Monday, January 16, 2012

WORKSHOP: We Say We Want to Just Make Out, But We Don’t Know How Not to Get Off

On With the Show

It’s all about “performance” these days. Forget Broadway, forget the Golden Globes: We ALL feel this. We get performance reviews at work; performance reviews in the sack; expectations to perform even at a dinner, a meeting, a date. Everything is ON. Your job is to keep someone SO interested, SO engaged, that they fucking forget they have a fucking PHONE to check. It’s goddamned SHOW-fucking-time.

Do you feel the PRESSURE? And yet in all this pressure to perform, we (and when I presumptuously say “we,” I mean the collective of humanity, and you may feel you don’t think that means you, and I ask you to assume it does) may lose sight of what we were doing in the room in the first place.

My friend Polina is a brilliant theater actor and innovator, a great teacher of acting. I’ve taken her classes. One evening in a scene study course, two student actors, a man and woman, were sitting at a table, speaking lines from a play. His character did the talking early in the scene. Polina interrupted him in mid-speech, without ceremony, and said to the girl, in her gentlest Russian-infused voice, “Excuse me. Sara, why are you listening to him?”
            Sara turned, said, “Because he’s telling me…”
            Polina said, with concern and sincerity, “He is boring.” She looked at the young male actor. “You are boring.” She looked back at Sara. “I am bored.” She gestured to the class. “We are bored. I am asking you why do you sit there. Why don’t you leave? Would you really sit and listen? Get up.”
            The man, Kyle, said, “But it’s in the stage directions.”
            Polina looked at him, then back at Sara, shrugged. “I don’t get why do you stay there.”
            Kyle got angry. “But if she leaves, what do I…”
            Polina honed in, and hard, but not meanly: “Make her come back. Use the lines. But make her come back, or she LEAVES. Da? Now. Again.”

One for the Money, Two for the Show

            Once years ago at a Michael Chekhov workshop—a workshop in the acting technique of the great teacher and actor Michael Chekhov—Polina had been given a directive, along with half of the group, to “do whatever inspired them.” Polina had no idea what that meant. “What is that? What does that mean?” were the feelings she recounted to me. A Russian-Jewish Soviet dissident from the Moscow Art Theater with a Ph.D. from Yale School of Drama, and an eager proponent of this work, she could only stare at the leader. The other actors leapt up and began “being inspired,” yelling, singing, moving wildly. Polina had no idea where these impulses came from, “so,” she told me, “I cleaned the room. I straightened chairs, or moved backpacks, and set about making the space nicer.” When the leader called time, the actors stopped, and the leader made comments. She was especially impressed with Polina. “What were you doing? What was your impulse?” Polina looked at me as she recalled it, mystified. “I told her my impulse was to figure out how to kill the time until this fucking experiment was finished.” (Polina would never swear in Russian, but in English it’s meaningless and so no problem at all. There’s another essay there…) Polina was supposed to feel she’d gotten her money’s worth? Was that it?

            This story put me in mind of an acting exercise I did, the first day of my first acting class in college. The acting teacher (who must have attended a similar workshop to the Chekhov one at some time in his past) broke the class into two groups and told the first half of us to go to the front of the black box studio and “act.” Everyone jumped in and began playing, making up scenes, the whole ball of wax. I could only stare. What were they doing? Where did this impulse in all of them come from? I didn’t get it. So I sat down on the floor in front of the chalkboard and waited for the exercise to be over. That’s what I did for the full two minutes. I waited. When that portion finished, the teacher quizzed the class: “Who was the most interesting to watch?” To a student, they said, “That girl,” pointing at me (doing my best Marlo Thomas face!). The teacher looked annoyed. “But she wasn’t doing anything…” he began, only to be interrupted with cries of “But she was . . . ” and he quickly moved on. He gave us another assignment, this time to count floorboards.  What he was trying to show was that having a real task made you more interesting to watch, but what he hadn’t counted on was an actor who was honest in the first place, who’d said, “This is bullshit,” and waited it out, thereby missing an opportunity to teach that what is actually “interesting” is honesty. (My acting teacher was really good, as it turned out, so I don’t mean this meanly. And I'm not the "role model" for honesty. But I’m trying to get at something to do with engagement, expectations, performance, and YOU. Us.)

Like Polina in the workshop, I wasn’t “trying” to “be” anything. We did what was honest for us in the moment. In a workshop or class, one would think this kind of honesty would be probed, discussed, used. What most teachers expect, and what most people expect, is not discovery, but performance. This isn’t only to do with acting or theater, but since that’s where I engage myself most, it’s my example. Here’s another one, at the risk of going all My Dinner with André on your asses.

I took part in a day-long workshop in London under the direction of an Irish experimental theater director. In the morning session, we actors engaged in an improvisation about being prisoners of war. The point of this improvisation was empathy—working to put ourselves in a place where we could empathize with the politically oppressed. She established the spaces and taped out the “cells,” putting two of us to a cell. She gave us various prompts and activities. What was my honest impulse? To utterly withdraw into myself. I had no interest in getting to know my “cellmate,” to “play” anything. I paced. I seized. I hardened my soul into a tight iron fist. I went about as deeply inside myself as it was possible to get in such artificial circumstances. I wrote a treatise, I had a name, “Eleanora Mann,” and by morning’s end, I was beyond anyone’s reach, emotionally or practically.  It was thrilling.

