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Strictly Ballroom

October 1, 2010

Our movement professor was out this week for some guest lecturing, so we had an hour and a half of ballroom dancing training each day with Jimmy Hoskins.

This clip is of our warm up rag. We also learned to waltz and polka. It was a crammed week of awkward actors flailing around in frustration. And tons of fun. Unfortunately (or forutnately?), this is the only footage we were able to get.

Go here if the video doesn’t load: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTSGV06W9kI

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Pulse Check

September 26, 2010

A couple of very cool things happened in the last week, and it is my pleasure to share them with you.

First, on Wednesday, Baltimore’s City Paper issued its annual “Best of Baltimore” edition, and it had me and some close Baltimore friends anxiously refreshing the citypaper.com homepage at midnight about every 4 seconds to see if they’d update to the new issue. Since I was with the company the entire last season which qualified for this round of awards, I had an enormous amount of interest. Finally, they did, and I was not disappointed.  Single Carrot Theatre, the ensemble theatre company that I co-founded in Baltimore won it’s 5th and 6th “Best of” awards, all raked in within the first three years of our existence.

“Best Ensemble” 2010
I’m speechless. Is there a better honor for a company whose creation was founded upon the idea of an ‘everyone pull equal weight’ system? Every member does administrative work, every member creates art. The benefits, we constantly argue, of having an ensemble over casting fresh for each production, are comraderie, trust, risk, and chemistry. As much as actors would like to think that they are completely and totally removed from personal-life-influence when they step onto a stage, I’ll bet the majority of them are relieved, if not ecstatic, when they get the opportunity to work with one or two (or a group) of actors they’ve worked with previously. Familiarity can go along way in facilitating creativity, and imagine how wonderful it would be if you could walk into every first rehearsal with that feeling already underway. That’s what it’s like at Single Carrot.

From City Paper:
“Giti Jabaily can do a great young girl—at least, she did in Single Carrot Theatre’s Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake). She offered a differently damaged young woman in Eurydice last fall. The petite actress also nailed a life-hardened thirtysomething Russian woman in Playing Dead, and joined her company in abandoning words entirely for Illuminoctem. But that’s just how this ensemble works. If you really appreciated Nathan Fulton’s keyed-up Valia in Playing Dead or Jessica Garrett gamely affecting an American non-accent for her turn as a TV news reporter in Tragedy: A Tragedy, do note: The next time you see them, they may completely reinvent their approach. They simply appear to enjoy finding out just how far they can push themselves.”

I’m humbled.

“Best Local Theatre Company” Reader’s Poll 2010 (Repeat!)
And yet, this is a whole lot more humbling. It’s one thing to get praise from the arts writers at an alternative weekly newspapers. They’ve seen the best that the city has to offer, and even though you’ll swear them up and down for a mediocre review or a twisted perspective on a show you’re sure you see differently, by virtue of being the eye of the city, they know what’s good and what aint. But when the people of Baltimore, those no-nonsense, charming arts-lovers with hearts of gold and brains full of DIY dreams, when THEY decide you’re the best in the city at what you do, you’ve got to just get on your knees and say thanks. Maybe we’ve got an advantage because we’re a little more generation Y than our fellow companies, making it easier for us to run viral campaigns asking for votes. And maybe our bootstraps, grassroots, underground garage theater is just more fun to vote for than one with a $7 million annual budget. But either way, when the votes were tallied, Baltimore theatergoers made their voices heard loud and clear. The type of theater they like most for the second year in a row, is the theater that we made at Single Carrot. Rock on, Carrots. I love you all.

And, with the news from Baltimore came local Asolo news as well. Our understudy castings for the repertory season were assigned. Getting an understudy casting, while somewhat exciting and a bit nerve-inducing, is a lot like getting a hug when you go in for the kiss. You’re happy to be there. But, yeah, you know.

My assignments are to understudy both Juror #2 and Juror #3 in Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose. I’m looking forward to it. All the men in my class are understudying one, if not two of the jurors in the show, and we all had a pretty good idea that since there were so many big male roles that we’d all end up in that show. #2 is timid, easily persuaded, and doesn’t really understand why he feels any certain way. #3 on the other hand, is somewhat of the antagonist of the action. He’s stubborn, defiant, and annoyed, especially when people don’t listen to him. So, it should be a nice exercise to watch and develop completely opposite roles.

