Monday, August 29, 2011

Mrs. Winemiller and Her Last Close-Up

This is a minimally edited version of a comment posted by a reader (a former student) to my last posting “Prop Actor” July 22.
I am working on Mrs. Winemiller from "Summer and Smoke". In the most literal sense, many scenes in the play involve props that evoke something much more than their most basic taste, smell, sight, sound - an ice cream, a beautiful hat. Her youth was made up of soft, draping fabrics and ice cream socials, brushed kid gloves and feathered and flowered hats. On some level, attainment of some echo of these things is all she has to look forward to - on another level I see them as symbolic of the small battles she wages every day to maintain a place and maybe control of her family. I am working with material things that made/make me happy - luscious bright scarves, lipstick (no, my lips are not naturally orange), a beautiful hibiscus bloom, etc. And I'm really trying to find the kinesthetic connection to my spine and hers. Because they bring her joy on several levels and take her back to a time in her life that was not bewildering and upsetting and lonely. Getting/winning these things brings back the spine that served her so well in her youth. I am a visual and tactile person. In this case I find it especially helpful, but no matter the case I hope always to be a prop actress too.

Now, I would appreciate your help. I don't see Mrs. Winemiller as "a crazy person". It's too pat for her to be nothing other than a mean old selfish crazy lady. Obviously she is not normal. But she is not "insane" in the stereotypical sense. She is intelligent and selectively lucid when needed. She was a beautiful, young belle once who was loved, pampered and spoiled to the extent that she became a pampered, spoiled adult with no life skills thrust into a life of responsibility. While she retreats into a childish state, it doesn't mean she doesn't love and want to be loved. In my opinion she spends much of the play trying to gain attention/love and to keep her family tied to her. Because what would happen to her if she were left completely alone? So she uses the weapons she has to thwart Alma's struggles to find her own love and demand her husband's attention. I don't believe she understands the real damage she is doing to her daughter. Her mind operates at a smaller level.

I am somewhat stuck on her final scene in the play, Part II, Scene 3. By this point you could say that she has triumphed. Alma's relationship with John Buchanan is not to be and further, Alma no longer occupies Rev. Winemiller's enforced pedestal - the one Mrs. Winemiller used to occupy. She and her father no longer share the "comradeship" they once did. She has re-established/cemented her place in the family circle and drawn that circle tighter around her. As the scene closes, I believe Mrs. Winemiller gets a glimpse of the real depth of her daughter's pain. If there is ever a time that brings back echoes Mrs. Winemiller's life with her beautiful baby girl (and all the sensory images that evokes), this would seem to be it. Those last two lines seem to hold out an opportunity - but I'm having trouble figuring out exactly what the opportunity is. . . I'm exploring several things - but it's not right. What do you think?

Your thinking about Mrs. Winemiller, it seems to me, is clear and sound.
There is a young woman in you who can imaginatively become Mrs. Winemiller.
In your own life, when she/you suffered a devastating experience, she didn’t escape into “a breakdown” as Mrs. Winemiller did. Why? She/you had something Mrs. Winemiller doesn’t have--as you say, “life skills.” 
To create/become Mrs. Winemiller, then, eliminate your own capacity for life skills and animate the young girl in you who could have become a young Mrs. Winemiller.

So, yes, choose some “props” that will help bring back to life that happy, carefree, even pampered, young girl: Select a bright scarf to lift up the spine and let it soar a little and to free the hands and fingertips from practical concerns. Apply the perfect lipstick to put the finishing touch on a young girl who might then just do a 360 degree spin in front of the mirror. Or if that’s getting a little too grown-up, maybe look in the mirror and open your bright eyes very wide and give a great big lip-sticked smile.
Then simply apply these responses to the significant stimuli in Mrs. Winemiller’s life: Choose a chocolate/strawberry ice cream at an ice cream social where you are the featured attraction. Put on a plumed hat that allows you to release and display feminine energies in bouncing, airy plumes.
No need, I think, to get post-adolescent; rather, early energetic pubescent (“Alma’s got a boyfriend! Alma’s got a boyfriend!”)

As you say, she wants love and attention. (Alma comes into the room and Mr. Winemiller immediately turns to her. No matter that it may be to scold her. Do something to get him to turn back to you. "I want ice cream!") She wants to keep her family tied to her. (Do something that will make them keep you close: Take that hat when no one’s looking.)
As Williams suggests, she evaded the responsibilities of later life by slipping into a state of perverse childishness.
As you say, she is not insane, not just a mean old selfish crazy lady. Rather, a woman without life skills. If there is malice, it is the malice of the suddenly-neglected child who fights to win back daddy’s attention from the new sibling who has become the center of attention. (“Look at me! Look at me!”)
And all, naturally, in the manner of a girl of a certain social class at a certain cultural time in the South.

As for the last scene in which Mrs. Winemiller appears, you’re right to want to tie up her thread in the story.
I believe you should make “actor choices” based on what the play needs. You test the fitness of those choices against what the play asks of you. And you create only what audience members will be able to add up moment to moment as they experience the production.
These are simple obvious ideas, but I think actors often have a hard time with them because actors have a hard time actually putting the whole play ahead of all the ideas they have about their individual characters. Actors often have a hard time putting their characters in their proper relationship to the needs of the whole play.

Start with the whole play and let it be your guide:
What is Summer and Smoke about? What is its theme? State it in as few words as possible. And as simple and action-oriented as possible.
Then: What does the playwright say about this theme? Make a simple declarative statement in actor’s terms; that is, in terms of action, of things you can do.
Then: It’s a play. It’s drama. That means a world of forces (social, religious, cultural, geographical, etc.) whose conflict dramatizes the theme and the playwright’s idea about the theme. It also means individual human beings, each the manifestation of one of these forces, and all in opposition to one another.
In this play, the two major forces in conflict (what are they specifically?) are manifested/anthropomorphized in Alma and John. They are the characters in the play with the most complex characters. (What does that actually mean in actor’s terms?) And they experience the greatest change from the beginning of the play to the end. (Why?)

Any good work of art accomplishes what it needs to accomplish in the simplest, clearest way possible. For example, a good play has as few characters as possible.
Why didn’t Williams give Alma only a widowed father to live with? Why does the play need Mrs. Winemiller?
Answer this question as directly and as simply as possible—and notice, the answer has the whole play, not Mrs. Winemiller, as its central focus. This answer will help you answer your question about what happens to Mrs. Winemiller during the last scene she’s in.
The director should give Mrs. Winemiller one final moment during which the audience's attention goes fully to her. You get one action, one response, perhaps one realization, to reveal what the Mrs. Winemiller thread has added up to.
Think of it as the stage equivalent of a film close-up where her leitmotif contribution to the major theme is clinched. Her contribution ends with this close-up, though what the whole play has been dramatizing about what it means to be human will need several more scenes to achieve.
So the question isn’t what is happening to Mrs. Winemiller in this last moment so much as it is what has the theme of the play needed Mrs. Winemiller to be and what has that come to in this last moment. What force underpinning the world of the play is Mrs. Winemiller the humanization of and where does it stand in this last scene? Why is it/she no longer needed in the play?
And by the way, given all that: At what precise moment in the scene should the Mrs. Winemiller close-up come? Why must it not be the last moment of the scene?
Do you see what I’m trying to get at?

