Friday, December 31, 2010

Short Films, David Mamet and Katharine Hepburn

I am a recently graduated actor, and I'm excited to get experience acting in film by acting in student shorts. I have just been cast in two, both as the female lead, and I would like to make sure I do everything within my power as an actor to aid the quality and success of these two projects.

I once heard a writer say 'Good actors can make miracles out of bad writing.' 
On the other hand, in this brilliant letter from David Mamet to the writers of the The Unit, Mamet says:

If the scene is not dramatically written, it will not be dramatically acted. There is no magic fairy dust which will make a boring, useless, redundant, or merely informative scene dramatic after it leaves your typewriter.  You the writers, are in charge of making sure every scene is dramatic. ... if the scene bores you when you read it, rest assured it will bore the actors, and will, then, bore the audience, and we’re all going to be back in the breadline.  Someone has to make the scene dramatic. It is not the actor’s job (the actors job is to be truthful).  It is not the director’s job. His or her job is to film it straightforwardly and remind the actors to talk fast. It is your job.

So if Mamet is right, and if at first read I find the scripts of these short films untruthful, then this is not a sign of poor writing, it is only the sign of my work as an actor before it's begun?
It is my job as an actor to make these stories believable, no matter what the circumstances, correct?

Let's speak in extremes for the sake of example and say these stories could never ever ever happen. Does an actor have the power to still make them believable?

I might have more than one ultimate question hidden in all of this. I do not at all mean to say that these scripts are poorly written. I just want to better understand how I can best contribute as an actor to the story telling of these short films. I want to make sure my outlook is most helpful. Is the answer something like 'As long as you have a goal and a means to pursue that goal, you can do good work as an actor, in any production setting and with any script' ?

You have a lot of stuff roiling around in here, haven’t you?

Let me start by saying first--
The following two statements are not mutually exclusive:
  1. Good actors can make bad writing interesting.
  2. It is the writer’s not the actor’s job to make scenes dramatic.

A good actor can be interesting without being able to make an undramatic scene dramatic.
A bad actor can make a dramatic scene uninteresting.

Also note:
Mamet doesn’t mean that it isn’t the writer’s job to be truthful or the actor's to embody drama.
What he means is that the writer’s essential job is to write dramatically and the actor’s essential job is to act truthfully and the director’s is to film it all straightforwardly.
And probably it would be wise to investigate what each of those adverbs implies.

When Christopher Reeve was a young actor on stage in a show that starred Katharine Hepburn, he asked her for advice about acting.  She said, “Be fascinating”.
Hepburn always did her damnedest to be fascinating, but some of the stuff that she was being fascinating in was still pretty boring, undramatic, redundant and useless.

For a season on Dawson’s Creek I played the high school English teacher.  During a break in the shooting of one episode, the writer came over to me. "You've made the teacher a real character," he said. "I wasn’t even thinking of a character for him. I just gave him stuff to say”.
I learned something that day.
He made the scenes dramatic; I brought character to the drama.

Actors who have learned to act in the theatre by working with the world’s greatest plays--which I believe is a most magnificent way to learn to act--must know what they are responsible for when they act in film or television and what they not only have no responsibility for but no ability to affect/effect anyway.
You were cast in these films because of qualities the directors see in you. Your job is to respond with those qualities to the given circumstances of the scene; to be truthful, as Mamet understands it. If the writer has written drama, as Mamet understands it, you too will create drama. If the writer hasn't, you won't either.
And in that event, all you can do is be fascinating as Hepburn understood it. 

And there will always be Johnny Depp and Jack Sparrow.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Teaching Acting

I've been thinking a lot about your class as I'm working up my curriculum for Acting 1; these are undergrads just beginning their acting education; I'm pretty free to teach what I want, although they encourage non-text based work for this first semester. I remember 2 exercises we did the first year in your class that impacted me and that I was able to use and connect to scene work later on, I'm wondering if it would be possible for you to remind me how you lead those exercises and what you focused on? I remember the animal exercise pretty well, but if you have any insight on that I'm all ears (I think my animal became an encyclopedia salesman, funny). But, the 2 I'm really interested in exploring are: the song exercise and the character from a book exercise. I remember preparing for them and I remember some of the performances, but I don't remember them from a teacher's perspective.
If it's too much work, I totally understand and can figure it out on my own, but, my time in your class remains a seminal influence over my work, and now that I am in a position to inspire another generation of hungry 19 year-olds I thought I'd reach out to the teacher that hooked me 15 years ago (sigh-how am I that old)?
Any words of wisdom is much appreciated.

How nice to be needed!
There are lots of ideas about what teaching acting means. And someday I may write about that.
I believe that the actor is a creative being, and acting is a creative art. So I think it's more than the belief that all you have to be is "authentic", which means you must know yourself thoroughly so you can respond truthfully to given circumstances.
And, oh my, knowing yourself inside and out is difficult at any age (and takes keeping at it pretty much your whole life). With college age people, actually, I think learning to act helps with learning to know who you are as well as the other way round.

Your creative responsibility as an actor is to dramatize the people, the relationships, the situations, the story of the play, so that you can communicate what about being human the play deals with.
And as an actor you create with your whole self, with all the experiences you have ever had (and so, yes, the lifelong study of who you are is the foundational element).
Since you create with the self, with stored up experience and images and behavior, the elementary thing you have to learn is to perceive behavior deeply, authentically, meaningfully: To come to understand your own behavior and to experience and store up the behavior of other people with as deep an understanding.

So, teacher, you devise ways to get your students to learn to perceive, truly to perceive. That means the senses, through which we perceive the world.
The first quarter's work at NU was devoted to the senses: sight and eyes, the organs of sight; hearing, touch, smell and taste; and the kinesthetic muscle sense, etc.
You take up a copy of my book on acting and you open it: what of your responses reveal "teacher"? What do you do that says "student of David Downs"?
Then try: Sarah Palin picks up the book. What do her responses reveal? Be specific. (By the way, Palin is a great life study for Natasha from Three Sisters. Read the recent Vanity Fair article. Try: Natasha sees Masha's copy of Gogol's Diary of a Madman on a side table. She picks it up. Her responses reveal something about her.)
Then: Arkadina picks up my book. She responds.
Turn my book into the play she will star in next. Let her respond. Let her reveal.
She picks up the journal that has Treplev's latest story published in it.
Do similar exercises with sight, with hearing, etc.
(This is still "non-text" work, but I think you should always lead every illustrative exercise, everything you do, toward some character from a play, some action in a play, some relationship, etc. Make sure they know Sea Gull and Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hedda Gabler, and something contemporary like Adam Rapp and Rebecca Gilman.)

The animal exercise and the novel exercise came the second quarter with emphasis on Imagination. First, you learn to perceive behavior, which is what you create with. Then the fueling power of creativity is the Imagination.
Just as people have motivated spines, so do animals. Metaphor helps us to get to understand the unknown by way of something that we already know. Is there something about your big ole house cat that helps you to understand/embody something about Juliet's nurse? Demonstrate.
What motivates a sea gull? Become a sea gull and discover.  Ride the wind currents. Soar above the lake until you truly sense the freedom and the security of the lake. Now let your motivated sea gull behavior become human and let Nina glide around the lake with such freedom and security.

The novelist can help you to understand people you can't study and perceive directly. Tolstoy's description of the way Nineteenth Century Russians dressed and behaved, what their houses looked like, what kinds of furniture they sat in, what their gala balls were like, etc., can help your actor's imagination to say: If I were a Nineteenth Century Russian... before your imagination says: If I were Anna Karenina.
You're leading to: If I were an Elizabethan before you get to: If I were Macbeth.
Where do you go to help your imagination create the experiences that can turn you into a Nineteenth Century Norwegian before you become Judge Brack?

Novelists provide detailed descriptions of character and behavior; they suggest metaphors for understanding character.
Have you found a character in a novel that can help you to understand/imagine/create Tilden from Buried Child?
What contemporary writer is likely to have created such a character?