And, I’m also understudying the character of Liron in The Innocents by Steven Drukman. Other students congratulated me heartily, saying it was a lead. But, I can’t say I know what to report. This production will be a premiere, and the play itself is very new. Asolo Repertory did a semi-staged reading of it last year for their UNPLUGGED series, it seems, and the reception was fantastic, so Asolo added it to their season this year. I asked an administrator at Asolo to send me the script earlier in the year, but she must have forgotten, so I’m only half ashamed to say I’ve never read it. We get our scripts next week. I think, if I can get all the stories straight, that this is an excellent role, but probably a touch outside my age range. Not surprising. We’re safety nets, not carbon copies of the principle actors.

And thus ends an excellent week. For the record, I’ll also point out that I’ve gotten an A on every paper, test, quiz or assignment that we’ve received so far. You won’t hear me report about grades often, as I’m sure you all care about them just about a sliver less than my shorts do. But, hey, I mean, this whole ‘all A’s’ thing probably has never happened before, and probably won’t last, and will most definitely continue.

Onward and upward.

The Actor’s Challenge

September 21, 2010

Ok. So. Why the hell isn’t acting so easy?

Seems straightforward enough: Learn your lines, act like someone else, convince a group of people who’ve paid money to see you that you are someone else, get paid, the end. (“Obsess over reviews but pretend you don’t care” is in there somewhere, too).

Even though he’s been discussing it for awhile, our seemingly endlessly brilliant acting professor again reiterated a profoundly simple idea today: “The actor has a supercomputer in his subconcious and a calculator in his brain.”

So, this supercomputer is what automatically generates impulses, it’s what spills out creativity without planning, and it’s what creates character, cleverness, and truth.  The calculator (let’s make it an old Casio) on the other hand, is there to tear it all away.

“You aren’t really in Elizabethan England, you’re on a stage, silly!” says the calculator. “That’s not a real gun you’re pointing at your scene partner. And his sword isn’t really sharp either. And besides, there is no need to fear him because you know the choreography and script and therefore you know your character ultimately kills him in the end. So even though you’re acting scared, you aren’t really.”

Hey. Calculator. Fuck you.

So now what the hell do we do? The art I’m supposed to create has to be believable. And if I’m not playing truth, everyone in the audience rolls their eyes at me like they do whenever Vin Diesel opens his mouth. And then I don’t get hired ever again. Roll credits.

So I’ll just believe it, right? I’ll just pretend everything is real.

“ERROR!” screams your calculator. “You know you aren’t a Danish prince. You’re a dude from Colorado.”

Alright then. Fine. I’ll ditch sanity, greenlight chaos, and completely and totally disregard reality in order convince myself I’m not actually acting, but that I AM, IN FACT, ANOTHER PERSON.

Bzzzt. Wrong again. Because that bastard the calculator also memorizes your lines and holds the keys to your mental stability and reasoning. The calculator is what keeps you from actually leaping into the audience and stabbing the patrons. Losing 100% of yourself into a character = insanity = stabbed audience = fired. Roll credits.

So. We’re faced with one final option. I may orchestrate every last detail of my performance, in order to effectively mimic and impersonate another person. I can imitate well enough that my friends go “oooh,” the audiences goes “hmm” and directors go “meh..” and then I’m enough of a half-assed actor that I can one day aspire to be jacked and juiced enough to become Vin Diesel II and make millions with my guns and ferocious ability to deliver one sentence at a time. OR. I can learn how to exercise my creativity and imagination so much that when I act, I’m playing. Convincingly (yeah, like a child in a sandbox). And who doesn’t love watching someone really play? Imagined reality can take over so much that you’ll be dying to know what I imagine next that you’ll have no choice but to take the ride with me. I don’t do voodoo mind tricks on myself or the audience. I don’t psychologically sabotage myself by insisting I’m another person. And I don’t wobble around like a choreographed puppet who kinda/sorta gets the job done. I play. You believe it. We all win.

