This is the Moment for Meisner

I’m tempted to set up this post by giving a history of the rift between Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg but I’ll skip the historical acting coach drama (pun intended) and get straight to what is on my mind. Meisner took issue with Strasberg’s preoccupation with affective memory (also commonly known as emotional memory) because he said that it made people more introverted. Meisner figured actors were already pretty introverted people by nature because, in order to be drawn to acting, you have to have a bit of an obsession with your own emotional inner workings. Strasberg taught people to use their own emotional memories as the fuel for their dramatic work. Meisner, on the other hand, believed that the only place to begin was the here and now. He didn’t want his acting students to go digging through their past experiences to find some emotional nugget over which they could obsess. He wanted them to look up, directly into the other actor’s eyes and respond without hesitation to whatever unexpected impulse the moment of connection inspired. Meisner’s work was all about reminding actors that they didn’t have to hold back. He believed that we have all the emotional fuel we need right inside and that a commitment to the reality of the moment would bring it out. Instead of dwelling on their own feelings, he encouraged actors to stop thinking about themselves and start paying attention to the other person and the “reality of doing.”

Over the past two years, we’ve all been hidden away to some degree. Lock-downs, social-distancing, quarantines, work-from-home, mask wearing, all of it is intended to preserve human life and all of it is fiercely debated at every stage. It’s hard enough to have to take on this isolation but then to feel that you’re being constantly bombarded by differences of opinion over every little aspect of your day to day life? The combination is enough to force a person into a deeper state of isolation than even the physical distance itself has caused. Instead of a community effort, “let’s all look after one another,” the tone has become, “I guess it’s everyone for themselves.” After several years of distance and isolation, I can see that I’m not the only one who is experiencing the introversion that Meisner warned against. Now, I’m not one to look down on introverted tendencies. My own introverted tendencies have probably saved my sanity throughout this global ordeal. Meisner himself was a very introverted person. But, as an introvert, he knew that he had to resist the tendency to brood and push others away. It’s one thing to enjoy quiet reflection and “me time.” It’s another thing all together to become obsessed with your own inner workings to the point that you have no room for what anyone else might be bringing to the reality of the moment. That’s something that happens, not because a person has a naturally introverted personality, but because they aren’t able to make connections that reaffirm that they are safe, they are accepted and they can move through the world without second guessing everything they do.

Teaching Meisner against the backdrop of a global pandemic casts a pretty telling light on the genius of Meisner’s ideas. There is something pretty profound for me about being in a room full of people who have spent two years forced to separate, isolate, cover up and distance and getting to be the person who’s job it is to tell them it’s time to look up, make a connection and receive what is coming at them (rather than obsessing over what’s going on inside). Actors are showing up for one hour of looking, listening, being present with whoever happens to be standing across from them and, it seems to me, that they’re leaving lighter.

This isn’t new. People have always needed to slow down, connect and be present in the moment in order to remember that humanity is bigger than just what’s going on in their own heads. But, in this particular moment, it’s impossible to miss the importance of that connection or take it for granted. This isn’t the moment for trying to capture some deep seated feeling and give it release so that you can marvel in the wonder of your own emotional baggage. This is the moment to emerge from those inner musings and find everything you need in the here and now.

This is the Moment for Meisner

Coming Back from COVID

BNTC is slowly emerging from its COVID dormancy. As with the majority of our best projects, our recent decision to start training sessions for professional actors has emerged as a response to the mood of the moment. At the request of a few actor friends who are longing for human connection and a chance to get back into practice, I booked a studio space at my favorite downtown rehearsal venue, the FlyLoft. We discussed the idea in December when the Delta variant was everyone’s main concern. We had all been fully vaccinated and figured Meisner practice lent itself easily to social distancing so we decided it was worth the risk. We booked for January hoping that case numbers would have dropped by then and I put the word out to a few other actor friends thinking that a handful of familiar faces would show up each week. Within days of booking the space, we began learning about the arrival of Omicron. Its increased transmissibility and tendency to bypass the vaccine felt ominous. As the date of the first session drew closer, I spoke almost daily to the friends who requested the class. We agonised over wether or not we felt comfortable moving forward. With such a small group, it seemed reasonable. After all, by this time we had started hanging out in each other’s homes again. Surely a group of five or six actors in a large rehearsal space wasn’t much different. We went forward with our session for only one week before the height of the wave made us take a step back. But, after a two week hiatus, I was receiving requests to reconvene. What has struck me about this experience is that, though I do hear from a number of old acting friends each week, I’m introduced to several newcomers each session as well. I hadn’t expected the classes to attract many people. In addition to my expectation that the pandemic would lead to hesitancy in the majority of potential participants, I had also never seen much interest in ongoing actor training sessions for adults here in Tulsa.

