Taking off the shirt

I’ve been thinking about an audition I had a few weeks ago — a fun group-audition focused on building ensemble, listening, playing, and following impulses (Yippee, my favorites!). It felt more like a workshop than an audition which left me feeling grateful, inspired, and relieved. The people in the room were super. It was fun. I’d like to say that I was great/totally nailed it/surprised myself/did my best/really went for it, but the truth is I was ok. I was fine.

So, in an effort to move myself closer to great/totally nailed it/surprised myself/did my best/really went for it,  I’ve been mulling over the audition and considering whether I fully engaged in those so-called favorites — building ensemble, listening, playing, and following impulses.

The short answer is: I didn’t. I didn’t fully engage.

I almost did. I often did. I wanted to. I tried, but I didn’t quite get there 100% all the time.

Yes, it’s hard to do those things. Especially in an audition setting. It’s hard to just be — authentic, in the moment — rather than perform what I think is desirable, cool, clever, funny, interesting, easy, whatever. But I want to ‘be in the moment’ more. I want to be more consistently authentic. I don’t want to perform myself, I want to be myself.

(Here’s the part where my internal child falls in a heap on the ground and rolls around dejectedly until she gets distracted by something shiny.)

I’m been thinking about a particular moment during the audition when I tripped over my ego instead of following my impulses as I was invited to do (Ok, there were lots of moments, but I only have time to describe one today).

It was the moment when I wanted to take off my shirt, but I didn’t.

(If this sounds titilating, then you can go ahead and un-titilate yourself, cuz this ain’t a sexy thing.)

During the audition, our group performed several rounds of a sound and movement exercise. We sat in a circle and individuals took turns moving into the center. The task of the group was to support the individual in the center by making sounds. The task of the individual in the center was to move in a way that authentically embodied whatever particular concept we were working on during that round — without premeditation or pre-choreographing the movement.

During one of my turns in the circle, I stood up quickly and took off my fleece jacket. My next impulse was to take off the shirt underneath as well (leaving me in my bra) and strike some grimacing, muscle-y poses like the Incredible Hulk.

But my shirt stayed on and my pseudo-Hulk never appeared. Instead I performed goofy fleece-tricks like swinging the fleece over my head and passing it between my legs and pretending to throw it at people and stuffing it up my shirt. It was fine. Whatever.

During that microsecond between taking off my fleece and deciding not to follow my first impulse, a zillion thoughts zipped thru my head (One of the problems = too much thinking! Right? If you are thinking, then you are doing it wrong.)

In that microsecond between trusting/not trusting my intuition, I questioned whether my impulse was weird and off-base and nonsensical  and whether it would seem gratuitous or show-offy (Look at me! Whee, I take off my clothes!).

In that microsecond between does-shirt-come-off-no-shirt-stays-on, I tried to remember what bra I was wearing, if my underwear were peeking up over the top of my yoga pants, and if I was looking bloated. (Would everyone notice that I haven’t gone to the gym in a looooong time? In this situation, would taking off my shirt make me a bad ass or a fool?) 

Never mind that I was wearing a bra on the poster for a previous show. In the moment, I freaked out.

In one tiny microsecond, my concern over what people would think of my creative contribution + my body anxiety knocked me off-kilter. I fretted about how I yearned to appear rather than just stepping into who I was in that moment. I was Incredible Hulk in that moment! Then I killed my Incredible Hulk. (Sad face) I didn’t trust that my 15 second contribution to the circle would be accepted and appreciated no matter what it was. I knew we were all just playing, just trying stuff, just being ourselves, just trying to have fun — I knew I was in a safe space with a group of warm and welcoming artists, and that this was no big deal — but I still couldn’t shake off THE JUDGE. I missed that luscious and rare opportunity to be in the zone, ride the wave, surprise myself, drop into lizard brain and just be. Bummer.

Also, those people in that audition really missed out because I can rock a bra. (JOKING! Seriously, joking.)

So that was 15 seconds of an audition, right? That was one kinda silly-hopefully funny-a little embarrassing moment in my life. Really small beans in the scheme of things. But it did make me think about regular ol’ daily life and the number of times I stop myself, squelch my impulses and pull myself back from being fully present. Do you extinguish your creative sparks? How often? What is the result?

Look, I know we can’t walk around all the time without our filters, just like we can’t walk around shirtless all the time. That would be inefficient and impractical and inappropriate. But maybe we have more leeway than we think?