Please hold for epiphany. That’s why they call it playing a role. (Holy umbrellas, it’s raining on my head).

Then, we may answer the question we started with: Why is it so damn hard to act? Why can’t just any old person do it?

Because, as it turns out, it’s damn hard to play. Contemporary American society requires that you:
A) Get a  job and be a productive member of society
B) Marry
C) Have 2.3 kids
D) Pay your taxes
E) Have a 401k
F) Remember to vote
G-K) Follow the rules, governing laws, moral codes, social norms, and accepted patterns of behavior.

If you don’t, you’ll be socially outcast, thrown in jail, locked in the loony bin, unloved, or just plain disregarded. So hey, we adapt. We stop rolling in the mud like its a jungle, and stop we climbing trees, and stop we dressing up, and stop building cities out of legos, and we stop playing.

That calculator goes into overdrive. Cranking out obedience and reasoning to fit in.

We get an urge to put on a pirate hat and talk with an accent?

The calculator stifles it, “you’ll look like a fool and probably get fired or the girls will judge you and you won’t get married.” Whew, thanks calculator! Another pure, organic impulse stifled by the mechanical creations of being a modern human.

You get the urge to play with your food; you want to fling a blueberry at your sister. “HALT!” says the calculator “the restaurant will throw you out, you’ll be labeled as immature and a bad son, sibling and person. Just eat it and don’t play.” Whew, thanks calculator. More conformity. Less play.

To be fair, this isn’t necessarily always a bad thing (and actually pretty useful), depending on what the impulse is.We’re civilized, we’re mature, we’re organized, and we’re maximizing the benefits of living by abiding by the rules that we’ve all agreed on. Maybe it’s less spontaneous fun, but killing thousands of impulses to play is effective in long-term order. Oh and also, it makes it pretty damn hard to be a good actor.

So this is the actor’s challenge. Get the calculator out of the driver’s seat and into the passenger side. Of your best friend’s ride. Which, as it happens, is your character’s.

Be protected by reason, not ruled by it. Let your supercomputer of impulse and fantasy and creativity take the wheel.

Play.

Florida Sights

September 18, 2010

Some looks at Sarasota:

The Asolo, Mirror Lake (home!), downtown Sarasota.

Transform(v): to change completely

September 13, 2010

In just three weeks, the transformation from hobby to lifestyle has taken a pretty significant shape.

I don’t mean to say that I ever considered acting a hobby. I didn’t. I realized in class the other day that in the last 8 years, I haven’t ever gone two months without being cast in a show. I did 13 full lengths productions in three years in Baltimore. I had even more in undergrad.

But, with the creation of Single Carrot Theatre came the necessity of holding a day job, and when you give 40 of your best hours in the week to a different life, it’s hard (if not impossible) to consider your night job your exclusive career. An epiphany crossed my mind as I forged through a busy weekend. We aren’t so much learning how to act as we are learning how to work like professionals.  Yes, there is an almost overwhelming amount of information being heaved at us, but what is written very delicately between the lines is the phrase “This is how much work it takes to be an actor.”

Gone are the days of 3-4 hours of ‘work on the side.’Let’s take this weekend, for example.

Classes are 9-5 during the week, but with our release into a few days of freedom came some caveats:

Work your “5 floodgates” for voice every day (a series of exercises for your body)
Do ten minutes of destrcturing work every day for voice (more exercises)
Do your “scales” for every day for acting (the actor’s equivalent of a musician’s scales; a simple, effective daily routine to expand the imagination and inner world)
Choreograph a cane and ball duet with a partner for movement, throwing and catching the objects in rhythm to attain some kind of pretty result.
Learn a brand new one-minute monologue for movement monologues.
Complete your daily rib expansion exercises and any other assigned movement work.
Write a deceivingly complex paper on Oedipus Rex, usually falling in the 10-20 page range.
Read a chapter of Michael Chekhov’s To The Actor.
Read a portion of Stanislavsky’s My Life in Art.
Come up with a detailed plot analysis/flow chart for A Flea in Her Ear.