The process of trying to get a small group together introduced me to a major shift in the Tulsa acting community. New students consistently fall into two categories. The first group is drama school trained actors who are familiar with Meisner and miss staying in practice since moving back to Tulsa after a stint on one of the coasts. The second group is an assortment of beginning actors with shiny new resumes boasting recent background work with directors like Scorsese. Needless to say, after spending all summer on set with De Niro and DiCaprio, these newcomers are more than interested in seeing where a little training might take them. Both groups seem anxious to fully engage in the practice and I can’t help but think that the separation we’ve all been experiencing makes the work of building human connection even more satisfying.

I’ll be honest, I’m finding myself stunned by the number of people who have reached out to express interest in attending. It’s not a shocking number but, trying to get a class going in the dead of winter has never been a highly advisable marketing strategy. Add on a pandemic and factor in the limited market I’ve found in Tulsa for actor training in the past and it’s it’s easy to see why I’m surprised to find the group growing each week. In addition to the increasing list of participants, I have an equally long list of actors who intend to join in the spring if the U.S. finally enters endemic status (as I am optimistically anticipating that it will). This experience has revealed to me just how much the dynamic has changed in Tulsa. Actors here will always be anxious to try their luck in bigger markets but, the number and the caliber of actors who are sticking around has me excited about how it will feel to truly emerge from this pandemic. I love being in a studio space with people who are serious about their craft. Level of experience matters little compared to the willingness to fully commit to the work. That’s the real difference I’m seeing. People are coming out in the cold, facing the anxiety that this pandemic has created and connecting deeply to the work. I’m hoping this is just the beginning.

Throw Back Thursday

BNTC Summer Camp 2009. Students rehearsed and performed a short version of Stuart Little in two weeks. It was a whirlwind of fun, learning and creativity!

Throw Back Thursday

In 2008 we joined forces with Crayons Improv and produced monthly shows. We were very proud to see Crayons win Best Improv. In Tulsa in the Tulsa People’s Choice Awards. Those shows were a lot of fun and Crayons is still rocking the Tulsa improv scene.

Throw Back Thursday

Here is a look back at BNTC students from about 8 years ago. They are probably in college now. Weren’t they cute!

March’s Student to Watch!

Jordan Headshot

This coming month, keep an eye on BNTC private acting student Jordan Flippo. A fifteen year old student at Cascia Hall, Jordan has been taking private lessons at BNTC for about five months. In that time she has worked with BNTC’s artistic director to prepare for a musical audition, a one-act play audition and subsequent competition as well as two Shakespeare competitions.

Though she had only recently joined her drama department as a freshman in the fall, Jordan successfully landed the role of Mrs. Frank in Cascia’s one-act performance of The Diary of Anne Frank. She and the other members of the play’s ensemble cast took the play all the way to state level One Act Play Competition where they received excellent reviews for taking on this deeply moving and difficult script.

Jordan is currently rehearsing for her role as Ms. Andrew in Cascia Hall’s spring musical, Marry Poppins. The cruel and highly comical Ms. Andrew is a show stopping addition to the Broadway version of the beloved musical. She is the strict and rigid counterpart to the lovable and creative Marry Poppins. This role will give Jordan an opportunity to showcase her classically trained singing voice as well as her comical sensibilities. It will be quite a contrast to the more dramatic roles Jordan has been playing recently and it is sure to be a thrill.

