Friday, June 29, 2012

The Magic Button for Great Acting

Hi.  Thanks for visiting.  As you read this, pretend that I am talking directly to you.  Because I am.  We have a tendency to distance ourselves.  Don't fall into that trap.  Take this personally.  Let it inspire you.  Review yourself honestly.  That's how this blog will be the most effective.

I took a personal development course this weekend.  It made absolutely clear what I already knew.  I have a poor relationship with my word.  And it wasn't just me.  It applied to all 147 people that were in the Landmark Forum with me.  We say we're going to do something, and then we don't do it.

Everyone is always looking for the magic button that is going to make their acting really pop.  And if you're denying that last sentence, you're lying to yourself.  We all want to take the shortcut.  The fact of the matter is that there is none.  You are never going to be 'good enough'.  You will never 'arrive'.

That's not meant to be a downer.  That is the good news!  Have you ever heard those "life is a journey" sorts of people?  The same applies to your work as an actor.  It's not about getting somewhere.  It's about fighting for your art along the way.  If there is any answer, that's the one.  Once you address your own integrity, you'll begin to see the results you long for.

What does that mean?  How many actors do we know that don't audition or don't practice?  How do they expect to get anywhere?  How about you: do you do your work on a consistent basis?  Do you spend enough time nursing your own creativity?  I doubt it.

I'm not asking if you work a lot.  Personally, I do five shows a year now.  I'm the Artistic Director of The Seeing Place Theater.  I get together with my company on a weekly basis and read plays.  I've taken two acting classes every Wednesday for the last 5 years in New York.  I talk about acting all the time.  I write all kinds of blogs.  However, I set for myself the goal of practicing the work I know I need to do to develop my actor's instrument on a daily basis...and then I rarely, if ever, get to it.  Maybe I'll run through the motions quickly, but I never give myself the time and energy that is necessary to build a new habit.  If that's me, then where do you stand?

The truth is that we all know what we need to do.  And rather than making excuses, putting it off, beating ourselves up, etc, we could spend that time and energy to do the work we know we need to do.  It's not always going to happen.  Things will get in the way.  That's fine.  Forgive yourself and recommit.  You won't be perfect.  But your effort has to become your habit if you are ever to grow.

Try this idea on for a week and see how you feel.  Simply following through on your own personal promises is huge.  Let your commitment be the thing to inspire you.  When you begin a workout regime, it never feels good.  It's an inconvenience.  But you begin to hunger for it, and then you can't see life without it.  You want to have that relationship with your craft - and also your career.  Art isn't enough.  You have to put yourself on the map if anyone is going to take notice.

I understand the fear.  Believe me, this blog applies just as much to me as it does you.  I don't know where I'm going to find the time.  But I'm tired of making excuses.  I'm tired of walking into class, knowing I'm presenting this image of the perfect student, when I'm really under-prepared.  I'm tired of feeling like a charlatan.  And I'm committed to spending 15 minutes a day exercising my acting muscles.  Because everything I am rests on the strength of my word to myself and others.  That's what's going to make it possible for me to walk into a room with confidence.  It's such a minor daily effort in comparison with what I get out of it.

Don't know where to start?  Look at your daily complaints against yourself?  What are you always excusing?  What do you justify to yourself every day?  You don't need anyone else to tell you where you fall short of your own mark.  You already know what you need to do, what you put off, what scares you, etc.  Do you need to audition more?  Do you need to get into a class?  Do you need to read more plays?  Do you need to warm up on a more frequent basis?  Where is the slack in your art?  Take this opportunity to be true to yourself.  See how far you can go.

Just remember to be kind to yourself.  The Artist's Way talks about setting "gentle goals".  That's important.  It's hard enough to take action.  You don't need yourself as an enemy, shooting you in the foot, making you doubt your worth.  Stand up for yourself.  Stand up for your word.  There is nothing wrong with you.  We all struggle with this.  Make the effort.

The magic button is integrity.