[Later note: The writer and I share follow-up comments below.]

Friday, July 22, 2011

Prop Actor

Years ago I was cast in a play that required me to chain smoke and to chain tea drink (It was a British play). Early in rehearsal I asked if I could have cigarettes and matches and teacups and spoons and saucers.
            "Oh, that’s right,” the director said to the stage manager, “David’s a prop actor so he’ll need that stuff.”
Since my goal was simply to get that stuff, I chose just then not to discuss the phrase “prop actor”.
But it has stayed with me.
Not only am I a prop actor during the staging of a play and in working out the so-called “business” of blocking, but I am also a prop actor from the very beginning of the actor’s creative process.
And the creative process begins with characterization.
I am not the character, regardless of what anybody says. But the character needs my authentic, responsive lifestuff if he is to live in the created reality of a production. My first concern is: how do I animate the lifestuff part of me that overlaps with the central lifestuff part of the character?
Well, if you’re a prop actor, you do it with a prop.
So: I want to turn myself, as much as I can, into, say, Gaev from The Cherry Orchard. What part of me utterly comprehends and can fully embody an essential part of who Gaev is?
Well, what’s important to Gaev?
He loves the cherry orchard, he loves his sister, he wants life to be the way it was when he was a child and everything was perfect. There’s that telling moment in Act I when he touches the old bookcase and delivers a heartfelt speech to it.
My childhood was anything but idyllic and closer to Lopakhin’s peasant upbringing than Gaev’s childhood with the gentry. And I have never wanted to escape my adult life to go back to the life of my childhood.
But among my things I still have an excelsior-stuffed cloth marionette that my mother made for me when I was six years old and had fallen in love with puppetry. Clarence. And Clarence has come to represent for me whatever was tender and good about my childhood.
To bring David/Gaev to life, I go to the box where Clarence is kept and my fingers open it gently. He is a precious old thing, home made and faded, and I respond to him with a fingertip touch as I lift him out of his box. That touch lightens my arms and lifts my spine. The eyes and smile painted on his cloth face put a sparkle in my eyes and an uncomplicated smile on my lips, both of which Gaev shares.
As I touch Clarence's little blue pin-striped shirt and matching cap, my fingers become uber-responsive and gentle. I remember the apron my mother cut up to make the cloth tabs that connect the segments of his arms and legs. How simple for me to touch his face, to lift his arms, and then to turn and see my sister Jane watching from across the room. She smiles at me. She knows what Clarence means to me. How easily we share an understanding of childhood when we were each other’s best friend. I smile simply, uncomplicatedly at/with her.  And I am impelled to say, in a voice that Clarence colors and softens, “Dear Old Clarence, you have stood by me for nearly sixty years—my friend, my confidant. You have known my innermost secrets, my never-spoken thoughts. I salute you.”
And effortlessly I look at my own bookcase—from Ikea and without character—and let it become finely carved antique rosewood as my fingers--and Gaev's--touch it delicately and I turn to see Lubov smiling at me, sharing with me our childhood, and I proclaim in Gaev's voice, “Dear Bookcase….”

Notice I’m not talking about feelings and emotions. The David Lifestuff that Clarence touches off/animates/activates is more complex than feelings and emotions. If I tried to think about how important Clarence was to me, or if I tried to feel how much I loved Clarence and my sister, what I would likely get is a jumbled mess of generalized emotion and not direct sensory response to the things of my world. Which is what acting is. I am a prop actor and I want my creative human complexity to be animated in the same way that my actual human complexity is: through senses responding to significant stimuli—through "props".
When I actually take Clarence out of his box and put him on a shelf in a room where there are (imagined) family members to whom I can turn as I touch him, my spine changes, my sense of touch heightens, my heart swells and “escape to childhood” activates within me and through me: I turn this part of me into that part of Gaev.
Through the prop that is Clarence.

Another example with another kind of “prop”:
Alvina Krause taught acting for nearly thirty-five years on the stage in Speech 100 of Annie May Swift Hall. I was hired to teach at Northwestern exactly ten years after her retirement.
Soon after being hired, I walked alone into empty Annie May Swift Hall. I went down the center aisle. Slowly. Generations of her students sat invisible and silent in those seats, watching me. I got to the stage and I walked right to the center of the floor. I sensed myself in the presence of the history of that great school. My feet planted solidly on the same old floor where she had spent her life teaching. My spine straightened, my ribcage lifted. I reached out to the dark wooden doors at the back of the room. And I was fired with determination to become the future of acting teaching at Northwestern.
How to activate in me Macbeth’s driving desire to rule Scotland?
Fortunately, I am a prop actor and Annie May Swift is my prop. So I stand again on the stage of Annie May Swift. I see again the faded blue velvet curtains over the windows. I smell the polished wooden door at the back, hear the banging of old radiators and smell their dusty steam in winter time. Annie May Swift is my “prop” and my heart lifts to meet her and my determination to succeed at teaching grows as my spine straightens. Annie May activates the David/Macbeth part of me that wants to rule that place and to propel it into a future as glorious as its past.
If I stand in my little living room in LA trying to feel like what it must feel like to want to rule Scotland, I will fail for I will generate only a mass of emotion. My job is to turn that living room into that great old room at Northwestern and to let that magnificent “prop” activate the David Lifestuff that can become Macbeth. The details that add up to “Annie May Swift” activate responses in my human totality—which, yes, includes feelings and emotions, but which is so much more complex than that—that I transfer to the Scottish turf my feet are walking on, to the hills of Scotland that I see on the horizon, to that little village of cottages near the lake toward which I reach my arms, to the vast blue sky above the land that lifts my spirit. Until I want to rule Scotland and until I'll do anything to get there.
And all in my small LA living room.
And, by the way, how this helps me come to a deep personal comprehension of the tragedy of Macbeth the man!

Note: Responding to Clarence does not turn the whole human being Me into the whole human character Gaev and Annie May Swift does not activate in me all that Macbeth needs me to be. But they begin the process. These “props” bring the human being who I am directly to the human beings who they are; these "props" root the whole human me in the further work of full human characterization of them. 

And that's why I'm glad I'm a prop actor.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Alvina Krause on The Comic Attitude

For the past several weeks I've been working on scenes from Shaw plays with some young actors and I've been reminded of my early work on comedy and Shaw with Alvina Krause. The following notes--which I stole from throughout my teaching career--Krause wrote early in 1974 to NU graduates who had gone to Pennsylvania to study privately with her. They were working on a program of scenes from Shaw for public performance.

