Tag Archives: acting

Picture Exercises…

From time to time, I have taken acting classes. While studying at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, I learned a technique called the “Picture Exercise” where the actor finds a picture of a person/character and recreates the picture by recreating the exact pose and costume.  This exercise helps the actor find specific character traits to incorporate into life-like behavior for the character.  Once the actor is dressed and posed like the picture, the actor must answer one question, “What does the person in the picture say at that moment in time?”  In order to answer that question, the actor must get a sense of the inner and outer voice of the character/person in the picture.  The actor has to create backstory and has to create the moment before.  The actor has to know what frame of mind the person in the picture is in, where they are physically, how they move, if they move, and why they move.  Then what do they sound like when they talk, do they have an accent, a lisp, are they loud or quiet…

I did my exercise from a picture of Sethe from Toni Morrison’s Beloved who is patterned after Margaret Garner, the slave who killed her young daughter rather than let her return to slavery. I used a photograph by Ken Regan (found in the book Journey to Beloved by Oprah Winfrey) on page 48.  The actress who played young Sethe, Lisa Gay Hamilton has a video of that scene “get in the shed”  and while I did not recreate her scene, I did recreate her look and the look of the babies for my exercise.  The picture I used was of Sethe holding her two infant daughters in her arms – in complete controlled hysterics.  I made my costume, bought two dolls – a small brown one and a larger white one, as there are seldom brown dolls to be found in stores.  I bought paint and mixed it to get the perfect hue and painted the white one brown, after the paint dried, I glued hair onto the head in little braids all over. I made dresses for the babies.  Grabbed a knife – one that could slice skin and created and reenacted what I considered fitting backstory that would make a mother slit her baby’s throat.

What did she say?  “Dey be dead or dey be free.”

I always liked the picture exercise but hadn’t thought of using it for a writing exercise until I participated in a playwright’s workshop at Native Voices the Autry with Bernardo Solano.  The seminar was right around the time that I lost my niece and I needed to do something to get my mind off my grief.  I needed to write and I was craving the company of other writers…  It was hard to focus; however, when we were asked to select a picture and write whatever it inspired us to write, I found the selection process somewhat soothing.  I selected a picture of a man and an infant lying dead on stone steps.  The picture began to speak almost immediately – “the bombs came in the night…”  The resulting piece is a 10-minute play titled MILK DUST.

I don’t usually do writing exercises because I believe to get better at writing, you have to write…  Writing is like doing pushups, the only way to get better at pushups is to do more pushups.  I do like this exercise though; I like the way it can be used from the acting and the writing perspective. It’s close to what I do in my head when I visualize the characters that I am writing about, when I am listening to what they say.  This exercise is a perfect way to find an unexpected way into an unexpected play…

On Acting

This is the third piece in a series of three on the recent Gunfighter Nation production, LA History Project: Pio Pico, Sam Yorty, and the Secret Procession of Los Angeles. Enjoy!

I use to box (as in pugilism). I never competed, but I did spar. I remember one time, I was working out, and there was going to be a party at my gym in the evening. As I was getting ready to go into the ring, two 30-something ladies were hanging out behind me.

I could never do that. One said to the other.

I know, it’s just sooo brutal. The other said.

And with their voices in my head, I went into the ring and sparred for three rounds with Angel. I never let him get me in the corner by the way. He’d get a lot of guys in the corner, but he never got me there.

Those two ladies taught me a very important lesson about focus. Even if two seconds before I’m about to do something, I hear that voice that tells me no I can’t do it, I put it aside.  I can do it. I can (to quote the great Muhammad Ali) float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.

In addition to writing for Gunfighter Nation’s LA History Project, I acted in the show as well. This happened because I was in the right place at the right time. The writer of a short piece turned and asked me if I could act in his piece, and since I am trying to be more positive, I said yes.

I played the female Sam Yorty in an evening with several Sam Yortys. Sam Yorty was the mayor of Los Angeles during the Watts riots. My Sam Yorty comes onstage in a wheelchair and faces visions of death and an ideal Los Angeles, then dies.

I started off playing Sam depressed (always a solid fallback for me); then with the help of the writer, I took it to a more kinetic mean and angry place with dashes of Hunter S. Thompson, George W. Bush, and Peter Sellars in Dr. Strangelove thrown in for good measure. Along the way, I got a hat and sunglasses which allowed me to disappear completely and show a twisted, sickly, disgusting, dying character.  Ahhh, I was in acting heaven.

I do have a dark side. When I was in first grade, the nun said I had a bad temper. Now, I am a somewhat mature adult and keep it in check. I even drive around LA in a really mellow way.

When I was given permission to unleash hellfire, I knew I could do it. I could look out at the audience with hatred and anger and say, I hate this city. I could see the audience looking back at me, and I could hate them. I could be ugly and cruel and dying and disgusting. I could take it to that place and then roll off the stage and be fine. It’s just pretend. It’s okay.

We had six performances, so I got to die six times. The first night, I felt like I was operating from nothing more than guts. Then, I focused and listened to my fellow actors, and I started to understand the rhythms of performance of the piece.  

I think playwrights should try acting material they do not write. If anything, it will help them understand what goes into memorizing lines. It also got me rethinking about text word by word. How do words play in the mouth? To the ear?

Would I act again? Heck yeah. I really liked going to that dark place as an actor. Or maybe next time, instead of being ugly, angry, and mean, I could be pretty, happy, and sweet.