use their love of music and singing and dance in spontaneous and improvisatory ways while you are connecting them to great drama. The Masha and Vershinin waltz of Act II; the Solyony and Tusenbach duet of Act II.
Will they work hard at old white male canonical plays if you make sure to compare and contrast with contemporary diversity pieces? They could write their own old school character solo à la “As Long As He Needs Me” for a character and then write one for the same character in a contemporary adaptation of the play. (Taking a look at “Seagull” and Aaron Posner’s “Stupid Fucking Bird” in this context might be encouraging.)
In the meantime, they are out shooting videos of spines and movement patterns and sensory responses to stimuli simply to train themselves to become observers and perceivers and storers-up of human behavior—which will be cast into the reality of Sondheim, of Lin-Manuel Miranda, of themselves as composers/lyricists/book writers/choreographers. Might be a great way to illustrate that no matter how “stylized” the piece is, everything must be rooted in real life observation; that, in fact, the more “stylized” it is, the more it has to be rooted in reality because you’re stripping away the unnecessary and focusing, intensifying, even exaggerating, that reality—so you better know it in your muscles, your totality, really really well.
And one final thing:
You might think of considering each sense individually: What did you learn about eyes today? Take pics or shoot videos that show people revealing something about who they are through their eyes. Find Juliet’s youthful “I want to run out and meet life directly” eyes. Have they seen Nina’s eyes when she looks at Trigorin (The door to their class room opens and Lin-Manuel Miranda walks in.) How about a photo diary of eyes: eyes that reveal; eyes that conceal; eyes that accept, reject, object; eyes that welcome; eyes that see only the literal.
How do Donald Trump’s eyes reveal what’s important to him? Let them bring photos and videos; let them let their eyes do what Trump’s eyes do. Can they let themselves see with his eyes? Can they let themselves see with Elizabeth Warren’s eyes? Kim Kardashian? Can they eliminate preconceptions and simply let themselves respond as they see these people respond?
Do the same with hands. What do Trump’s hands do that reveal the opposite of what his eyes reveal? How do Hillary Clinton's hands reveal "policy wonk"?
This election season would enrage Moliere and he would create magnificent satirical comedy from his rage. (Have you seen the SNL presidential debate sketches? Brilliant.) 
Photograph five construction workers’ hands. Can you let your hands do “if I were a construction worker”? Then pick up an axe as Lopakhin and chop a tree. 
Bring to class videos of your brother’s hands doing something that reveals something about him. Then: Horatio shoots a video of Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull. 
Get them to come up with their own illustrations.
Voice: Cover your eyes and listen to the voice of someone brought in on video. Can you let your voice discover something about the person through pitch, range, volume, etc.? If the voice were Treplev’s, describe its qualities. Be specific. What does Trigorin’s voice reveal about him? Have you heard such a voice? Who is it? Where? What does Mike Pence's voice reveal? Is there an opposite? Be specific. How does your own voice express education? ethnicity? social class? depth of spirit? where you were born? etc. Apply to Vershinin and Solyony individually and then in contrast with each other. The same with Natasha and Olga.
The difference between Nina’s Act I voice and her Act IV voice. Be specific. Can they find examples and record them? What happens to the spine from which such a voice proceeds?
And always be prepared to demonstrate in class.]

Anyway, I told you I would babble at you one day, and here it is…would love to know your thoughts.
[Hah! I think I out-babbled you with this one.  I threw a whole lot at you and you can decide what sticks. Let me know how it goes.]

Monday, September 12, 2016

Last year my former acting student Max Shulman engaged me in an animated interview in my home. His edited version, which maintains the spontaneity of our conversation, appeared in the March 2016 issue of the academic journal, Theatre Topics. Here is that interview:

Everyday Astonishment and Crafting the Theatrical: Speaking with David Downs on Undergraduate Acting Training
Max Shulman

David Downs is an emeritus professor of acting training at Northwestern University, where he taught in the School of Communication for thirty-five years. He is the author of The Actor’s Eye: Seeing and Being Seen (1995), an introduction to the craft of acting. Some of his former students include actors Zach Braff, David Schwimmer, Denis O’Hare, Harry Lennix, Mamie Gummer, and Lily Rabe; playwrights John Logan (Tony Award for Red, screenwriter for Gladiator, The Aviator, and Skyfall) and Bruce Norris (Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Clybourne Park); and director Mary Zimmerman. His curriculum was designed for Northwestern’s acting program in which majors began working with a teacher during their sophomore year, and typically remained with the same instructor for three years (on a quarter system). He presently resides in Los Angeles, where he occasionally teaches workshops at the Antaeus Theatre Company. He is also a playwright and painter.
I was Professor Downs’s student at Northwestern, graduating in 2003. In August 2015 I interviewed him regarding his unique approach to acting training.

