Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Great Workshops for Philly-Area Teaching Artists

More fantastic workshops from the folks at the Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation.

Classroom Management looks particularly interesting to me.  Who's going

Bartol » Upcoming Workshops:

'via Blog this'

Friday, February 21, 2014


It's been a brutal winter here in the US, hasn't it? Having earned my badge as an official Winter Weather Expert surviving the Upper Midwestern winters of my Upper childhood, I am authorized to make that pronouncement. Did you know that on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 there was snow in 49 of the 50 states in the US? And yes, that means Hawaii.

This has been going on since December, but it wasn't until the first weekend in February that I found the word to succinctly describe how I feel – disrupted.

There are the obvious disruptions. Snow needs to be shoveled. Events need to be rescheduled or canceled. Cars get hit by falling limbs or passing snowplows, which means insurance companies and auto body repair shops have to be contacted, appointments made, schedules readjusted again. The power goes out, which is charming for about three hours. Then life becomes difficult. Internet service drops. The house gets cold. Batteries die on devices. 

I've been coping pretty well with the day-to-day existence, but that early February discovery clarified for me just how much my creative energy has been disrupted. I've still been able to write or compose just about every day for 10 minutes (sometimes more), but I'm definitely having a harder time getting into the flow. My practice time, which is usually a warm oasis, has not been as focused. Teaching is more of a refuge than I often find it. Having to concentrate with a student (or students) means I can't obsessively check the weather forecast or traffic reports. 

Look, here's what I'm trying to communicate to you.

We're not in charge.

This is the lesson that I learn over and over again when some unforeseen event disrupts my Oh-So-Wonderful-Don't-You-All-Wish-You-Had-My Life.

We're not in charge.

Nope. Not even close. And that is what makes most of us nuts. We'd like to think we are in charge. We'd like to think we dictate our comings and goings, with an occasional whimsical day off thrown in to show that we're really not control freaks. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I say this over and over again, to myself, and to anyone who will listen.

We're not in charge.  But I still feel disrupted and here's how I've been dealing with it:

I look up. Frequently. The winter sky is full of beautiful colors. The blue, on one of those sunny, bitterly cold days, is gorgeous. I take a mental picture to be replayed on one of those blisteringly hot days in July that you know are coming. I look at those leafless trees and marvel at the shape and structure. Until they come crashing down, they are a wonder.

I get frustrated. I love my work. Having it disrupted once is a nice change of pace. Having it disrupted on a regular basis is, well, frustrating.

I look out. My backyard, small as it is, is covered in a deep layer of white, untouched except for the tracks of George, the neighborhood cat. I'm astonished that after all of the snow I have seen in my life, I can still have my breath taken away by that dazzling plane of pure white.

I become exhausted. I don't like feeling frustrated, so I enter into a mighty battle with myself, attempting to convince the Me in me that I should relax, I should let go. The Me in me resists.  Exhaustion sets in.

I put on my coat and hat AND boots AND gloves (pet peeve: no complaining about the weather if you can't even bother to zip up your coat, let alone wear gloves or mittens.) I go outside. The dog and I walk as best we can. I shovel. I marvel in the amount of snow. I marvel that my body can still shovel, and actually enjoys it. I know, odd. And no, I am NOT available to come shovel your driveway.

I get anxious. I'd better leave early in case the trains are running late. No, wait, the trains aren't even running! Oh great, I'll have to take the trolley and the El. Are they running? I'll check their Twitter feed. Oh wait, I'm getting rotten service because the power is out. Dang! This is ridiculous! To make sure I'm on time, I'll leave an hour earlier than usual. Best to take along some toiletries in case they stop running as well and I have to crash at someone's house in the city tonight. Whose house can I crash at?....

I truck on. If I can make an appointment or commitment without the potential of too much harm to myself or others, I do it. I don't give up. I leave early. I've spent many extra hours these past months hanging out in coffee shops because the drive wasn't as long as I anticipated or because our local transit system was running on schedule. That's okay. I made it to where I needed to be and I was safe. Meetings could happen, performances weren't canceled, classes were held. Life could go on.

I get annoyed. Buck it up, people. It is only snow. It melts. And while you're at it, stop complaining. I agree, this winter feels relentless. But your constant complaining is not helping.

I try to attend to tasks on my daily list. I try to keep the routine because I know that's when I feel best. Even during the power outages (which, truth be told, only affected my house on two separate days), I still practiced. Why not? I don't need electrical power to sing and play a piano. How lucky am I?

I feel lethargic.  My self-diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder has clearly kicked in.  Sleeping in, followed by sitting in a chair all day sounds marvelous.  Standing up and doing a small task takes a massive amount of willpower. 

I listen. I can tell before I get out of bed if it has snowed. That distinctive hush. No traffic, felted silence. Or the whipping of the wind, as it swirls around outside. The phone ringing at some ridiculous hour. Even from the second floor, I can hear the machine in the kitchen, “Good Morning, this is the Lower Merion School District.” I roll over and go back to sleep.

 I become irritated.  Even the slightest thing throws me into an internal fit.  Who moved the bowl on the entrance table?  Why is there that speck of dirt on the floor that I just swept?  Why can't that colleague respond to my email now?  Practicing compassion for others takes a Herculean effort, at which I fail, miserably, on a regular basis.

I take a deep breath. I sit in my chair and watch the wind as it whips the power lines and trees around. I feel gratitude that I am inside a home, filled with love and warmth. Then I pull out my computer, grateful that the power is currently on and shoot off some more  rescheduling emails.

