The Books: “Lessons In Becoming Myself” (Ellen Burstyn)

125955__burstyn_l.jpgDaily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir:

Lessons in Becoming Myself, by Ellen Burstyn

In less than a decade, Ellen Burstyn was nominated 5 times for an Oscar (for The Last Picture Show, The Exorcist (speaking of 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). That’s a helluva good run. One of the best in the business. Then, of course, in 2001, 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 spirit, the breaking down of the boundaries of the old studio system. She WAS 1970s film, in many ways.


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. Remember that? 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 also co-President of the Actors Studio, an organization which she has always been highly involved in – Lee Strasberg adored her, and pretty much clocked what he saw to be her issues as an actress immediately. But I’ll talk about that in a minute.

I took a 4-day acting workshop with Ellen Burstyn about 10 years ago. There were about 30 people in the class – a huge class – but the way she set it up and organized it (it was impeccable) we all had a chance to work, and get feedback from her. Nobody was stiffed. We all got our shot. 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 magnificent as a teacher. It was not “Oooh, here I am The Guru” … 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. It was not generalized (as a lot of acting classes can become, with the same comments given to different people – one-size-fits-all). She did not say to me what she said to the guy across the room. Because she saw in us different things. Basically, she’s a person of deep and also relaxed focus (that’s one of the things that really struck me about her – her level of relaxation – without EVER seeming “mellow” or indifferent) – and when one person was up in front of the group working, her entire consciousness was focused on that person. It was amazing – to be in that spotlight for 2 minutes, or however long it was I was up in front of the group. It was almost embarrassing. You would finish working, and there would be a long long silence, as she would look up at you, thinking, thinking, thinking … It wasn’t a dead silence, it was FILLED with anticipation and 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, analyzing them – 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 also 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, for God’s sake. THAT’S a good class. And person after person, Burstyn was able to do that. 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) – and then we’d all sit there, quiet, aware of her, sitting in her chair, 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.

She was an incredible teacher. And why she is incredible is because she has such good eyes for it. She also loves other actors and has very little envy. Her energy during our class was that of shining JOY at seeing actors do well, grow, be brave, face fears. It’s a strange thing – to feel safe and yet courageous at the same time – but that’s what she created as a teacher. The class was not, as I mentioned, an acting class, where people got up and did monologues. It was an exploration of each actor’s “shadow side” – the part of us we do not want to admit, or we avoid, or we say to ourselves, “OTHER people are like that – NOT ME!” Burstyn said, “When you catch yourself saying things like that, 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 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 own ambivalence and sometimes hatred of a certain individual – who, during the course of the class, I realized represented my “shadow side”. I mean, she was also a full individual in her own right – but she was symbolic to me. Exploring that side of me that was her was excruciating, at times. But such worthwhile work.

Ellen Burstyn has four rules of acting. 4 things that you MUST do:

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 flat out #1 that is the hardest. But “showing up” is what you MUST do – and that doesn’t just mean getting to rehearsal on time, but showing up, with all your talent, openness, creativity, fearlessness, self, fears, whatever – at your disposal. There are those who WANT to “show up” but honestly can’t. That’s what separates the talented from the not-talented.

But certainly #4 is one of the most challenging things of all – not just in acting, but in life in general. I have not mastered #4 at all, and it is a lifelong journey, I suppose. I am terribly bad at it. Most of my broken hearts have come from not having a grasp on #4. And I can feel it in me: it will happen again.

But not being attached to the outcome – in acting – is especially essential. It is that which creates fearlessness, it is that which sets an actor free. Having an idea about how to play something is great. But do not ever be attached to the outcome. Life is more mysterious than that. You can’t expect anything. The DOING must be enough. (My college acting teacher used to talk about “the reality of the doing” – which helped actors ground themselves. What are you actually DOING? It helped you get specific).

Anyway, those 4 days of workshop left me with a lifetime of lessons, which is why I’m talking about it so much.

Her autobiography, which came out last year, is a real actor’s book. She obviously has had much success at the highest echelons of Hollywood. I mean, 5 nominations in less than 10 years. You know. She’s one of the anointed. BUT alongside of that, has been her rigorous training – she STILL is in training, she still does workshops of plays, and teaches, and moderates at the Studio (another once-in-a-lifetime experience – watching her handle that room … You just hold your breath, waiting to hear what she will say).

