Here’s the important stuff from the night: we did the “I want the chair” and “you can’t have the chair” exercise. This time the lines were the same but we concentrate on a pause to reflect before delivering the lines. A pause is important, in acting or in writing. Some people got frustrated and tried to add some lines to allow them to “get the chair” but she called them on it every time saying, “it’s not about the words.” I must admit that gave me pause. But here’s the thing, the really BIG thing, when it was my turn I had to work for it but I GOT THE CHAIR. Using only that one line and my power of expression, I managed to convince the guy to give me the chair. A big accimplishment.
Second thing, we did the camera work. Which means I have a video tape of me on camera. Which means I delayed watching it until today (making sure to watch it before I ate dinner in case it caused stomach discomfort.) And well, it didn’t totally stink. It wasn’t about the delivery, this was all about just learning to say the different lines in a variety of ways, but seeing oneself on camera is a little disheartening even when you think you are prepared for it. I have perpetual head tilt. I chew my bottom lip. I should probably cut off about 16 inches of my hair (yes, over a foot). It was only 10 minutes on camera and I didn’t cry watching it (though it was close) and it has given me a lot to think about. A lot to think about.
Is acting class helping my writing? I’m still not sure. But experiencing life means more experiences to write about down the road.
Week 4 of class and it was, yes indeed, RAINING.
No time for small talk, we just dove in. First we did the physical warm-up which was fine (as long as I stay away from the mirror). I know I should be moving around more and not standing in place but I am happy with what I am doing and that’s improvement right there. After that we went straight to the emotional spiral and I just couldn’t get into it. I couldn’t feel any of the emotions, not moving or standing still, and when she got to the part about feeling the anger in the “space” between us in the room and I was actually near tears because it all seems too “out there” for me to grasp. The same thing happens for mediations and other such exercises. I have some humongous mental block that won’t let me let things go. I guess. I don’t know. It was really rather frustrating and sad and depressing. Actually for about a half an hour of the class I was very down on myself. I know part of it is because I am used to be good at things and this is something I’m not good at and that I really don’t have the aptitude for. Now I can tell myself that it’s okay because it’s not like I’m looking for a career change but I really REALLY dislike not doing things well. I thrive on praise and I languish without it.
I will say though that we have a terrific group of people in the class that I am really enjoy getting to know. It’s just the overachiever perfectionist in me that has to accept that this is not my “thing” yet at the same time accept that there is still much to be learned from the experience.
We paired up again to practice transmitting something we wanted without saying a word. Then at a signal from the teacher the other person had to tell us that we could not have what we wanted. Those observing me said that I deflated (an automatic physical reaction) but then that I got a bit of a steel rod in my spine and straightened up again. I found that interesting. We moved to the camera for the first time. No taping, just the experience of standing in one place and getting used to the camera being on you. The rest of the class got to watch us on the monitor. We started off just standing there and then did the “want something” exercise but this time someone from the group would stand beside the camera so we could connect with them. For me it was the same thing as with the earlier exercise. When someone told me I couldn’t have what I wanted I felt the punch to the gut and then got more of an “I’ll show you” glint in my eye. I think this is good however I also think it is something for me to watch as it could easily get out of control with an attitude that is not the idea to project to the public.
The last thing we did was start to work on our monologues. Another interesting exercise. We didn’t, as we all expected to do, run through the entire monologue. Instead we took a single line from it and worked on raising the emotional stakes. The before and afters as we shared with the group were quite significant.
So what does all this acting stuff have to do with writing, or more specifically, with MY writing? For one thing, it is nice to be able to see that actors have to do the same things that writers do. They build a character. They have to know what the character wants. They seek the right emotional tone to convey the message. And they practice. A lot!
The other thing it is doing is taking my powers of observation up a notch. I’ve always been a people watcher but now I am looking even more closely at the details of what and how people act. Each exaggerated yawn or tapping of the foot, every twist of the ring on a finger, raised eyebrow, or sudden indrawn gasp…they are all fingerprints of a character. They are pieces of a story waiting to be told.
Week 3 of acting fundamentals on Monday. I seem to be consistent at posting it 2 days post. Oh well.
Of course that didn’t last for long.
This time we went through the various emotions while moving around the room. I could sort of do them when I was sitting still but moving and making noises and bringing out the various emotions all at the same time didn’t work for me at all. Okay. . . I just couldn’t do it. Except for anger. Not a problem letting the anger out. Go figure. I don’t know if getting in touch with my anger means I will finally be able to write about my REALLY ANGRY KID or if I just need a lot of therapy.
After bringing all our emotions to the surface it was time to face off in a line again about three feet apart. First off was to just “be” and experience whatever the other person was sending you. All of this was completely silent. Then she had us continue but we moved a step closer. Wow. It totally changed the dynamics. I felt safer and found it much easier to send and receive silent messages. After that we traded partners and practiced the personalization technique again, first someone we loved then we changed partners again and the assignment was to imagine the other person was someone who had intimidated us. That was another tough one for me and I don’t think I managed to get it across. More fear than intimidation. I’m sensing a trend in myself here.
