Theater Journal

Laurie D. T. Mann

Journal Entry - Thursday January 4, 2001

This is the first performance class I've taken in over 25 years.  I was extremely active in acting and playwriting while in public school, but got involved in a host of other activities in college.  Since I was in college the first time, I have been too busy.  My "public performances" have been limited to singing with a local choir (though I've had to drop out this year, since I've had Tuesday night classes both semesters).

I'd like to "relearn" theater arts, particularly improvisation. My short-term memory is horrible, so I was pleased that I did reasonably  well on the "name memory" exercise.  Of course, the names will mostly be forgotten by Tuesday...

I'm a huge fan of actors trained by the Actor's Studio.  Whenever I have a free afternoon, I love to watch Inside the Actor's Studio on Bravo, where James Lipton spends an hour interviewing one actor, director or screenwriter to get their views on stagecraft.  My favorite actors are people like Kevin Spacey, Joan Allen, Paul Newman, Joann Woodward, and Emma Thomson.

I haven't been to see live theater very often over the last few years, and look forward to that component of the class.  We saw RUR at the Pitt Studio Theater a few years back, and saw the Pittsburgh Opera's version of The Marriage of Figaro last fall.  I've made a couple of trips to New York City, where I saw my first two Broadway plays (Ragtime and the Brian Deheny Death of a Salesman) on the same day.  A few months later, we saw The Weir on Broadway, which was a subtle and wonderful play.  I really wanted to see Wit, and may subscribe to Showtime just to see Emma Thomson in the lead role later this year.

Monologue One:  My Life as an Actress

"Hey, kids, let's put on a show!"

Maybe I was just overly inspired by The Little Rascals when I was a kid in the '60s, but we did just that.  We'd build rocket ships and act out scenes from Lost in Space in our backyard, plywood askew in perpetual set construction.

In school, since I was the tallest kid with the biggest voice,  I sang the part of Santa Claus in kindergarten and first grade Christmas pageants.  When my fourth grade class attempted to produce HMS Pinafore, I was cast to be Buttercup; though I could never tell why....

When I was 13, the local light opera sponsored a summer theater workshop, and I got the acting bug big time.  We wrote skits, we sang, we acted...and we danced.  One of the workshop leaders, an energetic dancer went on to be a minor TV star - Eddie Mekka, who played Carmine in Laverne and Shirley.  I might have been the only kid he completely failed to teach to dance that summer.

In high school, I acted in many plays but probably had my "crowning moment" in the children's play "Once Upon a Clothesline."

I played a kidnapped clothespin.

And once you play a kidnapped clothespin, you know it's all down hill from there...

Journal Entry - Tuesday January 9, 2001

The monologues were fun to watch, but I might have misinterpreted the intent.  Mine was pretty specific about what I did in the theater many years ago.   Most of the other students were more general.  While there was some interest in my wooden performance, I've always looked at that as more of a punch line than anything else. 

I started to write a little about watching my father act, something I always enjoyed.  So I'm going to write a new monologue which focuses on that.

Aside from being the oldest in the class, I've probably had the geekiest job - I've spent most of the last 17 years working for computer companies.  During college, I'd assumed I'd be a published writer.  Professionally.  Eventually, I was a professional writer, but it was as a technical writer which means you write about what your boss tells you to write about.  Putting most of my energies into tech writing and Web site development and being busy with my family and other interests robbed me of any time to do fiction writing or playwriting.

Monologue Two:  Rehearsals

"My glasses, my glasses, where the hell are my glasses?"  My father's voice was unnaturally shaky, and the woman he yelled at was not my mother.   But, she scurried about the well-lit living room, picking up seat cushions, as if she were.

Suppressed Desires  was a dated play about psychoanalysis, in which my father starred for a local amateur theater.  He played Stephen, the beleaguered husband whose sister-in-law decided he had a suppressed desire for.  But I was 8 - what did I know about psychoanalysis?  It looked like make-believe with an audience - being able to stand onstage in funny clothes and make-up and speak in a voice not quite your own.

I loved make-believe, so the idea of having a job, or at least a hobby where you could make-believe, was very appealing.

He did most of the Neil Simon and musical comedy repertoire, usually playing supporting characters.  From the time I was 7 until I was 11, I annually begged a local director to consider doing The Miracle Worker  as I longed to play Helen Keller and thought my father would make a  fine Captain Keller even without the southern drawl.  But, the director said he'd rather stick to comedies.

As he aged, he got somewhat larger parts from other directors - Emily's father in Our Town and Luther Billis in South Pacific.  If you've seen South Pacific, you know Luther does a memorable dance in a revealing costume.  As this play was being performed the same weekend I got married, the first sight many of my future in-laws had of my father was of "Honey Bun," dressed in a grass skirt, long wig and twin coconuts.

Journal Entry - Thursday January 11, 2001

I remember "Categories" - though we played it a little differently back in the '60s:

"Categories" (2-leg slaps, 2-hand claps)

"Names of" (2-leg slaps, 2-hand claps)

"Trees!" (or whatever)

It was a strange thing to see at least two young women give monologues who reminded me of different aspects of my daughter.  My daughter just turned twenty, came really close to flunking out of college completely last spring, and wound up failing three classes that year.  While this was bad for her, it turned out to be good for me, and I've been able to return to college.  But Leslie has had some interest in acting, and even took a drama class in high school that she really enjoyed.  So I can see her in this class when she decides she's ready to return to college.