Krause's Notes:

The Comic Attitude

You cannot play comedy without it: the comic attitude. You must understand what it is; you must incorporate it into your work. This is difficult to explain, to put into words--that is my problem. It is difficult to do, and that is your problem.
Try it this way: What is an actor?
1. He/She is you. You, with your brains, your senses, your emotions, your physical equipment, your talent (which is the ability to work!)
2. He/She is the character in the drama, as far as it is possible to turn you into that character. You are Joan, Caesar, Tanner, etc.
3. He/She is the communicator to and with the audience of the playwright. (Deliver your lines, your thoughts, up and over to hit the audience, to move the audience, to touch the audience, etc. etc.)
4. The extra dimension--the author speaking through you and through the character you play, to the audience listening and responding.

A most complex art--acting!--You must now come face to face with that complexity for you are to present Bernard Shaw to an audience through the drama he has created for the purpose that motivated him: to change society, the world, through the comic attitude which frees, releases, listeners through laughter and leaves them open to ideas to explore, debate, accept, reject, etc. The comic attitude must be back of all your playing in Shaw. I have said to you, over and over, "Smile! Smile! Behind those lines, smile!" (Do you realize if you cannot smile looking at the world, you will weep?)
[Note from David: When we worked on Shaw, Krause would yell, "Twinkle dammit!"]

Shaw discovered if he wanted to make people think he had to make them laugh first. And so he found and adopted the comic attitude toward the world. You must find it too. It means first of all removing yourself from the midst of the turmoil, confusion, etc. of the world, to a distance from which you can observe the world and see, sense, its absurdity. Then it means, for communication purposes, to turn ideas, rules, concepts, people, upside down, topsy turvy, upset the applecart, let a fat man slip on a banana peel and in the midst of the inevitable laughter. [This is the sentence as she wrote it.]

Take that austere, smug, military Julius Caesar I remember in a niche in my high school auditorium and put wrinkles on him, take the laurel crown off and put a bald spot there, and bring him face to face with Mae West!
Tom: draw that cartoon, add to it until you bust with laughter. Keep that cartoon in front of you while you address the Sphinx until Shaw within you is chuckling, tickling your ribs--until you get that Shavian comic glint in your eyes while you play Caesar. You must be both Caesar and Shaw!
Cleo--do the same: Take a glamorous, smoldering, sexy picture and turn it into a little girl with a smudge on your cheeks and dirty fingernails and a kitten (not a diamond necklace!) Look at it until you are laughing as Shaw laughed--and realize that through upsetting the applecarts of preconceived ideas of greatness you and Shaw are going to strike at rulers of the world-- Nixon, etc.
Ra--you must do the same. He doesn't say, "Fall on your knees". He says "Look at your selves sitting in uncomfortable seats, out on a cold night"--
You better draw your own cartoon. Take a statue of a god, point his eyebrows, stick his tongue out, etc. until you are laughing as Shaw laughs behind the lines aimed at our stupidities. I don't care what means you take to find that comic, upside down attitude, but find it you must or your Shavian play will flop.
Stand on your head to play the British soldier straight from Hell.
Walk on your hands and deliver your lines. Eat peanuts and scatter the shells--do anything that tickles your funny bone to find that topsy turvy world Shaw creates in order to change the world.
Understand I am not asking you for comic gags! God forbid. I am asking you to find for yourselves this spot, this elevation, this distance from which you can see the world with the detached eye that can conceive the characters of Watergate in cartoons. Remember: the cartoonist, too, is a Shaw. You laugh at the distortion and then you swallow hard and your brain clicks.
Tanner--Keep a picture of Shaw confronting Mae West before you, over the audience, as you play (Mae West was pretty shrewd! pretty smart!)
Ann--perhaps you need to keep that image before you.
I can only suggest these possibilities hoping they will touch off your own imaginations, your creative faculties. Try anything which makes you sense this fourth dimension of acting.
Shaw must be electric, upsetting, stimulating. An audience does not get so completely involved in the drama of character that they miss the Shavian aim at the head.
Sometimes I have had actors play characters as comic cartoon strips in order to get to the comic attitude, to release the imagination, to discover the creative mind.
Or try playing some opposite music behind a scene: "I love you truly" or the Wedding March behind the Tanner "I won't, won't--"
Have I touched off the comic attitude in you?

Footnote from David:
In 1979 I went to Pennsylvania to direct my former students, now Krause students, in a production of Shaw's Misalliance. I was scared to death and I worked deadly seriously in rehearsals. So deadly seriously that I smothered any comic spirit that might have flickered in anyone.
Krause resisted coming to rehearsals until the first dress, which was a disaster.
And then she came every night the rest of the week and worked her magic--emphasis on worked. Truly she did anything to release the comic senses of the actors. She was Charlie Chaplin and Merlin and every slapstick clown you could imagine and Mad Madam Mim--whatever it took.
That week I got a lifetime's workshop in teaching and directing comedy, in animating, touching off, releasing comedy in students, in actors.
We have all heard directors say, "Have fun out there" or "Enjoy yourselves".  Way too easy to say that; I watched a true teacher, a true director, translate those easy generalizations into direct, specific behavior, into actions designed to touch off the experiences in actors that would truly allow them to enjoy themselves and to have fun--and in the exact way and for the exact reasons that that particular playwright needed for his play and its themes to be communicated to an audience.
In 1979 Alvina Krause was eighty-six years old. Her partner Lucy told me that every afternoon that week she rested so that she could come to the evening's rehearsal and breathe/knock/infuse comic life into the production.
That week was hard, but the lessons it taught served me for my entire teaching/directing career.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Anton Chekhov: The Cherry Orchard

I am writing to see if you have anything on your blog about "The Cherry Orchard?" I have a directing proposal coming up on that play and since you are and always will be the Chekhov expert, I thought I'd go right to the source to brush up a little.

The area that springs to mind is remembering that this play is a comedy and treating it as such - without diminishing what is a tragedy (or at least a melodrama) for those who are loosing their way of life. The moments when things break. When the characters are facing true crises - how to balance that with the comedy (and hopefully creating truly revelatory moments; good god I sound like a director).

I remember you saying in acting class that we didn't know how lucky we were to having the time to work on plays as we did - so I tried to take it all the more seriously. Then I got out of college and found out how true it was... then I got over it but not I'm starting to slip back into a yearning for more time to deeply delve into all these great stories.

I'm grateful for the chance to spend with this script again.

