Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Responding to a Calling by Joel Benjamin

When I was in college pursuing a degree in Theatre one of my professors told us a story that stuck with me all these years. It was a story about one of the most significant events in all of theatre history; and yet it gets very little attention in most theatre history books and classes. It was the moment that Thespis, a common place member of the then common place Greek Chorus, committed a truly revolutionary act; he stepped from the Chorus and spoke his own words.

Think about this, here’s a story about an ordinary man, who one moment is just another voice among many, playing out a traditional spectacle of which there was no thought of reinterpreting, and then in the next moment he does something that will forever change the evolution of western theatre! That, in and of itself was pretty amazing. But what really fascinated me about the story, and continues to do so to this day, is not only what Thespis did, but the question his bold act raises: why did he do it?

Now, there’s no way of knowing for sure why he did what he did. He probably wasn’t motivated by the desire for fame. Back then fame didn’t really exist unless you were an emperor, a king, or Socrates. He probably wasn’t acting in response to urgings from his fellow chorus members. Can you imagine? “Psssst. Hey Thez, I dare you to do something that no one has every done before and will probably result in some spectacularly violent and very public demise for you. What do you say, buddy?”

To me, the only thing that explains Thespis’ revolutionary act was simply this: he couldn’t stop himself. He was compelled by something deep within, as all great artists are, to step into the unknown and, for that time in history, to take the biggest risk an actor had ever taken! Thez was moved by something much more powerful than himself.

I mean, when listening to Mozart or Beethoven, or viewing paintings or sculptures of Michelangelo, or reading the words of Shakespeare or Thoreau, who could deny that the artists who created these works were directly inspired by an energy that no one can see except in the things and moments that are manifested from it?

The root of the word “inspire” is “in spirit”. Our ancient friend, Thespis was truly inspired to do what he did. And on that long ago day, when a single person responded to a calling that could have only come from the center of his heart, the very seat of our soul, he not only stepped out of the Chorus, he transcended them. And rightly so. Because why should inspiration and spiritual evolution only be the relegated domain of musicians, painters, and poets? The actor too has the right, and the means, and the need to enter through those mysterious gates to our soul, to struggle to awaken, and to share, through each performance, the brilliance of what is discovered with us all.

Joel Benjamin will be teaching Yoga for Actors at Freehold, Joel also teaches in Freehold's Ensemble Training Intensive (ETI) Program. He is very excited to be bringing yoga to Freehold. He has been practicing yoga since 1998, and has been teaching since 2004. Joel believes that when the ancient yogis created what we refer to today as yoga, it was never their intention to design a series of exercises to develop "yoga butt," (even though this is how many in the West have come to view this 5,000 year old art form.) Yoga is a system of breathwork, mindfulness, and physical postures all designed to improve the quality of our lives by bringing us into the present moment and opening our hearts. At its core, Joel believes that the true intention of yoga and the tools necessary for good acting are the same: embodied presence and emotional responsiveness. Joel has a BFA from Syracuse University in Theatre, and is certified to teach yoga from Pacific Yoga, and master teacher Max Strom. He is also a member of the Yoga Alliance. Joel owns Yoga Shack, a private yoga school in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle.

Photos of Freehold's ETI students in their Yoga training with Joel Benjamin, Fall 2010.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Truth, Beauty and Color ... with a dab of career counseling by Jesse Putnam, this month's gallery artist at Freehold

Lately I've been wondering if I made the right choices in deciding the ever-obstinate 'what do you want to be when you grow up' question. My first choice (center-fielder for the Red Sox) didn't catch on with the scouts. My NASA space explorer quest ended in expulsion from flight school (apparently cocaine and Cessna single engines don't mix). And my Senatorial ambitions ran into the ideological, puritanical buzz-saw that kills most lefties (read: I'm a socialist with an appetite for Vegas). I'm wondering if maybe I shouldn't have given up on growing up altogether and stuck with... I don't know... finger paints? After all, I do like color. No telling where that could have led.

In all seriousness, I have, in my somewhat delinquent adulthood, found more than a mere career in the arts: I've found a true love. A love for the conceptual, the colorful, the wry, the rich, the pure, the ruined, the divine (and on and on). And in no art-form I've explored have I found more luxury than in painting. I first discovered a special attraction to painting primarily in my study of the 20th century painters: Kandinsky, Klee, Newman, Mondrian, among others. Though I've yet to pursue the painter's craft with the dedication required to live the art, I have enjoyed peering into what lies underneath it. Kandinsky, for instance, was driven by an intense philosophical and spiritual urging – what he called the “inner necessity." His paintings were vehicles for his profound spiritual beliefs. Newman thought that painting was as much about metaphysics as physics (and smartly tore at critics who didn't appreciate his pursuit of both).

