I was magically invited to participate in a ten-day festival in Toulouse this past spring for the inaugural American Theater Project, produced by a dynamic duo, Celine Nogueira and Emeline Jouve. My bags were packed before I got off the phone. The south of France!! Memories of soft air, cobblestone streets, pink and orange hues and long relaxed outdoor dinners sifted up from my sensory recesses.
I had taught Celine at Stella Adler School of Acting many moons ago when she was just a budding pup. A few years later, she brought me over to Toulouse to help her direct a devised piece called Of Kings and Men with her company Innocentia Inviolata, at a residency at Theatre Garonne. Although I have devised theatre pieces for twenty years with my own company, Impact Theatre, I had never experienced such an enticing field of wild boundaryless imagination alongside the logic of Shakespeare’s text. With that past experience in mind, I knew I was going on a rich colorful and challenging adventure.
AMERICAN THEATRE PROJECT is an exchange program which aims at promoting American artistic pieces, scientific research and acting methods.
The American Theater Project 2016 was dedicated to exploring American Realism: The Method—transgression or tradition? The project explored a basic and crucial question about an acting process that transformed theatre in America.
Has Stanislavski’s Method, with its cornerstones of Affective Memory and Physical Action, become so ingrained in our acting training that what was once transgressive is now institutionalized? Has the rebellious process of fostering deep psychological acting that burst on the scene in the 1930s with The Laboratory Theatre become regularized and normalized, ensconced in American tradition?
I was, frankly, unsure why I was invited to this particular festival, because I am not a scholar and not an actor in the usual sense. I am the teacher of an acting process based in physical truth. But my approach and philosophy, The Lucid Body, is not based on The Method. The Lucid Body is a product of an Eastern philosophy of energy control, Jungian psycho-physical understanding, and an approach to theatre movement intimately connected to training in dance. When Method actors were learning sense memory, I was doing plies. I was creating circle-rituals when Method actors were learning to do “substitutions.”
The project started with me teaching the Lucid Body to a robust group of dancers and actors (pictured right) in a five-day Intensive, followed by a presentation of our work at The James Carles Center for Choreography.
Then we moved to the University of Toulouse for two days of academic presentations. I was not witness to all the talks, but the few I heard rattled my brain a bit.
Shonni Enelow, from Fordham University, gave a talk, Method Acting and its Discontents; Pathological Hypnotism in Boleslavsky and Strasberg about the possible psychological mishandling or manhandling that began to emerge with the psychological probing that accompanied The Method. This manhandling was unabashedly portrayed by the founder of The American Laboratory, Richard Boleslavsky, in his book, Acting: The First 6 lessons. He speaks of “the creature” in a way that would make any feminists’ skin crawl.
The legacy of sexism that The Method absorbed perhaps even went much further back to the beginnings of “scientific” efforts to analyze psychological distress. Martin Charcot’s Theatre of Hysteria is a doctor’s account of a Parisian mental hospital, Salpetriere Asylum, where, through hypnosis, he induced the state of “hysteria” that was then said to be common among working-class women. This process was seen as so captivating that people were invited to watch—as if they were attending a theatrical production.
Professor Enelow argued that such spectacles could be seen as the beginning of “realism” in the theatre. Hysteria, notably, was a diagnosis overwhelmingly diagnosed in women and very rarely in men (Sarah Ruhl’s The Vibrator Play comes to mind). Although the ascription of mental-illness, instability, or dysfunction fell more heavily on women than on men in the everyday world, the notion that artists and actors were more psychically vulnerable was hardly new, and it fed into the explorations of both ordinary and extreme psychological states by Method actors. It is scary to think that the boundary, or web, between the conscious and unconscious mind may be especially thin in some gifted actors. My compassion is stirred when I think of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, Marilyn Monroe, Daniel Day Lewis, Gina Rowlands, Heath Ledger, Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro and others who famously borrowed, or delved into techniques of The Method. Did some of them whittle away the boundary between the ordinary and the damaging, until the web was too thin for sustainability? My Lucid Body antennae started to twitch. Where are we taking our actors now? How deep is too deep?
This question was suspended in my mind when I heard a wonderful talk by Gabriela Sofia (Universite Paul-Valery Montpellier 3) on the ferocious passion of an Italian actor named Giovanni Grasso who showed up in New York around 1910 from Sicily and how Strasberg, smitten by his emotional honesty, wrote “this wasn’t acting: this was real – real blood, real bursting of blood…” So “real” became the mantra of the decade and is perhaps still the mantra decades after.
During the last two days of the Program, curated by Franck Lubet, I sat in the dark at La Cinematheque de Toulouse, the coolest art house I have ever experienced, in front of a huge screen and comfortable deep seats. I sat back and watched with abandon Raging Bull, My Darling Clementine, Streetcar Named Desire, Serpico, and Giant. I confess that all were new to me except Streetcar, (as I said, plies instead of..).So I was in film heaven. Celine gave a talk about the actors in each film, which ones were before the Method and which ones were products of the Method. I admit I admire Rock’s profile, but DeNiro’s complexity moved me to tears and stomach flips. I love the full bodied commitment of the Method actor, but it comes with a price. Actors need to have a way to come out of character, back to their own center.
All of this input added up to an epiphany, the kind that comes when you get away from your present environment and listen to others. I realized why I was invited after all. Perhaps Lucid Body fosters its own variety of “realism,” one that shares some common ground with The Method.
I came away from Toulouse interested in exploring such continuities between The Method and its successors. Most important for me is to find practical ways for actors, and the art of acting, to portray humanity’s most powerful feelings, from joy to rage, in a way that is true, healthy, definitely not founded on sexist stereotypes, and conducive to the social and artistic transformations that theatre can help achieve.