The novelist can tell you in much more detail than a playwright what a person is thinking and doing that reveals the unspoken even as they speak. Illustrate this with passages from Tolstoy, with Edith Wharton, Thomas Hardy.

Describe/write in words a particularly dramatic interaction you had with a friend, a parent, a lover. Then other acting students create the experience based on your description.
Become a novelist and write a description of Hedda's first entrance. Then become an actor and do it.
Become a novelist and describe what Kate and Deeley are thinking and doing as they speak in the first scene of Old Times.
This kind of work can help you get your actors to learn how to become novelists in behavior instead of in words.

The idea behind the song exercise was to get you to free something about yourself and to communicate it to the audience. Pick a song--usually from a musical--that expresses something deeply true about you. Don't worry if you can or cannot sing. It isn't about "singing"; it's about "selling" the song. In fact, often the students who were the musical comedy stars had a hard time with this exercise because it wasn't about cheap or fake selling and they often had learned to do just that and so found it difficult to access something simple and true and then simply and truly to communicate it to/with the audience.
This is a great way to help students learn to make a direct connection "across the footlights" that is essential to all acting, even drama of the most indirect relationship with an audience.
This also connects to Imagination work:  Songs from musicals (mostly from Oklahoma to Sondheim) that express character, motivation, attitude toward life, etc.  As with animal metaphors, see how the song as metaphor--the music, the rhythms, etc., as well as the words--manifests the character.  Pick songs such as I'm Just a Girl Who Cain't Say No, My Bill, As Long as He Needs Me, You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two, etc.  Explore implications for motivated behavior in the melody, in the musical accompaniment, etc.

Happy working!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Alvina Krause on Farce

Last night I saw a production of a new farce and I was reminded of these notes from Alvina Krause, written early in my study with her when we were working on The Taming of the Shrew. (Read this note in conjunction with the Krause note I included in the previous post of November 12.)

Krause Note:
Farce—the most technical of all drama. Timing must be perfect. Laughs come exactly on schedule. Actors signal laughter—it comes right on cue. When it stops, the farce falls to pieces, becomes merely gimmicks. Rules are strict, must be strictly followed:

1.  Go straight to the end of the line, the end of the speech; no pauses or stops within the line! (Pauses are for thought or shadings of emotion--ruin to farce.)                                                                                                           
Good morrow KateFOR  that’s your nameI  hearWELL  have you heardBUT somewhat hard of hearingTHEY  call me KatherineTHAT  do speak of me

The underlined word indicates an intensification, a swelling of sound, followed by the capitalized word in bold which indicates topping of self or partner. No stops until the end of the sequence! [Note from David: I've tried to adapt to typing formatting what Krause wrote in longhand with other symbols--I hope this makes sense. If you say it out loud, I'm sure you'll get what she's after here.]
Try those two lines until you have them perfectly timed—then go on:

2. Snap or punch in some way the last word of the line or last of the sequence. The snap releases the audience chuckle or laugh. To achieve this, sense that your partner is not next to you or in your arms or on your lap but in the balcony. Send the last word of the speech or the last word of the sequence like a swift ball straight to the balcony. Hear it land:

“moved to woo thee for my WIFE.”
Snap and toss to the balcony.
“Moved in good timeLET  him who moved you hitherREMOVE  you henceknew from the beginning you were MOVEABLE.
Straight to the balcony—hear it land.

3. Action follows the landing of the line. Action mid-line distracts and muddles. Land the line clearly, exactly, with a snap, click—Move swiftly, exactly to new position (for return of the ball) and thus you have “played the laugh” which the snap has released.

4. Use straight direct tones. Hit the bull’s eye with clean straight shots. No inflections! They distract. Farce is situation, farce is action. Inflections are character revealing, are emotional entanglements. Farce is not concerned with inner conflicts, with thought behind the line. If we get involved in subtleties, we cannot laugh. Play the situation. We don’t care about Katherine’s mother—whoever she was—We are interested only in the shrew who has met her match. Ditto with Petruchio. So—bright, alive, direct tones with no insinuations or subtleties. Front tones, bright tones, tones that hit the target.

5. On the straight direct way to the end of the speech, lift or toss up, the important word, the word that carries the import [indicated by  ^ and italicization ]:
In truth KateYOU  are too  ^waspishIF  I am too ^waspishBEST  beware my ^sting ...where it LIES

Work on sequences like this until your timing is perfect.

In action, it is a clean, swift, professional ball game, played with a professional’s tuned up sense of total participation. Minds are alert to match the opponent, bodies are alert from toe to crown to guard, to attack, to give, to return; vocal mechanism is tuned to accuracy of delivery. No fumbling mental, physical, or vocal!

Work on a fragment until you have achieved perfect timing. Add another—work for perfection. Never trust to accident to land a laugh! Audience laughter, perfectly timed, is part of the show. Go into training as you would for basketball, tennis, etc.-----

Footnote from David:
If you master the technique skills described in this note, they apply, with variations, to every form of comedy.
When actors tell me that they rely on their own comic timing, I often wish it was what is described here that they were talking about.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hamlet: The Middle

One of my teachers said Hamlet is so badly written or constructed or something that it shouldn’t work as a play. Or something like that. I know he was just trying to get our attention, but I thought I would ask you what do you think about this?

Hamlet can be a messy play. Even those who have seen lots of productions of it have difficulty remembering exactly what happens and in what order things happen—especially in the middle. We remember separate scenes: the nunnery scene with Hamlet and Ophelia and Claudius and Polonius; the closet scene with Hamlet and Gertrude and Polonius and the Ghost; or Hamlet’s “words words words” encounter with Polonius; maybe his “what a piece of work is man” with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and oh yeah, the gravediggers—or “digger” if one of them has been cut from the production.
But mostly it’s a jumble. There seems to be no actual necessity for events to happen in a certain sequence. Scene follows scene like beads on a string, one after the other, each a separate even self-contained entity. And much of it is recalled in the same blurred emotional tone, the same talky tempo, the same tepid wittinesses.
All this difficulty is not, however, because Hamlet is a badly written play. I think you’re right about your teacher: he’s just saying that one of the genius aspects of the play is the way it breaks the rules of writing a revenge play so that it can get at something else.
I think the messiness and the sense of faulty construction come because readings and too many productions don’t actually focus on much more than the plot—and for productions, usually in trimmed down versions meant to clarify the plot so much that they lose sight of what it's all about. And it is in the "what it's all about" thrust of the play that you find the connective tissue that takes the play with a sense of mounting inevitability from beginning to end.

In the 2004 Marvin Borowsky Lecture on Screenwriting given at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, screenwriter Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville, Big), referring to Aristotle’s Poetics, said (the address is not published, so the following are not exact quotes):
There are two kinds of plots: simple and complex. A simple plot is one where the question asked at the outset is answered at the end: Can they steal the gold? Yes they can. 
But a story like that can only ever be about stealing gold.
…. There is a richer kind of story, one that Aristotle called a complex plot, in which the theme of the piece is complex enough to reveal deeper questions in the middle. And those deeper questions will inevitably demand a richer more satisfying answer. And that richer answer becomes a more satisfying resolution. And that inevitability is structure. That is clarity. And it all comes from challenging yourself with the right kind of questions at the outset. 
Then suddenly it’s not a movie about stealing gold; it’s about greed and desperation and illusion and self-deception. …and it turns into The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
If we as writers ask complicated enough questions and we put characters in conflict that express those contradictions, then the plot will organically complicate and a central question will emerge. That question builds and builds until it demands a resolution, and that is a three-act structure. That’s all it is.
…I honestly feel, sometimes, that I have a career just because I think about the middle of a movie.