When I was directing Three Sisters at NU, a visiting scholar watched a rehearsal and afterwards said to me, "Oh, you're going for melodrama. May I suggest comedy? For example, Vershinin could have oversized epaulets and big shiny medals--so we'd know he’s a fool. Go for the farce. Chekhov would love it."
I was pretty sure that Chekhov wouldn't love it. (Though I'm pretty sure he would have loved the character of the visiting scholar.)
Chekhov's comedy comes from a juxtaposition of what characters are capable of--or at least passionate about--and something opposite in their makeup: Commanding the classroom or the theatre, Alvina Krause was Yoda and Gandalf and Mad Madam Mim; standing in front of the salad bar at a local restaurant, empty plate in hand, she was a perplexed and overwhelmed child.
Lopakhin the peasant who has become a wealthy businessman buys a new suit to wear for Lubov's return—How does it fit? What color is it? What's the comedy?
Gaev makes an impassioned speech to the bookcase and then, blushing, pops a piece of hardtack into his mouth--or mimes a really great billiards shot. (When my father found himself in such a moment of public embarrassment, he would mime a putt with his imaginary golf club and then walk out of the room.)
Fiers is so old he can barely stand upright, but he's going to walk all the way out to the Act II spot just to make sure that Gaev is wearing his coat and scarf.
And how old is Gaev? As Fiers makes him put on his overcoat, what does Gaev do that says "child"? What's the comedy?
Gaev and Lubov escape into their childhood—but productions that put huge lollipops in their hands miss the comic point, and the source of the comedy. Not to mention the drama.
Yes, there are farcical moments. Dunyasha mimics a young lady's (Anya's?) mannerisms—but when Yasha kisses her earlobe, she shrieks and drops a coffee cup.
And poor Epihodoff--no matter what he does, it leads to disaster. (He sits down. An arrest as he realizes there was a puddle of spilled coffee on the chair. Beat. Slow turn of the head right to his audience. A look that says 'Awful things always happen to me'.)  And in preparation for the moment when he can no longer face life, he carries a revolver.
Always ask: What is the source of the comedy? What is the human behavior source of the comedy?
What’s the source of the comedy in the scene with Trofimov and Anya that ends Act II? It’s a moonlight night. The two young people are left alone on the stage. What would happen in any other play?
Why is it funny that Gaev says he might get a job in a bank? What does he do as he says this that shows the incongruity and points up the comedy?
What's the comedy of the dance party atmosphere of Act III? Be specific.
Behind it all is an entire class of people who have squandered family wealth their generation didn't earn; who are heading for the cliff and who are unwilling and perhaps unable to take any practical action to prevent themselves from going over.
It's funny and heartbreaking at the same time.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Pinter: The Caretaker

I read your comments on Pinter’s The Homecoming and I liked it a lot. I agreed with almost everything you said. So I wondered if you would write your thoughts about The Caretaker. I’m reading it for a class and I think I might be missing something. Also, can you say something about how to act it?

When critics said that Shaw’s women weren’t true to life, Shaw said that what his women weren’t true to was theatrical conventions, which people mistook for truth to life. Pinter’s plays seem bizarre and his dialogue unrealistic for the same reason: They feature the true-to-life speech of people not put on the stage until Pinter did—or at least not in the same kinds of dramatic contexts. As much as Pinter expressed admiration for Beckett, he does not belong with Beckett or with Ionesco in the whole “theatre of the absurd” category.
Pinter’s plays are realistic.

Pinter wrote his first play, The Room, for a friend as a student production in 1957, followed in the same year by The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter. At that time the poo-bahs of British dramatic playwriting were Terrence Rattigan (Separate Tables) and Somerset Maugham (The Constant Wife), who embraced Nineteenth Century realism and the principles of the well-made play to write dramas about the upper classes and their post world war(s) travails.
The so-called kitchen sink plays that shook the English theatre of the 50s—epitomized by Arnold Wesker (The Kitchen) and particularly John Osborne (Look Back in Anger)--dramatized for the first time the lives of working class Britons, whom Maugham called “scum”.  They also pretty much embraced the well-made play construct and the principles of psychological realism.

Not incidentally at this time, American rock n roll swept England and galvanized working class youth, whose bands stormed the pop cultural stage; with their accents, their speech patterns, their attitudes, they frightened the privileged classes and threatened the stability of the dominant culture. The scum seemed to be taking over.
Rock n roll blew away boogie woogie and then the Beatles et al swept away rock n roll. Osborne and Wesker blew Rattigan and Maugham off the stage and, perhaps infused with Beckett’s existential loner sensibility, Pinter blew Wesker and Osborne away. (Joe Orton and other working class kids were doing the same thing to Noel Coward and British comedy. And Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson brought kitchen sink realism to British film.)

If Pinter’s plays are, as has often been repeated, comedies of fear and menace, it’s because the world that working class Britons inhabited was a world of fear and menace, of uncertainty, of daily power struggles in and outside the home—elemental when you don’t have money and position to support you. And while his comedies of menace are realistic, they are not cast in the form of Nineteenth Century realism and its pallid Twentieth Century progeny that dramatized the complex psychologies of characters engaged in situations nearly always involving the dynamics of family rooted in the larger society of their time--and which ultimately are “about” that larger society. For Ibsen, who shakes his fist at the universe and at the society responsible for the ills he writes about, the socio-historical process is human destiny. And while Chekhov asks us to understand compassionately how we fail our dreams and how unintentionally cruel we can be to one another, his plays dramatize an entire social class drifting toward annihilation.
If Ibsen or Chekhov were writing The Caretaker, the very situation of the play would involve a full exploration of Mick’s and Aston’s psychological constructs as they emerge from a background of family dynamics necessarily central to the play; and the play would dramatize something about the family and the social world that creates such families and the effects of all this on individual human psychology and ultimately something about the class system in the wider England of the 1950s.

Pinter just ignores all that.
Or he simply posits all that in order to zoom in on, and then dramatize in detail, something else. No societal interrogation; no concerns about broader political realities; not even an interest in individual psyches and “inner lives”, the emblems of psychological realism--however much critics try to see such concerns in him or lament their absence.
Pinter’s plays just aren’t written like plays used to be because they aren’t interested in the same things about people that plays used to be interested in. Which is why they seemed bizarre when they first appeared, ambiguous and absurd; and why, to some degree, they still do. But in these plays there are no absurdities, no ambiguities, other than those that exist inherently (and realistically) in any situation where mutual fear and hostility, intimidation and consequent lack of forthrightness, are major driving forces. Before he became an eminence grise of global political concern in his last decades, Pinter concerned his plays centrally with how fearful we are of others; how unspoken hostilities and hatreds are experienced directly and clearly, however indirect and murky our verbal communication may seem. He gets us to laugh with recognition: to realize that our personal terrors and paranoias aren’t unique to us.
About language Pinter said we actually have no difficulty communicating. We communicate exactly what we mean--and others communicate to us exactly what they mean—whatever we may do with the actual words we speak. Anyone who has ever been cornered by bullies who enjoy the agony they inflict with their ambiguous and indirect threats will instantly recognize the speech strategies of Mick with Davies (and Goldberg and McCann with Stanley in The Birthday Party and Lenny with Max and Teddy and Ruth in The Homecoming) as excruciatingly true to life.
Yes, the language of The Caretaker is theatrical. It is as heightened beyond the every day as is the language of any good playwright. Tom Stoppard describes it this way: These plays [Waiting for Godot and The Birthday Party], so unlike Shakespeare, did the thing that makes Shakespeare breathtaking and defines poetry—the simultaneous compression of language and expansion of meaning.
In great plays the compression and expansion of the meaning of everyday reality applies to all aspects of “the poetry of theatre” not just to language. The Caretaker may compress and expand—intensify and extensify—reality, but that doesn’t make it unrealistic. It makes it art.

