acting, Poland, quotes, the chorus, theater

“Like most poets, I don’t know where I’m going.”

Monday, July 25, 2011

Dear Milo,

It’s Monday afternoon. I’m sitting in the front room of the dimly lit cafe Mleczarnia, at (I think) the very same table where I first sat with R. when I first came to Wroclaw, two years ago, eating a slice from the same walnut-encrusted cake. (Perhaps not exactly the same cake. But its brother.)

Mleczarnia is one of my favorite places in Wroclaw, and not just because its courtyard adjoins the White Stork Synagogue. It’s also beautiful inside. The walls are covered with black-and-white photographs. The people in the portraits, in black dresses with white collars, in wedding gowns and formal suits, remind me of the one photograph I’ve seen of my grandmother’s mother, Sylvia Schwartz. Candles as tall as rulers stand on tables, next to teapots of dried flowers. And in front of me, a line of actors and tourists and Wroclawians are ordering enormous glasses of Zywiec.

To my great happiness, R. is actually in town, and will be joining me in a few hours!
I have my laptop and my cake and some tea I’ve let overbrew. I have two days of training to tell you about, but first I have a quote. (“Now, sir, what is your text?”)

“Like most poets, I don’t know where I’m going. The pen is an instrument of discovery rather than just a recording implement. If you write a letter of resignation or something with an agenda, you’re simply using a pen to record what you have thought out. In a poem, the pen is more like a flashlight, a Geiger counter, or one of those metal detectors that people walk around beaches with. You’re trying to discover something that you don’t know exists, maybe something of value.”
–Billy Collins, interviewed in the Paris Review (

If you read “the performer’s body” for “the pen,” then this quote also applies to our own training. It is necessary to enter the rehearsal room with no more preconceptions than you have when you picks up a pen. (Of course, you often pick up a pen with tons of preconceptions. But the best writing comes when you let them go.)

The only way you can get anywhere is to let yourself not know where you’re going.

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Why would you ask “Why am I here?” ?

I was having dinner at a Polish restaurant with two groups of people from the festival – a director, her daughter, and her nanny, and three actor/artists. I was talking to the daughter, a six-year-old. I love talking to kids. You can tell them exactly what you’re thinking.

“Babe,” I said, “I feel like I want to call my mom, but it’s too early in California.” She was also monitoring the time difference between Poland and LA, since they were making phone calls to her dad pretty frequently.

“Why do you want to call your mom?” she said.

“So I can be like, “Mom, why am I here?” I said. I didn’t mean to tell her the truth – I just didn’t think of a lie in time.

“Why would you ask “Why am I here?” ? ” she said.*

At this point, one of the actor/artists overheard the conversation, turned back to us, and said “Did you just say
“Why would you ask “Why am I here?” ? ” That’s such a profound existential question!” I used the laughter after this as a way to avoid answering her.

The truth was that I did not know why I was on this trip. I am one of the younger and less experienced directors on this trip, and I have sometimes let that fact make me feel inadequate – as if I don’t deserve this experience, as if someone else could have contributed more in my place. Talking to the other participants, I have learned that we all feel something like this, a bit. Everyone has moments of insecurity. But knowing that other people share these feelings does not prevent me from feeling them.

However, today, I think I have figured it out.

I am here precisely because I am young and less experienced. I am still untethered enough that, if my life needs to be changed by this experience, it can be. This might not be true if I were older and had done everything I want to do already. This seems obvious. I had formulated it before in a kind of “I’m here to learn” thing. But that wasn’t really enough.

I am here because I am still a questionmark.

Realizing this makes me feel very powerful, somehow – as if having nothing means we have everything

*For extra points, tell me if I have punctuated this properly.


different and more presentational ends

“…for all of our familiarity with each other’s culture, even given our co-mingled DNA, the Brits are still sometimes surprised by our emotionally based naturalism. The goal of creating the illusion of “voyeurism” for the viewer that our art traffics in is still, it seemed to me by their almost amazed reaction to our efforts, something they don’t often or perhaps even naturally “go after” in their theatre. Literally, flocks of twenty-something, native-born theatre students were singular in their reaction of how “foreign” and “exciting” the ensemble-based naturalism was to them. This is not about any boast of something we can do that they can’t. Lord knows their artists can and do achieve any and every sublime height that we ever have or could and usually outrace us instantly in verse-based work. It’s simply that I was reminded of a British theatrical art whose deep ties to verse lead to somewhat different and more presentational ends.”

Jeff Perry on the Steppenwolf blog on the British reaction to AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY in London

acting, film, location, travel

leaving los angeles: t minus 3

Flashes of Los Angeles, as I shut down Operation Pasadena and prepare to be on the road again.

1) The road.
With no time left to use it, I discover 6th Street. You can have lived here all your life, worked here for years, and still find another (better) way to get from one side of it to the other. It’s particularly good for the Pasadena-to-midtown stretch: the 110 to downtown, and 6th west. Driving here feels like negotiating: I’ll see your sun blinding you off the face of the enormous iridescent office building lurking over the 110 North, and raise you a Cone Zone construction closing off your exit. There’s no one way to get from one place to another, only a series of guesses.