Her relationship with Lee Strasberg, famous acting teacher and creator of/head of the Actors Studio is well-known. Burstyn had been a model in her early 20s, with some success in television, commercials and variety hours and the like. She was beautiful. Burstyn is quite honest about how vain she was (and still can be) – which is one of the reasons why I think her performance in Requiem For a Dream was so shattering to watch. Talk about shadow sides.


The vanity of that character became so acute that it was indistinguishable from self-loathing (something that I think is quite common). And her vanity about her looks – and dropping some weight for her big television moment – is something that Burstyn, as a model, and a beautiful young woman, understood intimately. It may seem easy to play something so close to yourself, but it is not. That’s why Burstyn has her students work on “shadow sides”, because we all have blind spots – and it is usually in our blind spot about ourselves that 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, that we hide, deny. Bring it out into the light. Let’s let that sucker breathe. Easier said than done. Anyway, Lee Strasberg, within one or two sessions of working with Burstyn, could sense her shallowness as a human being, and could sense her 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 that in her – that defense mechanism – and went after it. Many actors resent such intrusions. Who the hell does he think he is?? But careful: when you hear a voice like that, make sure it’s a REAL voice, that is on the side of growth and health … as opposed to the shadow side protecting itself, not wanting to be revealed. Burstyn took to Strasberg’s teachings like blood to a vampire. He saved her from what could have been a rather conventional career. Burstyn was a pretty girl, a flirt, who was used to having things come to her. (That is not to say she was a happy person. Her childhood was a sad one, it’s just that once she hit puberty, her looks blossomed – and things started to just come easily to her, because of her beauty). Strasberg threw a wrench in that particular journey and Burstyn is forever grateful – because he gave to her a sense of her own power, first of all – but ALSO: a sense that she was more than her face, AND that certain emotions which did not really fit with being a pretty girl (rage, grief, need, envy) – needed to be explored and released. Just because she was pretty didn’t mean she wasn’t deep. Believe it or not, this was a revelation to Burstyn at the time. She flourished under his teaching.


So that’s the excerpt I wanted to choose today from her lovely autobiography. A real actor’s kind of excerpt. Nothing to do with fame, or her famous co-stars, or her most popular roles, or shooting The Last Picture Show … but beginning her work with Lee Strasberg, and discovering, basically, who she was.

Also, as an aside: she told the story about the actress playing Joan of Arc in our workshop, and it’s one of my favorite anecdotes ever. Having sat through years of classes in sense memory (and not really “getting it”, let’s be honest) … I read that anecdote and think: Yup. If you’re GOING to use that technique, then you had BETTER use it in that particular way. Otherwise, it’s just an exercise and who the hell cares about that.

This is not the time or the place to go into sense memory. Or who knows, maybe it is, but I’m going to the beach today and I don’t have time to go into it.

Any actor who has taken beginning sense-memory classes will recognize those early exercises described by Burstyn. Creating the cup, the glass of juice … using only your sensoral apparatus. Training your concentration.

More to say about Burstyn. All I can say is: I was nervous to read this book, because I have such high regard for her … and I also wasn’t wacky about the title, which seemed rather generic – BUT: it’s a lovely and honest book, and it really is about her lifelong journey in becoming herself. It’s not been a neat life, and her trajectory has been full of fits and starts … and her honesty about herself is not only refreshing, but totally inspiring.

(I also have Ellen Burstyn to thank for bringing the word “entelechy” into my consciousness – a concept she brought up continuously in the workshop).


Here’s the excerpt. Ellen and her husband Neil Burstyn signed up for a class with Lee Strasberg.

No pressure, Ted (haha), but I would love to hear your thoughts. I know you have them!!

