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Because Later Sometimes Never Comes
Scott Fielding and Kenny Fuentes
(KF): You've worked as a director, actor and teacher in a number of cities and regions. From New York and Chicago, to England and Brazil, even in the nations of the former Yugoslavia. After all this travel and experience, what brought you to Boston and what have your impressions been of local theatrical work thus far?
(SF): The short story is this. I was working in Belgrade, Serbia, last June, directing a play (Koltes’, In the Solitude of Cotton Fields) and teaching Chekhov method to professional actors. One evening, a friend introduced me to a sunny, radiant woman, Mara Radulovic. Turned out Mara was living in Boston for the last ten years, but is originally from Belgrade. She studied acting at the top drama academy there before enrolling in grad school at Brandeis. So anyway Mara was on holiday in Belgrade, visiting family, friends. When she found out from her friend - who was my friend, and who it turns out was Mara’s professor at Academy… (that’s how things work in the Balkans) - that an American director was in Belgrade teaching Chekhov workshops, she jumped at the chance to sign on. Well, Mara couldn’t get enough of the workshops. She was crazy about the Chekhov work and my approach to teaching it, and she realized the potential Chekhov offers for developing her acting to the next level. And when it was time for her to leave again for home, she got it into her head that I had to come to Boston to teach. And then proceeded to help make that happen. Long story short, here I am.
To answer your second question, I am sorry to say that I haven’t gotten much of an impression yet of local theatre. I’ve been here little more than a month. In that time, I’ve only seen one production. That’s partly that’s because I’ve been super focused on finding my feet here. My attention in these weeks has been on starting the Chekhov studio and finding a place to live. I’m still working on both.
But frankly it’s also partly because going to theatre here means a substantial investment of personal resources. For starters, time and money. Particularly the latter. So it seems. Of course, that’s pretty much our system. But I think it’s unfortunate. And it doesn’t have to be that way. I could say a lot about that. In Eastern Europe, for example, where I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 5 or 6 years, it’s as if there’s no avoiding theatre. The capital cities in the Balkans have many theaters, most centrally located (i.e., walking distance from the city center), with performances often 6 nights a week. And much of it is good, and some is even very good. Theatre there is a real part of the culture. There’s hardly a newspaper that you open that isn’t reporting about some show or actor or director. Television broadcasts it and presents multiple outlets to endorse or support it. People go. Lots of regular people. And the professional community is (generally) supportive of each other’s work. Myself, I would go see theatre sometimes 3 nights a week. And frankly, I never bought a ticket. It is a common courtesy at most theatres to welcome theatre professionals – and student actors.
We could learn plenty from the example of eastern European theatre. But we needn’t go so far from home. It would be interesting to look at the example of Chicago, where I had a studio and theatre for five years; and even NY, where I worked and lived for more than a decade. I have the impression that Boston theatre is far less accessible. Maybe I’m wrong – it’s entirely possible. I’ve got a lot to learn about the community here. But even if I were wrong, I’d still maintain that theatre isn’t nearly accessible enough. Particularly to the people who should be seeing everything, e.g., active members of the theatre community, especially students, as well as young people. Can anyone tell me that theatre is easily accessible to these communities? (And couldn’t we say the same of all the performing arts: opera, classical music, dance, etc.?)
But I want to say that I’m really looking forward to seeing plenty of theatre, even great theatre, here in Boston. – And making some, too.
Most Americans don't have the opportunity to experience the theatre of other nations and culture. What would you describe as the difference in trends regarding the culture of theatre in the United States versus Europe and the rest of the world?
You know, I'm asked that question a lot. However, in my opinion, it isn’t nearly as simple to answer as some would tell it. That’s not to say there aren’t differences in American and European approaches. There are. But a trend is something else again.
The fact is both America and Europe are geographically and demographically vast. So it isn’t so obvious, is it, to speak of “American” theatre or American theatre trends? I don’t think so. We have the Broadway musical, the “typical” (if I can say that) regional theatre production (in contrast with “atypical” regional theatre, e.g. Steppenwolf or, closer to home, A.R.T.), the “avante-gardists,” if you will, (Wooster Group, Ontological Theatre, Richard Maxwell, Goat Island, …); you’ve got your storefront theatre, community theatre, university theatre, and so on, and so on. Similarly, in eastern Europe you’ve got the national theatres which tend to be huge institutions that sometimes, not frequently enough, though, produce remarkable work; professional theatres of all sizes but nearly all government supported; student theatres, children’s theatres….