And of course, breathe, sleep and eat. And come meet one of our student sponsor (donors) at his extremely graciously hosted party, too. Be sure you look refreshed.

And so, we’ve officially lost the term (the idea even)” hobby” when used in association of a description of our lives as artists.

“Don’t practice being yourself,” insisted our acting professor, “practice creative transformation. What you try to do will never happen.”

Try to nail a performance. Try to perfect a beat. Heck, even try to communicate or listen.  (“Many actors listening on stage are really just staring,” we’ve been reminded).
You probably won’t succeed like you hope.

But when you access a point of neutrality, eliminate expectations and transform, you have no choice but to succeed. The moment you experience even one second of a creative, imagined reality, you’ve succeeded. Soon that one second will turn into 5, which will turn into 10, and then a minute, and eventually a three-hour performance.

Perhaps, as I live this transformation now, I’ve finally understood why it is that I’ve always absolutely despised when people use the phrase “I’m trying to make it as an actor.” How many of these people do you know have actually made it being an actor? Probably none. They were all too busy trying so damn hard, when they hadn’t the faintest clue how to be.

Is it agreeable then, that we demand artists to be artists, from sun up to sun down? We say nothing less for CEOs or Doctors. Don’t scoff. Artists in today’s world have come so far that a casual interest (or worse, a greed-fueled lust) in acting won’t cut it. Not as a professional. No one is brilliant on accident. If we’re to be relevant, we must acknowledge all of the work done by the true greats of our time and past, and demand our worth with exceptional creativity. This is what we expect of athletes, do we not? The Olympics are held every four years, where the best of the best compete for supremacy. The best of the best entertainers compete daily, sometimes hourly for the chance to shine. Try to beat Usain Bolt at a 100m dash when all you do is 3-4 hours of committing to being a runner per day. Wouldn’t work? Then don’t expect your art to be any better than your running.

I’ll embrace the cliche: To truly transform on stage, the transformation takes place in life.

Get the part

September 5, 2010

Most actors hate them. Some pretend to love them. Casting directors have made truck loads of money penning encouraging books about the secrets of doing them flawlessly. They are, perhaps, one of the most inappropriate job interviews still in practice.

The audition.

-I was once told by a working New York actor that he’d book one commercial out of every 100 he auditioned for. Gee, great.
-I’ve been told to ‘prepare anything’ for an audition, and then dismissed harshly when it wasn’t a comedic monologue.
-I’ve been asked to read a Shakespeare monologue cold (from a play I wasn’t auditioning for), and then given the direction to ‘make it more active.’ Oh, sorry, scuse me while I try to figure out what the hell I’m saying.

No matter how obnoxious, they all have one thing in common.  When they are over, you feel like a million dollars, or like you ate bad Chinese. Maybe more experienced auditioners have grown more de-sensitized to the barbaric art (more about why I think this later), but taking a 10-month tour and then joining an ensemble theater have severely limited my need to audition over the last four years, aside from getting called in here or there for a job in Baltimore. So, not only have my auditioning skills most likely declined, I’ve also drifted quite far away from the reality that I’ll have to reintegrate them into my routine.

So here we are, week two. Auditioning.

The second year students were auditioning for the Conservatory Season, while I (along with the other first years) auditioned for understudy assignments in the Repertory Season. So, time to dust off the ol’ URTA monologues that I used for the grad school audition, back in January. Not including the callback from Baltimore Shakespeare Festival that I was invited to, it’s been about 8 months since I’ve actually auditioned for anything. Forget the fact that I feel like I’m a strong at auditions, you go 8 months without doing something, it isn’t going to be easy to excel at it.

Then, of course, the grad school wrench. “Never look at your auditioner,” speaketh the undergrad professors. “You MUST look at a real person when you audition,” saith the grad school professor.

Undergrad: “That makes auditioners uncomfortable.”
Grad: “This is the way they’ll know you can live in a moment and communicate with a person, not an imaginary ghost on an exit sign”
Undergrad: “If I have to act back to someone who is auditioning, I can’t assess their audition”
Grad: “I want to see how someone interacts with real impulses, not shout at an invisible character”

Then another grad school wrench. “You know this brand new technique and method you’re learning? Use that on your audition.”

