O'Neill as you live and breath
“You taught me to breathe. To simply be exactly where you are."
- Tracee Chimo (Orange is the New Black)
The teachings of Stanislavski evolved through the studio work of The Moscow Art Theater, for whom Anton Chekhov was a principal playwright. Inspired by this example, The O’Neill Studio was founded twenty years ago at Yale University.
Our goal is to address the special demands of playing O’Neill’s plays, which require an unusually deep connection of the actor as well as a mastery of contemporary and classical styles. The Independent Artist track involves actors in work on monologues from both eras that culminates in work on a speech from an O’Neill play. The result is a level of skill equally applicable to theatre, film and television.
Independent Artists are the first of three levels of the Studio. Resident Artists are established working actors who perform readings from O’Neill plays with Guest Masters in our Forums, a series in which the three levels meet. Tony Award Honorees Zoe Caldwell, Liam Neeson, Ruby Dee, Charles Durning and Marian Seldes have all taken our stage.
When Marian, who received a lifetime achievement Tony Award, presided over an O’Neill Studio session, she was asked by a young actor about how she finds the emotion to play a role, she replied. “I fill the vase and I empty it.” She was referring to the role breath takes in her work.
Former Independent Artist Tracee Chimo had more to say. After she was profiled in The NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/14/theater/14chimo.html), I asked her to articulate what she learned at The O’Neill Studio. She wrote the following:
“You taught me to breathe. To simply be exactly where you are, wherever that may be. ‘Let the text carry you’ I remember you saying over and over. ‘Stop trying to carry the text. Don't drag it with you...let the words bring you to all the places you're meant to go. You'll surprise yourself every time, if you let it be your guide.”
You taught me to ‘let go’ dude. You were the one who taught me to ‘surrender’. I'll never forget that.”
That’s right, dude. In The O’Neill Studio we seek to deepen the actor’s awareness of the role of breath in finding the emotional fuel to drive text. This sounds simple, but it is not.
This is because when actors first seek to consciously connect emotion to breath, they often experience a choke reflex in the form of an often unconscious holding of the breath as evinced in the tightening of the jaw and related areas.
This tightening is a reflex that we develop as children as we first learn to edit the expression of raw, unruly emotion that comes with the territory. This lesson, which is often taught to us before we even learn to speak, is usually over-learned. As a result, we sometimes foreshorten our deepest feelings before ever experiencing them.
Along the way we have unintentionally learned to hold our breath so that inappropriate emotions do not surface. The actor who wants access to primal feelings for their work is often still working from the old playbook of self-mastery. He/she wants more than ever to draw on their deepest reserves, but if asked to do so, the old flinch, which now calcified in their nature as a system of fears, blocks passage.
As the actor seeks to reconnect to it, it is as if a red light and a green light are flashing simultaneously. We stop ourselves just when we most want to move forward.
In doing so we are, in a sense, rejecting the audience before the audience has a chance to reject us…like children who withdraw rather than allowing their most private selves to be criticized.
On the Independent Artist (IA) track we work to help the actor to veer away from self-mastery into a ‘surrendered” place.
The journey to that place happens through a process that can be described in three stages: false confidence, genuine confusion and genuine confidence.
We have to grow uncomfortable in our skin before shedding it. When the actor notices themselves hiding from the audience, and despite their best efforts to the contrary, he/she often hides behind "indicated" emotions that are predictable for both actor and audience.
Or the actor can accept that they have outgrown what they know how to do and embrace a path of uncertainty.
An apropos quote from the writer Anais Nin: “the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”
During this stage we are lost at sea and seek to navigate toward a place of safety in unknowing. As we do we look to the ebb and flow of our breath for guidance.
Focusing on monologues, IA learn to work a breath at a time and by doing so allow the unconscious battle for connection to become a conscious one. This translates to the actor learning to observe the mixed message that is operative in their work. It is, again, that of the red light telling them to hold themselves in check, and that of a green light,” trying to invite them forward anyway.
“Breath, feel, speak,” IA are told in our sessions. As they learn to surrender to their own emotional flow, their personal grist surfaces with the breath to “support” the text. To this end, IA work through a new monologue slowly taking extra care to take time to navigate transitions apparent in the writing. Transitions are the points at which the actor is most likely to disconnect and revert to the old pattern of involuntary self-mastery.
Along the way the actor is reminded that they know the lines, but their characters don’t. And so they are encouraged look to the breath for an emotional wave to carry them into unanticipated places.
During the Genuine Confusion stage, the actor works toward the flow of a full inner life to work, but the desire for such is impeded by fear of the same. As the actor comes to experience their emotional flow without judgment, they begin to instinctively pursue the unknown over the predictable.
As this opening up process takes hold, the actor experiences increased flexibility in their overall instrument until the emotional flow resumes reliably with a simple, searching breath.
At this stage, the actor more naturally follows the pleasure of their performance instincts rather than being controlled by the fear of the flinch. Best of all is that at this stage, this ongoing continuum becomes a second nature one.
The actor increasingly thinks in terms of being unlimited, rather than fatally limited by fear. What Stanislavski called “spiritual realism” becomes a way of life. The long-term results are more deeply lived performances and a more deeply felt life.
In one O’Neill Studio Forum session, Marian Seldes was asked about the future of the American Theater.
She replied by saying that “we are making the future of The American theatre right here.”
…Filling the vase one breath at a time.
INDEPENDENT ARTIST TRACK STRUCTURE
On the three months of the Independent Artist Track IA work on three monologues, first a contemporary one, then a classical and finally an O’Neill. The contemporary monologue work emphasizes flow and freedom, the classical emphasizes voice, depth and rhythm and the O’Neill piece draws on all of these qualities. Throughout the 12 weeks song work and yoga are integrated into the Track.
TO RETURN TO "WELCOME ACTOR" PAGE CLICK HERE