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Mark Callahan: Welcome to Feedback! You're about to hear an interview with George Contini, an Associate Professor of Theatre and Film Studies here at the University of Georgia. We're going to talk about his experience with performance and about how actors learn. This is our conversation series about critical evaluation across disciplines, and I hope you enjoy it. Here's George:
George Contini: In theatre, we would call peer review probably feedback, or notes if you're involved in production or a class. Critique seems to be something that we would use but that kind of is reserved for seminars and panels and symposium when you bring a group together and they're going to explore a production, they will then - sure, you can use critique, but on a regular kind of everyday basis we don't want critique because that possibly suggests that we're going to diminish the work rather than we want the work to grow, so anything we would give - that's why we say we give notes - because it's just, "Well here's something I saw, you know, it's not necessarily good or bad. This is what I saw."
MC : Well, that's interesting. Do you think using the term "notes" somehow softens the act of critique, or is it something completely different?
GC: Well you know what it is? Here's what it is: it's the difference between what happens in the practical professional arena and what happens in an academic situation. And I think that, as with every art form but it's especially felt I think in theatre sometimes, because the theatre world, the professional theatre world, lives by so many of its own little rules. And so it's just kind of that's just an accepted part of when you're working on a production or you're doing something, you have a director or a producer or someone who's just going to give you notes but what's funny about that is actors do not give each other notes: That is a rule, you know? That's actually an [Actors'] Equity, a union rule.
MC: The actors' union?
GC: Right, the actors' union. You cannot give another actor a note and we actually teach that in class, you know, don't: That's not your job that's the director's job. So as I think about it, it's very very defined who gives the feedback in theatre. That's kind of interesting. I hadn't thought of that before.
MC: Yes, where does that come from?
GC: The sense of ensemble that you're looking for when you're working on a show, it implies if I were, you know - the most common thing that would happen is so you and I are in a play and every night you've been saying a line a particular way and I don't like the way you say it. And so I come off stage and I say, "You know, I love being on stage with you but the next time you say that line could you try punching this word, you know?" Well that's not my job. My job is to just work with whatever you give me on stage and then the director's going to watch it and say, "Hmm, I don't like the way Mark's doing that." Now, I could go to the director and I could say you know, "Could we do something about the way Mark's saying that line?" And most likely the director will say, "Sure, I'll go talk to Mark and give that note." But it's that going - God, I never realized we were so hierarchical before -
MC: I was trying to avoid that word, but...
GC: No, but it really is. You know, I'm going, "Wow, really?" But it's more about we're this kind of democracy, we're very democratic and we're all working toward the same goal but we do answer to this one person. But you can get, you know, I've been in many productions, professional productions, the stage manager, you know once the director goes the stage manager runs the show, and so you have this new person who is basically critiquing and often times you have a stage manager who is not a director and they don't, they're just going technically, like, "You need to step here on this line. You have not been doing that." And it's kind of, "Well, I wasn't feeling the moment, you know?" But I have, I've been in many shows where the stage manager has come on stage and just laid into an actor because they have given notes to another actor.
MC: Oh, really?
GC: So, it is kind of built in. I mean, I think that's why we don't have a lot of terminology for it because we aren't supposed to be doing it, and that may be a reason that sometimes it's so difficult to do peer review, especially in an academic setting for theatre.
MC: Because you are training young people, training students in these protocols even if they're not a member of any union.
GC: Absolutely. And it happens every show. There's, I mean, every show. And here at UGA there's always somebody who gives another actor a note and then that actor comes storming backstage or calls us up and says, "So-and-so's giving me notes!" You know? And it's kind of "Oh, okay, you're not allowed to do that. Don't do that."
MC: It becomes political.
GC: Oh, it's very political, yes. And, you know, are you being a good actor? Are you being a good ensemble member? And it's the same thing: you don't comment on the costume. When the costume designer brings you that costume, when you put it on, the last thing you do is say, "Oh I don't like this" or, "I love this" you just - this is what they've given you. This is what you wear. The director will tell you whether it's nice or not.
MC: When you're in the classroom, when you're training actors in a class or in a workshop, what's the session like?