Leslie is a combination of AJ and Rebecca, but can be much more.  If she was giving a "get acquainted" monologue, she'd probably talk enthusiastically about gaming on the Web.  This is her primary interest.  The day you can jack a computer outlet directly into your brain is the day my daughter would want to have that done.  But, if she were in a bad mood that day, she'd probably talk about her crappy public school experience for a long time.

She might also wind up in cooking school.  Like her uncle and one of her cousins, she's interested in cooking and can be creative in the kitchen.  She got a job at Einstein's Bagels almost solely on the basis of knowing what Asiago cheese was!

Journal Entry - Tuesday, January 16, 2001

The "prelude to an improv" was fun.  I am a hopeless klutz - that and the fact I'm generally incoherent after about 9pm meant I had no chance in the theater (forget the fact I have trouble remembering my lines and can get giggly over the silliest things).  But I've always been a fan of improv and enjoyed doing that.

Movement is tough for me.  When I was younger (and merely "sturdy"), I did take four years of ballet.  If someone says "First position," I still know what that means.  Later, when I had to learn a little modern dance as part of a musical theater workshop, I had three left feet.

I have done reasonably well with folk dancing over the years, including square dancing.  I suppose it's because when you're folk dancing, you're part of a big group and no one is watching you.  In high school, I played a Mama in "Fiddler on the Roof," and we had a little dancing to do in the wedding sequence.  I didn't fall in to anyone (I did nearly knock over a light tower once during rehearsal, but that's different story!); since I was playing a middle-aged woman, I didn't have to be lithe or graceful.

Now that I am a middle-aged woman, I still am not!

Speaking of "Fiddler," I did have my one and only theatrical vocal solo.  There's a song in the theatrical version (though not in the movie) called "The Rumor."  I had one of the solo verses, and the song is basically playing "Telephone" (a story getting somewhat screwed up as it gets passed along).  On the second night, I suddenly forgot the lyrics.  The piano continued playing, and all I could say was "and...and...and...and it happened in Kiev!"  I was fine every other night, including, luckily, the night that my parents were in the audience.

Journal Entry - Thursday, January 18, 2001

I felt kind of dizzy at times in class today.  The walking around in a fairly tight circle, or pacing back and forth gets a little dizzying at times.  It's kind of too bad we don't have a larger room or stage for the larger movement exercises.

As a klutz, I try not to be too self-conscious about the way I move.  I know I'm not a graceful person but I do try not to walk into other people too often.  Or fall.  Or...

A "big movement" memory to me (beyond the years of dancing which I did but didn't like all that much) is again tied to watching my father rehearse plays for amateur theater.  The whole audience area was a large empty hall.  One thing I did for years was to spin on the smooth wooden floor in the large open area.  I had smooth-soled shoes or just spun around the room in stocking feet until I got really dizzy.  Sometimes, my brother and sister would join in.  We weren't quite "the water lilies" form Fantasia, but we spun pretty fast.  Sometimes, my father would yell at us, but, usually, he just left us alone.

I've heard the lines about "body memory" many times.  I particularly remember:

Journal Entry - Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Observation Exercise - Professor X

Professor X is a schlumper when he walks.  A largish man, he wheels the AV cart into the classroom, bent over, making large steps in leather boots.  He sets up the equipment quickly, then sits at the front of the room for most of the class.  While he is not a careful walker, his movements when he sits are precise.  He places paper back in his folder as if they were breakable.  He does not tend to move very much in class; he uses the latest gadgets to display his PowerPoint slides.  He highlights points of interest in his slides with a red laser.

Professor X's voice is in striking contrast to his body - it's very mellifluous, almost tenory.  He both talks and looks like an old friend of mine from England, so it's almost as if he could be my friend's older brother.

(This exercise was tough for me - other than seeing my professors and my immediate family, I've been in my office doing homework since Tuesday!  Since you said we couldn't do roommates, that left my husband out.  And I just don't feel right observing my daughter for this journal.) 

Tuesday's movement exercises were tricky and were a useful reminder that successful pantomime is much harder than it looks! 

Journal Entry - Thursday, January 25, 2001

Review of 3 short pieces presented at the play workshop, Thursday, January 25

Of the three pieces, I felt "Perfect" was the best piece.  The writing, acting and directing all blended together well to give a fairly honest slice of life.  When the only complaint I could come up with was that the opening bit of business made the "intern" character (whose name I completely missed) look more like a waiter than like the co-star of the play.

There's a tendency in movies and even theater to go for the jugular.  It's not always necessary or even appropriate.  I read with interest the reviews of "The Weir" when it came to Pittsburgh last year as I'd been lucky enough to see it on Broadway.  About half of the reviews were glowing, and the other half were, "I was bored, what was the point?"  The point is that, sometimes, the lives of characters turn on very small points, and they aren't always a point of tragedy.

So "Perfect" was quite close to perfect.  The performances were honest and understated, even if the David character did talk a bit much with his hands.  The dialog and situation were both very real.  I'd be very interested in seeing the whole play some day.

I had very mixed emotions about "Three's a Crowd."  While I had the sense of being an evesdropper during "Perfect," "Three's a Crowd" seemed more like the first draft of a play.  Later, during the talk-back, I had the sense from some people involved in the play that the entire play may be meant to be something of a farce.  That might be a good way to handle it; the play just doesn't seem to work well as drama.

The first problem was that the general structure of the scene just did not seem to work.  Maybe the performers were improvising and some key lines were dropped.  The denoument about the affair seemed to come out of nowhere.  And I'm not so sure Jilly would have just gone to the party, unless the party was absolutely a critical work or family-related affair.  She still might just storm out of the room even if she had no destination in mind.  If the play was meant to be farce or satire, Jilly's behavior seems more logical.  As drama, it doesn't make much sense.

