“The more alive you are, the better, and that takes a lot of realization and spontaneity. That takes a trust in yourself, a trust in other actors, and a trust in the moment.”
~ Andrew Garfield1
The Etude’s Purpose
Etudes are to acting as scales are to music, and without mastery of scales you can never go on to play master pieces. You don’t just pick up a guitar for the first time and bust out Free Bird or try to perfect swan lake after just a few ballet lessons. This sounds quite normal when we look at these talents which we know require years of practice, but when we discuss acting we just think that anyone can do anything immediately. The reason it always looks so effortless is because the people we want to emulate are masters of their craft who have practiced for countless hours. So for this reason, in acting you shouldn’t really just start and try to tackle Chekov or Tennessee Williams.
You must also continue to practice Etudes to maintain your instrument, and maintain your ability to really commit to/follow your first impulse. I can always tell how out of practice I am after a few weeks.
And for me, it is also really about establishing a connection with my partner, whom I may have either had very limited interaction with or have never met before. I don’t go searching for a particular relationship, I take them in with physiological breath and let my subconscious do the rest, whatever happens, happens. I am still learning to truly trust the process, and trust my instrument, because I know when I have either a preconceived idea of what will happen or an outcome I desire, I’ll try to force it, and when we force our acting, it becomes terrible.
If you’ve found this blog post on etudes first, please check out my other blog on etudes that gives a bit more background information on the process here.
About the Title of this Blog
I have been doing twice weekly etude classes with the Demidov School London and it has fundamentally changed how I look at and experience etudes, and also changed how I view life, and therefore has changed my acting as well. The class is filled with talented people from all over the globe, and I highly recommend it.
At some point during class I asked my teacher, Andrei Biziorek, if I should go back and interrogate my thoughts/feelings/impulses in an etude to see where I could have done better. He told me that interrogate was too intense a word. He said that when we look back we should do so with love and compassion in order to understand what we did and why we did it. So that is how I intend to reflect on the lessons that I have learned by taking part in an etude class for over a year now.
Below are new observations that I’ve had while practicing. It’s important to note that these are my observations and some quotes from my acting teacher that I found poignant in the moment. I have tried to give the quotes as much context as possible to ensure an accurate representation. If there is any inconsistency or things don’t flow very well, know that the fault lies with me. I hope that what I have observed can lead to better discussion on technique and the actor’s process.
My Etude Beginning
When I first started my acting journey, etudes were terrifying to me, not like monster scary but really a fear of the unknown. Between not knowing what was going to happen and not wanting to piss off my teacher by not doing a good job, as I sat in the class and waited for my turn I would think of interesting things to do, to think, and to convey when I was finally given the chance to perform.
This was not fair to myself or my partner. I did not give my whole self to the scene, effectively shutting out my scene partner, and therefore I robbed myself of moments to grow and learn. I know that it wasn’t until a few years later that I really let myself be free during an etude and found what my teacher was trying to cultivate. So if you take anything from my ramblings, it is to relax and let the process do its job.
Thoughts on having two classes per week
I consider myself a creative. I don’t work a 9-5 job, and honestly I don’t know if I ever could. But taking two classes (only six hours) a week really helped me up my game.
- Two classes a week forces me to be creative even when I don’t feel like it, and it is that kind of consistency that will move you forward, and prove to yourself that you are in fact a professional.
- I took more creative risks. I became less precious with my time in class. I no longer felt the need to be perfect because class time was no longer so rare, if I messed up I could do it again in a few days after thinking about what went wrong and actually improve/try a different way
- I come straight home from work and within ten minutes I’m on the call for the class, this means I have to do vocal warm ups in my car. This has become very useful for days when I have self tapes that I need to do immediately after work.
Vulnerability and Connection
The biggest area that I think I need to improve on in my acting right now is in being emotionally vulnerable with my partners. It’s hard, the military and society have conditioned me to be the exact opposite. (Particularly, it is particularly harder for me to be vulnerable with other men, and I feel the same coming from them, which is really down to self limiting beliefs.) While I know I have come a long way, I still have light years to go.
I have found a correlation between vulnerability and connection though. There are etudes that sometimes feel like I am close enough to be their brother or boyfriend, and there are other etudes where I feel like I don’t know my partner at all.
After thinking about the difference between these extremes, I feel what separates the way these feel is the vulnerability each person allows. If both partners are emotionally vulnerable and open to their partner, really hearing what is being said, and being present the odds of connection are very high. Now this means that if an actor isn’t vulnerable or open, I believe that there can be no connection. With some of my partner’s I’ve felt like they were wearing a mask, not trying to be something they weren’t, but not giving of their whole selves. I think because of this my subconscious immediately calls bullshit because it can tell something about our interaction isn’t genuine, and I think that if I am not fully open the same thing happens to my partner, so its a bit of a death spiral.
How to Assign the Lines
The first step in an etude is assigning the lines, and we do this by repeating them. When we repeat the lines we are preparing the lines in your subconscious. The meaning is found in the moment without my interference. The words are completely elastic and can mean anything depending on our emotional state.
I have seen how many people take in the lines and try to commit them to memory, and to me there has only been one way that makes sense and produces the results that we want, which is to be able to make the lines really mean anything when they’re said and to to have no preconceived (even unconscious) way that we want to say them. The way to say the lines is to be as neutral (I also say monotone sometimes) as possible. I don’t understand the reasoning behind it, but when done repeatedly it puts the lines into the back of your mind without any specific way that they’re supposed to come out. This is essential to the etude process.
