Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Actor's Process

Every actor, over time and with experience, finds his/her own "process" for connecting to a character and story. It's not an easy feat to accomplish, but certainly an attainable one if the actor is willing to put in the time and effort required, both physical and emotional.

There's a huge difference with approaching acting as a child and then approaching it as an adult. As children we don't have the inhibitions adults have and so we're able to connect to our imagination and live in our fantasies carefree. But as we face the realities that come with growing older we get to a point where we leave our child behind in order to conform to the idea of how our older self should be and we become guarded. I call that my "loss of spirit" point.

Loss of Spirit
I remember it as experiencing a deep sense of loss and confusion. A loss of innocence and fear of not knowing who I was or who I was to become.  I found myself following the path others wanted me to follow, conforming to everyone's expectations and forgetting who I was at the core.

I returned to acting once I realized I was dead inside. During my first year at law school, I joined the thespian student association and did an Ayn Rand play that reawakened my inner child (I credit acting for this, not Ayn Rand for I am not a fan).  However, I stowed the experience in the back of my mind - after all, I was in law school to become a power house lawyer not an actor.  Needless to say the hollow feeling returned and no matter what I tried doing in law school and afterward I just wasn't happy until I gave acting a real go.

Although my inner child wanted to play again and felt an enormous bliss doing so, I realized that acting as an adult required a higher commitment than I was prepared to give. The commitment of opening myself up and allowing myself to relive experiences and feel emotions that I had learned to suppress for so long. That's when I went in search of my so-called "process."

You Must Know Yourself Before You Can Inhabit Another...

...Part Of Yourself.  I started my formal acting training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and, thereafter, continued with various teachers, most notable ones being Terry Schreiber and Harold Guskin. I've studied all the techniques I could possibly study - Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Michael Chekhov, Larry Moss, Atlantic Theater, The Barrow Group just to name a few. I've taken what works for me and have discarded what doesn't from every single type of training. Nonetheless, at the core of every training lied the inescapable fact that I had to know myself in order to know how I'd act/react in the given circumstances as the character.

What was further tricky was that although I brought myself to the character, the character was not always me - at least not on the surface and so I needed to delve into what is called "character development." Again, you must know yourself in order to know when you have your work cut out for you with a particular character. However, once the character development was in place I came to realize that the character was always me just buried deeper within.  

In the words of Orson Welles:

Getting to know yourself is not easy and can be scary.  It does require bravery in order to go to places and/or revisit events you may not want to go to or you may have forgotten even existed (that's how powerful the mind is - it protects you by blocking certain things out). I must clarify, however, that I'm not referring to "affective memory" here.  Although, I am trained in method acting and do make use of the technique as needed I do not believe in using affective memory as a means to relive your life traumas on stage. In this sense I somewhat agree with David Mamet: "Nothing in the world is less interesting than an actor on the stage involved in his or her own emotions."  I would rectify this statement by adding "self" in front of involved.

The type of knowledge to be gained from the work required to know yourself is not meant to be traumatic, but rather healing or therapeutic. Therefore, I do believe it's something best done in private and/or in a safe environment. I must stress the importance of a safe environment because being overcome by emotions brought about from past events in an unsafe environment can be damaging and so I'm very grateful to teachers like Pamela Scott and Terry Schreiber who allowed me to go through those events safely in class.

As I previously brought up David Mamet, I wanted to further clarify that I am not in full agreement with his views on acting. As per David Mamet: "The actor is onstage to communicate the play to the audience. That's the beginning and the end of it" (from his book "True and False: Heresy and Common Sense For the Actor"). Moreover, he tells actors that they should forget about emotional preparation because "[t]he audience will teach you how to act." True, the audience will indeed teach you how to act, but...

We Are Vessels Holding Emotions For The Audience To Experience

As actors we must feel and in order to feel we must first unblock ourselves by coming to terms with certain things in our past and/or present - it's an ever evolving process.

"I don't think you learn how to act. You learn how to use your emotions and feelings." -Marion Cotillard

We absolutely need to do emotional preparation prior to going on stage if we are to become vessels for our audience. Not wanting to discredit Mamet, who's practical approach to acting has served me well in audition scenarios and who I think is a brilliant writer, I will admit that I would hate to be Mamet's protypical actor that serves solely to fulfill the objectives written in the play or script devoid of feelings and emotions. Those feelings and emotions are what provide that intangible experience that serves to inspire and move audiences. And I know that before I can give or communicate that experience to the audience I need to experience it myself.

"I wouldn't dream of working on something that didn't make my gut rumble and my heart want to explode." -Kate Winslet

I've been very fortunate to work on characters that have not only moved me, but have moved my audience. I know that I'm doing my job when I feel every pore in my body electrified - my entire body shakes and vibrates - it's as if thousands of ants were crawling all over my body - it is that electricity full of feelings and emotions that I transmit to my audience. That is the culmination of my process.

There is no right or wrong way of approaching this. As actors we need to continue exploring within ourselves who we are at our very core and make use of whatever techniques and tools best aid us.

Patsy Rodenburg - Why I Do Theater:

Sunday, July 10, 2011

"No woman leaves an abusive relationship...she flees."

If She's Lucky.

