A student in one of my earliest classes was cast in a summer production of Dark of the Moon while I was away from school. She wrote to me expressing difficulties and dissatisfaction with her work. I wrote to Alvina Krause about it. This is the letter Krause sent me. (I have italicized the words she underlined.)
Your student has skipped the important initial step in all acting. Take care not to skip it in your teaching! She is concerned--rightly--with who she is. Good! But first must always come the play--the drama.
Barbara Allen exists in a created drama.
First step always:
The playwright has something to say. What? About what? For what purpose (Entertainment, yes, but based on what--specifically)?
2. He says it in the form of drama--not poetry, not fiction--Drama. What does that mean: opposing forces, conflict between forces--
3. Then whom does he choose to represent his forces--who are the characters through whom he can speak--
Dark of the Moon (Your student better keep the title in mind).
There are forces in this world that destroy the joy of life itself. One is the Church with its "thou shalt nots": Dancing is evil--Sex is evil, etc. It exorcises "evils" in services that are orgies of sex in the name of the holy spirit.
The author is not concerned with true belief, true religion; he is concerned about a force in religion which destroys the vital joy in God's world.
2. The conflict, then, must be between characters who represent the pure joy of living vs. the brethren of holiness who destroy in the name of holiness.
3. Who then must the characters be?
The church vs. the Witch Boy and Barbara Allen who is of the church but who is still filled with the joy of living, loving, being. (Always seek the opposites in character!) Witch Boy--of the free world, God's natural vital world, of the sea, the sky, the stars, the wind, the moon, but who is pulled toward earth by the power of wonder, of discovery, of--?
He meets Barbara Allen and their free souls, spirits--what have you--unite. She doesn't need to "flirt", to exercise the petty little tricks of earth-love--Something akin in her meets something akin in him. There is nothing sordid or evil in their union. But the Church says "Thou shalt not".
Now let your student play the drama of Barbara Allen.
She analyzes well, but she didn't begin at the beginning. Suggest that she run by the lake in the dark of the moon--or the light--stretch her arms wide to hold the beauty of the night, sing out joyously to the sky, whirl in the breeze, come alive (what does it mean: "alive") from top to toe-- Create a world in which there are no "thou shalt nots" which destroy the joy of God's world.
It isn't a great play but it is a beautiful one if the director is capable of finding its living pulse. It has depths that are not melodrama, nor pure spectacle.
This letter made the phrase "learn to trust the play" meaningful to my teaching life.
1. What's the play about? What does it say about that theme? For what purpose? (What does the play want the audience to do as a result of being entertained? What does "entertain" actually mean/imply?)
2. What dynamic forces in conflict create the world of the play? (What does "the world of the play" refer to exactly?)
3. What characters specifically embody those discrete forces?
Surprise yourself. Take a look at plays discussed in previous posts on this blog. Even with the densest, greatest, most complex of masterpieces, try to be as simple and clear and unambiguously direct as Krause is with Dark of the Moon.
Keep the title in mind
What's being dramatized? (What does the word "dramatized" actually mean?)
Romeo and Juliet
Is it just about young love? What forces in conflict is the tragedy rooted in?
What exactly are the conflicting social and domestic currents that underlie the world of this play? What specific force does each character embody?
If you focus on the world of the play and not just on the individual lives of the characters, then asking "what's at stake" may be another way of getting at what is the central dramatic conflict. (What exactly does the phrase "the world of the play" mean?)
Arms and the Man
What does Shaw hope people will do in response to seeing this play?
Doing this preliminary work before you start acting or directing a play is as reasonable as drawing up a blueprint before you start building, or outlining a novel or a screenplay before you start writing. It provides a guide for the work of creating character and relationships, situation and given circumstances, drama. It becomes the grounding for a responsible and creative "director's concept" or for truly insightful subsequent "actor's choices".
During the time I studied with Krause, whenever we worked on a new play she would always start by asking: What is the playwright getting at?
As the place to start, it continues to makes sense.