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.]

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