The Soul of the American Actor


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Spotlight On


Ingredients Of A Creative Life: Sketches Summer 2017

The Method Acting Exercises Handbook

The Laboratory Instinct

All People Are Famous: Instead of an Autobiography

“CREATE! How Extraordinary People Live to Create and Create to Live”

Films That Make a Difference

Witness to Spirit: My Life with Cowboys, Mozart & Indians

My Life and Art

A Healing Art: How Eurythmy Lives in the World

Dramatic Circumstances: On Acting, Singing, and Living Inside the Stories We Tell: Teaching Through the Lens of Neuroscience

Chasing Light: Notes on Creativity

Changing Ourselves to Change Society

An Excerpt from DAH Theatre: A Sourcebook

I Can Resist Everything Except Тheater: the Work and Role of The Macedonian Centre — International Theatre Institute

Real Life Drama

“To grasp the full significance of life is the actor's duty, to interpret it is his problem, and to express it his dedication.”  
– Marlon Brando

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”
– Helen Keller

“The theatre should be treated with respect. The theatre is a wonderful place, a house of strange enchantment, a temple of illusion.”
– Noel Coward

“Cultivate an ever continuous power of observation...see the sunlight and everything that is to be seen.”
– John Singer Sargent

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
– T.S. Eliot

“Feel is if you are reborn each day and rediscover the world of nature which are joyfully a part.”
– Pablo Casals, at the age of 96

“The secret of all natural and human law is movement that meets with devotion”
– I Ching













Ronald Rand in Let It Be Art









Dramatic Circumstances: On Acting, Singing, and Living Inside the Stories We Tell: Teaching Through the Lens of Neuroscience

Bill Wesbrooks photo by Mongiovi

Breath and body, when fully engaged, exert a unique and powerful influence over the acting process as they activate and stimulate levels of an actor’s consciousness well beyond what the cognitive brain is able to access on its own. In this way, actors can begin to make full use of our brain’s powerful capability of imagining what is possible and reacting to that imagining as if the things envisioned are actually taking place.

In the spring of 2012, I had the good fortune to be invited to observe Marcia Lesser, a Somatic Experiencing practitioner and movement therapist, work with some of my program’s students in an acting workshop. Marcia’s field of study and practice focuses on how emotional connections are informed by the body.

Marcia Lesser

As I observed Marcia guide the students to a heightened level of mind/body consciousness, thus stimulating their imaginations and activating their nervous systems, I knew immediately that the work she was doing, as well as the vocabulary she used in conjunction with that work, was going to have a significant impact on the dramatic circumstance approach to acting we have developed in the Steinhardt School at New York University.

Since that meeting four years ago, Marcia and I have worked with students and faculty colleagues to explore how the knowledge and language of our two fields of study can be brought together to benefit the actor.

As Marcia explains: “The mind/body connections are shared streams of energy and information that are endlessly flowing through the nervous system. These streams of energy and information influence, modify, and continuously affect each other.” This back-and-forth connection between mind and body allows actors to “live” inside the stories they are telling.

As a result of this kind of “living,” actors experience a new sense of immediacy in their need to take action, in their pursuit of an objective, and in their interaction with the other characters in their stories. Actors working this way can experience not only a new-found sense of freedom, but also a greater more consistent access to their intuition and instincts.

One aspect of the work that we have found particularly compelling is that we see the significant impact this “breath and body” approach can have on a specific actor working on a specific piece of material. We also often see a more profound and longer lasting impact in the way that he/she starts to approach work, while at the same time, beginning to move through the world from a more empowered place.

In order to illustrate the impact of this work, we have chosen to focus on one particular actor we’ve chosen to call — “Evan.”

Marcia and I each kept notes throughout our 14-week semester and by comparing those notes, we were able, in retrospect, track Evan’s progress through three specific lenses — three key tenets of an actor’s work as articulated in ​Dramatic Circumstances.

Tenet #1: ​Putting your character and yourself at risk is the most effective way to make yourself live more fully inside your story.