The title of this post is a line from the play "Flowers: A Thorny Romance Story," which is playing at the Workshop Theater Main Stage as part of the Midtown International Theater Festival (for tickets go here: I play the role of Marisol Hughes, a Fortune 500 executive who gave up her career to start a loving family and found herself stuck in an abusive marriage. The play reads like what my life could have been like had I stayed in an abusive relationship. I was lucky. As for Marisol...well, you'll have to see the play and find out - I highly recommend it.

1 in every 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime

I never thought I, a smart-ass from the Bronx, would be a part of that statistic, but I am. I met him while bartending. He was friends with the owner of the bar where I used to work. He'd always stop by for a chat with his boys and a couple of beers. He seemed nice, calm, and sweet - an All American Ivy League graduate. He was the quiet type....

It's Always The Quiet Ones....
Who would've known that underneath the facade there would be a spiteful, angry, hateful person? I didn't. He put his best foot forward, won me over and everything was great at first. But his true colors gradually came through and I just couldn't, better yet, I didn't want to believe that he was such a dark and ugly individual.

It started with verbal abuse, but I didn't think much of it cause they were just I thought. But those words were slowly breaking me down as my self-esteem diminished. Then things escalated to physical abuse, but, again, I didn't want to make much of it because it was just a push and a shove here and there. I didn't understand how he could go from building me up one minute to completely tearing me down the next. Intertwined with his apologies were the excuses that he couldn't control himself because he had never loved anyone this much and that I needed to develop tough skin since I was too weak and fragile, thus, he was doing it for my own good. Then he'd tell me that no one else would ever love me as much as he does. Was that sick? I didn't know at the time. All I knew was that the whole thing was so confusing and embarrassing that it was happening to me.

My acceptance into law school prompted him to talk about our future together. He had it all planned out - we'd get married and start a family as soon as I'd graduate from law school. While he spoke of marriage and children, in silence I'd be hoping and praying that this wasn't God's plan for me. Walking by jewelry stores was nauseating - he'd drag me in to look at rings and I'd walk right out telling him that I preferred to be surprised when the time comes. He also liked to talk about the irony of it all - you see, he had envisioned the future mother of his kids to be a tall blonde woman, the Stepford type, who would bear him blue eyed children to look like him. Bit much? I thought so. But why couldn't I leave him? Because I feared that maybe he was right - who else would love me with this much passion? It wasn't was a sickening obsession as he tried to take control of me.

Although the embarrassment kept me from telling anyone, keeping it inside was too burdensome. I had to tell someone and I did. I told a co-worker who had previously asked about a couple of bruises I had - I lied to her then, but came clean now. To unburden myself to her was relieving and empowering for a bit because I began to fight back. However, he wasn't one to back down and my fighting back just seemed fruitless and exhausting. I became numb to his fighting - he'd start and I'd completely space out as if he weren't even talking to me. I just wanted out of the relationship and resolved to move out as soon as law school began, but my decision was precipitated by a fight that topped all others.

The Last Straw
I came home late from work one night and found the coffee table completely smashed, things knocked over and holes in the wall. I thought maybe someone broke in, but that wasn't the case because he was sound asleep in the bedroom and the holes looked more like punches. It wasn't the first time he rammed his fists through the wall. I slept on the couch that night (but that wasn't unusual; I had started to feel repulsed by him).

The next morning, I found out that he had thrown a temper tantrum all by himself because the server hosting his business websites had crashed and lost all of his data. I designed those websites and maintained the databases for him (free of charge, of course, because it was my duty as his girlfriend - as he put it). That day he was leaving to visit his parents out of state for the weekend and wanted me to get everything up and running immediately. I was the general manager of a bar/restaurant and needed to open the establishment to let the staff in before brunch. He saw me getting ready for work and threw another tantrum because he couldn't believe how I wasn't working on his websites at that very instant. I told him that I'd work on his websites later. He gave me a whole speech about how he had priority and not some stupid job that I was planning to leave soon anyway. I told him that his sense of entitlement was starting to get on my nerves. He yanked the towel off my head, said "I don't fucking care" and then spit in my face.

I was sobbing uncontrollably, but continued to get ready for work. He freaked out and apologized profusely - he wouldn't let me out of the apartment until he was sure that I had forgiven him and that I would work on his websites that evening after work. I gave him the assurance he needed.

The Escape
That evening, he called demanding to know why the websites hadn't been up yet. I told him I was working on them and that they'd be up by the following day.  I lied.  I was packing up to move back to New York with the help of a very dear friend to whom I'm eternally grateful. I took all of my stuff and, inadvertently, took all the backup CDs I had made of the websites and databases with me. Oooopps!

I was long gone when he returned. He called me for months every single day leaving messages apologizing and begging that we speak. I had no desire to ever speak to him again until he called me from an unknown number on my birthday and surprised me. He asked to meet with me because he was a changed man and we owed it to ourselves to know for sure if the relationship was worth saving or not. I started to feel bad for him and agreed to meet, but when he called to confirm our meeting, I realized there was nothing worth saving in that relationship.

I Owed It To Myself
I owed myself the love, honor and respect that he (and I) had denied me while in that relationship. Many times, I think back and wonder why did I not speak up sooner or why didn't I call the cops on him? I had every right to do so and so does anybody experiencing or witnessing domestic abuse because we owe it to ourselves!

“No woman has to be a victim of physical abuse. Women have to feel like they are not alone.” -Salma Hayek

“This is not love. It is a crime, ... You can't look the other way just because you have not experienced domestic violence with your own flesh.” -Salma Hayek

For more information or to get help, please call: