5 Things I learnt from Steppenwolf
In June of 2018, I spent four amazing days with Audrey Francis and Amy Morton from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. It was their first time in Australia teaching a variation of Meisner technique and Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints. These four short days would completely change the way I approached my craft and provide a seismic shift in how I approached my life. To call the Steppenwolf workshop a turning point for me would be to drastically undersell it. I learnt so much in this class and don’t have enough space to put it all here, instead I am going to give my five key points that I learnt from Steppenwolf.
Who are Steppenwolf?
The Steppenwolf theatre company was born against the backdrop of 1970s Chicago, a group of high school friends got together to put on a show. Over the years they expanded to adding more ensemble members who were actors, playwrights and directors. More recently they have begun to run workshops. Amy and Audrey were brought out by 16th Street Actors studio and I know they would want me to stress that not all of the Steppenwolf Ensemble work in this fashion they were teaching us. However, the skills they imparted really brought my work to a new level. More information on Steppenwolf can be found at their website here.
#1 “Better to be an a**hole than a chickensh*t”
The central exercise of the workshop was a bastardized Meisener exercise. Meisner is all about repetition, two actors facing away from each other on stage, turn-in and say the first physical thing they notice about their partner “Blue eyes” the other person repeats, and back and forth like that until one or the other notices a new physical attribute. This shifts over time into noticing behaviour “You’re nervous.”Says one “I’m nervous” the other repeats until someone notices a change. You must repeat exactly what the other person said, regardless if that is how you feel or not. This graduates into given circumstances, text and a range of other variations.
However, across all versions of this exercise, if there is one thing Amy and Audrey hated more than anything else, it was actors making choices to be polite rather than to tell the genuine, honest to god truth of how they were feeling and what they were seeing. This is something I do all the time, because I want people to like me so much, I didn’t want to risk myself coming off in a negative light to the audience. “You have no control over how you are perceived,” Amy told me, “And besides when it comes to being on stage it’s better to be an a**hole than a chickensh*t.”
What that quote meant to me was that I had to stop trying to present myself in a certain way to casting directors or audiences. You are who you are and when your working on the floor you should be unapologetically you. Don’t hide or put up some kind of front, if you are anything but utterly genuine in your performance the audience can tell. Also, do not let your scene partner, the audience or anyone else off the hook. Go for you intention with all of the intensity you can muster. Hold no quarter for mediocrity. There isn’t time or space on our stages for it.
#2 Take it personally
So often we’re told as actors to not take it personally, and this is absolutely true until you step onto stage or set. From that moment on you should take everything personally. Acting is all about re-acting right? To be affecting you must be affected. In the workshop, Amy and Audrey declared the stage to be Vegas. In Vegas you get what you want, you don’t let anything get in your way, people aren’t polite (sorry Las Vegas this is a gross representation of your fine city) people put everything on the line and risk it all. Off the stage in the audience was declared Kansas. Now in Kansas, you have to be polite and kind to people, you have to protect yourself emotionally. In Kansas, you can’t be walking around in a state of constant vulnerability, open to all of your impulses and ready for change the outside world will crush you.
On stage, however, In Vegas that is exactly what we need. Unrelenting emotional exchange, actor open to inspiration and taking everything said on that stage personally. Allowing themselves to be affecting to their scene partner, and affected by them. My big takeaway was that I have to let myself be emotionally affected by anything and everything onstage, I had to take it personally.
#3 Arthur Miller doesn’t own your choices
As actors we owe everything to the writer, they have created the play and the characters and the story and that must be respected. However, they don’t get to tell you how to act. Your choices are you own. “Doing something just to do something isn’t interesting it’s f*cking distracting” Audrey told us “Don’t pre-plan anything, don’t let the playwright tell you how to act” What they mean here is, once you are onstage or onset, it’s you and the other actor and that’s it. If you enter that with preconceived ideas of how you are going to execute those moments in the scene, the audience is going to be able to tell.
Arthur Miller had been dead for over a century, Shakespeare for nearly half a millennium. They tell you the words and the world but your choices are your own. If you are pretending to be anything else than exactly who you are, what is honest and genuine and truthful, especially because you think that’s the way Miller would’ve wanted it done you are destined for failure. Don’t let the circumstances of the piece serve as expectation instead of inspiration for your work.
Respect the writer, respect their words and actions, but make sure your choices are genuine, honest and truthful for you.
#4 No one needs your apology
I don’t know if there is anything worse than seeing an actor apologise for their work. Whether that’s because they don’t feel like they have done enough preparation or that the work they are doing isn’t up to the audiences standards, it is a painful thing to watch. Amy said “No one needs your apology, every apology is putting other people in the position of looking after you, which is bullsh*t” Casting directors didn’t bring you in, in their packed schedules to hear your apologies, the other actors, working three jobs driving their kids to school and working bars at nighttime don’t need them either. What we need is the work.
So often I find myself, judging my own work as an actor, even sometimes while I am in the process of doing it onstage or onscreen. Audrey told me “If you are judging yourself you are not paying attention to your partner or the scene.” Sadly, ladies and gentlemen, acting is really not about you, and what you think you are doing. It is entirely about the other person you are working with and what you want from them and how you are going to go about getting it. Apology and judgement is going to hold your work back. Acceptance, freedom and a ruthless pursuit of objective will drive you forward.
#5 ‘Acting is putting your balls on the table, and giving your partner the knife’
As you can tell, Audrey and Amy from Steppenwolf were not here to mess around. They were super passionate about the craft of acting and wanted everyone to be as passionate as they were! This quote is the last thing in my journal from this masterclass and I think it sums up what our work should be. Acting should not be a kind, friendly, easy thing. It is about holding a mirror up to life and showing the real humanity of it all. As actors we have to be prepared to offer ourselves up to the story, the play, the world and most importantly the partner we have onstage or screen and put it all on the line.
Without half measures, half steps, concessions or in-betweens. Think about your last audition. Did you really go for it, like you know you could? Did you follow your impulses and make the choices you really wanted to make? Or did you get stuck in Kansas, hoping that the casting director would see how ‘nice’ you were and would cast you for being polite? Think about the characters in Seinfeld, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development – are any of these people nice? Absolutely not, but what all of those actors do is put themselves out there, putting it all on the line to serve the story.
The Steppenwolf masterclass was incredible. It made me think about and approach my work completely differently. They allow no half measures and no limitations. It is all or nothing entirely in service of the work. There is a 10-week summer intensive course that happens in Chicago and I cannot wait to go and do it. If your feeling like your work could use a re-boot and you can’t get to Chicago or a masterclass anytime soon then you should try the next best thing, StageMilk Scene Club.
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