the art of seeing
TED TALK: Embracing The Near Win
The pursuit of mastery is the event of an artist's lifetime. Teaching is an integral part of my own personal drive toward mastery: through engagement with the process of other actors I come to better understand my own. This is the privilege & the gift of the work I get to do. Its value to me is inestimable.
It's hard to find the right words for what it means for me, as an acting teacher, to be entrusted with guiding artists whose work I really respond to, many of whom have already achieved a certain standing in the professional world. These actors desire to be in class not because the world has found them deficient in any way, but because they are driven toward mastery of their craft.
The joy of being in flow, of uninterrupted focus, of processing an enormous amount of information while confidently & agilely attending to a series of intellectual, physical & emotional tasks is one of the joys of acting. It's also one of the joys of teaching. In the hours before class, thinking about the night ahead, I can fall prey to the same doubts I've known as an actor: Am I any good? / Will I do well? / & the perennial old favorite: Who am I do to this? But as soon as the work starts, all that seems to vanish.
I don't watch passively in class. The only way I know to do the job is by entering the experience of the scene with the actors. I have to watch with my entire being: my head, heart & body. Mostly I succeed in shutting down the external manifestations of this, but occasionally I don't. (At those moments I can only imagine how odd I must look to everyone else in the room, if they weren't focused on the scene.) Completely immersed, I lose all self-consciousness. I learned a long time ago that if I leave myself alone, if I'm totally focused & present to what is in front of me, I can see the work, the actors, with a special clarity. I can penetrate viscerally what the actor is working for & what might need work. In this way, I set up the conditions I need to connect with the work. I get myself on the right frequency & it plays through me. & then I play something back - either in the form of a rework or as a critique.
For 4 hours straight I don't wonder if they like me or not, if I'll get to the heart of the matter, or angst about somehow missing something. What anyone thinks about me ceases to matter. The task at hand, this task I love, making acting, growing this craft is more vast, deep & wide than any thoughts about how I look doing it. In my best moments as an actor, I have this same sense - of losing self-consciousness to the larger task. Acting, though, is more "loaded" for me than teaching. Seeing myself clearly is way harder than seeing someone else. & it is the fine art of seeing that the pursuit of mastery cultivates in us.
Of course that doesn't mean I don't miss things. Many times I miss something. After class my mind roils with what I left out, with better ways of expressing the same thing, & what I want to try next time. Teaching acting is not like teaching math. There is no formula. Everyone is different, everyone is a singular equation with his/her own singular formula to unlock & translate into common language. It's my job to learn, over time, how to speak each person's language fluently. To completely personalize my approach to each individual's particular process. To understand what tone, what words, what approach makes sense & what doesn't, one by one.
It's only when I enter into the work riding the same roller coaster with the actors that I feel like I know exactly what I'm doing. When I side-coach during the scene in reworks, I find myself talking softly when they are soft, loud when they are loud. I am angry when they are & joyful when they are. I ask actors not to look at me when I'm interjecting, but stay in the scene. I want them to take in my exhortations not directorally but experientially. As if I am a voice in their being, an extra set of nerve endings they can make use of to reach what they're aiming for.
I see my job as being able to apprehend in the same moment both the text & the actor's ambition for himself in the text - to see clearly what he or she is trying to achieve, & to "mind the gap" - the space between ideal & execution. It's what we are always moving toward: narrowing the gap between seeing & doing. I believe this gap, this sense of never quite getting it right, is evidence of true artistry, the essence of what it means to strive for mastery. "Great artists," as my late, great teacher Nikos Psacharopoulos once said, "always have something more they want to do, & something more & something more. They are never finished. They are never satisfied."
So, more often than not, I find that my contribution to the work has to do with seeing an aspect of life in the text or the circumstances that the actor has not (of yet) made a connection with. When I am able to articulate a nuance of this from something I understand in my own life, I often see a spark of recognition in the actor & heads nodding around the room. As if to say - "Oh, yes! Of course! I know what this is, what it's about!" They knew it all along, they aren't learning anything new. They just had not yet made the connection to recognizing it in themselves.
& advancing in an art is like that. Nikos, paraphrasing a quote from Aeschylus, would often say "drop by drop knowledge comes to the unwilling." Aeschylus meant that we learn by suffering. Nikos meant something like "we resist what we already know." I believe that for actors on a certain bandwidth of talent, training & experience, the knowing already exists. The nuanced knowledge of what it means to be human is the actor's special province. I do not teach actors anything new. I help them mine what they already have within. I help them see what they already know.
The ability to see accurately is mediated by technical abilities- being able to access & own all of yourself. This is fully related to how much permission & acceptance we give ourselves in real life. The aspects of ourselves that we censor in life are the same aspects that go undernourished in the characters we play. & they will be the things we miss, that we can't "see." But luckily, the aspects of ourselves that are cut off from our awareness, light up in the work. Anything not true, not real, not authentic gets magnified in art by the frame around it. The frame of the stage space or the screen allows for more precise, high-definition SEEING. This frame is a diagnostic tool that not only serves to grow craft but to grow self. The talented actors I work with are also insightful (& generous) observers & commentators on each other's work. The expertise of their talent means they have a sharp lens for what is true & false in human behavior. Which is why the way actors comment on the work in class is telling in terms of their talent. I get a window on how someone 'sees' by the kind of comments she makes on another actor's work.
