INT. LOS ANGELES THEATER - DAY Two actors shuffle scripts on a stage as a class of hopefuls look on. The guru steeples her fingertips and nods. JOHN (reading) It's a dress. Why won't you wear it? LINDA (reading) I hate it... I hate the way... you proposed to me. JOHN (reading) So what are you saying? LINDA (reading) I'm saying that -- GURU Okay, let's just stop. One of the mistakes I see here is straight out of theater, or rather, I should say, community theater. There's no connection. No connection at all. You see how you're reading away from one another? Totally amateur. This is El Lay. That sort of thing will get you kicked out of an audition, quick quick quick. How much fundamentals have you had? LINDA Um... I don't know? GURU You? JOHN What do you mean by fundamentals? GURU Ah. I see. Basic motivation. Scene, counter-scene. Mind-sense memory. I see so many actors come in, so many actors across the United States, and they don't have their basics. You gotta ask the fundamentals. In this scene, what is it that you want? What do you want to accomplish? How do you feel? Do you love them? I run a three-day workshop, by the way, on these issues. We really get into the details of the emotions. And it's a non-judgemental place, I tell you. A place for actors to free themselves. And their emotions. We accomplish some great things there. Guru holds up a booklet labelled "Art Is." GURU This is my book of poetry, it's called "Art Is." "Art Is" came from a pretty personal place, I can tell you. I believe in the healing power of acting. And I think that comes through pretty clearly in the poetry. That's the essence of poetry, is Art. And Art Is. Well. Let's start the scene again. John and Linda shuffle pages. JOHN (reading) It's a dress. Why won't you -- GURU Okay, stop. I want you to look at her, and say, "I love you, wear the dress." JOHN I love you. Wear the dress. GURU Look at him. Say, "I love you, I won't wear the dress." LINDA I love you. I won't wear the dress. GURU Again. JOHN I love you. Wear the dress. LINDA I love you. I won't wear the dress. JOHN (breathy) I love you, wear the dress -- LINDA (breathy) I love you, I won't wear the dress - GURU Start the scene. JOHN It's a dress. Why won't you wear it? LINDA I hate it... I hate the way... you proposed to me. GURU There, we have a connection. And the most important part of the connection is learning to play love. How do you play love? How do you play love for a person you've never met before in your life? It has to come from somewhere. It has to come from a personal experience. You have to make it your own. I teach an advanced course -- and granted, you're still very new, but some of my five-year and six-year students make the cut -- where you can pop in and out of love. This is the key thing. This is what the casting agents are looking for. What if you don't love? Where's the interest? I'm asking you a question. JOHN Um... FADE TO BLACK.
As you right well pointed out, actors are an insecure lot, roughly saddled with the need for artistic and personal validation. Given these market forces, and the number of fresh-faced young girls arriving in L.A. each summer, it’s impossible to imagine that a profitable artistic-guru industry would not spring up.
All professional acting gurus have a deep conflict of interest: I’ll tell you how to act, how to find your character and make your art and get rich and break into an upcoming Paramount Pictures release, so long as you buy my tapes and attend my workshops and and pay for my back office.
“Without talent or ability one must not go on the stage. In our organized schools of dramatic art it is not so today. What they need is a certain quantity of paying pupils.” That sounds like it was written two weeks ago, but Stanislavski actually wrote it in 1925.
There is no more important choice for the aspiring artist than the choice of guru. And most artists make this choice far too hastily. The math is simple: if you emulate a guru, you will, in the optimal case, achieve the results that the guru has achieved.
The acid test for any guru — religious, political, or artistic — should be the following: What have you done recently? Not what have your students done, not what did you do 30 years ago in a Boston regional theater, not what do you have a romantic vision of yourself doing… but, simply, what have you done recently?
Nearly all modern artistic gurus fail miserably by this standard. They tend to have recently published poetry on web sites, or at best, supervised three-day workshops.
If you don’t know how to do something, start by copying someone who does it with fine success, by your definition of what constitutes success.
Here are the artistic gurus that have been most influential on my life.
Everett Chambers. A short, curmudgeonly grumpus of a director, pushing seventy-five… crotchety, sharp and very, very funny. Directed me in two plays. The producer of the “Columbo” TV series and about a dozen movies-of-the-week, mostly for ABC. Directs on his feet.
Keith Johnstone. Wrote “Impro,” the most worthwhile book I’ve ever read on the acting process. Invented several key improvisation formats that morphed into popular television shows.
With this new litmus paper in hand, let’s return to letter three and our man Rilke. “Let me here promptly make a request: read as little as possible of aesthetic criticism — such things are either partisan views, petrified and grown senseless in their lifeless induration, or they are clever quibblings in which today one view wins and tomorrow the opposite. Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reaches as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just towards them.” Rilke is oblivious to the fact that he himself is, in this very paragraph, writing aesthetic criticism. Were we to follow his instructions exactly, we should stop reading his letter right away.
But the most telling bit of the letter is not his general artistic advice — “I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!” — but rather the closing of the letter, where we learn What He Has Done Recently: “Finally, as to my books, I would like best to send you all that might give you pleasure. But I am very poor, and my books, when once they have appeared, no longer belong to me. I cannot buy them myself — and, as I would so often like, give them to those who would be kind to them.” I am a bad writer and a worse guru, but I can surely afford to give away my own books.
Let’s not be too ad-hominem against Rilke. And I am fully aware that I am judging the quality of his life by my own standards of success. And he clearly has no specific desire to be a quoted authority on the grandeur and depth of the artistic process — he never asked to be a guru. And this is a private correspondence.
But if we follow his advice on how to be an artist, should we be particularly surprised if we achieve his results?