Be. Havior.

I try as best I can to reply to as many of the responses to this blog.  I appreciate the time and attention people offer in reading and responding.  It means something to me because most of the time I think I’m sending a load of crap out into the ether.  So just a short while ago I was emailing a reply, got a little curious, wanted to know to whom and where I might be sending my response.  Several times I’ve been surprised by the variety of readers and their home countries.  I think it’s basically an ego thing for me.  I recognize that.  I admit it.  I’m not proud of it.  I’m just sayin’.

Anyway, a short while ago I was intrigued by one of the responses I received.  Couldn’t tell if I was being insulted or complimented.  It was enigmatic zen-like statement.  Could go either way.  Maybe something got lost in translation, I thought.  So I checked out who sent the response.  Definitely not a typical name.  It seemed to be perhaps outside the United States?  Something unfamiliar to my limited experience and indicative of unlimited ignorance.  I was curious.  Investigated further, clicked on the address attached to the name….and wound up at a completely inappropriate website.  I can’t describe it, the website, because I immediately sought to click on the white “X” in the red box to the top-right corner of my computer screen.  All I thought was, “You idiot!  You fu$%#ing idiot!”

I imagined some Trojan virus (how fitting) or worm (I’m not gonna go near that one) or whatnot infecting my computer and the havoc that would be wreaked upon my life.

And then, just as quickly, something else began to happen.  The sweat along my brow.  The adrenaline rush through the body.  Forgive the Coldplay reference, but a sudden rush of blood to the head.  Embarrassment.  Shame.  This really deep-seated shame.  I could feel my skin turning rapidly from pink to red.

I was alone at work at my desk.  I didn’t do anything, I didn’t see anything.  (Okay, there were blue and white design elements, the screen bore no signs of any thing recognizably English in language, and there were certainly specific bodily forms that one didn’t need to investigate fully to achieve an understanding of what one was viewing.)  But I immediately clicked off, I swear got out of there as fast as I could. But still I felt guilty.  (Even now as I write this, time has passed yet there is still this residual sense of shame.)  I felt like I had done something really suspect.  All in an instant. In the click of a mouse.

Of course much of this may be anchored in my cultural upbringing, blah, blah, blah.  The amazing thing to me, the stunning thing to me, the thing that is most remarkable is that there were no witnesses to what had just occurred.  Just me.  All my myself….But sitting beside me were my beliefs, my past experiences, my upbringing, and all the proverbial baggage that makes up the hardwiring of a life.  It makes no sense that I should be embarrassed, guilty, ashamed for what occurred.  My behavior was and is illogical, irrational, didn’t and doesn’t make any sense.

Or maybe it does.  I guess that’s the value of evaluating behavior in retrospect.  It’s not just time the causes the power of experience to dissipate.  It’s time combined with analysis.  We label, name, categorize, each and every experience, and at the moment we do that the experience moves from the visceral — the heart, the gut, the body — to the head.  So even though my behavior, my experience of that simple click of a mouse, could easily be fully explained and understood, I don’t wanna.  Leave it alone and let it be.

Let it.  Be.  Havior.

Say It Ain’t So, Joe!

It always happens the same way every morning, yet I always expect or hope for a dif-ferent outcome.  The coffeepot.  The Mr. Coffee coffee pot.  Endorsed by Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio!  One cannot pour the damn liquid from the glass container without coffee leaking on the counter.  I don’t know why this is.  Human beings have sent astronauts to the moon, developed the microprocessor, cloned sheep, found a safe and effective way to dispense cheese from a can.  Surely there must be some way to create a universal coffee pot that safely, effectively, and efficiently permits the caffeine addict to get a daily dose without having to reach for a roll of paper towels….That’s what I believe.  That is my hope.  And every morning I truly have the hope that I can pour my morning jolt  with-out incident.  Despite past evidence, past experience to the contrary.  It’s an irrational faith.  I haven’t purchased a new automatic drip coffee maker.  I haven’t studied and improved upon my pouring technique.  For all intents and purposes, I basically do the same exact thing every morning.  Employ the same procedure.  But I expect a different result.  (Which I know is the definition of insanity, but that’s a whole other discussion into which I don’t wish to enter at the present moment.)  It seems that hope, expecta-tion, the desire for a particular outcome yet to be determined is sometimes a very ir-rational thing.  At least for me.

