Week 3 | Artist 3: Created to Create 2016 | Anne Towns, Actor/Director/Teacher
Anne Towns has a BFA in Acting and an MFA in directing from Florida State University. As an actor, she performed for The Alliance, Geva Theatre Centre, and Actor’s Express, among others. For many years, she remained a loyal adherent of Dad’s Garage Theatre Company, where she performed one night for Jimmy Carter just a few short hours before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and where she learned to improvise her way out of many treacherous imaginary situations. She has directed a bit too, for Dad’s, of course, as well as Aurora Theatre, and the Weird Sisters Theatre Project, and now she is the chair of the theatre department at Young Harris College, in Young Harris, Georgia (a town so small it threatens to disappear entirely every time she turns her back). It is a beautiful place though, surrounded by lakes and mountains, with delightful students and a decent Chinese restaurant nearby. She teaches acting and directing there, which she considers to be her “strong” subjects, as well as Dramatic Literature and Theatre History, which she considers to be her“necessary” subjects.
Do you think of self as an Actor or Director?
I still think of myself as an actor, to be honest, even though I’m not practicing that skill in publicly meaningful ways anymore. From the outside, I would imagine I appear to be a teacher first and foremost, with director running a distant second.
How does Michael Chekhov work inform your practice?
I feel like the Michael Chekhov work has given form to a previously ill-defined thing that was already part of me. In high school, where my love for acting really caught fire, my drama teacher was more informed by Grotowski than Stanislavsky, and our practice then was very much rooted in imagery and exploration of ourselves as creative artists. We did a lot with masks and movement, for example, and adapted existing works to create new, original ones which we then performed for our bewildered parents and friends, which I see now was very atypical for high school drama. It wasn’t until college that I began to learn about Stanislavsky, Uta Hagen, and all of those inside-out methods that are so pervasive in contemporary acting practice. So, when I first encountered Chekhov, as an observer in a half-day workshop taught by Joanna Merlin at a conference in Atlanta, it felt very familiar and primal. Like a part of myself that had been missing for a while was being uncovered and reexamined.
I’m still getting to know Chekhov. I began incorporating his methods into my teaching almost immediately when I discovered him, and my own understanding of his work deepens as I teach. My acting classes are now almost entirely Chekhov based, with only traces of the old Uta Hagen terminology remaining. It has completely transformed the way I teach, the way I relate to students as artists, the way I assign work in class, every aspect of the course. It is beginning to transform the way I teach directing too, though that part is happening more slowly at this point. I’m very engrossed in atmosphere at the moment. Introducing my students to that concept has really changed the way we all collectively approach both acting and directing.
I think of Chekhov as Radical Simplicity. It’s so instinctive and reasonable and yet such a departure from how I was trained at the university level that it feels like a major departure – but it’s really a major arrival, back to a place where I started and where, in many ways, I feel I was most true to myself.
What helps you survive periods of emptiness in creative process?
Teaching absolutely does that – it means that I get to continue to explore and practice and make a living doing so even though I’m not “appearing in,” so to speak. I’m also married to an actor, and I derive a surprising amount of fulfillment just from watching him do the thing I’m no longer practicing. That wasn’t always true, and I wasted some time resenting the fact that he was able to continue doing what I loved and lost at a professional level, but I’m mostly cured of that now (I’ll admit it’s still true occasionally, when he’s involved in a particularly juicy project). MICHA and Open Project have gone a good distance towards filling that gap, too. And I read a LOT and write occasionally and try to raise my hand to volunteer to get involved in creative projects wherever I see a space to do so.
What fuels your desire to create?
I’ve always wanted to. From the moment I learned there was such a thing as theatre I wanted to be part of it. I always tell a story that the first time I saw a play at maybe five years old, there were a few older children in it who, at one point in the show, ate doughnuts. I decided that acting equaled eating doughnuts, and a star was born. But the honest reality is that the room full of people watching them quietly and approvingly while they ate the doughnuts is what really put the hooks in me. All those adults smiling and nodding while the kids pretended to be someone else. That was what I wanted.
Directing for me came out of a less adorable instinct. I became interested in directing in my late 20s mainly because I had a few really good experiences with directors that underscored what, in my mind, was the bad directing I sometimes came into contact with (mostly in terms of leadership) and I felt like I should give it a try myself rather than complain. I also decided, around the same time, that teaching might be a way to have the best of both worlds (steady paycheck plus artistic life) and researched enough to know that graduate directing programs typically gave you more teaching experience and took in fewer applicants than acting programs (therefore, graduating fewer competitors for jobs). So, acting came out of pure love and joy while directing was a very calculated move.
The best thing about being an artist is...
Two things: The people I’ve gotten to work with and the encouragement to use
failure as a tool for finding success.
What is the greatest obstacle for you in working with self?
I tend to start strong, with no fears, then, once everything is up and running, start
second-guessing myself and withdrawing. It’s something I have to really watch in
myself, that instinct to back away and give up.
Have you ever thought of giving up?
Yes. In some ways I did give up on myself as an actor. That choice came along at a time when I wasn’t getting work after years of working very steadily. I had gained a lot of weight, changing my type, and had some financial issues, so I had to really throw myself into working and making money. I was very unhappy for a few years, not practicing the thing I loved doing and not sure how to get myself back into it. I had stopped improvising, and was no longer being invited to improvise and I wasn’t sure what had happened there and was too depressed about everything to even make an effort to re-start my acting career or go back to an improv class. I worked as a graphic designer for seven years (though I had limited abilities and no formal training) and at that point, I really considered going to school for design and just resigning myself to a desk job for the rest of my life. I also considered law school. I had done one round of grad school applications the year before with no luck and had decided to give it one more try but, if it didn’t work out, I was just going to give up.
That’s when I got into school for directing, back at FSU where I had gotten my undergraduate degree. So I was able to focus all my energy on learning about directing and teaching and that pulled me, very slowly (and very unevenly), out of depression. Then I found Michael Chekhov and started practicing and teaching his techniques, and that’s how I’m finding my way back to acting, which I’ve missed very much and felt incomplete without (it’s been 10 years since I was last in a play!). I don’t have a concept of “giving up” anymore because I’ve realized that, as long as I’m still alive, I can maybe find my way back. I’m hopeful, anyway.
In 2016, SUPER SPACE is serving as a vehicle to facilitate Created to Create Project.
CREATED TO CREATE
INTRODUCING ONE ARTIST PER WEEK, FOR 52 WEEKS IN 2016.
Beginning, January, 1st, 2016
ACTORS, ARTISTS, THEATRE MAKERS, FILM MAKERS, DESIGNERS, TEACHING ARTISTS, STUDENTS all chosen because they spend a part each day creating. Artists will be chosen in no particular order.
Introduce artists from different parts of the world. People who use different mediums and whose practice is at a different skill level. A thing they all have in common is unique sense of style and self-expression.