Thursday, October 11, 2012


Robert Benedetti is a particularly useful compass for me, as he’s a witness who is not a close friend.  I never was really in the theatre but avidly observed Alvina Krause’s acting classes and plays for four years.  Half a century later, I try to understand her methods.  The issue of what is or is not Stanislavsky’s “Method” has dominated a lot of discussion about acting.  Benedetti sensibly points out that the man changed his ideas over his lifetime and basing one’s Method on the early ideas will yield quite different theories than those from his later life. To quote directly, “They essentially froze his work at moments of his development and failed to take the essential arc of his search into account.”  I’ll try not to do the same to Alvina Krause.  

I have three acting books by Benedetti:  two editions of “The Actor at Work’ (1970, the first, and 2005, the ninth) and “The Actor in You: Sixteen Steps to Understanding the Art of Acting.” (2012, the fifth).  The latter is a little simpler, an excellent beginning text.  I will say this: these books are as useful for a writer of narrative as for an actor.

What distinguishes Benedetti’s work is the stunning amount of it and his attention to personal ethics and social consciousness.  Also, the simple fact that he has continued on for many decades after this “Method” was seen circa 1970.  David Press’ Ph.D. thesis about AK’s version was submitted in 1971.  David Downs continued her teaching on beyond her, with her guidance, so remains pretty much in her context.  Marshall Mason is talking about directing as much or more than acting.  

Benedetti departed from the AK circle early, transferring from the Department of Theatre to the Department of interpretation between his freshman and sophomore years.  About the same time AK turned away from her origins in Oral Interpretation, not acting.  In practical terms, as AK became more famous and sought-after as a “Method” teacher in the period I was taking notes, she began to have to do triage with her time and energy.  She was aging.  One way to keep class size down was to reject Interp students in the C11 acting class, which they had previously been required to take.  That line had not been drawn so harshly before.  She was throwing her weight around.

Benedetti scared me.  He was very big, very smart and since those days he has become a very big success.  The Department of Interpretation in what was then the School of Speech is now something quite different: "Performance Studies."  After fifty years I visit the website and find that some of the classes I valued most highly are missing: notably Dean Barnlund’s “Language and Thought” and “Discussion.”  But then I see that today’s Performance Studies classes are about the interpretation and reconciliation of ethnic cultures, close to the same thing.  Benedetti’s work, esp. the two prize-winning movies (“Miss Evers' Boys” & “A Lesson Before Dying”), has been about the anguished problems of African-Americans and other social justice issues.  Dean Barnlund would have recognized and supported this work as uses of his principles and even some of his methods.  Think what Performance Studies could do with “Miss Evers” dancing!

Many of the Discussion class methods I was taught were the kind used now in Organizational Design and Leadership Training -- bird-caging discussions, brain-storming (before it became a cliché), repeating back what someone said to check meaning, identifying the strategies of individuals.  Most of all, we had the constant awareness that one culture is framed differently than the next.  Benedetti found Gestalt Therapy at Esalen.  He describes his approach as “a mix of Buddhist and Reichian principles and processes of discovery and personal growth.”  One might say that AK was teaching Stanislavsky the way Cecchetti taught Russian ballet, while Benedetti was exploring Pilobolus.  The result is that his acting books are packed with self-exploration and partner interaction exercises that support “consciousness raising.”

Every good teacher or therapist is eclectic, searching for what works.  To an outsider the subtle variations in Manhattan Broadway ideas about Method seem to leak in from the psychoanalytic background of that culture.  In my time there were several students who were from high schools and conservatories there, who brought their awe and esteem for it with them.  But as I work with these notes I begin to realize how much AK is based in post-War (both I and II) “American” values which may be projected on Greek and Elizabethan ideals.  The time period was the late Fifties post-Korean War -- an undeclared “brain-wash” war, the Cold War.  The Kennedy Years had not quite begun.  The Demonization of Communism still gripped Hollywood.

The contrast between reading Benedetti and the other writers is rooted in the fact that he went on developing after those early times.  He accepts those but adds Asian concepts, experimental ideas.   Esalen stands as a kind of Pacific Ocean idea-bank, sort of like the Concord, Massachusetts, Atlantic Ocean idea-bank, reconciling the “we are the greatest” Americanism with “the world is interwoven” of Asian and New Age thinking.  Both accepted the twinship of religion and theatre.  Very powerful stuff and crucial now in the “twenty-tens.”

Going in and out of academics, Benedetti has entered the world of professional production, but I don’t know enough to comment on them.  I haven’t read his books about film and television, those variations on the theme of theatre.   They’re on my list.  They would have been beyond AK, not least because they weren’t really developed yet.  Neither do I have ANY idea what Benedetti would think of Cinematheque, the group I work with (sort of -- and from a distance), which is based on edited and computer-altered photography, almost entirely and ambiguously connotative.  Think music vid.  AK would have given it no time.

Yesterday I happily spent reading Benedetti’s first novel:  “The Long Italian Goodbye” which is a gracefully fictionalized memoir of the West Side Chicago neighborhood where he grew up.  Think Francis Ford Coppola.  Very Italian, complete with recipes, curiously echoing Jewish ways (Studs Terkel, Saul Bellow) in the salute to Socialism, the insistence on justice, the awareness of mortality, the valuing of ordinary people.  

In his acting books Benedetti comes back now and then to the ethics of the actual theatre company -- how the cast and crew treat each other.  His advice rings true for Life, period.  This is from the “Afterword” chapter called “Transformation” in "The Actor at Work."

Your sense of purpose grows from your respect for your own talent, your love for the specific material you are performing, and your desire to use both to serve your audience.  It is this drive to be at service through your art that finally overcomes the self-consciousness of your ego and carries you beyond yourself, giving you a transcendent purpose from which come dignity, fulfillment, and ongoing artistic vitality.

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