Adler and Hagen: Lessons in Acting

Uta Hagen and Paul Robeson in "Othello."

I used to act in high school. Every year, I was given the same, tiny bit parts but I never seemed to understand why. I kept hearing “there are no small parts, only small actors,” from teachers attempting to cheer me up, but the roles never got better. Even as I watch movies I see that there’s a definite difference between me and, say, Daniel Day-Lewis or Kate Blanchett, but why? After seeing Stella Adler and Uta Hagen teaching their methods, I finally understand why. I was never trying. I was never feeling a role or giving my character a life that I believed in. I didn’t care about relatability or drawing on experiences, I was just regurgitating lines.

Adler and Hagen both employ similar but different methods of acting. Both rely on a level of imagination combined with drawing on personal experiences and memories, though that balance shifts. Adler is an empowering being–her voice and body are commanding and sometimes her acting seems a little over the top. But after hearing her critique and explain specific roles and scenes, you realize it’s more than just her being melodramatic. She’s drawing from something raw and real. She comments often about the soul and how it is an integral part of portraying any character. How art helps you remember what your soul is, and how without it, you cannot act to the best of your ability. This analogy is one that is truly visceral and the actors who understand it create a stage presenece that is intense, commanding, and relatable.

While Adler seems to emphasize intensity, Hagen is more about human nature and realism. She told actors to draw on what makes a character human–it doesn’t matter what time period the character is from or who they are, they have a life and a family just like everyone else, and they engage in activities in mannerisms that all people do. Being able to draw on those factors creates a way of performing that enraptures an audience. I was particularly interested in the “playing with small objects” method that she used in teaching–getting down to that very basic activity of trying to do something difficult (working with a very small object using your bare hands) not only takes you back into a very real place but also can induce emotion that you can draw upon when you feel lost.

Perhaps the message I got from today is a little sad–I realized the reasons why my acting skills never really seemed to cut it. But in another sense, I’ve become aware of what makes actors so relatable and powerful, and how these two women worked to make their (incredibly effective) methods known to the public.


Josephine Baker

Ever since I discovered Josephine Baker, I’ve had a really strong interest and attachment to her art and her life. My obsession with old, French music and film made loving Baker inevitable, but the more I studied her, the more interested I became. Baker started out in St. Louis as scrawny little girl, forced to play up stereotypes to make a living. And by the time she was 19 she was in Paris, was the highest paid chorus girl on the planet, and was combating racism, misogyny, heteronormativity through her body and a sense of agency that is unmatched to this day. Corny as this sounds, when I get really anxious and stressed out, I think of Baker. I think of what she was doing at my age and how she did it against all odds, on her own, with her chin up. She’s my biggest source of motivation.

Baker’s dancing was revolutionary. She turned European ballet on its head and surprised the French with her crossed eyes, jelly-bones, and overt sexuality. She had people reconsidering what it meant to be beautiful and sexy–when she was younger, she was criticized for being too dark (or too light, depending on who she was speaking to. Huh.), too thin, too exotic, etc., and later she had men  drooling and women paying money to look like her. And sure, it may seem as though she was exploiting her body or fetishizing her ethnicity, but in a way she was really just mimicking and deconstructing stereotypes and expectations. She did what she wanted. She prayed naked, walked her pet cheetah in the streets of Paris, sang when people told her her voice was bad, danced the way she wanted to, loved who she wanted to, and didn’t let anyone tell her otherwise. Strangely enough, however, she also seems so loving. She’s always smiling in photos, she was eccentric, loved animals and children, and was accepting of all people. Her work in WWII and the Civil Rights Movement show how dedicated she was to equality and giving back. I can only imagine what would have happened to the Civil Rights Movement had Baker accepted Coretta Scott King’s request for Baker to take over after Martin Luther King’s assassination.

A controversial review of “The Ziegfeld Follies” from 1936 from Time Magazine. The critic is harsh and seems a little unaware of just how much of a groundbreaker she really was. Then again, you have to consider the fact that racial attitudes in Europe were more progressive than they were in America, and the authors choice to call her a “bucktoothed negro” as opposed to the French’s “ebony goddess,” could just be a sign of the society they were writing in and for. Josephine Baker was different in an incredibly beautiful way, and I don’t think America really realized that until it was too late. In a few words, I admire Josephine Baker because she never strayed from being herself. She is beautiful, funny, controversial, daring, smart, headstrong, determined, honest, caring,  talented, and one of my biggest sources of inspiration.

