Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Finger.

So I'm sort of half watching the tv last night, half doing piddly stuff on the computer, and this story comes on about 'serious, young, LA actors studying at the Strasberg Institute and their reaction to the upcoming Oscars.' Well, as you might imagine, I had to immediately stop what I was doing and watch what I knew would be something funny and embarrassing all at once. It was. They started this segment (I think it was the local channel four news with that half-wit Chuck Henry) with a clip of a few youngish type actors, one with a pronounced, almost comical British accent, screaming at each other on a bare stage. Screaming so savagely it was impossible to understand what they were saying. It was a flashback to the shockingly bad stuff we've (actors) all seen at one point or another in college acting classes. The clip was clearly meant to show how serious they were because they were screaming so and gnashing their teeth. There were about half a dozen of them 'studying' there at the 'institute.' After the screaming, they cut to them all sitting in the theatre all dressed in their circa 1950 acting uniforms; torn t-shirts, dirty jeans, unkempt hair, slouching demeanor. Then they made some comments about the upcoming Oscars. "I guess it's cool," one said. Another shouted (the hysterical Englishman) off camera when asked about 'The Social Network,' "It shouldn't even be CONSIDERED!" Another, looking particularly serious, muttered something about 'the money and the fame, yeah, I guess that's all okay.' They all shouted the name 'Natalie Portman!' when asked who they thought should win Best Actress and one girl piped up that 'to work and prepare for six months only eating nuts and fruit for a role, that's what it's all about.' Off camera once again we hear the attention-starved, verbose Brit, "Oh, is THAT all it takes!"

After that the teacher there at the 'institute' spoke briefly about the seriousness of the 'institute.' His last name was Strasberg, according to the subtitles, so I suppose he was a descendant of old Lee.

Anyway, the whole thing sort of plunged me back 28 years or so to my own college acting classes. I studied with an older gentleman (old to me, anyway, he was probably in his late fifties at that point) who worshipped at the hemlines of Uta Hagen. He meant well, he really did, but good Lord, thinking back on it now, I'm appalled.

And the sheer tonage of crap he stuffed into our impressionable heads back then is jaw-dropping as I think about it nowadays. I remember once, I'd just finished a scene with someone, sat down, and, in the fashion of one his idols, Lee Strasberg, he began to lecture. He said, "Okay, tell me what you did wrong." I said I didn't know, really, it had felt pretty good. "Can anyone tell him what he did wrong," he asked the rest of the class, dismissing me. Hands shot up everywhere. There were the usual suspect type answers: "I didn't feel he was in the moment." "He wasn't emotionally connected." "He wasn't committed on an organic level." And on and on. They were all parrot-like criticisms, the things they'd heard our teacher say ad nauseum over the years. Finally, he said, no, these were all valid comments but they weren't getting to the meat of the problem. So he narrowed it down. "Think back to when he pointed to the other actor during the scene. What did he do wrong?" Some muttered in confusion. "HE USED ONLY ONE FINGER!" Huh? "HE USED ONLY ONE FINGER!" He yelled again. "WHEN YOU POINT ONSTAGE YOU MUST USE TWO FINGERS SO THEY CAN SEE IT IN THE BACK ROW!"

And therin lies the wisdom of academia in a nutshell.

Oh, I'm not saying all college acting teachers are full of shit. I'm sure they're not. I'm sure there are some out there that are just dandy. But over the decades I've talked to hundreds of actors about the things they were taught in academia from well-meaning but clueless acting teachers.

This guy had only worked once, and for only one summer, as a professional actor himself. A summer-stock situation in the 1940s in New England. But he called upon those memories to make his points as though it were the Moscow Arts Company itself. "We worked and rehearsed seven days a week with only a half day off on Sunday to do our laundry. Other than that we spent every waking moment working on our craft!" No doubt this is where he picked up that whole 'point with two fingers' revelation.

Don't get me wrong, he was not a bad guy, although I locked horns with him repeatedly during my course of study there. But he was dangerous, I think. Dangerous in the sense that, like most of academia, he was woefully inadequate with regards to preparing his disciples for the hard, cold, unimaginably depressing world of professional theater.

I was lucky. In my early years in New York I stumbled, quite accidentally, across the brilliant actor/teacher Michael Moriarty. I learned more about acting from Michael in one night than I did in my previous four years of academia. And since then I've vehemently distrusted teachers and directors who haven't actually acted themselves.

So, anyway, I suspect that's what's going on over there at the 'institute.' I could be wrong. I often am. But probably not. First of all, any acting class that refers to itself as an 'institute' gives me pause.

I could write reams about Lee Strasberg and his iconic, narrow-minded, soul-sucking style of teaching. But I'm really not interested in doing that. Besides which there are a few actors out there, stellar actors, that would disagree: Pacino, Winters, Newman, DeNiro, to name only a few. But I think I would reference Stella Adler as a defense: "Good actors are good actors no matter what. I didn't 'teach' Brando anything. I just gently pushed him in the right direction."

In fact, Brando himself is on record as calling Strasberg a 'windbag' who 'liked to hear himself talk.' He never studied with Strasberg, despite the media-encouraged myth that he did. According to his own memoirs he only 'audited' a few classes with him and left after a week highly discouraged. There's a story of Pacino, early on in the filming of The Godfather, quoting Strasberg in front of Brando. Brando purportedly said, "If it makes you feel better, Al, go ahead and keep thinking that."

The uncomfortable truth is most acting teachers, academic or otherwise, are charlatans. They approach acting like math with clear and undeniable right choices and wrong choices. It's balderdash.

But, alas, the damage is done. After thirty years or so, everytime I point onstage I inwardly chuckle at the idea of using 'two fingers instead of one.' And sometimes, just to amuse myself, I do, in fact, use two fingers to point.

A few weeks ago, standing in the kitchen, Angie was cooking something. I was standing nearby sampling the wares, no doubt. She pointed, with one lonely, felonious finger, to some diced onions and said, "Could you hand me those, please?" I said, under my breath, "Can anyone tell me what she just did wrong?"

See you tomorrow.