I’m trying to do the calculation here….I’m trying to determine when the small beans become big beans. Because I suspect we all do this, right? If so, then what’s the effect of our widespread short-circuiting of creativity? What is the effect of so much not-being-present? What is the long term effect of discarding our impulses and intuition? What do you think?

I wonder how much we lose while straining to be too-cool-for-school rather than acknowledging our shared awkwardness and vulnerability. We’re all just working to make art and make life, right? Forget being cool, let’s just be real.

I wonder what is lost…. when I stop myself from reaching out, when I stop myself from taking risks, when I see others second guess their honest reactions, when I see adults reject the invitation to play even though their hearts yearn to be childlike.

I wonder what would happen if we all took a chance and whipped off our shirts once in awhile (I’m speaking metaphorically, but whatever floats your boat). I wonder what would happen if we were brave and creative and vulnerable and intuitive more often. Perhaps it’s worth some practice? Certainly, I need some more practice. And practice and practice and practice.

So, the audition….

In the end, it was all fine. It was fun. It was clearly thought provoking. I’m grateful for the opportunity, and I hope to have more. I’ll learn and grow and do better next time. If I keep practicing, then I will.

 

Meta Mette Metta

Last Saturday was the closing performance of Little Green Pig’s production of Celebration. (Below you’ll see some links to reviews for this production, fyi.) I miss the show. I miss the generous, talented people associated with it. I miss my character, Mette. Celebration was a theatrical roller coaster ride seeded with major family dysfunction and deep brokenness (secrets, abuse, racism, violence, denial, repression, control, suicide) combined with the family’s desperate refusal to abandon the façade of perfect-family-happy-party-time. Amid the mayhem were moments of great affection, humor, courage, and love.

As you might imagine, there’s a lot to write about with this production, but Mette has been weighing on my mind this week. I’ve been trying to make sense of her – Why do I miss her? What can I learn from her? What was the experience of sharing her skin?

Yes, getting meta with Mette…hee.

Below, is a snapshot of Mette as I lived her. (She wasn’t like the Mette in the movie; she wasn’t like the Mette that another actor might portray. She was mine.) Some of her personality I was aware of during the performances and some of it I pieced together after shaking her off. The audience and my fellow cast members wouldn’t have noticed most of this — there was so much going on and I certainly wasn’t the star of the show and there so many über-talented actors to track — but that’s as it should be… this was my acting thing.

I wonder if you’ll understand my affection for her.

First, a photo to give you the flavor of my gal:

Mette in action.  Photo by Alex Maness

Mette is leaving! Photo by Alex Maness.

Yeah, Mette always has a little blood in her mouth (metaphorically speaking). That’s why she drinks so much, why she wears red lipstick, makes so much noise. She has a big mouth. She is a BIG MOUTH and she has fangs. She generally thinks people are “hilariously full of shit”- especially the family around the table – but she doesn’t mind as long as she’s having fun. She likes to have fun.

She loves to touch people — grab/grasp/poke/push people on the arms and on the face. She thinks it’s funny when other people get in trouble.

She’s a straight talker. She’s a heavy drinker. She’s self-involved. She’s a volcano, that Mette. Sex, for her, can be a transaction, a weapon, or lots and lots of fun. She’s cool with her sexiness. She shouts. She gets very angry very fast. She flirts purposefully and wickedly; she mates for life. She loves her husband.

Mette gives as good as she gets. She never apologizes for herself even when she’s gross or inappropriate. There is nothing to apologize for.

She loves her child. She wants to be a good mother (better than her own!) Sometimes she treats her daughter like a baby and sometimes like an adult.  Mette loses track of her kid often — Where did that kid go now? — but she is very clear that her daughter is ‘the best thing she’s ever done’ and the best part of her life. Mette raises her daughter in an environment with violence (overt and suppressed), verbal abuse, racist songs, and dysfunction, but she wouldn’t describe it that way.

Mette does not define herself as a mother or a wife, she is always “Just Mette.”

Sometimes she cries at night because life isn’t measuring up to her expectations…neither is her husband… and neither is she.

After a performance, a friend said, “I bet it felt good to be so angry!”

Yes. Yes, it did.

After a show on another night, a friend described Mette as “icky.”

Yes. But geez, I loved her.

I'm through with you. Photo by Alex Maness.

I’m so through with you, dude. Photo by Alex Maness.

So what did I learn? What am I taking with me from Celebration via the vehicle of Mette?