Marcia Lesser working with students in a workshop 

Characters who are at risk – those about to lose the battle, lose the race, lose the love of a lifetime – are going to take the most committed actions, and actors who know how to activate that feeling of risk. Those who have trained to create in their selves and their bodies an actual sensation of danger are going to give the most powerful performances.

This is because of their need to address the sensation of risk by accomplishing their goal, along with the uninhibited way in which they will take actions necessary in order to achieve that goal will be more important than their need to be “good.”

There is probably nothing more crippling to a performer than the need to get things “right,” and the very antithesis of a person willing to put herself/himself at risk is a person who wants nothing so much as she/he wants to please the people with whom she/he is interacting.

Marcia Lesser’s Work Notes:

When meeting Evan for the first time I was struck by the mixed messages I received: clearly eager to please but at the same time I sensed a strong internal retreat. I don’t always do hands-on work during the first session, but I wanted to explore the obvious conflict between Evan’s desire to please and his need to retreat. The model I used was Somatic Experiencing (SE) Touch, devised by Dr. Kathy Kain. It is designed to regulate physiological patterns by targeting common patterns of hyper-vigilance and bracing. This ultimately enhances one’s ability to be present.

I immediately discovered what we came to call “a black hole” — a clearly concave area in Evan’s chest cavity. He had very little physical or emotional awareness of this small hollow area. I imagined that some kind of emotional trauma had caused Evan to contract, pulling into his vulnerable chest while staying in place physically. ​It was clear that something had deeply affected Evan’s body, reshaping his structure.

Rebecca Cuthbertson, a voice and acting teacher at the Cambridge School of Visual and Performing Arts, explained in Breath and the Science of Feeling: “The same movement made over and over again ultimately molds the body. When the muscular contractions of defense are consistently repeated, these contractions evolve into physical patterns that affect the body’s structure.”

Evan revealed: “I’m extremely uncomfortable with conflict and even witnessing it in other people makes me physically uncomfortable.”

As we worked, it became clear that Evan was unable to mobilize his energy to propel himself into action. His deregulated nervous system, in response to some traumatic stress or threat, was over activated, and, as a result Evan was locked in his own “threat cycle.”

The “threat response” is a set of chemical/biological reactions ​that are initially triggered by any unusual stimuli in the environment. This sensory information is gathered in the thalamus and then sent to the amygdala. Both areas are in the unconscious limbic brain. The amygdala’s job is to immediately determine whether or not the new incoming information represents a threat to our survival, and if a threat exists, the amygdala signals the reptilian brain (brain stem). When this oldest part of the brain takes over, the conscious, logical higher brain is partially shut off as the body mobilizes for fight or flight. ​This threat cycle is automatic and is responsible​ for our survival in times of danger.

Preparation for this is left to the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), comprised of two branches – the Sympathetic Nervous System, which acts as the body’s gas pedal, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System, the brake. The sympathetic is responsible for arousal; it is here we feel alert, ready, confident and engaged. The parasympathetic is the brake, where arousal is dampened, thus relaxing muscles and respiration. It is here we regenerate, re-organize, and rest.

In a healthy regulated nervous system, the natural flow between the two branches regulates the body’s energy. It is within this flow that we can feel and express emotions and relate to others. It is in the sympathetic branch that the system gets a signal for the fight or flight response, moving blood to the large muscles of the arms and legs and increasing stress hormones to ready us for action. The parasympathetic is the branch responsible for shut down (immobilization) or freeze, a state in which neither the fight nor flight response can be initiated.

In a deregulated system, there is no flow between the branches. One is caught in over-activation of the sympathetic branch, resulting in hyper-arousal and constriction, or in over-activation of the parasympathetic, leading to disconnection and dissociation. In this immobilized or “freeze” state, one is depressed, apathetic and under responsive.

Marcia Lesser working with students in a workshop 

It became clear to me that Evan was stuck in immobilization. In describing his difficulty connecting he reported: ”I have a very hard time recognizing and identifying what I’m feeling. I’m not an emotional person. I’m often resistant to the idea of emotion because I feel like it’s relinquishing control.”

