Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Acting and Experimentation by Shelly Lipkin, director of A Bright Room Called Day on the PAC Stage Nov. 30 – Dec 16

I started out as a stage actor, and wanted nothing more than to hit the boards and stun the audience with my brilliance. The first full-length play I was cast in became a series of lucky experiments for me. Although the end result turned out well (as far as my memory serves me), I had no previous acting classes to support my work, and therefore the term "experiment" became my mode of learning. It's true that actors experiment with their work, but without a proper foundation in how to approach that experimentation, performing in a play can become more like shooting in the dark.

I would have to say that it has taken me the past 40 plus years to develop the paradoxical mix of of raw talent, critical analysis, absolute physical and mental control and complete emotional abandon that is the craft of acting, and it is what I try to impart as an acting instructor.

A Bright Room Called Day
Photo: Owen Carey

The Advance Acting I course I am currently teaching at Portland Actors Conservatory is designed to fully incorporate the lessons and skills of the students’ first year course work. Our process of rehearsing and performing a full-length play puts into practice the entire scope of an actor's core skills. The first production of this year, Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day, is a contemporary and realistic play, and therefore demands a naturalistic performance.

As director I stress the importance of making specific and active choices that will lead the actor to a more fully realised and multi-dimensional character. A full exploration of the character's backstory, given circumstances, objectives, obstacles and tactics steer the actor toward those goals.  Understanding the character's "why" will logically raise the emotional stakes in any given scene and heighten the conflict in the story - and telling the story is everyone's goal in play production.

Story can sometimes elude an actor who is involved in the minutiae of their character's development and specific scenework.  However, where and how a character fits into the overall storyline and theme of a play help the actor make choices that drive the action of the story. A director becomes the objective guide to that process, and an actor must understand the importance of the collaborative process during rehearsal. Therefore, each actor will develop a "beat analysis" which become a road map for the character’s emotional life and how that fits into the overall scope of the play.

Each actor will create a journal to help them understand how the creative process affected them, how they dealt with it, what worked and what didn't. The journal becomes a mirror for them to see how they work. 

The actual run of a play can be just as daunting as the rehearsal process. Sustaining a performance and growing within the restraints of the director’s and playwright's visions are important ingredients in the creative process. The actor must learn how to approach each night's performance as a clean slate, remembering the structure, while simultaneously staying free enough to react spontaneously to the "given circumstances" of that particular evening’s performance.

Although I later trained at a conservatory and worked in repertory theatre in dozens of plays, it is when I became a film actor I began to see that acting required a focus on truth and honesty, and that my best work came from reacting, rather than generating a "performance." It turned my head in the right direction and turned me into a better actor.  This simple truth is what I try to instill in all my students. It does not mean an actor ignores the other ingredients that make for an interesting, and sometimes brilliant performance.  Character development, back-story, script analysis, moment before, motivation, intention, active choices and need are all important ingredients in the creating a living, multi-dimensional character.  However, the one underlying bonding force that keeps an actor focused and in-the-moment, is, as I like to call it, the luxury of reacting as if it were the first time.

About Shelly Lipkin:
Shelly is an actor, director, playwright and acting instructor. He studied acting at College of Marin, United States International University - School of Performing Arts and holds a BA in Humanities from Linfield College. He performed with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Santa Fe Repertory Theatre, PCPA in Santa Maria, and other theatres across the country. He spent 20 years in Los Angeles as a television and film actor, acting in sitcoms, films, episodic television, and commercials. During that time he helped found the West Coast Ensemble Theatre and won a Best Director Award for an original play Valentines and Killer Chili.  In 1998 he moved to Portland where he continues to act and teach. Recent film/TV credits include Extraordinary Measures,  Music Within, TNT's Leverage, Grimm, Portlandia, and the Sundance Award winning film Mean Creek. Shelly was Co-Artistic Director of Cygnet Productions from 2000 to 2003 where  he co-authored, produced and starred in Vitriol & Violets – Tales From The Algonquin Round Table which won the 2004 Oregon Book Award for Drama.  At Artists Repertory Theatre he performed in Blue/Orange, Gross Indecencies and The Clean House. Some of his favorite roles include Malvolio in Twelfth Night with Tygres Heart Shakespeare Company, and Ted in Collapse for Third Rail Repertory, which garnered him a Drammy Award. For Profile Theatre he performed in The Price, Sisters Rosensweig, and Thief River.

As a playwright, he received a RACC Grant, a Literary Arts Fellowship, and an Oregon Arts Commission Fellowship to develop his second play, Sylver Beaches, which recently had a staged reading in Paris, (yes, France), and was nominated for an Oregon Book Award. It is currently in development as a screenplay.  In the past he has taught at University of California, Berkeley, Cal Arts, Clark College, Marylhurst University, The Stella Adler Academy, Northwest Children's Theatre, Lakewood Theatre, and Young Musicians & Artists Camp. Currently he teaches acting, directing and screenwriting at The Art Institute of Portland, Portland Actors Conservatory, and privately.