In the midst of all of her rehearsals, Jordan still finds time to enter Shakespeare competitions with her powerful portrayal of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Though the play is a comedy, Jordan’s speech is rich with deeply felt anger, sadness and feelings of betrayal. Shortly after beginning work on the speech in preparation for the state Shakespeare competition, Jordan learned that the Tulsa Opera was holding an online Shakespeare monologue competition. Jordan submitted her video and, though it was recorded very early in her preparatory process, Jordan placed a very close second and received a great deal of positive response to her work. Since that time, Jordan has continued to hone her speech and has also been learning and polishing Shakespeare’s sonnet 63. Both are contest ready and showing great promise. Jordan will represent her high school at the state level of the Shakespeare competition in the coming week.

Happy Thanksgiving

This year, as usual, I’m thankful for the awesome opportunities I have had to teach acting and create new work with talented theatre artists. I’m also thankful for my awesome family which has welcomed two new additions this year: my amazing nephew Benjamin and my wonderful puppy Zeb. It has been a blessed year and I’m looking forward to an exciting start to 2015.

As BNTC’s Artistic Director, I take the Brand New Theatre Co. with me wherever I happen to go. Whether I’m teaching at a dramatic conservatory in London, England or creating new work with actors and screenwriters in Austin, Tx, the creative and educational work that I do is a part of BNTC’s mission.

I am currently excited to be back in my home town to spend some time with my family and to offer world-class training to small groups of adults, high schoolers and middle schoolers at the Fly Loft on 117 N. Boston in the heart of the Brady Arts district. It is so exciting to see the development in the Brady Art’s district and to be a part of the creativity that is taking place there.

So far I’ve got a few private lessons going and I’m consulting with a local group on their monthly original shows at the Comedy Parlor. I can’t wait to hold auditions throughout the month of December for the small group classes I’ll be offering during the spring semester. If you want to audition please check out the Acting Classes page and schedule your audition time by calling (918) 978-BNTC.

Origins of “Radio City Austin”

The Project

BNTC’s first production since moving to Texas will be an eight episode comedic radio serial style podcast called, Radio City Austin. We moved into the BNTC Studio in November and spent our first several months reaching out to the local community by offering acting classes and workshops. Here’s a little background on how the project came about:

The Origin of the Radio Serial Podcast Concept

I am an ideas person. I have new ideas for projects, classes, workshops and a variety of other BNTC oriented activities every day. I am also a practical person. Pretty much every time I have a new idea, my knee jerk reaction is to pull out a calculator and start doing cost benefit analysis. This is a terrible habit in the life of a creative person but a very healthy habit in the life of a business person. Since I am both a creative artist and a business owner simultaneously, I struggle to find the balance and often err on the side of over analysis in an idea’s early stages.

As BNTC’s Artistic Director, I wasn’t entirely convinced that it was time yet to begin development on our first Austin production but when this project presented itself I felt connected to it right away. The more I started thinking about the logistics of it, the more I began to perceive it as the perfect next step in our efforts to establish a meaningful connection to the city and its artists.

The idea came about by accident when I happened to overhear a conversation between two actors who were involved with work at the BNTC Studio. They were having a conversation about radio serial dramas. The second I heard the words “radio serial” my mind started racing. I got swept up in the idea of creating a radio serial style podcast and was so excited about the concept that I arranged a meeting to discuss my thoughts about it with the actor who’s conversation I had overheard. I told him all of my ideas and we exchanged thoughts on how we might approach a production. About thirty minutes into the conversation I paused to say that I wanted to make sure I wasn’t stepping on any toes. “I overheard you talking about this to another actor,” I said. “Was this a project you were already planning with someone else?” He laughed and said, “No I was talking about a completely different project that I did a while ago,” and he went on to explain the project that he had done. I realized, as I listened to him explain the actual conversation he had been having, that I had come up with this entire production idea based on a misinterpretation of a conversation I had overheard in passing. Then I had walked away and filled in all the blanks in my understanding with the ideas that excite me most about BNTC’s potential as a source of new works. Having ordered my thoughts around what I thought I had overheard, I then took the all-important next step of moving from idea to action. I broke through the “over analysis barrier” not because I had enormous personal confidence in my plan but because I believed that it was someone else’s plan all along. Then, because of my willingness to invest in the idea, I had convinced someone else to support it without even realizing that I was “giving him a pitch.” I believed he was already invested in the idea because I thought it was his idea. Then he, in turn, was inspired by my enthusiasm for the idea and began to encourage it’s further development. Up to that point, the entire project was just a bunch of misunderstandings that shaped up into an exciting framework for a new project. Once that the framework was in place and the energy was behind it, the hardest step in my creative process, that of moving from idea to action, had been taken without me even realizing I was doing it.