The most obvious is an affirmation of how satisfying it is to be an actor and to create theatre in community. There’s something deeply enjoyable about the bifurcated mind on-stage — the tightrope walk of surrendering completely to the reality of the play and at the same time tracking technique, staging, ensemble, and audience. It requires deep concentration. It’s being in the zone, baby, and it feels great. Being in the zone with a tight ensemble feels even greater. Being in the zone with a tight ensemble while playing an interesting juicy character feels knock-out-awesome-greatastic.

Mette and all of the characters in Celebration reminded me once again that given a particular set of circumstances, given a particular context, people can be capable of anything — bad decisions, beautiful sacrifices, horrible mistakes, mortifying missteps, and heart-breaking courage. Life teaches us/work teaches us/theatre teaches us this: I have the potential for all behaviors and so does everyone else. I am you and you are me, you know? In order to play a character on-stage, I need to understand where she’s coming from and buy into her choices. Over time, that ‘buying into’ increases my understanding and respect for her decisions even if I don’t think I’d make them myself. It’s cool, but I don’t know how it works. Maybe it’s as simple as walking a mile in someone else’s high-heeled shoes.

In fact, I’ve been thinking that if I could love Mette and the rest of the f-ed up people around the dining room table of Celebration (and I did!) then surely I can love and accept the real beautifully flawed humans in my life. Surely I can soften my judgement and open my heart to the real folks walking around this planet with me.

Yes, for all of you good Buddhists, I’m getting metta with Mette….

Ok, ok, ok, this is what I learned and what I know…if I am intentional about noticing and implementing the lessons, acting and theatre-making are opportunities to increase my ability to love. Admitting that makes me feel like the biggest-silliest-rainbow-sparkles-and-unicorns-theatre-geek in the entire world — “acting and theatre are opportunities to increase my ability to love!” — GAH! —  but I really think that’s true. I think it’s true for anything that people are passionate about whether it’s making model airplanes or saving the whales or running a marathon Our passions connect us with the greater human experience — and connection is the conduit to love. Love breeds love. “All we need is love“…..and that’s how art can save the world.

As for little Mette, I hope to hang on to wisps of her personality — a sprinkle of her zesty-ness and her straight-talking, a tad of her crackly electricity and her this-is-who-i-am-man-take-me-or-leave-me. Though it’s likely that will fade as I regain my Tamaralibrium. Really, the greatest gift she gave me was learning that I can do some things I wasn’t sure I could do. So, it turns out… I can raise my voice in anger. I can attack. I can be a wife and a mom and be sexy. I can snarl, and be unapologetic, and make noise, and take up space. I know I can do those things if I want to… because I did.

She gave me some of her power after all.

Now I know.

Links to Reviews:

The Five Points Star

The Indy 

News & Observer

Putting the ‘fun’ in Acting Fundamentals

I taught my first Fundamentals of Acting class last week. I think it went really well – everyone left smiling and feeling jazzed and saying things like “Looking forward to next week!” I felt that way too. Oh, happy day!

I drove home after Class One. Couldn’t sleep. Too excited.  My mental skywriter was writing fluffy, looping “grateful grateful grateful” in the landscape of my mind.

Now it’s Sunday night, and I just finished my lesson plan for Class Two of Four (which has eaten considerably into the time I have for crafting a blog post). And I’m excited again, and nervous again, and grateful again.

I feel lucky and grateful for the opportunity to share my love of the theatre* while offering practical acting skills and advice (hopefully). I’m grateful for all of the wise and fabulous teachers/directors/actors who’ve taught me what (little) I do know, and I’m most especially grateful for the wise and fabulous folks I’ve partnered with to co-teach prior to this class. I feel lucky  to have observed so many great teachers at work. Do you feel like you carry those people into the classroom with you as resources? I do. Hmmm, what would Cheryl do? What would Nathan do? What would Rachel, Jay, Mary, Jeff, Ellen, Bill, Devon, Chris, Jody, Dan, Melissa, Dina, Adam, Lorm, Nancy, Johnny, Greg, Rafael, Laurie, Sumi, Tom, Jenny, Janice, Beth, Dana, Enoch, Dave, Hope do?* What would my Mom, a former kindergarten teacher, do? Thank you, my teachers! What gifts you are to the world.

As I mentioned, this is a four-part class on (trumpets, please!The Fundamentals of Acting. Huh. Initially, when I sat down to hammer out text to describe/advertise the class, all sorts of questions were triggered – like, most importantly — What are the Fundamentals of Acting?

So, I brainstormed the list below (not in any particular order, and no doubt, incomplete).