You read what I promise to do.  We'd love for you to share your goals as well.  Seriously, please spend a minute to type out a new plan for yourself and share it with us.  That's the first step.  That way, we are a community of artists empowering one another. 

What goals are you setting for yourself?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Anyone Can Act (or can they?)

This has been heating up the social media airwaves, and we thought it was funny enough to post.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Sounds off in the comments section!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Be An Artist Instead

As actors, we have an amazing charge.

In Hamlet's words, we are "the abstract and brief chronicles of the time", and it is our job to "hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."  That is "the purpose of playing".

And yet, actor after actor that I meet seems to discount the beauty of what we do in search of a career.  People seem to think that once they "make it", they will be able to do whatever they want.  And that's just not an informed opinion.

In reality:
1.)  Actors do something.
2.)  Then they capitalize on the thing they do well.
3.)  People notice.
4.)  That actor is expected to repeat that success over and over until it gets old.

Even if you have a rising stardom, it doesn't necessarily mean you can do whatever you want.  We allow people like Dustin Hoffman to play Willy Loman because his career is based around his artistry.  So, it is still a safe choice to let him extend beyond the roles he might normally play.  If you expect to be the same way, then you cannot wait until you get a career going to show your artistry.  Bradley Cooper, for instance, is a wonderful actor - and you might never know it, because this industry holds him within very tight limits.  He can't just up and do what he wants - even with his celebrity.

So, how does one go about building an artistic life right now?

For starters (and I have to give myself this advice on a daily basis), you have to inspire yourself.  We have to engage ourselves in something that feeds our own creativity.  When I was much younger, I lived next to the back of a grocery store, and there were these loading docks that were always empty at night.  There happened to be a lot of light around them, and I was a chain smoker, so I found myself sitting on them in the deserted parking lot through much of the night.  (I was also nocturnal in those days...maybe still am.)  I would spend hours acting out plays by myself, going through this script or that script, and playing as I did when I was a child.  Sometimes, I'd go to Balboa Park (I'm from San Diego) and work on scenes with friends - just for fun.

Since moving to New York, I've kept that spirit fresh by reading plays with people on a more-or-less weekly basis for the last five years.  By doing that enough, I accidentally started a theater company, which now is the thing that feeds me and several others.  It is my sincere belief that a group of people together can make a big difference - for themselves and others.  And really, all we're doing is giving ourselves the ability to do work that inspires us.  Margaret Mead's big quote, though overstated, has always really touched me:  "Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has."

Dustin Hoffman said, in his Oscar speech for Kramer vs Kramer, that "When you're an out of work actor, all you can do is practice accents".  It's just not true.  This is a lonely business, but that doesn't mean we need to do it alone. In fact, we need a network of people to rely on.  Why not connect yourself to a group of people and build together?  It'll be much more enjoyable than conversations at the Equity building, during an endless string of open calls.  I know.  I've been there.  It's not to say that auditioning isn't important, but it can't be your only source of art.  You have to have an art to bring to that meeting.

Really, it seems to me that much of the issue with artistry in this industry comes from a lack of personal interest into why we are actors in the first place.  Some actors seem to remove art from their equation.   Many want to be puppeteered by directors.  They want to be told what to do to get the good reviews, to get the standing ovations, the good accolades, to get the career - to get the personal affirmation they're looking for.  And really - and I learn this more and more every day - you need your own personal affirmation in order to be able to sustain yourself in a business as difficult as this one.

Why?  The reality is that as you grow in career, there will always be someone close to you that gets jealous and tries to tear you down.  As you get to the point, where you almost don't need a day job anymore, you have developed enough friends that sustain themselves with things they love to do that you begin to short circuit.  And if you don't have something to anchor to (a craft, an art, a belief in yourself), then you're dead in the water.

So, don't rely on the idea that people are going to see your talent and offer you things.  It might happen.  But if you take it upon yourself to build a creative and artistic life, rather than waiting in line for the big job to come, you will have the satisfaction you seek.  And that sense of personal satisfaction can only lead to good things.