The Structure 

The basic idea of a radio serial podcast was easily agreed upon but finding the right structure, setting and organization of the rehearsal process was a challenge that required a lot more consideration. I wanted to go into the process as open to new ideas as possible and that meant limiting the amount of planning that took place before the writers were hired and the core cast members were selected. I am dedicated to the idea of creating new work with both actors and writers. New work is what the Brand New Theatre Co. is about. If we aren’t creating things that are new, we either have to come up with a new name for the company or move to a new city every two years. In comparison with those options, creating new work seems both easier and more enjoyable. On the other hand, creating a series from scratch with literally no idea of what the structure, plot or characters will look like isn’t exactly a low-risk situation.

I was convinced that the value of this project for BNTC was it’s contrast with the prospect of devising a full length play at this stage in the company’s development. Doing an audio serial that didn’t require sets and costumes and for which episodes only needed to be about fifteen minutes in length, gave me the opportunity to make connections with a number of writers simultaneously while also enabling me to cast and get to know up to a dozen actors in the span of three months. This was a stark contrast to the option of producing a devised play, which, with BNTC’s current production budget, would only give me the opportunity to work with one writer and with no more than four actors on a project that would take up to four months to carry out.

The tricky aspect of any project that BNTC undertakes at this stage is that none of the writers and actors who will be involved in the project will have had any previous experience devising new work together. There isn’t a standard structure for devising that is shared among various theatres. Most writers and actors have little or no training or background in devising and in any devising situation the company has to develop its own individual process.

The Process

Starting to develop a new devising process is difficult and intimidating but the fast and furious nature of trying to produce eight new scripts in three weeks actually felt more liberating than intimidating. It gave me the opportunity to turn up the heat from the very beginning and keep everyone focused on getting any idea that came through their head right out onto the table. It can be very difficult building openness and trust with a new group because no one wants to suggest a concept or improvise a scene that makes them appear to be less “creative” or “talented” than the other members of the group. Fortunately, one thing that is more scary than the prospect of having a “dumb” idea is the prospect of having no script at all when the audience arrives. The serial will be presented as a reading, not a play, which means rehearsal time is short. There is no time for worrying about what might go wrong. There is only plunging ahead, staying open to new ideas and being honest as quickly as possible about what isn’t working in order to have time to make adjustments.

The writers began working with the actors from the get-go. In fact, I auditioned the actors first and invited some of them to come along to the writer’s audition. This gave me the opportunity to see how each actor dealt with the challenge of experimenting with prompts provided by writers. It also showed me how the writers dealt with the challenge of allowing an actors’ interpretation of the writer’s ideas to open up new directions for plot/character development.

The wonderful thing about a devising audition, is that you don’t have to reject talented people just because they don’t fit a specific part. Instead you write the role for the actor. On the other hand, neither writers nor actors can be cast based on only their writing or acting ability. The main challenge in the audition process is to try to weigh out, in a very short amount of time, who will be open to collaboration and who will struggle with give and take once they get attached to their ideas. There will always be some struggle in the devising process but there is nothing that puts the breaks on collaborative creation more quickly than a collaborator who has a tendency to foreclose on their own ideas rather than allowing their creativity to be influenced by other people’s contributions.