There was no discussion at the lunch break, no break at all really. We ate, I guess—I don’t remember any of that, except for a kind of confused waiting—but the afternoon session took us to a new place, years after the imprisonment, after: The war has been fought and the Allies have won our freedom: We became either judges, prosecutors, defendants, or witnesses at a “tribunal,” coping with the end of the oppression, working now for some kind of restitution or reconciliation. I was assigned the role of a judge, as was another participant, Ben. We had no idea how to do this, and in the brief time we had to prepare, Ben said casually, “Law and Order,” and I said, shrugging, “Sure. Exactly,” and we played every TV judge we had ever seen, about as sincerely and firmly as you’ve ever seen. We were dusting off the Emmy.

            I’m being sarcastic, but here’s how the day played out: A morning of intense involvement had been somehow reduced to a scene that felt utterly false and stupid. I don't know exactly how that happened. I mean, we were all just finding our way through a situation without a script, like life, really, when you think about it. What happens when a new country is being born out of ashes and degradation? Each of us takes on a role and we try to play it as best as we can imagine. But when the exercise wound down, we as a class never talked about what the experience of the day meant for us (closure was needed, context, explanations. Dinner. We had to change to go to a theater across the city), or what discoveries we'd made, though ostensibly that was the point. 

What turned out to be the point (consciously or not), I was disappointed to learn, was performance. That evening, as our ensemble made our way on the Underground to a production of Sweeney Todd, I got on earful. My morning “show,” as people thought of it (and I couldn’t tell you what anyone else did, so personally did I take the exercise), was not only ineffective and frightening, it was “selfish”—that word came up a lot. My afternoon “show” as the judge, by contrast, was “amazing.” And as I had done in my first acting class all those years ago, I could only look at the fellow participants and the leader during each separate one of these unrequested critiques, utterly confused. What had been the purpose of the workshop if not to make discoveries inside ourselves, to imaginatively explore—using drama and role-playing—what an alien and terrifying situation could bring about inside us, and cause us to act out? Apparently, we were supposed to be “performing” for each other. This is exactly what Ben and I did at the end of the day, play fake judges, bullshit with pained expressions, turn to each other meaningfully and occasionally whisper “significantly” (mostly obscenities to which we could barely keep a straight face), and it wowed the crowd. How was “wowing” the point?

So what I’m really probing now is the mistaken idea that performance has any place in acting class, in daily life, at work, or in sex—so that I might come (so to speak) to the title’s point: Because of performance anxiety and all the wrong expectations, people really don’t know how to make out any more. Do they? A greet, a grin, a drink, a knee rub, and the pants come off. Orgasm is the goal. The mess is made and cleared. People go home.

As Bret sings in Flight of the Conchords hilarious quickie-love-making song, “It’s Business Time”:  Was that IT? 

Let’s take a step back now, and ask those unasked questions: What is it to linger, to dwell, to go deep, to emerge, to stare, gape, stutter, work up to having to talk? Why not ask the question, “How was it?” and mean it, want an answer, find a deeper meaning, a better way in? Take this artistically or sexually—both are apt—and I wonder: What is the big goddamned hurry to put on the SHOW? There’s no audience: It’s just you and me. Right here, right now. Let’s learn something. (That is not a proposition.) (NO, it's NOT.)

Now let’s talk about teaching. Again.

This was a story last week in The Washington Post: In Schools, Self-Esteem Boosting is Losing Favor to [More Finely-Tuned] Praise 


For decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement. The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates — but few, if any, academic gains.

Now, an increasing number of teachers are weaning themselves from what some call empty praise. Drawing on psychology and brain research, these educators aim to articulate a more precise, and scientific, vocabulary for praise that will push children to work through mistakes and take on more challenging assignments.
This doesn’t surprise me at all. I always was a hard-ass and trusted it.

What did I get out of being told, “Your judge was amazing?” Absolutely nothing. What did Polina get out of being told that she was “so interesting”? Unless work is probed, explored, and delved into, what does so much “empty praise” mean? Look at Polina’s work with the young actors in her class: She was bored. She told them so. She wanted them to think about what they were saying, what would make their characters listen, stay, work to get someone’s attention. Would “Wow, nice!” make them powerful actors? She told them frankly, “I am bored.” They had to work to figure out what would make them—the actors/characterswant to BE in the scene before they could expect an audience to want to watch them. Polina pushed them to that point.

THAT is teaching. That is LIFE.

What is “performance”? The performance is the point at which you have done all the work you possibly could, given your all, gotten feedback and help and worked some more, and then SOLD TICKETS. Not until or unless you sell tickets—to put on the show, do the surgery, deliver the eulogy, take the exam, present the work to a paying public—are you in performance. Too often we treat the day to day process of living, of meeting people, of getting our bearings, as a goddamned performance, a “make or break” opportunity, do or die. It’s stupid.

I am bored.

Sex is boring. Our jobs are boring. The media is boring. Our politics, our issues, our candidates are boring.

And yet love is not boring, the earth is never boring, literature, art, science, goodness, hope—all that is not boring. Not in the least. I’m tired of being made BORED by people’s push to a fake engagement known as “performance” when what really should be going on is a process, and it's that process that too many are too fucking terrified to actually acknowledge. It’s so much easier to pull back the lips and squirt out, “Wow, nice!”

Process makes us engage. Process IS engagement. Are you bored? Change it. Change the scene. Get her to come back in and listen to you. Remember why you were talking in the first place. Make him make you stay. Make everyone work a little bit harder to get your vote, to have your heart, to earn an A, to keep you in the room. And you do that, too. Not because you are an asshole, but because you are honest, and it matters, and you love them. 


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