EXCERPT FROM Lessons in Becoming Myself, by Ellen Burstyn

At that time, 1964, Lee was holding his classes in a studio behind Carnegie Hall. You signed up for two classes a week – one exercise and scene class with lee and one scene study class with his wife, Paula. Lee asked for a commitment of at least six weeks because he felt it took that long to understand what the classes were about so that one could make an informed decision on whether or not to continue. He was right. The first weeks I didn’t understand the classes at all. Several actors would work at the same time. There was one guy who was obviously being a chicken picking at food (turned out it was a pigeon). Another girl was looking close up into a mirror, singing to herself in a sultry way and crying. Another older woman seemed to be taking an imaginary shower and rubbing soap between her legs. One guy was on his hands and knees doing something I couldn’t understand, but it was obviously very moving to him because he was crying like a baby. The whole lot of them looked crazy to me. I wanted to laugh out loud. I looked around the room to see if anyone else was suppressing a giggle as I was. Everyone was dead serious. I couldn’t imagine what any of this had to do with acting. Then Lee brought the exercise to an end and criticized each one as though what they were doing made any sense at all. I was baffled. I would have left the class right then, but I had made that promise to stay for six weeks. I attended the scene study class taught by Paula. She was a short, heavy, fair-skinned, red-headed woman in a black muumuu. The scenes didn’t seem all that good to me and I didn’t quite understand her comments afterward. She praised things I didn’t see and seemed to criticize the very things that I thought looked pretty good. I just didn’t get it. But I thought before I left I ought to give it a go, so I signed up to do an exercise for Lee and a scene for Paula. The fist exercise everyone was asked to do was to create whatever you had for breakfast, a cup of coffee, a glass of juice, whatever you normally drank every morning. I was a coffee drinker at the time, so I went to work at home creating my imaginary mug. When I felt I had it, I got to be one of the five crazy people up there. I sat in my chair and held out my left hand and imagined a cup sitting on it. With my right hand I traced the rim of the cup. I let my finger move down the handle until I could define its shape. Then slowly I wrapped my fingers around the handle and tried to lift the cup off my left hand into my right hand. But when I did, I lost the whole thing. The cup had no weight. Damn! I had to start all over, holding the cup with my left, bouncing it gently up and down. yes, there’s the weight, I can feel it. Now I can feel the rim again. During all of this, the other four people were going through various intensities of sobbing, sighing, laughing, and grunting. I never took my eyes off the cup. After about twenty minutes, in my peripheral vision I saw Lee sitting in the front row, lifting up the five-by-seven white cards with an actor’s name on each and going through them until he came to the name he was looking for. Then he said, “Ellen, keep on doing what you are doing, but just answer my questions.”

There was a pause and I felt the focus of the room shift to me. I tried to continue concentrating on my cup, but I began to get a little nervous. What was he going to ask me?

“Do you ride horses?”

Oh man, this was from left field. Where was he going with this one?

“I used to,” I answered, still trying to feel my cup, which no longer had coffee in it. I tried to get it back.

“When you rode, did you ride well?” he asked, seemingly innocently.

“Pretty well,” I said. “I used to own my own horse.”

“Well,” said Lee with the precision of a surgeon. “You don’t have to ride that cup.”

I paused. My hands remained poised, but they trembled. What had he just said? I looked at him. My exercise was over, but I found I couldn’t drop my hands. The cup had become too real. I had to set it down on an imaginary table. My heart was pounding. I looked at him. He said to me gently, “What would happen if you made a mistake?”

Tears rose. What was happening to me? I was losing it. The room got deathly quiet. He said in the kindest way, “Go on, make a mistake!”

I shattered, broke, chunks of my mask, my persona fell to the floor. My bare skin, or what was under it, was exposed to the air for the first time like the pink skin under a peeled scab. He pierced me with his gaze. He saw me. He knew me. He gave me permission to make a mistake. And I would not be punished or beaten. I could risk something. Anything. I might even risk not pleasing him. He said it was okay. I could be whatever I am. I could … I could … He said that I could even … be … myself. I cried for two weeks.

I didn’t know what to do. I had learned survival techniques – how to please, how to be charming and cute, to split from what was painful, to dissociate from what I didn’t want to feel, to hide behind a persona that worked for me. Now Lee was telling me I didn’t have to do any of that anymore. Lee’s genius, and he was a genius, was that he could say what his X-ray vision perceived, in words that had deep meaning only to the person he was addressing. I don’t know if what he said to me had meaning to anyone else in the world, but those words were like a sword of truth that pierced my heart and opened me to a new world. I just didn’t know what do instead. I tried explaining this to Neil.

