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.

1 comment:

  1. Hey there - I've enjoyed both of these postings immensely as I've been having a little style study of my own - without realizing it. I recently read both "A Life in Letters" (Chekhov's uncensored letters) and "Chekhov/Scenes from a Life" (an unusual take on his life from a geographic sort of standpoint). Both books have given me new insights into Chekhov and his plays (and short stories!) and your postings woke me up to the fact that most of those new insights relate to style. The things that are unsaid, lack of pat conclusions, the importance of seemingly small sounds, etc. all relate to a style that resonates behind his writing. Thus the shock of outpourings such as Irina's "breakdown" in Three Sisters or Vanya's "breakdown" near the end of Uncle Vanya. What little I know of the French has taught me that they are largely an emotionally private, understated crew. Matters of personal feeling - emotional outbursts, religious faith, intense sadness, happiness, etc.- are not public. A French friend once told me - listen to the news, the speech rhythm is very boring - same cadence over and over. Our public battles over religion are very strange to them. So, yes there is the search for the character in these plays - but critical to their success is an understanding of the style that pervades them and to some extent the style of the culture that surrounds them - yes? While that might seem more apparent in some texts - it has bearing on many I, at least, am realizing. And the Alvina Krause critiques pointed out to me that it is incumbent not only on one's search for an individual character - but the ensemble's search for the production as a whole, i.e. staging, physicality between characters, etc. It's a much bigger, more interrelated picture. Thanks!