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

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