When I was in my second year at The Yale School of Drama, our acting class had an intensive with avant gard stage director and creator, Lee Breuer. He was the stage celebrity of the moment, having made ripples around the the world with his production of Gospel at Colonus, and was working then on his musical The Warrior Ant. He had the kind of restless, rebel energy I related to, appearing before us with a shaved head and dressed in blue jeans with paint on them and an old white t-shirt. He looked like he was taking a break from renovating the basement of the building we were in. Plus, he shared an artistic lineage with my mother, the dancer, choreographer and teacher Barbara Dilley. So I felt especially close to him.
“What is an actor?” he asked this group of 16 actors, bent on fame and fortune, convinced the world was their oyster, brimming with world-class conservatory training. We were stumped. “Come on people!”, he bellowed, “what is an actor?!”
Someone, I forget who, it might have been me, but maybe not, ventured . . . “Um, someone who . . . who interprets dramatic text, under the direction of . . . of . . . a director?”
“NO!” he nearly screamed. “An actor is a total artist who has something to say!” And I felt a gentle dagger land inside me, warming me, killing something old and useless, planting something new and terrifying, changing me forever.
Over the next 30 years, the implication of those words have guided nearly everything I have done as a theater artist. In my brief, six-year stint as a struggling New York actor, I designed a theater group called The Total Artist Group (or TAG - nifty, right?). It was based on the empowerment of actors to be more authoritative in their creativity as they worked together in an ensemble over time. TAG was to be a company which partnered with clothing shops and furniture stores to advertise their products in our productions. Even then, I was thinking of innovative ways to solve the age-old money problem. But TAG never left the page, and just after I had finished writing it all down, I left New York.
In my life as an acting teacher, my bottom line has been to give my students the tools and the support to make their own creative choices, within the boundaries described by the script and in partnership with a director. And it is this concept of the actor as the total artist which has led to the creation of Bright Invention, and my commitment to long form improvisation.
After years of performing scripts and working with directors, I finally found scripted acting limiting and repetitive. The actor in a play is asked to repeat a performance again and again over the life of the run. Deviations from the rehearsed performance are not allowed; indeed, they can be catastrophic, since a well directed play is a well-oiled machine with many parts depending on all the others to work the same way each night. I came to understand that there is no greater version of the actor as total artist than actor as improviser. The actor/improviser is both author and actor. In my teaching I have named the four virtues of the actor, and no one needs them more than the actor/improviser: Courage, Empathy, Creativity and Faith.
I also came to understand that my commitment to the actor as total artist was threatening to some in the theatre community, in which actors are expected (generally) to be compliant, agreeable, and to have no other priorities personally or professionally that supersede the production they have been cast in. It began to feel to me that theatres felt they were doing me a favor I should be grateful for by casting me in a play. I am sure I lost two significant jobs in part because of my stubborn refusal to be the kind of actor I was expected to be (People’s Light & Theatre) , and to pass along the requisite expectations of compliant acting to my students (Villanova University). You see, being a total artist means you get to be “difficult” when your spirit is offended by activities in the room, or you know you need to explore in a certain way, even if the authority in the room resists it.
The truth is, this paradigm of the compliant actor is driven more by capitalism, and less by any ill will anyone has for actors. I learned that plays are products sold to audiences, and that the priority for the producing entity is to keep production costs down. Total artists are expensive. They ask you to slow down. They meander off in unexpected ways to see what’s out there. They engage in challenging discussions and they demand to be heard. Total artists are have been known to say “no” occasionally - a heresy in the professional theatre. Compliant actors are efficient. They do what they are told, are easy to work with, don’t ask too many questions and say “yes” nearly automatically.
Ironically, the kind of acting I am invested in now requires saying “yes” - all the time, and to everything. What makes that “yes” so easy to come by is that it allows for the creation of an original performance, co-created by the improvisers on stage in that moment, emanating from the totality of who they are. That “yes” creates the most authentic performative expression of me that I have ever experienced, and paradoxically, I must share it utterly with my stage partner.
During the time Lee Breuer was in residence with us at Yale, I was working on a solo clown multi-media performance piece called The Birth of Benjamin Lloyd. I was dressed in a giant diaper and (as I recall - the memory is bit dim now) I did a kind of stand up routine mixed in with some movement and dance. It finished with a video of my mother (who Lee knew well) and I playing together on a stage in New York City when I was six or so, accompanied by Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? and me doing some wordless movement. I was very nervous about the piece, as it represented the first time I had ever performed in anything I had created, and it dealt with some vulnerable territory.
Lee came and saw it. Afterwards he bounded up on stage and was unexpectedly over the top effusive in his praise for it. Like, he couldn’t get the words out for how excited he was by it. He saw something it would take me many more years to see. He saw my total artist.