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?