30 May, 2012

West Side Story: An Exploration

I recently returned from Interlochen Arts Academy, and talked with the students about, among many other things, their current production of West Side Story. Several of them followed up after I left, wanting to talk further, dig a little deeper about their characters and how to practically approach them. So we continued the conversation. I thought it might be interesting to share with all of you!


Dear All,

Write this next bit down, commit it to memory: 
We should never be afraid of knowledge.

Gather it with a healthy appetite like ephemera for a collage.


All of you:

The wonderful thing about working on WSS as a teenager is that the characters you are playing are exactly your age. This is a unique experience when you are in High School, for so often you are playing older adults in situations far exceeding your life experience. This is such an exciting opportunity to soul search: if you were in these (exciting, violent, confusing, frightening) situations right this moment, how would you feel and how would you react?

These are extreme circumstances. Struggling for survival (either "on the streets of New York" survival, or "making it in America without a penny to my name and I've come from San Juan with nothing but my wits" survival). Life and death circumstances--literally. People could die at any moment. People do die. Brothers, lovers, best friends--die. Take that in. Because of that, you must think in terms of extremities and levels of human desperation.

So. How can you push yourself as an actor to a similar place of that kind of desperation?
How can you make every single given circumstance of the highest possible stakes?

Example: When Lieutenant Schrank says "How's the action on your mother's mattress Action?"
--the actor playing Action could choose to just be "offended" or a "hot head," OR, he could conceive of a history with the actor playing Schrank-- perhaps Action's mother is in prison for solicitation. And perhaps it was Schrank who arrested Action's mother six months ago for the prostitution. OR, perhaps Schrank is his mother's customer. Perhaps all of the above. How can you load those moments and relationships so that they are swollen with meaning and high stakes?

Body work:
I suggest using exercise taken to an extreme. Running until every muscle and lung cell burns . I would try asking a friend to accompany you as you actually sprint in circles around the theatre--have the "spotter" push you physically until you actually feel you are going to burst. Then sing or recite (without music) your lines or songs. How does that change the experience?

By having a friend with you they can
a. Push you further. If they are there egging you on saying "you can run faster" or "You can dig deeper--say it again!" you will go to a new place. They keep you accountable.

b. They can make sure you don't actually get hurt.

Also, like I said before, remember that these characters are teenagers. Young people dancing on the line of childhood and adulthood in a quickly changing world who think they know it all, and fear they don't know a thing. They are young people just like you.You truly have to ask yourselves hard questions: if this were happening to me right now, what would I feel/think/do? 

When it comes to tangible research, use other young people (or older people when they were young) as a point of reference. Baz Lurman's Romeo & Juliet is a great guide because he was brave/practical enough to cast actual young (incredible) people in the major roles. Not to mention tremendous early teen/early 20s work from Johnny Depp, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Jodi Foster, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Patty Duke and Thora Birch.



Check out Leonardo DiCaprio.

DiCaprio shares a lot of qualities with Riff-- but the most important is that wily, passionate charisma. At his best Riff is DiCaprio in Catch Me If you Can, at his worst (and in that darkest hours, when literally possessed by secret fears), he is screaming in a puddle of his own snot like DiCaprio in Romeo & Juliet or Basketball Diaries. YouTube this stuff. It'll help. It'll give you a point of reference. 

Crucially: Riff is a kid. You are also a kid. Wonderful: you have that unique quality in common-- you get to look inside yourself and ask "have I ever seen any of my friends on a slab at the morgue?"

Plus Riff has some serious family problems--to say the least. Flesh out and establish what those are.

The truth is every single one of these boys are afraid--left alone, they'd be paralyzed by fear. But they have one another. That is why Tony and Riff started the Jets: together, in their gangs, they can do anything. They believe-- they must believe-- that together they are untouchable.

As true impending violence gets closer and closer (and they can feel it) the tensions and fear build. And each Jet manifests that fear in a different way-- Action has his anger. Tony has his ideals and dreams. Riff has charisma and it exponentially mounts and mounts and mounts. It grows in its grandiosity and is deeply tactical. From wild highs (check out Baz Lurhmann's Romeo & Juliet, Mercutio's Queen Mab speech, brilliant performed by Harold Perrineau) to the "cool" lows (which are not low, they are merely subdued fear-- check out Marlon Brando being astonishing in "Wild One")


1. How can you push yourself as an actor to a similar place of that kind of controlled and reigned in desperation? Use the sprinting exercise. Then singing/reciting/dancing "Cool" with as much mastery as if the audience were present. How does that change the experience? (Please make sure you don't get hurt!)

I also highly recommend doing this exercise with the actor playing Bernardo, and then doing your final knife fight.  If you are both "out of your minds on the edge" (controlled controlled), it will be electric. And true. (You do not want to have it look like ballet when really it is the end of their Universe.)

2. How can every dance move become a tangible sentence of articulate gesture? What does each and every movement "say?" Know the answers.

3. Lead that group of actors/Jets. You guys aren't a group yet and it's all on you baby doll. Get pizza. Walk around campus in a gang. Identify the weaker relationships in the group and and create little secrets that bond you. It won't take as long as you think. Give it a few hours. You are their leader: lead them.

4. Finally: stand up straight. You hunch your shoulders. But motivate standing up straight-- "If I stand tall and look at broad and tall as I possibly can, no one will touch me, or know that I am vulnerable." Standing up straight then becomes a motivated need.


