Recently, I had the very rare privilege of observing Stuart Aikins first hand as he ran 80 auditions over four days of weekend workshops. My level of respect for this man which was already extremely high was pushed to the stratosphere. I was humbled by his acumen, inspired by his passion, and I must admit, just a little bit relieved to see how much he loves the same stuff as me.
The thing about Stuart Aikins is that he cares. A lot. He cares about finding, and experiencing the most interesting story possible. Stuart has an MFA in Directing, and was trained as a Dramaturg. He has dedicated 35 years to dissecting and communicating STORY. It’s at least second nature if not nature to him at this point. He knows it so well that it’s the last thing he wants to see in the audition. As Stuart says, “You all (actors) want to show me what you’ve done, and you’ve all done the same thing. It’s boring.” Of course it is. It’s pretty hard to amaze a master magician. But that’s your job. “I want something different that I’m not going to see from everyone that’s still perfectly logical.” Despite the fact that he knows the story, he wants to have no idea where you’re going.
Actors will often misinterpret how to meet this challenge. In an effort to be original, or interesting, they’ll impose a ‘bold choice’ which most often is an arbitrary decoration that has little to nothing to do with the story and devolves into a self indulgent attempt at showcasing the acting itself – that audition becomesABOUT the ‘choice’, and will not succeed.
So then, how do you surprise a magician who knows every twist and turn in the story?
The trick is this: YOU can’t have any idea where the story is going. You must find a way to start from a place that is completely spontaneous for you and completely appropriate to the story. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the trick to doing this is to know the story so well that you can abandon it. Hopefully recklessly, and in a place that jars you out of any intellectual understanding of the story you have developed. If you’ve done your homework, and you are sharp, the telling of the story will be inevitable.
Hey, wait a second! That’s what we teach: Process-process-process-abandon!
All makes good sense when we think (or stop thinking) about it. And yet, over our two weekends in the room, time and time again I watched Stuart get actors to ‘do something’ usually physical and surprising to shock them into a place that was unexpected and vulnerable, so that they were starting from an unfamiliar place. Then, time and time again, I watched the story unfold completely accidentally, uniquely, and exactly correctly.
This is a good news-bad news-good news observation.
The good news is that the actors were prepared and very clearly capable of ‘abandoning’ when directed and taught to do so.
The bad news is that although he is a masterful teacher (truly one of the best I’ve seen – I don’t hand that compliment out lightly) in the AUDITION scenario, Stuart has neither the time nor the professional responsibility to teach. He actually has the professional responsibility NOT to teach, and to let you do your thing, so don’t expect to rely on him to ‘get you there’.
Ok, I lied. More bad news: When we’re in nervous situations ( hmmm…. audition for someone who directly influences your career who you can’t fool for example?) , we look for our comfort and safety. For actors the most common safety zone is the place that Stuart…ahem…’strongly dislikes’… It’s in the intellectually-driven, preconceived understanding of the scene. It’s the cliched understanding of the story. In the bad audition, the “I’m nervous-I’m nervous-I’m in my head” spiral gets out of control really quickly, and often times due to TIME issues, you just don’t get a second chance.
The conditions of the audition itself will so often push the actor into safety zone which is exactly where (s)he mustn’t be.
Now, the really good news is that although his room will often feel intimidating, the truth is that it is open and supportive, and he expects you to do that thing to jar yourself into motion. The really cool thing is that simply making that jump ‘through the perceived intimidation factor’ of his room will very often facilitate the chaos, especially when you have never made that jump. I suspect on some level he’s facilitating the opportunity for you to get there. No matter what, whenever you commit to the ‘jarring into motion’, you will always gain respect and appreciation for what you are: an actor working professionally (never indulgently!) to get your job done.
Here’s how I will approach every audition with Stuart going forward:
Know the scene. Break it down into it’s acts, arcs, and relationships and dissect each moment
Rehearse the #$&! out of it. Challenge my ‘knowledge’ of it, explore it from different places, train my body to be ready willing and able to plunge into chaos.
Determine how the scene must end (based on my thorough story understanding)
Walk into the room, and start from somewhere I’ve never thought of before that’s extremely different from how it ends.
Note that many may judge point 4 as being the ‘arbitrary decoration’ I mentioned earlier. I submit that it will be anything BUT that. It will be an informed decision that I will have earned through my rigor. It will be the fulfillment of my surrender, and it will throw me into a chaotic and foreign starting place.
If I do that, the story will be told (it will be impossible for it not to be told, I won’t be able to escape it – see ‘rigor’ above) and the journey I take will be spontaneous and interesting. If I have no idea where I’m going, neither will he. I will have amazed the magician. I will always remember to forget.
I will always remember how much this man has invested in earning his right to be on the other side of that camera, and I will honor and respect that investment, but I will not allow it to be an excuse to intimidate myself into my ‘safety place’. I think that will be easy actually, as long as I remember to accept this as my proof that he cares. A lot.