“It’s been awhile. My Oscar is getting kind of tarnished. I looked at it a couple of years ago and thought I really needed a new one.” — Ellen Burstyn

It’s her birthday today.

In less than a decade, Ellen Burstyn was nominated 5 times for an Oscar (for The Last Picture Show, The Exorcist, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Same Time Next Year and Resurrection) and won one Oscar (for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). One of the best runs in the business. Then in 2001, 4 decades after that extraordinary run, she was nominated for an Oscar again for Requiem For a Dream. Her work in the 70s and 80s helped define the new cinema, the independent era, the boundaries-breaking of the old studio system. Similar to Jack Nicholson, she WAS 1970s film.

She’s nominated almost any time she acts, including the controversial nomination for her 14 seconds of screen time in HBO’s Mrs. Harris in 2006. People were upset, like: how on earth could only 14 seconds be worthy of a nomination? It was the talk of the town for a good 2 weeks. Burstyn made no statements about it for a while. After all, it wasn’t her fight. If they wanted to nominate her, how is that HER fault? Finally, she did make a statement, and it’s glorious:

I thought it was fabulous. My next ambition is to get nominated for seven seconds, and ultimately I want to be nominated for a picture in which I don’t even appear.

She’s co-President of the Actors Studio, an organization which she has always been highly involved in and associated with. Lee Strasberg adored her, and clocked what he saw as her issues as an actress immediately, issues that needed to be addressed if she wanted to get anywhere in her career. But I’ll talk about that in a minute.

First, a story.

In the late 90s, I took a 4-day acting workshop with Ellen Burstyn. There were about 30 people in the class – which is pretty huge for a workshop – but she set it up impeccably, so we all had a chance to work, and get feedback from her. She had obviously thought long and hard about what she wanted to do in such an intensely condensed time period, and it wasn’t scene-work. It was an extremely unconventional acting class, like no other I have ever taken before or since. She was a magnificent teacher. She may have Guru-like qualities, but that is only because she is such a commanding presence, and her powers of listening are second to none. When you speak, she zeroes in on you, and only you. She had things to impart to us, and then – when it came time for each one of us to get up and work – she honed in on each student specifically, with eyes like laser beams, seeing right into who we were. Her teaching was not generalized, unlike a lot of acting classes, with the same comments given to different people – a one-size-fits-all approach to technique). She did not say to me what she said to the guy across the room, because she saw in us different things.

She made an enormous impression. She is a person of deep but also relaxed focus. This is one of the things that really struck me about her – her level of relaxation was uncanny, without EVER crossing over into “mellow” or indifferent or “everyone is beautiful so let’s just sit back and be beautiful together” – another kind of teaching I find incredibly unhelpful not to mention boring.) When one person was up in front of the group working, her entire consciousness was focused on that person. She helped focus the class. And when I was up there working, it was amazing to be in that spotlight for 2 minutes, or however long it was. It was almost embarrassing. You would finish working, and there would be a long long silence, and she would look up at you, thinking, thinking, thinking … It wasn’t a dead silence, the silence was FILLED with thought … The whole room was riveted.

Because this was an intensive and there were so many people in the class, she couldn’t spend 25 minutes on every person. It had to be about 10 minutes per person. That’s hard to do. Hard to be specific enough in that small amount of time, and difficult to make the comments something the students will take with them, things that will elevate the students’ understanding not only of their own process, but of who they are, as an artist and a person (because the two are connected, of course). THAT’S a good class. And Burstyn was able to do that with each and every one of us. It was extraordinary. We were all on the edge of our seats. We would watch another classmate work (and these weren’t monologues or scenes – it was a different kind of thing she was having us explore, it was an exercise she had designed) – and then we’d all sit there, quiet, aware of her, sitting in her chair, she was always wearing bright deep colors – reds and purples and deep greens – thinking, pondering, staring up at our classmate … choosing her words very carefully.

She said a couple of things to me, after I worked, that I have never forgotten.

The class was not, as I mentioned, an acting class, where people got up and did monologues. She set up an exercise to explore our “shadow side”, the part of us we do not want to admit, the part we avoid, or we say to ourselves, “OTHER people are like that – NOT ME!” It’s not just that we hide these things, it’s that we aren’t even aware they are there. It goes that deep. Burstyn said, “When you catch yourself saying things like ‘Other people are like that, not me’, pay close attention. You’re coming close to your own shadow side.”

