Tuesday, June 18, 2013

My Freehold Experience: Taking Acting Classes to Improve my English by Bernardo Rivas

Communication is hard enough in your own language.

I was born and raised in Mexico City and Spanish is my mother tongue. I’ve taken Step I: Intro to Acting to Step III: Basic Scene Study at Freehold in order to improve my proficiency in the English language. Before coming to the USA I thought I could speak in English properly, but the truth is, I couldn’t.

Like most middle-class Mexican kids, all my education was bilingual. That means that, all the way from pre-school to college, I took half of my assignments in English. Then, in college, I decided to major in Computer Science. All textbooks and papers that I had to deal with were in English. In order to graduate, I had to take a “Test of English as a Foreign Language” which I absolutely aced with a ridiculously high score.

On top of all my education in English, people in Mexico are heavily exposed to American entertainment media. Music, movies, TV shows, books, magazines, videogames, etc. So I grew up acutely aware of the American culture, their colloquial expressions and their use of the language overall.

The one thing that I didn’t get was actual English conversation time. In Mexico, nobody actually talks to each other in English. Why would we? We speak Spanish.

When I moved to Seattle in 2009, the first thing I noticed was that I was having a hard time building my phrases and pronouncing words properly. Also, people in real life don’t talk like they do in the movies, they have accents, they talk faster and they use words that I hadn’t even heard before.

My first months in my new job were terrible! The fact that none of my coworkers was American and they all had heavy accents didn’t help either. I had to learn really fast how to decode the Indian, Chinese and Dutch accents in order to survive. Whenever I had a conversation with a coworker I would miss half of what they had just told me. Sometimes I would send them an email asking for a summary of what we had just discussed, you know, “to have it on record” or “in case I missed anything”. If they were gracious enough to write one and send it to me, then I could connect the dots and figure out what words they said and how they pronounced them and most important, what they meant.

They were having a hard time trying to understand what I was saying too. I used to think in Spanish and talk in English so half the time nothing I said made any sense. The way phrases are built differs a lot between both languages. So, to make myself clear, I had to re-think in English everything I had just said and then repeat it. This was unsustainable and even when I had got my grammar and structure right, I would still mispronounce most words rendering any of my communication efforts useless.

I decided to take acting lessons to solve this problem. Also, I had always wanted to give stand-up comedy a try and I had heard that most comedians took acting lessons at some point of their lives, so it made sense to join a theatre school. I found Freehold online. It was easy to enroll in Step I online so I just did it.

Step I and II were an amazing experience. I took both with Meg McLynn. She is by far one of the best teachers I have ever had in my life. When you start in one of these classes, they ask you what your goals are and what do you want to learn and take away from it. I told Meg about my poor English and my interest in comedy. I was very happy to see that she made everything in her power to make me push my limits in that respect. She gave us exercises to relax our jaws and tongue twisters so we could improve our pronunciation and make it easier to pronounce words and deliver our lines. That proved to be extremely helpful to me because, to this day, there are many words that I don’t know how to pronounce and through those exercises I am now able to figure out how to do it on my own.

In Step I we did mostly improv exercises that allowed us to get familiar with acting, interacting with our fellow actors and listening and reacting to impulses without following a text. We learned to keep eye contact and to communicate just with it. This actually helped me improve the way I engage people in conversation in real life.

In Step II, however, we were grouped in pairs and actually given the script of a scene in a play. This was going to be the first time ever that I acted anything from a script. Meg chose a scene from Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” for me and my partner in part because it contains words and expressions that are not common and would force me to deliver every word on its own breath and really learn how my body had to change and move to pronounce them properly. It also featured a character whose attitude would be particularly challenging for my partner, given her own personality. So in that sense, the scene was almost tailored just for us so we could learn and push our limits.

We worked really hard on the scene for most of the course. For me, it was also the first time in my life that I would have to meet outside of class with my partner to rehearse a scene of a play. It may sound silly but I felt like a real actor, warming up and repeating my lines on my own before meeting with my partner.

