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Sunday, October 21, 2012

*My interview with actor, director and teacher Mark Nelson

I first met Mark Nelson in the 1980's. He was playing Stanley in Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs. His kindness, decency and intelligence have always stood out to me. I have profound respect for his amazing body of work. I am really very very grateful that he took the time to answer my questions for this blog. ~

 Mark Nelson is currently acting in a new off-Broadway play, My Name Is Asher Lev.  He teaches acting at Princeton University. Mark has appeared on Broadway in Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, Arthur Miller's After the Fall, Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Aaron Sorkin's A Few Good Men, and four plays by Neil Simon.  In 2009 he toured for a year with the Bridge Project, Sam Mendes' classical rep company, performing in New York, London, Madrid, and Epidaurus, Greece. As an actor, Mark has won the Obie, Drama League, Carbonell, and San Francisco Critics Awards.  His TV work includes recurring roles on "Law & Order" and "Spin City."  He has also directed plays in New York and around the country, and is a frequent guest director at the Juilliard School.  He is a graduate of Princeton and studied acting with Uta Hagen at HB Studio. 

Corey: Once upon a time there was a great sense of tradition that was handed to the actor who trained with Uta Hagen, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner. The actor learned of the roots of their training, and of the absolute necessity of respect for acting. Today, there are many teachers who have no connection to the traditions. As a result, many actors and acting students never get to hear the words of the masters that called for commitment. How do you see the state of the young actor today, and more importantly, what do you think every actor must learn somewhere along the line in order to serve the work as a professional?

Mark: This idea of artistic tradition is on my mind a lot these days because of the play I'm working on, My Name Is Asher Lev, from the novel by Chaim Potok. I play several roles, including this crusty old Russian artist, Jacob Kahn, who mentors the young hero, a Hasidic boy who dreams of being a painter. And I have this one speech I love: “What the hell do you need this for? This is a tradition. A religion. You are entering a religion called Painting. It has its fanatics and its rebels and I'm going to force you to master it. Only one who has mastered a tradition has the right to add to it, or rebel against it." He's saying this to an ultra-Orthodox Jew! You think your religion is tough, kid, wait till you get a load of mine!
So when I deliver that speech I'm remembering my own tough, loving mentor, Uta Hagen. I'm channeling her and her crazy faith and commitment (only her voice was deeper than mine.) There's no doubt in my mind that meeting Uta is the reason I've hung in there as an actor for 35 years. I found her class at that crucial moment when I needed a philosophy of living as much as I needed the training. She was a huge, charismatic force, and she was fueled by the passionate conviction that acting is a form of service, a craft to be relentlessly honed, a serious aspiration. Up till then, for me, it was mainly a form of emotional release, a way to make myself heard in the world. In her class-- which I attended on and off for six years-- I finally got that it wasn't about me. It was about getting my ego out of the way, using my inner life as a means to something bigger and more valuable: telling the story. ~ I remember the laser beam of her attention, the frankness of the critiques, the big, throaty laughter when somebody nailed a scene-- I think those things are ingrained in me now more than anything she actually said. And she carried this astounding history with her: she had stories about working with Brecht, Brando, Albee, Paul Robeson, the Lunts. Geraldine Page and Rock Hudson actually came to watch her teach! We got the feeling we were partaking in a tradition, and we dreamed of joining it. She passed her practical and philosophical DNA on to hundreds of actors in that room on Bank Street, and now I hope I'm passing on a bit of it to my students.Of course many, many young actors are in it for the fame or the ego or the therapy, but I think that's always been true. The ones who will last, who will sustain a career despite the inevitable kicks in the teeth, are the ones with a sense of the craft-- that they're part of something that's worth a lifetime's dedication.

Corey: Is there an actor whom you have watched on stage or worked with who taught you what acting could be? Who blew you away? What was it about their work that inspired you?

Mark: So many. I've been blessed to work with glorious actors. Linda Lavin in Broadway Bound gave the greatest performance I ever observed at close range-- an impossible combination of sharpshooter comedy technique and heartbreaking vulnerability. The pain and the humor were inseparable. And Simon Russell Beale: I spent a year touring in rep with the Bridge Project, and Simon played Leontes in The Winter's Tale and Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard. Two completely different, compelling human beings, on alternate nights. I knew of him as England's great Shakespearean actor, so I expected a majestic command of language, but what I didn't expect was fearless intimacy and heart. The grand classical technique just disappeared into the quirky human truth of those two characters. One night I was so knocked out by him that I forgot to say the next line.

