Monday, August 30, 2010

The basics.

A group of NTI alums in New York recently formed a collective, and they offer acting classes taught by NTI teachers. I'm on their email list, and reading about these classes makes me wish I lived in NYC. Except, you know, that it's cold, expensive, and eats little starry-eyed artsy types like me for dinner...

Anyway, in his description of an upcoming class, Michael Cadman said something that resonated with me:

I am most concerned to make opportunities for the students to overcome what seems to be a major obstacle in much of their acting: themselves. Without ridding ourselves of the need to be constantly monitoring our work, constantly worrying about what others might be thinking of us, we cannot hope to stay in the moment and be truly and freely reactive. I think we all recognize this, both from what we've read about acting and from frustration in our own experience. Until we have felt the power of simply listening and responding and realized the beautiful simplicity of it; until we have let go and trusted ourselves in the hands of our creative partners, be it writers, directors or most importantly our fellow actors; until we have sort of discovered it for ourselves, it is difficult maybe to believe this power even exists.

The pressure to come up with a clever way of delivering a line can be so distracting. It's easy to see when an actor is doing this, and it usually falls flat. Truly listening to the other actor(s), and responding to their offerings, is more powerful. I've seen actors come up with something funny in one rehearsal or performance, and then refuse to let go of that choice even as it continually fails to work as well as it did the first time. The thing is, theater is live. A play is a living thing. It's never exactly the same show twice. That's why the great choice you made last night may not be the right choice tonight.

The concepts Cadman describes are so simple, but so easy to overlook, especially in the high-pressure settings of audition and performance. Since I can't travel to NYC every week to take this class, I've been trying to apply these concepts to my own work here at home.

(Another cool thing about NYC is that I hear there's a ton of vegan food options there. Like, say, if a vegan found herself craving donuts, I bet she could find them in NYC. If said vegan lives in New Orleans, she has to make her own vegan donuts.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Group projects and deadlines

Earlier this month, I worked as part of a team to create a short film for the 48 Hour Film Project. I had participated in this project once before, in 2007. That year, I was only involved as an actor. Our day of shooting started early in the morning on Saturday and continued until well after midnight. Still, most of the other members of the team had been writing all night on Friday and still had to edit all day Sunday. This made my job relatively easy.

This year, I was more involved in the whole process, mostly the script writing. I also had a small but fun non-speaking role.

Our team didn't end up winning, but I thought our final product was funny and quite polished, considering the limited time we had to create it. The process was both stressful and exciting, and it made me think about my experiences with group projects and deadlines in the past.

In fall of 2002, I spent an intense and life-changing semester at The Eugene O'Neill National Theater Institute. One of our first assignments was to dramatize a portion of a novel, working in small groups. Staying up late to work on the first night, I became completely giddy and useless to my group, joking and - literally - rolling around on the floor. This was not amusing to the poor folks on my team who were actually trying to complete our assignment. One of them had prescription medication for ADD which she gave me, as a last-ditch effort to try to get me to function like a normal human being. Unfortunately the pill only caused me to be more focused on my mission to distract the others.

Looking back on this amusing but embarrassing moment, I think I was overwhelmed by the challenge of the group project, and my antics were a way of pretending I didn't care about it, when in reality I was so afraid of failure that I essentially gave up. I was also attention-hungry and wanted everyone to think I was funny, a common but terribly annoying trait many of us theater people suffer from. Thankfully, the next day I more or less snapped out of it and got down to business, but I'm sure I still caused our group to lose precious time and hurt the process overall.

Over the course of that semester at NTI, with classes 7 days a week and little contact with the outside world, I was presented with so many "impossible" projects and tactful but ego-bruising criticism, that I emerged a far better team player than I had been on that first project.

Working with a group is still a challenge for me, and there are a few questions I use to "check-in" with myself throughout group projects:

Do I need to let this idea go? So often, as the clock ticks and the deadline approaches, we can't seem to stop ourselves from obsessing over a small detail. Why can't the other group members see how brilliant our little idea is? I try to remind myself to pick my battles. It is absolutely OK to spend a few minutes selling the group on an idea that you feel really passionate about. But you are not allowed to get over-attached to every little thing that pops in your head. This will just hold the process back. The flip side of this is...

Am I resisting an idea that one of my team members is passionate about? Sometimes someone else may suggest something that seems a bit off to you, but is really important to them. If you kinda-sorta disagree with them, but they have strong feelings about their idea, step back and let them run with it.

