This last weekend was the reunion of my college theater department. SMU. Dallas, Texas. Reunions are wonderful and dangerous. They are as close as we can come to taking a ride in a time machine. They become epic dramas of survival and apology—fueled by chardonnay.
You may think the lanyard they loop around your neck at the check-in desk is a nametag, but it is a mirror that says in an instant, “You know what I thought I was. This is what I have become.”
This was a reunion of anyone who went to the school…not necessarily from my year. That meant half the people there were youngsters in their 40’s that I never knew. Several had become psycho-therapists.
Some were friends who stayed in the business—like Pat Richardson and David Lancaster—people that I know and have worked with and are still a part of my life. (Pat and I have the rare connection in that I have directed her, acted with her on Broadway where she played my sister, and acted with her on film where she played my wife.)
The subset that sparked my curiosity the most was the prospect of seeing the people that had already become distant memories: people I hadn’t seen in over forty years.
Every memory took on the power of the miraculous. Matt Haley laughing till he cried about having no heat in his apartment. Kathy King, still gorgeous after all these years, telling me about the days right after her graduation and her journey, not to Broadway as we all expected, but to Portland, Oregon.
A reunion honors a mutually agreed to starting line. Emotionally we jump to the place that says: This is when I started. This is when “I” began…for real.
I would argue with the premise. Starting lines vary with the story you are telling. But high school and college reunions are valuable because some version of those eras is still available to our long-term memory.
I have always believed that what you learn is like the shoreline beside an ocean. In time, only the strongest rock remains. That is true with my two great teachers from SMU: Jim Hancock and Jack Clay. They were at the reunion.
Jack is a central figure in my story “Conference Hour” in The Tobolowsky Files and in my book, The Dangerous Animals Club. Jack is now in his 90’s. Full of joy and recollection.
Jim Hancock? I have no idea how old Jim is. He must be in his 80’s but was looking and acting closer to 40. I guess all of that yoga worked.
This is what the time machine taught me at this reunion.
Everything Jim Hancock taught me was what I would define as “outside the box”—improvisation, movement, relaxation, and what he called “feeling the power of your breath.”
On the other hand, Jack Clay was the box. Jack taught the size and shape of the box. Length, width, depth of the box. The history of the box. The beauty of the box. And ultimately, the holiness of the box.
The combination of their lessons had a powerful effect on me. I saw that when life gives you a box, you must embrace it, study it, know its history. See its beauty. Understand that it is holy.
When life takes your box away, it is time to improvise, time to move. Time to relax and time to feel the power of your breath.
David Chen here:
About 18 months after I first launched my movie Kickstarter, THE PRIMARY INSTINCT (my first film with Stephen Tobolowsky) is now available for purchase across all VOD platforms. In fact, we’re on the front page of iTunes Movies right now!
I hope you’ll consider checking out the film and, if you like it, that you’ll leave a review for it. This movie was an insane labor of love that never would’ve happened without the consent and enthusiasm of Blaine Ludy, Jason Hakala, and Michael Gaston. Now it’s time to see if the world sees what we see: That Stephen is a brilliant storyteller whose work is worth preserving and spreading.
You can find all buying options for the film at http://www.theprimaryinstinct.com/
The film is $9.99 on most platforms, but there’s a special package on VHX for $12.99 which includes 40 minutes of special features.
Let me know what you think of the film! Honest reactions appreciated.
Originally published backstage.com Nov. 28, 2014, advice for actors series.
I was working on a production of “The Glass Menagerie” many years ago in upstate New York. We were rehearsing Tom’s “drunk scene.” The director called up to the stage, “What are you two doing up there?”
I shouted back, “Acting!”
He said, “I know that. But I can’t understand anything.”
The actor playing Laura yelled, “Do you need us to be louder?”
He laughed and said, “No. Just better. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Laura yelled back in fury, “What do you want? A spotlight on my tears?”
The director started walking down the aisle. “No. But just so you know, I couldn’t tell you were crying. From back there it just looked like a mess.”
Rude? Yes. Super rude? For sure. Right? Hmmm.
The problem with harsh criticism is that you often never hear what is being said. It took years for me to unravel that moment and learn for myself what our director was telling us in a very nonproductive way: Feelings are not your friend. They are too unpredictable. That is their virtue. The foundation of acting is clarity of thought.
Throughout my career I have had directors ask, “So what emotion are you going to play in this scene?”
I have directed actors who explained, “I know what I am doing now is wrong. This is just the base level of emotion. I will add layers of other emotions on top of this one.”
Maybe this works for some actors. I don’t see how. It seems to be a sure-fire way to be inward-focused on your work rather than actively being in the scene.
The truth is, I don’t think the audience is interested in emotions. How many times have you watched an actor tearing the daylights out of a scene and you are curiously unmoved?
I would argue what we look for in a performance is not feelings but behavior. I don’t want to play at words here. What is the difference?
The foundation of any story, any scene, is logic. The first job of an actor is to understand that logic. That requires a different type of work than throwing a plate of angst against the wall and seeing what sticks. It requires asking specific questions to define the boundaries of a situation.
Some of the simple questions I start with are:
Is this a new situation or an old situation?
Did I expect this to happen?
Is the character in the scene telling me the truth?