2) The Fairfax corridor.
There’s no more alien pizza, or cosmic pizza, or all the wrong names I ever gave Nova Express. I had two of the three most significant meetings of my time in Los Angeles in that all-night, sci-fi-decorated Fairfax pizza joint. i only remember one of them, but I know the other one happened. And now it doesn’t exist. If anything is a confirmation that I should be leaving town, it’s this sad disappearance. The front is boarded up.
We end up in Canter’s instead. A friend suggests that everything in life that isn’t theater is the green room. I buy sunglasses and a suitcase in the thrift stores, observe the selection of vintage menorahs, walk the walk, and eat the kugel.

3) The Heath Ledger Experience.
Waiting in line at the Grove. Running into the theater, dignity abandoned, scrambling for seats. One of the most wonderful performances I have ever seen, or ever hope to see. We laugh loudly at all the wrong places, at the most violent moments, when his acting is superlative. Which is a lot. I’d watch Christopher Nolan direct the phone book.
I was guilty of some of the cheesy reasoning folks have been throwing around about his death, BSing with a philosophy professor friend of my parents’ that a dark role makes your outlook on life darker, that playing the Joker drove him over “the edge.”
But that’s just not true. I don’t know how anyone can say that the performance actually drove him mad, when any actor would be so proud of that performance that it would drive them to greater sanity. He knew how good he was, and he was enjoying being that good. He was on top of his game, technically perfect, and proud of it.
Makes me believe, even more, that his death was an accident.

(I created a new category with this post, location, for things that are about places but not necessarily just about traveling. All my observations on place have been travel-related, for the last year, but I want to link into them with a more grounded noun.)

acting, criticism, writing

“Acting — good, bad and indifferent — can lead you down some strange and regrettable byways of opinion.”

Charles McNulty writes for the LA Times about whether the merit of a performance is found in its acting or its script, particularly in reference to the Ahmanson-based productions of DOUBT and HISTORY BOYS.

“Separating the player from the play, to paraphrase Yeats, is never easy. And critics themselves aren’t always adept at distinguishing where fault and virtue lie. An ambitious drama given an uneven premiere is flicked away like a piece of lint while a mesmerizing performance in a silly trifle can translate, as it did for Douglas Carter Beane’s giggly 2006 comedy “The Little Dog Laughed,” into not just raves but a Tony nomination for best play.”

acting, Lydia, metablog

Lydia rehearsal, day 1

I think I’m going to take a different approach to rehearsal blogging than I did on GOLDA. I’m going to write all of my notes on my private, personal wiki, which only I can access, and I’m going to only pull out the most interesting parts for this.

I really want to find a way to rehearsal blog that no one at a theater can object to, and that preserves the privacy of the rehearsal room – but still lets me share some of the observations that I think can be publicly shared, and sheds light on what makes this process cool.

So here’s my second try.

If anyone from the DCTC is reading this, I hope that you find it to be acceptable, and if you don’t, let me know. But I do think it’s a good thing for theaters in general to have bloggers publicizing them, and my only goal in doing this is to bring more audience to the profession.

So, today, we had a props meeting, a design presentation & readthrough, and finished with exercises. And the exercises the director chose to use were:

1) Writing down what kind of a color, taste, element (earth, air, wind, fire) texture, weather, smell, mode of transportation, and landscape your character would be.

2) Twizzle – walking in a circle with the director calling out commands: stop, jump, turn, and twizzle ( a 360-degree turn)
This was great coordination and group work. The second time they did it, the three men in the cast (who are here – the fourth comes soon) couldn’t be taken out. I thought they would have gone on jumping and turning forever.

3) The basic trust exercise: stand in a circle and fall to each side.
I’ve never seen anyone do this for as long as they did. It was like watching a starfish forming and collapsing.

4) “Close your eyes. Think of two other members of the cast. Open them. Walk around the room till you can form an equilateral triangle with those two people. Go.”
And they came into unison on this after less than a minute.

It was all very effective for building an emotional bond between the cast members, and for letting the new words of the sixth draft just wash over them.

acting, directing

Last night, in a studio in Collegetown,

I got to observe more of Amina’s Meisner class at the Actors’ Workshop of Ithaca, and the very good direction of her teacher Eliza. Some useful things:

1) Feeling-into-line: such as directing an actor to say “You’re so wonderful” before each the lines of the script, as an exercise. I’ve never seen this before. It was spectacular.

2) The word “pinch” instead of “impulse.” It just sounds right. We discussed, afterwards, if the word “pinch” only makes you think of Meisner molesting his female students – but perhaps, that only emphasizes how much a pinch is something that the other actor does to you.

3) The quality of the repetition exercise mid-class as opposed to at the beginning – the value of warming up.