I believe this difficulty is what I picked up when I sat across from Evan the first time we worked together. His higher, cognitive brain wanted to do all the things a good student does, but his lower ‘emotional brain’ would not allow him to be present. Our work together, therefore, then centered around getting Evan’s “fight” response back online, mobilizing his energy and allowing him to take risks.

William Wesbrooks’s Work Notes:

From the first time he worked in class, Evan revealed himself to be a person who was eager to please. He would agree too quickly with everything I said. If something seemed to puzzle him he would immediately begin “translating” his own thoughts and feelings into words that seemed to align with mine. He would frequently want to “check in” with me privately after a coaching in order to make sure that I thought his work had been “okay.”

The circumstances that Evan would create as the foundation of each piece he was working on was often fueled by an effort to get someone to understand him, to like him, or forgive him. I worked within those circumstances in order to put the “characters” Evan was creating at greater risk. Increasing risk for a character can increase risk for the actor, and heighten the need to please.

In my experience, however, there is usually a point in an actor’s imagined story where his character can be pushed to a place where he will stand up for himself. This certainly proved true for Evan.

Evan brought in a story for a song he was singing in which he was trying to makeup with his girlfriend after they had an argument. He told me that his problem was his discomfort at being distanced from his girlfriend and that his objective was to get her to understand how much he loves her.

I talked Evan through his story, and we changed the fight to an actual breakup. His girlfriend had ended the relationship. I then suggested that his girlfriend had broken up with him because she thought he had been unfaithful, something that was not only not part of Evan’s story but was also foreign to his own nature. As he took himself through this heightened scenario, which stimulated his imagination in much more compelling ways, his “problem” became his sense of desolation at the prospect of losing someone he loved compounded by the injustice of the false accusation which triggered the breakup in the first place. His objective then became to make her listen to him, to convince her that his love was so strong that he could never have been unfaithful, and to compel her to admit that she would be as devastated as he were their relationship to come to an end. Through this process, Evan was able to focus on his girlfriend and stop, for a least a few minutes, watching and judging himself as he worked.

Evan’s newly imagined circumstances moved his character from a place of discomfort to a state of danger, and those same circumstances increased Evan’s personal sense of risk and danger. In response to that danger he was compelled to take action that would prevent this terrible scenario from destroying his relationship, and his commitment to that action – in response to an actual sense of danger that Evan was now experiencing – allowed his worries about being “good” and getting it “right” to fade into the background. His need to get what he wanted became more important than his need to please, and in that moment Evan felt empowered as both a character and as a person.

Tenet #2: Learning to fully engage your imagination and experience the sense of freedom that can result from that engagement is a deeply satisfying activity.

It is hard to overstate the importance of an actor’s imagination in both helping to create his stories and then stimulating him to occupy those stories in an increasingly compelling way. Living inside the story that is being told is a liberating experience. I have found there to be nothing more empowering for a young performer who is in the process of finding his voice both in his work and in his life.

Marcia Lesser’s Work Notes:

Evan and I had very limited time – seven hours over the semester – to begin to mobilize his energy. I am a great believer in the remedial power of imagination.

Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, stated “The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable,” in Handbook of Jungian Psychology: Theory, Practice and Applications. A hallmark of Jungian therapy is active imagination, a way of accessing and dialoguing with one’s inner wisdom.

Viktor Frankl, one of the founders of Humanistic psychotherapy, wrote extensively of his three years in Nazi concentration camps, crediting his imagination as the one tool he had that could influence his response to the atrocities around him, documenting in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

It is a well-researched and strongly held belief in body-oriented therapies that unresolved trauma remains in the body and nervous system. The resolution of this trauma is based, in part, by feeding new information to the reptilian brain through the use of in-depth imagination. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk states in The Body Keeps the Score: “If you can’t imagine, you can’t change your life.”