During our rehearsals we learned a lot about our characters that’s not written in the text of the play. We had to make our own decisions about the gaps in their pasts that are not explained. We had to come up with reasons for them to feel the way they felt about life, themselves, each other and their particular situation. This is one of the most full filling activities I’ve ever done. Figuring out a character beyond what the text says about it is what got me hooked with theatre and acting.

We got feedback from our classmates and we got to see their scenes too. It was an amazing experience to see the evolution of their work from their first attempts at their scene to the final result, which was in all cases wonderful. I loved it when somebody discovered something they didn’t know about their characters while performing right in front of us. I loved the look on their faces, the “A-ha!” moment and how their performance changed completely after it. I had a couple of these moments too, very full filling as well.

After our final presentation, I had a sense of accomplishment that I’ve been craving ever since. I wanted to do it again. To meet a new character involved in a situation. To find out who he is and what he wants. And with that, fill in the blanks with what I feel he needs to be who the author intended him to be. And then just let go and see him be on stage.

With this in mind, I enrolled in Step III, with Christine Marie Brown. It has been a privilege to meet her and to be her student.  There is something about being a master of acting that I find very compelling. I am fascinated by the powerful yet calm and loving sensation that Christine projects in her words when she is talking about theatre.

Once again, I was asked about my goals, got a scene and a scene partner. Christine chose a scene from “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” where I am Johnny and I have to talk a lot and, at times, really fast. So there is my language challenge for this course, I couldn’t be happier with it.

In class, we are working to discover who our characters are and let them be on stage. But more important, we are learning to take in what our partner says, what they mean, and let it sink in before reacting. This changes completely the way we deliver our lines. We are not just waiting for our turn to talk anymore, we are actually letting our characters' feelings dictate what we say and how we say it. Paying attention to this has changed completely how a team delivers the scene from one try to the next one.

I know it changed the way I say my lines. For example: in our scene, there is a moment where we are watching through the window a couple having a fight. The man is hitting the woman and she is just taking it. Christine asked us to try and feel what it is like to see a man beating a woman, what feelings would that trigger within us, and then say our lines with that in mind. Well, the scene went from me trying to be funny and her being dismissive to us being all shaken up and really intense as we say our lines. I can’t wait to explore the rest of the scene letting the emotions change how I say my lines.

At this point I feel a huge improvement in my English. We have been practicing some tongue twisters just like in Step I and II, but this time, I noticed that as long as I know the meaning of what I’m saying, I’ll have no problems saying it. There are a few occasions where someone uses a word I’ve never heard before, but I know now that I can just ask them what that means and move on. Learning my lines became easier this time around too. It helps that “Johnny” is closer to my time than “Astroff”, so his expressions are more familiar to me. But I do feel the impact of all this acting training in the way I engage people in conversation and my overall confidence while speaking. In that sense, I feel like I’ve accomplished my initial goal of improving my English. Now I have new goals that involve acting and theatre. I look forward to explore those at Freehold and see how far I can take this new found passion.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Meisner Progression Interviews with Robin Lynn Smith

Meisner Progression Interviews with Robin Lynn Smith
Tuesday, August 27, 5:30 - 9:30 pm
(Testimonials from past Meisner students can be found at the bottom of this post)

Interviews are available with Robin Lynn Smith for Freehold's 2013-2014 Meisner Progression, a 3 quarter, 9 month training program based on the work of Constantin Stanislavski, Joseph Chaikin, and Sanford Meisner. Classes run twice a week, 5 hours a week in the evening over each 12 week quarter. Check out the great testimonials from previous Freehold Meisner alums at the bottom of this blog post. The Meisner Progression is taught by Freehold's Artistic Director and Freehold co-founder Robin Lynn Smith.