Although Ross is dealing with how writers work toward a finished screenplay, his ideas can help actors and directors work from a finished stage play to create a production that communicates that play.
Before considering Hamlet in Ross’s filmic three-act structure, let me mention something about film director Robert Altman. In some of his films Altman offers his own takes on conventional genres to get at something not usually associated with those genres. In the same way, Shakespeare with Hamlet offers his take on the Elizabethan Revenge Play to get at something else. The “Will They Find Gold” question in a simple plot British murder mystery is “Who Dunnit”. But Altman’s Gosford Park asks complex plot questions about social class and responsibility and cruelty and blindness to others.
The “Will They Find Gold” question of a Revenge Play is, “Will the Hero Avenge a Relative’s Murder”. If that means “Does Hamlet Kill Claudius”, then the answer for Hamlet is Yes he does.
But the deeper complex plot questions, the questions that are Hamlet’s corollaries of self-deception and illusion and greed in Sierra Madre and of social class in Gosford Park, are questions about Ideals and Youth versus Realpolitik and Age; about Fidelity to Family, to Partner and Lover and Polity; about Ethics, Integrity, Honor and Corruption.
The central consideration of this post is: How do we clarify those questions and go deeper to discover Ross’s “central question” in Hamlet and how do actors and directors work to give the audience the joy of experiencing/discovering that in performance?

In Ross’s three-act structure Hamlet’s traditional Act I and my proposed Ross First Act coincide. They dramatize the main characters and their relationships with one another and the essential situation of the play and they set in motion the driving machinery of the Revenge Plot. Our Ross Second Act, the middle of the play—and what I am primarily concerned with in this post--extends from Act II, sc i through Act IV, sc iv. And the Ross Third Act extends from Ophelia’s Act IV sc v “mad scene” to the end of the play.

Opening the Ross Second Act, Polonius instructs the courtier Reynaldo about how to discover what son Laertes has been up to in Paris. Just as Reynaldo leaves, Ophelia comes running in to tell her father of her encounter with Hamlet; Polonius the Problem Solver has a eureka moment and takes Ophelia off to tell Claudius. In the meantime, Claudius meets with Hamlet’s school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, enlisting their help in sounding Hamlet. Polonius enters and lets the courtier Voltimand report to Claudius what’s been happening with another father/son (okay, actually uncle/nephew) in this story, Old and Young Fortinbras, after which Polonius delightedly informs Claudius and Gertrude that Hamlet is crazy and that his love for Ophelia is the cause. As evidence he reads aloud a love letter Hamlet has written to Ophelia. With a plan to loose my daughter to him as a way to test this [theory] further, everyone leaves as Hamlet enters so that Polonius may board him.

This sequence serves as a Ross Second Act prelude to Hamlet’s coming back into the story. We haven’t seen him since he told Horatio he might need to assume an antic disposition and we haven’t heard of him since Ophelia described him to Polonius As if he had been loosed out of hell. What’s being dramatized in this prelude is the world that Hamlet must navigate as he undertakes the mission of Avenger in the revenge plot.
It all seems straightforward enough. What happens during performance to blur the edges?

One of the things that happens is actors whose primary concern is with My Character and not with The Play:
What is My Character feeling? What would My Character do? What does My Character really mean when saying this? My Character wouldn’t say that. My Character needs to take a moment here.
Ross helps:
Does plot spring from character or does character service plot? Does story drive character or is it the other way around? …They may take away my WGA card for this, but I don’t think that films are character-based. …I think characters are an instrument of the story-telling process. They service your vision when you write; you don’t service theirs.
The actor’s main responsibility is to communicate the story of the play and what’s being dramatized through the story. Notice that Polonius is active in all but one scene of this beginning section of our Ross Second Act. In a sense, he takes over the play for a while. When My Character actors play Polonius they tend to see every scene he’s in as a chance to demonstrate the comedy of his character (and not incidentally their own cleverness). Their primary goal is to touch off the Pavlovian audience chuckle at all costs.
What is being dramatized in the Polonius scene with Reynaldo? How is this scene dramatizing the world that Hamlet must learn to navigate? 
Here is how fathers deal with sons; here is how the world conducts its business.
Polonius strikes the note: By indirections find directions out.
Every response of Polonius and Reynaldo should be aimed at that point. Even the responses that demonstrate Polonius’s comic over-qualifying of every thought, his driving of every point into the ground, etc. must throw focus not on Polonius’s comic character but on the part it plays in creating the developing tragedy of this situation.
The same consideration applies to Polonius's interaction with Ophelia that follows Reynaldo’s exit. What has the Problem Solver set in motion by instructing his dutiful daughter to refuse Hamlet’s attempts at further communication? What should be a father’s response to Ophelia’s situation? What will happen as he continues to solve problems with blindness about the human beings involved? How does the actor focus on the irony so that the audience remembers it when they witness how he responds to Ophelia immediately after Hamlet leaves from the nunnery scene? And what part does this play in the larger tragedy? What gets sacrificed in the name of fidelity to country and leader?
How does an actor lead us to this experience and not just to moments of “comic characterization”?
Every little pause or stumble or tic from Polonius that is primarily an opportunity for the actor to showcase Polonius’s foolishness must be eliminated. If not, those moments add up to a drag on the play and a blurring of the communication of its themes.
It’s sometimes a subtle, but always a profound, distinction that true actors recognize in their very creative beings.

Next, Claudius and Gertrude greet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. What traits specifically does the play need from R and G? Create these and no more and use them to further the story, the plot, and most importantly, the theme.
What is being dramatized in this scene? Claudius’s version of by indirections find directions out. Even Hamlet’s outside friends are being sucked into the situation and enlisted on the side of rotten Denmark. The rottenness reaches outward.
Anything that does not contribute directly to communicating this should be eliminated.
Claudius contributes to focusing on the thematic current by trying to figure out, from the moment Hamlet appears in the public court in Act I, what Hamlet knows, what he suspects, what Hamlet’s motives for any action must be. It plays beneath Claudius’s actions throughout this Second Act. All of Claudius's responses must point to this undercurrent.

Now Voltimand gives an account of how Old Fortinbras handles his nephew in a different manner and with different results. What is the dramatic point of this interaction beyond the necessary plot exposition? No indirection between this father/son(ish). Directors and actors must focus the audience not just on the information being given but on the contrast that this information offers with the way we’ve seen Polonius and Claudius deal with their sons and with all political governance issues—family matters are state matters. 
It is Young Fortinbras at the end of the play who will begin to lead Denmark back to health.

Then Polonius the Problem Solver, in announcing Hamlet’s madness and its cause, dramatizes how to overlook the human aspect of a situation as you seek to respond to perceived difficulties in that situation. The question for the actor of Polonius: Why does he express no pity? No horror? Why does he show no care in broaching the subject to the boy’s mother? And how do you focus on this so that the audience adds it up as a significant part of the tragedy? How can we get the irony as well as the obvious comedy of Polonius the Father and Counselor?
What do we experience in this scene when attention goes to the silent (or absent) Ophelia? What happens to the innocent and the uninformed in a world of indirection, behind-the-arras manipulation, intrigue and corruption? This is taking her directly to her confusion in the nunnery scene and to escape through madness. And to the grave.
What should be Gertrude’s response to Polonius’s analysis? It's taking her directly to a violent confrontation with her son.
How do directors and actors tell this story?

Upon the entrance of Hamlet and his encounter with Polonius, the Second Act takes off. Yes, it’s comedy, as Hamlet’s intellect runs rings around Polonius’s lame attempts to sound him out. But why does this scene often come off as tired, obvious, tepid--typical--Shakespearean wordplay? The actors of Hamlet and Polonius mustn’t be satisfied with simply yet another demonstration of Polonius’s foolishness and Hamlet’s quick wit. What else is the play getting at here? If the production has created a world of suspicion, intrigue, indirection, a world in which hiding behind arrases and importing double-agents as fact-finders has become the norm; if the opening scenes of this act have dramatized the major rules of the world Hamlet faces in his revenge scenario; then now we experience Hamlet jumping into the fray with The Mad Hamlet serving as his invisibility cloak and allowing him his own version of by indirections find directions out.