"Lament" just grew on me.  The main thing that worked so well about "Lament" is the casting.  There's another bad habit in acting to cast the "best looking" people you could find; that only these types of people would be attractive to/sympathetic to an audience.  In real life, it turns out all kinds of people have all kinds of life experiences that you'd never dream possible if life were really like theatrical performances.  So casting "just regular folks" in something that was meant to be somewhat romantic and even borderline-erotic in places worked for me.

In the beginning, I found the writing of "Lament" to be kind of annoying.  I particularly didn't like the occasional repeated line because it did not really seem to signify anything.  However, as the dialog stopped repeating itself, it got more interesting.  You can signify time passing by a transition line "And then we moved in together..." which feels a little more natural.

The "dual monologue" portion of "Lament" worked pretty well.  There are times when a couple might not be so far apart as they seem, if they'd only talk to each other!

Journal Entry - Tuesday, January 30, 2001

The body language exercises were interesting, because some people are extremely good at it (particularly Jason and AJ) and others of us are not.  If I'm trying to mimic a graceful person, I tend to move very slowly and languidly, but that's not necessarily how a truly graceful person would move.  Both Jason and AJ tend to exaggerate, but that's OK - both were very funny.

I found trying to act like the person I observed only in his class as a person in "the real world" to be tricky.  I've never seen him outside of teaching a class.  I'm sure he doesn't swoop in and try to interview everyone he meets.  But he's made it clear to us that he's constantly collecting data on the people around him for various sociological studies.  He's been doing a long study on social memory - he seems to be expecting us to learn everyone's name in the class of about 25.  He's "tested" us twice to see whose names we can remember.  Since I've been out of school for over 20 years, I'd never taken any classes with anyone in that sociology class before.  And I have a terrible memory for things like that.  But, I suppose today, when we sit down in class, with the name plates he generally gives us, I'll probably make a point of writing everyone's name and distinguishing features on a list so the next time he springs "the name test" on us, I will have at least studied for it.

Getting my observed person's voice just right is very hard.  He has a moderate midlands English accent, and while I can hear it, I can't seem to duplicate it.  Kind of like being tone deaf versus tone dumb.  A tone deaf person has no sense of musical differences at all.  A tone dumb person might be a real afficianado of music, but couldn't reproduce a scale in tune if his life depended on it (like my husband).  An accent deaf person might not be able to differentiate an Australian from a Texan.  An accent dumb person could, but couldn't successfully talk like one or the other (unless the dialect was extremely different).

Journal Entry - Thursday, February 1, 2001

Play Review:  Poor Superman (2/3/01)

Poor Superman is a fast-paced modern play with a cast of five and a very early-'90s, urban sensibility.  Accept for mild nods to the mid-western Canadian accent, the play could have taken place in almost city in North America (though it's seems to be set in either Vancouver or Calgary).

The basic plot revolves around the couplings of five people in their 20s and 30s who live in an urban neighborhood.  David is an established but blocked gay artist looking for inspiration.  His friend Kryla is a journalist looking for a guy.  Shannon is a gay man with AIDS looking for approval from his doctor to have the final round of M-F sexual reassignment surgery.  Matt and Violet are a married couple looking to make their restaurant and their marriage work.  David decides to take a part time job as a waiter in Matt and Violet's restaurant in an effort to jump start his painting.

David mentions he's gay, not realizing that Matt and Violet haven't realized this already.  While both express some amount of homophobia, he isn't fired.  At the same time, Matt realizes he's somewhat interested in David, and he's not sure what to do about it.  Eventually, Matt and David have an affair.  David's life is even more complicated as his old friend and roommate Shannon is dying from AIDS.

The play is closely tied to Western popular culture of the early '90s.  As the plot progresses, almost every character reveals a fascination with Superman.  At that time, the comic book Superman took the long-time Superman story in some unexpected directions - in "this" dimension, Superman revealed his secret identity to Lois, he died and, later, he came back to life.  The characters ruminate on the Superman story, not realizing that their behavior is paralleling the plot of the comic book.

Andy Davis as David gives a particularly good performance; his program booklet bio says he's only been acting for two years, which means he is extremely talented.  A weak David would have drowned the play, but he is just perfect; edgy enough but very compassionate.  Matt Damon look-alike Justin P. Mohr is fine as Matt, but gives a very by-route performance.  Jennifer Obed mimics Harriet Sampson Harris's overdone voice and attitude for two hours, and almost never emerges from charicature.  Mary Kate Urbanski is wonderful as Violet, a tricky role as she could be either completely unlikable or completely a doormat pretty easily.  The only odd part of her performance was her body language - during a major confrontation with Matt late in the play, her body was completely relaxed at a time when she was screaming at her husband.

I have very mixed feelings about the casting of Cally Owles as Shannon.  On the one hand, she gives a good, very sympathetic performance.  On the other hand, it's a mistake to cast a delicate woman as a M-F transsexual.  People tend to relate to women a little differently than they do to M-F transsexuals.  It is extremely rare that a person can successfully pull off playing a different gender; Linda Hunt's Billy Kwan is one of the few times it actually worked.  So while Cally Owles did the best that she could, the cast could not pull off the gender-bending correctly.

The set design and lighting were managed very effectively.  The one flaw in the set design was that David should have worked with a canvas rather than a blank picture frame when he was painting.   When music/sound was used, it was almost consistently overdone, except for some quieter music near the end.  The slide show effect (where a character's "real thoughts" were flashed onscreen) worked well.