I believe Pinter when he says that he starts with some interesting image or intriguing bit of dialogue and then writes to see where it will lead him. But Pinter also rented a flat at one time in a house owned by a young builder whose mentally challenged brother lived in the building and served as its custodian and at one time the brother had a homeless old man living with him.
It is true that Aston is caretaker of the derelict building and that Davies is asked if he’d like to assist as caretaker of the building; but the title character of The Caretaker is Mick and what he’s taking care of isn’t the building.

Why does the play begin with Mick?

Why does Mick leave the room when he hears Aston coming up the stairs with a stranger?
Does Mick leave the building?
Davies knows that Aston is slow.  And therefore gullible.  And Davies goes to work taking advantage of what seems to him to be a push-over.
Mick hears it all and bides his time.

Why doesn’t Mick simply throw Davies out? 

Mick is a young working class guy taking care of his older brother, who is not capable of living independently. Older brother Aston thinks of himself as independent and Mick does all he can to maintain the illusion. The work Aston is doing to rehabilitate the building keeps him occupied and Mick has no illusion that it will lead to anything practical.
Aston is a big generous trusting guy. The room is filled with things he has brought home.
The play dramatizes how Mick gets Aston to realize that Davies, the old man Aston has brought into his home, is a parasite whom Aston must eliminate.
There are the Pinter themes of fear and intimidation, of power plays and status, of shifting allegiances and gamesmanship. If there is a theme behind these themes it’s there because this is a love story, a brotherly love story.

Mick must be just as complete a human being as, say, Chekhov’s Treplev or Ibsen’s Oswald. But in a different way with different requirements of completeness.
Think of character and characterization not so much as “life story” but as “habitual patterns of behavior”.
What habitual patterns of behavior does the play require of Mick?
Mick grew up in a working class environment.
Put on a leather jacket and jeans. Boots.
Light a cigarette (matches? a zippo?) and let it hang between your lips.
Walk down the street, ready to punch out anyone who gives you shit.
Do a little amateur boxing footwork and then put a chip on your shoulder and walk into a neighborhood bar. Easy with friends, ready for hostility from strangers.
Shoot craps in the alley with buddies.
While you’re doing all this, play skittle music and early raw rock n roll until it becomes part of your inner rhythms.

Mick has become a builder and he owns a van. His hands can make fists and punch somebody out if need be; they can pick up a crow bar and beat the crap out of somebody; but they no longer mix cement or hammer nails into doorframes. If they ever did.

Mick can wheel and deal.
Go into Cocker Lumber Supply and talk Cocker into letting you have all his left over odd pieces.
Interview a young tough who comes to ask if he can work on the team you’re hiring to renovate an old house. Interview one you decide to hire and one you decide to reject.
Watch a sixteen year old bullying some ten year olds and then go over and scare the shit out of him using the most polite seemingly innocuous language you can.
Carry on a civil disagreement (about what?) with some jerk until without warning you simultaneously howl and smash your fist into the wall behind him.
Work on all this until you completely absorb the behavior with understanding, until you can improvise freely, fully, confidently. Pay particular attention to developing the ability to read the responses of others for signs of discomfort, fear.  Enjoy making people squirm.
Improvise yourself into becoming a Mick.

Then: Devise improvisations that create Mick’s relationship with Aston.
Go to Aston’s room when he’s out. Look carefully at every new piece of junk he’s brought in since the last time you checked on him. Let them play upon you.
If it helps, create an experience or two from their early life that anchors Mick's caring for Aston.
Suggest to Aston that he build a railing for the second floor fire escape. Tell him to check Cocker’s Lumber for left-over pieces.
Mick is the kind of guy who is not his brother’s keeper. And then we experience his care of, even his love for, Aston.

Let the play guide you in your creating.
No need, for example, to explore Mick’s and Aston’s relationship with their parents. It is the absence of that relationship that is meaningful. 
No need to concern yourself with tangentials such as Mick’s sex life. It simply is not part of who the play needs him to be.
Same applies to Aston and Davies.

When characters are established, move on to improvising the situations of the play with an eye toward creating the clarity and the intensity—and the comedy--of each scene.
What must we create to focus on what the play asks us to dramatize?
What does the play want the audience to do in response to seeing it?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Arcadia: A Reflection

Since I got the previous post (March 6) regarding the current Broadway production of Arcadia, in which the writer mentions how a part of the play made him want to weep and …oh man, when they get to Hannah & Septimus turning the pages of Thomasina’s proof simultaneously in Sc. 7, I was a wreck, I’ve been thinking about the first time I saw the play.

It was the summer of 1993 and I was visiting a friend in London.
One day she said, “Let’s go to the theatre.”
“Yes, please” I said.
We checked the papers.
“Oh! Oh!” I said. “Tom Stoppard has a new play at the National.”
It was sold out but we went anyway in hopes of finding a seat. And the woman directly ahead of us in line returned two orchestra tickets.

I knew nothing about the play.
A few minutes into the first scene, while I was laughing at all the Tomfoolery, I was thinking: Has he written a period piece? Is this a Stoppard romantic comedy Congreve and Wilde hybrid parody? And if so, why?
And why all the mathematics and horticulture?
And then scene two began and I gasped—not metaphorically.
I was completely caught up in the literary detective story as it dramatizes the principles of chaos theory and the wonderful idea that all human equations get messed up by the unpredictability of sex.
And I was surely caught by the deeper experience of what Hannah describes as It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.
But something else was happening to me, something I wasn’t conscious of. Something more important.

