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Friday, August 16, 2013

Interview: Anthony Abeson

Anthony Abeson's actor-training is an amalgam of his work with Peter Brook at the Centre International de Recherche Theatrale, Paris; Jerzy Grotowski at the Instytut Aktora, Wroclaw and Brzezinka, Poland and the Centre Dramatique National du Sud-Est, Aix-en-Provence, France; Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman as a member of the Directors Unit of the Actors Studio and Stella Adler at the Stella Adler Conservatory, New York.

Anthony has conducted group acting classes and private coaching for actors for over twenty-five years in New York and is thrilled that so many of his students have gone on to successful careers on Broadway, film and television, including Jennifer Aniston, Ian Somerhalder ("The Vampire Diaries"), Dilshad Vadsaria ("Revenge"), Reno Wilson ("Mike and Molly"), Kerry Butler ("Xanadu", "The Best Man"), Brendan Dooling ("The Carrie Diaries"), Sherri Saum ("The Fosters"), Jimmy Wolk ("The Crazy Ones"), EJ Bonilla ("Bad Management"), Cedric Sanders ("Influence"), Julia Garner ("Electrick Children"), Adam Chanler-Berat ("Next to Normal," "Peter and the Starcatcher," "The Delivery Man"), and many others.

Anthony's book, "Signaling Through the Flames--Actors Lit from Within" will be released within the year. 

For more info:

Anthony Abeson:

1. on Jerzy Grotowski

I went to New Zealand in 1967; I couldn’t attend my graduation from Columbia, because I had to be in New Zealand on that day. By that time, we had started to hear about Grotowski from certain articles about his book, “Towards a Poor Theater” which had just been published. We were getting all these reports and it was just remarkable, the excitement that they caused. In New Zealand, under the auspices of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, we founded New Zealand’s first international theatre company and training academy in which I served as an actor, director and teacher. I was 22.

I wrote to Grotowski and I said, “Do you want to come to New Zealand?” And he wrote back and said
‘Yes, let’s try to set this up.’ But then that theater company folded, despite the support of the Arts Council and the Golden Kiwi Lottery. (England had devalued the pound which led to the collapse of the NZ pound.) But I had already established that connection, so when a committee was formed to bring him and his company toAmerica in 1968, I was on it. Then Russia invaded Czechoslovakia and the State Department canceled his visit because he was a citizen of a Soviet bloc country. Our committee protested and sent telegrams and letters to no avail. Although we were all terribly disappointed, the silver lining was that he invited me to participate in a “stage” he was going to conduct at the Centre Dramatique National du Sud-Est in Aix en Provence in late 1968, and that is where I first started working with him.

Grotowski and I became really close. We did a lot together and had a tremendous amount of fun doing it. I loved him. He called me his ‘brother.’ I was closer to him than any other man except my father. A lot of people thought he was severe, but he was an extremely funny guy. I worked with him in his first period, when he was involved in the physical-vocal training that earned him, his company and their productions, worldwide fame. I was very lucky to have been taught directly by him and Cieslak. I was also lucky enough to be with him when he changed his entire approach and gave up those productions in favor of new experiences that he was creating. I was there to help facilitate the very first one we did, “special project,” which took place in a forest outside of Philadelphia in the early ‘70’s. There are things that were revealed to all of us during that experience that he asked that we not speak of, and to this day I haven’t. And I won’t. Ever. 

Several other times during my collaboration with him, he would ask for my help and I would stop what I was doing and go to him. There was a time not very long after the shootings at Kent State when he was invited to go there and he asked me to go with him. At that time, I was pretty fluent in French and I could get around in Polish, his English was a little rough. By that time, I really knew him... we really knew each other. I knew how he would want to be translated, I knew what to do. We spent a night at Kent State in a guest house that was donated for that purpose and he told me a lot about what it was like in Poland during World War II, and how it had affected his mother—we were very close.

I learned from him on many levels; on an immediate and tangible level from the training, his time at the Moscow Art Theater, his time at the Beijing Opera, but was a man who was legally blind, terminally ill, who would work for days without sleep.  He would throw away the clock for weeks, or months and work like a demon, like a guy who knew that his clock was ticking. In fact, his childhood doctor was convinced Grotowski wouldn’t survive. (Years later, that same doctor was terrified to run into him - he thought he was seeing a ghost.) So that is another thing that I learned, seeing that kind of dedication and insistence on not wasting a moment. I was also inspired by the way he was very gracious to everyone. There many times when people would be needy and pushy, but he was always unfailingly gracious. An aristocrat, he came from a very old Polish family. I’ll never forget—when our committee was finally able to bring him over in 1969—he came first, and we did a lot of preparatory stuff. Then the day that his company was due to arrive at the airport, time was very tight, but he still insisted on going home and changing into a clean shirt out of respect for his actors. 

