30 March, 2015

The Music Improv

My babies are shiny geniuses.

Here is the evolution of this assignment:

In my actor-training course at Pace, our second-semester is all about working from the Outside-In (as opposed to first semester which focuses on working psychologically from the Inside-Out). The overall goal is to give students a strong base from which to create any kind of work, in any genre; to be armed with a huge box of tools so that by the end of the year one feels they possess skills to use regularly, sporadically, or, in certain situations, when they are simply "stumped."

The 'Music Improv' assignment begins with another assignment: the Urban Movement Improv. a one-hour solo observation of an urban environment, that abstractly translates into a silent, non-literal 3-minute movement piece that somehow encapsulates the entire experience (an exercise learned and modified from one of my greatest teachers and mentors Dr. David Montee of Interlochen Center for the Arts).

This exercise usually comes at a point in the school year when everyone’s “secrets” are out and have been touched upon, the trust is built, but no one has reeeeally gotten up and moved around so they are super awkward and self-conscious. BUT! What always emerges is a liiiiiittle *glimmer* of unselfconscious glory. Sometimes it is a few moments, sometimes just a gesture, but it is, crucially, there.

Everyone sits in a circle, and without speaking, they present their piece in the center of the circle one after the other silently communicating who shall go next...

Afterward everyone has shared their pieces, I go around the circle and talk to them about what that *glimmer* moment was, and very specifically identify it for each of them.

Then, they randomly divide into 4 groups of 3-4 people

... and I tell them to create a “piece” out of each of their *glimmer* moments

...using the theatrical forces of
  • spacing
  • timing
  • ripple effect
  • speed
  • density
  • unison 
  • or isolation
We transform the pieces as a class to see how the use of distance or speed (for example) could completely change the visual story.

Finally, I (verrrrry thoughtfully) split them into 5 groups (some groups have 2 people, some as many as 5). I assign each group a pre-selected piece of completely instrumental music, and give each group a simple theme based on the 5 senses: touch, sight, taste, etc.

They must somehow incorporate their theme
They have to use the ENTIRE piece of music (and some are REALLY long)
Every group member’s *glimmer* moment has to be incorporated, somehow
There is no pressure to tell a linear story
They have 5 days to create the piece
It should be about 50% planned, and 50% improvised
Remember that less is more

I’ve been doing this exercise since I led a class of my peers at Interlochen in 2002...

And this group presented the only Music Improv in the history of the exercise that literally made me gasp.
I was so shocked by its creativity, simplicity, incorporation (and enhancement!) of the "rules."
I was speechless.
So we filmed it.
Their theme was “taste.”

It is f**king INCREDIBLE.

13 March, 2015

The Seagull

Well, reader?
My beautiful babies killed it again.
They made us laugh and broke our hearts and exposed their gorgeous, purple souls with piercing clarity and the microscopic skill it takes to pull off Chekhov. 
And with their work ethic, passion and enthusiasm they seared us to the core with a crushingly difficult as well as (what I consider to be) the world's most beautiful play.

Am I one proud teacher? DA.

"And now I know, Kostya. In our profession--acting or writing it makes no difference-- the main thing isn't being famous. It's not the sound of the applause. It isn't everything I dreamed it was. The main things is to keep on going no matter what happens. You have to keep on believing. I believe and it helps. And now? When I think of my profession I am not afraid of life..."

"I'm in mourning for my life..." - Masha
"Everyone is against me" - Irina Arkadina
"How easy it is, Doctor, to be a poet on paper, 
and how difficult in real life..." - Konstantin Treplev
"Or something, or something, or something..." - Pyotor Sorin
"Women need so little, Kostya. 
Believe me I would know..." - Paulina
"Why do you always wear black...?" - Semyon Medvedenko

"...I have to write. I have to..." - Boris Trigorin

"Bravoooooo Silvaaaaaaaa..." - Shamrayev

"Now when I think about my vocation, 
I am not afraid of life..." - Nina Zarechnaya

"All this love..." - Dr. Dorn

10 March, 2015

Ask Al: Figuring it Out

Dear Al, 

I still don't quite know what I want to do with my life... I don't even quite know how to go about figuring it out. What if I pick a bumb path? Go down the wrong road? What if I pick something I love but I'm a total failure? Help.



Dear Anonymous,

To begin, I shall quote a quote I love to quote:

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. — Jack London 

If you have no idea what next steps to take in your personal or business life...
or how to get clear on your jewelry-making business concept...
or whether or not you should become a vegetarian...
or a Nun...
or an astrologer...
or what to do next with your half-baked idea for a food cart...
or if you simply want to finish your book while you still have both your original hips...
    etc, etc, etc
Read on.

Let’s get you to grab your ‘club’ and get on with it.