And Mondrian, perhaps my favorite painter, (photo left of Mondrian's Composition II in Red, Blue and Yellow) explored the weights and balances of life through color and form – his canvasses became as much a stage for pure color as the black box is for the performer. For me, these painters pursued what all artists are bound to: Truth, Beauty, Spirit, Meaning. It may seem silly to place an image of a Mondrian painting next to one of the photographs I have displayed in the space Freehold provides to local artists. It is not to compare my work to his. It is to celebrate the questions and discoveries his art has helped me to enjoy. It was his exploration of color and form that spoke to my inner truth in a way that compelled me to explore my own ways of expressing that truth. Through his art he tapped me on the soul, triggered that inner necessity Kandinsky spoke of, and forced me to investigate what it was that was generated within. In the case of these photographs (hung in the Freehold space), that became an exploration of the delightful and curious relationship color and form have to beauty; how elements of matter on a canvass (or any surface) can, if specifically arranged, tickle the interior in a way that nothing else does – save, perhaps, a corresponding sound (nod to Kandinsky).

In the end, I'm OK with my “chosen” career. Being an artist surely isn't about money. Or fame. Or even happiness. But it is, for me, the only career path for those who want to explore the unseen and discover truths that are buried in the deepest parts of each and every living thing. Unless, of course, NASA opens up Mars.

Jesse is currently a student in Freehold's Ensemble Training Program.

Monday, December 13, 2010

My Story of My Work by Taryn Collis

“What do you do?”
“I teach theater at the women’s prison.”
“Oh. That must be… interesting.”

When you tell people you volunteer at a prison, they instantly know what you do. Or, they know what they think you do. Last year was my first year volunteering at WCCW, and I too thought I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.

Since graduating from college I’ve spent the majority of my artistic life making art with people who didn’t spend outrageous amounts of money on an arts education, didn’t have any semblance of ‘advanced training,’ or who straight up thought theater was for rich white people wearing pearls. I’ve sung and danced with underprivileged teens, I’ve paraded through the streets with farmers and homeless populations, I’ve even moved to the West Bank of Palestine to make puppets with refugee children.
“Prison?” I thought. “I got this.”

I love being proved wrong.

My favorite thing about working with the women at WCCW is their ability to surprise me each and every week. More so than most ‘trained artists,’ they are willing to jump right in and risk and try new things and be messy. They are brave, they are generous, and I don’t think they have any idea that they are some of the most talented artists I have ever had the pleasure of working with. It’s easy to title someone as a “prisoner,” an “offender,” a “criminal” and think you know everything about them. But when you walk into a room full of “women” and give them the space and the freedom to tell their stories, you never know what might come up. You look around the room at a sea of grey sweatpants; everyone equal, everyone the same. But within a few hours you begin to notice that, in fact, this one is a poet, and this one a master at improv. This one can tug your heart strings, and this one can make you laugh till you cry. Within moments everything you knew flies right out the window and over the sparkling barbed wire fence.

When I talk someone through a typical Sunday afternoon out at WCCW they usually prep themselves for a story filled with crying women lamenting over their crimes and the ordeals of incarceration. It’s not that those things don’t happen, it’s just that within the same three hours you’ll also see a room full of grown women throwing a “ball” of gibberish at each other, transforming into a dog or an elf or a surfer, or harmonizing in a haunting wordless song. As we kick off the residency this week, my only goal is to remain ever present and open. We head in with a book full of exercises and writing prompts, but there’s no telling what they’ll bring to the table each week. More so than getting up in front of the women to teach, we’re there to listen. Each and every one of these women has been through things I can’t even imagine, and I feel blessed that they’re willing to share even some part of themselves with me and with us.

We all have stories. We’re just waiting around for someone to listen.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Interview with Sharon Williams, Engaged Theatre's Teaching Artist

Robin Lynn Smith, the Artistic Director at Freehold, created an extraordinary program in 2003. The Engaged Theatre program tours theatrical performances and workshops to culturally under-served populations. Additionally, Freehold and its teaching artists facilitate an annual residency at three separate Washington Corrections facilities, in which we enable the participants to write, direct, rehearse, and perform their own show in a five-month period. Residencies guide participants through the creation of an original performance based on an exploration of the archetypal hero’s journey. Participants invite their peers, friends and family to watch their performance at the culmination of the residency.

