As a kid I created theatre and dance all day long. My mom said I started dancing as soon as I could move the furniture. My parents had a great record collection and by the age of five I’d choreographed jazz scats with Ella Fitzgerald, steel drum songs with Harry Belafonte, and every Broadway show that had a cast album- though I had to create my own story line for each one because the songs just didn’t really make sense to me at ages four and five. Most kids live in some kind of a world of make believe- creating circumstances and characters in order to entertain themselves, create friendships with others, and figure out the ways of the world. I was no different – although from early on I knew that theatre and dance is key to who I am. I loved stage work, grappling with all that it meant; analyzing character and objectives, finding the action of the story, learning the lines, the dance sequences, making the meaning. And, while I loved making the work, I discovered I really wanted to share the power of theatre and dance with others who didn’t think they were artists. I wanted to help show those who sometimes declared themselves “without talent” that they do have a talent and capacity to respond in a moment, connect to others, create the next step in a sequence, and show what they think through their actions.
For the last several years- decades actually – I’ve worked to develop natural, purposeful ways to use approaches and skills from theater and dance with people off the stage. I’ve worked with teachers, helping them use theatre and dance experiences in their classrooms so that their students can develop greater understanding in the arts and sciences. I’ve danced with people who have Parkinson’s to help them find balance, timing, and a movement flow as they travel across the floor. I’ve worked with city council members and organization administrators to help them develop leadership skills. I’ve taught theatre and dance with developmentally disabled adults, with learners in board rooms and classrooms. I’ve devised theatre and choreographed dances on stages in Mexico and in museums in Amsterdam, in places from Alaska to London, Bogota to Charleston and across the Navajo Reservation.
I started from my love of making theatre and dance and ventured into using approaches and techniques from those disciplines and worlds and moved away from making theatre and dance only on stage. But lately I’m feeling the pull back to stage and studio to create and rehearse. I’m taking classes, performing on stage and film. It’s a return to a deepest part of me and, to my surprise, it’s been really, really hard.
Good theater is in the eye of the beholder, but all actors know that to make the work matter you have to make something in a real way. On stage we raise the stakes; theatre shows a snapshot of heightened life. But the actor’s work-the believability , comes from some combination of imagination and a recall of moments and feelings from on our own lives. It is an amalgam of intellectual analysis and sheer instinct. We peel away the “should” of behavior to the actions and reactions of honest response.
Sandy Meisner, the great American acting teacher , defined acting as “ living truthfully under the imaginary circumstances of a play.” On stage that can be harder than it sounds. We have to find images, make associations, and recall moments and circumstances from our own lives that may be uncomfortable or painful . We have to give up clever line readings or acting how we think a character might act and instead find a way to share who that character is, using ourselves as the conduit, and connecting with our own lives in the process. We create the action, the physical pursuance of a specific goal and bring our truths to the specific needs of the play or dance. “What makes an actor a good one is his ability to act on the impulses his humanity creates in him.” ( A Practical Handbook for the Actor. Melissa Bruder and David Mamet. Vintage 1986/2012)
In my work I use theatre and dance in schools and communities to help others develop a greater understanding of ideas and processes. I make theater and dance on stage that requires me to learn about myself and the world, and to then step up and present. As a teacher I rely on the power and meaning of language. I say things- or share the words of others – to better enable students to understand the meaning as presented. As an actor I want to share the language of the play in a way that encourages viewers to come to their own interpretation.
Did I mention I’ve been at this work for decades? Stanislavsky once wrote that you should “play well or play badly, but play truly”. In my best and most awful moments I’m still swimming in the deep morass of figuring out how to do this well. If my luck – and grip on perseverance holds- I’ll be at it for years to come. Learning never ends.
New York, May 2013