One of the criticisms of Stoppard’s earlier plays is that all the characters sound like Tom Stoppard. In a 1994 interview with Mel Gussow, Stoppard says that in Night and Day he took a speech from one character and gave it to another, “…and it made no difference. I just needed somebody to say something at that point.”
Not so Arcadia.
The characters are individual, recognizable, and, yes, we care about them (an idea, by the way, that leads too many actors astray in their creative work—a topic for a future post).
But good characterization is not enough to account for …and you want to weep. …when they get to Hannah & Septimus turning the pages of Thomasina’s proof simultaneously in Sc. 7, I was a wreck.
In the same Gussow interview Stoppard says, “With Arcadia I got lucky….The more I got into it, the more I realized that this was going to work as a piece of storytelling.” But a good story and a great plot are also not enough to account for our deep engagement with the play.
When Valentine said Oh, the girl who died in the fire, I gasped as did many in the audience and my eyes instantly burned with tears. I was shocked: I hadn’t consciously realized how deeply the play had grabbed me.
When Hannah and Septimus turned the pages of Thomasina’s proof simultaneously, I too was a wreck.
And then Thomasina came out with the candle lighting her way on the night before her seventeenth birthday and tears heaved my heart.
What was it I was experiencing that wrecked me and made me weep?  What was I crying for as the couples waltzed at the end, each unaware of the other?  What was this last scene the culmination of?
This was not melodrama. These were not easy sentimental tears.
Something else. Something true.
Something acutely experienced of life missed because we have no idea where it’s heading. (Something in our tears for Thomasina that’s in our tears for Emily at the end of Our Town.)
Something of life shared with all of humanity even as we are senseless to it while we live. (We stand in an old house and someone says, ‘If these walls could talk’ and we all nod and grunt in agreement and move on.)
Something of lives lived in such seemingly meaningful detail becoming little more than random points in the fractal graph that represents those lived lives. (Uncle Vanya’s Astrov: Will people living a hundred, two hundred years from now…will they remember us in their prayers?)
Big Things like: What’s It All About Anyway?

As ideas none of this is new. It’s all pretty simple. Elemental even. So easy to grasp intellectually.
And therefore, so easy to avoid grasping experientially.
Hence, Theatre.
Dramatized for us by the poetry of theatre, the simple truths of these elemental ideas become the complex truths of profound experience. And as much as the intellectual ideas of Arcadia may share with the intellectual ideas of Our Town and Uncle Vanya, they all “mean” something uniquely their own in the actual theatre experience.
The poetry of the theatre is a poetry of the senses:
Early Nineteenth Century clothing and movement and language and Contemporary clothing and movement and language all happening in a single space
The sounds of human voices engaged in verbal duets and trios and more
Daylight and Candle light
An offstage piano and onstage waltzing
A tortoise, An apple, Three Letters and A Composition book.
And on and on.

I’d like to think that the levels of experiential meaning in a play that arise from the whole poetry of the theatre experience surprise the playwright as much as the audience. Even the great ones.
Chekhov knew the ideas he was after when he set out to write Uncle Vanya, but I like thinking he was as taken as everyone else with the complexity and depth of the actual immediate human experience it creates (even if he was not taken with the actual Stanislavski production).
Shakespeare and Lear? I like to think so.
At a Q&A after a college performance of Arcadia (I think), Stoppard said that not until he wrote Hannah saying She was dead before she had time to be famous did he know that that was what was going to have to happen to Thomasina.
I’m betting true genius amazes its human vessel as much as it amazes the rest of us. And there’s something in Arcadia that needed genius I like thinking even Stoppard didn’t realize was his.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


A former student and New York actor told me he was planning to see the current Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. At school, he acted in a production that I directed, rehearsal and performance moments of which remain clear and meaningful to me.
I asked him to write to me his impressions of this production.
His response has some important things to say about the actor and the audience.
(And some generous remarks about his acting teacher.)
He agreed to let me post it all.

I echo your sentiments on remembering so much of our time living & wrestling with this magnificent play. Seeing it again brought them back with such immediacy.

There is very much to admire in this production, mainly that they all understand what they're saying & are playing the play very well (which is becoming insanely rare on Broadway). As far as clarity is concerned, it's guided with a very sure hand and I was quite relieved to feel that if an audience was at least "up for" this play, they'd definitely be rewarded (more on that in a sec).

First of all, Billy Crudup is pretty brilliant as Bernard. All of the actorly delight you could imagine one can squeeze out of being as truly awful (and delightfully funny) as Bernard & then just when you least expect it, he has a truly astonishing moment in Act II. After they've all ripped his lecture to shreds, he's got that great retort about not confusing progress with perfectability. And then he gets into the "triviality of the speed of light" & mourning Aristotle's cosmos & I kid you not, you can feel so VISCERALLY what's been lost in the march. & THEN he starts in on "She walks in beauty..." & you want to weep. He really takes his time, and it is so gentle & brimming with love & respect for poetry & beauty (coming out of Bernard's mouth!!) that the truth of it just shuts everybody up completely. ... & then (of course) he has to dig on his way out "What is it that you're doing with grouse, Valentine?" & oh man, does it STING. Because he's sorta RIGHT. It's a masterful sequence, and so perfectly pitched so that we get Bernard in a way I hadn't been totally convinced was possible. It's really remarkable.

But what I mentioned earlier about being "up for the play", is where I felt the production could use to take a big generous step forward. Right now, it almost feels like the company is expecting an audience who is "up for it", and they're missing that key element you always had us striving for, which I can't quite put into words, but is possibly creating an "active complicity" in the audience. I remember we struggled with this a bunch, and I think what it often came down to was figuring out a way to get the audience to participate and delight in your character's perspective/dilemma/sense of humor in a visceral way. I'll never forget what you taught us (and I've used it so very many times, and i THANK YOU FOREVER for it), when you asked us to imagine the house filled with people who share our character's sense of humor, and then score points with them. It's really kinda magical when an actor does it. Their confidence is boosted, they aren't working as hard, and they delight in appealing to your complicity, which makes you instantly lean forward. You're "up for" the play, because they make you a vital part of it.

It's the difference between Septimus getting himself out of hot water with Ezra Chater, and Septimus getting himself out of hot water with Ezra Chater while simultaneously insulting him to an outrageous degree, AND getting him to think he's his best friend AND, oh yeah, by the way, being eminently, spontaneously quotable all at once! Why else say such things to Ezra Chater if you're not also WISHING someone were there (a third person: THE AUDIENCE) to witness how deftly you manage your predicament? And then if you have two, three, four, five characters all vying for the audience's complicity, then it's absolute fireworks are all over the place. They could use some more of this. It all hums along very nicely, but not all of the moments that should sing (as Bernard's does) do.

The set is pretty stark: beige & so enormously high and wide that it feels museum-y, so that's not helping. But, Billy is there & the rest of them are skating close (Septimus's "we shed as we pick up" speech is gorgeously performed). And oh man, when they get to Hannah & Septimus turning the pages of Thomasina's proof simultaneously in Sc. 7, I was a wreck (how dare anyone accuse Mr. Stoppard of being cold & cerebral!). I wish you could come in there & shake up their complacency a lil bit, and their very good show would be great.

