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.


  1. Let's hear it for David Downs: hip, hip Hooray! hip hip Hooray! hip hip Hooray!!!!!!!!!! Love you, david.Keep talking, Jack!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Well, Alvina helped David, so indirectly, she saved my production of CLOUD NINE during my junior year at Northwestern. It was dress rehearsal and David was seeing it for the first time. He was a little worried because my auditions had been like an acting class so whoever didn't get cast was pissed but anyhoo. It took him only a few hours ---- he pulled it a bit and prodded it a bit and it came into view --- it was missing the comic attitude; it was asking to be laughed at instead of being funny. David made it all work. He kept it from commenting on itself and made it authentic. That's just what Mr. Downs does.

    1. Thanks for the great shout out, John. I don't remember that rehearsal all that well, but I remember a tight, bright, funny, well-acted, meaningful production that sent its ideas straight to an audience it constantly disarmed with its theatricality. You directed magnificently.