What inspired you to be part of the Engaged Theatre's WCCW Residency Program?

The first inspiration was the opportunity to work with Robin Lynn Smith, again. We worked together years ago and I love her spirit. She’s passionate, genuine, humble, and a wonderful artist, who loves to teach and I admire her for that.

In addition to working with a great artist, I accepted the challenge to be a part of this residency, because I believe that no matter what, everyone has a voice. The one thing no one can take away from you is your voice no matter what your circumstances are. Over the past couple of years the work I’ve created for the Mahogany Project has been to give a voice to the voiceless. I created projects that spoke to the downward spiral of the state of African American men and that addressed the effects of homelessness in our community. Being a part of the WCCW residency was the perfect opportunity to continue doing the type of work that will hopefully allow at least one person a chance to see the power they have in using their voice to tell a story. Working on the WCCW residency is an opportunity for me to continue trying to be more than just an artist who entertainers but hopefully be an artist that can help inspire people to share stories that will in turn help society as a whole become a better place. One voice at a time...

I understand this is your first year volunteering as part of WCCW's residency program. What are you most looking forward to as you head into your first rehearsal this Sunday?

We’ve been trying to prepare ourselves for this moment for the past couple of months, and I’m eager to see how our discussions and prep-work will translate in working with the women. The process of creating a new piece of work can be so unpredictable; therefore, I know no matter how much we thought we prepared, the truth is, it’s going to take on a life of its own and that’s the beautiful part about being on this journey. This Sunday, I’m looking forward to meeting the women and beginning a journey that I know will change my life forever.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Step II: Work Ethic, Respect, Passion By Christina Bauer

I took the first acting class of my life this summer, Step I: Intro to Acting at Freehold Theatre. I had so much fun that I started Step II: Acting with Text this fall. I was ready to take those basic skills to the next level and work on a scene. What I hadn't prepared for was the teacher, Stefan Enriquez. From day one, Stefan’s work ethic, respect and passion for acting were infectious.

One of the first and fundamental skills I learned was the importance of work ethic. Being on time for class was not an option; it was a commitment I made. Once we were assigned our scenes, I read the full text of my play several times. In class we discussed our characters and scenes in detail. Through various reading assignments, we explored our character’s action, what our character wanted and the given circumstances of the scene. A crucial element was rehearsal with my scene partner outside of class. This preparation allowed me to benefit fully from the feedback of the instructor during class.

Another important skill I learned was about respect. Perhaps because some actors are so good at what they do, it’s easy to sometimes forget that acting is a craft. I have learned to respect this craft on a deeper level though analyzing the text and characters of scenes, then attempting to bring them to life. And I don’t just learn from doing, I learn from watching other students in their scenes. This class is all about creating a safe environment for actors to express themselves. I watch each scene with the same dedication that I give my own. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that respect for my partner is crucial. The trust that I give to that person, and receive, is what allows me to explore my character and the scene to the fullest extent.

My favorite experience this fall has been being able to share Stefan’s passion for acting. One of the things I craved most when signing up for this class was detailed feedback. I love that Stefan will literally jump into a scene when he needs to. He will question me about my decisions - my movement, my words, my stakes in the situation. All of this information helps me explore the character's universe in a whole new way.

My partner and I were lucky enough to be assigned a scene from an Arthur Miller play, A View From The Bridge. After working on our scene for a while, I understood that my character went from being cordial to extremely angry. Stefan helped me explore in detail the given circumstances of the scene, and how incredibly high the stakes were for my character to fully express her frustration and anger. Without a doubt, this made that moment, and consequently the scene, much stronger.

The experience has completely inspired me and I look forward to more adventures in Step III: Scene Study Text this winter.

Christine Marie Brown will be teaching Step II: Acting with Text this coming Summer Quarter, 2014 at Freehold. More info at

Freehold's Student and Alum Upcoming Shows

Elizabeth Deutsch and several other Freehold alums including Lori Stein, Cris Berns, Amber Cutlip, Elizabeth Deutsch, Lisa Every, Toan Le, Sachie Mikawa, Carter Rodriquez, Sally Rose, Sara Rucker Thiessen, Ryan Sanders, Tom Spangenberg along with Ted Dowling are performing in The Suicide as part of BASH Theatre's production which runs from December 3 through December 19th. The play is directed by George Lewis. For tickets:

Eleanor Moseley, will be in Women Seeking ....a theatre company's The Torch-Bearers by George Kelly along with Larry Albert*, Kayti Barnett, Laurie Bialik, Susan Connors, Brandon Felker, Laura Hanson, Eric Helland, Rachel Jackson, Rebecca Olson, Richard Sloniker, Kate Szyperki at Richard Hugo House. It will run from December 3 - 18. For tickets:

Jenny Schmidt will be performing in Wing-It Productions' of About Rudolph: The Next Verse - An Untold Reindeer Tale running December 2 - 23rd. Purchase tickets here.