Before Hamlet even gets a chance to recover from Polonius (These tedious fools!), R and G accost him. And Hamlet the School Friend springs to the fore. A little undergraduate sexual banter and even as for a moment Hamlet frees himself from the rank, gross, unweeded garden of his world, he is reading his friends’ behavior beneath their words. What are they doing here? How do they fit into the world of the rotten state of Denmark? 
His disclosure in the second half of the scene is sincere, sad, truthful: the world’s a cesspool, Denmark’s a prison, and I’m pretty much in despair about it. But he perceives their real concerns are elsewhere. Even one’s friends cannot be trusted. 
Hamlet enters our Ross Second Act alone and he becomes progressively more alone right to the end of the play.

Jerking Hamlet out of the quiet moment with R and G is the arrival of the players. And Hamlet the Prince and Host and Connoisseur of Art snaps to.
Each new character who enters activates a new Hamlet persona. What does the audience experience about Hamlet they have not experienced before? What new quality in Hamlet’s behavior? What new tone of voice? as he makes his way in this increasingly precarious and over-populated situation.

The Players’ scene has the same actor trap as the Polonius and R and G scenes: a new character enters and the actor is tempted to showcase his character at the expense of the part the character plays in the forward progress of the play on its several levels. Why is the First Player in the play? Compare the lushness of the poetry of the Priam speech with the poetry of the actual play in the several preceding scenes. Hamlet knows this speech, the play it comes from—he recites lots of it. The audience should be as moved as Hamlet is.
Note: Polonius is surprised that Hamlet is such a good actor.
If at the final He was likely to have proved most royal moment in the play there were a film clip-like montage of previous Hamlet moments, surely his giving over to the poetry of the First Player would be one of them. Here is an image that most clearly reveals…what?

The deep relief of the sustained long vowels and the resonant m and n of Now I am alone give a clue to what must be the overriding tenor of the whole sequence from Hamlet’s entering reading a book up to this moment. The audience must experience the assaulting, intrusive, demanding, exhausting bombardment of people after people in Hamlet’s life and his need to change persona with each new confrontation while still being alert and wary.
This whole sequence must feel swift and even disorienting and it must gather to the climax that is Hamlet’s soliloquy. This is not a question of speed, nor even of pace; rather of focus, of eliminating all responses, however justifiable and authentic they may be, that do not contribute to this deep sustaining driving current of theme and drama.

The next sequence begins with a taut enclave trying to figure out what’s going on with Hamlet: Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius, and Ophelia, who top the Hamlet the play’s the thing soliloquy that climaxes the last sequence.
Then the nunnery scene (See May 5 post), which is topped by Hamlet as anxious about the success of the Players’ Play as Treplev is at the beginning of The Sea Gull. Hamlet’s concern keeps the pace going, creates anticipation of the promised confrontation with Claudius.
Take note of the lush, forthright poetry of the Player King and Queen. Here’s another opportunity to give the audience the joy of discovering, through experiential contrasts, something elemental in the play.
(By the way, what does The lady doth protest too much, methinks actually mean? What's the irony?)
R and G come to Hamlet, followed immediately by Polonius. A frantic distracted pace; overlapping dialogue; Hamlet playing now you see it now you don’t, now time to slow the pace, now a reversal, etc. And beneath it all the promise of that climactic confrontation.
Claudius prays and Hamlet might kill him. But on to Gertrude’s closet and the fractured reuniting of the family--an unexpected climactic confrontation.
When the promised Claudius/Hamlet confrontation finally does happen, what is its tone? Why?
The by indirections find directions out thematic current climaxes with Gertrude and the death of Polonius and it morphs into something else, something that descends into the dark heart--even viscera--of the play right up to the Captain's revelation about Fortinbras and Hamlet’s soliloquy, which ends our Ross Second Act.

What are the deeper questions being asked in Hamlet? As Beckett’s Clov has it: Something’s taking its course. A production of Hamlet must clarify that something and hold every character and every interaction to dramatizing and communicating it. Hamlet uses the revenge play form to get at something about the tragedy of young people who must try to keep their values, their belief in the greater positive virtues, while confronting a world that is venal, duplicitous, corrupt. Why does Hamlet hesitate to act? I do not know why yet I live to say “This thing’s to do". What’s the play’s response to that frustration?
What must a young person give up in order to move into the so-called adult world? Can any action you take be pure, absolute, right, in a world that has gone rotten to the core? What is the tragedy of good sane youth trying to right wrongs in a world gone madly corrupt? O cursed spite,/ That ever I was born to set it right!

If there were a sound score to this Ross Second Act, what would the music be doing during each sequence? Imagine such music expressing the roller coaster momentum of our entire Ross Second Act.
Classic symphonic music expresses viscerally the experience of a deep suspenseful current carrying a play along; it provides a musical version of a kinesthetic goal to aim for. Listen to recordings that at every moment play the sweep of the music, that put at the forefront the suspense and promise of what’s to come, even as every note is clearly struck along the way. 
How does an orchestra of actors, rather than playing moments of individual instrumental cleverness, learn to play the suspenseful momentum of the thematic current carrying the performance of a play along from the first moment to the last?

Conductor Willhelm Furtwangler’s Wagner recordings create the depth and complexity, the grandeur, of Wagnerian music while never relinquishing the deep, strong, cumulative drive toward the inevitable climax. They can help actors and directors in maintaining the momentum of a whole play and in not getting caught in the possible side-pools and eddies of the plot.
Toscanini’s Beethoven recordings illustrate the idea of playing the music rather than the notes, of building to climaxes, of creating the suspense of one note promising the next; which is to say, of playing the drama rather than the character, rather than the emotional or the comical or the what-have-you moment at the expense of the drama. 
(If to your ears Toscanini is too swift and metronomic, try Von Karajan’s Beethoven.)

It is the responsibility of actors to play the music of the play, to build sequences and to let nothing interfere with the builds to those climaxes. What is the mini-climax of each scene that clicks one more temporal experience into place, to be topped in by the next scene which leads to its own climax, as it creates inevitability and carries all along to the final climactic moment?

Hamlet is an intricate play with lots of events and situations and characters. It’s easy to let a production wander off course. And I'm not convinced that ruthless cutting of the text is the best way to address the issue. 
Actors must be alive to the questions of the deeper currents of the play. “Alive to” not just “intellectually aware of”. Lots of actors can “stay in the moment” and “respond truthfully to given circumstances”. They can get authentically from A to B, from B to C, C to D. But they still can go off in unproductive directions. 
Actors need to know how to get just as authentically and directly from A to Z. It is these actors who truly “serve the play”.

Alvina Krause wrote the following notes to actors in a 1979 production of Chekhov’s The Sea Gull she was directing for The Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble:

Begin on technique.
A good dramatist builds to the end of a sentence, to the end of a speech, to the end of an act, to the end of a play. Get that innate feeling of building in your subconscious, in your very bones. Never throw away a line unless it lands somewhere. Usually, if a line is thrown away, it lands in the audience - right square in their hands. Therefore build every sentence to the last word; if it is not the end of the speech, top that last word and get to the end of the speech. Periods, commas, etc. are for the eye. We do not put them in oral communication. Therefore, no stops within speeches. If you, the speaker, stop even to get a breath, the listener should come in to express what he is thinking. If he does come in, you must top him and get on with what you have to say. Then, unless it is a pause indicated by Chekhov, the listener tops in before the last word is finished and carries on to the end of the sequence. In fact, you should be interrupting each other coming in with a word or phrase before the speaker finishes. In which case the speaker tops you and finishes his speech or you carry on.

…Within speeches of more than one sentence there are reactions from listeners who want to get into the conversation, or by listeners who are bored, or lost in their own thoughts. The speaker must be aware of them and top them to hold his own or shrug and give up. Movement within speeches is not scene stealing if the speaker is aware of it and responds to it by topping that response.

…Realize how every scene foretells the end.