My teacher, David Gideon, is constantly telling us what his teacher, Lee Strasberg, once relayed to him:

"I wish you would stop worrying about being an actor and be an artist instead."

What are your thoughts on the topic?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

When You Need To Cry Onstage

As an organic company with a focus on intense plays, we tend to work on material that requires huge breakdowns onstage.  This season alone, we've done Closer and Three Sisters, both of which call for large swaths of emotion.  People are constantly asking:

How are we able to bring ourselves to tears in our work on a nightly basis?

The answer is going to seem unsatisfactory:  We insist on a belief in the situation.  We don't insist on crying.  In point of fact, it's rarely necessary to actually cry.  If an actor and an audience believes a situation to be real, then the amount of emotion is inconsequential.  The simplest truth goes a long way.  Marlon Brando used to say, "A little bit of blood is still blood." - and that's coming from man constantly regarded as the most sensitive actor ever...who cried ONCE in his film work (Last Tango in Paris).  Crying without a supported reality is about as effective as a faked orgasm.  You may fool the audience, but you'll never get the satisfaction you were looking for.

Generally, when actors are called upon to cry, they think they need to create a time in their lives when they were that distraught.  Especially considering that The Seeing Place builds shows organically, people assume that we encourage people to go back in their lives and find a time to relive onstage.  Many even think that people like Lee Strasberg built his whole teaching career around this theme.  This has to be the biggest piece of misinformation about "THE METHOD".

There was a sign above Lee Strasberg's office when he was alive.  The sign read, "It's not about emotion."  People seem to think that his work revolved around "Emotional Memory".  That couldn't be further from the truth.  First of all, you can't work on an "Emotional Memory".  You have to create an Affective Memory (the circumstances of a past experience), which may or may not lead to an Emotional Memory.  But we can't work for emotions.  Emotions are like deer - if you confront them, they run away.

Even with that, Affective Memory is the most talked about and least done exercise of Strasberg's.  He even said that if you work on more than one or two Affective Memories in an entire lifetime, then you're probably a leading actor with a focus in the classics.  I've been studying Lee's work for seven years.  I still haven't worked on an Affective Memory - and I've only seen it done a few times in class.

Emotions take care of themselves.  Really, what is of importance to create is the character's situation.  If I come home from work to this dramatic break-up scene, then all I need do to break down in some kind of a way is to believe that my scene partner is someone I want to come home to.  The script will take it from there.  I don't need to create the time when my heart was broken.  I can literally let my heart be broken on a nightly basis.

The moral of the story:  Reality is much bigger than real tears.  Acting isn't crying - it's believing.

Now, let's say that your director INSISTS that you must CRY RIGHT HERE AT THIS POINT IN THE SCENE!...

Here's what Strasberg would say (with a smile):

"Okay.  Good.  First, what I would do is to do nothing.  What if you were going to cry anyway, and if you just RELAX, the tears will come?  If that doesn't work, then I like to go way upstage where people can't see and pull a nose-hair.  That brings tears to my eyes.  If I've pulled so many nose-hairs that I have none left, then I fake it - there's an audience out there!  And then I figure out that night why I needed to do that and what needs to be addressed in my work."

Thoughts?  Experiences?  Share with us!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Another F*ing Method Actor

We all know the story:

Dustin Hoffman was doing Marathon Man.  He starved himself and didn't sleep or whatever the hell else for three days, so that he could come in with the goods, right?  And then Larry Olivier, says..."My dear boy, why don't you try acting?"

And throughout the years, I've heard this explanation used ad nauseum to explain why Method Acting is craziness.  Except for one thing...Lee Strasberg (the guy who's credited as the Father of Method Acting) agreed with OlivierIn Lee's own words, "If it's literal, where is the art in Acting?"

First of all, what the Hell is "THE METHOD"?  Well, it is a phrase that was coined by critics of Lee Strasberg's work.  It's a variation on Stanislavski's "System", which is a shortening of the longer phrase, "A system of things for the actor to do when in a difficult spot."