Max Shulman: Can you talk a little bit about the training system at Northwestern while you were there? What were the roots of that program?

David Downs: I do want to say first that the system, the curriculum, the acting program was a three-year structure that a teacher, Alvina Krause, created over her thirty years of being at Northwestern. But it didn’t begin as an acting program because there was no theatre department when she started. There was one acting class, and it was what became the first year of acting. The other two years, she taught courses under the heading of “Interpretation” as an area of study, what became [the department of] Performance Studies. There wasn’t an acting program the way you would think; she had figured out a way to make it three years of acting. The first year was supposed to be the fundamental creative aspects of acting and, technically, scene-free . . . not quite scene study. The second year was interpretation of drama. The first quarter of that was supposed to be Greek tragedy, second quarter was Shakespeare, and third quarter was Chekhov, Ibsen, and Shaw.

MS: What is behind that progression and what do you think was at the root of the way Krause taught and the way you taught?

DD: I was Krause’s student and the understructure I got from her in terms of “why bother doing this and why teach at all?” The first year became the creative understructure. You wanted artists to be able to perceive the world more vividly and meaningfully than other people did. If you read da Vinci’s notebooks he talks about “Oh, painter, go out into the world, look and see what happens when shadow hits light. Do not think you can just do it.” And it’s sort of the same thing. Becoming a perceptive artist means translating what your senses experience into paint and into form. The actor translates what your senses perceive into understood behavior. It was training the senses. If you’re aware of how you sit, what is it revealing about you? And not allowing it to be an intellectual response. Krause just kept saying “it’s your totality that has to come to this understanding.” So you start that in the first quarter by training the senses to perceive, and then [in] the second quarter you focus on what the creative imagination does with that perceived reality. It was the imagination for the actor—once again, in behavior terms. These foundations highlighted what we can call “inner techniques of creation.”

MS: In that first year with your students, you’re teaching sophomores and you talk about learning to perceive the world—I remember a lot of that being through physicality. The actor comes in, where do you start with that actor?

DD: The first quarter was just supposed to start people realizing, discovering through individual senses. Sometimes I would start with sense of sight, sometimes I would just start with kinesthetic sense, whatever the class seemed [to connect to]. And I would make assignments like: what was the most visually exciting thing that happened to you today, that you can say “Oh my god!”; and what details did you actually see, specifically? Like a sunset—start working on [noticing] your response to that. Did you lean back? And then, you remember, my father, my mother . . . you start [asking] yourself “can I let myself see that sunset and be my father?” If you know your father well enough just to let yourself see what your dad would see. If your dad is a painter, he will see certain things. If your dad is a mechanic, he will see . . .

MS: So a lot of what you did worked from your knowledge of the student and the personal elements of their lives?

DD: Yes, which is sort of what the journals were about.

MS: They would write a journal?

DD: And it was a work journal, a notebook. It wasn’t [to] sit down and tell me all about how you wish you could be an actor someday and what your mother was like. It was: what did you do today to learn about the sense of sight a little?

MS: And this journal was not about: what did you do in class and what did you like?

DD: No, no, I didn’t care. [Laughs.] That wasn’t important. I wanted to make you figure out how to become your own teacher, outside of class. How do you start to see that a person’s literal spine is in fact a spine [that] embodies something? So you go and you look at this person. Go and look at five different lawyers and see what they all do that is the same, that is lawyerly. If you, Max Shulman, became a lawyer, you’d still be you, but you’d be you if you were a lawyer. Something would have happened to you because of certain kinds of experiences. It has to be you, but it has to be You-If—experience changes who we are.