In order to be fully expressed as an actor, then the “shadow side” must not be avoided. Nothing can be avoided. You can’t judge certain attributes as unworthy of you. You can’t look at certain unflattering qualities – envy, rage, pettiness, whatever – and say “That’s NOT ME.” It’s ALL you. You have to be willing to experience the full spectrum. I had never quite thought of it in that way before, but Burstyn’s class represented a slight shift in how I thought, not just about acting, but also about my ambivalence and occasional hatred of a certain individual – a former friend, a dear friend – who, during the course of the class, I realized represented my “shadow side”. What she was, and what she did, was so hurtful, and I spent years saying “THAT’S NOT ME”. As Ellen talked about “shadow sides”, she was the first thing that popped up. I couldn’t avoid it or push it away. I was going to have to work on THAT, even though I didn’t want to. Exploring that side of me that was her was excruciating, at times. But such worthwhile work.

In the class, she had us start off with some sense memory work, all of which we were already well-versed in (this was the Actors Studio, after all). As we did this work, she slowly started to filter in this idea of the shadow side, and she wanted us to focus on a specific person in our lives to whom we had a visceral dislike. That was the first class. By the end of that class, we each had “our person” – and she made us understand that that would be the person we would be “working on” for the rest of the workshop.

Over the next couple of days, she had us do a series of exercises, designed to help us go deep with “our person”, with our shadow side. Each exercise was specific and perfect. One of the exercises had to do with gesture. We had to come up with a gesture – almost archetypal – or dance-like – that represented this person. It wasn’t supposed to be literal. It was not an imitation. It was not mimicking their behavior. Burstyn wanted us to come up with something big, on an almost tragedy-comedy mask level. We spent a couple of hours experimenting in this way. It was hard work. I could feel myself getting trapped in a literal mindset. By the end of the class – each of us had some huge gesture that represented our person. We each came to it through hours of work. I still remember the gesture I came up with. There was a Martha Graham element to it.

The last class was show-time. Each of us had about 5 minutes of time. We would get up in front of the whole group and BE that person for about 5 minutes. We had to talk as that person – it didn’t need to be scripted, per se – but we did need to have a plan for what we would say. After all, we only had 5 minutes. We couldn’t go on forever. And at some point during our mini-monologue we had to incorporate the gesture we came up with in class the day before. So scary! How would I, in the middle of chattering on as my shadow side, incorporate this big Martha Graham dance move I came up with? This arrogant egotistical totally ridiculous attention-getting gesture? Facing the fear of expressing all that was part of the class. (And part of the work of acting.)

My 15 minutes of “private time” with Burstyn was a moment where how I thought about myself and how I thought about my process shifted. Burstyn made it perfectly clear: the shadow side is NOT evil, the shadow side – although you fear it – IS you. You cannot be afraid of the side of yourself that you despise or are ashamed of. It must be allowed to breathe and express itself. That’s the great thing about acting. Even our most self-destructive impulses can be given VOICE in an environment where the stakes are NOT for keeps.

I still remember some of my friends’ work, too, who they “became” as their shadow sides, and I am telling you: people TRANSFORMED. Actors I thought I knew were suddenly channeling different people – they totally changed – it was one of the most exhilarating creative experiences I have ever had.

That shadow side self is still with me. I don’t hate and fear her so much now. She can express herself and she won’t destroy me.

Ellen Burstyn has four rules of acting. 4 things you MUST do, 4 things that MUST be practiced in order for art to emerge:

1. Show up.
2. Pay attention.
3. Tell the truth.
4. Don’t be attached to the outcome.

I fluctuate on which one is the most difficult, but often I think that it’s #1 that is the hardest. Showing up doesn’t mean getting to rehearsal on time, but showing up, with all your talent, openness, creativity, fearlessness, sadness, shyness, fears, whatever. You cannot show up half-way. Or even three-quarters of the way. There are those who WANT to “show up” but honestly can’t. They TRY but it’s not there for them. This is what separates the talented from the not-talented.

But #4 is one of the most challenging, not just in acting, but in life in general. I have not mastered #4 at all, and it is a lifelong journey trying to achieve #4. I am terribly bad at it. Most of my broken hearts have been the result of not having a grasp on #4. I can feel it in me: it will happen again.

Not being attached to the outcome in acting is especially essential. #4 is what creates fearlessness in the moment, #4 is what really sets an actor free. Having an idea about how to play something is great. But do not be attached to the outcome. You can’t expect anything. The DOING must be enough.