Secondly, "THE METHOD" is a problematic phrase, because it suggests that there is one way to do things.  Even Lee Strasberg, himself, said in a car-ride with my teacher, David Gideon, that of all of the actors he'd worked with over the years, "Never two the same".

Thirdly, most of what is referred to as "METHOD ACTING" in society is complete bunk.  People seem to think that actors study Lee Strasberg's work and learn how to be completely psychotic.  And unfortunately, the highly publicized METHOD moments generally have nothing to do with a craft of acting.  And Lee never felt the need to correct society, because he thought it was great enough that there was a conversation going on at all about how actors do what they do.

So, what is it, then?

The funniest thing about THE METHOD is the fact that all of the misconceptions around it are so wildly off-base.  When it comes down to it, Strasberg taught people how to play make-believe again.  He taught them how to do what we all did when we were five years old; how to stop judging ourselves and our work; how to get out of our own ways and PLAY.

And in fact, Olivier once sat in on a session in The Actors Studio and in commenting on work from Othello, couldn't quite explain what he meant and asked to get up and demonstrate.  Lee, of course, welcomed the demonstration from such a knowledgeable source.  And Olivier proceeded to fall apart in front of The Actors Studio, falling into pitfall after pitfall of self-judgment, until FINALLY, he hocked a big loogie, spat at the floor of Lee's feet, said "Fuck you!  Fuck all of you!", and continued his work to great success.  After he finished and had clearly demonstrated his point, Lee said, "You make fun of our work, and yet you do it!"

Because what is THE METHOD?  It's what we all naturally do on the nights when everything comes alive for us.  It's anything and everything you need to do in order to be able to engage your imagination.  It's being able to do that eight shows a week. 

So, the next time you come across that intense Actor Man in Actor Land, who's in it and really feelin' it, who starves himself down do the bone for a role, and then lives in a tent and stays *in character* for three time that happens, just know that Lee Strasberg would be the first person to stand up and say that what he's doing has nothing to do with a craft of acting.  That's just Another F*ing Method Actor.

Thoughts?  STORIES?  Do tell.  :O)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Producing is F*ing Hard

 This is how it feels to produce a show most of the time.  A lot of responsibility, a lot of headache and heartache...and hopefully some creative satisfaction somewhere down the line.

It seems that in most people's minds, I get to do whatever I want, because I'm the Artistic Director of a theater company.  So, I pick whatever play I want to do, cast myself in it, rehearse however I want, and voila!  Right?  I wish.  Producing a play is, unfortunately, nowhere near that simple.  We've just spent the last three months applying for plays, getting denied, regrouping, recasting, applying again, getting denied, getting depressed, drinking, regrouping, reigniting, recasting, get the gist.

We are frequently asked for guidance in regard to getting a dream show going, fundraising, and all that other fun stuff.  So, I'd like to take a few moments to go over some basics.  Let's say you want to get a project do you go about doing that?  Exactly what goes into pre-production?

1.)  Pick a show.  Right now, this is the easy part.
2.)  Make sure you have a cast and director in mind for it.  You don't want to get the rights to something, only to find that you can't excite a group around it.
3.)  Find a space for the show - which also means that you will probably need to secure dates and put down a deposit for the space.
4.)  Apply for the license to do the show - usually through Dramatists, Samuel French, Playscripts, Dramatic Publishing, or sometimes directly the author's agent.
5.)  Wait 2-8 weeks.  Hopefully get it.
6.)  Raise funds.
7.)  Get the creative team together.
8.)  Contract the talent and apply for permission from Actors Equity, if it applies.
9.)  Start promoting and publicizing the show (to the public and to reviewers)
And this is all before you even step foot into a rehearsal room.

Now, that all seems relatively straight forward.  However, when you're operating in a big city like New York, there are all sorts of factors that go into getting the rights to a play.  We just applied for about 30 plays, and ended up getting denied the rights to most of them.  The first time I was starting a group in this city, I excited a whole team around Neil Labute's The Shape of Things, only to find that we couldn't get the rights.