In its techniqueal essentials, this note is as true for Shakespeare as it is for Chekhov.  
How do you embody the implicit expectations/requirements of dramatic poetry without forfeiting the muscular improvisational wrestle that is the heart of drama?  
How do you create complex characters and full relationships and complicated situations, and then trust that it's all there so that in performance (and rehearsal) you can focus the totality of your artistic energies on communicating to your audiences the deeper questions of the play?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Candida, A Minister's Wife

Question 1:
I'm emailing for wisdom about Marchbanks. I'm coaching someone for A Minister’s Wife. I read your blog on Shaw and of course went back to Candida but thought I’d be silly not to write to you.

Response 1:
I saw A Minister's Wife [Austin Pendleton’s musical adaptation of Candida] in Chicago and I thought it was pretty darn good, that it kept Shaw fairly intact.
Candida is not so much about The New Woman as it is about The Young Poet. And while A Minister's Wife puts more focus on Candida, the character of Marchbanks is pretty much the same in both.
Marchbanks is a physically slight young man who is terrified of strangers and certainly of physical roughness from others. Note the description of his behavior (in Candida) when he first enters the room. Like a stray puppy, scared of everything, shrinking from physical contact. His opposite? A brilliant mind, the capacity of the artist for profound comprehension dramatized beautifully in his scene with Prossy when he perceives the truth beneath her surface behavior and understands her more truly than anyone ever has. 
His body gets ready to run from Morell but his eyes flash with the fire of his ideas and his voice lands those ideas with the impact of a physical blow.  
What's the secret in his heart?
The play could be subtitled: The Artist Finds Freedom.

Question 2:
I sat with the play last night and kept going back to Marchbanks' passions. How he has all of these thoughts inside him, and although he is articulate, he can't fully articulate his own poetry. He surprises, even himself, when he allows his passions to fuel his voice and stand up to Morell. Yes?
I hadn't thought about the secret in his heart. Yes, that is where the actor must go. Connect his own secret to what ignites Marchbanks to voice all that is within him.
I would love for you to blog on this. I think what has always troubled me about Candida is that is it less about her and more about what she does to the people around her. How they all react to her.

Response 2:
Marchbanks makes lots of realizations during the play (One way to map out the progress of the play is to go from one Marchbanks realization to the next right up to the last big one, which happens when?) and, yes, he surprises even himself when his voice finds his soul in perfect poetry.
Let your imagination play with his name a little. Note what a different character he would be if his name were, for instance, Maybanks.
Shaw had originally called him Marjoribanks.

Let’s take a look at four major scenes in Candida and some of the realizations that happen within them.

Marchbanks and Morell at the end of Act I.
Morell is everything Eugene is not: he is outgoing, handsome, vital, charming. After all, Candida loves him. His concerns are social and practical. I imagine him helping out at the soup kitchen and giving the foreman at the construction site a talking to about working conditions. His great good will and charismatic nature consistently win over both men and women to his side.
He recognizes the genius in the “wretched little nervous disease” of a young boy that Marchbanks is. It’s the power of that genius that unsettles Morell in their confrontation and leads him to question the strength of his marriage.
Marchbanks pushes all of Morell’s buttons, gets at insecurities Morell isn’t even aware he has, and at last forces Morell to lose his temper and, as Marchbanks later describes it, to shake him like a terrier shakes a rat. 
It is at the moment when Marchbanks shrinks from fear of a possible pummeling at the hands of minister Morell that he has his first great realization: I’m not afraid of you. You’re afraid of me! And the entire speech that follows is a series of incrementally mounting realizations as his understanding of the power he possesses builds, intensifies, energizes. 
Too often actors deliver these lines as a series of statements of fact rather than as a series of amazing, growing realizations that embolden him with the power of his ideas. At last the courage of his convictions is more powerful than the cowardice of his physicality. And this realization sends him directly on his path to the end of the play.

Morell and Candida Act II.
Candida has returned after a three-week absence and she goes about the house to make sure things are running properly. At last she comes to the study to check on her husband. She sees him sitting at his desk working on his next sermon. His face is troubled, his spine collapsed. How often when she has seen him so absorbed in writing a sermon has she wanted to intercede, only instead to bring him a lamp and then leave? But the thundercloud in front of his eyes tonight is darker and more troubling than ever. (She has no idea that it is his confrontation with Eugene that is plaguing him.) 
She decides it’s past time for him to face a painful truth about his sermons, his parishioners, their fidelity, and about his and their love of the trappings of religion. She assumes an understanding between the two of them: a loving wife sitting at her husband’s feet, the two of them working through a problem together. And the wife-mother-sister-companion-counselor proceeds with irony, with gentle humor, with painful accuracy.
Meanwhile, Morell hears everything she says from the perspective of his misgivings about her love for him, as Eugene had suggested concerning King David: But his wife despised him in her heart.
As they settle into what she thinks is mutual trust and affection and understanding, believing that he is in perfect sync with her, she wonders aloud if Eugene, since he is falling in love with her, will one day forgive her for not helping him into his sexual manhood.
Morell the man and the minister says only that he relies on her goodness and her Christian purity.
She pokes fun at his ministerial myopia. Don’t put your faith in my goodness and my purity, she says. I would abandon them in a second to help Eugene grow up. Put your faith rather in my love for you. That’s what’s keeping me from teaching Eugene about sexual manhood and romantic love.
Morell freaks and truly Candida does not understand.
It is a misapprehension to think that Candida either sees Eugene as a romantic rival with Morell or as at all sexually interesting to her. It’s because she doesn’t and because she assumes Morell is in full accord with her about the situation that she says and does the things she says and does. She is not deliberately tormenting Morell; she’s believing more strongly in him and in their marriage than at the moment he is able to.

Candida and Marchbanks at the Beginning of Act III.
Candida senses but does not fully grasp the profound depths within the fearful young fellow before her. But it is time for the teacher within her to lead him to an understanding of the truth about his feelings for her. It is delicate territory and she proceeds sensitively.
Marchbanks: May I say wicked things to you?
Candida: You may say anything you want so long as it’s the truth of your heart and not some second-hand attitude.
Marchbanks [realizing]: Ohmygod, everything I want to say at this moment is just some attitude I’ve adopted or picked up from reading. Only one word is the utter truth: Candida, Candida, Candida. And every time I say it it is a prayer to you.
Candida [carefully leading him one baby step farther along]: Does it make you happy to pray?
Marchbanks: Ecstatic.
Candida: Well, that very ecstasy is the answer to your prayer. [And gently, carefully, pointedly, she asks him to realize something further] Do you want anything more? [That is, do you want to kiss me? do you want us to go upstairs? etc.]
And Marchbanks makes his biggest realization yet: Ohmygod, no! What I’m feeling now is utterly what my heart has been wanting all along! I don’t need anything more!
Morell, the mere man, enters and misinterprets what he sees and what Eugene means during the contretemps between the two of them that follows Candida’s exit. The only way he can see out of his misery is to insist Candida choose irrevocably between the two of them, something it has not even remotely occurred to Candida might be part of the reality of this situation.

The Discussion among Candida and Marchbanks and Morell that Ends the Play.
Candida discovers that James does not realize the signal part she plays in the success of his life and his domestic situation and their marriage. He has assumed that as the male he has been both provider and protector and she the pampered beneficiary of his industry. (Shaw said that with Candida he demonstrates that in the doll’s house of a marriage, it is the man who is the spoiled doll child, not the woman.)
To describe the huge realization Marchbanks makes about the secret in his heart, let me quote a letter Shaw wrote in 1898 to the critic and Ibsen translator William Archer:
When Eugene, with his apprehensive faculty raised to the highest sensitiveness by his emotional state, hears that long speech of Candida’s about the household, he takes the whole thing in, grasps for the first time what it really means, what the conditions of such love are, and how it is essentially the creature of limitations which are far transcended in his own nature. He sees at once that no such life and no such love are possible for him, and instantly leaves them all far behind him.
To put it another way, he jumps to the position from which the Master-builder saw that it was all over with the building of happy homes for human beings. He looks at the comfort and sweetness and happiness that has just been placed before him at its best, and turns away from it exclaiming with absolute conviction, “Life is nobler than that.”
Thus Candida’s sympathy with his supposed sorrow is entirely thrown away. If she were to alter her decision and offer herself to him he would be unspeakably embarrassed and terrified.
When he says “Out into the night with me,” he does not mean the night of despair and darkness, but the free air and holy starlight which is so much more natural an atmosphere to him than this stuffy fireside warmth of mothers and sisters and wives and so on. 
It may be that this exposition may seem to you to destroy all the pathos and sanity of the scene; but from no other point of view could it have been written. A perfect dramatic command, either of character or situation, can only be obtained from some point of view that transcends both. 
The absolute fitness which is the secret of the effectiveness of the ending of “Candida”, would be a mere sham if it meant nothing more than a success for Morell at the cost of a privation for Eugene. Further, any such privation would take all the point from Candida’s sub-consciousness of the real state of affairs; for you will observe that Candida knows all along perfectly well that she is no mate for Eugene, and instinctively relies on that solid fact to pull him through when he is going off, as she thinks, broken-hearted. The final touch of comedy is the femininely practical reason that she gives for their incompatibility.