Xan Scott will be performing in Ear to the Ground Theatre's Not All Clowns are Bozos at Theatre Off Jackson from January 13-15. For Tickets: Brown Paper Tickets.

Andy Tribolini has a part in a movie called Cathechism Cataclysm that will be showing in the midnight program at Sundance in January.

My Memories of Freehold: Fully Committing to the Task by David Friedt

I remember the first evening of my first Freehold class; “Introduction to Acting I”, George Lewis was the instructor. Twelve of us sat in a circle and stated our reasons for taking this class. I was amazed that each of us gave a similar response. We wanted to explore this marvelous craft, acting, with which each of us had a life long connection.

Remembering the classes I have taken and the friends I have made at Freehold, gives me pause. To say that I have taken wonderful classes would short change the benefits I have reaped. It is the life affirming, life changing experience that I treasure. It is in knowing that when I commit fully to the character, that is the best I can offer, and that when that character is truthful, the audience will get it, and make a connection. As that first class ended, George gave us quote from the philosopher Goethe. To paraphrase, “When one commits fully to the task, fate steps in and opens doors that were never dreamed in ways that were never imagined”. Those words have influenced and inspired my work at Freehold and my life in profound ways.

Freehold challenged me to discover new personal depth and talents. These moments of discovery are as fresh in my mind as the day they happened. George Lewis in the “Personal Clown”, after four weeks of class, what he was prompting for suddenly hit me. He wanted total commitment from the clown, and for the clown to trust that his performance would be successful. I continued to take classes at Freehold. Again and again, throughout the Meisner Progression and in the Ensemble Training Intensive, the same consistent message, if you commit it works!

I have been a student and on the Board of Directors of Freehold for nine years. I expect to be here many years from now. Working together, taking classes, volunteering, contributing, we can all be part of the wonderful place that is Freehold. I am committed to the success of Freehold, and I know each of us know how to “commit fully as we make that entrance on stage”. Oh yes, “break a leg”.

David has been a student at Freehold since 2001 and a member of the Board of Directors since 2006. He first discovered acting in High School and College, and after a career as a commercial pilot, he returned to acting through his work at Freehold.
Top Photo: David Friedt
Middle Photo: Personal Clown Class

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Few Thoughts About Suzuki Movement Training by Shanga Parker

I first encountered this some time ago—over 20 years. The initial thought was of a physical method that I could attack fully. Acting is so subjective and requires so much inside insight that I felt there was nothing to push up against. Finally I saw something I could work hard at, improve in objective ways, and possibly (how exactly unknown to me at the time) become a better actor.

I did get better at the form. The improvement felt good. I was truly heading somewhere until I heard that the point of the training was the “inner sensibility”. This, it was explained to us, was the ability to focus over a long period of time—that one can exercise one’s will as one does a muscle—and that increased concentration was a primary emotion that an actor should feel.

In one moment, I was back in the land of internal thinking. But, this time it was different. The feedback of a lack of concentration, a lag in focus and a weak will was immediate and palpable. I fell over if my mind wandered and I got tired if my thoughts wavered. All of what I wanted in actor-objectivity was present. I knew if I was wrong.

It also became clear to me that this type of study is life long. I could do the form well and still, until my mind was trained, not be doing Suzuki well.
This is much like work on stage. It can look good, feel fine while doing it, and still not be moving to the audience. Or, one moment might be terrific followed by a weaker moment.

Suzuki works on making all of the moments clear, strong, and consistent.

The physical work is great. You will have stamina in Act V of Hamlet. More important than that, your mind will be clear and your intentions strong.

This training also translates to work on camera. The ability to deliver an alive and vibrant performance while working in a smaller size is possible with Suzuki training. Being able to hit your mark without looking down is the direct result of knowing exactly where your feet are. This is worked extensively in Suzuki training.