“Well,” Neil said softly, “maybe you can just consider that personality you built to be a temporary thing, like a crutch, and now you can put it down because you don’t need it anymore.”

I stopped crying. That’s it, I thought. I don’t need it anymore. Now I’ll find out who I am without all of that.

And that began my new life. Lee told me that the first step was the willingness to make a mistake, to suffer the humiliation of daring to risk, to grow. I just had no idea how terrified I was not to be perfect. “Addiction to perfection,” Marion Woodman, the famous Jungian analyst and writer, would teach us later. I had it. And it wasn’t that I thought I was ever perfect or anywhere near it; it was that I thought I should be perfect, but was so far from it that I needed to hide the fact. I felt that I was just plain wrong. Essentially wrong, bad, unacceptable, shameful. That was really it. I was ashamed of myself. And that’s what had to be hidden. That’s what was behind the mask. And somehow by telling me that I did not have to ride that cup, he freed me. By telling me that I could make a mistake, he communicated to me that there was not some mark that I was required to hit and it was unacceptable to miss. He was telling me that I didn’t have to pretend anymore. People say, “But isn’t the point of acting to pretend to be someone else – to submerge yourself and just become the character?” The answer is a paradox. You cannot move your persona from yourself to the character’s without first locating yourself, and from that site you make the move. If you are hiding not only your self, but from your self, you don’t have a chance for a true creative impulse.

Lee discerned something in me. Something that I formed many years before. A way of coping with my situation at home, a way of dealing with my sexuality and my talent. It was a way that was not truthful. When my mother said, “Pick up the rug, Edna, and do your tap dance,” dutifully I did. I did my tap dance for my mother’s friends. And I was still doing it. This was what the voice meant when it said, “I don’t want it.” It didn’t want me to go on tap dancing anymore. In Jeff Corey’s class, I had begun to ascertain another way. This is what I came to Lee to learn. I thought it was another way to act. He quickly let me know it was another way to be.

This was when I finally had the answer to the question I asked in my art class when Don Brackett tacked up my drawing on the bulletin board. It had come from a true creative impulse, not from a desire to please or to get a good grade.

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.

This entry was posted in Actors, Books and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The Books: “Lessons In Becoming Myself” (Ellen Burstyn)

  1. The Books: “Lessons In Becoming Myself” (Ellen Burstyn)

    Next book on my “entertainment biography” shelf: Lessons in Becoming Myself, by Ellen Burstyn 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,…

  2. The Books: “Brando: The Biography” (Peter Manso)

    Next book on my “entertainment biography” shelf: Brando: The Biography, by Peter Manso Peter Manso has an opinion about Marlon Brando, and it colors this entire book – which is 10,000 pages long – so that’s a long time to…

  3. Reba says:

    I loved hearing about your master class! People who are good at something *and* good at teaching it are fascinating to me. Being ‘good at something’ and being ‘good at conveying the basics of that something to someone else’ are totally different skillsets. (I don’t think those who can’t, teach; I think those who can’t teach…do something less important). I’m curious as to the set-up of the classes: if not monologues, what? And of course, what kind of notes she gave (although I can see why one might not want to share). I’m tempted to adopt her four rules of acting in my professional life…and I am not an actor! Thanks for the fascinating entry:)

  4. tracey says:

    Gah. I have no words. This whole excerpt is amazing. I think I need to get this book.

  5. red says:

    Reba – I so think that her lessons for acting are also great lessons for life!! Hard to do but worth the effort!

    In the class, she had us do some sense memory work (like the kind she described in the excerpt – but we were already very advanced, we weren’t just creating cups and juice – we were creating deep emotional experiences – you kind of graduate to different levels of sense memory … it becomes second nature. For example, if the script says: “It is a hot muggy day” – you can instantly create that for yourself. But only because you have spend so many damn hours practicing creating a coffee cup in your hand!) – and she slowly started to filter in this idea of the shadow side, and that 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.