Something kind of extraordinary and scary happened during our workshop. One guy was up there working. And he was hiding. You could SEE how he was hiding. This work was intense, and he just couldn’t go there. And in his own way, he refused to “submit” to Ellen, he started arguing with her, pushing back on her coaching. She held her ground (in a very gentle way – she could see that this exercise pushed his buttons, as it was designed to do). He started back to the work again, went a little bit further into it, then stopped himself, spit at Ellen Burstyn – I mean, he was far away, he didn’t hit her – but he spit at her and walked out of the room. !!!!! It was horrifying! And I knew this guy. He was a sweetheart. What was happening?? The real revelation though was Ellen’s reaction. The whole class could have fallen apart in that moment. We all were shocked and upset. Ellen watched him go and then said something like, “The shadow side is a force to be reckoned with. Just remember that. The shadow side does not want to be revealed. The shadow side has a vested interest in not being revealed. So you may find yourself having a reaction like the one we just saw. Just take note of it, and let it go. Okay … next person?”

It was amazing. He spit at her and she didn’t take it personally!

He came back the following class, and brought her flowers and a note of apology. She hugged him and told him to keep working, she knew it was intense, but it would be worth it.

This story is a good example of how rule #1 – “showing up” – is sometimes the hardest, and if you can’t do #1 you can’t do anything else. The work cannot continue. He couldn’t “show up”, and he knew it, and instead of saying, “Huh, I can’t show up right now …” he blamed HER. How many actors THINK they’re “showing up” when they’re really just “hiding”? I know I’ve done that. It’s very common.

The workshop I took with Ellen Burstyn so many years ago left me with a lifetime of lessons.

Her autobiography is a real actor’s book. She obviously has had much success at the highest echelons of Hollywood. But she is never “done”. Her career really started when she got into the rigorous training. She STILL is in training, she still does workshops of plays, she still teaches, and moderates at the Studio (another once-in-a-lifetime experience, watching her handle that room, and it can be a very scary stressful room! You just hold your breath, waiting to hear what she will say).

Burstyn’s relationship with Lee Strasberg, famous acting teacher and head of the Actors Studio is well-known. Burstyn was a model in her early 20s, with some success in television, commercials and variety hours and the like. Burstyn is honest about how vain she was (and still can be), one of the reasons why her performance in Requiem For a Dream was so shattering. Talk about shadow sides.

The character’s vanity was so acute it was indistinguishable from self-loathing (this is quite common, but it’s an insight Ellen brought to the table). Dropping some weight for an appearance on television is something Burstyn, as a model, understood intimately. It may seem easy to play something so close to yourself, but it is not. This is why Burstyn has her students work on “shadow sides”, because we all have blind spots about our own characters – and it is usually in the blind spot where we find the gold mine. You don’t act from anywhere else but there. It is the most truthful part of us, because it is the part we are ashamed of, the part we hide and deny.

Lee Strasberg, within one or two sessions of working with Burstyn back in those earliest days, could sense her shallowness and vanity. Burstyn said to us, during the workshop, “Let’s not forget. I was a pretty silly girl. I got by on my looks, and that’s the truth.” Strasberg recognized this and went after it. Many actors resent such intrusions. Who the hell does he think he is?? But careful: when you hear such a voice, make sure it’s a REAL voice, a voice on the side of growth and health … as opposed to the shadow side protecting itself, not wanting to be revealed. For Burstyn, Strasberg saved her from what could have been a conventional boring career. Burstyn was a pretty girl, used to having things come to her easily. (This is not to say she was a happy person). Burstyn is forever grateful to Strasberg, because, first of all, he gave her a sense of her own power, but also the knowledge she was more than her face, and certain emotions incongruous with being a pretty girl (rage, grief, need, envy) needed to be explored and released.

I’ve posted an excerpt from her autobiography below. It’s a story she told in our workshop. It had a big impact on me, in terms of belief in what I was doing, and commitment to the make-believe world. Having sat through classes in sense memory (and not really “getting it”, let’s be honest), the anecdote makes me realize: If you’re GOING to use the technique, then you BETTER use it this way. All the way. Otherwise, it’s just an exercise and who the hell cares.

