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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Director Jeff Zinn talks to me about his work and his new book

Available at Amazon:

Jeff will be signing his book at the Drama Book Shop in Manhattan on Friday, November 11th.
250 West 40th Street. 212 944-0595

I just read an audacious and important book on acting. It encapsulates what is most relevant and noteworthy of some of the great teachers and then creates a context that lies much deeper than most. Indeed, it is the creation of its author, Jeff Zinn, actor, director with an M.A. from NYU, Post Graduate work at American Repertory Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University and the Kennedy School of Government. Jeff was Artistic Director of the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT) from 1988-2011. Jeff is currently the Managing Director of the Gloucester Stage Company in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

1) If a beginning actor approached you and asked for your guidance on what to look for and what to avoid with teachers and training, what would you say?

Jeff: Beware of gurus. There’s something so mysterious about the creative process. We look on those who are really talented or really successful with awe: How do they do it? What’s the secret? What I have witnessed in some cases is teachers who exploit that mystique to encourage a kind of cultism in their students. The craft becomes bathed in esoterica, and even overt mysticism. This tends to put the art and craft of acting on a plane that is almost deliberately unreachable. So seek out teachers who are listening to you, watching you and your work closely, and offering practical advice, guiding you through exercises that are doable, where you can grasp the objectives clearly.

   2) At what age did you find your connection to acting? Did you have support from your parents about devoting yourself to acting?

Jeff: I began in music. I was a singer/songwriter in my teens, played in bands and solo on the coffeehouse circuit. In the book I talk about how playing on the street, competing with the traffic, which forced me to push beyond the bubble of the small club or living room audience, I found a powerful sense of flow, a feeling of release that I later named “surrender.” In college I was persuaded to get involved in the theater, and I had the rather naïve notion that I would be able to transfer that sense of surrender onto the stage and into characters speaking dialog and telling stories. It turned out to be way more difficult than standing in front of a microphone letting the words and the music pour out in a rush. As an actor you have the text and relationships, cues and blocking, a director’s notes, backstory of the character to integrate, and on and on. There are so many moving parts to negotiate and navigate – and this is why there is a thriving industry of acting teachers, coaches and university drama programs! We need help. We struggle to acquire a technique that will help us find our way in the moment-to-moment of performance.

My parents were always supportive of my “life in art” whether music or theater. But they also, from time to time, would try to nudge me into alternate career paths (mainly teaching) that might be more reliable. That’s what parents do.

3)   Would you talk about the journey of your training and some of the things you walked away with?

Jeff: My first acting mentor had been a member of the Michael Chekhov Company in the 30’s and 40’s and so we heard a lot about “psychological gesture.” He encouraged “strong forms” and discouraged “introspection.” In practice this resulted in a pretty over-the-top acting style. When I got to NY and tried this out in a couple of auditions it became clear pretty quick that this was not going to cut it. I gravitated to more method based teachers connected with the Actors Studio, like David Garfield, and eventually with Susan Batson. It was in her class that I met your mom, Rocky, who introduced me to you. During that time I was an observer at the Studio and got to watch and learn from a whole bunch of amazing, talented actors and teachers including Lee Strasberg himself, Harold Clurman, Elia Kaza, Shelley Winters, Arthur Penn and Ellen Burstyn, (the only one of that bunch still alive.) I also took a master class with Bobby Lewis. So my first hand exposure to some of the seminal Group Theater and Actors Studio people was pretty intense. My exposure to the Sandy Meisner/Neighborhood Playhouse approach was more second hand. I was part of a group formed by Playhouse alums who called themselves (rather pretentiously) the Neighborhood Group Theater. Harold Baldridge, who ran the Playhouse, was a mentor. One of my early directing projects was a play by his wife, Mary.

To answer your question about my takeaways from the training, I want to fast forward a bit to a way of thinking about these approaches I eventually developed, and lean on quite a bit in the book. It’s a formulation I call the “four elements” – shape, action, transaction and surrender.

None of the schools or approaches I encountered use only one of these elements to the exclusion of all others, there is plenty of overlap. But each tends to lean on one more than the others.  The Michael Chekhov approach, at least as I received it, was very much about shape: committing to a strong outward manifestation of the character in the hope that it will spur an authentic and believable inner truth. The Meisner approach, with its emphasis on the repetition exercise, was/is all about transaction: putting attention on the scene partner as a means of getting out of the head and, again, toward authentic behavior and expression of feeling. The Actors Studio teachers, from Strasberg to Batson, were all about surrender, tapping into and expressing truthful emotion. Yes, there’s examination of the text and attention to character externals, but in the end it’s all about the tears.  The one element I found to be ubiquitous in all the approaches was action: the notion that when we have identified our objectives and intentions and motivations we must decide what to do onstage. That’s why we don’t really ask anymore, “what’s my motivation?” We ask, “what’s my action?”

During my time in NY, when I was pounding the pavement as an actor and then later having fun directing small scale projects at the West Bank Café, Circle Rep Lab, EST, and Theater for the New City, I was also being exposed to more downtown stuff from people like Mabou Mines, Bread and Puppet Theater, Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater, Liz Swados, and other even fringier groups. I was always thrilled by the theatricality and strong forms of that work but I often felt they lacked the deep emotional truth of the more conventional, uptown work that was driven by method approaches.  That feeling was reinforced when I arrived at the ART Institute and started working with people like Ann Bogart, Andre Serban, and Liviu Ciulei. The work was astonishing – big and bold and intellectually exciting – but struck me, somehow, as artificial. I wondered whether it was possible to have both at the same time. What would happen if you dropped an intensely truthful, method trained actor into a highly formal piece by, say, Robert Wilson, who just asks you to count to 87 as you cross the stage from point A to point B?