2. on Lee Strasberg

Lee was a difficult man. At the same time, I learned a great deal from being around him. There are things about Lee that are not very well known or understood and one of them is in my book, where I recount being in his apartment and talking about Vakhtanghov and Grotowski. One of the things about Lee that I don’t think is given sufficient attention is that he had the real deep-seated love of learning that very smart people have when they haven’t had the opportunity to go to college. Lee really loved learning. One of the things he was very perceptive and astute about was the relationship between music and acting. He was very fond of playing recordings of the same piece by different pianists, for example, to illustrate the importance of interpretation. The difference between the same piece, the same notes played by two different people — say Glenn Gould and then Horowitz, was astonishing. I don’t think he’s been given enough credit for that insight, not only into the parallel between music and acting but also the importance of interpretation to acting. That’s just one thing I want to tip my hat to him about.

At the Studio, I also saw people pushed past the point where they should not have been allowed to go, which produced hysteria. Hysteria is not art and it’s abusive to induce it in an actor. That’s why I’m extremely firm and clear in my class that if you don’t want to go somewhere, we don’t go there. You have a choice in this.

In my class, sometimes I will quote something that Strasberg would say and finally, the other day, I came across some old pictures of me with Strasberg, so I brought them in, and it really struck my students; they were struck by the history.

3. on Harold Clurman

After New Zealand, I started a theater company of my own in New York. The Ensemble Theater Laboratory. We were the heaviest people in the world! Spalding Gray was a member of the company. You have to remember this was the 60s, a very exciting time. It was very exciting just to be on the street. What was in the air was exciting. There wasn’t a sense of linear time. When Nixon started bombing Cambodia, we shut the theater down and started wandering around the streets of Chelsea banging on a drum, singing hymns and wearing black arm bands. One day, we got a script in the mail from this guy we knew, a playwright—he was in New Mexico and he wrote a play that he wanted us to do outdoors there. So we read it in our theater and said, ‘okay, let’s go!’

We got two cars and we drove out to New Mexico. We were supported by both the New Mexico State Arts Commission and the New York State Council of the Arts—we were so happy to take the money, we didn’t think about the consequences: Whatever opened in New York had to also open in New Mexico and vice versa. Then, in 1972, I worked in France with Peter Brook at the Centre International de Recherche Theatrale after which I had a theatre company in D.C. and returned in ‘78 to New York, and the Studio, where Harold was my mentor in the Directors Unit.  

Harold, as everybody who knew him would agree, was a very, very passionate man. I was lucky enough to be exposed to him towards the end of his life. He would get so passionate, so red in the face, that I thought he might just topple over. He would start calmly but then he would work himself up. He was kind enough to invite me to his house, and to allow me sit in on a class he was teaching at Hunter College. I don’t think they had any idea what they were being exposed to, or who he was—but I certainly did. There he was a few years before his death, ranting and raving with compassion and brilliance and passion in a small college classroom with about 20 befuddled kids and me. I did a scene for Harold at the Studio and it was dreadful. I saved his notes. What he really gave to me, besides his passion and his tremendous interest in everything (“Why do I read about many different things? BECAUSE I’M INTERESTED!!!!!! he would scream,) was the importance of the playwright’s idea. Why my scene was so lacking was that I had not proceeded from, much less made explicit, the idea. What he really went into on that occasion and other occasions—was the primacy of the idea. And if you read any of his criticism, you will see that he faults most plays these days for not really expressing big ideas, and most critics for their complicity in this. Stanislavski stressed this his whole life, but Harold really brought it home to me. Unless and until you know what the idea is, you don’t know what your character stands for, because each character has an element of the idea embedded in them. And then you don’t know how to interpret. If you don’t know the idea, then you’re just moving actors around. Even if they’re doing well, even if they’re getting connected to the material, to what end? Stanislavski said the intention is like a needle, it threads all the lines together. I love that image. I would say that the idea is the really big needle that threads all the scenes and all the actors together. And the scene designer, the lighting designer, everybody.