I helped Evan to settle into himself and then asked him to find a time, either imagined or real, when he felt powerful. To my surprise, he had a quick response. He recalled the time in college when he played the Beast in “Beauty in the Beast.” As I write this, my body and nervous system easily recapture the excitement Evan brought into the room as he told me of this experience. He recalled the costume in great detail, and as he did, we both felt him getting larger. He had a strong, clear body sense of what it felt like to pick another person up and pretend to throw him; how his legs felt as he bent them to prepare for this task; how strong his arms and overall body felt to him. He could recall the feeling of aggression and it felt good. He was big, powerful and capable. I instructed him to use this image as a daily meditation.

“What we imagine hearing can change what we actually see, and what we imagine seeing can change what we actually hear,” as stated in “Imagination – How and Where Does It Occur In The Brain” in “Medical News Today.”

Evan used this image in a number of other ways as well, including finding the beast, in all his aggressive glory, while preparing to perform. It was striking to witness his integration on this work. He was clearly finding his fight response. As he explored this part of himself, he also faced the pain and darkness in his deeply affected chest cavity. This work is often not easy to do, and Evan showed great courage and fortitude in allowing himself to explore these areas that he, and his body, had previously been trying so hard to avoid.

With Evan, I found that when he would spend enough time imagining more compelling circumstances, he would immediately experience the benefit in the resulting actions he was able to take. He would then seek similar circumstances in subsequent work. My job as his teacher then became, for the most part, to remind him to take the time at the beginning of each work session to allow his imagination to work, thus allowing the ensuing circumstances to grow.

William Wesbrooks Work Notes:

As it turned out, asking Evan to imagine a scenario in which an important relationship was perhaps coming to an end was not much of a stretch. At the same time, his willingness to explore such a circumstance was particularly courageous given the fact that the circumstance was hitting so close to home. As actors live their lives, more and more things will certainly happen to them that will impact the stories they create. However, one needn’t have gone through a bad breakup in order to imagine one happening. One needn’t have had a child in order to imagine nurturing. One needn’t have had a near death experience in order to imagine dying.

Tenet #3: Actors are meant to “behave” in front of an audience. The best actors behave in such a way that their audiences both recognize and empathize with that behavior.

The simple fact is that in order to engage the imagination and derive the benefits of the empowered sense of purpose that will result from that engagement, actors must choose in those critical moments of preparation just where to focus their thoughts in order to bring alive the story they want to occupy.

For an actor who is determined to please it is hard to imagine a more demanding situation than one in which the number of people who need to be pleased has suddenly multiplied by ten. In any performance situation the pressure on the performer is going to be greater. The “trick of the mind” is for actors to increase pressure on the characters they are portraying in order to relieve pressure on themselves.

William Wesbrooks Work Notes:

In going back to Evan’s song in which, we can now say, he is trying to save his marriage. The initial work on the song led to a much more powerful performance. He focused on his wife and the success he was having – or not having – in getting her to believe in him and his commitment to their relationship. That sense of empowerment was exhilarating for both Evan and for the other people in the room who were there to share it. The next time he worked in class it took a few minutes to reestablish his connection to that story. However, it took much less time than it did the first time. The world of this particular story was alive in Evan’s memory as well as his imagination, and he could access the elements of that story in a relatively short period of time.

However, he could only gain access by taking the steps that would bring the story to life in such a way as to be useful to him in that precise moment. He could not set out in search of either a feeling or, as is too often the case, the sense of power that he had achieved the last time he worked. He needed to take himself through the steps of the story, whatever those steps might be – the accusation, the denial, the fight, the breakup, the time apart, the request for a meeting, the attempt to change his wife’s view of the situation. The steps were there for him, and he could take them more and more efficiently. But he had to take them. He could not get himself from point A to point F unless he allowed space for B, C, D, and E along the way.

Marcia Lesser Work Notes:

Evan mentioned a number of times that he had no feelings when his classmates performed, and only knew something moving had occurred when he heard the feedback. He also knew that his singing was not moving to others. We began to talk about “presence” – how it was that I felt him getting bigger as he imagined the beast; how it was that I felt his excitement.