Read the Time article here.


Le Sacre du Printemps

Still shot from the Joffrey Ballet doing "The Rite of Spring"

First off, let me just say WOW. Igor Stravinsky really knew what he was doing, and it just goes to show that taking risks can turn out great. Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” is a piece so powerful and distinct, but also completely adaptable and versatile. Written as a ballet about Russian paganism and human sacrifice, the piece is unmistakable for its sense of barbaric intensity. The pounding, polyrhythmic drums and HARSH dissonance combine so perfectly that if one knew the plot of the ballet, they could imagine the story by the music alone without ever seeing a single dancer.

At the same time, the piece can be used in different contexts and still fit the bill. An abridged and altered version of “The Rite of Spring” was used in Disney’s Fantasia (the 1940 version, not the piece of crap released in 2000). In it, the piece was matched up with bright colors and animations that depicted the dawn of time. It begins with flashes of color, washing together and fading away, like the first signs of life swimming in primordial soup. Later the piece shows the rise and fall of the dinosaurs–meteors come crashing down to the earth, killing the giant creatures as the music’s controlled chaos takes off. While Stravinsky himself called Disney’s interpretation execrable, I think it fits.

There have been tons of ballets set to “The Rite of Spring,” and each one has its own distinct flavor. Having watched several snippets of these dances on youtube, I’m taken aback by how many stories the song can tell. Sure, each dance is connected through a thread of primitiveness that often borders on the erotic, but there is definitely something different about each one. In some dances, the human is emphasized. In others, the choreographer took a more animalistic approach. Some chose to use softer movements while others jerk around in a way that almost seems spasmodic. Try using Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to tell more than one story. It just doesn’t really work that way.

What’s also distinctive about “The Rite of Spring” is that the conductors and players of the piece are in charge of making their own connections to convey a particular feeling. When Leonard Bernstein was directing a student orchestra in 1987, he had an incredible way of using anecdote and physical expression to show the students what he wanted. Of course, if anyone can do that, it’s him–Bernstein’s conducting made even a simple, two-octave, C-major scale sound so powerful and masterful. His use of dynamics and tempo turned what is usually the most boring part of music into something ripe with emotion. Through his conducting, Bernstein explains that a level of virtuosity is necessary in playing but it’s not enough. There is a level of raw emotion that each person needs to feel if they want to portray the piece’s story to its fullest.

Articulating the way music can make a person feel is not an easy task. Words aren’t always enough for Bernstein, and his conducting and explanations are full of guttural noises, jerky and smooth arm motions, and a wide range of facial expressions. His face contorts as the music changes–he grimaces, he smiles, and he raises his brows so high they look as if they might pop off of his face. At times he punches and claws at the air like an animal, and one orchestra member commented on his “erotic dancing” (how a man in his 70s can dance erotically is beyond me, but clearly it got the kid thinking, and that was the point). The fact is, music is visceral, and it seems to almost possess and pass through Bernstein as he conducts. Personally, I think that kind of reaction is necessary for all truly successful music-making. If you aren’t really feeling it, then you aren’t really playing it as hard or as well as you can. There’s rarely a time in one’s life where one can experience something that is both absolutely gut-wrenching and completely beautiful, but “The Rite of Spring” seems to evoke these paradoxical feelings, and it happens without mercy.


A Celebration of Leonard Bernstein

A Celebration of Leonard Bernstein ends with a performance of Gee Officer Krupke from West Side Story.

The celebration ended with "Gee Officer Krupke" from West Side Story.

Having been in choir for the past 15 years of my life, it would be an understatement to say that the songs of Leonard Bernstein have a special and nostalgic value to them. Growing up, my stepmom forced us to watch West Side Story more times than I can count, and seeing the way the music affected and entertained my family no matter what age or gender has made me realize just how approachable Bernstein’s works are. That being said, watching Michael Tilson Thomas’s “A Celebration of Leonard Bernstein” was  walk down memory lane. But more importantly, it shows the flexibility of Bernstein’s work and just how many different people his music has impacted and inspired, from cellist Yo-Yo Ma to famous soprano Christine Ebersole.

The performances took place on October 29th at Carnegie Hall, and featured famous Bernstein selections as played by the San Fransisco Symphony. The celebration opened with Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Never in my life have I seen a symphony play with so much joy and vibrancy. Michael Tilson Thomas’s precise and passionate directing came together with the expertise of the players to create sounds that were composed and exact while being heartfelt and real enjoyment–there was this quality to the music that made it seem like the sounds themselves were dancing and smiling throughout the hall.

