Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Testa, Testa, 1 2 3...

4 - 5 - 6 - 7 people only in the infamous Michael Testa's workshop at Actor's Key last Saturday.  Fools. FOOLS who didn't sign up for his class! In my opinion, this workshop experience was by far the most challenging and the most intimidating of all workshops I've taken thus far in Los Angeles.  Finally I understand why my manager listed Testa as #1 to look out for when workshop shopping online.

First of all, Michael is no longer with Shaner / Testa Casting - he is an independent casting director with a current focus on film. From the moment he opened our Q & A, I understood that here is a man that defines passion within his profession. He is extremely outspoken, unafraid, knowledgeable, and warm in that i'm-just-attainable-enough-in-my-authoritarian way.  Mr. Testa naturally commands respects from his students - and that is difficult to achieve in a world full of arrogant, self-absorbed, eccentric, A.D.D. actors. Not that everyone fits that category but you know what I mean...

Side note: a Chicago comrade and up-and-coming actress, Alison Lani, was in the workshop with me. Alison doesn't know this, but I secretly admire her skills, her unconventional beauty, and I give mad props to the giant pair of cajones she has for sticking it out and MAKING it here in La La.  Needless to say, I was thrilled to take a workshop with her.

Anyway, Testa is notorious for using complex material loaded with shtuff (physical, emotional, you name it) - which means, as actors, you aren't reading an interrogation scene yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!  In fact, Alison and I were paired together in a wonderfully difficult scene from Marc Forster's first film (director of Monster's Ball) Everything Put Together.  Off we went to study our respective scenes. Upon our return, Michael's format was to have each scene performed in front of the other actor-students so that they can voice their own critiques and learn how to evaluate performances from a casting point of view. Peers judging! Ack!  Also, Michael gives extremely in-depth premises for the film, the scene & the characters right before the performance.  He gives a few beats to let it all sink in and WHAM, you are in the spotlight.

Alison and I performed a scene in which I (Angie) am a grieving mother in an upper middle-class suburban community who just lost her first baby directly after birth. At this point in the script, I am visiting my friend Judith (who also just had a child) at her home. Judith is nowhere to be found, so I enter her home without permission and end up in the baby's room. Judith - and the rest of my friends - already have distanced themselves from me because I have undergone such a huge personal loss that I am suffering from grief like a sickness - and none of them wish to catch it. As I have a moment with Judith's baby, she finds me, screams, and we proceed to have a very tough somewhat confrontational yet also evasive scene. Judith does NOT want me there, does NOT want me near her child, and is FREAKED OUT that I have come in unannounced. My character, Angie, is caught unconsciously red-handed. She doesn't know exactly how violating her actions are or why the community has turned against her.  She is so completely lost in her grief and her own experience that her reality is a few plateaus away from everyone else. She doesn't have bad intentions, but she is unfortunately tainted in the eyes of friends. Completely, completely affected.

Honestly, we did the scene with mediocrity in comparison to this above description, but Michael was somewhat impressed (so he said) with our first try and the class had nice things to say, but not great. Understood. Tough material, hello.

WHY - an actor might ask - does Michael use scripts with such deep, intimidating levels?!  Personally I say "Who cares? It's wonderful!!!!", but professionally, the purpose is to see how FAR we can take our own performances / attempts / commitments and to use these scenes as measurements for our skills and abilities. Where are we, as actors, in our acting? Where do we land in the realm of true commitment to the circumstances? It's SO smart of Testa to use scene work in this way - like an aptitude test for the actor. It's easy to choose a scene you are comfortable with and highlight your strengths.  But take something you are VERY uncomfortable with, something that requires you to stretch to places you've never even been before, and you will come out of that experience with fresh, vital self-knowledge.  Hopefully, that means discovering new confidence and new realms of ability. It also means clarity about your soft spots and underdeveloped areas.

Secondly, Testa gave us all the same monologue/scene to perform at the end of the workshop. Here is the premise in a nutshell: SAL is an older man who lives with his younger brother in their poverty-stricken apartment. Sal has dressed like a woman for many years and insists on being known as his brother's "Mother". They rarely leave the apartment except to go to Mass once a week. Sal is an alcoholic. Sal has two peg-legs. Sal uses other drugs, yaps like a sailor, and has just killed a man who attempted to rape her during a mutual crack haze. In this scene, Sal is at her brother's door, drunk, asking why it has come to this.  She begins to sing/speak lyrics of a song and proceeds to do so until she finds herself standing at the top of the stairs ultimately making the decision to fall and end it all.

Intimidating? Um, YEAH. But Michael insisted we do it. He insisted that he doesn't care HOW we get there in Sal's position, but just to do what it takes to get there. Be it, live it, allow yourself to be lost in it. 

The outcome? I did it like a slobbering, hopeless, frustrated, soul-searching, angry mess - and as Michael pointed out - I was 90% committed to the scene, not 100%.  He is right. I am still working on the self-consciousness that creeps in and watches me/judges me as I am performing. But overall I was pleased that I gave as much as I could at that time to such a ridiculously loaded piece of script.

I loved the challenging environment Michael Testa posed for his students. To me, it is exactly what we need as actors going through the same audition routes and traditions living in LA - a WAKE UP call.  More of that please. If I were to rename his workshop, it would be: The Trippio.  It's like a flight espresso shots. It's like being thrown into a plane with all the gear and you have no choice but to sky dive. In the end, the reward is total liberation. And you leave being proud of yourself for the work you pushed yourself to do and the new areas you've discovered.

Thank you and thank you, Michael Testa!

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