Candida is the wonderful woman who makes and maintains a perfect nest for Morell to explore his gifts for sermonizing and lifting the hearts of his parishioners--something she realizes during the play he is not aware of and that she must spell out for him.
Morell is a magnificent man, an eagle domesticated with his wings clipped and all his needs taken care of, which he realizes by the end of the play is the perfect life for him.
But it is not to the discovery of their blindnesses about their marriage nor to the domestic balance achieved when Candida embraces James in front of the cozy hearth at the final curtain that this play has been leading. Rather, what has been dramatized is what the revelations about marriage have led the young artist Marchbanks to realize, what the secret in his heart is: he must be not domesticated; he must be a free soaring eagle artist.
And so he flees their hearth for the glorious night in search of his destiny.
End of play.

Post Script
The sequel.
Candida II: Eugene Finds His Way.
In which the young poet Marchbanks makes the acquaintance of Lord Alfred Douglas and the whole of who he truly is comes exhilaratingly clear to him.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Alvina Krause on Ionesco One-Acts, Style

To supplement yesterday’s post concerning style and Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, this is Alvina Krause’s critique of Ionesco one-acts performed during the 1964 summer season at Eagles Mere. It has been slightly edited.

Critique of One-Acts:
All performances must have style, must have form. When a craftsman has something distinctly his own to say, he may say it so clearly, so emphatically, that his manner of expression is part of what he is saying. He gives his subject clarification, intensification and projection: he gives it style. It is the actor's responsibility to discover the style of the playwright, to identify with that style, to assume that style. Since meaning and style are one, the actor can communicate a playwright's idea only through the physical manifestations of the author's style. Voice, actions, movement, rhythms, cadences are suited to the line. 
Style is essential to all forms of dramatic expression. In some drama, however, failures in style may not be completely disastrous; in realism, for instance, interest in character or in plot or in dramatic situation may grip attention and sustain interest to some extent even when style fails. In other cases, style is the drama itself, it is meaning itself. Destroy style and nothing is left. 
The one-acts we presented may be extreme examples of this; the French, however, are stylists, formalists, and the focus on style itself will hold true of all their drama--Moliere, Giraudoux, Anouilh. 
There is wit in the style itself: in sounds, rhythms, cadences; pantomime can be witty (Al and Jane made this evident. Al in particular has the capacity to make a slight movement an arrest, a witty comment). Broadway too often fails with French drama because it tries to substitute the wise crack, the gimmick for style.

Style is the degree of variation from life, from nature; it is an agreed upon falsehood used to communicate a true comment, a true view of life, of man, of society. As realistic actors you found it difficult to agree on the variation from life: you wanted to resort to the "real" response, to the complete character, when the dramatist wanted focus thrown solely on the manifestation of man's emptiness: his empty speech, his empty emotions, his failure to communicate, his machine qualities. 

Style is Focus. Style permits no diversion of attention. Style throws a sharp, clear, bright light exactly where the dramatist wants it. In Bald Soprano the focus must be on the cascades of words that drown out everything else in our absurd world.  To throw focus on character, as M kept doing, blurs the focus. If we get interested in the individual, we are distracted from the dramatist's comment on the state of man. We should not be interested in personality. When emotion overflows, as M let it, we are again brought back to the personal and we are confused as to dramatic purpose. On Friday night M achieved the brilliance of the impersonal style. She achieved the tonal quality and the pace necessary to throw focus on language. She still lacked the ability to time a line in such a way that it gave the audience the maximum of enjoyment: the ability to lift a single world out of a rush of words so that it sticks in the mind and telegraphs ahead that the line will have a surprise at the end which will be released with a snap. On Saturday she began to play with an audience in mind, she included the audience in her timing--not enough, but she had progressed far. She has moved in the right direction. The audience reaction, whether laughter, through tears or what you will, is an integral part of every drama, realistic or non-realistic. Each line, each sequence, each scene, each act is designed to produce a definite effect on the audience.

I hear actors in Ibsen and in Shakespeare saying line after line with no idea of what it should do to an audience, who should be adding up every moment. An actor so lost in emotion or in character, or in situation that his audience sense is not alert is not completely an actor. He may be merely an impersonator, or a bundle of personal emotions. To be truthful is important, but truthful to what? He has not been completely truthful until he has been true to the author’s purpose, which is to illuminate a truth: to make an audience see the truth in this viewpoint of character or situation or state. Develop truth in this viewpoint of character or situation or state. Develop character, inner states, etc., in improvisations, but the moment you step on stage in rehearsal (don’t wait for performance), realize that your job as an actor is to communicate, reveal, illuminate this truth to an audience.

RB has an excellent grasp of all these principles. His mind is alert to meanings, his speech has clarity and direction, his ear catches rhythms and tunes in sequence; he is quick to sense the build in a scene, and is fairly alert to the moment to play an opposite, although he did not always do it with the agility he used in Life with Mother.  This sense of opposites is a quality you all need to achieve  (J brought off some good ones in leader: My Darling). This variation in tonal qualities is an essential in style in realism or non-realism. A good dramatist writes with orchestration in mind. He puts characters together who complement one another, or oppose one another, or harmonize, etc. If actors are all speaking on the same pitch, at the same pitch, the same rate, it should be clear to the director that the actors have not found the character traits which the drama requires. Learn to listen to the symphony of your drama even as you respond “truthfully”.

J began to sense the need to do this playing of opposites. Sometimes she brought it off, but too often she got caught in a rush that kept her from crystallizing, from clinching, what she wanted to do. She needs to get a tighter grip on her material, a stronger discipline, which will make her land her points as decisively as R does. J quickly caught the over all style--now learn to make that middle caesura in a line and to land and sustain the end of a line.  
P needs the same discipline only more of it. I think perhaps he has a fear that truth and style are incompatible, that reality and style are enemies. The opposite is true: style is more real than reality for it throws focus on reality, on the essense of reality, whereas doing everything that accompanies reality distracts from focus on the point to be made. What P does is real, is truthful, but there is too much of it. Style comes from the word “stylus” which is a kind of chisel which chisels away all the extraneous matter leaving the clear image exposed. P needs to use a stylus and get rid of all the unnecessary bits that obscure the truth he wants to convey. When he can do this, there may be a real actor exposed.

Sue has an excellent comic sense; she gives totally into what she is going to do—totally and fearlessly trusting her sense of theatre. Her audience communication is excellent. She has a good sense of fun on stage that is kept in form. 
M achieved this sense of enjoyment in the last two performances. He managed to suggest that there was a lot more that he could give if he wanted to, that there was more restrained that coming over—an excellent dramatic device. In the first two performances he was not landing and clinching lines and points, not permitting the audience to express their enjoyment. After Thursday, he took focus and kept it.