As soon as the series was cast, the first challenge I was faced with as the coordinator of the overall creative process, was to sort out everyone’s schedules. On the up side, I was blessed with a talented cast of in-demand actors, improvisors and writers. On the down side, being in demand meant that most of my performers had very limited schedules. The first real challenge for the writers was to come up with a plot-line that was flexible enough to allow actors to miss episodes while maintaining each character’s role in the overall plot development of the series. We started with a full-cast and writers workshop to brainstorm possible scenarios that would engage our own interest and the interest of an Austin audience while also allowing us to introduce new characters from one episode to the next without disrupting the plot. After the initial workshop, I met with a couple of the writers to map out the overall plot structure.

We then moved on to the workshopping phase during which I directed two weeks of interactive meetings between actors and writers. The structure of each meeting varied depending on the particular writer’s approach and ideas. Some meetings took the form of round table character discussions. Some meetings looked more like improv rehearsals; and one meeting even involved exercises influenced by Suzuki Technique which involves a lot of stomping around with your legs contorted into strange positions.  At the end of every meeting the writer was tasked with the challenge of combining their portion of the overall plot structure with their workshop experience in order to produce a draft of an episode.

Ideally, I would like to develop a devising process that involves a lot more give and take between writers and actors throughout the development process but this project, for BNTC, is a lot more about laying a groundwork for exchange and getting to know a number of different artist’s processes. Later, I hope that some of the ideas and approaches that came out of these workshops will resurface in more extended devising projects but for now the idea is just to push past the initial psychological resistance that occurs when trying to create something new, with new people, in a new environment. I believe that the result will be something that we can all be proud of but that we also have great ideas for improving on as the podcast develops.

We are quickly coming to the end of phase two, the “solo” writing phase. For the most part the writers are working on their own to complete their drafts but, of course, the fact that each person’s episode has a major effect on every other person’s episodes means that the writers are in constant contact throughout the writing process.

When the drafts are complete we will have rehearsals that are open to writers and later run-through rehearsals with the final drafts of the scripts. The rehearsals for early episodes will begin next week and episodes that occur later in the season will be rehearsed while we are already in the process of recording the first several episodes.

Production and Distribution

Each episode will be recorded in the BNTC Studio in front of a live audience on Friday nights starting April 6th and running through May 25th. Tickets to attend a live recording can be purchased from our online ticket office. We are currently only selling tickets for one show at a time so you’ll only be able to buy tickets for the next available performance. If you would like to reserve tickets to a specific production, however, you can email brandnewtheatre@live.com to request your seats.

The recordings will be distributed as a podcast. More information about the release date will be posted here on the website as it gets closer. If you would like to be on a mailing list to receive information about podcast distribution you can let us know by emailing brandnewtheatre@live.com.

Auditions/Interviews for Writers and Actors

“Saturday Morning Serial” Podcast 

Saturday, February 25th at the BNTC North Austin Studio

8701 W. Parmer Ln. #1122

Actors: 10am to 12pm

Writers: 1pm to 3pm 

BNTC is in the early phases of developing a radio serial that will be distributed as a podcast (and potentially expanded into a web series). The concept of the serial is to feature different Austin based talent each week. Each episode will be written by a different writer but will feature the same cast of actors. Every week, the new writer will build on the script that was produced the week before and add their own personal twist to the plot. Each new episode will also feature a different guest musician. Script writing will begin in March and live recordings will begin in April.

 Writers

Interviews/Auditions Saturday, February 25th from 1pm to 3pm.

Please bring a five-page writing sample (we would be thrilled if you emailed it ahead of time to brandnewtheatre@live.com). The interview/audition will consist of group discussions and devising exercises lead by the podcast’s director/script supervisor.

 Actors

Auditions Saturday, February 25th from 10am to 12pm.

The audition will consist of cold-reading and improvisation exercises. Some actors may be called back for a follow-up audition which will involve interaction with writers from 1pm to 3pm. (If you would like to send your resume ahead of time, please email it to brandnewtheatre@live.com.)

 Musicians

If you would like to be considered for inclusion in the musician pool please email your contact information to brandnewtheatre@live.com with the words “Radio Serial Musician Pool” in the subject line.

Audience Members

The show  will be recorded live on Friday evenings in April and May. If you would like reserve tickets to attend an in-studio taping or, if you would like to receive the link to download the show, email brandnewtheatre@live.com with the words “Tickets for Radio Serial Taping” or “Link to Podcast” in the subject line.

