As an actor in training, I constantly found myself longing to get underneath and draw out more of the organic and primal parts of my unique self. How could I make and process discoveries about myself and the character before getting too intelligent with memorizing, blocking, and believing that I know who the character is from simply reading the scene?
The best kind of certainty for an actor is mastering the art of questioning. I love a road map that begins with "I don't know." Process glorifies such a concept.
The Chair Work
It starts here. Could you take your seats, please? Could you close your eyes, please? Could you get to know thyself, please? I remind you to breathe in anticipation of a sentence completion: "I am realizing that…." Everything is all churned up, as it should be. Your feet are connected to the gravitational pull of the floor as you wander inside yourself, that map of cells and genetics, lost loves, the memory of a favorite tree in some remote backyard from your childhood.
And in that moment there are decisions to make about commitment and tears. There is something hysterically obvious and scarily familiar, fragile, exhilarating, just dying to scream out with killer rage: an opportunity to complete the sentence. And just as you thought it was therapy, it occurs to you that you are in the throes of a theatrical moment. You have explored what has meaning for you. You have released that bad mood. You have prepared yourself to act. Twelve chairs with 12 actors basking in the light of possibility.
The Floor Work
This comes next. It begins with complete relaxation and evolves into a series of cumulative movements called plastique rivers, a physical acting approach originating with the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski. These repeated physical gestures provide a road map of reference points that teach actors to trust their impulses. Instinct is contained in the body, not the mind, and these processes are designed to draw out the nuances, the opposites, the risks—that which is not obvious or manufactured. The goal is to be able to harness and sustain your energy for a performance: centered, present, human, and hitting the marks.
The chair work and floor work combined give actors the opportunity to warm up the voice and body, releasing and incorporating the feelings and sensations they bring into the class environment from the outside world, finding a balance and alchemy in preparation to act. Start with the truth. Release what's not needed. Clear the cobwebs (you begin to know how to recognize them and use them). You enter into that zone called the present moment, digging for your way in. As Stanislavsky said, "The person you truly are is a thousand times more interesting than any character you could ever portray."
The Scene Work
Now we get to the scene. The four-part process used in scene work is very much a technique, a way to penetrate the cold text. It's designed to empower the student with the space to discover and flesh out his or her deepest connection to (or disconnection from) text, character, and partner. It's a process that takes place in between the lines, in eye contact, and there should be no memorization for the first two weeks.
In first process, the actor speaks truthfully as himself in between the lines, incorporating thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. In second process, the actor speaks as the character, allowing for the concept of trusting intuition to become a reality. This process work is explored in private rehearsal between you and your scene partner. Opportunities for deep intimacy or restless uneasiness are both of value: Stay in it.
After the subconscious has had time to absorb the information, the process is enhanced with an improvisation that parallels the scene. The deeper you travel to expose your truest feelings, thoughts, and impulses within the process work, the more malleable and creatively risky the improvisation will be.
Third process, like first and second, takes place in between the lines, allowing for a flow of communication either as yourself or the character. It's exciting. The actor does not control who will speak, and the concept of "the character is stuck with you" begins to emerge. This second improvisation (done in costume) is called an autobio. The actors spontaneously confront the audience and each other. A student will often hasten to mistake discomfort—self-consciousness, awkwardness—for bad work, not realizing that this discomfort (or disconnection) is exactly what the character is going through. Third process teaches the student to recognize the discomfort. Then, effortlessly, with a breath, it becomes the character. A door opens. All the process work combined feeds into a spontaneous and truthful moment-to-moment performance.
Fourth process—in which the soul of the scene is realized through the intelligent body—is presented in class. The scene, now fully memorized, is played while moving on the floor in a circle, barefoot, extending with sound and movement in between and through the lines. Through commitment to the path of the shape, the scene partners—as individuals and simultaneously—discover organic rhythms, impulses, photographs, and even the natural beats and transitions in the scene. You're in the trenches now. The performance begins to reveal itself organically, before you have had a chance to get academic about it.
The Whole Work
Deeply explored process work contributes greatly to professionalizing the actor on many levels. Discomfort is no longer the enemy. Indeed, it is to be relished. The actor must endeavor to alchemize the rough patches of being a human being and transmute that which seemingly does not work into the fiber of the work itself. You are so right there that the notion of human awkwardness is fun. And if it's okay with you, then it'll be okay with Mr. Spielberg.
Preparation, objective, actions, beats, and arcs resolve script analysis—and yes, they are imperative! Ultimately, you must hit marks, you must serve the playwright, but you must also have an evolved instinct. That is where the poetry, the unexplainable originality of you comes through. Suss it out!
Process makes the concept of technique so much more palpable. The whole point of process is to get to the result and then repeat it, to be an artist with craft. Your values become intrinsic, not standardized. Great acting is a balance of precision and vulnerability. You must hold out a promise of being yourself without apology.
Deena Levy received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Experimental Theatre Wing, and since 1991 has run the Deena Levy Theatre Studio (www.deenalevy.com), which offers a two-year professional actor training program. Recently she was made an honorary fellow at Toronto's York University. Levy will be on the industry panel "Warming Up Your Cold Readings" at Actorfest NY on Oct. 24. For more information, go to www.actorfest.com.