The next thing I hear in your letter is a fear that whatever you select might not be successful. That is a totally valid, universal concern, and I encourage you to sit down and have a long “Dear Diary” moment about your myths and definitions of success—because our culture has some mega-myths that have to do with making money, fame, notoriety and external validation and following the status-quo. I deny those definitions, and a few years ago redefined success for myself in one of those ton-of-bricks moments as I walked home from a tiny, minuscule, lose-money-on-it job that was the most artistically fulfilling of my life.
Here’s what I came up with:


And curiously, once I got clear, I pursued that definition of success with purity, and that in downtown job directly led to a Carnegie Hall debut, conventional success, and more money than I’d ever made in my adult life the rest of that calendar year. Basically, the lesson is this: it’s not about success. It’s about SHOWING UP. Once again I shall quote a quote:
 “It is not the critic who counts… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena... who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly”
—Theodore Roosevelt

But before jumping into the proverbial arena, you have to recognize and accept that in this world, in order to actually live (not just “coast” or “survive”) we have to play ball, show up, and get our butts into that arena in the first place. Arriving at the arena in your gladiator outfit requires more than just a great gladiator costume. No. It requires courage, chutzpah, and above all, an crystal-clear clarity of values. You have to be sure what your worth is, and what you value.
Worth’ means recognizing your talents, skills, capacity for growth and understanding.
Values’ can mean things like honesty, integrity, courage, daring, contemplation, faithfulness, and innovation ...to name but a few.

Once you gather your courage up and arrive allll ready to rumble, you need to make sure you have at least one person who is willing to pick you up and wipe the mud off your face when you get your ass kicked, (which you most definitely will). Clarity about your worth and values are critical because clarity gives you unfaltering perspective: when you are face-down-in-the-dirt in the arena, you still understand why you are there.

Real talk: you cannot have courage and comfort at the same time.
You get one or the other.
So. When you find yourself facing a decision that has lots of moving parts with thoughts and doubts all over the place, here’s what I recommend:

1. “Drop in” to your truth, and get real with yourself. 
Most of the time we convince ourselves that we don’t have clarity about what we want, when what we really possess is fear, worry, and doubt which all cause blockages We KNOW the answer, we’re just convincing ourselves that we’re not ready/ can’t have it/ aren’t good enough. If there’s something you’d love to do that seems completely out of the question, you’ve most likely found what it is that you’re meant to do next, all you need to do now is own it and start taking action. Which leads me to my next point.

2. Make a list of the Pros and Cons. 
Yep. Get out that ol’ legal pad, draw that line down the middle, dig deep, and get a-listing. (You know how much I love a list.) And when I say “dig deep” I mean write down ALL the niggly little things knocking around in your brain. Things like
     CON: “My fear is currently bigger than my desire”
     CON: “I feel frustrated and crestfallen that for every single decent date, I have to go on nine bad ones”
     CON: “But I will miss hanging out on Saturday night eating cereal out of the box without anyone around to judge me” …are all legit. I would feel, and have felt, those things too.

3. Get opinions from (ONLY) one or two people who really truly know and love you, and who are also living large and in charge themselves. 
One way I know I’m in deep doo-doo is when my inner pollster comes out and starts asking everyone and their Aunt Muriel what I should do next. Don’t do that. Aunt Muriel doesn’t know you and your values and soul. The last thing you need is to confuse yourself even further with lots of ideas from lots of people who may or may not know what the hell they’re talking about, or worse, be non-objectively informed by their own wackadoo experiences. If Aunt Muriel got burned because her birdhouse enterprise went as south as the birds she hoped would live in her birdhouses, that is Muriel's experience, not yours! Dealing with the critics (plus our own self-doubt) is tricky! But by refusing to “armor up” and shut ourselves off, we tell all those unhelpful people and vampire-in-the-middle-of-the-night-voices, "Ohai, I see you, I hear you, but I’m going to do this anyway.”

4. Make a decision with your brain.

In the usual manner.

5. Hold this decision loosely in your heart, get real quiet, shut off your brain and ask your pal The Universe for guidance until you get a hit that feels right. 
I don’t care if you have to light incense, do Gregorian chants, or write a letter to your uterus, just get on with it. 

6. Taking action. 
 Listen: I love my brain. I love the way it thinks and figures things out. I do not love the squirrel’s nest of confusion and excuses it’s so skilled at crafting. Most often the answers we seek present themselves in doing, not thinking. Get off the couch, act on your hunches, and trust that they will lead you in the right direction instead of thinking everything through to the point where it seems impossible. The brain is a mighty strong thing, and it is just s capable of motivating you as it is of paralyzing you—the difference is an active choice. Don’t allow yourself to be torpedoed by thinking.

7. Call for help. 
Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees, so I highly recommend finding ONE brilliant, insightful, big-thinking person or coach or associate and asking them for some outside perspective. (And just like I mentioned above, don’t make this a group project.)

Remember, not every decision is made with perfect, 100% conviction and clarity, in fact, I would wager that though we all love to snuggle up with certainty, we hardly ever have it.

So! Don’t drive yourself insane by waiting around for certainty before making a move. Get as clear as you can possibly get, trust your gut, take action on the thing that feels best and trust that the rest will be revealed.

Finally, I shall remind you of one of my life’s dearest maxims:

Fortune favo(u)rs the brave.
And you are braver than you think.


05 March, 2015


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