Poor Superman is a solid production. The brief nudity was essentially unnecessary, and almost detracted from a fairly erotic scene.

Journal Entry - Tuesday, February 6, 2001

Vocal awareness checklist - inventory of my voice

Quality - I tend to sound like a boy, mid-range to high, no definite accent.

Tempo & Rhythm - I speak extremely fast, abruptly stop when I loose track of what I was to say, and have the tendency to mumble at times.

Articulation - My articulation tends to be fairly accurate except when I mumble.

Pronunciation - My pronunciation is reasonably precise.  While I'm from Massachusetts, my R's are intact.

Pitch - Mid-timbre.

Volume - Loud.

Word choice - My word choice is varied, but I tend to speak casually, and use lots of computer-related slang. 

Non-verbals - Lots of sighing, coughing, some "ums."

When I was a kid, I really enjoyed recording my voice and playing it back.   So my vocal image is from those days.  That's the time I realized I could not mimic accents or voices which was very disappointing (my then two-year-old brother could do British accents better than I could!).   So my perception of the sound of my voice hasn't changed very much over the years.  I know I still don't sound overly old or overly cultured.  I particularly remember when I called into a radio talk show over 20 years ago.  The caller after me said, "That boy has really good ideas."  I was 22 at the time!

Journal Entry - Thursday, February 8, 2001

Suggestions:  It might be faster to have people pull a number when they come in the door to get "who goes next" going.  There are some real long pauses in between turns.

Most of the imitations really relied upon the audience's familiarity with the movie.  Rebecca's Peter Cook imitation was pretty good, but I guess most of the folks just weren't familiar with the bit.  AJ was pretty much right on target with hers, particularly with Gilda Radner. 

I think my best was probably Carol Kane from The Princess Bride.  Her voice was extremely distinctive - very lispy and raspy with the sound of fingernails scraping down a blackboard. 

I don't think I did very well on the other ones.  I kept forgetting the "Life" speech from Young Frankenstein even though I'd just seen the movie again for about the 10th time.

Another way to approach some of the vocal exercises might be to present scripted scenes.  With the words in front of us, we'd be able to concentrate on creating the voice rather than try to remember the words.    

Missed Class - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

Out of Town - Thursday, February 15, 2001

Tuesday, February 20, 2001

The description of "The Open Couple" made it sound fairly interesting.  I generally enjoy experimental theater, and the description of the lead female character giving instructions to the director or talking about getting prompts sounded like it could have been fun to watch.

The variant on Make Me Laugh was just kind of dry.

Thursday, February 22, 2001

This was a much harder exercise than I had expected.  I had expected to pretty easily figure out whose story it was.  I was only right one time (AJ - who else?), but almost everyone else had similar trouble.  I was watching for non-verbals (particularly giggling) but that did not seem to matter.

In our group, we didn't come up with anything too fast.  I made a suggestion, based on a weird incident from when I was in college, but no one liked it.

All of us have younger brothers, and when one guy told the story of his younger brother and all the grief he caused, all of us related to that immediately.  It's easier to try to tell a story as your own (particularly if your acting skills are not all that strong) if you can more easily relate to the story.

Sunday, February 25, 2001

Review of Silent Spring

Silent Spring  is an interesting attempt but a not completely successful production.  The main success of the production is the casting of Bryn Jameson as Rachel Carson.  She gives a nuanced performance of the quiet biologist who went on to become one of the most controversial authors of the 1960's.  Jameson successfully captures the excitement of Rachel as a young girl, getting a lesson in biology from her mother, and the caution and reserve of the "old maid" who almost single-handedly starts the environmental movement in America.

The rest of the cast is adequate; the only other stand-out is Elena-Maria Passarello as Marie Rodell, Carson's literary agent.  With the exception of an occasional scene, the characters rarely seem real, so criticizing the actors very much seems unfair.  The only adequate acting is probably not the fault of the performers in this case.

Adequate describes almost the entire play.  The black and white costumes were very generic, so the cast's outfits didn't have to change with the times.  I would have preferred a little more color.  The stage was quite simple, though the addition of the tidal pool was a nice touch.  The music and lighting were both fine without being obtrusive.  But the production is extremely difficult to analyze due to all the problems with the script.  The basic flaw with this production is the script.

Act I is superb.  While I would have preferred to open with the scene of young Rachel and her mother and segue to her later illnesses, this is a minor quibble.  Act I announces its themes with the talking bugs, the Tenniel-inspired set and the mother telling the story of Alice in Wonderland.  The major theme of Rachel as Alice in Wonderland is complemented by the sub-theme of people increasingly using pesticides.  The scene of Rachel writing a story about a family using pesticides, rewriting as she goes is a delightful conceit on the action of creating a story.  The scene where she goes back to visit her family slips into farce but only briefly.

The reason Act I works so well is that Rachel is the emotional center of the play.

The reason Act II fails is that Rachel is ignored for too much of the act. 

Act II starts off promisingly enough, with an entertaining scene between Rachel and her literary agent, Marie Rodell.  "The Family Recipe" theme corrected some of my misunderstandings about how the characters in Rachel's family are related to one another - "Beyond the Dream of the Borgias" had been so high-strung that deciphering the relationships was very difficult.  But when the best scenes in an act are between a writer and an agent, that should be a sign that there's something decidedly wrong.  Dorothy, a potentially very interesting character, who appears for one pivotal scene in Act I, was only alluded to one time in Act II.  In real life, Dorothy was such an important friend of Rachel's that their collected letters have been published!  Rachel's writing and scientific research did not receive the prominence they deserved; in fact, about the only time her research was mentioned was in a scene where it was derided ("Nature Fights Back").  All this despite the fact that not only had Rachel worked for the government for years, she worked her way up to being the lead writer/editor for a governmental unit.