Undergrad: Orchestrate your audition. Mark your beats. Mark your intentions.
Grad: Memorize your lines without intention. Play the impulses. Be alive on stage.
Undergrad: Practice your audition a million times until you know every focal point, every gesture, and every inflection.
Grad: Don’t plan. Empty your brain of ideas. Access your calm. The creativity will come.

Well. Nothing like a big, fat pair of wrenches in your routine to make you really comfortable.

Saturday came and went. My audition, all 120 seconds of it, blew right by. I looked them right in the face. I tried to delete my orchestration. I started calm and let the creativity come to me. I walked off stage and laughed my ass off.

“Must have gone well,” said a stunned classmate with raised eyebrows.

“I don’t know. No. It was fine. I think,” I responded.

“Great job! I’m so proud of you,” says the third year student who timed my audition. I don’t know if I’m appreciative for her genuine support or loathsome that she’s probably lying to me. Don’t get me wrong, her intentions were golden and without a sliver of  sarcasm. I just feel like the two monologues I did were about the farthest thing I’ve done from ‘acting’ in a long time.

So was my professor right? Yes. Acting with a person is an unbelievably more natural and comfortable way to act. This is how it feels on stage, after all. But clearing out all the orchestration and planning left me feeling like I was fishing without a hook. I emptied my brain. I played the impulses. And? I felt totally and completely without conviction or action. My voice cracked and I skipped two lines. These are two things that haven’t happened to me on stage since maybe middle school.

Suddenly, I realized why the department prohibits first year students from performing in anything (Asolo-related or otherwise) during our first semester of study. We’re absorbing a method. We’re deleting bad habits, re-aligning our bodies, and re-inventing our voices. The old “they tear you apart your first year and put you back together your second year” cliche actually doesn’t seem to be as much of a cliche right now. We’re all here to get better. Yes, I’m sure everyone is expecting a level of talent and accomplishment, but are they expecting perfection? Probably not, or we wouldn’t be here.

Have I forgotten how to act? No. Am I learning how to turn all the tricks and gags I’ve been leaning on into unwavering creativity? Yes. We’re artists, after all. And this means that at the terminal level of education in our field, we should be able to fiercely examine what makes our art go, and I don’t know how we’d do that without a little diassembly along the way. We’re creative machines, in a way, and if we want to operate at efficiency, we need to take everything apart, see what we’re working with, and re-build (I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the approach to our voice training, Fitzmaurice Voicework, is called destructuring/restructuring).

Let me ask you: in any field, is there necessarily a better way to get better?

At the end of the day, I’m not thrilled that my professors got their first taste of my skills at THIS particular audition, but I’m proud that I shook off my habits and tried something new. Have I made a sports analogy yet? I’m like a rookie with a brand new playbook. Everyone knows what got me here, but now we start from scratch. Truthfully, I’m probably caught somewhere between two completely separate acting methods, and the end result is kind of a scramble.

Welcome to grad school.

POSTSCRIPT: Auditions are ridiculous*. Here’s three reasons why.

1) You perform an unnatural and awkward ritual to be evaluated for an artform that is drastically different than the interview method. Kind of like if you went in for a bartending interview and they asked all applicants to come in and make two contrasting fruit smoothies that you’ll never need to make while you’re actually working the job, you know, “to see your mixing skills.”

2) A brilliant audition often has zero connection to getting hired, especially if someone else looks the part more. Acting is the last industry where discrimination is a blatant, tolerated and supported method of hiring. Sorry, slender white guy in his twenties, you ain’t ever playing Othello no matter how good of an actor you are. Wrong race/sex/age/type/size? Keep looking.

3) You get around two minutes to prove your worth. Imagine an interview for a marketing position where they said “We’re just going to watch you type an email for a minute. Alright now staple these papers together. Actually thanks, that’s enough.”

*And yet, they still work. 

“Actor Out of Work” by St Vincent. Such a hilarious and spot-on jab at auditions I can’t even describe it. 

Greenlight that Impulse

August 30, 2010

One week later, I’m a real grad student.

