Ben Notes: The Total Artist

Lee Breuer

Lee Breuer

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?!”

The Gospel at Colonus

The Gospel at Colonus

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.

Me in  a dreamer examines his pillow  at Yale, around the time I met Lee.

Me in a dreamer examines his pillow at Yale, around the time I met Lee.

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.

With Tim Moyer in InterAct’s production of  Three in the Back, Two in the Head

With Tim Moyer in InterAct’s production of Three in the Back, Two in the Head

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.

Improvising with Joshua Boden in  the Deep End , our two-hander.

Improvising with Joshua Boden in the Deep End, our two-hander.

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.

Ben Notes: Five Ways Improv Will Save The World

In case you haven’t memorized it yet, here is the mission of Bright Invention, the organization I run:

Bright Invention uses improvisation to empower people and organizations to unlock their potential.

An improv stage . . .

An improv stage . . .

Quick! I say “improv”! And you see . . .

Members of the Bright Invention Ensemble before a recent show . . .

Members of the Bright Invention Ensemble before a recent show . . .

  • a room full of awkward young people trying to be funny?

  • Colin Mochrie and Wayne Brady doing amazing improv on the TV show Who’s Line Is It Anyway?

  • an enthusiastic facilitator trying to get room full of anxious corporate types to “loosen up and have some fun!”

Yes . . . all of these images are true and real. And . . . improv is so much more. At Bright Invention we feel improv is not simply a way to have some fun (although having fun is an essential feature of it.) We believe improvisation - as it “was invented, in America, by young, mostly middle-class amateurs, performers, and producers who, in the true spirit of the form, were making it up as they went along” is a way to save the world. The quote, by the way, is from Sam Wassoon’s wonderful book Improv Nation.

I see you rolling your eyes. Save the world? you ask. Pu-leeeze . . . so let me just get to it.

Improv reveals your innate empathy, and dampens your innate competition. Wassoon writes “players understood that no improvisational ensemble could sustain an atmosphere of competition…creating spontaneous realities en masse demanded…patience and consideration.” We live in an era of intense competition, exacerbated by what I call “the binary plague”: win/lose, either/or, black/white, liberal/conservative. This zero-sum, win-at-all-costs mindset is breeding paranoia, depression and adherence to the “assumption of scarcity.”

But improv is based on an extraordinary pact of acceptance and trust between players. No one wins, and no one loses. Our only way forward is to find something in our partner’s offer to play with, build on and care for. Slowly we begin to understand that our future (in the scene and in our lives) depends on our ability to empathize and work with others well.

Improv reveals our innate authenticity and power. Ask a friend how they feel in the face of the world’s events, the evening news, or even her own loved ones’ journeys. Oftentimes you will hear, “powerless.” This lack of agency is tied to a deeper condition: it is hard for us to feel fully “ourselves”, or to be confident we even know what “ourself” is. Granted, the self is an evolving and moving target - but we at Bright Invention believe there is such a thing as authenticity: the state of being in creative play with no cover, no apology, no shame. Improv gently washes away the extra nonsense and reveals . . . you! The further you go with improvisation, the more authentically you you become.

It’s a paradox (improv is full of those!). How is it that I become more me by pretending to be all those other imaginary people I make up on the spot? The answer lies at the bracing center of improv’s creative process: in improv the ideas you bring to life, the words you speak, the things you do in partnership with other actors come from you. Without a script, improv relies on who you are to make the stories come to life on stage. And the more you do this, the more you discover that who you are is amazing: smart, funny, decisive, caring. As the mother of improv Viola Spolin wrote, “Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves.”

Improv puts us in the present moment to deal with what is. Ever feel like you’re always re-visiting yesterday, or lost in projections about tomorrow? Take an improv class, and you will be gently returned over and over to the present moment: what is happening right in front of you. Not only that, you will discover skills which allow you to work with what is, to build on it with someone else, and ultimately help its necessary evolution. Improv is a mindfulness training, as we learn to calm our monkey-minds and actually see and hear what the person in front of us just said, and also the way they said it, and then discover that we have a reaction to share with them.

Improv madman and genius Del Close said “Honest discovery, observation, and reaction is better than contrived invention.” The observation he speaks of is the observation of what is actually happening. In this way, there are no mistakes in improv. What happens, happens. And then we play with it. It’s a radical acceptance which we find serves us in all areas of our lives.

Improv makes us relationship experts. My dad is not one who gave fatherly advice very often. But one thing I vividly remember him saying to me is that “the success of anything you do will be based on the quality of the relationships you make.” In this age of digital information, virtual experiences and augmented reality we are paradoxically coming to understand the value of “in real life” interpersonal relations. Deep in our DNA we humans are a tribal species. We crave community and personal connecting. We crave touch, laughter and meaningful exchanges. Improv is not only a way to have those exchanges in our lives, but to joyfully study them, to notice what makes those exchanges thrive and what makes them whither and die.

The madman again: “Every interpersonal situation has a solution in which everyone wins (Del Close).” That sounds nuts, right? But . . . it’s true, and this is why so many improvisers have found our way into the world of applied improvisation, bringing that magic improv mojo to conflict resolution, corporate culture change, and customer service. Improv is a dynamic way to study human interaction and relationship, and in doing so, refine our own ability to navigate tricky relationships and build extraordinary ones.

Improv is the opposite of cynicism. Maybe the greatest threat we face, born of the environmental degradation we must reverse, the political morass we find ourselves in, and the shocking events which pass on our screens before us, is cynicism. Now more than ever we need a populace which believes we can do it, that it’s worth saving, that humans are not irredeemably corrupt, chronically stupid and brutal. I know . . . it’ a hard sell. But seriously - what other choice do we have?

Cynicism is giving up, and it is and always has been the easy way out. The romantic, the optimist, the visionary - these are the ones among us in whom our future lies, and they are exhausted. Improv is based on the most absurd and improbable optimism: that if I just accept whatever you say to me, and then build on it a little, and then you accept whatever I say, and then build on it a little, we can do anything, go anywhere, solve any problem (please note: accept doesn't not necessarily mean agree with!) And in dusty classrooms, theater basements and rec rooms all over our fine nation this truth is revealed every day. Improv is giving birth to a new generation of hope and optimism - and boy do we need it.

Two of my adult improv students in class last week . . .

Two of my adult improv students in class last week . . .

So now that you’re convinced, what next? So glad you asked! Check out The Improv Resource Center and The Improv Network online. Or, search “[your city] improv” and I bet you find some cool stuff to do!

I think “saving the world” occurs one person at a time. Seen in this light, the best hope we have are people who work on improving themselves, and share some joy while they do it. Let’s find our way back to a playful mindset, and save the world one person at a time.