Sponsorship/Donations

If you are interested in becoming a Sponsor or donating to support the project, we would be happy to send you more information. Just email brandnewtheatre@live.com with the words “Radio Serial Sponsorship Info.” or “Radio Serial Donation Info.” in the subject line.

Germination

About ten years ago I drove off the road and did $500 worth of damage to my VW Bug. I was driving home from work, distracted by thoughts of a project I wanted to launch, when suddenly I realized that I had veered off the road and onto a curb. Rather than putting the car in reverse and easing back in the same direction I had come from, I drove forward off the corner, not realizing that there was a drainage ditch on the other side. In a bigger car this wouldn’t have had much of an impact but in in a VW Bug, the sides of the car are only a few inches off the ground. As my front wheel came off the curb I felt the front of the car dip into the ditch and the side of the car scrape along the concrete leaving a deep indention all the way from the front wheel hub to the back wheel hub. That experience taught me a lesson that I still have to recite to myself  just about every day: Don’t think about new projects while driving.

Just yesterday, on my drive home, I put this axiom to use as I found my car veering ever so slightly to the left while I pondered a project I hope to get started with this month. As I willed myself to put all thoughts about the new project on hold until I got home, I was reminded of the project I had been pondering during that moment a decade ago. I realized that, three years before I started the Brand New Theatre Co., the project that had me so distracted was an idea for developing new work based on improvisation. I wasn’t familiar with theatre devising at that time but, even then, before I had any real intention of starting a company, before I had any experience in theatre administration, before I even saw myself as a director (rather than an actress), the ideas about theatre that excited me enough to make me drive off the road revolved around projects that were developed in the studio through collaborative processes.

When I started BNTC three years later I still didn’t know that I wanted to do theatre devising. I knew that I wanted my company to produce New Work but I didn’t have any concept of how New Work could be developed in a devising context. What I did know was that the idea of creating something Brand New excited me. So I focused on directing plays that hadn’t been seen before and producing monthly improv shows. This work eventually lead me to pursue further study in London where I learned about the concept of theatre devising. I connected with the idea immediately and began processing everything I knew, and was learning, about actor training through the filter of developing a creative process that fostered collaborative theatre making (aka: devising).

When I think about the major themes my creative interests tend to revolve around, I’m often surprised at just how far back into my experience I can recall moments of excitement about those ideas. I think the ideas that excite me most as an artist have been germinating since I started acting at elven years old, or maybe even earlier than that. In one respect it’s exciting to think that my most important artistic themes have always been with me and that when I’m working on projects which bring these ideas to fruition, I’m bringing out work that has been building up in me for a very long time. On the other hand, though, it’s a little bit discouraging to think that maybe only a few major ideas have ever really stuck with me and maybe I’ll just keep recycling those ideas for the rest of my creative career.

When I think about that, I’m glad that one of my major artistic themes is the idea of a collaborative creative process. One of the things that makes devising unique is that the process isn’t dependent on the creative themes that have been germinating in one particular writer or one particular director. Every person involved in the process has the opportunity to bring out the ideas that drive them creatively and to allow those ideas to interact with the ideas that have been germinating in the other members of the creative ensemble. To some degree this happens in every theatrical production but I think it is heightened in the devising process.

I love the idea that we are all walking around with the seeds of a creative process or artistic theme growing inside of us but the way those ideas develop will depend on how they are cross germinated with other people’s processes and themes. We can get to know one another’s work and have some idea of where a cross section of our interests might take us but we can’t entirely control the way our ideas will change one another. In the collaborative process we have to allow one another to mess with our precious pet ideas and see what happens when someone else gets their hands on them. It’s all the fun of experimenting with the ideas that excite us most combined with the challenge of giving up control over how those ideas will be interpreted and expressed.  And, at the same time, its an opportunity to see what ideas have been growing in the people around us while we’ve been busy focusing on our own personal interests.

I get really excited thinking about the possibilities involved in that exchange but I’m about to get in my car and drive to a production meeting so, for the safety of everyone on the road, I’m going to put my excitement aside and try to think about something boring.