EXCERPT FROM Lessons in Becoming Myself, by Ellen Burstyn

For our first scene in Lee’s class, we were to choose one that was “close to us,” “not a stretch,” “a simple scene”. So without a trace of irony, I chose Joan of Arc. I don’t remember the scene at all, just that I felt I understood Joan hearing voices. She heard two. I had heard one. I’d heard it twice. So that was why I felt the role was “not a stretch”. After the scene, Lee chastised me for my selection and at some point asked, “Can you hear something we can’t hear?” I was leaning forward, my elbow on my knee, chin cupped in my hand. I nodded my head, thinking of the voice that had spoken to me. Lee said in a surprised tone, his voice rising a bit, “You can?” Suddenly, his question put me in doubt. I mean, I could hear something when it spoke to me, but he meant now, right now. I listened. The class was still. I could hear only the sound of the air conditioner. I listened further. I detected a sound just behind the air conditioner, another sound, almost like white sound or the sound behind sound. I had just got there, just heard it for the space of a second, when I was interrupted by Lee saying, “Ahhh, but that’s different.”

That’s all I remember of this incident, but it etched itself into my actor/artist’s knowing. I did hear something different. I hadn’t moved. My chin was still cupped in my hand. Nothing had changed but the quality of my listening and he saw it! He could see me hear! Now, that not only taught me something about him and how precise were his powers of observation, it taught me something about the level of reality that an actor must create onstage. “The voice” that had spoken to me was a memory that helped me to understand Joan, but that was in the past. I had to hear something now, in the present, onstage. It didn’t have to be St. Michael or St. Catherine or even my “voice”. It just had to be something real, active in the moment, and then that would be seen, communicated, and experienced by the audience. There is an engagement – I would later feel it as a communion between the actor and the audience – that requires an active doing in the present moment of time. Yesterday’s memories are not active. They must be brought into the senses and enlivened in the present. That way, the witness can “see me hear”. It was a great lesson.

Another lesson comes to mind concerning Joan of Arc. In the early seventies at the Actors Studio in California, a visiting actress from England who was not a member had somehow gotten working privileges and was playing Joan in a scene from The Lark. She was not an accomplished actress and she played Joan like a cheeky bird. It was painful to watch. After the scene was over, she and the other actor pulled up chairs and waited expectantly for the praise of the master. There was a moment of quiet, then Lee addressed the girl. “Have you had any training in sense memory?”

“Yes.” She nodded her head, her pretty blond curls bobbing up and down.

“Could you create a candle for me?”

“Right now?” she asked innocently, even happily.

“Yes, right now,” said Lee, also seemingly innocently.

She used her hands to define the shape of the imaginary candle. When she thought she had it, she looked at Lee sweetly and smiled.

“Is it lit?” he asked.

“No.” She pouted.

“Light it,” Lee instructed.

She went through the motions of lighting a candle, put down the matches and looked at Lee, pleased.

“Hold one finger over it,” he said.

She did.

“Can you feel the heat?” he asked.

She nodded vigorously.

“Now lower your finger into the flame and hold it there.”

Her smile dropped.

“That’s right,” Lee snapped. “She put her whole body into the flame. Now you think about that before you ever play Joan again.”

We never saw her again.

Neil did a scene for Lee and it was brutal. At one point he dropped his keys accidentally on purpose. He made a point of looking surprised before he picked them up. I don’t remember now what that was supposed to signify, but it was something Neil liked and he must have thought it was something Brando would do. After the scene, Lee lit into Neil. At one point he said in a very stern voice, “What are you doing? You drop your keys on a particular line. You bend to pick them up on another line. That kind of acting went out forty years ago.” Afterward Neil said, “I was thinking, Gee, is this as bad as I think it is? I’d almost talked myself out of it being that bad until after, when people started coming up to me and saying things to make me feel better. Then I knew it really was that bad.”

I never thought of Lee as being cruel, as others did. He was very truthful. When your ego prevented you from hearing the truth, Lee was willing to cut through your ego. Years later when I was teaching, I said to Lee one day, “Sometimes when I’m teaching, something will occur to me to say, but I know it will hurt the person’s feelings and I hesitate to say it.”

Lee answered, “You must be like a surgeon. When a surgeon has to cut, he doesn’t say, ‘Oh, this is going to hurt.’ No, he just cuts.” And he made a chop with his hand. That’s what I saw him do. Cut through the defenses of a person. Did he succeed? Not always. Many times he did. But only if the person, the actor, was willing to move beyond his ego-defended ignorance and really learn. I have discovered that the only position from which one can learn is the position of not knowing. From there you say, “Teach me.” Then the teacher can teach. I was blessed to be able to stand in that place. Whatever are the ingredients of that blessing, I don’t know.

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