Monday, January 31, 2011

John Gabriel Borkman

Reading reviews of the Abbey Theatre production of John Gabriel Borkman that played recently at BAM sent me as well in search of reviews of other notable productions of past years. I found similarities in critical attitudes toward the play regardless of the production. This post is not a critique of any production, but rather thoughts stimulated by responses to those productions.

Ibsen’s first plays were Romantic verse dramas steeped in Norse legend, history, sagas, culminating in the twin peaks of Brand and Peer Gynt. Mid-career, he switched to prose and to a realism alive with the vibrant tug of war between Romanticism, whose poetry extends experience to the far reaches of the imagination, and Naturalism, which confines drama to the world of immediate perception. Ibsen transformed the Naturalistic elements of the well-made play and the drama of ideas into a “poetry of the theatre", as Cocteau called it. He replaced the poetry of language with a poetry of visual imagery: evocative d├ęcor, clothing suggestive of character, objects as extensions of character (Hedda is a loaded pistol), lighting illuminating not only a room but the psychology of character and situation, dialogue sounding like ordinary speech yet carrying layers of meaning—to this day still pretty much the model of theatrical and media storytelling.

In his last plays the poetry of imagery, metaphor, and allusion intensifies the relationship between the world of the five senses and the Romantic world of Norse mythology and sagas.
The demons of the unseen world help fuel Hedda’s passion, trapped in its bourgeois parlor:
Hedda: (nervously, pacing the roomWell, it’s—these things come over me, just like that, suddenly. And I can’t hold back. (Throws herself down in the armchair by the stove.) Oh, I don’t know myself how to explain it.
That world hovers just out of sight in Master Builder Solness’s messianic connection to the other realm of servers and helpers; Hilda Wangel arrives almost as a Romantic agent of the troll world.
In John Gabriel Borkman, Romanticism insists, Naturalism pushes back, and Romanticism insists even more forcefully than in the immediately preceding plays, pushing toward symbolism and expressionism. (The three main characters are among ‘the already dead’.) The struggle of the individual to discover and to free a whole self is a fundamental theme in all of Ibsen’s prose plays, but in this play something of his profound belief in the significance of human lives, of Human Life, leads him back to the grand mythic underpinnings of his early verse plays.
A responsive reading of the description at the opening of each act evokes the theatrical poetry of character, place, atmosphere, and spiritual condition. It is a mistake for a reader of this play to breeze through these descriptions. If the reader is an actor, paying attention to these descriptions is essential.

There are those who profess that good acting has no need for “character” or “characterization”; that if an actor is well-cast all he or she need do is respond truthfully to immediate circumstances and the drama will just happen. But in great plays like this, the necessary character of the character is more complex and specific than any one actor can embody just by being truthful and responding to imaginary circumstances. Character must be created. Storytelling style must be created.

In John Gabriel Borkman the details of character as Ibsen describes them are as evocative as the details of the environment of each act. A miner’s son of medium height, strongly and compactly built, distinguished appearance with chisled profile, piercing eyes, curling grayish-white hair and beard. Does this mean tall actors need not apply? No. But they must ask themselves what is it about Borkman that makes Ibsen want him to be of medium height; what is the “meaning” of this? A miner’s son, medium height, strongly and compactly built: Working class origins; feet planted on the ground; a solid spine settled in his hips; not easily shaken or knocked off balance; a physical power, perceptible even under the suit coat and starched shirt of the banker he became.

His wife Gunhild calls him “a sick wolf”. He paces (Ibsen describes him always with his hands behind his back—why?). He growls (Ibsen is pointed in this).
A lone sick wolf pacing and growling is dangerous--and one with nothing to get his hands on is even more so.
The audience must experience the animal danger in the human movements.

Borkman describes himself as  “a wounded eagle”.  And Ibsen gives the wounded eagle piercing eyes. This eagle longs for restoration to former glory and the freedom to soar once again—which for him means doing what? 
How does this express itself in his behavior, his very animating energy?

Cast Alan Rickman in the role and you’ve cast a good actor who can respond truthfully to given circumstances.
But his sick wolf will likely have a lean and hungry, and probably a slightly effete, look.
The need for freedom and power of the Rickman Borkman eagle with piercing eyes will likely be venal, selfish, cold. And inner.
And will you get the son of a miner, of stocky and compact build? Not likely.
This Borkman might do well to absorb something of Liam NeesonOr Javier Bardem.

He’s an Industrialist-Capitalist, Robber Baron, Financier. There are lots of Nineteenth Century models for this part of his character. He is driven to power, yes, but power to do what? Is it simple greed? Egotistical Ambition?
He is deeply passionate, with a single-minded obsession toward greatness. He has an artist’s drive, a poet’s heart and soul. I think that’s the most important thing about him. It’s his elemental driving force. And it is precisely what the actor can animate in himself to begin his creative work of characterization: the driving need to create, to achieve, to make a mark.
Through all of Act I we hear Borkman pacing up and down the length of the upstairs salon gallery. When we first encounter him in Act II, he is standing by the piano, hands behind his back, listening as Frida Foldal plays the last measure of the Danse Macabre. (In the following, I’ve combined his first several lines, eliminating the questions Frida asks to encourage him to keep talking.)
Can you guess where I first heard such music as this? It was down in the mines. I’m a miner’s son as I guess you know. And my father took me down with him sometimes, into the mines. Down there the metal sings. When the ore is loosened. The hammer blows that loosen it—they’re like the midnight bell that strikes and sets it free. And so the metal sings—for joy—in its way. It wants to come up into daylight and serve mankind.
This prepares for the soaring poetry of the climax of the play when, from deep within his heart, muscular, visceral poetry finally bursts out:
Ella, do you see those mountain ranges there—far off. One after another. They leap skyward. They tower in space. That’s my deep, my endless, inexhaustible kingdom!
Yes, she answers, but the wind blows ice-cold from that kingdom.
That wind works on me like the breath of life. It comes to me like a greeting from captive spirits. I can sense them, the buried millions. I feel the veins of metal, reaching their curving, branching, beckoning arms out to me. I saw them before me like living shadows—the night I stood in the bank vault with a lantern in my hand. You wanted your freedom then—and I tried to set you free. But I lacked the strength for it. Your treasures sank back in the depths. (His hands outstretchedBut I’ll whisper to you here in the silence of the night. I love you, lying there unconscious in the depths and the darkness! I love you, you riches straining to be born—with all your shining aura of power and glory! I love you, love you, love you!

Critics regularly call him mad, talk about his ‘lunacy’. But Borkman is mad only if the play he’s in is social realism. Measured by the criteria of ordinary realism, Medea is mad; she’d escape the death penalty by reason of insanity. 
If Borkman is not mad, it’s because the world of his play is not simply realistic—that it reaches as far and as deep as Romantic poetry can take it.        