You have to be prepared to move on to another show.  In all likelihood, if your play has been written within the last 20 years, you aren't going to get the rights to do it in New York - or even the Tri-State Area.  This is the advantage to starting a theater in Podunk, America.

It's difficult to keep up your enthusiasm when you can't seem to act in your dream roles, even when you're paying for them.  It seems ridiculous that authors wouldn't want their work done as often as possible, but the unfortunate reality for them is that the markets can become over-saturated. If everyone starts doing Fool for Love or Brilliant Traces or whatever other shows we see happening all the time, then by the time a major production team comes around to stage a Broadway or and Off-Broadway Revival, the public just doesn't care anymore.

So, I suggest finding a group of people you want to work with and finding an assortment of shows to fit that group.  Then when you apply, it's just a matter of finding out which shows you can pick between. 

Also, just because you've been turned down, it doesn't mean you can't produce the same show a year later.  As is the case with our current season, we didn't get the rights to our first two picks because those playwrights are having major revivals of their work staged, and they have put blanket restrictions on their work to keep excitement driven towards their current shows, and to allow for the possibility that these shows might excite the community for one of their previous hits.

Keep in mind that Producing is an artistic endeavor.  It requires lots of patience and creativity.  Once you get your show and theater lined up, then the next step is in securing the artists.  Generally speaking, you won't get your first choices there either - even if people were brimming with excitement before the project materialized.  Everyone is interested in the idea of a project.  The reality is always very different.  You can't let that discourage you. 

It constantly amazes me that I can listen to actor after actor bitch about not getting work - and then turn down work, because they're holding out for something or saving their money so that when the big time comes, they're ready.  It's unfortunate, but the reality is that in a big market, there are a lot of opportunities, and we all have to be careful with how we spend our time and energy. 

A lesson that I'm learning is that producers need to approach the market in just the same way that actors do.  I constantly hear directors bitch about their actors, producers bitch about their directors, actors bitch about anything, etc.  We're a sensitive group.  We like to bitch.

So prepare yourself now.  Whether you are an actor, a producer, a director, a playwright, a whatever.  You can make your experiences great.  When you surround yourself with people that inspire you, who will work alongside you (rather than piggyback along), your experiences will begin to be fulfilling.

Because the truth of the matter is that Producing is hard.  Getting audiences there is hard.  Holding onto excitement and creativity is hard, not only for you, but for your creative team as well.  Most artists I know do more to sabotage their work than to support it.  Your whole team needs to be supportive of one another - especially when talking to friends.

If you are an actor or a director or a writer (or yes, a producer), then save your constructive criticism for your confessor and your journal.  Try to address your concerns openly with your group, while still being supportive.  The easiest way to make yourself valuable to the people you work with is to value them.  The easiest way to make your project valuable is to find the value in what you are doing all the time.  And even if you fall short of your own mark, you'll be doing everything to make the project as great as it can be.  That's not just the Producer's job. 

Producing a successful project is a team effort. 


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Basics of Acting Technique: Part Eight

Thanks for reading.  This is the last post in the series.

I had every intention of writing all about the teachers that are out there teaching right now in NYC and LA; however, I'd rather suggest Acting Teachers of America if you're interested in learning about who's teaching.  I'll also recommend a few teachers as well as suggesting that you take a look at The Metodi Festival, which is a yearly conference that encourages open communication between the master teachers of individual techniques.  Mainly, I want to talk about something that's going on, globally, within the craft of acting.  

In the last 50 years, acting has taken a very large turn.  We now teach it academically.  You can major in it.  Teachers can assign grades.  Students spend thousands on programs that profess to chew them up and spit them out, supposedly fully trained.  That couldn't be farther from the truth.

