Monday, August 13, 2007

A final thought

Well, I'm back. I made it home Friday after a few hours of delay at the airport, and on Saturday I went to see a show produced by the Upstate Shakespeare Festival. I've been a member of that company since 1999 and many of the folks in the cast were friends. It was great to see everyone and there were a lot of questions about the workshop.

While I was hanging out with friends after the show, I got to thinking about how I'm lucky to be part of a supportive artistic community and how I'm determined to take what I learned in my 5 weeks at Stella Adler forward both in my acting and in my life. I had thought I'd write some grand summing up, but I won't really know how to think about the experience I've just had until I attempt to put what I've learned into practice.

This is the end of this blog, at least for now. Thanks for reading and watch this space for the next step in my theatrical life, whether its grad school or moving to NYC. Break a leg.....

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A Walker in the City

You may have heard that bad weather this morning, including a tornado in Brooklyn, caused massive disruptions in the New York commute. My subway was going nowhere, so I and many others headed downtown on foot. Buses were packed, cabs were full, this was a situation my New York experience hadn't prepared me for. Subways did start running slowly after a time, but service was irregular and the cars were literally too packed to board.

Rather than wait around, I kept moving. When I finally did get on a bus sometime later it turned out that it was only a few streets away from the end of its line. Still, it was a brief rest. There was no way I was getting to the studio by 9.30 for Joanne's class, I had called ahead to say so. When I finally arrived at the studio after about a 100-block stroll, I discovered that the class in fact had started over an hour late due to the disruption. Joanne let me change and come in, which she didn't have to do. Once I got myself cleaned up I joined those of the class who had made it for a group movement exercise. I'm glad I got to experience a piece of this class, because as I told Joanne later hers was the class where I felt like I had the biggest change in both performance and attitude.

In Sam's class I worked the Bear monologue, but there wasn't time to do the Proposal scene. Sam thought the monologue was a bit similar to my character in The Proposal; I had tried to make them different but I guess not different enough. At Sam's suggestion I tried the piece as a flirtation instead of a harangue, and it worked much better. (One of the ladies had graciously agreed to be my scene partner) I should mention that when Sam makes a directorial suggestion like this he always accompanies it with a "This is just my idea, you can do what you want" sort of remark. Of course, there's a reason he's the teacher. There's a big emphasis on "Find your own technique, these are just some ideas" here, but as I've said before I think it would be sort of wasteful to not be open to the teachers' ideas - even if some are more useful to me than others in the long run.

As we head into the last day I can't even begin to sum up these 5 weeks. With the pressures of packing I don't know if I'll have time to post tomorrow, but if not then I'll do something soon after. One more day....

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

I should also mention....

...that of all the classes I've written about Voice & Speech the least. That's not because there's anything wrong with the class or the teacher, but because from class to class it's more repetitive in terms of what we do. Getting those "hahs" out takes work!

One more chance to do work

So I'm doing the Proposal scene with Venezuelan Girl for the final presentation on Thursday. That's the only scene I'm doing; others are doing more because for example Actor A might be featured in one scene but might get up again because they're supporting Actor B in another scene. I'd been dithering about it for a couple of days, but I finally asked Sam if I could bring in a monologue and work it tomorrow and then do it on Thursday. He said that was fine, so I'm going to do a piece from the short play The Bear, about a man trying to collect a debt from the widow of someone that owed him money. I've already got it mostly memorized and am going to nail it down once I finish writing this.

I'm not angry that other people are doing more than one scene, but I think it would be foolish to not take one more chance to get up and do some work in front of Sam and the class. To try to take what I've learned from working on my other scenes and put it into a monologue, and monologues have never been my strong suit.

Scary moment: Throaty-Voiced Girl was sitting on the highest riser in the studio where we usually work. There was a step unit next to the riser that in the dark appeared to be attached but wasn't. When she tried to get up and walk she fell....fortunately she was OK, although I think she might have a pretty good bruise by now. Even here at Stella Adler, theater safety requires a good deal of vigilance. Time to memorize, so I'll see you tomorrow.....

