March-April 2014

Frozen: Acting Analysis

Even if you are not into animation, you might be interested in an acting analysis of Disney's Frozen that I wrote for Cartoon Brew. The movie is officially the highest grossing animated feature film in history (over US$1.5 billion) but nonetheless was released with significant structural and character flaws. Although the analysis is not making me any more popular at Disney, I am pleased with the way it turned out.

“There are prophets, there are guides, and there are argumentative people with theories, and one must be careful to discriminate between them.”Peter Brook

Acting for Animators Workshop Schedule

April 21-24, FMX, Stuttgart, Germany

April 26, The Animation Workshop, Viborg, Denmark

July 3-5 Animation Revelations 2014, Auckland Univ. of Technology, New Zealand

July 25  Disney Interactive (Club Penguin), Kelowna, Canada B.C.

September 26-28, Animex Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur

Craft Notes

Peter Brook: The Tightrope

Peter Brook, who turned 89 years old last month, is my idol. Not having an opportunity to personally study acting with him is one of my most gnawing life regrets, which is why I am so pleased to report to you about The Tightrope, a recently released documentary film (and now available from Amazon), comprised mainly of hidden-camera recordings taken inside Mr. Brook's class at the International Center for Theatre Research in Paris.

Brook's approach to acting — and theatre in general — is just about as basic, tribal and urgently essential as you can imagine. (I like to fantasize about having Peter Brook and Joseph Campbell over for dinner!) In Brook's  view, the actors on stage share a communal brain, and their physical actions make for an encouraging embrace of the audience sitting just outside that circle in the dirt. In his frame of reference, there are no posturing, no celebrity and no stars — simply the lot of us surviving in life, seeking relevance. In The Tightrope, he begins with a Persian carpet spread in the middle of the floor. One by one, the students pretend to walk an imaginary tightrope suspended across the carpet. His coaching encourages the actors not to "show," but to "feel the rope with your feet." It is a brilliant exercise because the actor is, first of all, "in the moment" and, second, pursuing an objective (getting to the far end of the pretend rope), playing actions and overcoming obstacles. We in the audience are empathetically there every inch of the way. The setup is perfect if a teacher's goal is to focus his or her students and to illustrate the basic dynamic of theatre.

Building on that base, his students go through various improvisations and snippets from scenes they were apparently rehearsing when the documentary was made. Brook continually brings them back to the metaphor of the tightrope if he feels they are mentally drifting or he wants them to focus more intently. From my perspective as an acting teacher, this is impressive. He focuses them by re-directing their thoughts rather than lecturing them about concentration, relaxation and such. I actively detest relaxation exercises in acting class for this very reason. You are relaxed only as long as you are focused on the exercise. Peter Brook's students are as relaxed and focused as you could wish, and they are doing it without relaxation exercises. The secret ingredient to relaxation is the directional brain, not the muscles in this or that body part.

If you are unfamiliar with Peter Brook and his work, pick up a copy of his book The Empty Space. Then read Between Two Silences, followed by The Shifting Point: 40 Years of Theatrical Exploration, 1946-1987. After that, you're on your own. There are several other books of interviews and perspectives, and they are all worthwhile.  In the meantime, try to see The Tightrope. It is well worth watching.

Eleanora Duse (b.1858-d.1924)

Eleanora Duse died 90 years ago this month and, as long as you are buying Peter Brook titles, I suggest you add to your list Eleanora Duse, a Biography, by Helen Sheehy (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2003). Duse, a self-taught Italian actress, was an important influence on Constantin Stanislavsky. According to a curtain speech he gave after a Duse performance (ca. 1912)  he "got his inspiration for founding the Moscow Art Theatre from witnessing a performance of Duse's." What is more, "Not a rehearsal of the company had ever gone by without referring to her and her art."  If endorsements mean anything, that would be one to take to the bank!

She was also an inspiration to Lee Strasberg and Charlie Chaplin, who described one of her performances as "the best thing I have seen on stage." Anton Chekhov said, "Looking at Duse, I realized why Russian theatre was such a bore." Eleanora Duse was also the first woman to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

For a historical perspective, compare Eleanora Duse's naturalistic acting style to that of her contemporary Sarah Bernhardt. Bernhardt was grandiose, giving performances that were noted for histrionic strutting, posing and emoting. Here she is starring in a 1912 film, Queen Elizabeth. Bernhardt made a big thing of being an "Actor" (with a capital "A"); Duse did the opposite, tried instead to disappear into a role. Duse shunned theatrical make-up and wigs and preferred to rehearse privately, not with other actors, until she was "ready." After seeing Duse's early-1920s New York performance (in the Italian language) of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea, Lee Strasberg wrote: "Duse demonstrated to me that acting was not only emotional outbursts, or even the presentation of depths of emotion. In her, I saw a moment to moment awareness of the life of the character. Duse had the most extraordinary facility of just sitting on the stage and creating a person who was thinking and feeling without the particular intensity that ordinarily characterizes emotional behavior."

Eleanora Duse appeared in only one film, Cenere (1916). The film stock captured on YouTube is degraded, and it is apparent that this was a learn-by-doing enterprise for Duse, who both directed and starred in it. You must have some patience and watch closely to catch glimpses of what so moved Stanislavsky. The other actors in the cast, especially the handsome leading man, Febo Mari, wave their arms about, roll their eyes, mouth their words silently and generally perform histrionically, over the top, fake, like Bernhardt. Duse is a counterbalance, still, focused and patient. But she was aging by the time she made Cenere and was self-conscious about her white hair and wrinkled face. Consequently, she avoided filming herself in close-up shots, which would be the most revealing to us today.

Summer reading: Peter Brook and Eleanora Duse — ahhhh! Now, if the smog will just blow away enough to reveal some honest warm sunshine....

Until next month...

Be safe!

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And don't hesitate to check out the monthly Acting for Animators newsletter - it's chock full of craft and industry notes from a slightly different perspective!



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