INSIDE Composers & the Voice – January 13th, Part I

February 5, 2014
cv-logo-500 Joe Rubinstein

Composers & the Voice 2013-2014, Joseph Rubinstein

If you ever felt like being a composer was hard, well…it isn’t easy to be an actor either. This was one of the main points demonstrated by the most recent “Composers & the Voice” workshop, in which our trusty acting coach and guide-to-the-stage Pat Diamond led us on an intense exploration of the basics of bringing a character to life. We threw beanbags, created an imaginary Central Park Lake, and talked about mermaids – in my experience, not things you do in your typical new music workshop.

Patrick Diamond

Patrick Diamond

In the previous session, Pat assigned each participant one of three short plays. I was given one of two characters in John Patrick Shanley‘s “A Lonely Impulse of Delight” – the story of a fraught male friendship set in present day New York City. Pat told me to read through it and answer a few questions about my character. The evening began with a general discussion of these questions: who our characters are, where they are, and what they are doing in the scene. From there, things got more subtle – Pat began asking us what our characters most desired, what they were most afraid of, and other personal questions that, if I were my character, I would probably find both hard to answer and even a little forward! Over the course of the evening, however, it became clear just how essential addressing these questions were in order for an actor to create a believable character on stage.

Jason Kim

Jason Kim

Pat had the insight (playful instinct? dark impulse?) to pair me with my writing partner, Jason Kim. Jason and I are old friends from college, so portraying a psychologically complex situation in which two childhood friends reach a critical place in their adult relationship felt somewhat intense. Jason and I were brought to the stage and the remainder of the session was spent on our scene. We began by reading the scene sitting in two chairs, with the stricture that we had to deliver our lines while maintaining eye contact with each other. If eye contact was broken, we had to start again. The challenge with doing this is that I felt I was reading my lines in a stilted or deliberate way. I felt I had to “bring” more to the text emotionally than I could when I had to read and look up. This, it turned out, was exactly what Pat was hoping to address. He was trying to demonstrate that you don’t “bring” emotion to a set of lines when you read them; you use them as an exchange of emotional energy while keeping the backstory of the characters in mind.  The backstory – who your character is, what their relationships are like – determines the particular inflection and type of response. Your job as an actor is to make that backstory a “real” part of how you exchange energy with another character. To further illustrate this point, Pat had us read our lines while throwing a beanbag back and forth at the moments when emotional energy would transfer from one character to another.

After throwing the beanbags, Pat had us “create” the setting in which our scene takes place. We didn’t have props or scenery so this was a mental realization. Still, like the backstory of the characters, it had to feel “real” for it to be convincing. Delineating the boundaries of a “real” Central Park Lake – complete with a swamp, sidewalk, rocky outcropping, and other landscape features – is difficult in a brightly lit, rectangular room filled with chairs and outfitted with wood paneling.  Jason and I did our best, but eventually Pat helped us out by showing us print-outs of pictures he had found online that he felt evoked the particular “look” of our scene.  After browsing through the pictures – showing Central Park at night, moonlight on water, and even pictures of the mermaid that Jason’s character is in love with in the play – the other teams were exhorted to go and find pictures to “build” their own scenes themselves. Based on what I picked up on from the other composers, there should be some pretty entertaining pictures next time we meet – I believe that one play has various Greek gods making mischief on the New York City subway.

– Joe Rubinstein

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INSIDE Composers & the Voice – December 2nd

January 2, 2014
We’re a little behind, but let’s ring in the New Year with the latest behind the scenes look at our Composers & the Voice season!
C&V logo 500
Composers & the Voice – 2013-14
Jeremy Gill

Composer fellow, Jeremy Gill

I admit it: I was pretty skeptical of the idea of a bunch of composers doing improvisational acting work. My skepticism sprang in part from the fact that, were I asked to list the 10 things in life I would least like to do, making stuff up while trying to act in front of a bunch of people I barely knew and on whom I wanted to make a good impression would  certainly make the cut…

But Terry Greiss won me over, as did Steve Osgood, who was good enough to “play along” in all of our sessions—when we, the participants, were pushed to try something new, it was comforting and inspiring to have Steve, a fellow musician (read: not an actor), trying right along with us.

Throughout our improv sessions, Terry was a great coach and cheerleader—he was very good at communicating why we were doing such and so and how it might be useful, and superb at celebrating our successes, which did occur!