MS: So, to do that it starts with physicality and—

DD: [Interrupting] And I always want it to stay physical—you are creating with your physical and

emotional and intellectual totality.

MS: Can you discuss the way that physicality connects to emotion and how an actor taps into that?

DD: I avoid the word emotion because it usually means feelings and I would see actors standing there trying to churn up feelings when what was needed was a true, specific behavioral response to a specific, concrete stimulus, a physical response. How does something hit you and what do you want to do to the other person? That response includes the chemical releases that we associate with feelings. With emotion you usually get only feelings, which are passive, so they’re not dramatic, no matter how strong they are. Sensory, behavioral response—physicality—is active and inherently dramatic.

MS: When you get to the third quarter of that first year, where do you begin?

DD: It was characterization on a real specific level. You take how you perceive people, how your imagination and how metaphor works. If “I am a seagull” is in the text, then you have to do something with that—physically, truly. You have to ask yourself, what is the behavior that Chekhov has in mind when he has Nina say “I am a seagull?” What [is it] about a seagull in this lake did he see? To create Me-Nina I start with my mother and father arguing in our kitchen, the harsh clatter of dishes in the sink and hard voices bickering until I have to run out of the house and hide in the lilac bush with a pad and pencil and there I draw birds and butterflies and beautiful things. I take that David and I run out to the lake, and I see a seagull soaring above the water, and I lift my spine and I open my arms, and the clouds become a . . . powdery blue staircase to theatre and celebrity . . . and I have perceived and imagined my way from Me to Me-If-I-Were-Nina. And then, [Chekhov’s] behavioral metaphor: “I’m a seagull. Drawn to this lake.” Embody this and you get experiential understanding of Nina. To create Treplev you start with the You who wants to be an artist. What specific stimuli touch off the need to be an artist within you? What drives the artist-motivated spine? Once you’ve got that basic drive to be an artist—to need to communicate something about the world to the world—take yourself out to the lake. Treplev goes here to be alone and to clarify his ideas. A fish plops, ripples come to shore. The end of a weeping willow branch touches the water, and he sees a seagull floating, soaring, circling in the air above the lake. Do this until something in the fragmentary stimuli that add up to “the lake” [as Treplev sees it] pierces you deeply.

MS: So there was a conversation, at this early stage of the training with plays? Plays are already a factor even though it wasn’t scene work?

DD: The plays are in always from the beginning. Any kind of improvisation you do, any kind of work, is only valuable if you can connect it directly to a play, somehow. [A student would say] “I saw this man walking down the street,” and my job would be, as a teacher: can I connect that to a play somewhere? If you were going to look for the nurse from Romeo and Juliet, would you go to Saks Fifth Avenue to look for her? Why not? I’ve read some of the early acting texts that were written, and all the other systems of acting teaching were: “I want to teach you to act and more’s the pity we have to use plays to do it.” I want to teach you what the magnificence of Chekhov and Shakespeare can mean to a human being, and—wonder of wonders!—you have to learn to act in order to get there. You teach acting to get to this great drama. And I think that is a huge difference. People use plays so they can teach the actor, but I wanted to teach the actor so they could get to plays.

MS: But how did you ensure that your students could do that? Were students always driven to read, supposed to be reading?

DD: Well, that’s what the journal was supposed to be recording. Ideally, my job was to ask questions and make them go back to what they observed and make it deeper and always connect it to plays. How does this thing from your journal relate to Gayev [from The Cherry Orchard] when he touches the bookcase? You’re helping people to develop their ability to see the world in an actor’s sense—which means behavior and using their imaginations. Applied to character, it means: how did your character emerge from a background? A background of influencing, determining forces like social forces, geographical forces, culture, religion, sexuality, family? We improvised situations that [literally] dramatized these determining forces in specific ways from your life. What happens to the human being responding to these forces in conflict is drama, and it is also character-forming. Once we had spent some time using individual students as illustrations, we applied this to characters in plays. And [to end the first year] I chose representative plays of realism, as these plays focus most directly on complex character. Each student chose a complex character from some realistic play: Chekhov, Ibsen, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Tennessee Williams. And we worked through improvisation to imagine and create situations, as suggested by the play, that influence character. The final presentation was an improv that would take a character directly into the play: George and Martha getting ready to go to daddy’s faculty party; Blanche DuBois packing, leaving to take the bus to New Orleans and to Stella’s apartment, etcetera.

