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.