Monday, August 6, 2007

Energy, but not a forced energy

The phrase that I'm using as the title of this post comes from what Michael says to us every day during warmup class when we're breathing. When we release our "hah"'s we should ideally be free of tension anywhere in the body, engaged with the outside world, and alive in our imaginations. We should not have the feeling of pushing or forcing anything physically or vocally. If you've been reading this blog regularly then you know that "Energy, but not a forced energy" really sums up a good deal of what this Adlerian program is about. To vastly oversimplify: Relaxation, imagination, response to stimuli, and a lack of self-absorption or overthinking.

A theme that kept coming up today was how do you work when you're not (for whatever reason) feeling like it? In Steve's class there was sort of a low-energy Monday morning feeling - the weather was overcast, although it never actually did more than drizzle. So Steve started us off on an exercise which we had performed back in the first week of classes. We "followed his impulse" around the room, which meant running,twisting, dancing, jumping, etc. as a group. He switched off having a few different people lead the class, so the style and speed of what we were doing varied. Eventually we went from this into slow-motion falls, an exercise that's extremely taxing despite it's slow pace. (Perform falling through the sky while keeping as little of the body in contact with the ground as possible.)

After we finished Steve told us to let the feeling of hard work - I literally created a puddle of my own sweat - live in our bodies and not to shrug it off or make a joke about it. As actors we may approach a performance or rehearsal with feelings of fear, nervousness, blahs, whatever; so how does one get around it to the work that's underneath? Everyone felt better after the workout, and Steve said (and I think I agree) that while some training is of course essential one of the best ways to overcome being caught up in worry or low feelings is to just work on different projects as much as possible. We were talking as a group at the end of class, and one of the ladies said that some of the group movement stuff we've done has provided some theatrical moments better than anything she'd experienced working on shows. Again, I agree. While I don't know if anyone will hire me to teach after this (and they shouldn't), I'm very excited to bring the spirit of this work into what I do in the future.

In Sam's class we worked The Proposal scene. We'd rehearsed over the weekend and felt we had the right spirit, and the scene worked but didn't quite click the way it did last week. In all honesty part of the problem was that Sam stopped us twice because he couldn't understand individual words, which meant that I had to sort of kick-start myself back up rather than just being moment-to-moment. To sum up, I asked one of my classmates what she thought and she described it as "broken," which is just about right. I actually regret not asking to do the scene again, but the post-mortem went on for quite awhile and we were beginning to infringe on other people's time a little.

A scene from Three Sisters was brought back from earlier in class, and this is where the bit about working when you don't feel like it emerged. In the discussion, it came out that at least one of the actresses didn't feel good about the scene - but to us watching the scene worked well. Sam's viewpoint was that acting is work, and that even hen we as actors may not feel the best about it that it's perfectly possible for the audience to love what they see.

Since this post is already so long, I'll make it longer. Before the workshop (and at least temporarily this blog) end, I want to express a desire for continued friendship with my classmates as we scatter around the world to our schools and homes. Also, a thanks to those who in ways large and small have made this NY experience possible:

  • Stanley, Janis, and Kirbie Crowe; Teri Parker, Leslie Anderson, John Fagan, Brianne Wilson, Sarah McIlvaine, Chris Evans, Catalina Keller, Daneen Schatzle, the faculty and students at Stella Adler, and (the namer of this blog) Katy Beth Cassell
  • Thursday, August 2, 2007

    Get in my belly!

    This morning in warm up class Michael asked our thoughts about the program, with 4 weeks down and 1 to go. Everyone is still very positive, but a discussion did come up regarding Sam's class. Some of the folks who had taken the Shakespeare Intensive (A 6 week program that ran before the Chekhov) felt that the scene study there with a different teacher was more beneficial. In that workshop scene study is all day 2 days a week and all the other classes are the rest of the week.

    As I understand it the theory is that giving the actors time to present a more polished scene means that the teacher can be more help to them. The opposing view that others held is that there's something to be gained from getting up there with something raw. There is value in both approaches, but after I'd thought about it I'd have to say that I've gotten a great deal out of the class when Sam works with me on my scenes but somewhat less when he works with the others. That's partly because many of his comments come back to the same basic tents of imagination, given circumstances, and action playing but also he can sometimes get so specific with his notes that he crosses from teaching to directing. In those situations he's very helpful to the people working but doesn't always tie things up for the whole class. Don't get me wrong though, I'm still very upbeat on Sam's positive, honest, and non-dogmatic teaching style. He's been a good influence.