In his essay The Memory of Heroism, Robert Brustein writes this of the Greek tragic hero: 
Daring to transcend philosophy, daring to outface Necessity, the hero stretches the outer boundaries of his limitations to their uttermost, and, in the consequent rending and tearing, establishes new boundaries towards which men may strive. Greek tragedy, at the same time that it contains some of the most profound wisdom, is the noblest act of resistance in literature. (1960)

Something of this applies to Borkman and though he may fail to scale the tragic heights to Greek stature, he does everything in his late Nineteenth Century power to do so.
And the play reminds me of Michelangelo’s last sculptures, the captives, and their perceivable struggle to free themselves toward tragedy heights, to resist, to push against monumental forces, to reach to the gods. Romanticism struggling with Naturalism to reach for something else.
For Borkman, there are “the spirits of the gold”.

Ibsen insisted that all his characters are passionate and that implies visceral engagement, kinesthetic involvement, muscles, not simply ‘feelings’, which too often result in shrieking voices and tense bodies in untrained actors and in professionals only well-modulated voices and too controlled, too relaxed bodies. 
There is danger in true passion—the possibility of the destructive unexpected not simply the over-heated emotional. Perhaps a bit of the brawling Russell Crowe of Gladiator needs be added to our evolving Rickman Borkman.

The Romantic tragic beings of all three major characters–Borkman, Ella, and Gunhild--are mythic in their passions. They are Titans. And the force of Norwegian-Lutheran-Victorian strictures combined with the restraints of Naturalism work mightily to rein in Romantic passions that have the power of volcanos, of earthquake tremors, of lava leaping into the night air.
In JGB there are two dramas playing out: The surface Naturalistic conflict and the deeper Romantic mythic clash of Titans. Actors must play both simultaneously. Create these powerful oppositions in spine and human will, in muscles and voice—not just with physical twitches and safe, shallow emotional outbursts, even if, as the New Yorker BAM review describes it, “the trio performs with full braying force”.
I’m thinking more Jason and Medea and less George and Martha.

How to achieve the necessary physical, kinesthetic involvement to create the Romantic-Naturalistic Shapeshifters of this play?
Work at it. Go into action:
Embody Viking heroes and Norse gods storming the universe and then immediately morph into bankers shuffling papers and wives crocheting doilies.
Then back again at the clap of the director’s hands.
Try: The superhero Borkman versus The Superhero Ella. Miner’s Son-Sick Wolf-Wounded Eagle versus Towering Radiant Lava Jet Encased in Black Silk Armor.
Then the Gunhild superhero joins them. She may be ice, but deep within burns a blue-white raging fire—is it love or is hate?
Within scenes, switch back and forth from Naturalistic Human Being to Hero of Norse saga, like The Hulk or Transformers do, while continuing to respond truthfully to all stimuli in the situation.
Borkman might be a Titan of the other world. Like Prometheus he is bound to the upstairs gallery. And Gunhild and Ella are goddesses Ice and Fire that plague him.
Apply all this to the quality of Borkman’s pacing. To the Gunhild/Ella faceoff that starts the play.

The anguish of these people goes deeper than we ordinary folk seem capable of. From the moment Ella comes back into their lives, when the forces working on all three finally burst the surface and reveal themselves to the cosmos--from which Ibsen demands attention (I can see him shaking his fist at the heavens demanding that–pace Arthur Miller--attention must be paid!)--they can speak in such extremes because Ibsen believes their situation reaches into the life of myth, springs from primordial roots and extends to the ear of God himself. Giving voice to that which is beyond ordinary language, their speech reaches for the heights of true poetry.
So the voice must be one with the body. Actors must be able to burst into Wagnerian arias and duets or into elemental vocalized Martha Graham dance without so much as a moment needed to prepare.
Perhaps during a scene, shapeshift immediately from Wagnerian magnificence to John Galsworthy class-conscious smallness, maintaining the force of the Wagnerian within the confines of the Galsworthyesque. And back again.
At a clap of the hands.

What’s the suspense when these gods must further suppress their kinesthetic impulses as they deal with mere mortals: with Mrs. Wilton and Foldal and even Erhart the son?
What happens to Erhart in Act III when he must confront this trio of Titans? When he must become Erhart the Superson?
That Act III confrontation of Borkman, Gunhild, Ella as they vie for Erhart’s soul is the point at which critics blame the play for failing, for falling into ludicrous melodrama. But what does the play ask of its actors so that this confrontation becomes the major crisis rather than a major letdown? How must it play so that it prepares for the elevation to poetic tragedy on the hilltop at the climax of the play in the next act? 
Certainly not the affectless underplaying, or its over-wrought emotional counterpart, of contemporary realistic media acting.
Try creating the situation as a cosmic tug of war: Gunhild on one planet, Ella on another, Borkman on a third, and Erhart in the center of the solar system resisting as each tries to pull him into her(his) own orbit.

By the way, why does Ibsen give Borkman ‘curly grayish-white hair and beard’?

How this story is told is as important to its meaning as what the story is about.
What price Glory? Power? Achievement?
What does the troll of Single-minded, Driving Passion demand in return for its gift?
What will the gods of All-consuming love, of Obsession, exact from the human being captured by their powers?
What claims do we have on one another? What responsibilities? With what result?
What place Restitution Restoration Redemption?
Some critics of the play suggest that all the drama has happened in the past and in the present all we get is discussion, perhaps revelation. Well, what is the drama of revelation?  What is the suspense of Borkman’s waiting to be restored as a champion to the land of the living? What’s the drama of a Titan in the underworld waiting to be admitted back into the light, to ascend the heights of Olympus once again?
And in moments of revelation come moments of extraordinary realization. What does Ella realize in her upper room encounter with Borkman? What must Borkman put to words that he has for years not spoken?
And on and on: Where is the drama?

The fundamental challenge for actors and directors of this play, it seems to me, is to create the reality of people with great Romantic tragic souls and spirits bound by the trappings of a materialistic, post-industrial world. We must believe that the man who paces up and down the upstairs gallery is capable of reaching out into the hills beyond his house and with his own hands wresting iron ore from beneath the mountains; that the woman who sits and crochets in the parlor below could hurl a lightning bolt across the galaxy to fry her sister and her husband; that the sister who for years has accepted her lot could engulf them all in the bubbling lava of her rage and/or her love.
Without these powerful realities, the situations will indeed shrink to creaky melodrama, over-blown dialogue, laughable in its excess rather than profound in its tragic poetry; the verbal and emotional bombast of a shallow reality rather than the vocal and visceral manifestation of a deep, even tragic, primordial experience. 

Since I started writing this, I’ve been imagining working on the play this way with Rickman and Fiona Shaw. That’s a rehearsal process I could get into.
Now if only we could get Cherry Jones to join us.