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My Four Days in the Room with Stuart Aikins

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:

  1. Know the scene. Break it down into it’s acts, arcs, and rela­tion­ships and dis­sect each moment

  2. 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.

  3. Deter­mine how the scene must end (based on my thor­ough story understanding)

  4. 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.

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