GC: In my classes or even in production what would happen would be, there would be some sort of ensemble warm-up so that everyone is kind of on the same level. Bringing people in, you know especially in class if it's early morning people are tired, if it's late in the afternoon people are tired, you know? And just trying to get everybody on the same level and focused and then having a very set, this is the exercise we are going to do, this is what it's supposed to accomplish, and doing that and then I'll initially always start off with a group - I don't want to use the word assessment but I'll use the word assessment - we'll do it and then I'll have everybody sit down in a circle and I'll say, "So, what happened? What were you feeling, what's going on, what did you see?" and get their feedback and then try to take whatever they're saying in their feedback and get it on my message of what the lesson is supposed to be about that day so that it's coming from them. And then the final thing would be they would do something building up to something then I will be able to step back and say "Okay, so at the end of today's session we went from point A to point B and now you're self-initiating this. I'm not teaching it anymore and this is what I'm seeing, this is what still needs to be worked on, this is what we'll work on in the next session . . . how ever."
MC: So will they actually repeat the exercise?
GC: Yes. I mean, I tend to do that a lot. I tend to build that in, that, you know, I'll explain something then I'll show it or do it and then I'll have them do it, and then letting them then, "Now you do it on yourself."
MC: So you're actually demonstrating?
GC: Yes, I'll demonstrate a lot. Yes.
MC: Are you always the one demonstrating or do other people demonstrate?
GC: Like within a classroom?
GC: I would say initially I'm always the demonstrator because most of the time there are specific techniques. Unless I know - and this would happen in a graduate class - if in a graduate class there is a student that has had experience in this particular technique before, I would certainly be like, "Oh, well you know this right? You know, show us a little bit of this." But for the most part I like to kind of show the clean kind of "this is it in its bare bones, this is what it is, but let's see where you can take it" kind of thing.
MC: So there's conversation happening but there's also showing?
MC: Now, I wanted to ask you about all the different techniques, because it seems that in acting there are so many little schools and methods, and do they share a language or do they come with their own lexicon?
GC: For the most part, and I am going to say ninety-nine percent, are all stemming from the initial work of Stanislavsky.
MC: An Actor Prepares.
GC: An Actor Prepares. He really - we look to him as the man who invented the grammar of acting, and so those constant techniques of how to become - how to think like a character how to physically become a character, motivation, all of that: that's common. We'll deal with that. And particularly here at UGA, I mean, that's built into our curriculum. We say, right up front, we are a Stanislavsky-based, that's what we are. And then each one of us has our own area of interest, and some of those techniques build off of the Stanislavsky work very easily. You know, the Chekov work that I do, he was a student of Stanislavsky's, but he took that and said, "Well, Stanislavsky, you're all emotion, but now I'm going to go with the physical," so then I'm kind of veering off but I can still go back and say, "You know, we're still going for that objective that Stanislavsky built, we're just getting to it another way." But then we have Meisner, again coming from Lee Strasberg and that whole school but based in Stanislavsky again but coming at it their own way, and you know there's so many different techniques. I know we have people in the department that do Alba which is a breathing technique, and then just all the different vocal techniques, Rodenburg and Linklater, all these people have their own take on it, but you are kind of speaking the same language.
I think where things, if at all there's a conflict - and I don't even know if conflict is the right word - is the final, what the final product is, because everyone has their own taste. Every teacher has their own taste in what they like to see, and so some people would look at something and go, "Oh, I really don't like what that actor's doing" but you have to kind of step - and for peer review this is really actually a really good point: you have to kind of step back and go, "You know, I really don't like what they're doing, but are they doing it well. You know? I don't like that style of acting." For instance, the Chekov work is, you know, comes from a very large place. You embody the characters in a large way but some people would say, "Oh! That's overacting!" But if the point - looking at it as the teacher - is to go, "Are they doing the techniques?" Then you go, "Yes. They have accomplished the technique of the grotesque and they're doing it very well." That doesn't necessarily mean that you like it. So yes, I think there's a number of different levels and you just kind of have to have that objective eye to be able to look past your own personal tastes sometimes and be able to look at it just as, "Here are the steps of the techniques. Are they doing it?" We have, I guess it's our own, we have juries for the undergraduate students, which I guess is peer review - I had not thought of that; see, you're opening me up in so many ways!
MC: Well, tell me about the juries.
