INDEPENDENT ARTIST TRACK:
LIVING AND BREATHING O’NEILL
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 Playwrights Theater O’Neill Studio was founded fifteen years ago. 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 and culminates in work on a speech from an O’Neill play.
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 O’Neill Studio 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 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 of her breath 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 their 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 often evidenced 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 over taught to us before we even learn to speak, is often over-learned. As a result we have been taught to foreshorten our deepest feelings before ever experiencing them. (This is because our need to express such feelings may have been greater than our families’ capacity to allow us to do so).
Along the way we have unintentionally learned to hold or master 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. (In this belief system, each fear is another nut or bolt holding another fear in place).
This system of fears is imagined, but the problem it presents the actor is very real because their natural sense of exhibitionism has been long repressed.
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 and beats that are predictable for both actor and audience.
Or….such 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 ourselves self 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 that are new to them, Independent Artists (IA) learn to work a breath at a time and by doing so allows 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 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 (as well as those that they themselves intuit in it). Transitions are seem to 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 delivery of them.
The Independent Artist track focuses on individual work but group sessions accelerate the progress because of the collective energy. The group sessions also provide an invaluable context for bodywork and song work.
Body Work - We begin by developing an awareness of the breath in individual sessions, but deepening the connection to it requires confronting physical tension. Select O’Neill Studio group sessions take place in my home Studio, where we work on the roller. The roller is a wooden upholstered cylindrical object three feet long and 18 inches high.
The actor rolls through their back and chest tension so as to open up the entire body, breaking through layers of accumulated tension.
The experience is both exhilarating and liberating. The benefit is an inevitably deeper connection between the breath and the emotion.
After the breath connection is reliably re-established; we add the element of song, which accelerates “the continuum of opening up.”
Song Work - IA create a list of the most important songs of their life. Along the three-monologue track they connect those monologues to those songs that have an emotional link to them. This deepens the connection between emotion and breath and helps the actor access the lyrical qualities in the writing.
Alison had the following to say about the role in singing in her acting;
"I found the use of music very helpful in going deeper in the monologue, both in singing a complementary song beforehand and performing the monologue as a song itself. Singing the song before my text helped me to establish a flow because, as you pointed out, I can find the flow more quickly and consistently when I sing. When I improvised the monologue as a song, the words and emotions instantly became so fresh and spontaneous because I truly had no idea what sort of sound would come out of my mouth. I surprised myself. I allowed myself to change the color, quality, and volume of the text in ways that I probably wouldn’t have discovered by spoken repetition alone. Most importantly, I think the improvisation of the music encouraged me to engage every last scrap of my energy and person."
Like my teacher Sanford Meisner, I am also a pianist, so in some sessions I try to guide IA in their exploration by bringing out aspects of the accompaniment that will support their musical journey inward.
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 (through work on the progression of the monologues and songs), 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 actor lives in a sort of artistic trance, where every event and encounter can be processed from the heightened consciousness of an artist. The lines between life and art blur in a healthy way. The long- term results are more deeply lived performances and a more deeply felt life.
In one O’Neill Studio Forum session, Marian Seldes who received a lifetime achievement Tony Award, 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, a contemporary, a classical and an O’Neill, as connected with related songs. 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.
In this way, the actor becomes an Independent Artist, one who negotiates successfully with style and readily surrenders to their own instincts.