CH needs to learn to find the right way to communicate a line, an idea, and then to be able to repeat that way indefinitely. Crystallization is an essential. Without it you may be a victim of all the things that can happen during a performance. Crystallization does not mean that the creative forces are stifled. Rather, it frees them, for form releases tensions, fears. With a stronger sense of form disciplining him, CH would have sensed that the right way to land the big points was a straight to the point delivery. All such lines got big audience response. When he used effusions around a line, focus went from the line to the effusion of emotion. Result: no laugh. “Sucks his thumb” failed nearly every time for this reason: the straight, strong vocal attack could have been a strong opposite to the image conveyed by the line. The sense of direction toward the final effect should start during the memorization process or bad habits will be set up. Choreographed patterns must be strictly maintained. Experiment while you are finding them. Once found, intensify but maintain them.
T’s problem was much the same as P’s: concentration on emotion rather than the style of expressing the emotions.
And style is an aid to memory. Once a physical pattern is established, muscles remember and strain is taken off the mental process . Set up a total pattern of muscle response and then trust your muscles.

The lover interludes were delightful: a good example of wit and meaning in pantomime. Al, in particular, has learned how to create suspense in a single small movement. Here is excellence in focus: he does so little, but how meaningful the little is! J participated, responded beautifully. She can afford to heighten suspense before beginning a movement. These interludes demonstrated how feeling may be cast into form, choreographed, and remain true.

The first half of New Tenant is a test of acting not many would like to take. It runs the gamut of emotion which has to be played against a blank wall for too long a time. S acts totally; every fibre of her being participates; from the toes up she is responding. In this drama, she overcame to a large extent her reluctance to amplify to the size of the auditorium. She learned to put a stop in the middle of a line very effectively, and to land lines. She needs to play vocal opposites, and for this purpose she must achieve a well-directed straight tone: directed against the hard palate. Such a tone, undercutting sharply, would have brought off the comic effects which were needed--the sudden sharp contrasts and contradictions.
M can give you some exercises, hard palate exercises, and support from the ribs. 

Saturday night pauses got too long and too evenly spaced in this opening sequence. The tension did not mount in nightmare horror. S believed in the feeling back of the pauses, but the audience did not. This is another instance of the need for the actor to keep his finger on the pulse of the audience. M should have begun to break them with more and more, faster, faster, and more relentless machine-like measuring and racing—anything to recapture attention. The result was that the mover’s scene started at a disadvantage. Al’s first response did not register sufficiently and perhaps he panicked a bit. In an instance like this pull a surprise, something that surprises yourself as well as the audience: a vocal squeak of unusual timbre, or an exaggerated jump out of the way—followed by the shrug and smile: do anything to capture interest rather than let the performance lag. Something needed to be done to set up again the comic business of carrying in small articles as if they weighed tons. Al is a superb pantomimist. He plays unrealities as if they were the most real things in the universe. He has the creative invention of a child magnified to theatre proportions. It is complete belief in his created reality that is comic and believable. Al has what F calls “an actor’s commitment to pretend”.  And Al’s pretence is truth. He believes in it, and acts it with every muscle of his body in use but control doing only what must be done--no more. Because his concentration is so true, so real, he makes his audience believe as he does in his fantasy. In his work you may see exemplified the essentials of style I described in this paper. Al does not “try” to do an act, he simply does. He does not think, analyze—he goes into action on the spot. Too many of you think it over for a time and then “try” to act. This is the mark of a non-actor.  

F’s work was excellent too—in concentration, in doing, in playing responses. His voice and body do not have the flexibility necessary for range and variety, but his concentration, timing, responses, are excellent and comic.
The Man is a more difficult role than we had anticipated. M’s voice with its lyricism got in his way sometimes, but for the most part he controlled it pretty well. We needed to build with a more shot-gun-machine-gun effect. Somehow we missed a bit in the nightmare, cumulative effect of this piece, especially on Saturday. Wednesday and Friday we were traveling in the right direction.
The importance of style which you have become aware of must carry over to all drama: Ibsen, Shakespeare, etc.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco

The following question is an edited version of emails I got from the director of a high school production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.
The Alvina Krause critique has been slightly edited as well.

I'm finding Berenger difficult to explain to students. Why is it that the one person who has the will power to resist the "epidemic" is the one who in the first act consistently says he doesn't feel comfortable in his own skin, that he just "can't get used to life" and turns to alcohol daily? I feel I've discovered that one of his strengths is that he is not very concerned with what others think of him (wrinkled clothes, mussed hair, always late)--and he's not particularly observant (he doesn't even take notice of the first rhino that runs through), which seems to justify why he isn't swept away by mob mentality---but what is the significance of his drinking? Why does Ionesco make the "strong" one, the one who finds the transformation of people into rhinos "unnatural", distinctly an alcoholic?   Is it the "unlikely" hero element?[so many of those who turned into rhinos are of "superior" character--and tell him so (Jean, Papillon, Botard, etc)] I'm afraid I'm missing something….what I can put together now is this idea of the fallibility/weakness of the human condition is what makes us truly human. The other characters who strive for "superiority" and perfection, who rationalize everything have lost their "humanity".  The modern/anti hero is he who retains his humanity, and his strength stems from what may be taken for weakness (what makes us special/individual makes us strong) and life is meant to be difficult--a struggle vs. utopia.

There are 2 difficulties in communicating this to both my teenage cast and to an audience:
1) Berenger is not happy with himself or his life...he feels awkward and unhappy/uncomfortable in every situation except when he's drinking. So, the mesage here is not a clean and inspiring "Be yourself! March to your own drummer--don't worry about what others think, be happy with who you are!"  There's something more...and the "switch" must be strong and apparent. (Its no longer about me and my happiness...its about all of us/humanity)
2) There's such a difference (I believe) in the way teenagers now view alcoholism than in the 40s or 50s. I'm afraid it not just a humanizing "weakness", but seen as a very specific and taboo choice. It has a stigma. And although I have made some cuts to the script and tried to pare down the alcoholic/drinking references, it certainly can't be eliminated. This is a very specific but important challenge.

Finally... my greatest challenge is to take a very intellectual idea/theme (Berenger  as anti-hero) and put it into sensory terms for my students. I've been reminded by looking at your archived notes of a way to start the questioning/search:   "If I were.... struggling in school/work and with my family/friends (a very teenage experience!) much so that I can only take refuge in meaningless, detrimental and temporary behavior (drinking/ video games/internet relationships) If I were.... at a point where I knew I wanted to attempt to make a change to feel better....If, at the same time, I saw everyone around me being seduced by something I KNOW is wrong.......If they wouldn't listen to me and became unrecognizable..............etc.  Would the urgency of this emergency--one that is so deep that it hits me in the core of my being--stir in me an absolute knowledge of who I am and what I know is right--so much so that I could fight as if my life depended on it---and suddenly CARED to preserve it?

The great Twentieth-Century British actor John Gielgud said, “Style is knowing what play you’re in”. How deceptively simple, especially when you consider what “knowing” truly suggests about what actors must do in their behavior-based creative process. 
The word “style” refers to the process of how artists create and how art communicates. It emerges powerfully in the final stage of creating a work of art when the artist eliminates every unnecessary detail (unnecessary to what?); but it is present in the initial selecting of the elements the artist will create with.
For the actor those elements are human behavior.
This beginning selection process is when asking the right questions of a play is vital to the final production.
It seems to me you’re asking great questions, but ones that have no answers in Rhinoceros because the play doesn’t concern itself with them.
Rhinoceros is not a character drama. The play isn’t “about” complex motivations  and Berenger’s interior life. A critic—I can’t remember who just now—said that Berenger isn’t Everyman,  he’s Any Man. And I would add that not only is he not a hero but that he's not an anti-hero either. He drinks for the same reasons that a lot of people drink—and I’ll bet your students know lots of adults who do just that. The play neither applauds nor condemns Berenger's drinking even if Jean does.
He’s just an ordinary guy with no special traits that account for his being the last human being in the play. Why Berenger is the last man standing is not what the play has been building to. 
And there’s meaning in that.
Rather than go into more detail just now, I am attaching the critique of the production of Rhinoceros that Alvina Krause produced at The Theatre in Eagles Mere with her student company in the 1963 summer season.  Perhaps it can address some of your concerns and help you to clarify the whole attack you will take in helping young actors to create and to communicate this play.
Read it, let its implications play upon your own creative mind, and then by all means write back to me if you continue to have questions or discover other concerns about the production that the critique doesn’t fully address for you.