As Evan mobilized he became much more aware of his inner sensations, his connection to himself and his character’s circumstance. He used these new resources to prepare to sing “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, anticipating singing it in class. He sang it for me, and we could both feel the anticipation, excitement and confidence. The “beast” was there. He stepped fully into the circumstance and was compelled to sing. When he finished the song he knew before anyone commented that his Tony had been seen and heard. It was great reinforcement for the hard work he had done, and the work that lay ahead.

Evan also reported that he was beginning to be moved by his classmates’ performances, and as we ended our time together he shared that not only had his asthma diminished but he now used the former ‘black hole’ in his chest as an internal compass, bringing him awareness of his inner state of being.

Good actors allow themselves to imagine things in the way that children do. They immerse themselves in the possibility of a story and, like children, often enjoy taking those stories to ever darker and more dangerous places.

In Evan’s case, the power of a relationship-ending circumstance was enhanced by the immediate nature of that experience in his own life. He was able to access the details of that experience when he needed them to bring to life other circumstances and scenarios of loss. However, his imagination was capable of taking him to places in which is experience of danger is just as powerful and compelling without it being informed that something that has actually happened in his own life.

Love is love, and loss is loss. Winning is winning. Losing is losing. In our creative minds the lines between what is real and what is imagined often blurs. This experience can be entertaining, and it can be frightening. It is, whatever way you look at it, of inestimable value to the actor. •

2017 Excerpts from Dramatic Circumstances: On Acting, Singing, and Living Inside the Stories We Tell by William Wesbrooks. Reprinted with the permission of Mr. Webrooks and Ms. Lesser.

WILLIAM WESBROOKS Author of Dramatic Circumstances: On Singing, Acting, and Living Inside the Stories We Tell published by Applause Books. His university training in psychology, music, and theatre set the stage for a career in professional theatre, which has spanned acting, singing, directing, playwriting, and teaching. He began at New York University in 2001, as Director of the Program in Vocal Performance in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, retiring in 2017. Mr. Wesbrooks’ directing credits include Tovah Feldshuh’s critically acclaimed off-Broadway play, “Tallulah, Hallelujah!” and the off-Broadway premiere of “The Water Coolers.” He has directed national tours of “Brigadoon,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “The King and I,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Sound of Music,” and “West Side Story.” His regional productions in America include “My Fair Lady,” “Peter Pan,” “Private Lives,” “The Mikado,” “The Secret Garden,” and “A Wonderful Life.”

MARCI LESSER A Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP), movement therapist, somatic psychotherapist, and teacher, Ms. Lesser has had a private practice in Manhattan for thirty years, and is on the faculty of the Steinhardt School/Vocal Performance at NYU.  A former dancer, Ms. Lesser works with those impacted by physical and emotional trauma, as well as those suffering from chronic pain and disconnection from their feelings and body.  She combines her rich dance and movement background with the depth of psychodynamic technique, and the latest neurobiological approaches to openness, mindfulness, and change. She specializes in working with singers, actors, and musicians, and is the founder of Body As Instrument that encourages body/mind connection in the performer.  Marcia was a guest lecturer at The Juilliard School for four years, and has given workshops at Tisch Graduate Acting. Her work has appeared in several academic publications including, "Bodies in Treatment:The Unspoken Dimension,” edited by Dr. Fran Sommer Anderson. A number of her own articles have been published, including two in the journal, “The American String Teacher.”


"It is a law of life that man cannot live for himself alone. Extreme individualism is insanity. The world's problems are also our personal problems. Health is achieved through maintaining our personal truth in a balanced relation of love to the rest of the world. No expression is more emblematic of this relation than the creative act which we call art. No art by its very constitution typifies the social nature of that creative act more than the theatre. The theatre, to be fully understood and appreciated, must be seen as a manifestation of this process of interchange between society and the individual. It must be judged as a continuous development of groups of individuals within society, a development which becomes richer, acquires greater force and value as it grows with the society in which it originates. Only in this way can the theatre nourish us.  - Harold Clurman

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