To schedule an interview or for more information, contact Freehold at (206) 323-7499 or email us at our contact page. Please bring a resume detailing your theatrical and performance experience and be prepared to speak about why you are interested in participating in the Meisner progression. Prerequisites: Freehold's Step III: Scene Study or equivalent training and performance experience. Interviews will be roughly 15 minutes each. Tuition per quarter: $960.  You can apply for our discounted rate of $795.

The Meisner class description for the 3 quarter progression is as follows:

Meisner: Foundation: Step I - Fall Quarter, Class Begins mid-September through mid-December (specific dates forthcoming), Tuesdays and Sundays, 5:30 - 10:30 pm

Through cumulative exercises based on the work of Sanford Meisner, the actor learns to be habitually available to and affected by life that is actually happening in the moment, and to fully release instinctive, uninhibited responses. The class culminates in a work with text.

Meisner: Instrument: Step II - Winter Quarter, (Dates to be confirmed)

Students continue the exercises from Foundation, supplementing them with work in personalization, preparation, and other tools in order to access a meaningful inner life and "make real" the text and imaginary circumstances.

Meisner: Text: Step III - Spring Quarter, (Dates to be confirmed)

Applying the work from Foundation and Instrument to scenes, students focus on detailed, in-depth text and character work -- analysis, subtext, particularization, and moment-to-moment process work on scenes.

Robin Lynn Smith is a Founding Partner and Artistic Director for Freehold Studio/Theatre Lab in Seattle. She has worked for the past thirty-five years acting, directing and teaching in Chicago, Boston, Seattle, and New York where she directed Curse of the Starving Class Off-Broadway at the Promenade Theatre.  She has directed in Regional Theatres and is presently directing Freehold’s  Engaged Theatre Program which tours Shakespeare productions to prisons, projects, and tent cities, for which she has directed Othello, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Cymbeline, A Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and The Merchant of Venice.  At Freehold she directed the award-winning production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, Three Sisters, An Altered Life, and Veronika Falling.   She was an Artist in Residence at the Seattle Repertory Theatre with Dan Sullivan, and directed several productions including Marvin's Room, Frankie and Jonnie in the Claire de Lune, City of Gold, and the developmental workshop of Elizabeth Heffon’s New Patagonia.  She has also directed in Seattle at ACT, On The Boards, The Empty Space, New City Theatre, Seattle Children’s Theatre, and Intiman where she was an Affiliate Artist with Bartlett Sher.  She has an MFA from NYU TSOA, and she is currently on the faculty of Cornish College of the Arts. She is featured in ACTING TEACHERS OF AMERICA, and she is a member of SDC and a finalist for SDCF’s inaugural Zelda Fichandler Award. She is the 2008 recipient of the The Gregory A. Falls Sustained Achievement Award.

Testimonials from Freehold Meisner Alums

"Meisner for me was really transformational and not just for the acting but really just for the rest of my everyday life. Meisner really strives you to live in the moment and to react to things as if it is the first time, being genuine and authentic. I do some commercial work on the side and I’ve been told that there is a new quality to my acting and that is 100% related to the work from the class. There is another piece that I got out of Meisner which was unexpected which is that it actually changed the quality of my day to day life … it allowed me to be more present in my life … it makes life much more interesting." - E.J. Gong

"It was through working with Robin that I acquired one of the most important things any actor can get - an actual process on how to bring a role alive. While I've taken other classes from some extremely talented instructors that included some discussion of methods for examining text, the bulk of what I typically got was notes by the instructor as though they were directing me in a play. That is very valuable stuff, but it doesn't really give you much of a process for starting work on a role on your own, nor do you get much of a glimpse of the variety of techniques that have come to light in the theatrical world. Robin gave us tools we could use to bring the character to life in ways that went beyond what was on the printed page, and thereby make those scripted words come even more alive. And I think a huge part of that came from her making us push the limits of our imaginations for nine months. To sum up, if you're not sure whether taking the Meisner progression at Freehold is worth your time, let me help you decide: YES! Absolutely! Be grateful that the gods have aligned the planets so that you have this opportunity and grab it!" - Bob Rousseau