So what’s interesting is there’s really tremendous diversity of theatre everywhere, in my experience. A great diversity of theatrical forms and creative expression is what we have common with Europe. It probably true, though, that the general public is most likely to see a certain kind of commercial production in the American theatre, as opposed to an east European public, who are more likely to be offered – and turn out for – more adventurous fare, let’s call it.
The most significant difference I can put a finger on is the lack of public funding for theatre here, versus the generally high levels you see in (eastern) Europe. That’s a critical difference, for reasons that we might talk about another time. Related to that is the fact that here, other than in case of the successful Broadway show, the production norm is for a short run of maybe as few as four weeks to - in the best of circumstances - several months; whereas in eastern Europe, it’s not at all uncommon for a play to run for several seasons, even sometimes much longer. Good actors can be playing five or more performances in any given period. Some perhaps for the theatre at which they are employed, some at other theatres. As well, east European actors might have a regular/recurring role on a TV serial, be shooting a film, taping a commercial, or recording a radio drama or dubbing a movie!
Like your previous question, there’s a lot more to say about the question of trends, both current and - what is more interesting for me – future trends. A critical theme in Michael Chekhov’s work is what he called the “theatre of the future.” It’s something I think about…. Another time we can talk about that.
There's an abundance of books, teachers and classes advocating a variety of techniques/methods. What does Michael Chekhov Actors Studio offer and what sets apart Chekhov Technique from other classes/trainings?
But abundance isn’t necessarily a virtue, is it? (Doesn’t the so-called Poor Theatre, for instance, come to mind? I hope so!)
It would take a much longer form than this interview to even begin to adequately tell you what sets Chekhov apart. By that I don’t mean to evade the question. Only to state a fact. Trying to describe in a few sentences what sets Chekhov apart is like trying to describe the difference between men and women…
The actor – like other artists – wants to express his inner life. He brings his inner life to expression through his outer means: the body and voice. That, in large measure, is the essence of the job. If the actor can’t do that, then she’s no more than a puppet, mouthing the writer’s words, physicalizing the director’s blocking.
Now then, Chekhov approaches the art of acting with the understanding that as an instrument for creative expression, the actor is a three-fold being. He wills, he feels, he thinks. The actor’s instrument has two aspects. The body is an outer thing. Through her body, the actor moves and speaks; she wills. The other aspect is what Chekhov call the “psychology.” Which is a kind of shorthand for the whole inner life. Through the soul, the actor perceives, senses, and feels. Through the spirit, she thinks and imagines. The Chekhov method aims to develop the actor’s body and psychology – in the sense just indicated – to work together as one thing.
That, you could say, is how nature intends human beings to function. As whole beings. That’s how children, for instance, healthy children, function. For the healthy child, the body is always expressing the inner life at every moment: simply, truthfully, vividly. And in turn, the inner life is sensitive to even the slightest of changes on the outside.
But a key distinction between the child and the actor is that the actor (and by actor I mean the developed actor) is absolutely in charge of his body and psychology, so to say. That can be difficult to understand, because it raises a fundamental paradox of our art: the actor must be absolutely free, open, impulsive; and, at the same time, be absolutely in control of herself as a creative instrument. Chekhov, as well as Stanislavsky, describes the actor’s paradoxical experience of himself in performance as a divided or dual consciousness. It’s a perhaps difficult but altogether critical point to grasp…. But maybe for another interview….
So then, one thing that’s special and particular to Chekhov is that the method’s foremost aim is to develop and attune the actor’s whole psycho-physical instrument to meet the demands of acting. And this is achieved by training and practice. It means that although we practice many different exercises, all of them have in common the goal of refining the whole acting instrument: the actor’s body, soul, and spirit, if you will. While many of our exercises have a physical component, there are (as Chekhov puts it) no purely physical exercises in our method. Seemingly physical exercises are really psycho-physical exercises. Their real aim is to awaken the actor’s inner capacities to their artistic purpose and value. And Chekhov’s techniques are remarkably effective at accomplishing just that.
Furthermore, and this is a really wonderful point, all of Chekhov’s techniques are at one and the same time also practical techniques or tools for acting as well as developmental exercises. Which means that even as the actor is developing his instrument, his is also beginning to master effective means to approach role-related problems of character, relationship, action, and so forth.
(Laughing.) It’s a lot easier to experience than it is to write about, believe me! But the indispensible key to growth is training and continuous practice. That’s why I advocate actors find an approach that excites them and then to stay with that approach long enough to really get something out of it.