The scene "The God of Fallen Sparrows" would have worked if it had been dramatically simplified; Rachel should have been sitting onstage writing that piece as the music played in the background.  Instead, she is limited to a voice-over with a questionable dance scene. 

But Act II completely falls apart in "Indiscriminately from the Skies."  Up until this point, everything in the play is full of things from Rachel Carson's life.  In "...from the Skies," a number of metaphors are mixed along with popular culture iconography from after Carson's death.  This scene slipped terribly in to farce, and Rachel's appearance in this scene is an afterthought.  I have not read Silent Spring, so I do not know if she used 1950s horror movies as a metaphor for the dangers of pesticides.  Certainly, Them, a movie about giant ants that came out in the mid-'50s would have been an appropriate allegory.  But I know she would not have included Dr. Strangelovesque characters since the movie came out after her death.  As much as I love farce, this scene was inappropriate given the emotional depth and resonance of Act I.

There's a similar problem with "The Other Road."  While it's quite clever in places, it goes on for far too long and detracts from the main story line.

While Rachel was not in "Nature Fights Back," that was one of the only scenes in Act II that was focused around her.  Her illnesses and early death should have been very moving, but they fell flat because the main character had been lost earlier in the play.

If the purpose of the play was to present a vaudeville about the life of Rachel Carson, then the play partially succeeded.  But the intention seemed to be something a little more serious - Act I is loaded with promise of a serious treatment of her life and important concerns.  Since this is a new play, I hope the writers consider this a rough draft.  I sincerely hope they consider rewriting Act II and producing the play again some day with Bryn Jameson and Elena-Maria Passarello.

Tuesday, February 27, 2001

I think it's funny the way "the kids" point out that many of the improvisations are from Whose Line Is It AnywayWhose Line... is a funny mix of standard improvisations that have probably been around for 50 or 60 years and some improvs against random video sequences.

The "trust" improv was harder than I'd remembered.  Maybe we were too tightly in a circle?  Maybe some people were really throwing themselves at other people rather than just dropping back.  In any case, I didn't wound up dropping anyone, though I came close about twice.  I stayed out of the middle on this one.

The "join-in" improv lasted a bit too long, though that's understandable in a class as large as ours.  I knew I didn't want to start a part that would involve falling down, so I thought a newspaper reporter would be "safe."  Unfortunately, once I dropped a pen in someone on the floor.  The repeated themes of violence and drinking were also frequently found in short stories my classmates write in our senior seminar on fiction writing.

The "truck" improv was fun, though I find it easier to play off of someone else's idea rather than come up with something new myself.  Like I said earlier, I am pretty good at hearing the differences in people's speech patterns, but I'm no good at doing accents. 

Response to "The Stanislavsky Method" and Strasberg

Konstantin Stanislavsky was a stage actor at a time when the acting was, by today's standards anyway, "over the top."  People emoted, spoke artistically and made grand gestures onstage.  We can understand why that was, in those days of poor lighting and no vocal amplification, before the days of the movies.  Stanislavsky's stress on believing the scene and relaxing would be extremely important traits for actors to learn as intimate acting for the camera and for smaller theaters evolved during the 20th century.  Actors needed fewer grand gestures and more concentration on quiet acting for performances off the stage. An actor's imagination was more important than the props that surrounded him.  Stanislavsky said, "From the moment of the appearance of if the actor passes from the plane of actual reality into the plane of another life, created and imagined by himself.  Believing in this life, the actor can begin to create."

Lee Strasberg took the Stanislavsky method and adapted it for two generations of American actors.  Strasberg said one important thing about acting is "it must seem that this has never taken place before, that no one has seen this actress before, that this actress has never done this before, and that in fact she's not an actress."  The freshness of a performance, the seeming naturalness and seeming lack of rehearsal is what makes an actor breath life into a part.

I'm a big fan of many of the actors who attended classes with Strasberg at the Actor's Studio, so I think his "Americanization" of Stanislavsky is what helped to create a strong American presence on the world state and in the world cinema.    Strasberg observed that once Edwin Booth, a rather hyperbolic Shakespearean actor of the last century, cried unexpected during a touching scene while he was performing Hamlet.  People criticized his performance.  Even if his performance was not true to the actor, it was true to the character.  Strasberg and Stanislavsky would always want actors to be true to the character first.

A Response to David Mamet

David Mamet's essay writing was much more like his playwriting than I expected.  The bad language may be missing, but the breathless quality was very much in evidence.  Mamet seemed to be saying that actors were born, not made and we were all born to be actors.  Actors did not need to be trained.  Perhaps he assumed the director can handle all questions or issues every actor had.

Mamet described standard rehearsal process as "We spend our three weeks gabbing about 'the character' and spend the last week screaming and hoping for diving intercession, and none of it is in the least useful, and none of it is work."  He countered with "What should happen in the rehearsal process?  Two things.

Mamet was correct that the focus of rehearsal should be on blocking and the like, but to not include any discussion of the characters and their motivations went too far the other way.  But, in many ways, Mamet and Strasberg were not so far apart as Mamet made it seem.  When Mamet said, "...(The audience) want to watch you be exciting.  And you can't be exciting if you're not excited; and you can't be excited if you're not excited; and you can't be excited if you're thinking about nothing more compelling than your boring old concentration, self-performance, and good ideas," Strasberg stressed "freshness."  Both men wanted the actors to be interesting on the stage and not giving a performance merely by rote.  Encouraging the actors to listen to one another and respond to what is being said, rather than simply repeat their memorized lines, is a way to help keep performances exciting and fresh.