    In Composition Steve had us in for 1-on-1 chats about how we've liked his class and the program. I repeated many of the positive things I've said here and talked about how much I liked the group and how I wish there was time and opportunity to work with these actors on something for a production. Steve asked if I had any questions and i asked how he'd evaluate me. He said he could see I was at the "beginning of a process" (his phrase) as far as getting impulses from brain to body, and that I'd shown progress over the course of the classes. I'd say that's a fairly accurate assessment and of course I'm pleased to hear that I've got myself going in a good direction.

    Oh, I promised something about the muscularity of my belly. That's a phrase Michael and Jason have used with us as we've worked on our breathing and how to control it. Think about how your belly feels when it's full of air, how it feels when it's empty, and the difference between the two. Since we've been focused so much on breathing I have been thinking about that area, and I realized that because of all the attention to the belly it's the muscles have gotten stronger. I haven't really adapted to the change yet. (This feeling is also caused by the fact that I've lost weight since I've been here) When Jason was working with me on my "hah" earlier this week he pointed out I was holding on to some tension which limited my sound. When he showed me I could feel he was right, but because of all the work things feel so different I really wasn't aware of it. Since then I've worked on keeping the belly easy in the voice exercises, and I think I'm getting it.

    Wednesday, August 1, 2007


    Today Joanne's movement class started with the usual hour (it felt longer) of rigorous flexibility/stamina exercises. After a break to get some water and mop the sweat, Joanne set up a table and two chairs in the middle of the room. She put two teacups on the table with saucers and spoons. The assignment: to go into the space two at a time and establish a relationship through our physical actions.

    This exercise is a little hard to describe, but think of being on stage with another actor. You do or say something "in the moment" and the other actor responds based on impulse. That's essentially what we were doing, only everything (our internal lives) was physicalized. At a certain point one pair would switch off with another and (try to) pick up seamlessly. We weren't limited to the reality of our props, so many of the relationships that developed between pairs became quite emotional and even confrontational. In any play a well-trained actor will use his body to illuminate his internal life, but in Chekhov it's arguably more important and more difficult that with any other writer; that's the point of why Joanne had us do the exercise.

    After everyone had been up in a pair, she had us all go into the space as a group. As we reacted to what was happening and to our impulses, new relationships began and ended. Groups formed and split apart and storylines were played out. As individuals we had to make choices about how to lead or follow and how much or if we wanted to affect the group. If someone had come into the class and not known what was going on, it would have looked like a rehearsal for a sort of avant-garde dance/theater piece.

    Now, still in our physicalized mode, we shift as a group into Three Sisters, when the officers and other visitors are at the house for the first time in the play. There had been music playing all through the exercise, but now it became Russian. So that took the group in a different direction as we assumed characters and changed relationships. Dancing broke out and loves were pursued and lost. I'd like to describe my experience in the class more specifically, but as I write I find that I can only remember it in terms of what was going on with the group. I suppose that means that at least for me the point was made, and judging by what many classmates said later in the day this was a class we'll remember.

    The issue of physicalizing our actions came up again on a couple of scenes that were worked in Sam's class. He "directed" some adjustments to some scenes which were already pretty good in order to open things up and give the characters reasons to be more physical. (When I say "physical" I'm talking about anything an actor does with their body) What do you know, the scenes got better. Maybe there's something to this stuff.

    This post is already long enough, so I'll save my thoughts on the "muscularity of my belly" until tomorrow. (Got you thinking, don't I?) Here, just to give you an idea, is the breakdown of our class time:

  • Warm-Up w/ Michael - 1hr. 3 days/wk.
  • Scene Study w/ Sam - 3 hrs. 4 days/wk.
  • Voice & Speech w/ Jason/Dusty - 90 minutes 4 days/wk.
  • Composition w/ Steve - 2 hrs. 2 days/wk.
  • Movement w/ Joanne - 3 hrs. 1 day/wk.