    One of the exercises she had us do (and much of this was group work – everyone working at the same time, and she would wander through the class, talking to each person, asking specific questions – not expecting an answer – just giving you something to think about) had to do with gesture. Coming up with a gesture – archetypal – almost dance-like – that represented this person. It didn’t have to be literal. It would be better if it wasn’t literal. For example, if the person you were working on always wound a strand of her hair around her finger – that would NOT be a good gesture to work on – because it was too literal and behavioral. Burstyn wanted us to come up with something big, on an almost mythical 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. I was working on an imitation of the person – and that was NOT the point of the exercise. By the end of that class – each of us had some huge gesture that represented our person. We had each come to it through hours of work. My gesture was – I bent over and touched my feet with my hands – and then slowly – as slowly as possible – moved my hands up over my body, slowly straightening my back – until I lifted my arms in the air, completely glorying in my own body and how it moved – an indulgent gesture – a dramatic gesture … one that seemed to embody exactly the kind of narcissism and pleading-for-attention that “my person” had. Also her need for sexual dominance in any given situation.

    In the last class – it was show-time. Each of us had about 5 minutes of time – when 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. After all, we only had 5 minutes. We couldn’t go on forever. And at some point – during our mini-monologue as our “shadow side” – we had to incorporate the gesture we had come up with in class the day before. Ack! So scary! How would I, in the middle of chattering on as my shadow side, incorporate what I had come up with? Facing that fear was part of the class.

    And I have to say – that my 15 minutes of private time with Burstyn (in front of the whole class) was one of those moments when my thinking about myself and my process shifted. Not a huge shift – just a slight adjustment – where I got clear about a lot of things. Because Burstyn was always clear: the shadow side is NOT evil, the shadow side – although you fear it – IS you. You cannot be afraid of that 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. It’s just a play, people!!

    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 moments 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.

    I suppose this all might sound very new-agey – but I’ve been in new-age mumbo jumbo type classes before and it didn’t feel like THAT. We were all truly released by what she taught us. It was amazing.

  6. red says:

    Oh my God, Reba – I just wrote a helluva long comment!! Sorry for babbling on like that – I hope it’s at least interesting!!

  7. red says:

    Tracey – I know, right? Isn’t it exquisite? The whole book is like that.

  8. Ted says:

    Terrific stuff, Sheila!

    I love her notion of a shadow-side. Not just because it’s a good description but because it doesn’t imply something you can get rid of. It’s a side of you that’s there to stay and you have to work in its presence. I sooo agree with her assessment of the statement “not me.”

    I love her husband’s comment about working in class too – when people started coming up to me and saying things to make me feel better. Then I knew it really was that bad. Oh man do I know that!

    She was one of the two actors in the first play I ever worked on in New York and I watched her create a really bad head cold EVERY SINGLE NIGHT, not to mention the emotional realities of the scene. That cold was so real she seemed to be blowing real snot out of her nose. I watched that scene every day.

    Her 4 rules are great too. I think Strasberg’s ‘being a surgeon’ thing is a bit self-glorifying. I think a good teacher knows how to boil things down not to THE essentials but to THEIR essentials. Goals that suit the amount of time they have, their opinion, the actors with whom their working and, frankly, whatever they are working on at the moment as teachers/directors/ actors themselves. That ability to show up is, as you say, rather essential, as in without it the rest don’t matter. I might cut, but only if it’s going to be worth it. A good teacher knows how to not say everything in their head. To just focus the actor on a few useful things. I’d love to see her teach. I think I’d really enjoy this book too. She and I used to share Chinese food in her dressing room every weekend and listen to opera on her tape recorder but I never really knew that much about her. She was a very private person and I wasn’t smart enough to ask.

  9. red says:

    “self-glorifying”. Ya think??? hahahaha Strasberg? Self-glorifying?? What are you TALKING about??

    I like your qualifier to his statement. Yes. There is no need to ‘cut’ like that in every circumstance. Obviously with someone like Burstyn, he probably sensed her defenses and how much they were holding this lovely open actress back – so he sliced right through it. Without browbeating her or humiliating her.

    I love your anecdotes about Burstyn at work, and her creating the cold. Yup. She’s pretty much off the charts, isn’t she?

    Oh – and something kind of extraordinary and scary happened during our workshop. One guy was up there, and working. And he was hiding, Ted – you could SEE how he was hiding. This work was intense, and he just … couldn’t go there. But he refused to “submit” to Ellen, he started arguing with her, she held her ground (very very gentle, very good with him – he was actually a sweetheart – but this exercise pushed his buttons) … but he kept arguing … then he started back to work again, and finally – he 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. !!!!! But what was amazing to me was Ellen’s gentle non-judgmental reaction to it. 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. It does not want to be revealed. It 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 had spit at her and she didn’t take it personally!

