Wednesday, April 17, 2013

An interview with Connor Kerns, author of "Imaginative Doing"

A long-time Portland Actors Conservatory faculty member, Artistic Director of Quintessence: Language & Imagination Theatre, and the author of Imaginative Doing: Collected essays on Acting, Connor Kerns was kind enough to answer some of our questions about his new book, and how it reflects his philosophy and his work.

Connor Kerns
PAC: Connor, what inspired you to write this book? 

CK: The book is a result of many years of practical work, as a teacher of actors and directors, and as a theatre director and voice director for our theatre company, Quintessence: Language & Imagination Theatre. My editor, who is an actor [PAC Alum Anna Xenokrati], calls it a ‘handbook.’ In other words, it can be held in your hand while you’re working on your feet; it wasn’t intended as something you sit and read, and then file on your shelf. Inspiration is a great word—“what inspired me?”—because of course breathing in (inspiring) and speaking out (expiring) are what actors do. And my core passion is the power of words. So how do actors (and directors, playwrights, teachers, voice directors, etc.) work so that the character’s objective is alive at the moment of speaking?

PAC: As a collection of essays, are there are parts that have been “in process” for years?

CK: Yes, the essays in the book are observations and techniques--or exercises, if you will--that have proven successful over the years. I started teaching at PAC in 1994, and Quintessence was formed in 2001. So over those years I took notes and tried these methods to help me efficiently use class and rehearsal time. Also, I write down things almost reflexively because I’m a writer. Plus, I have a terrible memory…

PAC: What sets “Imaginative Doing” apart from other similar acting books?

CK: Acting, like everything else it seems, keeps becoming more specialized. Many evolving acting approaches stress elements other than the words. Maybe what’s different about this handbook is that everything in it integrates voice and text with a good, basic American approach to acting. It also attempts to engage the right brain, and creativity. Selfishly, as a director/teacher I want to see and hear theatre full of what I like. And who would want a dull, laborious, wasteful approach to doing their acting work? Doesn’t “Imaginative Doing” sound better? Insert slogan here…!

PAC: How do the topics discussed in the books translate to your teaching and classroom work?

CK: Very closely. But without the profanity. Although happily the editor left in many of my little idiosyncrasies….but a book isn’t the same as a teacher. It was invaluable for me to work in person with my own mentor, Cicely Berry, and I learned and progressed in intangible ways in her company. I guess what I mean is that somehow the work deepens when you are in the room with the teacher. But I use her books all the time; they are a constant source of ideas, new directions, and jogs of the memory (which, as you recall, is terrible). So I think those who study with me will probably find a different level. However, there’s no doubt that there will be things in any good acting book that are useful. If you gain one new tool or exercise or insight, it’s worth it.

PAC: How is the book a reflection of your directing style?

CK: I think in directing it’s important to create a clear, somewhat flexible structure (space and time). Within that framework, there can then be great imaginative freedom. At Quintessence, we put the word at the center of the work—we are opening up the language in every rehearsal. Maybe we should call actors ‘players’ again, as in the old days. The handbook will encourage actors to play, which is what I strive for when I direct.

PAC: As you say, you are deeply connected with words. How does the text inspire you on stage? Do you have any insights or tips about how someone who is struggling with the text might become connected?

CK: I often ask actors, “What is your relationship to language?” My point is that most people’s relationship to language has deteriorated drastically since, say, Shakespeare’s time. Actors have a lot of work to do—working their muscles, learning the fundamentals of the forms of writing, rooting themselves and their breath, and then taking risks in the speaking. When an actor fully realizes a character, it comes forth not just through their specific movements and gestures, it comes through their whole body, including the voice. I would say actors struggle with text because text isn’t a central or integrated part of their rehearsal work. Oh, maybe that should be the slogan for the book!

PAC: You talk about collaboration. What are some of the biggest challenges with collaboration?

CK: Collaborating means everyone buys in to the expectations and the approach. It means people respect each other. I sometimes wonder how anyone gets along with anyone else for more than a few hours. Collaborating is like traveling with others: that’s when you find out if you can be around them or not!

Imaginative Doing: Collected Essays on Acting is available online at Powell’s Books, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.

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