Week Five: EA Teaching Philosophy
Happy Tuesday! Welcome back to Acting Class Daily. We’re taking our weekly work further with access to my handwritten notes for each audio chapter, the glossary gigantum and … a new nominee for our digital wall.
EA TEACHING PHILOSOPHY
My journey to developing my approach and technique for teaching has been anything from linear. I always knew I wanted to help people, and early in life, medicine seemed my obvious route. I picked up acting as a hobby in college and suddenly my life changed. There I was on-stage, able to speak truthfully, soul-to-soul, with audiences in a way I couldn’t experience in life. It felt like meeting the world on a deeper level.
Fueled by this awakening, I left medicine behind to pursue acting at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts. I grew up as an actor under the mentorship and guidance of Vicki Hart with firm foundations of specificity and instinctual acting shaped over two years at the Meisner Extension, graduating with honors. But I was first placed (as a mid-year transfer) in an experimental “Spring Studio.” It felt like a version of Hogwarts with teachers from all the “houses” getting to inspire and empower in their own direction. What a formative, collaborative, way to get introduced to acting training! The sparks, the tastes, from all those Spring teachers; the Stella Adler work, the Strasberg technique, the movement work from the Experimental Theatre Wing - they stirred my instrument uniquely, led me to different and exciting ways of finding character, and through doors of consideration and curiosity I wanted open forever! Being exposed to so much, so early, shaped my life as an acting instructor and created a desire to find all the things an actor can do to fulfill their unique potential, be their best professionally, and live their best life.
Sometimes acting training can feel like different religions, with each person so devoted to their “side.” I’m fully devoted to the actor. Any tool, any exercise, any perspective that meets a challenge actors face, inspires a belief in their self-worth, offers access to their unique poetic lens, is a teammate. I remain forever curious about discovering new ways to reach targets in our craft and feel most at home teaching in an environment that promotes interdisciplinary discovery and staff collaboration.
With this as my bedrock source of inspiration, and after receiving my MFA from Harvard, I moved to Los Angeles and started my own theatre company and acting conservatory. An artistic home built to bet on any actor willing to strive for excellence. A home fueled by a cycle of growth and mentorship. It was called the X Repertory Theatre Company, with the X representing the great artistic unknown. As an ensemble of inter-disciplinary performing artists we all had these personal puzzle pieces of technique and aesthetic with a goal of standing on each other’s shoulders to see further than we could on our own. To see what could be next. What could be possible in training, performance, and in ourselves.
The challenges faced by actors are human challenges, which means there must be something universal connecting all of us in this craft. How do we grow the best of ourselves? What is possible when an actor is willing to put in honest effort? What should be the direction of that effort? Everything in art is so subjective, how do we define what is ‘good’? How do we train towards common goals while leaving room for the infinite shades of unique artistry swirling within each developing actor? These questions form the basis of the philosophy, direction and approach I use to this day in my training methodology.
I start here with my students: Sanford Meisner defines good acting as living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. I love this! The idea of pursuing truth in our craft feels like the right target. And yet, I want to facilitate students going beyond ‘good’ in their craft and in their lives, in search of a personal, communal ‘excellence’. A way of working that captures the unique taste of why we strive to become actors in the first place. I turn my students’ attention to what inspiresmotivation, muscles of fearlessness, of focus, of growth, of being adaptable and having a productive perspective. We invite real-world application into the classroom setting with questions that frame the curiosity of our exploration: What does it take to do the work in a professional environment when facing real pressures? Financial, personal, familial, health? What exercises shape artistic-life muscles as much as the ones that set our instruments free? And then going further, how do we transform ink on a page into textured character? We want to move through life doing work we’re deeply proud of. How do we make these targets easier, more obvious, and, ultimately, instinctual?
By reaching for these ideals students are left with an evolved target and tangible goal: living truthfully through imaginary circumstances with personal, professional, pride – maximized through the potential of their Instrument, Craft, and Artistry.