What will my life look like tomorrow because of what is happening now?
Will I be able to look this person in the eye again?
I work toward specific answers.
If you start with thought and not feelings, you will know who you are and what you want. Then you don’t have to worry about emotions. They will happen as they happen. They may surprise you. They may surprise the audience. You may not know what will happen next. Then we have behavior. That’s when the fun begins.
Two glorious weeks in the never-ending rain. As they say in Iceland, “There is no such thing as bad weather—only bad clothing.” I am doing seven different shows, including some of my favorite stories from the past and some new ones that I love.
I think we have everything taken care of…the new podcast is out, thanks to David Chen! You can find it here:
The Primary Instinct, the film of me telling stories at a concert in Seattle, has a distributor! Thank you Filmbuff. It will be available near the end of September.
Ann has posted the music for the new podcast (under the Tobolowsky Files tab above, Playlist)…thank you dear one. New stories are on the way!
This October I am conducting a writing workshop in the mountains of upstate New York. Beautiful. I am thrilled about the change of scenery. I am excited about the workshop. I am going to be teaching improvisational techniques for writers.
I have 10 years experience teaching improv for actors and comics. It has been fun. I get a lot of good feed back. Several of my students have gotten jobs. Not necessarily in acting. I ran into one of my students about five years ago. I asked the standard teacher question, “So how are things going?”
“Great. I got out of show business.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes. It was your class that made me quit.”
“No. It was a good thing. I’m a writer now. I’ve had two books published. Working on my third. I owe it all to your class.”
I was confused. We talked a little more. Quite by accident, the ideas I had developed for one disciple were very suited for another: The writer.
I focused on creating a program that was writer specific. Since then I have taught several writer groups. I was brought up to Seattle to work with the writers of their NPR station, KUOW. The stories that came out of the sessions were wonderful.
The writers not only appreciated doing something different, the exercises we did inspired them to approach their work in new ways. I ran into Jeff Hansen, the program director of KUOW, last week in Seattle. Jeff said the staff was still talking about the workshop and wondered if I could do another one.
Improvisation for writers not only directly attacks the so-called writer’s block, but informs new ways to look at structure, character, and the tone of a piece.
If you are thinking of a creative getaway in October, put writing in the Adirondacks on your list.
Here’s the link for more pictures and complete information for Dartbrook Writers Retreat.
Photo: Alex Anfanger, Lenny Jacobson as Jack and Ben Dolfe in Comedy Central’s Big Time in Hollywood, FL
Photo credit: Jesse Grant
I had a great acting teacher, Ed Kaye-Martin, who said, “Comfort is the enemy of the artist.” I found this encouraging. I was in graduate school at the time and was almost always uncomfortable. The downside was I had no idea what he meant. It went against everything I learned in undergraduate school. At SMU we studied Stanislavsky who said actors must always be relaxed. Very relaxed. To that end, we practiced slow breathing. We shook our hands and feet to relieve ourselves of tension. In movement class we did deep relaxation exercises that usually resulted in me falling asleep on the floor of the theater lobby. I got an A, so I guess I was doing it right.
Now I know what Ed’s great truth means. I can’t recreate it, but I recognize when the groove of chaos is working. Shooting Groundhog Day was a study in being uncomfortable. Besides the bitter cold, we kept getting new script pages daily. The arc of the film was honed as we shot it. Harold Ramis hadn’t decided yet what the singular day in the film was going to look like, so we shot and reshot the street scenes in various weather conditions – meaning we never had a day off. We never had an hour off. When the snow or rains came, we got the call and Bill Murray and I ran back to the street and began shooting again.
Big Time in Hollywood, FL achieved a level of creative chaos I have rarely experienced on television. Underline “creative.” Chaos is nothing new in television. There is never time. There are always last second changes. When I did Designing Women (in its first season), I started a scene, we stopped unexpectedly. I asked our director what was happening. He explained it was 9 pm, and it was time for the studio audience to go back to prison. Deputies arrived and the entire audience was escorted out and put on buses. We continued our live audience comedy with no audience at all. That was chaos. But not good chaos.
Big Time in Hollywood, FL always reaches for higher and higher levels of madness while keeping its feet on the ground. That makes for a lot of discomfort. Our creators, Alex Anfanger and Dan Schimpf, took the uncomfortable choice of taking good writing and risked ruining it by throwing out new ideas for us to try in the moment. This was never an exercise in trying to find more excess. Often Dan and Alex would shout out an idea, laugh, stop, confer and then call out to us, “Never mind. It’s funny, but it doesn’t make any sense.”
What does that mean? What is “sense?” And why is “sense” the final arbiter of an idea getting shot?
The 19th century novelist, George Meredith, had a brilliant insight. He said comedy only exists when there is civilization. There must be rules before the rules are broken. There must be a norm for an audience to enjoy the norm collapsing. In this way even something as off the charts as Big Time becomes universal. Making cop movies in a garage, hoping to make show biz connections in drug rehab, and accidentally shooting a dead private eye in a motel room becomes our story. It shows us in an unapologetic and unrelenting way what happens when we lie, when we are ambitious, jealous, afraid, vicious, and courageous. Yes, even courageous.
Comedy isn’t just about everything falling apart. It is very funny to watch these dear lunatics possess the virtues we often lack.