"What I have seen, and experienced in this class is not just ‘acting.’ It is living. It is so helpful to watch visceral reactions in my classmates as a mark of real behavior for our acting. I’ve experienced impulses and emotions that are no different from the ones I have in real life. If my partner was provoking me, insulting me, attacking me, my spontaneous responses of frustration, pain, fear … were real!" - Alexandra Gobeille

"I took the acclaimed, life-changing Meisner progression. Not only did my classmates and I walk away as better, stronger actors, but also as enriched artists. (Any Meisner alum will most likely agree with that about themselves...)." - Julie Hoang 

"The Meisner Progression taught by Robin Lynn Smith was life-changing and gave me the tools to raise my acting game to a whole new level."  – Henry Mark

"I'm a better actor and person because of the Meisner courses with Robin Lynn Smith - best money I ever spent.  Also, I honestly believe it's gotten me acting jobs." - Anna Giles

Freehold Theatre Lab/Studio
2222 2nd Avenue, Suite 200
Seattle, WA 98121
(206) 323-7499

My Engaged Theatre Experience by Lucinda Stroud

Lucinda Stroud is Freehold's Operations Manager. She shared her recent experience as an audience member at Freehold's Engaged Theatre residency at the Monroe Correctional Complex for Men.


This hadn't been the first time I had gone into prison for the Engaged Theatre program, although this was my first time viewing the residency at Monroe.  The screening process was much the same as previous times in different facilities, with the reception area almost identical to the others across the state.  What was different hit me as soon as we entered the cafeteria in which the performance would take place.

The walls were covered in murals and paintings, beautifully done - one of Seattle with the Fremont troll hunching under the Space Needle; animals in lush and fantastical environments; Einstein's face emerging from wisps of smoke; women turning into flowers...  And up front, a series of five or six large paintings served as the backdrop to the performance.  A bus, a zoo, the Grim Reaper, starts, the open road, and even a doorway with the familiar letters of "FREEHOLD" posted over it blended together.

The central metaphor of the men's piece was a bus, and the men took us on their journey through the country and through their pasts.  Interspersed with playful arguments of who should drive, who knew where they were going, were they going anywhere, anyway?, the men switched positions in the seats set up to evoke a bus, traded the cardboard 'steering wheel' back and forth, and lurched forward or back as the 'bus' rattled on its way.  Every man's honesty - and sense of humor - was deeply moving.  Some segments revealed part of their personal experiences leading to incarceration or their struggles in and out of prison; all of them revealed the men's growing love of language, poetry, music, and collaboration.  One man spoke candidly about his son's recent suicide and his guilt over the separation between him and his family that incarceration necessitated.  Another proudly identified as a "mama's boy" and romantic, bursting into a vivid spurt of a love song.  Music wove in and out of the entire performance, from ensemble to solos to beat-boxing to beating on the chairs.

The men's honesty did not end with the performance.  In the talkback afterwards, they spoke freely of their participation in the residency, working through the issues of their pasts, and even their stagefright leading up to the performance.  One newly clean-shaven performer sheepishly admitted that his nervousness led him to shave off his goatee entirely after failing to trim it evenly at least five times.  Others 'blamed' each other for initially dragging them to the first residency meeting with Carter Rodriquez and Daemond Arrindell and their initial embarrassment for participating. The sheer generosity of their spirits, both during the performance and after, was incredible to see, and rivaled only the talent they demonstrated in the performance itself.  

Yes, it's a long drive out to Monroe.  Yes, the clearance process has to start a month before the performance.  But this is an experience of theatre in its most essential form - people working together to tell stories - that you do not want to miss.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Interview with Freehold Faculty Member Andrew McGinn

We are excited that Andrew McGinn has joined Freehold's Faculty and will be teaching with us this summer at Freehold.  Andrew will be participating in Freehold's workshop of Henry IV this summer in preparation of our Engaged Theatre Tour of the production in 2014.