Is it too late in the process for my awesome new idea? At some point, the group has to commit to an idea. Sometimes you reach a point where it actually is in the best interest of the group to trash that entire idea (and all the work and time devoted to it) and start fresh. But that is a last resort, and if you keep doing that, you will never meet the deadline. This means you need to let go of some new and awesome ideas that unfortunately popped into your head a little too late. Jot them down in a notebook and save them for a future project.

Is my awesome idea worth all of the additional resources needed to make it happen? To use the 48 Hour Film as an example, you lose precious time if you have to move to a new location or locate a new actor or drive to store after store looking for that elusive perfect prop. Is it worth it? Sometimes, yes. But not all the time. There may be a more simple solution that will work almost as well. Don't let perfectionism drag you down.

Basically, all of these questions are various ways of asking Am I listening to my ego or am I doing the best thing for the project? I know this is something I struggle with. But after many years of practice (also known as fucking up), I do think I'm getting better at honestly assessing my motivations. Group projects with deadlines are excellent learning opportunities, useful for all artists to seek out and participate in. Try it, fuck up, and learn :)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Adventures on the North Shore

It's been around 10 years since my mom moved to Lacombe, and it's kind of amazing how much the North Shore area has developed since then. My mom recently went on a mission to find vegan food options in her area to try to lure me over to visit more often.

Tonight we shared an awesome vegan pizza at Mellow Mushroom in Covington, and it reminded me that I'm still annoyed that Naked Pizza here in New Orleans no longer offers vegan cheese. It will probably take me a while to get over that one, vegans are good at being bitter ;) I no longer "like" them on Facebook. YEAH, THAT'LL SHOW 'EM. Thankfully, they do make a great vegan pizza at Whole Foods, and I have leftover Mellow Mushroom pizza in my fridge, which, let's be honest, I will probably eat for breakfast tomorrow.

For dessert we got cupcakes from KC's Babycakes in Mandeville. KC's vegan cupcakes are also available at Fair Grinds coffee shop here in NOLA. The kind I had today was chocolate with coffee frosting and toasted coconut, and it was YUM. I think I need to try all the vegan flavors. Margarita and Fresh Lemon Macadamia sound especially intriguing.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mathilda Savitch (Another great read)

So, another of the three books I decided I desperately needed while killing time at Barnes and Noble was Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato. Just look at this cover:

Creepy girl? I'm sold.

Thankfully, the book was just as awesome as the cover. Having once been a weird adolescent girl, I think Victor Lodato did an excellent job with Mathilda's voice. Her take on the world was bizarre and hilarious, and the writing was sophisticated and beautiful while staying true to a young sensibility - not easy to pull off.

A quote:

"There is so little imagination in the world. A person like me is basically alone. If I want to live in the same world as other people I have to make a special effort."

See? Now don't you want to read this book?

P.S. I am working on the third book, I'm finding it to be not as much of a page-turner as the first two, but still promising. Also, Broken Glass Park, which I wrote about in my last post, mentioned the Russian band Nautilus Pompilius, which has become a current obsession. I have no clue what they're saying but whatever.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Broken Glass Park

I needed a couple of tires for my car, and decided to head to Lacombe, the small town on the North Shore where my mother and stepfather live. There's a tire shop near their house that my stepfather recommended. Besides tires, they also sell homemade fig jam and pickled quail eggs, if you're into that sort of thing.

Anyway, they didn't have the tires in stock when I arrived, and offered some vague explanation about the tire truck driver "coming from Thibodeaux." I gave them my cell number and decided to wait at the Barnes & Noble in Mandeville, where, of course, I found three books that I absolutely needed to buy. Between the books and the tires, it turned out to be an expensive day.

I read one of the books in its entirety that day: Broken Glass Park by Alina Bronsky. It's a harsh story about a 17 year old Russian immigrant living in Berlin. There are no chapter breaks in the book, and the story is told in a sometimes rambling, indirect manner. But it works. I loved the distinct voice of Sacha, the protagonist.

I was happy to find a book with a teenage protagonist that was written for adults. My own novel (which I seem to be endlessly revising) has a protagonist who is 17-18 for most of the book, yet I feel that the subject manner is a little much for a Young Adult audience. So it was great to see an example of what I'm trying to do.

I highly recommend Broken Glass Park. I don't recommend pickled quail eggs, however, because they're not vegan.