The ACTion COLLECTIVE: ACT V, scene ii - Personal Character - Find Your Voice

"Everything you create comes from here."

Last night The Action Collective held our second in a series of workshops focused on character building, and our first to be led by a guest artist:
Raïna von Waldenburg. Raïna is a teacher of Andrew's from NYU's experimental theatre wing, and we met with her a few weeks ago to discuss the possibility of leading a workshop with us, one based on her I Am One Who program of workshops. You can read more about her and her program on the Facebook invitation for the event, but here's a snippet of a description of the approach and goals:
"In a series of improvisations that require the actor to exist in the (power of) now, he/she will be faced with judges, habits, blocks, quirks, and latent talents that he/she has pushed aside. By literally inviting these undesirable parts of him/herself into the work, the actor suddenly has access to impulses that are alive, surprisingly truthful and emotionally resonant. The actor will learn to channel these impulses into acting that is present, open and honest, not forced, pushed or fake."
So: important and intimidating stuff. I was reminded, by her description of the technique and at times in practice, of the initial work Friends Heather, Todd and I did with Grey Valenti learning red-nose clowning. It involves that kind of sheer vulnerability and sincerity -- the very sorts of things I've been working rather hard (though somewhat subconsciously) to avoid in the past year. It also, however, has some important distinctions from that Lecoq-esque clown work, as I was to discover in the course of the evening.

An important part of the process has to do with identifying personal "judges," or voices of criticism within our own hearts and minds, and understanding them as characters. Raïna led each of us from theorizing what these individual, major judgments may be, through exploring them as people and finding a dialogue with them, right on to turning our judges into very promising characters in their own rights. She was incredibly present and listening and, though the work progressed very evenly over the course of three hours, you could tell that she was constantly responding to what was happening in the room, adapting our direction based on the "conversation" between students and teacher, or seekers and guide. Moreover, she did it all in such a way that we really had to give ourselves over to the work, because that was all we had to work with. Yet it was never strict, or forced. At least, not forced by her; there was plenty of forced work going on, whenever one of us got defensive or confused in an exercise.

A personal example: After some discussion of our personal judges, we began the exercises with practicing being open and available--present--with an audience. No need to do anything in particular, just don't retreat inward as you maintain eye contact and connection. This gradually developed in our observations and discussions into an informal rating system of 5 to 1 for how open we felt, 5 being not at all, 1 being as open as possible. One exercise along these parameters that she gave us was to start at 5 with everyone, and at some point in the course of 30 seconds flip into a 1 state. I found this really, really difficult (never really did get it) and in the course of my efforts, Raïna encouraged me to give voice to whatever impulse was preventing me from doing something so simple (my words, not hers). Eventually in the course of another 30-second attempt I twisted up my right elbow and neck in some abstract expression of frustration and sneered, "F@#$ this...." And that was good. And that was what we needed to move forward. Admitting my judgment of the exercise was how I could develop further into the work.

I think it's pretty safe to say that everyone last night learned something close to the level of a personal revelation or two (or, in my case, about a half-dozen). We were all working very hard, bravely, vulnerably and sometimes even without personal constraint. By the end, we were one-by-one improvising entire scenarios comprised of just us, and all the judges and judged that battle daily within us. Here was one of the important distinctions from the clown work that I've done, and the one that very nearly made me too defensively to effectively do the work: the naming of our judges. This requires a level of discussion and reflection that I believe actors tend to resist, because we're conditioned to -- afraid, aptly enough, of being judged as narcissistic and cerebral. And we resist it because it's frankly terrifying to acknowledge, to encourage, our judgments of ourselves. Adam Laupus made a pretty concise observation about it last night when he said that by naming one's judges, you begin to take their power back from them.

Apart from all that personal benefit, however, is a benefit of pure acting technique. This is an amazingly wonderful practice that bridges that strange divide between practices that help prepare for rehearsal and ones that are actually useful in rehearsal (for example, you would not [should not {yes; I'm judging}]) pull out the Meisner repetition exercise in the middle of rehearsing the last scene of The Glass Menagerie. This I Am One Who practice gives us a way to connect better with ourselves and our audiences, but also adds a powerful tool to the character-creation toolkit. It's genuine and impulse-based, breaks us out of habit, and it literally creates powerful characters for an actor to use. It's not often these days that I feel that sense of my perception of the acting process expanding, a feeling that I came to expect regularly in my studies at college. Last night, I felt that again, and I'm grateful to Ms. von Waldenburg for that.

In this sense, last night's event was a tremendous success for one of the goals of The Action Collective -- to provide actors with a space to do the work for which there is little time (or, in some cases, too much judgment) to accomplish in a typical rehearsal process. To enrich actors, instead of merely offering support. We may soon be making changes to the way the AC works, and what kind of work it takes on, but I'm encouraged by this latest workshop to maintain that priority. It's too important and too rare to neglect.