Acting is a life's study.  It's a process of self-discovery and exploration.  You can't boil it down to two years, to four years, to six years, to eight years.  It takes as long as it takes.  These programs are a great introduction.  And I'm talking about conservatory programs or BA programs or BFA programs - even MFA programs can't delve much deeper.  Because training is not about arriving somewhere.  It's about developing a sensibility of continual creativity - even in moments of great difficulty.  And that is a constant journey.  A degree is a beginning, not an end.  Once you have gotten a sense of what training speaks to you through a program, then you want to get into a professional class to really hone your skills along those guidelines. 

Once your tools are fully developed, then places like The Actors Studio become important for maintaining your work with an outside eye - in the same way you might keep your body toned at a gym, once you've already built it up. 

In the meantime, how do you find a professional class that is right for you?

There are all sorts of teachers out there.  Many of the newer approaches to training don't actually do what they set out to do.  This is a community that years for a quick fix, and many teachers feed into that belief because it brings in the business.  Any acting class that professes to help actors book jobs IS NOT AN ACTING CLASS.  It may be a business class, at best.  It may be a cold-reading or audition class that offers some tricks of the trade, and those might even be useful - but it's not going to teach you how to deal with your instrument.

Many new teachers employ new-age ideas, meditation, and self-help techniques in their training.  Teachers like Eric Morris (and he's one of the good ones) have come up with all kinds of affirmations and exercises for this problem and that problem, which can really help students break through walls in their lives.  But I can't do an affirmation when I have a problem onstage.  I can't go into a yoga pose.  I can't tense up and release my body.  I can't do a vocal tremor to free up my voice.  The audience would wonder why my character seems possessed.

I don't mean to suggest that these techniques can't be helpful, but there's no reason why acting needs to involve personal therapy.  All I need to know, as an actor, is how I am feeling.  I have to be able to express that feeling, and to adjust it if necessary for the script.  I need to be able to be in charge of my instrument.  I don't need to delve deep and find out what happened to me when I was five.  I have no control over that.  All I have control over is how I deal with what's going on with me right now.

So, when choosing a professional class, do some heavy personal research and pick one that:
  • Represents the work that speaks to you.
  • Has an atmosphere you feel safe being in.
  • Is taught by someone with whom you connect and trust.
And then commit to doing it.  That's the hardest part.

To conclude, below are a few good books and great teachers of the more time-tested approaches to the training of an actor.

Read: Strasberg at the Actors Studio (taped sessions edited by Robert Hethman) and On Method Acting by Edward Dwight Easty
Currently taught by David Gideon 

Read: The Art of Acting by Stella Adler
Currently taught by Ron Burrus  

Watch: Sanford Meisner Master Class or Sanford Meisner: The American Theatre's Best Kept Secret 
Currently taught by Maggie Flanigan and William Esper

Read:  A Challenge for the Actor by Uta Hagen
Watch:  Uta Hagen's Acting Class
Currently taught at HB Studio

Other great NYC studios:
Atlantic Acting School 
Michael Howard Studios
T Schreiber Studio

Other great books to read:
To the Actor by Michael Chekhov
The Actor and the Target by Declan Donnellan
True and False by David Mamet
The Intent to Live by Larry Moss
No Acting Please by Eric Morris
Creating a Role by Constantin Stanislavski

As always, we love to hear your thoughts and ideas.  Please leave a comment and share with us.

To read other parts of this series, click here:
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five  | Part Six | Part Seven

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Basics of Acting Technique: Part Seven

This post is about the evolution of the craft of acting from the beginning until now.  It'll sorta breeze through some of the previously explained points (Stanislavski and The Group Theatre) and spend a little time connecting the dots.

First of all, the idea of craft is not totally new - even to Stanislavski.  Journal writing about what actors were doing to prepare themselves dates back to The Greeks. 

David Garrick came close to understanding the craft when he wrote that one day, while playing Othello, he thought of his daughter and everything came alive for him; he did the same thing the next day and nothing happened.  He almost understood it.  What did he almost understand?  The distinction between intellectual memory and sensory memory.  The first time, his imagination and whole body engaged.  The second time, he was just onstage, thinking.

Eleanora Duse used to talk about her need to sit in the wings and feel the show with the other actors every night before she could make her entrance onto the stage.  There was a community interest in the Great German actor, Fleck*, who was famous for being a wildly inconsistent actor - to the point where people would say, "I went to the theatre last night and saw Fleck!", and others would respond, "Der gro├če Fleck oder der kleine Fleck (The Big Spot or The Little Spot)?"  *His name means "Spot" in English.

Fast forward to Stanislavski.  We've talked all about him.  The Russian Movement (and response to Stanislavski's Naturalism) that followed Stanislavski involved three major people: Yevgeny Vakhtangov  (Stanislavski's main protege, who inherited The Moscow Art Theatre), Vsevolod Meyerhold (Stanislavski's first major pupil, who left The Moscow Art Theatre to create a new school), and Michael Chekhov (Stanislavski's "most brilliant pupil", who also left The Moscow Art Theatre to create a larger style of acting).

**Note that Stanislavski, himself, did not believe in Naturalism, but taught many actors, who were highly developed in larger-than-life performance, so he was working to create an inner-reality with them. 

Vakhtangov is the main bridge between Stanislavski and Strasberg (who built upon both Stanislavski's and Vakhtangov's work in his teachings).  He took over The Moscow Art Theatre and picked up where Stanislavski had left off in the training of an actor.  His major contribution to theatre involved developing the concept of Fantastic Realism, which rested on the belief that theatre must not simply recreate reality, but deepen our understanding of it - so that actors needed to be outwardly highly stylized, yet internally realistic.  Therefore, Fantastic Realism is a combination of the reality of life and the "fantastical" nature of theatre. 

He believed that characters needed to be dramatic in nature - and that actors should not only live through the character's feelings, but "perform the character".  This changed the game with regard to acting, so that actors were no longer at the mercy of their character's feelings, but were in charge of their characters - and able to express a larger humanity through them.  Vakhtangov insisted that actors should not actually become the character, but only play at being a character.  This allowed them much greater freedom. 

Vakhtangov's legacy was built upon by The Group Theatre teachers and has greatly influenced many American acting teachers.

Meyerhold broke away from The Moscow Art Theatre and rejected many of his studies with Stanislavski.  He was a driving force in the Russian Symbolist Movement, and was interested in theatre that could reveal inner dialogue by means of the music of plastic movement.   He saw movement, gesture, space, rhythm, and music as the true “language of the theater,” focusing his energies on a relentless search for “form” onstage.  He rejected the idea of 'art for art's sake' and endorsed the popular constructivist view that art should always serve a political and social function.  He believed in Theatre of the Grotesque - the idea that life and art are fundamentally different and should not imitate one another.

His main contribution to the theatre was Biomechanics, which blended ideas from Stanislavski's System and the larger-than-life stylings of Commedia dell'Arte. Biomechanics is based on the idea that psychological and physiological processes are inextricably linked.  Meyerhold argued that actors could call up emotions in performance through the use of movement and gesture.  He created sequences of choreography, called "etudes", which were used to express specific emotional and physical scenarios.  Biomechanics develops balance, strength, coordination, agility, and flexibility through rigorous, athletic training in skill-areas such as tumbling, acrobatics, partner-work, and work with objects. 

Meyerhold's teachings, though very helpful to actors in "teaching the body to think", do not stand on their own.  They are mostly physical in nature and a great supplement to the training of an actor.  His theories on movement greatly influenced Grotowski's work and Viewpoints.

Michael Chekhov was probably the most talented and sensitive actor ever - to the point where if he were to read the morning paper, it would send him into a tailspin of depression for weeks.  In order for him to function, his family would cut out the sections of the paper that would upset him before he read it.  That's important to know.  Why?

Because his teachings assume that kind of sensitivity - and thus, his work is highly individualized.  For the common actor (who has not yet developed that kind of sensitivity), it's not quite effective.  Several people teaching his work admit that it works best with "talented actors".  I don't mean to say that his work is not great.  It is.  But it relies on the actor to bring good sensitivity and self-expression to the table, so the actor needs to be partially developed before studying this work. 