Bernardo / Anita:

Bernardo and Anita are both unsafe in this new country and world without the other. Remember: What they share is that they both look after others. Not just often. But ALL THE TIME. No one looks after them. No one keeps them safe and secure and cherished. No one except the other.

Also crucially: they have a physical relationship exceeding merely sex. What I mean is their most articulate language is physical. The secret to the dialogue is in the dance at the gym. those aren't dance moves-- they are love making and war mongering. Practically do the running exercise, then recite (and I know this seems a little odd) the first few lines of the balcony scene (WSS or R&J) even though it isn't yours because Bernardo and Anita are THAT in love. Then do the Mambo. Ask one another/work out together how each step and move can have an actual "sentence" attached to it.


1. Lead your boys (see #3 for Riff in reference to the Jets) Come up with a handshake and a Sharks gang "all for one" type slogan. And puh-lease: make sure it is in Spanish.

2. Unlike Anita, you can take a great deal of juice from referencing Tybalt from Shakespeare. Check out the perfect 'Latin-ized' modern reference once again in Baz Lurhmann's Romeo & Juliet played brilliantly by John Leguiziamo.

Also, there are (sadly) a great many modern manifestations of Latin gangs-- check out Gang Wars 2, a Discovery Channel documentary about Oakland, California Latino gangs (The Nortenos, The Surenos and The Border Brothers), as well as the HBO series Oz: the Latin gang (El Norte) is a great point of reference.



Check out at this clip of Leonardo DiCaprio in Basketball Diaries. It is Action-- inside, he is a frightened, angry kid. Action probably feels the same way about his mother (whom he defends in the soda shop so ferociously to Lieutenant Schrank) as DiCaprio feels about the mother in this clip.You clearly have a really great back story worked out about your mother, particularly with the actor playing Schrank, but flesh it out even further.

With tension and fear building Action has nothing but anger. The more fear he feels the shorter his fuse, the more violent his visions and solutions and dreams.

It is important to remember that Action is not a leader. He needs Riff and he knows it. So by the time Tony is off in LaLa Land consorting with the enemy, and Riff is actually dead, Action is left alone to lead a group when he is scared to death to lead. Because he is scared to death to DIE. Action spends every second dancing on the edge--"Officer Kruptke" is not so much a comedic song as a desperate attempt to quell the fear that at that point in the show is threatening to destroy him before a Shark does.

Action doesn't have Riff's charisma, he doesn't have Tony's ability to dream. He has his muscles, the ability to crush someone's throat with his bare hands just to keep himself safe. I don't think you would have to look hard to find a contemporary parallel anywhere in the world. Violence...fueled completely by soul-chilling fear.


1. Work on your Levels of Tension. ("Levels of Tension" is a wonderful basic acting tool from the Le Coq tradition). Actually number them-- from 1-7, 1 being asleep, 7 being a nervous murdering psychopath (which is where Action goes-- he is like Romeo or Hotspur in Shakespeare).

Interlochen Arts Academy West Side Story costume parade

22 May, 2012

The “Hogwarts Incident”

Birmingham Palladium Cinema
[In which Lilly drove up five hours in a minivan from Oberlin only to be instantaneously whisked away]


[At rise: Deepest winter. Al, Mom, Kent, Grey and Lilly sit around the dining room table discussing various life events. All but Lilly have been in the house solidly for nearly six weeks, contemplating existence as well as preparing their various college re-auditions, but mostly obsessively reading the first four Harry Potter books, attending the local premier of the first film, and then re-attending it every-other-day or so, particularly after going to Greek Islands diner because the movie theatre is right around the corner.]

Lilly: So Grey, you’re applying for a school in Australia?
Grey: Yep. I want it.
Lilly: That’s amazing!
Grey I just wish we could all go to school at Hogwarts.
Al/Kent/Mom: [in unison] T O T A L L Y. 


Lilly: …Um…What’s Hogwarts?

[—Record scratch—crashing pause—mouths agape—plates are dropped.]

Grey: [deadly serious] Lilly get in the car.
Lilly: —What?!
Grey: [action movie, Bruce Willis, intense] —GET IN THE CAR!!
Lilly: [laughing a little, albeit nervously] Where are we going?

[Everyone begins standing, moving mechanically, like a car service team at the Indy 500]

Kent: [taking her by the arm] We’re going to the movies—
Grey: —Taking care of a serious problem.
Kent: Jesus!

[They are at the door]

Al: I’ve got her coat.
Grey: Good.
Mom: [calling from the driveway, honking, already in the car] WE CAN STILL MAKE THE 8:30!!
Kent: Buckle her in. I’ll lock up.

[They drive off down the street getaway-car-style, and “christen” Lilly to her very first Harry Potter experience. A trip we would repeat dozens of times before the winter was out. Phew. Crisis averted.]

07 May, 2012

02 May, 2012

Ask Al: On Acting

I get the odd request for my thoughts on acting.
I thought I would list a few thoughts I had here, for you to peruse at any time.

On Acting

- Yourself (you are enough...seriously. Just be.)
- The Audience (they are smart and deep enough)
- The Material (even if it is awful, there is nothing you can do to improve it, just be as truthful as you can)

2. Less is always more.

3. Always do your homework. No research or information is irrelevant.

4. Always adapt. Go with what you've got. If you lose your hair, adapt. If you move in to a different age bracket, adapt.

5. All you need to act is energy and your voice. The moment those start to go, you have to think of something else to do.

6. Stillness is everything.

7. Live truthfully on stage. That's it. No matter the genre or style or language: live your truth on stage. 

8. Pursue excellence, and success will most likely follow.


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