MS: Again, the three years is unusual—that someone gets three years with their students.

DD: And the second year was [focused on] the interpretation of drama. You started with Greek tragedy, the most elemental form of theatre/drama. And then you went to Shakespeare so you could add language complexity and the reality of poetry. And then Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw took all that underground. It went underneath and it was still as powerful and meaningful, but now compressed into corsets and jackets and it happened in living rooms. And then the third year was style: how do you make sure that all the stuff you’ve created is communicated as clearly and cleanly to an audience as possible?

MS: Style of performance? Or style as in genre, like Restoration comedy versus Coward?

DD: That could be part of it because performance of those meant selectivity. Of all the things a person might do in response to this, a Coward character is going to likely do this. And you asked, “why? Why as Coward?” So style was that process of selection by which you can communicate as clearly as possible to an audience what it is that you’d like them to get. I think people tend to think of style as stylized.

MS: Did you separate realism from other genres?

DD: No.

MS: It was broken down by playwright? Some seem to teach realism as central and other things as peripheral.

DD: No, because I just thought anything that’s worth it as a piece of art is as artificial as anything else. And if it’s worth it, no matter how artificial it looks, it is as real as anything else. If it’s really good it has to be theatrical, no matter how realistic it is. I think that’s a mistake people make when they talk about realism. Here in LA [Los Angeles], people don’t come to LA to make theatre their career; they come to make media their career. And they rightly learn how to just talk like real people. But then they get onstage and they sit there and talk like real people, and I want to kill myself. Because no matter how good they are—if there was a camera on you, the camera will make style, it will intensify, it will select—but you’re in a theatre. How are you being theatrical, no matter how real you are being? Think of it as a selection process—intensification and selection. Why is [Picasso’s painting] Guernica as real as anything else? What did [Picasso] select from quote-unquote reality? What did he heighten . . . in order to communicate? And that’s what I think you have to do with plays too. I would love to see Hamilton, I want to see what they do when they talk about redoing the musical comedy form. I hope it’s redoing it in ways other than just diversity of casting. If you’re gonna change music to hip-hop and rap, then everything has to change. If that is the best way to communicate this story, then you’ll change the form. And if you’re teaching young people, you teach them [to ask]: “what is the reality that [Lin-Manuel] Miranda started working with, that he wanted to communicate about life today, that made him do it this way?” And that’s what the third year was about; comedy got into that because then you have to learn just the techniques, external techniques—how to deliver that joke in that play because they were going to be in service to style. We worked on plays that demand great style in order to succeed, often something like Molière, Coward, Wilde. Style is that part of the creative process that leaves only what is necessary. Think of the last stages of a sculptor’s work or the writer choosing just the right word to communicate this particular reality at this particular moment. But this [third] year is the best time to explore nonrealistic plays, contemporary forms working to find the exact, right way to express new contemporary ways of looking at what it means to be human: Annie Baker, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sarah Ruhl, Stephen Adly Guirgis, and probably even more current makers of theatre than I am aware of.

MS: It’s interesting that you mention that because looking at a lot of what you did, it’s working from the Western canon. And I always felt you taught that the play’s the thing, and I believe you taught us how to read plays and know what they wanted. A play might be foreign, but we learned how to deal with it. Can you offer some words on how you taught actors to read a play and understand what it wants from them?

DD: Well, you nailed it. How to read a play. How to ask a play what it needs of those who will bring it to stage life. If you add how to develop the ability to bring all that to life and to communicate it to an audience, you have articulated the over-arching goal of the whole three-year process—and, of course, a lifetime’s process. And we get a new idea of what makes drama as we focus on new ways to see what makes us human. [We] start getting that cultural knowledge, start working to learn what new playwrights and storytellers and theatre-makers are doing to keep theatre a vital part of a healthy culture. Entertain by all means, but also illuminate, manifest, challenge.

MS: What environment do you think is the most effective for young actors? Inside that rehearsal room or inside that department?