The question is: what is the writer saying to the world? It can’t be boring, and it can’t be just a description of the plot. I stopped all other work in my classes and made everybody create a short movie or a short play that expressed an idea. I didn’t care what the idea was. All 150 students had to do that because I was so appalled that they lacked ideas in their toolbelts. And I would like to think that they are more hip to it now; we are back in scene study, among other things, and one question we ask with regularity is to say, ‘Ok, what’s the idea? What was going on when the playwright wrote it? What seed of that idea is in your character?’ Stanislavski talked about that, Stella talked about that, but Harold really gave it to me.

4. on Affective Memory (Emotional Memory)

Stanislavski put it into perspective. You have to remember that Lee was taught by BoleslavskyBoleslavsky was a product of Stanislavski’s early period so, naturally, what Boleslavsky was teaching in New York to three of my teachers—Lee, Stella, and Harold—was early Stanislavski: affective memory as the “cornerstone” of his technique. And that’s what Lee latched onto with a tenacity that approached obsession. The fact is, as is well known, Stanislavski, over the years, started to find significant problems with relying only on affective memory. So, by the time Stella worked with him in 1934, he had gone from calling affective memory the ‘cornerstone’ of his technique to calling it ‘the last resort.’ That’s not throwing it out entirely, but by that time he’d arrived at the method of physical actions as a means to the emotions. So I think Stanislavski’s change of terms is pretty indicative of what the deal is.

5. on Stella Adler

That’s what drove Stella to meet with Stanislavski. One of the real problems with the constant use of the real lived past is not just the hysteria that can arise from going to memories best left alone, or the abuse of forcing an actor to go there anyway, but also the inappropriateness of trying to jam square pegs of reality into the round holes of imaginary situations. I had a student once who had a scene where he was meant to be empathizing with his friend who’d lost his job and couldn’t buy Christmas presents for his children. His work was so odd, so “off circumstance” as Uta Hagen used to say, that I stopped him and said, “What are you doing?” He said he was remembering a time when he broke his ribs. That is what I mean by a square peg in a round hole. Stella became tired of constantly recycling her past. She said she didn’t become an actress so she could keep reliving the same things that had happened to her. She wanted to be a character in ancient Egypt, in imperial Rome, and so forth, so Harold finally said, “Why don’t I take you to see Stanislavski in Paris?” So, as is well known, Stella went to Paris, marched up to Stanislavski and told him “you’ve made me hate acting.” And he said, with the utmost courtesy and grace, “Perhaps you have been taught it incorrectly.” And so began six weeks of private instruction between them. It was an eye opener and mind opener for her to realize that, no, she didn’t have to keep going back to real, lived things, she could make them up.

I was in class with Stella who was Jewish and had never had a Christmas tree in her life. And yet, while she was talking about a Christmas tree, (we were working at the time on “A Doll’s House,” when Nora says “Put the Christmas Tree over there”), Stella built this whole scenario up, totally out of her imagination, about the Christmas tree, so much so that she burst into tears talking about it. The point is the imaginary can be as affective as the real, sometimes more so. That’s critical, because you don’t want to trivialize your friend losing his job and not being able to buy Christmas presents, by making it about the time you broke your rib. It’s also incredibly harmful to your instrument and to your view of its capabilities. To use only affective memory at the expense of your imagination makes you feel that all you are capable of is recycling; that you are not capable of creating. That is a terrible insult to this thing that you carry within you. At the same time, we’re not never substituting, because if we have something real that’s a genuine parallel and doesn’t hurt too much, it would be crazy not to use it. Again, “last resort” doesn’t mean “never.”

Read books. Read 19th Century novels because they are so rich in character, atmosphere and plot, that you’ll be forced to flesh them out by using your imagination. That’s a big part of what we do in class: Flesh it Out. It’s not like it’s an artificial appendage that you have to somehow acquire through intense study. You have it already. If you’re going to order shrimp lo mein, you picture it on the menu. When you read a novel, you automatically see it. When you read a script or sides, you don’t see anything except the words on the page. I think a lot of that is due to technology because everything is shown to you in such digital, high def detail that your imagination atrophies. But it can be revived, and because you are born with it, it’s not going to be that hard. But you do have to give it the opportunity. You see the shrimp lo mein more vividly than you picture the situation that is underneath the words of the script. A big part of what we do in class is to step back from the trees of the lines to see the forest of the situation. 

 6. on the Method of Physical Actions

Stanislavski called it his greatest discovery, he said burn all my notes. Thank God they didn’t. And just like the imagination, it’s based on something that you’re born with: What they used to call the great correspondence between the inner and the outer. Stanislavski discovered that the constant recycling of memories, generally painful ones, produces tension. And your instrument is not stupid; if it’s really painful, it doesn’t want to go there. It’s abuse to force it to. The method of physical actions is based on what actions you do and how you do them, and actions, said Stanislavski, are 35% of the character.