Extra Review 1 (for Tuesday, February 13) - Traffic

Traffic is a very good movie, but it does tend to leave you with the impression that drugs are an issue for Mexicans, for people in the DEA, for very rich people and very poor people. I suspect the middle class is involved in there somewhere!

Stephen Soderbergh directs a very ambitious movie and has, for the most part, succeeded admirably.  To release the very entertaining Erin Brockovich in the same year was quite a feat. My main complaint about the directing is the selection of an odd "lighting/texture" of the film, particularly in the Mexican sequences. It made that part of the film hard to watch. But the performances and pacing are both terrific.

I had never noticed Benicio Del Toro in a film before, and he really fills the screen in this film. He is the sort of quiet actor who can do more with his eyes than many actors can do with their entire bodies.  He looks like a larger, Hispanic Brad Pitt with a much broader acting range. That he is nominated for Best Supporting Actor rather than Best Actor, as he dominates well over half the movie, is a shame.  This may be Del Toro's year for a Supporting Actor Oscar.

Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman have terrific chemistry as DEA agents working in drug-enriched San Diego.   Catherne Zeta-Jones gives a very good performance as a confused, arrested drug-lord's wife who gradually becomes less confused. Even Benjamin Bratt, in one short but pivotal scene, is spot-on.

This year has been a disappointing year for films. Traffic (and Erin Brockovich) makes it less so!  The cast of Traffic won the Screen Actors Guide award for best ensemble cast and it was richly deserved.

Extra Review 2 (for Thursday, February 15) - Almost Famous

Cameron Crowe has made a number of my favorite "guilty pleasure" films - while they are not great movies, they are just so entertaining that I always enjoy myself.  I would put his Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything and Jerry Maguire in this category, and now Almost Famous.

The film, mostly set in 1973, depicts a teenager's free lance writing job for rock 'n' roll magazines and his interactions with the rock 'n' roll business of the day.  The production paid enormous detail to the look and feel of the time and absolutely succeeded.

The two young leads, Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson, are both very attractive performers, but, contrary to what Hudson's Academy Award nomination would tell you, neither of them act for most of the film.  Looking cute got them the parts, and, David Mamet's assertions aside, merely acting "cute" is simply not enough.

This is particularly apparent in a climactic scene near the end of the movie when Fugit saves Hudson from a suicide attempt.  Hudson does manage to rise above cuteness for about ten minutes, but the suicide attempt is so contrary to her behavior of the last 90 minutes that it's somewhat unbelievable.  Fugit, instead of looking like an eager puppy, looks more like a sick puppy during the time that he saves Hudson's life.  Tobey Maguire has made a career of playing the young, intelligent observer character in a number of movies and Patrick Fugit just could not quite manage it.

While I had some trouble with the believability of the leads, the supporting characters were uniformly excellent, particularly Philip Seymour Hoffman as Fugit's mentor and the always wonderful Frances McDormand as Fugit's non-conformist mother.  I hope the younger actors paid attention to Hoffman and McDormand because both of them were acting rather than posturing.

Extra Review 3 - Wit

This is the most in-your-face movie about illness that I have ever seen. It is also the most complete fusion of a fine script, lead acting, and direction. While extremely intense, I wish it had been a little longer.

Emma Thompson and Audra MacDonald are just brilliant.  Thompson gives a very challenging performance as a scholar who is told, indirectly, that she has terminal cancer.   The film follows her from getting her diagnosis, through testing, chemotherapy and to her death.  MacDonald plays a nurse, and she is one of the only people who shows Thompson any compassion.

The script is wonderfully layered, the details emerging like the pealing of an onion.  The one problem with the script is that every male doctor is portrayed extremely stereotypically.  They all treat Thompson merely as an interesting cancer study and not as a human being suffering and dying middle-aged, the suffering exacerbated by a combination of the experimental chemotherapy and her own stubbornness.  The casting of Christopher Lloyd as the older doctor is something of a problem; even playing straight, he has such a comic demeanor that it is hard to take him seriously.  The performance of Johnathan M. Woodward as the younger doctor (and one of Thompson's former students), varies between vacuousness and paying too much attention to detail as a way to deal with his fears over interacting directly with patients.  When Thompson realizes that she had formerly treated her students as impersonally as she is being treated, the film draws an interesting parallel between relationships in medical treatment and in education.

Mike Nichols directs this movie from a number of different camera angles around the hospital bed rather than photographing everything from side of the bed, and it is an effective technique.

Thursday, March 15 - Walking Blind and Starting the Open Scene

I've never liked being blindfolded.  It makes me feel extremely off-balance.  When Nicole and I talked about how to proceed, it turns out she does not like it any better than I do.  So we both promised to take our time and avoid the stairs.

Nicole went first.  I stood off to one side, trying to give her exact instructions.  I have been, after all, a professional technical writer for many years.  If I can guide people through the virtual world of software, what should be hard about guiding a blindfolded person down a hall?

The real world is different.  For one thing, if I had given poor instruction, Nicole could have hurt herself.  Also, I was almost as much "the audience" as Nicole was, since I was just beside her.  Besides, then I had to do the exact same thing that she did but in reverse.   But we both gave reasonably accurate instructions and no college students were injured in the process of the blindfold test.