Corey: What was the most difficult part you ever played and how did you address those obstacles?

Mark: About a year ago, I got to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in Washington, DC. A great part that's littered with landmines. How do you go to court to claim a pound of flesh from your business rival's chest? He either comes off as a monster of bigotry, or a noble Jewish victim with no other choice, and I couldn't buy either one. He's a victim of terrible anti-Semitism, and he's also a madman who espouses an ugly idea of justice. Particularly as a Jewish actor, I couldn't settle for a stereotyped villain, and I also couldn't see him as justified. ~ So my solution, finally, was to find a point right in the middle of the play where he loses his humanity, where he makes the choice to let his decency die. He's driven to it by loss, in the moment that his friend Tubal informs him that his runaway daughter Jessica has sold his ring, a gift from his late wife, to buy a monkey. “Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise. I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.” He's endured a lifetime of abuse in Venice and kept the faith, but that lost ring breaks him. Nothing matters anymore. And the next thing he does is send Tubal to find an officer to arrest Antonio. So from that moment in the play, I was able to relentlessly pursue vengeance while knowing, as Shylock, that it was against everything I believed. 

Corey: When you teach at Princeton, you have students who are not necessarily looking to make acting their profession or their chosen art form. How do you approach these varied individuals and what do you require from them in return?

Mark: There's no theater major at Princeton, so all my students are immersed in other subjects: I have two Engineers, a Slavic Studies major, a biologist, and a bunch of English Lit majors. It's great for me, because they bring a wider world to the scene work. Some of the insights into Chekhov or Arthur Miller are thrilling, because they're informed by different perspectives than you'd hear in an acting class in L.A. or New York. I ask for a lot of commitment in class, and they take acting seriously-- Princeton kids are serious about everything. And because they're in left-brain analytical mode most of the time, I think they really treasure the chance to play, to let their feelings fly, to relate viscerally. That's a necessary part of an integrated human being, whether he or she turns out to be an actor, a professor, a scientist, whatever. There's nothing more satisfying than seeing a kid experience a “light-bulb moment” in a scene, when he goes suddenly from understanding it to living it. That's about much more than acting; it's about becoming present in your life, really letting in another person, facing fear, recognizing yourself in another's shoes. I think all that is essential to the journey of any well-rounded person. Maybe one or two of them will go on to become actors, and hopefully the rest will go on to make enough money to buy a lot of theater tickets. ~

Mark Nelson in My Name is Asher Lev at the Westside Theater

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Producer Tips: the audition

Writer/ Producer John Peaslee has worked in Hollywood for decades. He has produced and/ or written "Working Class," "According to Jim," Courting Alex," "8 Simple Rules," "Just Shoot Me," "Something So Right," Blue Skies," "Coach, and "Anything But Love." We worked together on the first incarnation of the ABC tv show "Blue Skies," which we shot at Universal.  I asked John the following question:

 "What does an actor need to know in order to bring in a successful audition?" 

John Peaslee:

1.If at all possible, read the whole script.  It is going to make your audition much better if you understand the context of the scenes and what kind of show/movie it is.  If this is not possible, it is okay to ask one or two questions in the room, but don't expect the writer/producers to be able to spend a lot of time on it.  (Although writers will usually talk about their scripts and characters forever, but there just isn't a lot of time on a busy day).  

2.KEEP IT SIMPLE!  Trying too hard almost always ends in rejection. 

3. DON'T IMPROVISE!  If you do, it better be a killer line.  

4. Only bring props or dress for a part if it seems absolutely necessary (this is part of keep it simple). 

5.  It is not a crime not to have memorized script, no one is expecting this.  If you are going to try it off book, GET IT RIGHT.   We'd rather see you with pages in your hand than say the lines wrong. 

6. Find out what network or channel the show is for.  It doesn't tell you everything, but it can give you a lot of information about tone and style. 