I had an actor in my class doing a monologue from Boiler Room, giving a speech to traders, “Look at me, I’m a millionaire at 28…” and the speech was going nowhere. In stepping back and looking at the situation, the character and his actions, I said to him, did you play sports in high school? He said, yes. I said, did you have a coach?
He said, yes. I said, would you imitate the coach? He said, he was very crazy. I said, go ahead. He changed completely. He started to become the coach, “Drop and give me 20!” He started to do these characteristic actions. I had him go right into the monologue and what happened was—he wasn’t just doing the actions of the coach, those actions were causing reactions in him. I started to see in his eyes a maniacal desire for winning, for intimidation, for pushing people to the limit. It started with the flesh, in the form of actions,  and ended with kindling the life and feelings of a human spirit, a character. What you do and how you do it, inevitably are going to make you feel.

Stanislavski had two questions:

In the early period, he asked, if you were the character, what would you feel? This required a vocabulary of emotions to answer.

But in the second period, he asked a different question:

If you were the character…what would you DO?
This required a vocabulary of action.

7. on improvisation

Strasberg used to say that improvisation was the only way to uncover the life of the scene. But improvisation has become a cue for actors to stand there and make clever remarks. No life, a lot of talk. We do a lot of improv in class. We ask them to create an exciting situation; we do this almost on a daily basis, because we’re trying to get the instrument used to sensing that the words—like Meyerhold said—are woven on the fabric of the actions. And the actions come from the situation. We’re trying to get them back to what they knew as children, which is that you don’t stand there doing nothing and talk - you play. You create a situation and out of the situation come the lines. In fact, its only the situation that gives you the value of the lines, and if you don’t understand the situation underneath those words, then you don’t have any right to say them.
A lot of auditions involve improvs, and in my students’ experience, many other actors start talking in an improv instead of doing. One student of mine was in an audition with three other actors, and the situation was that they were on a plane that was about to crash. The other three right away started screaming, but my student took out her cell phone to call her mom to say goodbye. Uncover the life, not the lines, of the scene.

8. Approach to body and voice:

I think it was Artaud who said, ‘actors in Europe don’t know how to scream anymore.’ I don’t know if that’s still true, but what I find is that more and more actors lack physical-vocal training. There is a line from my book that comes from an actor I teach who was at a soap opera audition and another actor saw his resume and said,”Wow, you have real training. When I go back to LA, I’m going back to pretty face/six pack abs-acting.” If young actors are being given the impression that all they have to do is look good, then of course, the whole idea that you might want to train the instrument goes out the window, because why train how it works if all you have to be sure about is how it looks?

We’re always under such pressure in this art form, I’ve had to refine and compress our physical-vocal training. By pressure, I mean-- my students are in the business. We’re working on sides, because we want them to do good work, work that gets work. We don’t have six months for intensive physical-vocal training. What we do have is the opportunity to make sure that their physical-vocal instruments are not holding them back. For example, many actors come to me without the physical-vocal ability to achieve the attack and energy that comedy requires, and this we address, rigorously. There is also something about their believability as a character that is going to be undermined if their instrument’s trapped in their self-portrait. The audience has to believe in you. Longfellow called the voice ‘the organ of the soul,’ so we are not just talking about the voice here.

9. What is available in the world today for young actors today to get turned on by?

The World! The first thing they have to do is unplug. Because until and unless they let the real world in, then they are not feeding themselves as artists or as human beings.If they’re not experiencing human beings being human, if they’re not experiencing the world in such a way that increases their humanity, then there’s no way they’re going to make their audiences more humane. That’s the first thing. What is out there in the world for them, first and foremost, is the World. With their beats or their earbuds or whatever they have in their ears, and with their eyes constantly on their little screen,texting, tweeting, IM-ing, they manage to spend, the latest figure I saw, was over 11 hours a day on some kind of screen. And what that screen is doing is screening out the very humanity and world that is meant to feed them as artists. It’s also crippling their imaginations (not to mention their spelling and their grammar,) and their ability to even communicate with human beings.That world is out there and is infinitely capable of turning on young actors. They need to turn on to their own artistry and their own humanity vis a vis the world and being human.

Then, maybe, they’re going to want to say something to the world, once they experience it. They can’t “hold as ‘twere the mirror up to Nature” if their eyes are on their devices.

Update: About his book...

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