NYU Steinhardt News

Professor William Wesbrooks on His New Book, "Dramatic Circumstances"

William Wesbrooks, Director, Program in Vocal Performance

What inspired you to write this book now?

A few years back I started thinking about how much of my life I have spent doing this work, and I realized that I wanted to try to bring my ideas – all of the things I have spent so many years exploring – together in a more clearly articulated form.  Fours years later, I find myself holding a finished book in my hand.  It still takes me by surprise.

Who is the primary audience for Dramatic Circumstances?

The book was written for singers who are striving to amalgamate their acting technique with their vocal technique.  The concepts in the book, however, apply to anyone who wants to take a piece of dramatic material, identify its essential elements, and step inside its story in order to bring that story to life.  I think there is useful information in the book for performers, teachers, directors, and writers.

Tell us about your transition from actor to director and teacher.

In hindsight I realize that in pursuing a career in the theatre I was always striving to get closer and closer to the center of the storytelling process. That journey led me quite naturally from acting to directing, where I quickly become more successful, and then ultimately to writing.  It was in exploring dramatic structure – as both a director and writer – that I found information that has proved invaluable to actors. It is a way of thinking that I certainly wish I had been available to me when I was acting, and it is what I now teach.

Can you describe how this book replicates the experience of taking an acting course?

I hope that the book gives a reader a chance to participate in the dramatic exploration of a song in the same way students do who are sitting in one of my classes.  My work consists primarily of individual, one-on-one instruction in a group setting.  The book is meant to allow a reader to be “in the room” and then – I hope – that experience will encourage the reader to put the ideas into practice.

How could an aspiring actor use this book to train?

The dramatic circumstance process asks that actors organize their thinking in a specific way that I find, for most people, compels them to take an action.  The process asks that you utilize your breath to engage your mind and body – the mind and body that are your instrument – and that engagement allows you to live more spontaneously within the imaginary circumstances of your story.  Using breath to engage the mind and body is a process that anyone can practice at virtually any time.  If you do that as an actor, you will undoubtedly discover more about your story, your character, and yourself.

What are some tips for living in a story and embodying a character?

In a nutshell, you have to discover an objective that will inspire an action that is sufficiently compelling to free you of self-consciousness.  If there is something you absolutely must do – a situation in which you have no choice but to take action – you are much more likely to take that action without worrying about whether or not you are doing it well.  Most actors need to stop watching themselves and start “watching” the other people they encounter in the stories they are occupying.

What is unique about artists whose instrument is themselves?

For any musical performer there is a strong connection between the mind, body, and instrument, and the way the breath is utilized is of critical significance.  For singers and actors, the actual sound producing mechanism is the body itself.  This requires, I believe, heightened knowledge of just how the mind and body function as well as a heightened awareness of the use – and power – of the breath.

You use some real-life examples from your classroom - what do they show the reader?

The coaching transcriptions are intended to bring the working process to life in much the same way a scene in a play or movie will bring a situation to life by drawing an audience into a story.  In exploring a working process that is based on the power of stories about human interaction, it seemed appropriate to turn some of the teaching narrative into some of my own stories of human interaction.

Can non-actors benefit from your lessons?

I often have students report to me that they have found it useful to apply the dramatic circumstance paradigm to some of their life situations.  Actors living inside stories are dealing with human experiences.  Getting to act out those experiences can help lead to a greater understanding of what is happening to all of the people involved, and I think that greater understanding of why humans behave the way they do can have an understandably positive impact on how you interact with people in your daily life.

You describe a sense of equilibrium and balance. Is achieving these essential just to actors or to everyone?

A sense of equilibrium is something for which all people strive at all times. Most of the time the adjustments necessary to maintain fundamental equilibrium are not conscious. Walking, for example, is actually a process of falling in and out of balance as the body moves forward, but those shifts in equilibrium are – thankfully – not something we have to consciously monitor. Actors must work with a heightened awareness of what is happening in the mind and body, and knowing when the “system” is out of balance and acknowledging behaviors that are designed to correct the imbalance is a very useful tool for any actor.  This is just one example of the kind of human experience that we tend to take for granted in everyday life but of which actors need to become consciously aware.

What was New York like for actors when you arrived in the 70s? Has it changed?

Not having been a professional actor for many years, I’m not sure that I can make very many useful comparisons. I do think that it is much harder now for a performer to cover what it costs to live in New York while trying at the same time to pursue a career. New York City pay rates have not gone up as quickly as the rents have.