Brainstorm List of Acting Fundamentals:

  • Creating a character (external) – body, voice
  • Creating a character (internal) – given circumstances, relationships, motivation/tactics/intentions
  • Script analysis, world of the play, story
  • Basic stage etiquette, terminology, job descriptions, etc.
  • Basic vocal work – diction, volume, pitch, tempo, resonance
  • Basic physical work – gesture, neutral, weird actory things
  • Ensemble building — being with other people on-stage and off-stage
  • Performance experience – scene work, monologues, auditions
  • My list of acting pet peeves; list of acting favorites
  • Actor mind — Focus, relaxed concentration, memorization, openness, creativity, improvisation. Something about authenticity?
  • Fun? Acting is FUN.Yep.

I also spent an evening with my best friend Google, and added more to that list. A long long list with a lot of words and eight hours of teach-time. Huh. I got myself tangled up with prioritization and the fact that all of the items on the list overlap and intertwine and that it’s all much more subtle and nuanced and that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Ack, imposter syndrome. I searched my house feverishly for undergraduate readings by Uta Hagen and Sanford Meisner and Stanislavski and etcetera. I couldn’t find them. Have you seen ’em?

There’s a looooonnnnng list of items to accomplish in order to be a an ACTOR. It’s more complicated than I first thought. And of course, my fear is that if I’m not ticking most of those items off the list, then I’m just ACKIN’ up there on stage. Or worse, being a WHACKTOR. Geez. Been there, done that. Hopefully, not recently.

But I digress….the question here is What is Fundamental?

This is the final text that was distributed to the public about the class:

The purpose of Fundamentals of Acting is to give older teens and adults an opportunity to further explore and develop acting skills on a more advanced level, regardless of experience.  Participants will learn or build upon drama skills, including voice, movement, vocabulary and character development and scene work.

Through low-stress, structured exercises and performance, students will:

·         Review basic theatre terminology and etiquette

·         Examine voice, speech, and breath as acting tools

·         Build characters from the inside-out and outside-in

·         Learn to make clear and well-informed acting choices

·         Develop confidence and relaxation on-stage

Please bring water and a yoga mat or towel for gentle warm-up exercises. Wear clothing and shoes that you can move in.

My basic plan (subject to change) for the class is:

  • Class One: Body
  • Class Two: Voice
  • Class Three: Mind
  • Class Four: Performance

Now, what do you consider to be (trumpets, please!) acting fundamentals? I’d love to hear your thoughts and have a conversation with you.

Like most things, acting (good acting, any kind of acting) is very subjective. I don’t know if we could easily devise a short list that everyone would agree on, and I haven’t asked my friend Google if such a list exists. However, as an exercise for myself, I tried to boil everything down to five essential bullet points.

Actors need to:

  • Be heard (project!).
  • Be understood (diction!).
  • Make specific choices that hang together coherently.
  • Develop a particular character for a particular play.
  • Be a team-player.

In the broadest sense, do those cover the ‘must-dos’? Fundamentally?

In the end, however, I keep coming back to the phrase  — actors need to be alive on stage. In this moment, that idea seems essential.  Actors need to be alive on stage is sophisticated and fundamental — yikes, I don’t know exactly what I mean by it (another blog post) — but really, I think that there’s something about electric-focused-energy-aliveness that is directly related to a compelling performance and somehow naturally gathers up all of the other items on the list. Maybe it’s a chicken or an egg thing. I don’t know. What do you think?

Well. That’s what I’m working with and that’s where I am. To be continued….

Wish me luck.

Wishing you many alive moments on the stage.

*This class focuses on acting on stage, rather than on film. Based on my limited experience with film acting, there seem to be a few key differences of style and skill. I’m not a film acting expert, but I can become one if you want to put me in your film. Hee.

*This is not the list of all of the teachers I know and love — not even close. It’s just the list of people I can think of in the time allotted to write this in my somewhat distracted state, and it includes folks I’ve actually seen do some teaching. I have a long list of  ‘excellent teachers-I’d-love-to-see-in-action’ on my to-call list. Here’s hoping I get to that one day. Also, although I am really enjoying this solo teaching experience, I have a real heart for co-teaching too. 

How I want to be as an actor

This week we begin rehearsals in earnest for Richie, Little Green Pig’s all-female version of Shakespeare’s Richard II. I want to get everything I can out of this experience, and I want the people involved to get the most out of me, so I thought it might be helpful to set down some intentions for the rehearsal and performance process. Partly, this is an experiment to see what will happen if I start with an intentional list of ‘how I want to be as an actor in this show,’ and partly it’s an ongoing effort to clarify how I want to be in the world and how I want to spend the art-making time that I have.