That’s not to say that talented and experienced actors can’t get immediate results from Chekhov. They can. In the hands of such actors, Chekhov techniques can be very effective tricks, so to say, for addressing one or another challenge in a part. The techniques of leading centers, imaginary body, the psychological gesture (people seem to like that using that term, but I wonder how many really know what it’s about!), qualities of movement, the feelings of ease and form, personal atmosphere… these are “magic” tools for the actor who is proficient in employing them. But frankly almost never does somebody walk through the studio door that can put these techniques into immediate use. (It does happen, however, that after a short period of training, a talented actor can, to some extent, do exactly that. Such was the case with one working actor that began studying with us last month. Already after 3 weeks of class he found that he could incorporate some of the basic techniques into his professional work, with wonderful results.)
But in truth, the same must be said about all methods. In fact, that’s something of a hot button for me. The erroneous idea that many young/inexperienced actors have that acting is easy. My view is that if acting feels easy (for the new actor), then it’s probably not very good, what he’s doing. (For your readers who might know something about Chekhov concept of the “feeling of ease,” please don’t confuse that with what I’m speaking about here.)
Acting, before it can be art, must be craft. Like other crafts, it must be learned, acquired, and finally mastered. That means hard work. It means – again – training. Maybe for a long time. (That’s not to say you can’t work professionally and be training at the same time. You most certainly can be.) But learning is frequently a painful process. It hurts to grow. That’s true in athletics, other arts, even the sciences, as it is in acting. Acting should be fun. It should be play. But what really does that mean? For me, it means to take pleasure, joy, in the hard work of developing oneself as an actor. And in sometimes struggling through many rehearsals to find answers to problems. And finally in standing on stage or on camera, despite the anxiety or fear that can often paralyze even seasoned actors, and playing with inspiration.
Which leads me to one thing more, and then I’ll wrap this up - though we’ve hardly begun to scratch the surface of your question. Chekhov, like his teacher, Stanislavsky, was after one thing above all else: the key to inspiration. For the actor, more so than for other artists, inspiration is a special problem. Because whereas for other kinds of artists, inspiration can more or less appear when it will, the actor-artist (which, incidentally, is how we view the actor) must be inspired when the curtain rises or when the camera rolls. To wait for the spark of inspiration is a luxury of time the actor doesn’t have. And so Chekhov determined through his genius and experience and passion to come up with objective ways to help the actor get in touch with inspiration. By objective I mean not personal. That is, ways which can hold good for all actors.
And through my experience over many years directing, teaching and acting, I’ve seen that Chekhov succeeded. His method does lead the actor to creative inspiration. It sets the talent free. And not only that, but it’s a healthy way to work. It doesn’t ask the actor to wring his soul to get at emotion. Instead, Chekhov appeals to the actor’s imagination, on the one side, and the physical body, on the other, and by either or both of those means to entice the feelings and emotions. Along the way, the method loosens the bodily tensions and habits and enriches the creative imagination. To be sure, it’s not a cakewalk to master the method; and I wouldn’t even say it’s for everybody. The Chekhov approach is an artistic one; it’s a holistic method meant for talented and ambitious actors. But for such actors, I believe in Chekhov without reservation.
I know I already said one thing more, but I’ve got to add one thing more to follow up what I’ve just said. Chekhov rather famously said: If Stanislavsky is high school, my method is university. And I think it’s a fair enough statement. That’s why for new and inexperienced actors, I believe that before tackling Chekhov full-on, getting a solid grounding in the basics of acting is a good idea. By basics what I mean above all is simple and truthful listening and answering; action; and imaginary circumstances.
Now please don’t misunderstand me. I believe 100% in teaching Chekhov to new actors. But whereas I can train experienced actors in Chekhov for several hours a day, several days a week, I believe that new actors should take Chekhov homeopathically, so to speak. A little at a time. But even as they are developing their instruments step by step with Chekhov, I think new actors can benefit tremendously from the first year of the Meisner progression. Because Meisner, like Stanislavsky, is something like high schooI. And that isn’t to denigrate it. To the contrary.
I don’t get into a discussion now of Meisner technique. Suffice to say that I embrace Meisner to the extent I’ve said here, and I teach it through our studio – along with Chekhov – as a practical and dynamic approach for new actors. ‘Nuff said.
The Boston area is known for our multitude of universities and colleges and large population of young artists. If faced with a young actor about to graduate with hopes of working as a theatre artist at this juncture in time, what advice would you offer? If the same actor is pondering whether to go straight to NYC/LA or to work in another region, what should he or she consider?
What comes to mind first is that I’d hope any advice I could offer a young actor about to complete his or her undergraduate or graduate education in acting would already have been offered and assimilated during the past 3 or 4 years in school….