GC: So, juries. Okay, so all right, this is interesting. So there are for our undergraduates we have what are called juries. The jury is to pass on into the upper-level classes. So you've taken Acting I and Acting II, in which you've had to learn a group of techniques of how to analyze a script, how to analyze a character, how to break down a script into beats and motivation, how to when you're doing a monologue to create that invisible other person that you're talking to. So those are very solid, like you need to know how to do these, so then in the juries we ask the students to do two monologues to show us that they have indeed learned that. And if we feel like they have shown us that, then we pass them on so that they can take the upper-level classes. And that's a perfect example of a situation, because we have four performance faculty, and we haven't had all these students, you know, not all four of us have had anything to do with these students. So sometimes it gets down to we watch them and some people will be like, "Oh, I loved that person!" And others like, "Oh no.They weren't doing that work at all." Well, what are you talking about? And so it really shows you how subjective, even though we try not to be, it becomes sometimes.
MC: Even at that fundamental level.
GC: Even at that fundamental level of, because one will say, "Oh they were pursuing their objective so strongly" and the other one will be like, "I didn't see anything. I saw nothing coming from that actor." And you're kind of like, okay, and so we really have to then, in terms of assessing the student, we have to look at a much, it broadens our range of what we're looking at: were they a good student in class? And have they worked on productions? What kind of work do they do on productions? Were they just off today? You know, have we seen them do better work?
MC: And it's an audition sort of format?
GC: It's an audition format. So there - okay now you're leading me into something else - so then in the professional world I guess then our life is peer review as an actor because that's all you do is go to audition after audition after audition. I mean, and if you are going to an audition a day, if you live in some place like New York City you're going to an audition a day, and you're getting rejected every day.
MC: It's the law of averages.
GC: It's the law of averages. And so there comes a point - and this is the irony I guess - where you want the feedback but you have to develop this shell of, "I can't be upset if I don't get that job" because it could be any number, it could have nothing to do with talent, it could be the fact that that person's seven feet tall and fits the costume and or they have blue eyes rather than brown eyes and you have to just kind of go, "Okay, I'm letting that go." And so we aren't prone - that's really very interesting - we aren't prone as actors to be really open to being critiqued or having people judge our performance. You know, it's so funny, a classic example is you know we read the good reviews and we go, "Oh, I'm brilliant!" and we read the bad reviews and we go, "Oh, they don't know what they're talking about," you know? And that's classic. I mean, then you have to get the - you know, I personally, years ago when I first started out, I made the judgment call for myself that I was not going to read any reviews whether good or bad, and I saved them and I let them sit in a big pile for like six months, and then six months later I'll get them out and I'll read them and then I'm much more, you know I can be more objective and be like, "Well, yes, I did kind of suck at that point of the show, and yes."
MC: The sting is not as sharp.
GC: Exactly, it's not as sharp.
MC: I won't ask how you save them without looking at them.
GC: I just literally put them in a pile! And every once in a while someone will be like, "Oh, but it's really good, you really want to read it" and so I will succumb and I will, you know, "Okay, you're right, that's good." So yes, that's really interesting because it is built in that we don't necessarily want to take in the criticism.
MC: Now if you go to a professional audition do you ever get feedback from the audition?
GC: Yes, you do. And I think there are two ways that happens. The most important way, which usually means that they're interested in you for the part, is, "Oh, I really enjoyed what you just did. Could you try it this way now? Or could you make this adjustment with it, you know? Could you cry at the end?" They're wanting to see how malleable you are as an actor and it gives you the chance to kind of pull out your toolbox and go, "Oh, you want to see tears? I'll give you tears!" And then, I think the other way is whether you're cast. Whether they say, "Thank you so much. We're really looking forward to working with you." But most of the time it's just, you might get a nod, you might get a "very nice" and you're just like, "Oh please," "Oh, okay, that's what you're giving me? Okay, I'll take it, thank you." And you leave, you know? And as a director, having been on the other side, you do try to maintain this kind of demeanor of austerity and coldness and "I'm not going to really let you know how much I love you even though oh my God you really blew me away" but every once in a while there will be that one person and you will be up on your feet, which directors never do at auditions, and running over and shaking their hand and being like, "That was so good! Thank you so much for coming in!" You know, but that still doesn't mean you're going to cast them.
MC: Is there any kind of training or discussion to prepare people for that experience, given the emotional aspect of that experience?