The point is that if you are that actor and you have developed your own way of opening up to surrender, you might bring that internal truth to the mechanics of crossing the stage in a Wilson construction. Some of his actors have done just that.

Cheryl Giannini, David Patrick Kelly, 
Derek Leader, Jeff Zinn
The Gypsies

  4)   Can you talk about an experience as an actor that has meant a lot to you? What was the role, who were you working with..?

I recently played Serebryakov in Uncle Vanya at the Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet. It was really the first role I had taken on since writing the book and it gave me an opportunity to really put to the test what I had been writing about. The role had lots of shape elements that were far from my own shape and persona. He’s old, sick, Russian, pompous (I hope that’s not me!) so I got to layer that up. At the same time, he’s deeply wounded and vulnerable so I needed to dig deep for the surrender. His action – and this is every character’s deep action – is to construct and defend a sense of identity that will combat his inherent sense of his own insignificance. In every interaction or transaction he’s trying to prove the validity of that action, and so he must always tune into the other characters whose behavior signals the success or failure of the action. So those were my guideposts for every rehearsal, every performance. It kept me focused. I was aided and abetted and encouraged in this by my director, Robert Kropf (a wonderful actor whose picture happens to grace the book’s cover), and the other terrific actors, especially Stacy Fischer and Justin Campbell. 

 5)   You were the Artistic Director at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT) from 1988- 2011. Boston Drama Critics Association has twice awarded WHAT its prestigious Elliot Norton Award. Would you talk about: your core beliefs about what Theater should be? How do you work in the modern world to maintain such a theater?

WHAT was founded as a place where we could do challenging, provocative new plays, and that’s what we did for 25 years. Sometimes I have called it “theater for grownups” or “theater that matters.” I deceived myself for a time in believing that I could choose only those plays that I personally responded to. If I liked it, my audience would like it. That did not prove to be true. In the commercial theater – and let’s face it, even the not-for-profit theater is commercial theater, driven as it is by ticket sales and donations from individuals – we must respond to the tastes, cultural limitations, and prejudices of our audiences. So I am always on the lookout for plays and projects that I respond to viscerally, intellectually, perhaps politically, but that I also think I can “sell” to an audience. I have had the somewhat perverse idea of establishing a “hedge fund” that would support risky plays, where losses from a worthy play that fails to meet box office projections would be offset by the fund. The short answer? We are always making compromises. Whatever I choose to produce, I do what I can to pick the best actors, designers, directors, and put what money we have onstage so we kick the shit out of it and blow audiences away.

  6) What theaters today-in the U.S. or in the world-do you most respect for their courage and risk taking? (not playing it safe)

It would be a pretty long list because there’s an awful lot of good work being done. I’ll just mention my peeps in Wellfleet – The Harbor Stage Company – who are fighting the good fight with exceptional work and killing themselves doing it for almost no money. Send them a check! My own company, Gloucester Stage, led by Robert Walsh, has always supported new plays and risky work. I’m honored to be there. (Another check please.)

   7)   If you could travel through time, what theater(s) from the past would you most want to become involved with?

Oh I would give anything to sweep the floors for the Group Theater. Moscow Art Theater, of course. I probably would wash out of Grotowski’s company – too intense – but I’d love to witness. The Public in the glory days of David Rabe. (I actually once sent a letter to Joe Papp asking to sweep the floors and got a letter back informing me that they had professional staff for that.)

8)  You have directed numerous productions. Would you talk about the strengths you see actors and actresses bring as well as the areas that you see actors could improve?

I’m always drawn to actors who are emotionally available but not crippled by what Patsy Rodenburg calls “first circle.” In other words, emotionally free, but also capable of making bold character choices (shape.) I also respond to a sense of ease. So try to relax.

9) You have directed numerous productions, including the recent production of “The Totalitarians” at Gloucester Stage Company, where you are also Managing Director. You are an actor, director, teacher published author. What’s next?

Right now I’m just trying to do my job well as managing director. Fundraising is a huge part of that because without the fiscal health we can’t make the theater. Beyond that I’m intensely aware of creating a welcoming and nurturing environment for everyone involved in the company: artists, technicians, Board members, volunteers, patrons. I’m really honored to have been invited to also direct at Gloucester Stage. I think that’s probably rare for a Managing Director. I hope to act more, direct more. Another book? Maybe.

10) Do you want to talk about the central premise of your book?

 Jeff: Yes. The four elements – shape, action, transaction and surrender – are a way of focusing our attention when we take the stage or go in front of the camera. But these technical elements build upon a more profound idea: our identities/shapes are constructed in response to our awareness of our mortality. That awareness is too overwhelming to keep in the foreground as we go about our day-to-day. The shapes we construct allow us to feel that our lives have meaning and purpose. Without them we are empty, hollow, tragically insignificant. The construction and defense of those shapes are the ongoing project, the action, that we take in every moment of our lives, onstage and off. We go through life – characters move through the arc of the play – engaging with others who signal, by their responses, whether they buy the shapes we’re selling. These transactions signal the success or failure of that action. When the transactions fail, when the character armor breaks down, emotion is often released in an act of surrender. Our characters’ shapes may be similar, or very different, from our own; our actions are the same. Once we are able to absorb this truth, we are on the way toward bringing those characters onstage to life as we connect their struggle, their journey, with our own.

check out Jeff's book:

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