    Oh, and he came back the next week, 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.

    I was kind of gobsmacked by the whole thing.

  10. red says:

    I think that story I just told in the last comment 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 the rest of the rules. That guy couldn’t “show up”, and he knew it, and instead of saying, “Huh, I can’t show up right now …” he blamed HER. I mean, he got over it … but I think it does show the brilliance of her 4 rules, and the whole issue with “showing up” in general. How many actors THINK they’re “showing up” when they’re really just “hiding”? I know I’ve done that.

  11. ted says:

    Amazing story about that guy! Not being wounded or defensive in her position might, I think, have been really hard for me. Of course, her exquisitely focused response doesn’t mean that she wasn’t hurt, just that it wasn’t the point of her being there. God that’s good! You’re so right about #1, without ALL of you being there, none of you can be there. What I loved about our Jeff Buckley at the Green Mill experience was that he got that. He was relentless about being there and we watched him CRAWL and CLAW his way back to himself. Because without that he knew the rest was nothing. My work now is so bloody interesting but I feel so disengaged and inauthentic. It used to be all about being there. I don’t know what it’s all about now.

  12. red says:

    That Jeff Buckley night had sooo many lessons. You’re so right. I reference it often in my mind, when I find myself backing off of commitment, or intense participation … THAT is what it took for him to “show up” – now it might be “easier” for some people to show up, or it might not look like that – but that’s the thing: we all have different ways of “showing up” (which was part of what makes me mad about the people who scoff at Brando using cue cards. If using cue cards helped him “show up” – then that’s the way it is. GET OVER IT.)

    And I like what you say about Burstyn somehow negotiating that moment … even if she was hurt, her hurt had nothing to do with what really mattered in that moment.

    The funniest thing (not all that surprising) is that that guy was a yoga-freak, a guy who quoted Kahlil Gibran left and right, who I am sure said “Everything happens for a reason” no matter the tragedy – he was all New Age “it’s all good” … so to explore the shadow side was so tremendously threatening to him that he went screaming to the opposite end of the spectrum, and violently SPAT at his teacher! In a way, it was brilliant – and totally proved Burstyn’s point about the real importance of this work.

  13. red says:

    Oh, and I hear you about feeling “inauthentic”. Like – something is missing, even though what I am doing now is very interesting and engaging.

  14. Kate says:

    How odd–I JUST started this book yesterday. I want to hear everything she said to you in that workshop…


  15. red says:

    Oh kate.

    will we ever speak again??


    I love that you just started this book! It’s so juicy for actors- full of great stuff.

    I miss you!!

  16. The Books: “Montgomery Clift: A Biography” (Patricia Bosworth)

    Next book on my “entertainment biography” shelf: Montgomery Clift: A Biography, by Patricia Bosworth I consider this book to be a high watermark in entertainment biography. I find myself comparing all other biographies to this one. In a similar way…

  17. The Books: “Elia Kazan: A Life” (Elia Kazan)

    Next book on my “entertainment biography” shelf: Elia Kazan: A Life, by Elia Kazan I met Elia Kazan once. It was in 1999 and I was working on a show at the Actors Studio (in a backstage capacity). It was…

  18. Letters of Ted Hughes

    A fascinating review in The New York Times on a book I have been dying to read: the massive collected letters of Ted Hughes, edited by Christopher Reid. I’ve wanted to read it since it came out, for obvious reasons….

  19. Show up, pay attention, tell the truth, and ….

    Maybe it’s because nothing is normal now … so anything that happens is going to occur to me as important and necessary (“this is exactly what I need!!”), or maybe it’s just because my life has always been a literary…

  20. ereynoldsla says:

    I’ve been an actress. I’m “being” one again– maybe.
    My mother was an actress before me.
    I teared a little reading your post.

    Thank you for turning me on to her book.

    It’s funny to me how Ellen’s birthday is the same as my mother’s.
    I’m the day after… maybe I’ll learn to listen from Ellen better than I learned to listen from my mother.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.