A whole host of similar daily expectations and resulting daily behaviors comes to mind.  The days I leave my house late for an appointment and expect that there will be no traffic – or that it somehow won’t slow me down.  Or that I will get up at the exact time I set my alarm.  That I won’t hit the snooze button tomorrow morning.  Or that all my socks will come out of the dryer.

These are admittedly very small and insignificant things.  They are of little to no con-sequence in the grand scheme of a life.  But if someone can have such daily irrational expectations, why can’t a character in a play?  A play which is usually more often than not a thoroughly heightened series of experiences?  I know that for me the big moments in life are the ones in which I was just winging it no matter how much preparation and planning went into it.

So often the actor makes the smart choice, figures out the rational decision, comes up with the measured response.  I don’t know why this is, and I don’t care to examine it.  (It’s not my field of expertise if I even have a field of expertise.)

What I do believe is that scripts are full of characters who make decisions and choose to behave in a manner that those characters believe will produce a desired outcome.  This doesn’t mean they are smart.  Or logical.  It means that they are impulsive, wholly human, and hopeful that the things they do today will change the way things went the
day before.

Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?

Outside the post office I was getting into my car.  An unshaven heavy-set man pulling an old suitcase behind him politely called me “Sir” and asked if I could help him get a little something to eat.  I quickly dismissed him with a perfunctory, “I’m really sorry.”  He just said, “Okay,” and labored on his way toward a small public park at the end of the street.

I don’t normally have cash on me.  At most, I have a small collection of change in the cup holder in my car.  But this morning I had a rare amount of cash in my wallet.  $12.  My mind began the standard cynical debate which occurs almost daily whenever confronted with these all-too-routine requests for help:

He’ll probably only spend anything I give him on alcohol or something similar.

He’s probably a con artist.

He’s not my responsibility.

I’ve got bills of my own to pay.

And on and on.

I watched him in the rearview mirror of my car.  He’d settled himself on a small stone fence that divided two properties down the street.  Before doing so, he’d looked around to be certain, I assume, that he wouldn’t bother anyone or be chased away by a home owner.  He just sat there and looked across the street at the empty park.

I don’t know exactly what prompted me to do so, but impulsively I took out my wallet. $12.  A ten and two singles.  I tucked the two singles back into my wallet, walked down the street to where he was sitting, stuck my arm out awkwardly and offered they guy the ten.  He looked at me blankly.  Like he didn’t understand what was happening.  Didn’t reach for the money at first.  It then seemed to dawn on him what was happening.

“Really?”  He was visibly shocked.  His eyes went from the $10 bill to me and back to the ten and then back to me.  Slowly.  An expression of benign incredulity.  I had to place the money in his hand.  He wouldn’t reach for it.  “Thanks, brother.”

“Take care of yourself.”

“I’m tryin’.”

This entire exchange from our first encounter to the moment the money got into his hand lasted maybe five minutes and involved $10.  Not a great sum of cash.  Not much at stake.  But I wasn’t gonna give him anything at first.  I wanted to hold onto that money.  I can be a stingy SOB.  And then the time I took to rationalize and bolster my stingy behavior.  Then the impulse to help him out in some small way.  The need to almost force him to take the money.  His quiet disbelief.  We spoke about six sentences between us.  Nothing eloquent or memorable at all.

Stella Adler used to tell her students, “It’s not the lines.  It’s the life!”  Each moment is a world of experience.  A world of thought.  A world of feeling.  Of impulse embraced and impulse denied.  Never a dead or dull moment.

