May 2000

Lissa Tyler Renaud
Notes from Acting Training
Paying Attention: The Tension In Intention

I've always been impressed that so many acting teachers seem able to explain "Intention" to their students. I can't. I don't really know what it means. I mean, I do sort of, but not really.  Not in my bones, my molecules, the way I need to teach it. Whenever I've used the word, I've had the feeling that I was saying something that meant something very real to someone sometime somewhere else.  But not to me, not now.

And actually, I feel this way with a lot of the vocabulary that seems to be standard in an acting studio in America: beat, action, objective, relationship, circumstance,. When I hear these words, I only wish I'd been present when they emerged from whatever conversation that was—it must have been amazing, thrilling. But I wasn't there, and there's no thrill in my conversation with my students when I use those words just to say I used them. And so many performances I've loved around the world were by people who didn't use those words.

In even broader terms, I don't really understand what it means for one teacher to use another's vocabulary exclusively, to teach someone else's "method."  I understand the teacher's job the way the painter Oskar Kokoschka did--it is to help a student "learn how to see with his own eyes." How can I do that if I am not seeing with my own eyes but with someone else's?

Practically speaking, if the person whose method is being taught is dead, then will the living teacher just keeps saying the same things over and over? Then the students who "get it"--just magically understand everything the exact same way the teacher understands the dead person's ideas--are "good" and everyone else is, what, "dumb"? I just don't understand the basic concept.

I understand being strongly influenced by someone's work, or basing one's teaching in large part on a particular vocabulary. These are just like thinking that X really had a lot of very good ideas, yes? Using a set of ideas as a touchstone, yes. But just teaching one approach, no matter what comes to you or what your students' needs are or what their response is—the purpose of this is not clear to me. And what if you stumble on another way of saying something that's better--you pretend you don't know?

Is it like a marketing thing?--attaching one's unknown name to a known name? Or--here's another thought--maybe it's like an historical function--to give acting students a chance to walk around for a short time inside what we know of someone's specific approach--like pretending you were there? That could be interesting--acting class as Hologram of the Past...this seems valid for some purposes.

For my part, I've been on a long path to experience the idea of Intention in my own way, at a molecular level. It seems to be an idea to which special "attention must be paid." Sharon Carnicke tells us that Intention was a word used by Kazan to describe what a character wants to achieve in a scene. And I've seen the word "objective" used to express this idea, too—and then a dizzying number of other words—"problem" and "task" and more. And again, as I said at the opening, I understand that many expert teachers feel they have a handle on the distinctions between these words in a way that gives them confidence in their work with the concepts, and I've been angling for that same feeling for thirty years.

I have gotten close. Once I had this experience. Someone gave me a cassette tape of lullabies from around the world. The idea was that the tape would put my infant to sleep while I was off doing something else. But my boy was always interested in what he was hearing and got very alert. So I realized that the tape itself had no intention to put him to sleep. It only intended to be a tape, to be bought, to be a record of lullabies. There was no Intending Presence. So I started to experiment. If I sang a lullaby to wake him up, he'd wake up. If I sang to prove that I could sing, he'd wake up. If I sang to perform an experiment about intentions, he'd wake up. If I sang to put him to sleep, he'd go to sleep. If I spoke nonsense syllables to put him to sleep, he'd go to sleep. I always sang the same way—the same volume, pace, quality—the single thing that changed was my intention. My child always knew if my lullaby "text" was aligned with my "intention" to put him to sleep.

I had a conscious experience of Intention another time, too. I studied singing with Christine Sanders. Early in our studies, she was trying to help me feel what bel canto technique calls "upward" placement (also called "forward"). "Up, up," she kept saying. I'd do something. "Up, up," she'd say again. I'd do something. After weeks of this same exchange, Christine finally bellowed, "THEN DO DOWN!!!"  So I did down and her whole face lit…up. "That's up!" she said happily. "No it isn't," I said, "it's down!" And we were both pleased. At first her intention had been to teach me "up"-ness, and then she'd shifted to wanting me simply to sing and she became very resourceful and it was wonderful.

I had another Intention-related experience with my movement teacher, John McConville. We were doing a series of alignment exercises—exercises to help release our muscles so we could establish a new relationship to our skeletons, to gravity. And this unfamiliar, quiet work was long work for me, who already had a performing background in dance—this was finicky work, deep and disorienting work. And after many months I confronted him: "John. I am not getting this. I can't do this because I don't understand what the goal is in my body, I don't know my intention in this work." "Oh," he said cheerfully. "No one knows that!" And from then on I was just fine and I was able to focus more usefully.

No one will be surprised that one of my profoundest experiences of what Intention might mean came in the context of Stanislavsky, but everyone will be surprised as to how this was so. 

I hold Isadora Duncan's accomplishments in the very  highest regard. I don't know her as  the plump, promiscuous flake she is in the public imagination; I know her as a professional woman on the international art scene who was a scholar, a theoretician, an administrator and a lecturer—all while being a single mother and being on intimate terms with many of the most interesting men and women of her time.  Not bad. Her accompanist, Viktor Seroff, wrote on her at her own request—and I came upon his The Real Isadora from 1971 when it first surfaced in this country.

Here I read the marvelous and complex story of her personal and professional relationship with Stanislavsky—both during and after her 1908 stay in Moscow--and I got a clearer sense of Stanislavsky as a man than I ever have from the books one typically finds in the bookstore's Theatre section. In his private correspondence with her after their time together, Stanislavsky is clearly a shy, dynamic man with a very large crush on Duncan.  And here is a Seroff story from their visit:

"Isadora describes in detail her unsuccessful attempt to seduce Stanislavsky in her hotel room, a program that was frustrated by Stanislavsky's utter surprise and his exclamation, 'But what should we do with the child?' 'What child?' Isadora asked him. 'Why, our child, of course… You see I would never approve of any child of mine being raised outside of my jurisdiction, and that would be difficult in my present household.' To which Isadora burst out laughing." Later Stanislavsky wrote to her that he was worried she would misinterpret his "restraint" as "indifference" and protested his love. Seroff says that many years later Duncan herself told this story to Stanislavsky's wife, to which Mme. Stanislavsky responded, "Oh, but that is just like him. He takes life so seriously." [Ch. 13]

Now this—this—I understand.  Here is a man who sees everything that happens in terms of long-ranging consequences. If I do A, it will necessarily end up at Z. There are consequences to my actions: consequences to my walking into a room; consequences to sitting in this chair instead of that one. And we control the consequences to our actions by…controlling our actions.  And this notion bespeaks a man with a great seriousness about life, someone who is not flip or cavalier, but rather is someone who believes that what we do makes a difference on both small and large levels—a man who can think from specific to general, from micro- to macrocosm…from present to future. And maybe this is some part of what Intention is really about—Intention means the consequences I am hoping will result from my actions.

Then we can certainly say that Stanislavsky's reaction was an "obstacle" to Duncan's "intention." –Or: was her bursting out laughing an "obstacle" to Stanislavsky's own "intention"? After all, what was he doing alone with her in her hotel room?—his Intention is not very clear…

Ah well. They say that we teach best the things we have the hardest time learning ourselves.  That is, when something comes "naturally" to us, it is much harder to articulate our own process to someone else—whereas when we've fought to understand something, we've grappled with it, suffered for it, tamed the beast of it—we have clearer words for what we've come out knowing on the other side.  And myself being both a very slow learner and a teacher, I can only hope this is so.

Lissa Tyler Renaud is an award-winning actress,
a PhD scholar, and the Program Director of The
Actors' Training Project

© 2000 Lissa Tyler Renaud ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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