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?