One experience I had in which this work helped save (perhaps) another person's life. I was in a play that had a big combat scene. Most of the actors were fine, but one actor had a hard time being where he was supposed to be. During one performance, I went to “hit” my next victim and the wayward actor had stepped in my path. My arm was coming down when I realized the wrong person was going to be struck. In a moment, my body remembered how to drop my center, sink into the floor and stop in an instant. I did this, arrested my attack mode, and was able to spare this actor a bloody nose/head/eye.

Everyone experiences something slightly different in pursuing this work. My experiences are laid out above.

Come try it out and add your own stories…

Shanga Parker will be teaching a Suzuki Workshop beginning January 13 at Freehold. More information on class dates and times: Suzuki Workshop. Shanga is an Associate Professor in the School of Drama at the University of Washington and has worked professionally in theatre, television and film. He performed GRAVITY at the Connelly Theatre in New York. He has been seen at Regional Theatres: A Contemporary Theatre in WINE IN THE WILDERNESS, Intiman Theatre in HOMEBODY, KABUL and RAISIN IN THE SUN, the Tacoma Actor’s Guild in PANTOMIME. For his full bio, go here.

Friday, December 3, 2010

"The George Lewis Experience" or "How I Learned to Shut Up and Throw the Damned Stone" by Jonathan Nawn

What does balancing a long stick in your palm have to do with acting? Everything.

What can you learn about acting by learning a stylized routine in which one throws a imaginary stone? A great deal.

Focus, people. Cut the chatter, please.

At first, some of the exercises in George Lewis' movement ETI class may seem, well, a little kooky-pants, but embracing the kooky-pantsness is part of the challenge –and eventually, the thrill. We're learning FOCUS. To laser-focus on the task at hand, whether it be portraying Othello or picking up a chair and moving it across the room, is the key to making beauty. And it works. As the class progresses, slowly, the questions in our mind shift from these:

Oh, God, why are we doing this?
When will this be over?
Am I doing it better than other people?
Did I bring a fork for my Noodle Cup?

To these:

How can I do this?
How can I do this with grace and charisma?
He/She doing it really well –what can I learn from him/her?
Why do we have to stop?

It's about the process, not the results . . . Okay, that's not always true, the result often matter, but it's certainly encouraging to hear. One of my personal favorite teaching methods in the George Lewis Experience is when he creates our internal monologue. If I don't look like I'm having fun, George gives me a big smile and says, You're loving this. You love every second of this. This is the most fun you've ever had. It's not sarcasm, he will insist --it's a highly evolved sense of irony.

He's right, in a way --there's no place I'd rather be than contorted into a backbend, dripping sweat, while breathlessly reciting a passage from “Ulysses,” but my face is telling a different story. So I must remind myself that this is not football practice. This is my mantra. For athletes, the face of effort and concentration is one of grim determination. Eyes narrowed, lips pursed, neck straining –looks great on the cover of Sports Illustrated, looks terrible on the stage. We're athletes of a different kind, see. Acrobats of the heart? Yeah, I've heard that somewhere. It sounds cute, but pole vaulters of the heart is more apt – we're creating the illusion of naturalism when doing something completely bonkers and perhaps even dangerous. Our job is not to betray that effort.

As George reminds us often, Your pain is none of my business. Oddly enough, playing football (I was fourth-string fullback. Yes, fourth.) was often a way for me to sharpen my acting skills. The more pain and effort I etched across my face, the less the coaches would expect of me, the more I could play up the Rudy angle. The similarities between Rudy and I end there –well, we saw roughly the same amount of game time. Anyway, this is not football practice. We're putting forth effort, but this effort is not measured in points on a scoreboard, it's measured in beauty. Everything's so post-modern these days. There used to be beauty and truth in the world. . . There has to be a place for just plain beauty . . . When we throw the stone, we can give it to people and maybe even help them reclaim it for themselves in their own lives.

The culmination of the class is The Etude (look it up yourself). In The Etude, someone graceful and lithe snaps to attention, does a jump-turn into a crouching position, rises slowly, goes for a quick jog, ends in a ready position, suddenly sweeps the arms up and over, falls lightly to his side, sweeps arm across the ground to grab a large rock, repositions the rock into a throwing position, and hurls the damn thing as far as possible. Balance, agility, flexibility, FOCUS, and grace are all at play here. Okay, who's going first? We're in good hands. George's methods are all based in the teachings of the various masters with whom he has studied: Etienne Decroux, Gennadi Bogdanov, Carrot Top, and many others. Now we're part of that continuum, and damn proud.

Shut up and throw the stone.

Photo at top: Jonathan Nawn and Melissa Topscher
Other Photos: ETI students in George Lewis' class
Photos taken by: Scott Maddock