When we got back from the hall, Melissa had arrived so we sat and tried to develop our open scene.  One of the first idea we came up with was the script represented a drug deal, but as I suspected this would be a common interpretation in our class, I asked if we could do something different.  We talked a little more and both realized the scene had overtones of Robert Altman's The Player; that the dialogue could represent Hollywood deal-making.  So we decided to be people trying to make a movie deal with one another while being preoccupied by dueling cell phone calls.

Tuesday, March 20  - The First Set of the Open Scenes

Melissa and I got together before class to practice.  The hardest thing for me is to memorize precisely - I'm a natural ad-libber.  We focused on trying to figure out who was speaking on the phone when and tried to give the whole thing a satiric feel.

Of the scenes in progress, the dancing scene is potentially the most broadly comic.  The real dancer is a fine dancer, so the contrast with the "dancer wannabe" is striking and funny.  I'm not sure the male dancer needs to be a drag queen - he's funny enough just as a klutz.

The snoring scene worked a little better than I would have expected.  If someone had come up to me and said "our open scene is on snoring," I wouldn't have expected very much!  When you're doing something with a very simple script, it's easy to rush it.  The snoring scene works because both actors take their time with it and let it develop.

The probable drug deal and the dating/cheating scenario were both pretty much what we expected given the age of the folks in the class and the script.

The final scene - the affair - looks potentially pretty good.  The staging is a little different from the other open scenes.

Thursday, March 22 - More Open Scenes

Melissa and I worked more on our scene.  I was still having lots of trouble memorizing the script.  This was even more evident in our performance, and I appreciated the chance to work on it a little more in the hall try it again in class (of course, I've already forgotten my lines!!).

The line I always stumbled over was "I have had it with this" because it did not seem to make any sense in the context of the situation we put together.  If I'm a writer who wants a deal, I might think that, but I'm not going to say that to a producer because that would probably be a deal killer.  So that's why we felt it should be an aside, rather than something I'd actually say to the producer.

The second presentation of Keith and Sharay's "the affair" scene was fine.  The props (the bed and especially the magazine) work very well.  The fact that he's something of a comic character and she plays it absolutely straight was a good choice.

I have mixed feelings about the second presentation of "the dancers."  If Tyler wants to be a particular female impersonator, then he's really got to try to mimic that woman.  He doesn't seem at all like Tina Turner - he's way too frenetic and he doesn't move anything like her.  I think he'd be better off as "generic drag queen" rather than trying to be Tina Turner.

Tuesday, March 27  - Final Open Scene & Beginning of Final Scene

Our scene didn't go too badly.  I think I only forgot one line!  We were in something of a groove. 

It's always important to not peak too soon.  The dancing scene seemed to have peaked last Thursday; it seemed pretty flat today.

The cheating scene went pretty well.

The snoring scene was even more leisurely but still held together.

AJ's monologue was excellent - she is very expressive and played everything up very well.

I like the new scene, "Laundry and Bourbon."  I think Rebecca and I are a good pair for that piece.  We read over the scene, with Rebecca reading Elizabeth and me reading the more frenetic Hattie.  The script is an amusing slice-of-life about two middle-aged women in Texas in the '70s or '80s (about the only specific clues dating in the script are the references to Let's Make a Deal reruns).  Hattie has irascible children and Elizabeth seems to have an irascible husband, though none of them ever appear onstage.

Thursday, March 29

Rebecca and I talked it over and we're going to work against type - she's going to play the frenetic mother of at least three and I'm going to play the younger woman.  That's actually good for me because I'll have many fewer lines to learn.

We spent some time discussing the era of this play.  I think it's set in the early to mid '80s because Let's Make a Deal was still on the air.  That means finding the kind of floral print dress popular in those days.  I think Elizabeth can probably get away with wearing jeans or maybe shorts. 

Propwise, we'll need chairs, a TV (the black box), laundry and glasses.

In some ways, it's easier for me to talk slowly as Elizabeth than as Hattie.  I naturally talk very fast.  I'm not the expert story-teller that Hattie is.  But playing Hattie makes me want to talk faster.  Elizabeth, on the other hand, plays off of Hattie and is quieter.

We made two really minor cuts - one where Elizabeth talked a little more about her husband and another at the end where Roy is referred to again.  Since we're just doing a portion of a scene and since Roy never appears in the scene, eliminating the references to Roy made sense.  But we felt we couldn't delete references to the poor condition of Elizabeth's house, to Hattie's children or to their amusing viewing of Let's Make a Deal.

Review of Moby Dick Rehearsed

Moby Dick Rehearsed, written by Orson Welles, is an adaptation of the classic American novel Moby DickMoby Dick Rehearsed opened in London in 1955, played for only three weeks and was not one of Welles' better-known works. 

Part of the problem with Moby Dick Rehearsed could be the general expectations the beginning of the play implies.  For the first ten minutes or so, the play seems to be a small theater satire, with fretting actors and a bombastic professional.  Perhaps the play could have fallen into farce like Noises Off.  However, it quickly gives way to a straight adaptation of the novel.

During the initial part of the play, there is a little much talk about the stage being too simple and a little too much forced laughter on the parts of the actors.  Andy Davis, as Ishmael, gives an over-done reading of the opening page of the novel in the frame story, but his acting calms down once the "actual play" starts.

Most of the frame is spent awaiting the arrival of the Equity actor who will play Ahab (which foreshadows the crew waiting for Ahab to come up on deck later in the "actual play").   Like a true small theater, the cast had been preparing King Lear but quickly make the transition to producing Moby Dick.  The Equity actor comes in as an actress is complaining about this, and forces her to stage a brief scene from King Lear with him.  This was fun, but it turned about to be about the only humor in the play (not that I expected Moby Dick Rehearsed to be funny - however, the tone of the frame implied a little more humor in the production than actually appeared in the play). 