The next exercise was a lot of fun both to do and to watch. It was called “I want the chair” and the instructions were very simple. One person sitting down in the chair, doing a task, writing, drawing etc. (actual task, not pretending) Another person standing up. Each person had one line. The person standing could only say “I want the chair” and the other person’s line was “You can’t have the chair”. You couldn’t touch each other. You had to try and make eye contact. And you had to try and make the other person give you the chair. It is very hard to come up with different ways to ask for something when someone keeps telling you no. While the acting lesson here was all about transmitting emotions and getting those emotions across effectively so you could get the result/reaction you needed/wanted, my writer self was stuck on perseverance.
You must not give up asking for what you want. Even when all seems hopeless.
After this (or maybe before, I’m confused in my remembering) we did a round robin sort of thing. It was supposed to be the personalization thing, where we thought of two different people and then we took turns sitting in pairs, pretending we were in the coffee shop just chatting but we were supposed to personalize the other person but keep talking lightweight stuff. Then we traded off. I got confused and instead went into improv mode where the only emotion I seemed to be able to portray was, come on, you know the answer to this one.
Yes, anger. Okay, low level anger and frustration but still, anger. So of course when it was pointed out that I DID THE WRONG THING I was very embarrassed and tried (without success) to slide under the couch and disappear. Sigh. I hate when I don’t follow directions and then stuff like that happens. I do think, in retrospect, that my writer mind just doesn’t slow down to think about how actors do what they do. I’m barrelling straight ahead into characters and watching them react to what is going on in their lives, just like I do when I write. Alas I was one of the first to do the exercise so I got to sit and watch everyone else do it right and gather teacher praise. (Gawd, we never ever outgrow that need for teacher praise, I fear. Okay, I’m being plural. ‘I” never ever seem to outgrow that need.
The last exercise WAS improv. (Yeah – this time I knew what to do.) We went up in pairs with different scenarios. Mine was siblings who were fighting over who got the mom’s wedding ring after she died. It was a lot of fun because of course, I had permission to be angry, to be indignant, to be sad, but mostly to be angry. It was 100% character development on the spot and I loved it. It didn’t matter that I’m no good at the acting part. What was wonderful was to watch a character unfold so quickly when all I had been told was that we were brother and sister, our parents had died, and we both wanted the same ring. I think we had about 5 minutes (maybe it only seemed that long) but it was enough for this unknown character to spring to life through me.
Years ago I did a ghostwriting project (a novel) that involved a character who lived a complete different lifestyle than mine. She was rich. Really, REALLY rich. She was dangerous. She lived life on the edge. A friend in my critique group knew that I was struggling with the project. She really didn’t know anything about the character except for those three things; she was rich, dangerous, and lived life on the edge. She called me and told me to be ready to entertain a visitor the next day. In the morning I answered the doorbell and there was my friend decked out in a ritzy outfit and a wig. She introduced herself as my character. We proceeded to spend the morning getting to know one another. It helped, but if I had it to do over again, now that I have had a tiny taste of improv, I bet it would go even better.
But I’ve never been that good at taking my own advice.
Then it was time to get up and move some more when she put on some tribal music and turned us loose. Instead of being easier this week it was more difficult thank before. I’m not sure why.
From there we moved into acting out our emotions on an individual level but standing in a circle. She would name an emotion and we would try to feel/act it in place. Then she had us turn away from each other and do it, and this became a bit easier (not much.) She would name an emotion and we would make noises, move our arms and legs, stomp our feet, that sort of thing. It was very hard for me, even harder than the dancing, until she said anger. Perhaps it was because she called for the switch and then someone turned toward me making angry noises and looking as though they were ready to attack. Perhaps all the other prep work primed the pump. All I know is that when she said ANGER I turned and let out several very loud (for me) shouts and stomped my feet hard (oh my “aching very bad before I did that” knee). I found I wanted to just scream and shout like a primal being of some kind. It was an odd experience. When she called us to stop I felt such an absence of tension.
Because emotions are a lot about relationships and relationships bring up a lot of emotions, the next exercise had us lining up facing one another. The idea was to practice sending and receiving emotions without saying a word. First we had to just stand and stare into the other person’s eyes. This met with varying degrees of success. Some people were able to do it. Some people were uncomfortable standing so close to someone of the same sex. Some people just dissolved into giggles. Then it was time to move into personalization which had many similarities to the way a writer might develop a character. People on one side of the room, the senders, were told to think of someone they loved. As a child, as an adult, whatever. But you were personalize the person across from you into that person you loved and then, once you had a hold of that, you were to silently say anything you wanted to to that person. Then you shared to see how well you each did at sending and receiving. I was surprised to see that I DID receive fairly well in several cases and even more surprised to see how well I did at sending because in each instance, the person receiving from me (and we switched off) was able to nail someone I loved, someone I hated and something I wanted. When I say nailed, it wasn’t that they were able to identify that it was my grandfather I loved but they were able to describe the type of love it was and how I felt about it. It was really weird to give so much information without saying anything. I have a new respect for the term “body language.”
