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Spotlight on Acting Schools and Coaches

Spotlight on Acting Schools and Coaches

Just as every actor has pre-acting rituals and every director has a rehearsal trick or two, every acting teacher seems to have an unusual technique, exercise, or theory -- some weirder than others. For example, I once had a teacher (who'll go unnamed, God rest his soul) who was famous for an exercise he called "body taboo defiance," a fancy term for presenting a scene or monologue in your birthday suit. As I recall, the idea was to fully access your vulnerability and be in the moment -- and when I obediently participated, boy, was I in the moment.

But more than 70 years after Stanislavsky died, are there any comprehensive approaches to acting that can truly be called new and different? One longtime actor told me indignantly, "There is nothing but Stanislavsky," and I replied, "You'd be surprised." I was thinking of how Anne Bogart took choreographer Mary Overlie's Viewpoints methods and combined them with Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki's rigid bodywork to train her SITI Company actors in a physically based approach. But that's hardly considered new nowadays. Nor are Polish director Jerzy Grotowski's techniques. David Mamet promotes a "no acting" acting style, but that's not exactly a formulated method.

Says Los Angeles actor Stephen Tobolowsky, "I often feel that when actors or directors talk about new or offbeat approaches, they tend to be like the golfer who becomes more interested in buying new clubs than improving their swing. Nothing works like the truth."

"What seems offbeat to one generation becomes mainstream for the next," emails actor-director Corey Fischer of A Traveling Jewish Theatre in San Francisco. He notes that in the mid–20th century, Lee Strasberg's interpretation of Stanislavsky's system was considered wild and wacky, even dangerous. "Soon the Method was the mainstream," he writes, "and it still is, in one form or another, the core training for actors who are oriented toward film and TV." He adds that Grotowski's work was considered radical in the '60s. Even exercises that must have been thought eccentric at first—like Sanford Meisner's repetition drill—have gained near-universal acceptance.

When it comes to new methods, says Fischer, "I sometimes feel that the particular style or form of teaching is far less a factor in the overall value of the experience than the nature of the teacher." He senses that there are two types of acting teachers: the now old-school Method variety, known for their tough love, ego, charisma, and "I am the way" attitude, and a newer generation who are "more compassionate, empathetic," but just as rigorous. These teachers, Fischer says, bring authority from their own experiences rather than from formulated theories. But if there's nothing new under the sun when it comes to acting, there are still many variations on the Stanislavsky theme -- ways to get at what, as Tobolowsky suggests, we all want to achieve: the truth as the character knows it in the moment. I posted queries to actors, directors, and teachers and culled their many responses to come up with a handful of techniques that were unfamiliar to me -- and perhaps to the acting community at large -- and that seemed intriguing. I'm sure there are many more, maybe as many as there are acting teachers.


At the University of California, Irvine, Cynthia Bassham teaches a course (devised by Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Bill Rauch) that she describes as a way of "touching in with some deeply personal work, but it's very much about 'the other.'" Students interview someone as different from them as possible in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and/or socioeconomic background, then write a monologue based on that person, share it with him or her, memorize it, and perform it. "It's about what the characters have to offer them," Bassham explains, not vice versa. Because the subject "is a human being and they need to show the script to them at some point, they can never create a stereotype." Developing a character so outside themselves is not only a fabulous acting exercise, she says, but a great human experience, showing actors what it is to embrace differences. One actor told Rauch, "I wish I took my responsibility as seriously with a fictional character as I do with this real person." Adds Bassham, "We're always bringing in our other sensibilities when acting; we always make it about ourselves anyway. Stepping into someone else's story and telling it as if it's your own -- that's basically what acting is."

Reciprocal characterization is another approach, also taught at U.C. Irvine, by Robert Cohen. The idea is that in real life, we don't think of ourselves as characters. We think we're normal and other people are characters. Cohen teaches actors to look outward, to see what kinds of characters surround them and how they feel about them. For example, he says, if you have to play someone who's paranoid, you wouldn't want to think of your character as paranoid. Instead, you'd imagine that everyone around you is murderous. Similarly, to play a dictator, you'd think of those around you as idiots; to play a seductress, you'd imagine everyone adores you. "I don't want this to be thought of as a gimmick, however," Cohen says. "This is the way people actually develop their characters in real life."


"How can you expect to be discovered if you haven't even discovered yourself?" is the provocative teaser on the website for Studio C in Los Angeles. Founder John Coppola explains his philosophy this way: "It's about 'What happens to a role when I play it?,' not 'How do I go to the role?'" His aim is for each student to discover, through improvisation and traditional acting exercises, his or her seven or so basic archetypes, including the primary archetype.

Archetypes -- recognizable in folk tales, myths, and literature -- are the embodiment of personality types. The belief is that we all have elements of many archetypes within us, but your primary archetype is your dominant one, probably established in childhood. Coppola mentions king, magician, witch, and fairy as some of the basic archetypes. "Archetypes are in every story, and acting is about storytelling," he says. When you get in touch with your archetypes, "it gets your ego out of the way so your soul can show up and act." Actors practice by doing scenes and monologues several different ways, using the energies of their various archetypes. "Getting in touch with your archetype empowers you," Coppola says.

One of his students, Isabel Shaw, hasn't found her personal archetypes yet. "You do a lot of improv to get to know yourself," she says. "Once you understand a scene, you bring your archetypes to the scene, and it really comes from you." Actors at Studio C, she adds, are challenged to dig deep.