You have an extensive background in the performing arts including getting a degree at Julliard. When you look on your experience at Julliard what are a few highlights of your experience there?

To be honest, the real highlight at Juilliard was learning to be ready to be knocked around inside of plays, and whatever comes into the imagination because of them.  It was an incredible, and hard earned experience to really get what people mean when they say 'don't do things, but be in the moment!'.  You hear that all the time, all the time... while at Juilliard we had these super-long exercises with expert guidance where basically your ego and fear would become exhausted and all you could do was be at the mercy of the impulses that hit you purely from the fiction.

Congratulations on your recent graduation from the UW's MFA in Directing program. What surprised you and/or inspired you in the training you received there? 

Thank You!  Directing and Acting are really extremely different in practice, but of course the aims are the same: to serve up a good story.  The benefits of training really are all about becoming conscious of the elements that make good stories so you can strengthen them.  It's essential to being able to develop a process you and others can depend on.  The richness of UW was that you had actors, directors, designers, and scholars -when we could get them- all becoming conscious together of what their jobs were and what they needed to do to support the story.  My biggest take away aside from an increased understanding of plot construction and composition, was that everybody's job to tell the story goes through supporting the other elements and making them shine on the plot.  And while that's my favorite particular sort of personal discovery, the key point is that training makes you conscious and mindful of how you're working and why.  I suppose that's what they call skill, and if you don't train for it but have it than you're a Martian genius and God bless you.

You have worked in film, theatre and commercials.  Can you talk a little bit about your approach and process to the work you do in those areas and how they are similar and how they are different.

Between theater and film, most actors make their great leaps in one medium or the other and then that medium forever feels like 'truth' for them.  For me it was theater and it took a while to become conscious that I could still be truthful in that camera frame, and all I was lacking was technique.  The techniques are different, and the creative environments of the two really are like night and day.  But, while someone may be more temperamentally fit for one or the other it doesn't mean it can't be learned, and should continue to be learned until the end of days.  An obvious example is the voice: in theater you have to be louder and in film you have to be quieter.  Some voices are louder or quieter than others so they may feel more 'truthful' in a particular medium, but that doesn't mean the other medium is less truthful for that person not being in it - or that that person couldn't make the other medium truthful with training and practice.  

I understand you lived in NYC and worked as an actor there for a number of years before coming to Seattle.  Could you share a little bit about your experiences as a working actor in NYC? 

New York has a narcotic feel to it because 'something huge could happen at any moment!' that will make you rich and famous.  That draw is special, and fun.  But being an artist is absolutely the sole most important thing to the actors out here.  The integrity is astounding.  On any given night in NYC, there's 100 plays happening and 10 are good.  In Seattle there's 20, and 10 are good, and that I think is a direct result of how much people care about what they're doing in Seattle.  Theater is so, so good here.

You are going to be performing in Henry IV as part of Freehold's workshopping of Henry IV this coming summer as part of our Engaged Theatre program.  What are you looking forward to as you head into rehearsing?

Yes I am, and I'm thrilled about it.  I'm really interested in getting to explore first-hand the relationship between Falstaff and young Henry.  It's this cross-generational, cross-class, and in our case cross-racial friendship that really has no business existing because of the differences in their circumstances.  Falstaff has shunned the aristocracy and blown his cash on booze, meanwhile Henry is the Heir Apparent and has the weight of the nation at war on his shoulders.  But there's this wonderful thing that brings them together, that when we really stop and look at it is one of the tenderest, and most precious things in life: fun.  They have so much fun together!  I'm sure we'd all agree that many of the best and most meaningful times in our lives were fun as hell, and it makes us sad to see them go.  So, the way Shakespeare looks into really how essential fun is to us is an exciting mystery for me that I can't wait to get into with Robin and Reggie.

Andrew McGinn will be playing Falstaff to Reginald Andre Jackson's Prince Henry in Henry IV, directed by Robin Lynn Smith.