I have always felt that it is essential for composers to be performers of some kind—singers, conductors, instrumentalists, whatever—and that such “hands on” experiences can only enhance the music we compose. Terry showed me that it is as important for the aspiring opera composer to have some experience on the stage, moving about in a defined space, inventing situations and then living in them, and following the course of dramatic actions to their logical conclusions. He underscored the dramatic nature of opera—something I will continue to dwell on as my own operatic creations unfold.

Jeremy Gill

Andreia Pinto Correia

Composer fellow,
Andreia Pinto Correia

It was with great sadness that we finished our final workshop with improvisation teacher Terry Greiss. Throughout these sessions we not only strengthened our relationship as a group but also learned a great deal about ourselves. As I immerse myself in the writing of my opera, I catch myself taking into account matters that never would have occurred to me prior to participating in these workshops. I am now aware of a new sensibility regarding staging, engagement of my characters and story with my future audience, and the interdependence between roles and their dramatic development. I am really looking forward to our next chapter with acting coach Patrick Diamond!

Andreia Pinto Correia

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Composer fellow, Joseph Rubinstein

Composer fellow, Joseph Rubinstein

Having just finished up the improv training portion of Composers & the Voice, the thing that has stuck most in my mind has been Terry’s repeated advice to “say yes.”  In the context of improv, “saying yes” means being open to the unexpected places to which a scene or a character might take you.  It means relinquishing your will to control a scenario, and asks you to embrace the realities of the scene at hand.  The more you are able to say “yes,” the more convincing a scene will be.  In the past few weeks, I have found that being open in the way Terry has encouraged is valuable advice for writing music as well.  Composing music is a balancing act  in which spontaneity must exist side by side with carefully considered choices.  I sometimes find that a piece that I am writing is going in a direction that I did not expect, and I react by trying to bend the piece back towards what I originally had in mind.  While this approach can have its uses, I have been thinking a lot recently about letting go and letting the piece itself take over.  This increased sense of openess has already led me in some exciting new musical directions.

Joseph Rubinstein


C&V Take Two!

September 28, 2011

Sara Cooper, guest blogger
Composers & the Voice librettist, 2011-12

 

Session number two of Composers & the Voice! Lots of fun and good energy in the room!

We started out with two hours of improv with now-familiar face Terry Greiss. Terry led us in a number of very interesting exercises, my personal favorite of which was involved building ourselves into a machine. The way this was worked was this: One person would get an idea for a machine. He or she then stood and made a full-body gesture and a noise, acting as a distinct part of this machine. One by one, the rest of the class added on with their own gestures and noises until the machine had been built. Everyone had a different idea of what the machine was and what their part in it would be; the whole thing was fascinating.

We also began scenework in a similar game. This time, however, there was no repetitive gesture or noise; Terry asked us to find an action and play it as realistically as possible. In this way, we are beginning to recognize the active dramatization of character.

Terry got a little trippy this session. He asked us to put our hands a little apart, palms facing together, and try to understand the space in between. For many of us, that space became very physical. Terry then had us combine our individual spaces with other individual spaces until the whole class was holding one space. A few people ventured inside the space. Ronnie was surprised and amazed to find that she actually felt the space.

Mika raised a great discussion: How does improv relate to us as composers and librettists? Terry explained the importance of openness and vulnerability in art, and how understanding physicality can greatly enhance our ability to realize character.

After a short break, Steve had a little Q&A for us about the program in general—very helpful!

We then dove into our very first acting class with Kathleen Amshoff. Kathleen got to know us a little (have any of us acted? It turns out most of us have some performance experience, and Rachel has a degree in theater, and Daniel is actually a professional actor and singer!) and then we began doing some very intense exercises in partnering. Kathleen had us make eye contact with a partner for an uncomfortably long period of time, after which we closed our eyes and she asked us details about our partner’s physical appearance.

With the same partner, we were then asked to make eye contact and, alternating, very calmly tell the other person how we felt (ie, “I feel hungry.”). It was surprisingly difficult to come up with feelings to feel, or at least to say out loud.

Kathleen then had us line up across from a different partner and, again making eye contact, step forward or backwards as it felt right. Zach and Steve looked, in Kathleen’s words, “like [they] were playing chess.” Sidney and I felt like we were doing a tango. Ronnie and Rachel had a more emotional connection, feeling rejected when the other stepped back, and Daniel and Mika found themselves looking for patterns. All in all a fascinating experiment.

Excellent session! Only two weeks till the next!!


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