You’ll see the list below. [It’s at the bottom in case you’d like to think for a minute about your own intentions before seeing mine.]

As I sat down to write, I discovered that most of these intentions have been floating around in my mind as a ‘personal code of acting’ for many years, and this list has been very heavily influenced by my time spent on the directing/production/writing side* as well as acting teachers, cast-mates, etc.. Since I’ve never written this stuff down before a show, I’ve been lazy and hit-and-miss about following the ‘code’ from project to project. As we all know, committing words to paper is helpful for accountability, intentionality, and mindfulness, so I’m hopeful this list will keep me on track. Writing it down also helps me sort out what I really mean and what’s important to me. I’m thinking of it as a work in progress…

I also wonder if most of the bullet points below are plain ol’ obvious and duh! — is this stuff everybody knows and everyone is trying to do? I’m really curious to know what other theatre-folk would include on their intention list going into rehearsal.  Do your intentions change every time or pretty much stay the same? Like mine, is your list really a combination of intentions and a code of honor/philosophy of acting? How has your list changed over time? Would you be willing to share?

And what do you think, people-who-don’t-consider-themselves-theatre-folk? Do you make a list of intentions before beginning a specific project or process? What might you include on that list?

As an actor and member of the ensemble, I will:

  • Arrive on time to rehearsals (Note: On time = 10-15 minutes early).
  • Get it done and move with a purpose – after all, we are on a short time-table. Learn my lines as quickly as possible so I can be off book. Learn my basic blocking as quickly as possible, so I can dive into more nuanced work.
  • Take care of myself and my health as best I can (eat well, sleep, exercise, etc.).
  • Have fun and laugh lots. This is a play, after all. It’s important work, but it’s just a play.
  • Take responsibility for developing a multidimensional character with a back story and relationships, and commit to clarity of intention and meaning.
  • Inhabit my character in the most truthful and believable way I can. Also, endeavor to be a bad-ass. [I don’t know exactly what I mean by that, but I think there’s a certain amount of bad-assery that needs to be present for actors. It’s certainly not arrogance or even confidence — maybe it’s about striving to be really solid and specific and fiercely focused. Or maybe it’s just a mind-trick to make me feel brave enough to get on-stage. I don’t know. It feels silly to write ‘be a bad-ass’, but it’s on the list.]
  • Use my body as an acting tool rather than as a source for actor-inhibiting-physical-hang-ups.
  • Stick to the words the playwright chose.
  • Be mindful of vocal variety in pitch, tempo, volume, emphasis and rhythm, as well as diction, diction, diction. And more diction. And communicate.
  • Be brave and honest. Stretch beyond what I think I’m capable of as an actor. Be open to direction, new ideas and improvisation.
  • Be generous with my scene partners and seek out opportunities to connect as characters.
  • Have meaningful conversations off-stage with everyone related to this production. We are a team, on-stage and off.  Strive to maintain and cultivate relationships with everyone who has a heart for this work.
  • Do my best to solve problems that are mine to solve. Try not to create problems for other people. Ask questions and ask for help from the appropriate folks at the appropriate time.
  • Remind myself that I am one piece of a complex and complicated work of art. Given my part in this process, lots of stuff will go on that I won’t be able to see. I will trust, be patient and manage my confusion if it arises.
  • Be thoughtful and aware of the message this play is sending to the audience; be mindful of how my values square with that.
  • Maintain a positive attitude throughout the entire process, even when I am tired, even when I am worried that it won’t ‘come together in time’.  Manage the anxiety that accompanies being vulnerable, being uncertain and being on-stage.
  • Always remember that I also have an identity and an important life outside of the rehearsal room with people who love me and need my attention. Be present, available, attentive, and loving to family, co-workers, and friends. Make this process manageable for those around me.
  • Say thank you out loud to everyone at every opportunity. Thank the actors, designers, director, production team, audience, my husband and daughter. Appreciate the gift this is, appreciate the gifts.
  • Aim to do my best, strive to learn and become better. At the end of the performance run: I will feel proud of my contribution, people will want to work with me again, and I will want to do this work again.

Whew! As I re-read the list above, it feels daunting to even partially realize every bullet point. Yikes, can I do all that? Well, we’ll see. I’m game to try this experiment and see if having a pre-rehearsal list of intentions will make an impact on my experience. I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks in advance for your support.

*Cheryl and I do give our acting ensemble a document that outlines our hopes and expectations during our working-time together. (That document also includes a list of what the ensemble should expect from us as directors/producers/playwrights.) However, it occurred to me that I’ve never created a personal list of intentions for myself as an actor…until now.