I have seen other actors change the inflection into something unnatural when they repeat their lines, as if to be so unnatural that their mind cannot possibly believe that how they are saying it is how it’s supposed to come out. Now one reason this doesn’t work for me is that I am more focused on trying to change the inflection of my voice to throw off my mind than I am on my partner and what they are saying. In some instances my teacher will have us do one last repetition of the lines, slowly just to make sure that we really feel and hear our partner when they speak.
Stage directions within the lines:
You can actually assign actions the same time you assign lines. This is something that I still don’t truly understand and need more practice with, but from what I have experienced so far this plants a seed in your subconscious that will make you want to perform the action without thinking about it!
Some examples of stage directions you may encounter:
- I come in
- I am alone
- I don’t speak for a moment
- Dot dot dot
It is very important to remember that you can assign what action to perform, but not how you do it. If you assign how you will do something it becomes inorganic and stale because you’ll have a preconceived idea of what you want to happen.
After you have learned your lines, you’ll empty, and being empty is hard. This means you close your eyes and shut off your brain for two to three seconds to clear your mind. The reason it is two to three seconds is because this is about as long as you can go without a thought. When you open your eyes it is almost like a fresh start and you take in your surroundings and your partner for the first time.
Now you may have a feeling of some kind before you empty, and after you empty it may still be there, that is fine. You are not trying to erase how you feel, but to give your mind a clear break and then picking up on whatever comes to it first after emptying.
I have found that when I do not empty properly and I come in with an idea on how things should go there is an extreme disconnect with my partner and I, and it is very apparent during our discussion about the etude afterward and finding common ground about our experience within the etude is very difficult. While this may not always be the case I find when we have wildly varying experiences and ideas on our relationship then I had failed to let go of my preconceived notions.
Once you get good at emptying it will become super quick
Following your Impulses
“You see someone who is just following his impulses, every single impulse is raw, and it’s real, and it’s vulnerable and grotesque and beautiful, and it’s poetic.” – Andrew Garfield2
If you are unsure what impulses are as they refer to acting, you can check out this post here: https://kylejerichow.com/2019/04/01/acting-impulses/
In life we don’t act on our first impulse, so we need to relearn how to surrender to the first thing which may have been beaten out of us because of societal norms. Going with your impulses means going with that first feeling you get after you empty. This feeling could come immediately and be very well defined, or it could take a little bit to notice and then take even longer to define. A key to this is after emptying, don’t look for something – just exist, just wait, don’t rush. Remember, its not just patience, its faith.
We must learn to surrender to the most mundane things, there are no restrictions, your first impulse is your most honest so you must surrender to the truth of the experience as it comes to you. Some actors will have an impulse and then judge it and say “that isn’t an interesting impulse, I’ll wait for the next one.” Your first impulse is going to be the most organic, most truthful action you can take. Because of this you must surrender 100%, even if before you know what it is.
The first experience is the lens through which you see the etude, it can change, but it tints your outlook. For example if you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, the rest of your day will be tinted by that outlook and it will have an effect on how you experience your entire day.
As soon as the etude begins you are the character. Next you will perceive something, then you will have the urge to to perform an action, and this is a result. Now sometimes we will see our partner and be unaffected by them and they’re actions/feelings, and other times we will be affected by our partners. When this happens, it becomes a “Yes and” type of situation because all we have is our point of view as a person and as a character. This means that you can be affected by your partner, but you cannot lose the original emotional life that you created. I use the phrase “yes and” from improve to illustrate that it is a building process as you both discover the etude together.
Do not worry about the words
Now when speaking lines, the words are elastic and can mean anything depending on our emotional state. For example your line may be “I love you.” You could say this in a way where you convey that you actually do love them, but you could also say it in a way that illustrates the idea that you in fact hate them.
Do not worry about being a good scene partner
As actors we have it drilled into us to be good scene partners, but sometimes this can clash with our impulses. For example, you have the impulse to leave during the etude while your partner still has lines left. Most actors would ignore the impulse to leave in order to be present for their partner’s lines. With etudes, you don’t have to worry about that. If you have the impulse to leave, then you just leave, it will all work out.
I have been on both the giving and receiving end of someone walking out and there are still lines left to deliver and every time the etude has resolved itself!
Repeating without repeating
“I was really overwhelmed. This guy is really doing something on a deeper level. He was alive. He didn’t care about doing it the same way over and over again. He was listening. He was very present. He was spontaneous, he was surprising. He wasn’t trying to do those things, he was just being present.”Andrew Garfield on working with Ryan Gosling during a screen test.3
When we repeat an etude, we don’t want to hang on to anything. When repeating the goal is not to do the exact same thing that you just did, but to experience the etude again as if for the fist time. This means that some things will inevitably be the same, and some will be different. What you are really diving into when repeating is the circumstances of the etude. Circumstances always exist in their entirety, whether or not we are aware of them! Now, for obvious reasons, most of the time it will feel as though you’ve had this conversation before, so you therefore now have more of a past with your partner, and you discover a deeper relationship. You will also be having a conversation in the present moment. Now because you have a past and a present, there is a future as well within these circumstances!
After over a year and a half of these classes I can honestly say that I am a better actor, and not just by a little bit. I am more open, more sensitive, and able to be in the moment so much better than I was before I started these classes. But I know that I am still only at the beginning of my journey, even though I have been studying acting for over five years now. I am excited to continue the exploration of the technique that Demidov taught, and to slowly become the actor that I know I can be.