The vocal songs, too, were  very lively and done with great proficiency. Their performance of “I Can Cook Too” from On The Town featured Christine Ebersole and was fun and impossible not to tap your toes to. The Symphony showed its ability to play as a commanding front line or as a support for Ebersole, and Ebersole’s voice was full of personality and character–her growling alto range and powerful belts generated a sense of confidence and cheekiness that fit with the mood of the song excellently.

Another personal favorite of the show was  Yo-Yo Ma’s performance. I’m a huge fan of Yo-Yo Ma’s playing, and I was taken aback by his interpretation of “Meditation No. 1.” I loved the way his face and playing always seemed to match up perfectly–he is a perfect example of the way music can have a visceral effect on a musician or listener. There’s this palpable sense of intensity coming from his masterful playing in combination with the harsh yet meticulous accompaniment that the symphony played. In particular, I thought the way all the string parts contrasted and convened was remarkable and gripping.

My favorite part of the production in general was the overall versatility of the show. As I mentioned before, Bernstein’s works touch a lot of different people, and this is perhaps because of his wide range of compositions. Well I appreciated the video excerpts of Michael Tilson Thomas speaking with various soloists and musicians about their musical history and relationship with Bernstein, I did think they were a little contrived. The conversations felt forced and staged, and I would have rather experienced the musician’s answers through their playing rather through an insincere speech.


Profiles I liiike.

1. Seun Kuti. They don’t obsess over the fact that he’s Fela Kuti’s son, which is appreciated–most articles talk about that more than anything else. The Q&A format is a little informal for my taste but I do like that they ask short questions and let him say what he wants to say. The interviewers ask a variety of questions ranging from history to future plans, and they don’t shy away from asking questions about difficulty or criticism. They also give Seun a platform to talk about what his songs are talking about–a chance to defend himself and provide more of a story about his art and about the situation in Nigeria that affects him and his work.

I also like that the lead paragraph is informative, and the first question they ask gives us insight into 1. the vulnerability and linguistic/factual issues journalists incur and 2. the personality and humor of Seun.

2. Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse/Ugly Casanova. Brock goes into the interview saying he doesn’t like them, yet the journalist presses on and manages to get him to open up and give some great, visceral answers. The interviewer asks some of the best questions I’ve ever read–he really picks Brock’s brain (say that 5 times fast) and asks probing questions that get some raw responses. The interviewer asks about Brock getting in fights, getting accused of rape, band break-ups, and varying opinions about performances. Anyone that has listened to Modest Mouse or Ugly Casanova knows that Brock has issues and he’s not ashamed of them– this interview isn’t pretty, and I like that.



I’ve recently been listening to the Ethiopiques collection (in short, a collection of Ethiopian and Eritrean musicians, ranging from jazz to soul to piano solo).

Mahmoud Ahmed  caught my interest when I first heard him. I looked him up and found this article on the FLY Global Music Culture website:

The lead  roped me in–it provides a great illustration of the event, an informative history of Ahmed and accessible and accurate comparisons and descriptions. The article nails Ahmed’s sound on the head as far as I can tell.

What I really like is that the article appeals to two sides of me: the pop or soul music lover who likes to experiment with her music taste, and the African music student. He makes the music appealing to familiar and unfamiliar listeners, American and Ethiopian soul lovers. Not only that, but his inclusion of the history of Ethiopia’s governmental changes and struggles in relation to Ahmed and the Ethiopian music scene makes the review and Mahmoud Ahmed’s music intriguing.

Something about it just works for me.

If by the time you’ve read this and the review you still haven’t listened to Mahmoud Ahmed, go do that now. You can listen to one of my favorite tracks here.


A Visit With Brown Bird Teaser

I made a few calls this weekend and it looks like I’ll be interviewing a folk band from Maine called Brown Bird next week. The band will be playing at the Basement in Northampton to celebrate the release of their new album on the 23rd at 8pm. It’s free of charge, so go!!

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Brown Bird twice–once at a concert, and they played a show with my old band at the Bookmill in Montague. I’ve never talked to any of the members, and given their changing line up and new release, I’d like to get a better insight into what kind of music they make and why.

Here’s some more info to get you all as excited about this as I am!