Critique of Rhinoceros:
French drama is drama of speech, of words, of composition of words and phrases, of expressive musical nuances. Of dissonance, of cacophonies, of sounds in conflict that play against each other epitomizing ideas in conflict. Even if a blackout occurred and the audience could not see the actors, or could only see shadows of actors, the sound of the dialogue, the language itself, should keep them rooted in their seats responding, laughing, thinking, stimulated by words, language, speech. Action, gesture, facial expression only supplement and heighten this drama of words. The language of wit, of the intellect, the language of form, of explicit meanings, of connotations aimed at the mind, not the senses. Even clowning is aimed at the head through laughter. Pantomime must have the same sharp clarity that the French language has: funny, ironic, but with sharp, clean, clear aim. Think of the word “brilliance” — what does it mean? -- sharp clear light, revealing vividly sharp, clear outlines, vivid highlights. This is what French drama must have: brilliance — even when it is dramatizing the meaninglessness of speech today.

Focus. Focus. Focus. It is the central element of style. Without it: no style, no meaning. The French are superb masters of drama that aims at the head, drama of ideas, of intellect, of controversy. When you perform or direct French drama, shed your love of playing emotional involvements; discard your probings into psychological roots of character, and in heaven’s name, alter your concept of sincerity. Three abstract lines arranged in meaningful pattern produce an impact as sincere and as truthful as sobs from the bottom of your souls – perhaps even more because all that is extraneous has been stripped away and the single, penetrating idea is starkly before us. Is a branch of a tree, stripped of leaves, of bark, not more meaningful in its nakedness than it is covered with leaves, dust, bugs? Have you ever seen bare roots, dry, clean, stark? Are they not more meaningful in their emphasis on sheer form, in their pure emphasis on the essence of the function of roots, than all the twistings and clinging soil and bug bitten markings? When it comes to the meaning, the stark reality of roots, are they not “sincere”, “truthful” revelations? And so with emotions, with responses, with character traits. And emotion revealed in one single act which receives focus will say more and say it more truthfully than the whole realistic combination of muscle reactions which are life responses. One slight turn of the body can say more of human despair than all the writhings and sobbings which we believe mean “feeling so deeply”. Study statues: frozen despair, thought, etc., frozen character traits. Yes, revise your concepts of sincerity and truth, for your realistic acting interfered with projection of Ionesco’s concept. Yes, all style is rooted in realism – just as the bare branch and bare roots are “real”.

Now: in acting, this requires first the mental ability to penetrate to the essence of the author’s meaning; in this case: before we can meet man’s dilemma, find answers, we must face his complete emptiness expressed in clichés of thought, of words, of behavior. You knew this with your heads. I am not sure that you had let the horror of this realization become a total experience, whether the thought had become a “depth” experience. For J it had and this lent distinction to his work (not always thrown into sharp enough focus by production and direction elements). It was behind M’s work, and this led to the most brilliant Ionesco of the production the Friday night Daisy/Berenger dance episode which was brilliantly executed and which heightened the frozen horror back of it all. These were moments to remember. These two performers here captured Ionesco style, to project Ionesco’s meaning in his theatrical terms of entertainment through vaudeville, through clowning, through pantomime, anything you will, and behind it a dramatist’s concern about man’s dilemma. We needed more such moments. R and M caught it for a moment in Act I when Berenger started reading the report rhythmically and M picked it up. For a moment: a group response to the Logician which fell into a quick, rhythmic response – if only you had heightened the vocal pattern to match it! F was on the verge many times of bringing it off, but was still a bit afraid of heightening and directorially sufficient focus was not put on him at such moments.

You no doubt see by now that this kind of performance requires the greatest vocal and physical skills of expression. It requires voices and speech production skills of great flexibility and the ears of musicians with good senses of pitch. You all tend still to play the same tone, the same note, the same intensity, the same pitch instead of playing opposites and variations. The very sound of the drama, even though it were spoken in a foreign language, should have meanings, implications, as music has meaning as each cadence, each phrase, each rest, trill, etc., touches off vibrations in the listener. So this spoken drama should do. It may be necessary to work for these effects technically, but the end result is the essence of reality: in this case the reality of emptiness. And physically you are inexpressive or only partially expressive with no sense, no true sense, of the body and its parts as an expressive instrument. R has learned to use his body effectively, pleasantly, fluidly, expressively. G has some sense of expressional movement. When he develops it he may be a great comedian: all elements are there. M has a good beginning. G is stiff in the spine. F began to see what was demanded. As a basis for further work, remember the day we discovered oppositions in body positions, in postures and movement; remember the effect of “move --- freeze” catching you in an opposition movement. Work on it: everyone. You may not need it in such heightened form as in this drama, but it will affect all of your acting, making it more vital, vibrant, meaningful. Your body, your voice; these are your instruments. Train them to be the best. I remind you again: no pianist who is a great pianist will play on an inferior instrument.

I suggest that you study carefully the pictures of the production. They are extraordinarily good, and they are most revealing. They are frozen action: they are heightened intensity achieved through strong focus. They have what we should have achieved throughout. They show how close we came to excellence. The one of Daisy and Berenger speaks volumes: bodies say futility expressed in meaningless action, the eyes say horror and incapability of action. Study these pictures. In the Act I full shot note: if we had turned R’s body just a bit more to right stage keeping his beard and hands as they are, we would have thrown focus much strongly on Berenger, and thereby emphasized his attitude as a contrast to all the clichés of petty emotions. The tilt of S’s head could have emphasized more by line the focus on Berenger. So throughout the play we needed this careful attention to seemingly small details and frozen moments that point meanings. Ionesco does not lecture nor preach, but the theatrical impact can make you think if you want to. It is to be regretted that we have no vocal record of the show to study for it might have pointed up for you the moments that came closest to brilliance and the ones that failed or were inadequate.

L’s work was very fine throughout, yet we could not quite bring off the last act dialogue because we had not quite found the balance of tones we needed, the contrast and especially what we needed was to find the quality that would most forcefully express and comment on the banality and emptiness of clichés of speech and thought throughout. This is the most difficult scene in the play and we needed more experimentation with devices that would have produced the dry as dust emptiness in the lawyer that we achieved in the logician, in the chief (which needed heightening in the Old Gentleman). M came closest to getting it in his ex-school teacher the last night when he worked less hard. For F it crystallized when we tried the answering service device. He did not quite hit it with L so that the audience suddenly through laughter would wake to the horror of hearing their own banality.

The horror, theatrical and otherwise, needed intensifying. G has a wonderful sense of the value of words: he relishes them, tastes them, uses them. This sense was a wonderful reinforcement for his excellent physical clowning. But the horror of the act needed to intensify and build and build. Man turning into beast should have been more horrifying that we made it. This needed careful moment by moment building through careful selection of detail, through maybe cinematic techniques and a culmination in production elements. We settled too easily for no production. Because a technical problem is difficult to solve does not mean it must go unsolved. Jumping over the ground row was no substitute for a wall demolished. The end of that act must be theatrically shattering. All “effects” should have been more carefully planned and executed. The exit of Madame Boeuf did not come to its climax because a hand was visible giving R the skirt and so “all that was lift of the woman was a skirt” did not come off. Ends of acts generally needed more careful timing and implication. The office scene went dead toward the end, needed production detail. What should Berenger do after “capitulate” – Jump into bed? Rush on out? Eat a carrot? We stopped short of some frightening implications about one little man alone in a world of rhinoceroses. What should the last scene of the play say? Or do? Or imply?

Instead of discussing each person’s work individually in this, I have tried to clarify an overall approach to Ionesco in the hope you would apply it specially. Because I have discussed flaws means only that we still have much to learn; but you are well on to achieving style. The objective of this discussion is to sharpen your awareness of what is involved in style and to encourage you to work toward it.