The stage and theater size are the least of this production's problems.  The play is fairly well-staged, taking advantage of the whole stage, parts of the seating area and even the back of the house.  When the cast has a choreographed activity, like raising the anchor, the activity was well-mimed.  The implied movement of ships in the distance is nicely managed.  The lighting and sound are both appropriate to the scene.   The acting is perfectly reasonable.

There are two major problems with the production, the primary one being the script. The story of Moby Dick does not translate well to the stage, despite the clever ways the director tried to work around things.  If the second act had had a little more frame and a little less attempt at action, it might have been better.  The pivotal scene of Starbuck trying to shoot Ahab is completely flat; that scene needs a better dramatic build-up in the script but does not have it.  But the problems with the script really are not the director's fault.

What is the director's fault is permitting the actors to use consistently atrocious accents.  Virtually no one in the play, except for the one person who does a working-class English accent, successfully speaks in an unfamiliar accent.  Even the professional and dialect coach are disappointing.  For a play that opens in Nantucket, not a single character could manage a Massachusetts islander accent (maybe they have all seen Jaws one time too many?).  A few use the pseudo-English stage voice, which they seem to think is what Massachusetts islanders sounds like, but it is not close.   Even worse are the attempts at non-English accents because these actors are often completely unintelligible.  There is almost an entire scene where the actors use non-English accents where I have no idea what happened because I could not understand the actors.  A few of the performers, notably Jason Planitzer and Beth Hersey, simply spoke in fairly unaccented English which was much less distracting.   The director and dialogue coach should have simply told the cast to stop using accents during the last week of rehearsal because bad accents are a nuisance.. 

Moby Dick Rehearsed may be an interesting experiment for a cast, but needs a better adaptation and acting to be an interesting theatrical experience for an audience.

Tuesday, April 3

The first monologue (the boss and the photocopy) needed a little more authority and rage.  She did a pretty good job memorizing.

The second monologue (Thanksgiving) was very funny.  AJ has a phenomenal memory (and when she had already memorized the long scene as well...!) and has very good timing.

We worked on our scene a little outside, then presented a reading.  I need to sound a little more depressed, and Rebecca needs to sound a little more frenetic.  Rebecca has her piece almost memorized, and I remember about three lines so far.

AJ and Tyler doing the baby scene was way over the top and could even be more over the top.

I was happy to see a piece from a play that I had seen so I had a basis for comparison.  The Odd Couple was one of those plays my Dad had done (multiple times!) in the '60s and '70s.  In the mid-eighties, I took my parents to a dinner theater where The Female Odd Couple was being performed, and we all enjoyed it.  The basic problem with Amanda and Michelle as the couple is they don't play up the differences of the two characters enough - one is a major slob and naturally angry, and the other is a neatnick who seethes.

Thursday, April 5

Last time, I was waiting to see if I saw any familiar scene.  This time, I think I've seen a few!

The Keith and Brooke "This is My Ledge" scene seemed sort of familiar.  They did a pretty good job, though putting them up on the radiator improved the scene.  It helps to be looking up at them as they are arguing about whose ledge it is.

The Women Studies Field Trip scene felt like something from the wonderful Kathy and Mo show from the early '90s.  The fact that the script references "Kathy and Mo" makes me think that if it wasn't written by Kathy Najimy or Mo Gaffney, it may have been written by Jennifer Saunders or Dawn French.  I've always enjoyed all of their writing!

Melissa and Julie pulled off the accents and sensibilities very well.  Julie may have sat down a little quickly - the ability to get on and off of furniture is often one of the first things to go!

Sara and Alicia perfectly caught the accents of the two New York teens reacting to West Side Story.  About the only suggestion I would have for them is, since they mention Anita's shawl, one of them should use a bathrobe or bed throw as a shawl in that part of the scene.

Tuesday, April 10

I always fret about my inability to memorize, but I did a little better than I expected today.  Rebecca has done a fine job at memorizing her part of the dialogue.

Working with Jodie reminded me about the fact that I still haven't slowed down my speech and tendency to talk with my hands.  Acting requires a better ability to juggle activities than what I have.  Intellectually, I know I must slow down and should not use my hands as much.  But, when I talk, I don't realize I'm talk as fast as I do.  It sounds perfectly normal to me!

Our scene is much more subtle than anyone else's scene and is only somewhat comic.

I lost my notes from class and don't remember whose scenes were performed on Tuesday.

Thursday, April 12

The main problem in "The Female Odd Couple" is that Michelle needs to be angry.  She smiles too much.

In "On the Ledge," Keith's territoriality is very funny.  The timing on "Stop!" was perfect.

Sara and Alicia made good use of props in "West Side Story" and continued to keep up their accents very well.

Sharay's timing in "The Ashtray Thief" is just terrific, particularly the "matter of fact she isn't very pretty" line.

In "Women's Studies," Julie and Melissa are moving in a more age-appropriate manner.  Julie and Melissa need to watch how they stand because Julie is blocking Melissa.

Tuesday, April 17

Our final production was OK, but I was very slow on the pickup lines at times, and at one point jumped ahead at least a line so I needed to repeat myself. It was easy to feel like Elizabeth today because I was exhausted and worried (about my final projects, not about any possible pregnancy or a good-for-nothing husband!).  I tried to slow down my speech, but am not sure I succeeded.  We also tried not to ask for lines and got through things OK.

Rebecca did a good job on making the rabbit ears for the TV.

The Graceland scene was very good. 

The Baby scene gets a little sillier every time.