1. Living Truthfully (Instrument)
Living truthfully is the ability to take in experiences without filter that cause behavior without apology. Or “the pinch and the ouch” as Meisner used to say. Cause and effect. One of the great differences between acting and real life is in life we don’t know what will happen next, while in acting we know exactly what is supposed to come next. This pressure to deliver expected results, when it counts, makes it especially challenging to live truthfully as actors. It creates an expectation from directors, audiences, and ourselves, that move us to show what we think is the right behavior regardless of the experience (what’s actually going on) in the moment. We need to train as actors to excel at the art of rehearsal (or the art of learning, growing, utilizing the time we have to move forward in the work) so we can count on the moment and know it can be trusted to cause our expected results.
Another deeply human challenge we face when knowing what’s coming our way can be found in the daily-body guards and filters that protect us from experiences we’d rather not have, or have learned to steer clear of, in life. They are there to have our backs (in life). To keep us healthy and safe (in life). They are learned over a lifetime, re-enforced daily and harden into instinct. We train as actors because we need to turn to something else in the acting arena, something free from our own guards and filters, released from the rules of the daily-body, and inspired to the possibilities of the moment. We need an acting instrument. An acting instrument is comprised of the five areas of our human behavior; physical, vocal, emotional, psychological, imaginative/spiritual. In each area we want to do things to ensure possibility reigns and our poetic truth will be set free.
We want a physical instrument touched by the unfiltered taste of the moment and caused to express unapologetic behavior. We want a vocal instrument that unlocks a grand majestic piano of sound within us, maximizing our ability to express and articulate beyond the vocal habits and limitations that dominate daily life. We want our imagination to go where the work takes it, unbound, with limitless possibility. We want an emotional instrument alive and free to express the complicated texture of the moment. We want to see through the eyes of our character and know their world. And we want it all simply, obviously, instinctually. For each of these areas of human behavior we train so we can shape habits we want to count on in the acting arena. And by working specifically, we turn those habits into the instinctual awakenings of a personal warmup. Something that accepts you as you are on any given day, and moves you from rules and expectations to permissions and possibilities, in any given environment.
2. Through Imaginary Circumstances (Craft)
Acting is the art of transformation. If we can define living truthfully as behavior that comes out of an experience, then living truthfully under imaginary circumstances is when the behavior of the character comes out of the experiences of the moment. And that creates unique challenges. First, behavior is a product of nature and nurture and, ultimately, instinctual. Our characters have lived different lives, react with different instincts, sound differently, move differently, think differently than we do as the actor. How do we get what the character knows into our own humanity? How can we truthfully become something different? Another challenge is that our character’s behavior isn’t decided by us alone. Whatever we discover, whatever we do as the character, must remain flexible and adaptable to our collaborators’ requests. Finally, how can we be sure we’re even moving in the right direction? How do we know if/when we’ve found our character’s behavior? We need to train as actors to learn how to face these real, human challenges through mastering the art of rehearsal and developing our actor’s barometer, the internal artistic instinct that knows if we are moving in the right direction. We locate our actor’s barometer, develop it, and bet on it throughout rehearsal - through the time we have, to do things, that move us towards our goals.
The art of rehearsal begins with preparation. Learning what to do, on our own, to transform our nature (instincts), nurture (experiences), body and voice, relationships, tastes of the atmosphere around us, and even the very soul within us. We need to do these things because we know what it’s like, all day, every day, to live in a real body, with a real soul, in realenvironments, with comfort in physicality, and nuance in relationships. If we just let things be, something inside us would know we’re pretending, living untruthfully. We utilize tools and exercises to get us ready to live truthfully as the character, so we can show up ready to work confidently at auditions, rehearsals, and performance. We build out our transformation toolbox to be organized (knowing the tool to turn to when challenge arises), adaptable (tools that turncollaborative needs into instinctual, character “knowings”), and personal (tools that are teammates for each actor using them). Preparation fills us with the ingredients and itches of character, and hands the baton off to transformation. Actors train to learn how to move with expertise and efficiency from the rules of their daily body, into the permissions and possibilities of an acting instrument, and ultimately into the full transformation of character. This ability inspires us, in any given environment, with any given restrictions, to leave the work at the door (as the actor) and find it again in the moment (as the character). And finally, after living as our character, we hand the baton off to growth. Learning how to review your work to create a time-tailored menu of exactly what to do to set yourself up for deeper success before the next rehearsal/performance.