The last thing we did was a bit of improv. I felt like I had fallen into an episode of Who’s Line is it Anyway? She put three chairs in the front of the room. Each one was a different emotion. Then she picked two people and we gave them a relationship. Each time you were at a different chair, you had to show that emotion. Whew! I did three turns, one pairing as siblings, one as neighbors and one as friends. It seems I have no trouble bringing up the emotions of disgust or anger. But joy, well, that’s one to work on.
Monday night was the first night of the 8 weeks of introductory acting class.
The closer I got, the more I could feel myself start to disassociate. The good news? There were only 6 people in the class. The bad news? The low number didn’t make me feel any less nervous about it all. It’s weird because I have spoken to larger groups of people but because this was so new (and I don’t “do” new well) and so outside my comfort zone, I felt pretty shaky. The class meets at the San Jose Repertory Theatre. The good news? It is NOT being held on the big stage but in a little side room. More good news is that before class I was able to check out the second floor balcony of the place as a potential venue for my book launch. It’s a long, somewhat narrow and irregular shaped balcony that looks over the main lobby with lots of windows and great art. There’s a bar area at the end. I actually thought the price was very reasonable and there’s lot of parking around the place, even free parking, if the event is after 6pm.
There were, like I said, 6 of us in the class with an age span of 40 years. Three men and three women. Some of them want to be actors. Some of them want to be better presenters. Some of them want to grow as a person. We all exhibited various nervous signs. For me I disassociated a little more. My heart raced and I felt the rosacea flush start to build. Just being here, doing something new, and I was on the edge of quitting. I can’t remember the last time I did something new, something I didn’t know how to do already. I can’t remember the last time I pushed myself to the point of being this uncomfortable. Because I can’t remember, I know it has been too long. I had to stay. Stay or just go ahead and give up on taking myself and my career to the next level. It was time to get out of my own way.
The first thing she had us do is introduce ourselves and tell what it meant to us to be an actor. Of course since I don’t aspire to be an actor I felt awkward right away but the instructor was good about the idea that not all of us want to be on the stage. She talked a bit about her background and a class she teaches about acting with emotional honestly. I actually relaxed for a moment when she said that because of my strong beliefs about writing with emotional honesty. We stood up and did an exercise called “yes, and” where one person would say, “You have blonde hair” and the other would answer “Yes, I have blonde hair and you are wearing a red shirt.” It went back and forth for a while, building some energy and breaking down some barriers. Mostly I was okay with that but my face was very flushed (so much that my partner commented on it) so perhaps while I’m at the theatre I’ll learn some actor’s makeup tricks to hide the damn pink face that is rosacea. Grumble, grumble.
She led us through a guided meditation that instead of relaxing me made my heart race even more. Throughout it all my arms and legs felt very shaky. My heart raced. My face continued to flush. But my torso felt devoid of anything. Odd.
She put on some tribal music and had us MOVE around the room. The instructions were simple – just move. You could go off to a corner, sprawl on the floor, whatever. It was hard. Hard for all of us. I don’t dance. Not ever and this was dancing without instructions in front of strangers. I never completely relaxed and found myself instead watching the other people, envying their ability to be silly and wishing I had it too.
We did another exercise where we paired off and asked the other person for something we really wanted. The other person was to respond positively. Then we did it again and we were to respond in the negative. The idea was to notice the change in the energy and how we felt.
Then we made a semi circle of an audience and each took turns standing up in front of everyone. First just standing there, making eye contact with each person, waiting, arms by your side, silent. Then we had to talk about something we were passionate about. I talked about Hugging the Rock (big surprise as I had just received the galleys that day) . It was interesting to see, as you would expect, how people came more alive, their energy increased, the energy in the room increased, when they spoke about something they felt passionate about. After sharing their passion each person shared something that it wasn’t likely other people knew. More talk about building a safe place, which it did feel like by the end of the night.
The last exercise was “share the impulse” and I’ve done versions of it before. You hold hands in a circle and one person starts a squeeze and you keep it going around the room. After a lot of false starts we kept two of them going in opposite directions for a few rounds and then called it a night.
It was a wonderful but exhausting 3 hours. For homework she handed us questions to ask ourselves, stressing that the better we know ourselves the better we can bring ourselves to the performance. This, of course, is exactly what we writers try to do when we create a character. Next week we bring a video tape
None of this class will be easy but all of it will be educational.