Rethinking Objectives

An old friend of mine, a protégé of the late, brilliant actor Kim Stanley, tells me Stanley believed in only four basic needs: to seduce, to destroy, to seduce in order to destroy, and to celebrate. I don't know of anyone today who teaches exactly the way she taught, but I was struck by British director Declan Donnellan's emphasis on "the target" rather than the objective.

Donnellan believes that the common actor complaint "I don't know what I'm doing" leads nowhere because "the demands of 'now' and 'I' cannot be resolved unless we deal with the nameless one first," he writes in The Actor and the Target. The nameless one is the target. "You can never know what you are doing until you first know what you are doing it to. For the actor, all 'doing' has to be done to something. The actor can do nothing without the target." The target can be "real or imaginary, concrete or abstract," he writes, but you absolutely have to have one.

He explains that the target is not an objective; your objective arises from your target. Nor is the target something you're focusing on, as though you have a choice where to focus. No, the target is the master. The target mutates, it's active, it's external, and there may be several at the same time. Donnellan gives an example of a target as opposed to an untargeted action: An actor can't play "I die," but he can play "I welcome death" or "I fight death" or "I struggle for life." Put another way, you can't act a verb without an object.

The Trigger Approach

"To be in the moment" -- that's what all actors want, and what all acting teachers want for their students. California-based teacher-director Richard Seyd created an approach to help realize that goal. One of the best-kept secrets of acting, he says, is that most actors lie to themselves about how little they are truly in the moment, because they don't have a way to achieve that state consistently. His approach, which I wrote about in the Nov. 30, 2000, issue of Back Stage, eschews memorization. He believes that everything you do and say onstage should be triggered by a specific impulse. So before the first rehearsal, his actors go through the text, breaking down their lines into individual thoughts and working out what the trigger, or impulse, is for each thought.

Triggers are what spur each moment and cause the character to speak or respond. Most of them can be found in the text -- for example, your character may respond in a particular way because of what another character said or did, or what you yourself just said or did, or sometimes what was said or done earlier in the scene. Working this way helps actors avoid the habit of visualizing their lines on the printed page when acting. It also helps you avoid anticipating, which is the primary reason actors aren't in the moment consistently, Seyd says. And it forces you to really listen and respond spontaneously. You retain your lines, he says, when you understand why you're saying them.

I imagine it takes some bravery to prepare for a role without ever memorizing your lines by rote. Actor Ric Prindle, who swears by this approach, says, "It's absolutely indispensable for keeping me in the moment. You assimilate your lines into the moment-by-moment reality of your character's life, as responses to someone or something, including what you've just thought."

The Energy System

Tony nominee Michele Shay (Seven Guitars) teaches an approach called the "energy system of acting," created by director Laura Fine of the Lionheart Institute of Transpersonal Energy Healing, located in Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Milwaukee. Here's the official description: "a revolutionary system that utilizes the subtle energy of the electromagnetic realm, the chakras and auric field, in the human physiology to access an authentic range of emotional contact and communication within the self of the actor and between actor and audience." The exercises include breathing and meditation, and applying "energy perception" to script analysis. Shay says she uses the system all the time in her acting and writes on the institute's website that it has helped her to connect more deeply with roles, with the other performers, and with audiences.

Script Analysis as Detective Work

Curiosity, intuition, and deductive reasoning are the skills Tim Phillips teaches. He says they're especially helpful when auditioning. Initially, the writer is the only person you have to help you: The script is full of clues from writer to actor, and it's up to you to ferret them out. "Once you Sherlock Holmes the scene," he says, 'it puts your feet firmly on the ground." It's a matter of looking for every possible clue and then free-associating. Phillips uses Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as an example: What comes to mind from the name Brick? Unmovable. What kind of name is Maggie? Magpie? What exactly is a cat on a hot tin roof? "You begin to intuitively explore those clues before you worry about how to present your audition. The writer gives you the clues; the rest you invent. So when you walk in, you'll know exactly who and where you are and what it is." He adds, "It's about you and the playwright, not you and the auditors."


Here's an unusual approach to acting: Put your sleepytime dreams to work to help you create deep and imaginative performances. I wrote about this method, devised by Janet Sonenberg and described in her book Dreamwork for Actors, in the Aug. 7, 2003, issue of Back Stage. It's not for beginners, and you definitely need a guide when you're starting out. The basic idea is to sensorially re-experience your dreams -- dreams influenced by text- and character-related images that you "incubate" before you go to sleep. You don't actually analyze your dreams; it's much more intuitive than that: You inhabit your dreamscapes the next day as you prepare to act. As I wrote after talking to Sonenberg when her book first came out, "As you delve into the elements of your dreams that seem relevant to your acting work, you infuse your body with an altered reality that will affect, even transform, your character's behavior and physicality." Sonenberg sees this system as a tool for advanced actors; it's not meant to supplant traditional acting techniques.

The Coleslaw Method

Back in the day, Fischer tells me, the improv group the Committee developed the following sketch. An acting teacher is lecturing on his radical new approach to truly living on stage, to having an inner life "so powerful that the actor's presence is in itself electrifying": Actors are to safety-pin a plastic baggie filled with coleslaw to their underwear for the duration of the performance, giving themselves a secret that cannot help but enliven their every acting moment. "When they did this sketch in Hollywood, it provoked much self-recognition laughter," Fischer says. "Absurd as the image is, the underlying idea is pretty commonplace. Choosing a secret to concentrate on has been part of the actor's toolkit for years." Hey, don't knock the coleslaw method if you haven't tried it.

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