For any of you who have taken the leap back into education after time off, I’m sure you can relate to the smacking, immediate jolt you go through in the adjustment back to academia.

Hey, in the four years since  graduated from undergrad, I undertook some real challenges. I did a 300-performance tour, I started a company, I worked three jobs at a time, I moved all over the country. I was ready for a little homework and quizzing.

Yet, I rolled into town with just enough bravado to be at least a little ashamed at the quivering I did upon receiving the first syllabus. Orientation at a program like this one goes a little something like this:

“Don’t go anywhere. Don’t take any vacations. Don’t get a job. Don’t even think about having a life. We have so many obligations for you, sometimes they overlap and we have to fight over who gets you.”

To sum, the first (and most difficult) year of a MFA in Acting at my program consists of:

Priority one. Four classes: Voice, Movement, Acting, and Play Analysis. This ain’t your little sister’s school day, either. It’s eight hours long, from 9-5. Acting alone is three hours. And sometimes, they schedule you meetings or fittings or one-on-one tutorials during your one break during the day, at lunch. Or, sometimes they schedule them at 5pm.

Tech. As we’ve been so eloquently reminded, despite our past awards, accomplishments and acclaims, first year students are firmly re-planted back at the bottom of the totem pole. In your first year, you join the crew for the Cook Theater, where the 2nd years perform all year in the Conservatory Season. So, I’ll be running a board, gripping a prop, or managing a house for at least 2-3 productions.

Understudy. One of the pleasant side-effects of working in a conservatory setting instead of a campus setting, is that we’re associated (nay, married) to a professional repertory theater, and that we’ll earn enough equity points to join the actor’s union upon graduation. One of the unpleasant side effects of this system is that you earn your points your first year by understudying the principle actors in the Repertory Season. Time, commitment, and energy all for a show you may never sniff the stage for. It is most definitely part of the gig. We find out these assignments later down the road, but audition this weekend.

So, when I’m not studying for class, I’m in rehearsal for a show I’m not really in, or at a performance of a show I’m definitely not in. Sometimes you’ll be on understudy call the same night you are crewing a show, and if you’re needed to go on, they pass along your crew assignment to another student or faculty member.

It’s mind boggling. And I love it.

The professors aren’t just qualified, they’re brilliant, and they’re experts at what they do. The training isn’t just good, it’s “make you better if it’s the last thing we do” good. And I’m fairly convinced, albeit just one week in, that I’m a pretty lucky guy to even be accepted here, much less with a full scholarship. So when you want to talk about living-wage stipends, I’ll happily admit that I’m taking the unwieldy, demanding schedule with a smile on my face.

In our first week, 12 hours of acting class has covered one exercise. Remember those blank scenes you did in undergrad (or earlier), that go a little something like this:

A: I really must go.
B: Stay a little longer.

or

A: Is it nice outside?
B: I don’t know.
A: Really, I saw you at the park two hours ago.
B: So what?
A: You weren’t alone.

The generality of the scenes allows for about a million different interpretations, and the exploratory etudes we’ve been performing focus on receiving your lines, taking about 15 seconds to learn them, 3 seconds to empty your brain and body of ideas and preconceived notions, and to enter into a scene with freedom and truth (and absolutely zero planning). Some end up chaotic, others spellbinding and riveting. The idea, I believe, is to train to yield to the natural impulses of acting, to remain at the absolute essence of presence during every moment on stage.

What seems like a simple exercise can be, in fact, a deeply encompassing, somewhat profound experience because, as our acting professor reminds us, “it takes courage to start from nothing.”

The impulse will come if you let it. The mind has an ability to immediately fill itself with an idea or an impulse once emptied. However, as respectful members of society, we’ve all become very good at redlighting most impulses we have. But what is uncommon in life is interesting on stage, and that’s what we must be present to. Commit to the moment, commit to your scene partner, and commit to the reality of everything that is happening. If you have the courage to start from nothing, you’ll be amazed at where you take yourself.

For 12 of us, it has taken us to a grad program filled with challenges, hurdles, and demands, and yet quite possibly, the most rewarding experience we’ll ever have.