We meet the challenges of our craft by developing our acting barometer to lead us through preparation, transformation, and growth - guiding our expertise of the art of rehearsal.
3. With Personal, Professional, Pride (Artistry)
The pinnacle of every artistic discipline is freedom within form. In acting, we want to be free to express our poetic truths on any stage, with any script, style, costume, direction and cast. We honor expectations of form by rehearsing, turning boundaries into trampolines made for the truths we live. When we turn our attention to the muscles of freedom, of artistic truth, each actor is wholly unique, with their own strengths, challenges, shades, spices, and paint swirling within. If we want to go past good to excellence, earned excellence, we need to do the work of knowing, growing, accessing, and applying the best of ourselves, of working with personal, professional pride. I think of it as the feeling that comes from living up to your ideals and knowing you’ve fulfilled your potential. The deep satisfaction born of earning excellence as a professional artist.
It begins with discovering personal direction, ideals, and a clear vision of who we want to be when we grow up. We do the work to turn our daily lives, the actual world around us, that we interact with so uniquely and unexpectedly, into our own personal, artistic gym. We develop a regiment to fit seamlessly into each actor’s daily life. Muscles of motivation, focus, specificity, fearlessness, flexibility, and perspective. In an ever-changing world, in an industry forever filled with creative possibility, we cannot be certain what our profession will look like. We want students who graduate with the muscles to meet the challenge of the moment and built to succeed with whatever life and art throws their way. We want to arm students, no matter their path in life, with instincts that motivate when needed, inspire fearless attempt when needed, find focus when needed, and rise to challenges and opportunities we can’t yet fathom.
I believe in the potential and talent of each student without exception. I see acting talent as comprised of our empathy and our actor’s faith. What we know and how we believe. And like everything else we do, it can be nurtured and grown. Every human being has the capability to unlock and unleash their golden potential, their unique artistry, as an actor. When we do the work, for every muscle, all to unleash our potential, we are utilizing a drive and dedication to access something meaningful no one else can. This Olympic Spirit is a professional separator, and vital component of what it takes to succeed professionally, as an artist in life.
Seeing each student is what helps us reach each student. I had teachers who saw me. Who gave me the things I could do to move forward. I understand the heart of the student artist. I understand how challenging things can be. How challenging we can make things on ourselves. There will always be things that come naturally. Things students struggle with no matter how honest the effort. And there are things we just miss or take for granted. In my own training, I tended to come just a few minutes late to yoga not long after I started the Meisner program. Vicki Hart held me to account. She made me sign a contract that I’d be on-time to every class for the rest of the semester. It turned me into a leader and the first person at every class (every class!) over the remaining two years. It shaped me. Having a clear target helped. So did her message that there was something I could do to separate myself as a professional.
I care about making things make sense. Making sure every tool is accessible, something anyone can practice with, let go into and trust as a friend and teammate. Students deserve tools presented in a clear step-by-step manner, with time to organize, personalize and adapt each muscle and tool to scene work, solo work (for example, the characters of Edgar Lee Masters Spoon River Anthology), and ultimately a full production (in an environment with professional rhythms and expectations, surrounded with the nurture and mentorship developing artists deserve).
I’m passionate about actors having the chance to understudy, in any setting. It’s one of the very best ways to grow the acting muscles of freedom within form. An actor who can do the work to find freedom in a scenario where another actor says your lines, moves through your blocking, and where it feels like all choices have been made and defined ... finding freedom in those tight boundaries sets an actor up to find freedom wherever they work.
Helping developing artists find the best of themselves, in what they love most, is what I love most. So, I’m a fan of moving actors through dynamic stages of application to reveal the discoveries and challenges that personalize our practices, turn teachings into teammates, and inspire actors to feel ready and capable of success always.
We had a tradition of capturing quotes on the Elysium walls. The torch has now been passed to the digital realm. Here’s this week’s nominee … and the .GIF it inspires: