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Jessica Litwak

True Acting

True acting is a sacred art. It is an art based on a strange form of worship. The actor’s reverence is not for an elusive higher power but for the gritty daily practice of building vision out of poems and actions out of metaphor.  To act is to be ever ready to catch the butterfly of pure existence, the flapping, flighty essence of fleeting life and hold it for a moment to the sun. An actor captures the fragile winged creature of a thought-feeling- action only to let it go again and then with a new breath try to catch another. He is engaged with life, dream life or real life a moment at a time.  Acting is a paradox. It is a feat of divine mischief, a balance of irreverence and devotion, bright lights and thick shadows, ecstasy and misery. It is an impossibility made possible over and over again. To revel truthfully in imaginary worlds, an actor has to propel herself body and soul up off the floor of reality without forsaking her footprint or her shoe. A true actor transcends normalcy, invoking magic while keeping one hand firmly grasped on the minute details of taste and smell. A true actor blends charisma with banality, turning kings into witches, witches into prophets, prophets into salesmen, and salesmen into timeless ghosts. True actors are generous, courageous and the ones that last have an ability to surf the edge of the unknown, keeping home on their backs, eating dinner at midnight, tearing up the turf of their hearts to craft vibrant and true moments out of their own blood.

            I call it true acting because when witnessed the observer receives a keen AHA moment of truth. Perhaps the response is not a conscious awakening, it could be a tightening in the belly or a twinkle of a smile, or a contraction of the heart or a goosebump or a private reckoning, but it happens in reaction to what an actor is doing truthfully on stage. I am not talking about the actor portraying reality or playing naturalism, the actor could be riding an imaginary elephant and chanting gibberish. But the truth will be tangible and visceral, dangerous and comforting. The actor will be a mirror and a window simultaneously. And the witness will be somehow changed by this energetic exchange across the footlights.

True acting is the noblest art, and all I wished to ever do since the age of eight when I played an evil sorceress in a Parks and Recreation presentation in San Francisco’s Chinatown. But in this lifetime I have been too scared of the long walk to the stage, I have been too mortal and too self-conscious to make the great work my whole life. Some mornings I wake up and wonder: Is it too late to devote myself 100% to the craft?  My purpose here on earth is threefold I think: to make true art (as writer, director, performer) to build communities through art (as activist, healer, scholar, leader) and to teach true art.

Despite my inability to be a fulltime actor (I have never gone more than a few months without performing something) I have been a teacher of acting for many years. Recently at the request of some students, I decided to write down my approach. There isn’t all that much to say after Hamlet. He nailed the action to the word and the word to the action. But great teachers and writers like Stanislavsky, Meisner, Linklater, Chekhov, Mamet Bogart have added much to his advice. I offer to the mix a simple but layered theory that has worked for my students and me over time.

True acting is the goal of my work, which is to say I am not interested in teaching an actor how to achieve celebrity. I am not interested so much in the marketplace of craft (although I deeply respect my teaching compatriots that are able to merge art and industry in their training methods). This particular journey is for those who are interested in pursuing the true art of the thing, a pursuit, which may have a more circuitous route up the mountain of success than your average acting training. This is a trail with peaks of intellectual and philosophical challenge, valleys of emotional depth and vistas of hope for impacting the world with art. True acting is both a calling and a practice.


But this exploration is not just for people who identify as professional actors. After all, not all of us are actors by profession but all of us are actors in life. Sometimes we get "stage fright", sometimes we lose confidence in the middle of "a scene", sometimes when the "stage manager" calls "Places!

‘ or the "director" yells "Action!", we choke up, freeze, we just can't go on. Looking at acting as a craft can be useful for anyone whether he or she chooses to take that information to the stage and screen or to the street. Understanding the art of acting helps us take creative action in the world and in our lives.


Three Paradigms




            In graduate school I chose to write my thesis about three actresses who in 1901 were performing within a one mile radius of each other in London's West End. I was struck both by their genius and by the dissimilarities in their techniques. Each actress took a different road up the mountain and yet they all reached the top. A short play came out of the thesis Exit Pursued By A Bear,. The play was about three vastly divergent views finding common ground through active creativity. It is my goal to merge the essences of these three women in the pursuit of an acting technique (and a way of living) with wide range, inclusive of everyone.


My acting training was experienced in three stages: at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, The Experimental Theatre Wing at New York University, and with William Esper at The Esper Studio (which bases its training on the work of Sanford Meisner) Each phase of my tutelage reflects one of these three great actresses' style and philosophy.


1) Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), A french actress, was born in Paris on the 22nd of October 1845, she was of mixed French and Dutch parentage, and of Jewish descent. She was, however, baptized at the age of twelve and brought up in a convent. Her position as the greatest actress of her day was a national fact. Her amazing power of emotional acting, the magnetism of her personality, and the beauty of her "voix d'or," (voice of gold) made the public tolerant of her occasional perversity. She toured Denmark, America and Russia, England, Australia, and the chief European capitals often as legend has it, spending her nights asleep in a comfy coffin. By the time she was 35 she had played one hundred and twelve parts, thirty-eight of which she had created, including quite a few male roles. Early in 1899 she made the bold experiment of a French production of Hamlet, in which she played the title part. Fond of snakes, she would keep large ones around the house and they would often fall asleep, curling up for long periods of hibernation in the living room. More than one guest was shocked to his feet by what they had thought was a giant footstool coming to life and hissing with amphibian fury. She supposedly staged an infamous acting contest once. She other great actresses, among them Helena Modjeska the Russian star, were taking a break from a large gala event in one of the ladies powder rooms. Sarah, on realizing that many there had played Camille (from the play La Dame Aux Camillias) decided that they ought to have a contest then and there, each reciting Camille one after the other. However, since she believed that jusdgement would be swayed by the glitter of costumes, she insisted that Camille be played in the nude. The story is that at least three actresses stripped and complied. The story is, Sarah won.


She was a genius of artifice. Starting from the outside and moving inward, she would take a scene or a character and create a magnificent and brave piece of art. She had the power of her convictions and an incomparable passion for the theatre. At the ExperimentalTheatre Wing I had the great pleasure of working with the phenomenal Charles Ludlum who claimed to have had a picture of Sarah playing Phedre in his dressing room. He loved her luminous, inclusive, broad theatricality and her guts. Sarah would have loved Drag Queens.




Ze sing ees I love ze sound of my voice. It resonates through ze room, bounces off walls and pierce ze heart of all who listen. In France we don't go see a play, we go hear a play. So ze voice is the seducer that wraps ze audience up and makes it fall in love. Everysing is sex. Everysing. When it comes down to eet, ze passion for life, ze willingness to listen, ze understanding of ze ages, it all comes from ze groin. It is not so much ze fuck, it is ze build to ze fuck. Zat is ze question. Not to be or not to be, but to love or not to love. Ze sing we all ask, ze sing we all dream about. Ze voice reflects both ze need and ze cure. Ze liquid gold ze prayers ze promise ze sex. I cry love, I proclaim it. My voice is my sex and it is the truth and it is beauty and paradise and it is irresistible.


2) Ellen Terry, an English actress of strength and power inspired extravagant feeling in her audiences. George Bernard Shaw gallantly declared: "every famous man of the 19th century- provided he were a playgoer- has been in love with Ellen Terry.' Adored by both the public and her colleagues alike Terry was a woman of great charm and generosity who also possessed a fiercely independent spirit allied to a resolute capacity for hard work.  Ellen was born in 1847 in Coventry,'Shakespeare's own county' as she happily recalled in her 1908 memoirs. Her parents were successful strolling players who expected their children to follow in their footsteps and indeed Terry's earliest memories revolved around the theatre. In her mid teens Ellen had her first encounter with Edward Godwin introduced Ellen to a new, aesthetic world.


In 1868 Ellen ran away with Goodwin, living in sin. Her first child Edith was born in 1869; a son Teddy (Teddy grew up to be E. Gordon Craig a famous designer and the romantic partner of Isadora Duncan) followed in 1872.  It was in 1878 that Ellen received a calling card that would change her life. Henry Irving (a leading actor of his day and the model for Bram Stroker's Dracula), after many years of struggle, had taken over the Lyceum theatre and invited her to join as his leading lady. Over the next 24 years theirs was to become one of theatre's most celebrated partnerships. With Irving Ellen scored many triumphs. A young Oscar Wilde saw her Portia and composed a sonnet in her honour. Ellen enjoyed a stellar career for over 50 years, forged an unconventional and independent identity and brought her children up as a single mother. To Ellen, home and theatre, legacy and destiny were one. Feminists have taken her up as an ideal, and when I attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art her picture was on the wall of legendary artistic ancestors.