7. Don't over-think.  Especially in TV, we are going to be trying to see if you are a natural for this part.  If you are, we will end up writing the part closer and closer to who the actor actually is as a person.  We want the two to merge.  That doesn't mean that if you're auditioning for "Dexter" you have to be a serial killer.  But I'm sure they were looking for the actor they got - someone who seemed a little withdrawn but lovable, quiet with a strong sense of right and wrong, sexy and dangerous without being obvious about it.  Most of that you can't fake, you either are or aren't that person.  So follow your instincts and stay true to yourself.

8. If you are given a note in the room, it means they are interested.  You have them on the hook, but they have a question.  Listen to the note and make an adjustment.  I can't tell you how often we give a note and then see no adjustment in the performance.  This is an indication of what it's going to be like to work with you.  Pay attention.  Your changes should be subtle (unless told otherwise) but make the changes.

Explained: therapist Amy Gallimore on human behavior

 Amy Gallimore has been in the counseling field since January of 1995 in capacities such as inpatient hospitalization, community mental health, group home treatment centers, private foster care, counselor supervision, and private practice. She has been a Licensed Professional Counselor since 2001 and received her Master’s Degree in Counseling from the University of Memphis in 1998. Her areas of expertise include assisting adults and adolescents with depression, anxiety, grief, life changes, anger, self esteem and relationship difficulties. She attempts to help clients learn healthy coping skills, manage emotions and behavior, make successful choices and reach one’s full potential. She has worked for the Exchange Club Family Center in Memphis, TN since 1998 and directs the Comprehensive Anger Management Program (CAMP) for parents and youth. She also works at LifeQuest Counseling Center. She assists families and couples with resolving conflict and restoring and strengthening relationships. Amy also directs and facilitates an adult male anger management program and conducts psychological assessments for the court. Amy lives in Southaven, MS with her two children, ages five and nine, and her husband of 11 years.

1) What are the most basic emotional needs that human beings have?  

Certainty (as in security)
Uncertainty (as in excitement)
Significance (as in power/control)
Intimacy and Love

 2) Why do human beings communicate? 

I think all living organisms communicate to survive and thrive in the environment in which they live.

3) Why do we have a need to tell someone the things we experience, achieve, decide? Not only profound issues but even the most simple ones…I cut my finger, I cut my hair, I bought a new shirt. etc.Why do people communicate such things?  

One idea on this was eloquently put by Diane Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give” when she said that relationships exist because people want to share their experiences with others. I think it brings purpose to our lives to share ourselves with each other. Maybe it makes our mortality real and meaningful or maybe life itself truly is compelling especially in the simple things.

4) a) What does physical contact provide for humans? b) Why are some people affectionate and others are not? 
Physical touch is an expression of love and therefore can help us meet a basic human need. It has also been known to assist in growing premature infants, showing the significance to human survival. If someone has experienced abuse or trauma, it could have an adverse effect. Also, people have preferences just like any like or dislike and therefore physical touch could be important and enjoyed by one person but not another. It could have its roots in how we were raised, e.g. an affectionate family vs. a nonaffectionate family carries over generationally and becomes a “trait” in a sense. Typically for many people, however, physical touch is linked with comfort and positive feelings.

5) What psychological forces determine what a human values and how much they value it? The emotional investment in objects, and other people? 

Again, I think what we value depends on our early experiences and values that were taught growing up. Inadvertently, a person may come to value the opposite of what was taught if at some point we think to ourselves (and for ourselves) what is “right” or “fair”. It is my goal with clients to assist them in exploring what they value and what is “true” for them not necessarily what was instilled.   Some people emotionally invest in things or people that do not really serve them. We lose our way along the way when we face adversity and we cling to anything that brings comfort, even if it’s a false sense of security. People can not fulfill all of our desires and to think so could be a trap or misconception, it’s not in the external world where we will be at peace. Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor/psychiatrist in “Man’s Search for Meaning” found that only when he went inside and searched for answers and meaning to his life experiences, did he overcome great human adversity (and he found his answers resided in that basic human need : love).

6)  How can you heal someone who has been emotionally damaged? 

A person has to choose to be healed, other people can only serve to assist and encourage. Life can be relentless if we resist the lessons to be learned. A person must take back what has been lost or stolen from them and grace is there to guide us. I believe there is a scripture that says we must first die (to self) in order to find ourselves. Its as though we have to lose who we thought we were to realize who we were all along- a child of God, an expression of Love.