As I write this post, we've had no major events for 4 days and even better, there are none in the forecast. The temperatures have risen and the snow is melting. It almost feels like all those crazy happenings never happened.  Doesn't matter. I'm going to keep practicing the moment-to-moment marvel of not being in charge. Here's hoping I get it right one of these times.

Friday, February 7, 2014

What Makes A Great

I dedicate this post to the life and work 
of the great Philip Seymour Hoffman. 
 May his memory be a blessing for all of us.

Last month I received this email from my colleague, Ashley Kernsthe Assistant Director of Education at Walnut St. Theatre:

Happy New Year, I hope this finds you well.  As I approach the beginning of our theatre school semester for the spring 2014 I am asking the folks around me, involved in the art of theatre- “what makes a great actor?”  I teach the intro to acting class for adults  on Wednesday nights.  I usually ask the students this same question in the first and last week of classes to see how their answers change.  I begin class each week with a quote/meditation of a famous actor/director.  I am creating a document with thoughts on acting for the semester and I am interested in what you might have to say about the subject!
SO- if you have the time and can respond to this I would greatly appreciate it!
In as many or as few words/lines as you like and in YOUR opinion:
What makes a great actor?
I thank you!Ashley
I found this was a wonderful question to contemplate, particularly at the start of a New Year.  So I asked Ashley if she would pass on the responses she received to Creatavita. She enthusiastically said yes.

Now, I know some of you reading this are saying “Big deal. I'm not an actor, I'm a graphic artist, I'm a modern dancer, I'm a singer/songwriter, I'm a dad.” Ah my friends, my friends. You sell the world of creating and your own talent short when you think that way. As Herald Stark (one of the finest old-school voice teachers ever), said to me: “Don't put your talent in a box.”  In every statement that follows, I'm pretty sure you can replace the word actor with your discipline and some truth, perhaps minutes, but still a truth, will be revealed to you.

Read on to see the responses to Ashley's question,

What makes a Great Actor?

First, the responses from Ashley's colleagues, all of whom are professional actors and arts educators:


Acting- in my opinion- starts with what is instinctual.  We all have instincts and impulses which is why I believe acting can be a universal art form.  With the new students it will just be a matter of getting them back in touch with those impulses/instincts.


I've got my grad school teacher's answer ingrained into my head (which I believe is via Meisner): "Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances."

Great actors are like two-year-olds - they have fully invested in the imaginary circumstances of the play, and they make you believe in the imaginary circumstances of the play.

For me, "behaving truthfully" comes down to how fully committed the actor is to playing their action. To really doing it. Great actors don't mail it in, or say "It kind of goes like this." Great actors are totally invested in changing the person they are playing the scene with. When they throw a dart, the dart hits the bull's eye with force. Their throw doesn't lack the commitment to make it to the dart board.

Great acting is honest. It carries with it a moment-to-moment reality. Nothing occurs out of a vacuum.

Great acting is unselfish, coming from your scene partner more than it is created from a grand-standing whim.


Focus - knowing your character and never ever breaking character while performing.


Present. Positive. Open. Aware. Passionate. Intuitive. Imaginative. Well versed in story-telling both textually and physically. Committed to an ever-changing craft. Willingness to jump in and serve the work, collectively.


Like Kathleen Turner told me in a master class: what makes a great actor is one who respects, disciplines, and manages to be consistent in there technical training and in performance! Always striving for growth and inspirational change as an artist!


Determination, an open mind, attention to detail, and a willingness to look foolish.


I think its the giving quality, both on stage and off- the care for the other human beings he's sharing the stage with! And of course, the commitment to telling a veryyyy important story.


The ability to transcend current physical circumstances, to transport themselves (and therefore the audience) to a specific place and moment, and most importantly to communicate honest emotion.


A great actor is someone who can be in the moment over and over again. Every moment is new, even for the thousandth time. A great actor is someone who can listen in the moment, as if they're hearing for the first time. A great actor doesn't have to do too much - except that not doing too much is the hardest thing in the world to do.


Someone who is able to be vulnerable. If you are unable to dig deep within yourself, your acting will always be a mask of acting, not true living, breathing acting. The best actors I know are either very well grounded or just a touch bit crazy, but always in touch with themselves and able to commit fully to the work. I find the worse actors are people with a lot of personal walls up, guarded people. Also people, who have created a persona for themselves, that they hide behind.

That's why I have always found it so important as a coach to have at least a glimpse into the personal life of my actors. It's important that you become a good reader of people. It so greatly influences their work, for the good or the bad.


What makes a great actor? Someone who “shows the movement, not the effort behind it.”


And, the responses from the students in Ashley's introduction to acting class, Hitting The Boards:




To fully take on a character




In my opinion, a great actor is someone with extremely high self-confidence in themselves and what they do. Also have a good work ethic.


Conveyance of emotion


To portray a character in a way that makes them disappear and the character be truly believable.


The ability to become someone else


Portraying emotion

The ability to create and/or interpret a character

Someone who can portray a range of emotions and connect with the viewer


Someone who enjoys what they are doing


Someone who you believe is not acting


Someone who can tell a story as “truly” as they can, emotionally, working with the chemistry of their cast mates/director.


At the conclusion of this session, sometime in April (provided it stops wintervating!), Ashley will ask this question to her class again and we'll post the responses here at Creatavita. It will be very interesting to what changes, if any, take place.

I hope this post has made you think about greatness in art.  Maybe even in your art.