GC: I mean, we try. It's one of those things, you know, we all talk about it in all of the acting classes and in any graduate seminar classes before they graduate we all try to say, "You know, it's going to be rough out there" and you need to have systems of support so that when you go home, who do you call? Your mom, your boyfriend, just to say, "Hey, I had this audition. It went really well or really bad." Whatever, just so you have someone. And also to learn, we really do, I try to teach people that as soon as that audition is over you have to let it go. You can't worry about it you can't think about it because it's done now. And the problem with that is until you are out in the world and you're doing those auditions every day and you're starting to get rejected you really can't - I know students can't grasp it. And then, you know, people will graduate and six months later I start getting the emails going, "Oh my God, you were so right. It's so cruel out here. I want to be back in school where everyone was nice." But you don't realize I think when you're in school how just abrupt it is, you know, that, "Well of course I'm going to get cast, I used to get cast in the shows at school all the time, so obviously I'm going to go and audition, maybe I'll audition five times then I'll finally get cast in something." And then they start, you know, you're on your thirtieth audition, you haven't gotten cast, and you're thinking, "Oh, is this the right thing that I chose to do?" Yes, it's tough.
MC: It seems like an especially vulnerable position.
GC: It is. I mean, that's why actors have the reputation of being such emotional wrecks.
GC: Right, "What reputation do you speak of, George?" I mean, yes, you understand that, and the neuroses. I mean, constantly looking for any kind of affirmation, which - okay, see you gave me, I'm going to walk away from this today having thought about all these things now - which is another thing that we tend not to want to do in rehearsal. One of the things that most directors will say during the course of a rehearsal is, "You know I can't give you a note every time you do something good so if I don't say anything about it, assume that it's good." And so as an actor then you're on the other side of that and you're acting and it seems then sometimes that all you're hearing is negativity, so when notes happen it's about, "Well you really need to do this better and could you do that stronger."
MC: Fix this.
GC: Fix this. Fix that. And really there will usually come a point when you need to be needy-actor and come up to the director and be like, "You know, I just need to hear that I'm on the right track. Could you just tell me I'm on the right track?"
MC: Well, do you have a memorable early experience when you received notes?
GC: I remember a specific time - well, there are two specific times. I remember this one director - I was playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and it was updated to some kind of circus-y thing, and of course Bottom was really a clown and I was on rollerskates and something, I actually sang the little - when he turned into a donkey - I sang the little donkey song, like from the 1940s, I can't even remember it now, but I remember this one, one of my teachers who was very dry, and she was never effusive with any kind of praise or anything and I cannot remember the word but it ended with an "-ing" and all she did is she came up to me and she said, "Lovely work. And the word is blank-'NG'." And she was like, "'NG' George, 'NG'." And I was like, you know, I really respect you and I'm going to take that and it's just kind of like, oh I have to work on my "NG"s, you know. So you get - it's stuff like that that I remember. We didn't have in my training a necessarily formal-like jury setting. We didn't have to do that.
And then it was, we started auditioning when I was still in college for summer stock and things like that and so those first couple auditions, you know, I remember, they write feedback and people were saying, you know, "Oh, you have a great understanding of the language but you don't know how to physicalize it," and things like that and so it was very very kind of specific stuff and so, yes. In the professional world all I remember are the bad ones. I just, you know... and the bad ones meaning the ones that are really bad and it amazes me still today when I read them for other people, when critics will latch on to something about the person themselves rather than the role they're playing. Like they'll talk about a physical characteristic like, "Oh, that... Oh I can't - this person's so fat." And I remember there was this one, I was doing a musical revue and some critic talked about my eyes popping out of my head, that I had these annoying "pop-eyes" and it just freaked me out, I was like, "What? I have pop-eyes? No one's ever told me I have pop-eyes!" And of course I went into this neurotic phase where that's all I thought about every time I would go on stage, you know.
So yes, you know, I think that's really interesting that we're also taught as actors to really forget that. We don't - the only time you take it out, because it's kind of like it's almost a cliche when you have someone say, "Oh, well I have my scrapbook full of clippings of all my great reviews," which used to be such a thing. And the only time you pull those reviews, really, are if you're trying to sell yourself for something else, you know, "Oh, this is - 'George Contini Is Stupendous'" and you grab all the good reviews to try to sell yourself, but other than that it's kind of tooting your own horn. You don't want to talk about that. You try to be humble. And we teach actors that, which I think is really funny. That we kind of say, "Yes, you're going to get critiqued but ignore both the good and the bad and don't talk about it." You know, God, we're really dysfunctional.