The foremost thing I’d say to that actor is to please think about and imagine what kind of actor you want to be. What are your professional ambitions? Your artistic ambitions? Next, get a grip on what it’s going to take to achieve them. Realize that you’ve got more to learn. I don’t care how great your education or training was – and I don’t think those two words necessarily stand for the same thing – you should realize that it was only a start. A solid start, I hope, but just a start nonetheless. It’s been said that it takes 20 years to make an actor. Well, we can quibble about the number, but no one can reasonably argue that it doesn’t take time – plenty of time – to develop your instrument, your craft, your talent. It does.
There’s no such thing as an overnight sensation. Schwab’s Drugstore never existed, not really. Yet the fantasy persists. (Bigger than ever?) Yes, we can find some few examples of someone who came out of nowhere, so to speak, and killed, was maybe even nominated for an Oscar. But that’s the exception that proves the rule. A talented amateur might in the hands of a talented (or lucky) director deliver a remarkable performance on camera. But ask her to craft and repeat a performance night after night on stage; or, if he’s fortunate enough to be given a shot in a second film; what then?
Talent is God-given, but it’s got to be developed. And that means training, real and persistent training over time; and also, of course, experience, and plenty of that. I always tell my students: learn about your heroes (actors and otherwise.) Find out their story. Study the paths of their careers. It’s a fact that most if not all of the actors that you and I would agree are masters of acting are incredibly well-trained and educated about their profession. Moreover, consider that many of them have teachers with whom they continue to work between projects and coaches to guide them or support them during projects. Or they have mentors. As a young actor, Sean Penn paled around with Brando, Nicholson, Cassavettes. Johnny Depp was also great friends with Brando. Kevin Spacey routinely talked shop with Jack Lemmon and Jason Robards. Pacino was a son to Strasberg and Charlie Laughton. - Who do you hang out with? - Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, and Robert Duvall were close friends in their salad days. (Aside: at the Pasadena Playhouse, Hoffman and Hackman were both voted “Least likely to succeed”!). Pacino and John Cazale were best friends. Malkovich, Gary Sinese, Terry Kinney, and Laurie Metcalf were friends as students at Illinois State. After graduating, they and several other actors met weekly to work on their craft and produce plays. 35 years later, Steppenwolf is arguably the most important regional theater in America. These are just some examples off the top of my head. We could find many many more. But I trust I’ve my point.
My basic advice to actors is to work on yourself and your craft as if your life depended on it. Because it does. Train train train. Surround yourself with talented, positive people. You can’t choose your family, but you must choose your teachers, friends, (and lovers) wisely. Do plays. Do student films. Get experience. Embrace experience. All experience. Go to museums. Listen to classical music. To jazz. Read more. Read a new play every week. That’s 52 plays in a year. More than 250 in five. Download Adler’s Great Books list, and read them all. See every movie that was ever nominated for an Academy Award. See European movies. (Yes, you’ll probably have to read the subtitles.) See movies from around the world. Learn something about architecture. Go to dance performances. Learn to tango. See lots of local theatre. Go once a month to see something in NY. Grab any chance to see international theatre work. Use your time well. Study people on the streets, in the trains, at the bank and grocery store. Observe the rhythms and atmospheres that surround you at any moment. Compare city experiences with experiences in nature. Play with children. Talk to old people. Poor people. Sick people. Disturbed people. People who seems to be joyful without reason. Discover who your parents and grandparents really are. Other than your parents and grandparents. And how they got to be that way. Be irrational (sometimes.) Be unpredictable (sometimes.) Surprise yourself (often.) Express yourself (whenever possible.) Find unusual ways to be creative. Brush your teeth with the other hand. Try to put on your pants two legs at a time. Give a stranger a flower. Walk down the street imagining yourself taller than the office buildings. Learn something new every day. Discover what it takes, and what it would mean, to become the kind of actor you aspire to become. …
Ok? That’s for starters….
As for how to choose between NY or LA or elsewhere: who am I to say? Find out for yourself. Do the research. Be as thorough as you can. Then be brave. Take a stand. Commit to your decisions. Know what you want, determine to have it/be it, be smart about how to get it and work harder than anyone else to achieve it, and persist. Lastly, and most importantly, trust your intuitions.
What shows have you had the chance to see in Boston? What impressions did they leave on you?
See my answer to question number one.
Finally, why do you do the work that you do?
If not me, then who? – Which begs the question of your readership, Kenny: If not you, dear reader, then who?
And to round things out and return one last time to the red thread of my view, in the words of Hillel the Elder: If not now, when? - Don’t wait for when you have free time or find the resources to develop yourself as an actor. Create the time. Create the resources. Do it now.
Because later sometimes never comes.
This interview was recorded in March, 2010.