What Does String Theory Have to Do With the TV Show Hoarders?

One more thing about my brother.  As I wrote previously, he’s a kind of renaissance man.  A scientist and musician who loves movies and the process of story-telling.  He also likes to have a few beers and talk smack.  He’s a fun guy to have around.  Anyway, recently we were sitting around and talking about string theory (I know that sounds like a lot of BS and really pretentious, but just hear me out.)  If you don’t know what string theory is, I can’t explain it.  It’s beyond me.  But it has something to do with a unifying universal theory of how the universe exists at all and continues to operate.  I’m probably wrong about that, but it’s close enough for the purposes of this discussion.  String theory holds that there are many dimensions beyond the three of four that humans can physically sense and perceive.  Maybe as many as 11 or 21 permitting multiple parallel universes – all occurring at the same time, side by side by side.  Something absurd like
that.  So absurd to me that I challenged my brother with the question, “Why do I need to be aware of that?”  What good does that information do me?  I’m quite content with my three dimensional existence.  As a matter of fact, I find that three dimensions are more than I can handle much of the time.  There’s no need to throw 8 more into the mix.

He countered with this.

There are beliefs that we hold.  Religious.  Spiritual.  Cultural.  National.  Etc.  We inherit them from birth; and, as life goes on and we grow and learn and hopefully mature, we inspect, challenge, sometimes reject and sometimes come to a new under-standing of these beliefs.  Some we keep.  Some we throw away.  But some just stick.  No matter what we do.  They become habit.  Unconscious habit.  And we respond not to the present moment but to a memory – an unconscious habitual behavior – from the past.

For example, have you ever watched the show Hoarders?  More often than not, and I will go so far as to say 100% of the time, the hoarder’s compulsive behavior is rooted in some trauma from the past – a death, a divorce, an abusive relationship.  So the current, present-day behavior of the hoarder is shaped by a past event.  Which means the behavior is not only informed by the past, it is locked in the past.  It is locked in the parallel universe of the past.  The hoarder is breathing, eating, walking around in the present, but continually responding to an event that happened years even decades ago.
Which is kinda sorta like living two lives at the same time – one conscious, one uncon-scious.  And both having a very real impact.

I still don’t know for certain how any of this relates to string theory, but the show Hoarders definitely terrifies me.

How Does It Feel?

I recently received the news that someone very close to me had been diagnosed with cancer.  All things being equal, the prognosis is good, the malady was detected early, and treatment will begin very, very soon.

So how do I feel about all of this?  How did I react?  What was my emotional response?

I still don’t know.  Intellectually I know the significance of the situation.  I realize the risks
involved.  I’ve researched the statistics.  But I’m kinda numb to the whole thing.  Maybe I’m in shock.  Maybe I’m in denial.  But maybe I’m perfectly healthy, normal, and perhaps even typical.

The point is we never know how we will respond in any situation.  We hope that we will behave heroically or with such a wonderful degree of sensitivity that some kind of Council of Elders will designate us a demi-god at the very least.

But that’s not the way it works in life.  We are often dumbfounded, stunned, even lazy in our response.  And that’s okay.  Because it’s organic, it’s truthful, it’s real, it’s what it is at the time.

Lee Strasberg advised that No Reality Is a Big Reality.  Nothing can be more terrifying on stage than not knowing, not feeling, what you’re response is.  It’s a great place to be oddly enough.  It’s not that the actor is deliberately attempting to eliminate the expression of response.  It’s a matter of the actor allowing whatever might happen to happen.

When reading a script, the actor can sometimes assume that what is best in times of crisis is a huge emotional response.  But, oftentimes, we don’t behave that way when faced with challenging circumstances.  We try to solve the problem.  We try to offer assistance.  We try to find out as much as we can about whatever is going on, whatever is confronting us.  We don’t try to feel, we don’t try to emote.  We focus on the person confronted with the problem or challenge, and we try to assist as best we can….Or we try to run, to hide, to deny, to push away the problem or challenge as best we can.  It’s a survival instinct.  It’s reptilian.  It’s ancient.  It’s organic.