MC: Well, is there a time when you think feedback is most beneficial for an actor?
GC: Absolutely. I do. I think if you're in a production, if there is at all the possibility that you can get someone to see you early on in the rehearsal process and then see your final, you know, what you put on the stage during the performance, then they really they get to see where you came from and what happened. That's ideal. And there's been a movement, you know, a number of cities have tried to - I'm trying to think, I know somebody did this recently - they're trying to bring the arts critics into the process early on, like they invite them to rehearsals.
MC: The reviewers?
GC: The reviewers. Specifically to come and so they can see, "Look - it's not just this end thing that we're doing. We're trying to accomplish something - we want you to know this is where we started so that it's not just your coming in blind and going 'what is this that they've put up here?' but that there was a thought process."
MC: To see the process, yes.
GC: And I think that's great, I would love to see that happen more. So I think in production, that's the most important time. In the classroom it has to be, in the classroom it's almost every day. As a teacher I do find myself trying to have a moment like every day to say, "Oh, you improved there" and "Notice how you changed that from yesterday?" so that the student has an idea of "we're moving along."
MC: It's part of a practice.
GC: It's part of a - yes, exactly.
MC: Are there any discussions going on in the theatre world about how to change or improve?
GC: It's a question that is - over and over and over again especially in regards to tenure review. You know, how do people at your school judge your work as an artist? And it's constantly asked. And it's hard, it's very different for every art form and even here at UGA we had a big massive shift in our department in terms of how people were looked at for getting tenure in terms of performance. And that was really really important.
MC: Because of the subjective...?
GC: Because of the subjective and also just because of understanding those - our work doesn't fall into those standard kind of - you know we're not just going to necessarily publish a book, we're not going to - our work is the creation of a character in a performance, and how do you show that to a tenure review committee who is not comprised of theatre people and yet be able to show them, "Oh, look at what I've done" and it ends up being, oddly enough, you end up putting your reviews in there, you end up putting pictures of you in rehearsal, you know, so that people go, "Oh, it's a process! Look at that."
MC: Which, from an actor's standpoint, is not necessarily the important thing.
GC: Right! It's not the important thing but, "Oh, but the audience roared!" Yes, it's very different and that's a constant, I think constant question right now. Some departments are way ahead I think in this and some departments are still very behind, like they can't break through, they can't get those in the upper echelons of their particular universities to even start to think about that creative work being on par with what we know as academia.
MC: Now, what advice would you give someone who's about to receive notes?
GC: What I always tell everyone. And, God, it's so funny because we give these, we teach this and yet we then self-deny it. So we always say, I mean I would always say to someone, "Now, you know, just listen. Just take the note. Write it down. Don't judge it." The biggest thing you see with young actors is that they will try to defend. So that if you were to say to them, "I needed you to be a little more emotional in that scene," you will, a young actor, inexperienced, will immediately go, "Well what I was trying to do was..." And you, I don't want to know what you were trying to do. This is what I saw. And so it's kind of like, take the notes, write them down, go home, read them over once you get home and you've had time to release what you did in rehearsal, and then start to look at them objectively and see what you can incorporate.
Directors have learned, one thing we have learned, or teachers have learned too: if you've had to give a note like three or four times, they're never going to get it. And there's a reason for that. There's something about them that they don't want to go there, so you either can be frustrated and go, "Oh, my vision is never going to be put on the stage," or you then try to think of different ways to get to where you want. Because you will, you'll work with actors where you'll say something five times and it's kind of like, "Okay, it's just never going to happen," all right, so yes. Take the note, be gracious, and that's really - try to internalize it and try to do whatever the note is, try to incorporate it. Even if you don't do it well, if you don't incorporate it well, just for a director or a teacher to see the person attempt to do something is often times enough.
MC: Feedback is a production of Ideas for Creative Exploration, an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. I'm Mark Callahan. This podcast was produced with the assistance of Hanna Lisa Stefansson and featured music by The Noisettes.
Recorded on October 8, 2012
Transcription by Taylor Hobson