The words are everything. Each vowel opens the channel to my soul, each consonant clips the sound into being and like an arrow shooting straight from its quiver lands where it belongs. Last evening I received a letter with gilt edges in a perfumed violet envelope. A prominent lady, just recently in the front row of the theatre accused my oratory of blasphemous undertones. I am not sure what she meant. I had been speaking Shakespeare. I think she was referring to the gossip surrounding my life, not the brilliant innocence of the vowels and consonants themselves. In the passed her note would have reduced me to quivers. But I am not afraid of life anymore. Not hunger, not bad reviews, not loneliness. I have been so wholeheartedly disregarded by the proper ladies I once sought as friends, that it makes no sense any longer to dread any popular opinion. I've been shunned at teas, ignored at operas, disinvited to the hunts. The need to please them has long since faded. A few women - Duse, Bernhardt, Duncan can understand the eccentricity that brands our skin, distancing us from other mothers, other brides. The men in my life- Irving, Wilde, they can sometimes hear the rhythms of my heart but rarely wonder at the workings of my mind. A woman's ideas are not valued the same way a man's words are weighed and bronzed and followed. I follow the philosophy of truth and the song of freedom. It is not a song for everyone. I am often looking out at the night lights of London alone. But alone is fine. I have my breath, my heartbeat and the blessed, blessed words.


3) Eleonora Duse (1858-1924), An Italian legend, was born at Vigevano to a family of actors, and made her first stage appearance at a very early age. There were great hardships to touring with travelling companies, but by 1885 she was recognized at home as Italy's greatest actress, and this verdict was confirmed by that of all the leading cities of Europe and America. In 1893 she made her first appearances in New York and in London. For some years she was closely associated with the romanticist Gabriele d'Annunzio, and several of his plays, But some of her greatest successes during the 1880s and early 1890s--the days of her chief triumphs--were in Italian versions of such plays as La Dame aux camélias, in which Sarah Bernhardt was already famous; and Madame Duse's reputation as an actress was founded less on her "creations" than on her magnificent individuality and her deep sense of simplicity and truth. In contrast to the great French actress she avoided all "make-up"; her art depended on intense naturalness rather than on stage effect, sympathetic force or poignant intellectuality rather than the theatrical emotionalism of the French tradition. She was the patron saint of all Stanislavksi based systems. George Bernard Shaw once wrote a famous article comparing the work of Duse and Bernhardt. In the article he spoke glowingly of Duse's sense of truth which was so deep that Shaw actually saw a blush of feeling creep over her face when her character was faced with betrayal. My teacher Bill Esper who taught the Meisner technique (which is inspired by Stanislavski) with rigor and passion, had Duse's photograph above his desk.




My center is a bruise. the constant mining of the gut is hard upon the body. The heart is cracked in so many places like an ancient water vase from the first world. To be old while I am young. Life, this is no game. This is Truth. What is truth. It is breath. Did you ever take a breath? A real breath? So that the air is invited in and moves into the chest meeting the wretched heart. Sorrow. Real breath meeting real heart. It hurts. Coax breath a little deeper into the belly where desire wrestles with fear, don't turns away, hold it there full breath. Look into the fire and see. Then down, down further still the breath moves into the seat where anger crouches. Ferocious. Unbearable. But you bear it. For the inhale, for the exhale. For the pause, like death between wind. And you fill up again, airing the bruise, proud, anguished, relieved, happy to be here on earth, breathing, suffering, loving life.

Duse with all the dark eyed passion of the Italians, Bernhardt with all the sensual mischief of the French and Terry with the precision and poetry of the English, each brought herself thoroughly to her work and each left a legacy of fans and students.


Most people think where there has to be one dominant or "right" theory, that a choice must be made between methods, and sides must be taken. There is a famous anecdote about the two actors Lawrence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman. They were coming at a scene in two very different ways. Hoffman stamped and stirred and shook and gurgled looking for honest motivation, and Olivier rolled his eyes and finally stopped his fellow actor in mid stream and offered up something like: "Why don't you just try acting it, old boy?" Olivier wanted Hoffman to grab the line and spit it out using his craft to bloody get on with the theatre. This story is told in most acting classes. Sometimes the storytelling leans towards the method acting American who was searching for inner truth while gently mocking the more external British actor's technique (Olivier supposedly started his character development by choosing the shoes) And sometimes the story is tilted in the other direction, making fun of the method rantings of the Yanks and extolling the virtues of precise character work of the Brits. I repeat it here just to emphasize the benefit in learning and embracing varied approaches. Instead of choosing one form of work over another I am suggesting we merge the philosophies and do a little of each.

Using the work Duse, Terry and Bernhardt, I am offering a goulash stew rather than three separate ala carte dishes. Combining the acting techniques of these three artists, we can strive for a Voice that is resonant, beautiful, while being connected, courageous and true. Say what you have to say, play all the characters there are. Let them speak out fully whether they praise the day or curse the night...