We reached out to Ben Leasure (a friend of the company, who was last seen as Sebastian in The Seeing Place Theater's production Twelfth Night).  He currently studies Michael Chekhov's work here in New York with Lenard Petit, and has grown immensely with his techniques.  Here is some of what he had to say about this work:

The Chekhov technique is an all encompassing approach, grounded in holistic healing, energy and body dynamics, and the composition rules associated with Music. The technique strives to take the theories associated with the creative process and inspiration, along with the discipline and concise nature of a musicians instrument, and place them in the body, so your voice, soul, and physical body tie together in a harmonious and expressive tool.  The technique is based in exercise work designed to create a responsive instrument, open and ready to go at any moment.  Chekhov works with qualities of movement. (i.e. I grab my pen quickly, slowly, fearfully, arrogantly etc.) to find emotion or moods through moving.

Essentially, Michael Chekhov developed an approach to acting that affords the actor access to resources within himself - feelings, will impulses, character choices - that are based not merely in personal experience, but on the actor's imagination and physical life. 

Michael Chekhov's major contribution to the theatre was Psychological Gesture, which is basically the idea that we exhibit certain universal behaviors that can be used to express moods within the theatre.  He drew greatly from the teachings of Carl Jung's theories on psychological archetypes, as well as from Stanislavski's psycho-physical methods.  Ben Leasure also added:

Psychological Gesture is a whole body movement that carries the essence of either your character, objective or action. Through repetition the gesture is developed, specified and held, then incorporated. At that point it becomes an impulse center fueling you with creative energy.

Michael Chekhov's work rests on Psychological Gesture.  He taught actors how to break down scripts and find archetypes that would bring them, individually, to life.  An archetype is discovered by making a list of actions a character does throughout the course of a play, and then finding the thread that ties them all together.  That is the dominant quality.  Once you have figured out the dominant quality, you can select an archetype that will bring you to life.  One example, through action, is that Romeo is impetuous.  He can be said to be a Fool.  That is an archetype, but far too general.  Personally, when I played Romeo, he seemed more a Rebel to me than anything else.  I can build upon that association as the basis for my imagination within a role.  That is how I might use a Psychological Gesture.

I'll leave you with a section from The Michael Chekhov Acting Studio, New York:

When looking at Michael Chekhov's system one is struck by its simplicity, its lack of intellectual or analytical substance. We see a few simple multifunctional tools supported by clear principles. This is so because he teaches us to use larger trans-personal ideas as source material to build our work upon. When we address the archetypes, they lead us to what is called the Psychological Gesture.

The technique is not a linear A to B process. We do not have to start at the beginning because the beginning and the end are the same, namely, inspired acting. This is what he was seeking in developing it. Everything in it adds up to One, each piece of it stands alone, and at that same time touches all the other pieces. When it is taken up by a talented actor, one particular tool begins to make connections with other tools that have been engaged during rehearsals. It's a matter of applied energy traveling on different circuits, each vibrating in sympathy with one source. Using archetypes as dynamic vibrating energies, our task is to set up a condition within ourselves so that we can have sympathetic vibrations to them. These are honestly felt things by the actor, real food for artistic self expression.

In Chekhov's own words: "All you experience in the course of your life, all you observe and think, all that makes you happy or unhappy, all your regrets or satisfactions, all your love or hate, all you long for or avoid, all your achievements and failures, all you brought with you into this life at birth, your temperament, abilities, inclinations etc., all are part of the region of your so called subconscious depths. There being forgotten by you, or never known to you they undergo the process of being purified of all egotism. They become feelings per se. Thus purged and transformed, they become part of the material from which your Individuality creates the psychology, the illusory "soul" of the character."
(from To The Actor)

Thanks so much for reading. We'll be closing up this series with an overview of the newest teachers and techniques out there, so stay tuned...

Please comment and share your thoughts with us! We'd love to read about your individual experiences!

To read other parts of this series, click here:
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five  | Part Six