Saturday, October 1, 2011

Master Class with Sigourney Weaver and Jim Simpson of New York City's Flea Theatre

"I used to get so enthusiastic, they'd ask me to leave the room."  Sigourney Weaver


When  I got the e-mail informing me that St. Mary's College theatre alumni we're invited to attend a master acting class with Sigourney Weaver and her husband Jim Simpson, artistic director of the Flea Theatre, there was no question that I would do whatever it took to get to Notre Dame, Indiana that day.  What would she be like?  Would she be brilliant, funny, kind?  Really tall?

She was all of those things, and what's more she and Mr. Simpson share the graciousness and humility that are often found in the extraordinarily talented.

So what was it like, and what wisdom did they share?  Well, the class went like this.  We were in a small acting studio in the basement of Regina Hall, just down the hall from the dance studio where I used to take Modern and study Alexander technique, and four floors down from my freshman dorm room.

 Class began with four senior Theatre majors doing their audition monologues twice.  All of them were good, often surprisingly so as several of the choices were quite unique.  When they were done, Ms. Weaver did something that surprised me but shouldn't have.  Instead of speaking with wit and eloquence about each of the pieces, she immediately asked all four actors to lie down on the floor, and yes... she joined them.

I should have known.

Once they were all comfortably lying on their backs on the linoleum, she told them all to rest a hand on their stomachs and just... breathe.

All of a sudden I was back on the floor of the dance studio 25 years ago blowing Fs at the ceiling.  It all comes back to the breath.

No breath, no voice, no acting.  If you want actors to let go of tension so that they can reveal themselves through their characters, you've got to get them to breathe.  Put yourself in the place of these young actors.  How would you feel standing alone in front of a major Hollywood star, and an Obie award winning director, and delivering a two minute monologue?  Terrified?  Yes, but also wonderfully exhilarated.

 What Sigourney was leading them to do, was relax, and allow their natural voices to come out.  One of the greatest challenges for an actor is to harness and use the amazing energy that comes from an audience, while still remaining true to believable human behavior.  The breathing exercise also revealed one of the things that gives Ms. Weaver so much of her power as an actor: her voice.

 I suspect that if you stop and listen with your mind right now, you can conjure up a line from one of her films.  Here's an easy one, "Get away from her you bitch!" from Aliens.  But she doesn't need to shout to touch you with the power of her voice, no not at all.  Jim Simpson also pointed up the power of the authentic voice to make an actor stand out in a good way at an audition.  All four actors who gave their monologues in the morning class were young women, and he noted that most of them would be auditioning to play ingenues.  He said that the temptation is to speak in a voice that is higher and more lyrical than the natural voice, but that it is much more effective to relax, use the voice you were born with, and:

"Blow them away with your womanhood." Jim Simpson

"Our job is transformation."

Twice I heard Sigourney say this to Jim as they worked together to get the most helpful direction across to the actors.  Transformation.  Funny, I thought, here I am in an acting class, and it comes down to what's been practically obsessing me for the past three years.  How do you take the raw material that is your very self, and turn it into the self that you have envisioned?

What became clear from their direction is that you start by accepting and using your authentic self.

 More great advice was the idea of "getting out of the way of the words", and "letting the piece play you."  The more adept we become as actors, the more we want to control every aspect of what we do on stage.  If we step back and let the words take the wheel again, "let them tumble" as Sigourney said, we can discover fresh new ways of playing.  Of course, you have to be well prepared before any of this good stuff can happen!


"You are running a show, make it a good one."  Jim Simpson


Mr. Simpson had recently wrapped up a big round of auditions for the Flea Theatre.  I'm pretty sure he said that they auditioned 600 people, although I could be exaggerating, then again I remember open calls in Hollywood that would easily bring in that many actors.  He spoke about how much it would surprise him, and not in a good way, when actors weren't completely prepared to deliver their monologues well.  He said that one of the best things an actor can do with a prepared audition piece is to go in with the attitude,

"I wonder what it's going to be today?"

Now the only way you can let go like this and be completely free within your work, is to be 100 per cent prepared.  No, 200 per cent prepared!  In the afternoon session, after the current students had all done their monologues, and after Sigourney had left to prepare for her speech that night, Jim looked around the room and asked if there was anyone else who would like to work.  I raised my hand and asked, "Would you like to hear from an alumni?"  He immediately said yes, and I was off on an experience that that was similar to, and probably better than, the best thrill ride you can imagine.  As Mr. Simpson had already said, "It's fun isn't it?  It feels really good to do your monologue."  He was so right.  For an actor there is nothing like getting an opportunity to do your work for a new and exciting audience.  It's been more than a year since I've done an audition monologue, and the rush was palpable.  My heart was beating so loud I thought the audience might be able to hear it over my words!

When I was done, Jim gave me direction that was dead on, and a complement that came out of a mistake I made.  In my extreme nervousness I fluffed a line, but I covered it and recovered deftly, and he pointed this out to the class.  In a teaching situation, remember that you will often get the most out of exploring the mistakes you make, so be willing to take a risk.  Great teachers inspire us to be well prepared, but they are happy to turn our mistakes into opportunities.

Be Ready When Your Chance Comes


The most important lesson I want to share from this experience, is the idea that, although we all spend a lot of time preparing for the worst, it's just as important to spend time preparing for the best!  This blog is about fitness, transformation, and freeing the authentic self to go out and do good things in the world.  We have to spend time getting ready for the moments when wonderful things show up in our lives.  Whether they have to do with work, romance, health, wealth, personal or spiritual growth.

My passion is understanding how we stay engaged with our fitness goals for life.  One of the main reasons we get and stay fit is so that we can be fit for opportunity.  So eat well, move well, and think well today, because tomorrow may bring adventure.