Of course, not just me, but all of us see others more clearly than we can see ourselves. Many times after a particularly successful scene rework, an actor will become frustrated about just that - It's all well & good that I can get there, but why can't I see how to get there on my own? / Why can't I figure out how how that works? / Why didn't I know that was the path, when will I know how to do it myself?
But this too is what class is for: proving to yourself that you can do it, fully do it, in ways perhaps that you did not ever experience before - even if you need help from a good director or teacher to get there. & at the same time beginning to see where blind spots are - not in what you DO but how you SEE. When we can't see clearly, we rely on what I call our acting "muscle" - that thing we do really well, that gets us jobs, or praise, or attention. & then we overwork it - as if that muscle is the only thing we have, the only thing we trust. So if you've made a living by crying, you over-make choices to go in that direction, you bang on that choice like a drum. Or if you're great at comedy the only thing that counts is getting the laugh. Or if you have a special agility with language, you ride that roughshod over all terrain. & hence your special talent become un-special, repetitious, gratuitous.
All good actors have these fall-backs. Come on, at a certain level we all know we can fool some of the people a lot of the time! It's only over time that people catch on to us. I become desensitized to what dazzled me in the audition when I'm bombarded with it. The brightest red becomes dull without the white that sets it off. Those special diamond earrings really lose their- pow! - when you wear them with everything. People get tired of seeing them. What they once remarked on & oohed & ahh-ed over, now is met with indifference. Behind our backs they say: She's good, but why is she always banging that drum so loud? / Why is red the only color he ever brings into the room? / Why is she always showing off those earrings? Doesn't she have anything else? Doesn't she trust that she's okay without them?
This is also about what they call 'having a two-hour face.' Meaning - will people stay interested in watching you for two solid hours? Do you have enough variety- & enough relaxation - to carry a whole movie? (Except now in the age of series-binging, it gets even better: you need a 12 or 14 hour 'face' to make the cut!)
You apprehend this phenomenon first through watching others. Many actors think the most important thing about class is getting up to work. But I think even more important is seeing others find their way & lose their way - & to reflect on how that mirrors your process. Other people provide safer, more objective lessons than we can tolerate looking at ourselves.
It goes without saying that the ability to clearly see an actor's work grows with time. Some actors in The Workroom have now been with me for a full year - & some I worked with even prior to joining class. I know their history, not just as actors but as people. I've never believed that acting is the place where actors should be encouraged to air explicit details of their personal lives in service of the work. Acting, after all, means working with code: the text is a code through which we speak our particular truth about the human condition. Still, by virtue of working with some people for months or years, I inevitably come into possession of a certain kind of knowledge. These are the relationships I come to value the most - the intimacy time confers on us means I can make more resonant connections between text & actor, & make use of a special kind of short-hand.
To get method-y for a moment: the sensitive instrument of the actor is protected by unconscious processes, so much so that just like in life, we don't always know what's really significant about an event until we look back on it. We like a part or a scene without really knowing why. Down the road (hopefully before the camera rolls & before the reviews come out) the unconscious becomes conscious: "Bloody hell - this is about my relationship with X & Y!" We don't see it at first - we don't hook into it because hooking in comes with an element of danger. In life our defenses exist exactly for that reason - to protect us from danger so we can function in the world appropriately & productively.
In acting we are called upon to release that protectiveness. First, to understand how to be present with ourselves (the theme of my class this year) & second, to know how to leave ourselves alone so that unconscious associations can begin to emerge. Not until that happens do we have the chance to apprehend - see- a role, a text, in our own inimitable way. Until then, we are "in our heads" - conceptualizing, but not embodying. I've found sometimes my knowledge of the actor's real life helps her release some defenses. I never remark on what I might know about someone's real life in front of the class, publically. When I decide to enter this area of sensitivity for the sake of the craft, it's always with a few words whispered to the actor about an association that sprung up in me. I get of image of something in their life that connects with something in the text.
The actors I'm most inspired by & who I think I'm most helpful to, are those I've built this kind of trust with. They trust me not to take advantage of the power inherent in my role. They trust my sight, even when they think I'm wrong, they try what I'm suggesting. They trust that when I'm tough it's because I want for them what they want for themselves. They trust that I can see what they are striving for, & hopefully they trust that I can see them for who they truly are.
In turn I trust them to enter my precious space as well. In service of the work, I reveal things about myself in order to open a space for them to do the same. Where I take the same risks I ask of them. This is what has meaning for me on the day of class, on a day I act, on a day I direct. That, somehow, on this day, by working together, we give ourselves a space to connect more fully with what matters. To know we are doing what we are meant to be doing. As I get older this becomes even more important.
I make a point of reminding myself before I walk into class why I am here. Before I step into the room: I tell myself yet again that what we are going for is not functional acting, good acting or serviceable acting. No, we are going for great acting. Mastery. We are endeavoring not just to be working actors but to achieve mastery in our craft. To achieve great acting means there is not a moment to lose. To achieve great acting means that we shun material that does not afford us that opportunity & we avoid situations where others are not striving for the same. To achieve great acting means that we firmly put aside all the distractions that conspire against us. & breathe. & listen. & see.