DD: I think we have to go at least one more and that is: what is it that you’re teaching and what are you teaching for? I know that students came there and they wanted to learn to be professional actors. But I wasn’t teaching that and the environment I was in was created to teach something else. I remember one of the last classes I had, a mother said to me: “can you guarantee that my daughter is going to have a career?” And I remember thinking that’s not why I was teaching her. It wasn’t about career training.

MS: You were often in a situation where the majority of people in that class that had given you three years were not going to be in the theatre at all. So what were you teaching and why?

DD: I really did think that I was teaching people how to act. They were going to be able to act, to be able to be professional actors. And I guess in order to be professional about something, it seems to me there is always a part of the training, which they are now trying to make more and more in the college curriculum—craft and career—occupational realities that have to be learned and dealt with. I think one needs now to ask: which of these can be taught in a classroom and which of these really have to be taught in the field? There are people teaching the business of acting, and they end up teaching you how to get headshots. Well, that changes every three years anyway. It’s not that I don’t think the business side of acting is something that shouldn’t be taught; it’s that you better know exactly what you’re doing and don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re doing that because you know you should be doing something. But, that’s not about acting; it’s not an acting class thing. As a student, suddenly here I was and Alvina Krause came into my life and deepened and broadened my understanding in ways that made me a human being that wanted to keep living. That’s what I want to teach. [Laughs.] Seriously, and along the way you learned how to act. But you didn’t necessarily learn how to get an agent, and certainly not how do you sustain yourself on a TV show for ten years. How could you teach that? A teacher has to learn: how much are you responsible for when they’re twenty-two and leaving college? What are the most important things they need to know? They’ve got four years of college and the environment—the liberal arts education environment—was so important because I was teaching really smart, intelligent, creative people, and I was hoping that their learning theatre and acting was going to help them in whatever life they went on to.

MS: I saw people in your class perform parts and characters in ways that will never happen on a professional stage. People playing roles they will never play—beautifully. It was like we had an ideal repertory company and anybody could play any role. And I wonder what happens when you start talking about what parts people will actually play when they get outside of that place?

DD: There are teachers who do that. Their idea is: identify as soon as you can what your type is and what you’re going to be cast as, and then really get good at that. I wouldn’t spend my life teaching that, I would have done something else [with my life]. We’re learning, for example, Shakespeare, and what’s important is Shakespeare, not you. Shakespeare lets you find out all the things that you are or can be, but the work requires that you not be limited. It’s not career preparation, it’s person preparation. If I had to justify what I taught by how many people actually were successful actors, whatever [“successful”] means, it’d be very hard.

MS: People often advise young actors to go out and do their own work. And very often that work ends up being socially driven work.

DD: The whole devised theatre, theatre of social engagement.

MS: Right, and applied theatre. But do you think in the training of social agents, rather than actors,

are we going to lose something in the execution of even that socially driven work?

DD: My response is, if you’ve got eighteen to twenty year olds, teach human beings everything they need to know to become an artist of social engagement, but I don’t know that if you start teaching them how to go to the west side of Chicago . . . what are they going to take to the west side of Chicago? I remember in the ’60s being a passionate twenty-year-old and doing plays about civil rights. But I don’t know that I was capable at that time as a person of becoming an effective social agent. Once I had studied really hard and become an artist, then I could have. If that’s where my passions went, I could have done it. And I think our job in theatre is more to train the artist who is going to find out why he or she wants to be one—or at least, how to have that direction after school. You spend your life doing that. Eighteen-year-olds need to discover who they are in order to do all this. So, a class in the theatre of social engagement should still help the young actor to discover what capacities for response they have, where their passions lay, their fears, their contempts, their fascinations, etcetera.

MS: Can I shift and ask: for people who very often have a single semester for an introduction to acting, and are often in a situation where most of the people in the class are not even in the theatre department and [are] students who are just fulfilling an arts requirement, what would you do with that single semester? What would David Downs make as his goal?

DD: You know, I started the “Acting for Non-Majors” class at school. What I wanted them to do was to sense the experience, the artistic experience of creation. I picked three or four plays: The Seagull because it involves young people and theatre; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I saw that I had athletes in the room, which there always were a couple; I think I did an Albee play; a couple of realistic plays, and I started off the same way. I remember a session and somebody did something and I asked “who’s his friend?” and somebody said that they were high school friends. And I said “tell us something about his family.” And he said something about his father, and then I told him “show us his father. Be his father.” And he did. He sort of became the kid’s father [and] the kid responded. And it was amazing that they let themselves do this. It illustrated that you’ve absorbed something about what this man is like, how he behaves, why he does what he does. And now I said, “you have these things already intensely stored up in you.” It is part of who they are. The friend had spent enough time with the father to express that part of himself that is the father, or he couldn’t do this. And that’s the goal: how do you store up things that become part of who you are? I would do things like that, asking: show us your father the banker, you and your father. Then I said, “now what if somebody just happens to know Stanley Kowalski, what would they show us?” Treating the characters as if they were the people they had already shown us. Then we end with a scene from the plays. And that didn’t teach them a whole lot about acting, but just a sense of what the creative process would be to the point where you could bring some work in character to a scene.

MS: So let me ask a big question: what do you hope for the future of theatre?

DD: Oh no! Well, I don’t think it needs hope. If it dies the way radio drama did, there was no reason to bemoan the fact that radio drama was dying. There will be a young person who won’t have to learn the new tools that will make the next thing happen because those tools will just be part of who he or she is as a young person. But they will need to tell stories and to create and it will happen. So you say, “what do you hope for theatre?” I always think, what do you mean by theatre? What do I hope for New York? There will always be people who want to create live storytelling in front of others. I don’t know what I hope—it doesn’t need hope. It’s going to happen and there will be people who resist whatever “it” is.

Max Shulman is an assistant professor of theatre at Colorado University, Colorado Springs. He is presently working on a history of the representation of drug addiction in US popular entertainment from the 1890s to the 1950s. He spent nearly a decade working as an actor and literary associate in new-play development in New York before his graduate studies. His work has appeared in TDR, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Studies in Jewish American Literature, and the recently published volume Working in the Wings.

Work Cited
Downs, David. The Actor’s Eye: Seeing and Being Seen. New York: Applause Theatre Books, 1995. Print. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Chekhov's Yelena

I have an audition coming up for the Annie Baker Uncle Vanya, this time for Yelena. Just wondering if there would be some time to chat with you about it, it's just a great review to go over Chekhov with you.  

My sense of Chekhov's Yelena (and who knows? it may not be Baker's--I haven't read Baker's translation/adaptation) and what you would most want to work on to create her is the woman of privilege who has never really had to do anything for herself (as opposed to Sonia, who spends her life doing for others what must be done). "Studying piano at the conservatory" is something that a few of the women in Chekhov’s stories have in common and it's always an indication that they lack purpose, grounding, sometimes even substance. (As you know, he's really pretty big on "We must work" as a key to a worthwhile life.)
Yelena has never truly had the depths of her being engaged or assaulted or uplifted or…or…or.... She sees/experiences Sonia's direct, deep engagement with Vanya, with Astrov, with the Professor (Sonia’s father and Yelena’s husband) and it's as if she recognizes that there are strings deep inside her that have never been played or even touched, or--something she doesn’t confront--that may not even exist. So she kind of wills herself to experience the passions she sees. "I'm going to play the piano and I'm going to cry." "Oh, now I’m crying, too" -- that sort of thing.

The caution here is to be sure not to judge her needlessly or to minimize her. She just hasn't had to live deeply or elementally to any extreme--and she may not have the capacity to. (We're all fully human, but some of us have more depths than others; some of us greater or lesser capacities for certain kinds of experience, etc. I think it's destructive to interpretive creativity in the name of "agency" to give every character the capacity for every kind of human response.) Yelena senses this reality when she says "I live like an ornament" or some translations say something like "I'm a minor character." Note: she doesn't envy Sonia or resent Sonia’s emotional capacities; she views them more with awe and wonderment—the way we view those youtube videos of things like artists creating portraits out of string or dancers doing lyrical acrobatic moves inside those huge DaVinci-like hoops—and then takes a further step of trusting that after she sees Sonia in action, she can jumpstart herself into the kind of engaged passion she observes in Sonia. She’s like one of the many young women with little experience and lots of “good upbringing” who read Wuthering Heights or just about any Brontë novel and want so very much to run on the moor in the rain and to experience the depths and breadth of Cathy's passions; or who want to fling themselves at Mr. Rochester as they walk along a garden path. (“I think I could fall for the doctor myself.”) Or even any of Jane Austen's women who maintain the social graces while still revealing the passionate heart beneath the conservative dress.
But she doesn’t. Why? She says it’s because of morals, ethics, duty. What does Vanya mean when he says her philosophy is lazy, shallow?