Sometimes no reality is a pretty big reality.

The Happy Accident

I was speaking with my brother recently.  He’s an engineer with a pharmaceutical company on the east coast.  But he’s not all bad.  He’s also a musician and a film en- thusiast.  I try not to talk too much about acting or theatre and the like.  I fear I will endlessly and needlessly bore him.  But he’s a nice guy, listens politely, and respectfully endures the machinations of my mind much of the time.  During our discussion about nothing in particular and everything under the sun, he started to talk about the difference between leadership and management.  (He’s thinking about going back to school for an MBA….Poor guy.  Good luck getting a job with that degree!)  Leaders, he offered, see things differently and create new ideas.  Managers maintain the status quo.  He then said that he sometimes gets frustrated with his job because there is such a carefully regulated work environment – understandably so due to the inherent hazards that are part and parcel of the work being done – that creativity is stifled.  Procedures must be so nailed down, fixed and precise in order to eliminate mistakes.  But, he said, when you study Nature — when you study the evolution of plants and animals — it’s the mistake, the random event that leads to variation.  The Happy Accident.

Evolution, nature’s process of improvement and survival, isn’t a steady climb.  It moves in fits and starts.  Sometimes slow and unchanging.  Sometimes incredibly fast and mercurial.  Creativity isn’t a smooth process nor is it a fixed process.  There are fixed elements involved – DNA, specific environmental influences, etc. – but there are also a lot of variations.  Some variations are useless.  Some are invaluable.  Some variations are truly life-changing and can send a particular species sky-rocketing into the future.

So what does any of this have to do with acting?

Process is important.  Rehearsal technique is a key ingredient to any actor’s success.   But it cannot be so fixed that it doesn’t provide the opportunity for variation.  Random Events.  Random Responses.  Happy Accidents.  A static process – memorizing the text so that it can be spoken in a convincingly naturalistic manner with a ready-made
emotional response — isn’t rehearsal.  It’s rote memorization.

Actors need to be leaders, not managers.  Actors need to be able to look at the situations in the script, create new ideas, and offer new perspectives.  Actors need their own unique points of view.  We cannot be managers merely interested in maintaining the theatrical status quo, of getting it done the right way, and guaranteeing only the same old outcome.

Fits and starts.  Random Events.  Random Responses.  Happy Accidents.  These are the by-products of a creative process.

just a little bit

Scene analysis is difficult.  If anyone tells you different, you’re either talking to an idiot, a bad actor, or maybe both.  It can be tedious work.  Sifting through the playwright’s words to figure out what essentially is happening at every moment of the play….That’s right.  At every moment of the play.  Even the scenes you aren’t in!

It can be overwhelming, too.  There’s always this constant pressure to get it right.  To figure out exactly what the playwright meant, what her intention was with the story, why did she write it, and why does this scene follow that scene, and on and on and on.

Analysis causes me high anxiety.  (There’s a joke in there somewhere.  Anyway….)   I start to feel hopeless and completely helpless.  Paralyzed and intimidated by this beast called THE TEXT.  The only way I know how to deal is to begin to break the beast into bits.  Little simple bits.

For instance, I’ll sometimes track when one character enters and then leaves a scene.  That’s a bit.  Or when any character enters a scene, and then when any character leaves the scene.  That’s a bit.  Because there’s a change.  And a change in the story of any kind usually means that something important just happened. Something important to the telling of the story.  No matter how small that change might be.  I chart these little changes, these entrances and exits, and I begin to notice other little bits of change throughout the play.  The story starts to make sense, each little moment reveals itself as building on the one that came before, each little exchange between characters seems inspired no matter how mundane, common, or colloquial.

But it all starts with a little bit.  Somebody enters, somebody leaves.  Something just happened, something just changed.  Something just sparked the imagination.