Is it nature or is it nurture, heredity or society? In that great debate of our time, conservatives lean toward the former and liberals toward the latter. I believe both are asking the wrong question. I believe it's nature and nurture, and this is why.
Not of an age, but for all time…
by HAROLD CLURMAN
It matters very little with what tools or through what devices an art object is made. Artists have always used whatever material they found in their environment. I am sure that much of the melody in classic compositions is based on common folk music that is too obscure now for us to recognize as such. modern paintings reveal more cafe scenes than cathedrals because our artists frequent the former more often than the latter. It is alleged that Racine’s vocabulary was limited to five hundred ordinary French words. Only what is conveyed matters.
Some years ago, the Cosmopolitan Club, a career women’s club in New York City asked me to present a talk. I initially thought the topic would be about my professional artistic life. But a number of things happened that made me want to talk about my ancestors.
As unlimited beings we dream our life. Each day we grow ourselves, and when we’re blessed enough to be given the opportunity to ‘play inside a play,’ to live within the ‘shoes of another,’ we have the opportunity to fly with abandoned freedom, and confront the innermost reaches of our self.
The Malay martial art of Seni Pencak Silat (referred to as Silat) is an important source of traditional acting technique. During the colonial period and post-colonial modernization, Western models of theatre replaced traditional performance and the physical technique of theatre was largely modeled upon Western acting: the importance of the text ascended and realistic representation of life predominated. This resulted in adopting psychological acting styles and neglect of the martial tradition as a significant resource for actor training.
Often readers ask about the title of the book, Dancing at the River’s Edge, I wrote with my doctor, Michael Lockshin.
How do you form an actor?
When I graduated from college my two favorite things from my acting training were doing improv and directing. I loved improv because I had the freedom to just be me and show my personality. Then I would get text as an actor and I’d feel that I had to be in a box or act a certain way and I felt it shut me down in my personality rather than be more artistic. So, when I studied the Meisner technique in New York City, it really opened me up and changed me.
I came into this world knowing that I have a purpose and then realized I’d left my script behind. I did not fit into my family or my school. I remember as a young girl pulling the covers up at night, closing out the day, escaping into a clearly felt-sense of life purpose that had, as yet, no form. Years passed unconsciously. I was a leader in my church youth group, had a positive college experience, was married, went to graduate school, worked in industry, got divorced taught in a college, started a business, and got married. My life felt aimless for decades, through highs and lows. No leading lady, I took what came my way, the good and the bad, always in search of where I was meant to be and what I was uniquely born to do..
The late General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower in one of his last speeches to the American people warned us of a ‘Great Military Industrial Complex.’ He was speaking about those individuals and corporations who profit from war. Many Americans at the time never took his warning seriously. I liken our young aspiring actors and actresses working in the film, television and theater industries today as victims of a ‘Great Theatrical Industrial Complex.’ I am speaking about those who have created a system with the sole objective of making the ‘craft of acting’ a business, and profiting from doing so.
The first Broadway musical I ever saw was “Pippin” forty years ago. The night before I saw my first Broadway play – Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” with James Earl Jones. Strangely prophetic, considering that I made my own Broadway debut a dozen years later in Sir Jonathan Miller’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”
Every performer knows what vocal strain feels like: that horrible feeling when you open your mouth and “someone elseʼs” voice comes out. Our voices are such an important part of our identity as performers that it can be hard not to freak out when it happens. But, while vocal strain is nothing to take lightly, there are remedies that will help alleviate it and precautions to prevent future problems. Remain calm and carry on! Vocal strain can appear as hoarseness, a lack of volume and intensity, or even a complete inability to make sound; it can appear as a feeling of tension or a “lump” in the throat; it can appear as dryness, as if our vocal folds had forgotten how to lubricate themselves.
The spiritual nature of Stella Adler’s classes has been pointed out by the way in which she exhorted her students to learn who they were as human beings by finding the humanity in their characters. Another element that added to the religious quality of Stella’s classes came from the call-and-response nature of her teaching style. She did not lecture on a playwright or play without checking in with her students.
“There is an uncertainty of what you are doing, an imprecision. What you do when you look [or hear, or feel it], is not to know something in advance that you are carrying out, but rather recognizing something as it appears…All the real work came from against the ideas I’ve had. It’s always the things that are in between the work that I thought I was doing, that the real work has happened.” from an unknown artist.
Maybe I encourage actors to make adventurous choices because I’ve had an adventurous life. I lived on a coffee plantation in Guatemala. I rode elephants in Thailand, zebras in Africa, and camels in Morocco. I unknowingly befriended a serial killer in Los Angeles, before he was caught. When I was nineteen, I traveled (hitched-hiked in trucks and private planes) around the perimeter of Africa. I recently walked alone in a Kenyan slum after the mall explosions when there were travel warnings for tourists. I have friends from every walk of life. I love people. I want to help people all over the world because we are lucky in this country. We are all rich. We have toilets and electricity. We are free to express ourselves.
I am an actress. But not like I once was. Not like the girl who told other people’s stories. It is my own story that I tell now, every day as I move through the world: writing, speaking, training and teaching. It took thirty-three years to learn that my story had profound value; that it was the most important story for me to tell in order to be of highest service to the world.
I believe to the bottom of my toes that the arts are the soul of man’s humanity. I believe that art, whether it’s the performing arts, digital media, or visual arts, has the ability to change the world. I’ve written about this but every time I see or hear something that reinforces that belief I want to celebrate it.
I first worked with Moradokmai Theatre Troupe in Thailand in 2010. I had met members of the company led by Khru Chang, the Artistic Director, and Pobchan, his wife, in Nepal in 2008, when we were both presenting productions at the International festival in Kathmandu.
An essay we find so important we have been making it available since we first published it in 2001. A must read.
In 1963 President John F. Kennedy reminded us with these words:
“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of our artists. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him…Art is not a form of propaganda, it is a form of truth…Art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment.”
I LIKE BEING A PLAYWRIGHT, which is fortunate, since that’s one of the few things that I can do with any competence. And it is nice to be able to pass your life doing that which you feel that you might be doing with some competence, and possibly, possibly even communicating with a few people. Because the function of the arts, is it not, absolute communication – to put us in greater contact with ourselves and with each other, to question our values, to question the status quo, to make us rethink that which we believe we believe.
On two evenings, November 8 and 9 of 1977, Jerzy Grotowski held a conference in Portland, Oregon on the Lewis and Clark campus. During those two evenings, a Tuesday and Wednesday respectively, he answered questions from the audience. The first session began at eight in the evening and ended at two in the morning. The second session began at eight but at midnight Grotowski began individual interviews with people who were interested in going to Poland that year for a longer paratheatrical event there. This record is of the conference prior to the interviews.
There are many secrets to life. Being artistic and creative allows us to tap into the unseen powers of the universe. As artists of any kind we tap into a way of being that allows us to reach outside of the confines of the three-dimensional world. Artists somehow know how to shift their perceptions, their way of feeling inside of their body, and adapt a wavelike sensation inside of them to tap into that other inspirational world.
Every time I walk out onto the stage I surrender more and more of myself – trusting and swimming in the freedom of the moment with a deeper consciousness. I tap into the energies of my soul, knowing I’ve come to breathe with those in the audience. Quieting my mind I share with greater clarity and sincerity in the eternal moment.
Hirshfeld Drawing of Julie Harris and Laurence Luckinbill reproduced by special arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, The Margo Feiden Galleries, NY.