One of the things about you that will always come to your rescue in life is the Sonia part of you--the grounded down-to-earth workhorse part of you that will just roll up your sleeves and do what has to be done in order to get on with it.
That's the part you have to put aside when you create your Yelena.
There is a Yelena in you--surely the capacity to become a Yelena. Find ways to allow her to come out and play. Lift your spine (hers is a spine that has worn beautiful clothes all its life) and choose a dress of uncluttered lines that reveals your lovely figure. Let yourself do some classical ballet moves that emphasize balance, grace, flow. Then try a sweeping waltz. Enjoy the feel of heavy fabric moving about your ankles. Maybe walk with a book on your head until you can climb stairs or stroll in the garden or sit on the garden swing with ease, with grace, and with no sense of stress about the book balancing on your head. (Paris Hilton said you learn to walk as if you're always wearing a tiara. Eliminate the vulgarity of Hilton from this and it's a good image to add to your Elena.) 
Let yourself sit relaxed and erect at the piano and let your hands be lovely, delicate, manicured hands that play the piano with grace, with precision even—but not with much depth and little emotional understanding. Play until you tire of it, until it bores you. (Something that shouldn’t take too long—why?)
Then let her go to the door of Vanya’s room and hear Sonia’s voice pleading with him to shake off his depression and to get back to simple, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other work; perhaps she sneaks a peak and sees Sonia standing behind Vanya, leaning with her face next to his, her arms crossed over his chest. Let Yelena see, absorb this until her heart wants to be able to feel that deeply about something.
Note: If the production has a contemporary setting, the realities still apply--you just adapt them to contemporary dress. Since I do not know Baker's translation, I rely on your good judgment to take these ideas and let them help you where they can. 

Why do Vanya and Astrov bring their lives to a halt for Yelena? When Yelena comes into their world, what exactly comes in that makes these two men fall in love with her? To answer this it will help to widen your view a bit and take a look at Vanya's and Astrov's lives, worlds. What is it that is utterly lacking and that Yelena brings into it in full human embodiment? (Imagine you were going to get an acting class to create the world that Astrov and Vanya live in. Come up with a few illustrations of the daily realities of their lives and then they improvise them--At the end of a long day Astrov rides in the mud to a peasant hut and on the kitchen table (there are pigs snorting in the corner) lies an unwashed little girl whose appendix has burst; Vanya exhausts himself helping to bale hay in the hot sun and one of the peasants punches his adolescent son with his fists; at home in the evening Astrov starts to read a favorite Pushkin poem, there's a knock at the door, there's been an accident in the village, he downs a shot of vodka, maybe two, before he leaves; Vanya sits at his desk at night entering the week's receipts into the estate log book; he looks up into the mirror and sees what? etc. etc. You devise more; let the play guide you)--until the class experiences the great lack/need/emptiness/longing at the heart of it all. And then Yelena steps into that dreariness. And they respond. The irony is: What they fall in love with is the very stuff that Yelena wants to escape from.)
When Sonia asks Yelena why she doesn't get off her butt and do something--like go into the village and teach--her response is "People do that sort of thing in novels but not in real life." If she had the capacity to roll up her sleeves and do something worthwhile for others...ah well, but she doesn't.

Yelenas live among us. They live up in the Hollywood hills or maybe in Malibu colony and when we think of them—though who can blame us for not thinking of them what with “The Real Housewives of…“ distracting us—when we think of them we think they must live full, glamorous lives. (I always thought there was a Yelena in Princess Diana--only it was a Yelena who decided that dammit, she was going to have a meaningful life, so she made herself go to Africa and visit with AIDS patients. But even there--"It must be hot in Africa"--she was still Yelena.)

Anyway, enough. Lucky you, to get to work on Chekhov--for whatever reason!