Sunday, October 29, 2006

Negligent Blogging

I’ve been a negligent journal-keeper, partly due to there always being something to do more pressing than this (or at least, more noticeable when neglected, like, say, learning two hundred lines of Hamlet for the day after tomorrow), and partly because I’ve been ill for about a week, and when I am ill, my eyes just don’t work and I can’t read or type. Which makes journaling and learning lines impossible……but over the past few weeks, there have been several noteworthy events that I shall briefly describe here:

1) The BBC/World service radio recording of King Lear at The Globe, Fiona Shaw as Goneril (nipples at attention the entire chilly night) and other RSC actors: I’ve been pondering for some time just how little theatricality is needed for a play to work. I watched several staged readings by New York’s Labyrinthe theater company at the Public last year, and was a little surprised note that the productions, with actors in street dress, scripts in hand, stage manager reading the stage directions, and no set, didn’t at all seem incomplete. The writing, acting, and I guess, direction (though I know next to nothing about this), sparse though it was, all sufficed to create moving nights of theatre. I guess if the actor can infuse lines, from memory or the page, with meaning (god, I hate writing about acting), and the writing itself is compelling, it really doesn’t matter if he’s reading off the page and miming the props and wearing sneakers. The importance of the “fourth wall” is defunct, so is the idea that so many minutely planned and executed factors must converge in “creating a life onstage.” King Lear added another nuance to my thoughts on the subject: because it was being recorded for radio, whenever some outside sound drowned out the actors’ voices (bloody airplanes), or even when an actor muddled his lines, the show would stop and the actors would repeat the scene (though significant cuts were made for this recording, the production still lasted near four hours, we rabble in the yard growing light-headed and slouchy). At one point, the actor playing Gloucester had to repeat his line starting with, “I am your host…, uh, I am you host…..ok, I am your host!!/With robbers’ hands my hospitable favors/you should not ruffle thus…” The audience chuckled at the repeated flub, yet I don’t think the horror of the scene was lost on anyone; people actually winced at the moment Cornwall mimed stabbing Gloucester’s eyes out, as the sound effects man thrust a knife into a watermelon and turned it. Now, if we don’t need costumes, alright, if we don’t need sets, fine (please no costume designers or scenographers read this)—even if we don’t need actors to be off book and pysicalizing the action of the play, great, but when we don’t even need to suspend our disbelief—what do we need?? Great writing and good voices? The element of pretend is shot to bits. Or maybe it’s elevated, as the audience exercises more of its own imagination because the art director didn’t do it for us. It does make regular theatre seem rather over-produced and gimmicky.

2) Gimmickiness is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, how I hate it and want to avoid it, and how difficult it is to offer something in its stead which gets the point across ungimmickily. One of our first spoken verse classes was on the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, and the task of our two hours was to experiment with different ways of performing it which involved, or “connected with” (I still hate writing about acting) the audience. Most peoples’ first and most stubborn impulse was to kneel down to our (the audience’s) eye-level and speak directly into our faces. This always makes me (as an audience member) uncomfortable and guarded, so that I can’t really listen and want to hide. Few things in theatre are worse than watching an actor strain and sweat to “make contact” with the audience, and whenever I am subjected to it myself, always resent being made to feel like I have to validate, or reciprocate, the actor’s labors. I usually nod stupidly or grin stupidly or lower my eyes with a shy stupid smile, as though it’s the intensity of our “connection,” rather than his desperate labors, which embarrasses me. Just because an actor looks straight at you while he speaks doesn’t mean there’s any connection there. It is a gimmick, and an elementary one at that, yet….I don’t know how I would involve the audience otherwise. Presumably, if what’s going on onstage is interesting, the audience will feel involved no matter how oblivious the actors seem to them…..although in a theatre like The Globe (and our school’s main task, they say, is to give us the skills we would need to play on that much trickier stage than most), where it’s light outside, and noisy, and people are constantly milling about and, worst, of all, can see and be distracted by, each other, it takes some extra effort to keep them interested in the traffic onstage. What does one do? Other attempts involved the prologue spoken by the Prince, having broken up a brawl with those first lines and shaming the brawlers with the prophesy of the outcome of the feud, another, having each actor in the play walk onstage while offering one line, as a Greek chorus converging into one mass by the end….it all seemed gimmicky and untruthful to me; I don’t feel like any of our experiments worked, and I left the class convinced that if I were to direct the play, I would have the woman who asks through the loudspeakers in her detached and slightly sanctimonious voice, “Please unwrap your candy now…turn off all cellphones, pagers, and beepers,…the recording of this performance is strictly prohibited… Two households, both alike in dignity…” the audience can listen if they want, and they probably would….of course, this is way more gimmicky than any of the other methods I found so distasteful, but at least we wouldn’t be subjecting the audience to an actor desperately trying to “connect” with them.

Monday, October 09, 2006

First Day of Class: Feel the Sweat

The first day of proper classes, or I should say, one class, of 30 people, all sitting on the hardwood floor, for eight hours, was difficult to get through (and hard on the butt, knees, hips) but I’m glad to finally be beyond the mushy getting-to-know-you games and long-winded introductory sessions. I’m not at all used, as it was totally taboo in the schools I come from, to Ben’s policy of having the class give feedback on a student’s onstage work. Determined prove to myself that I can at least pretend I’m not mortified by what I’ve gotten myself into, I volunteered (after many sweaty seconds of silence in response to Ben’s asking who would like to go) to put my work up first; out came Lady M with shaking knees and hands, voice cracking and chin all a-wobble. I figured in that moment that I’d just quit acting once I had my degree, or perhaps find a way to flunk out—fake a drug problem?-- and take up some occupation less savaging to my nerves (like landmine testing). The flaying this performance would surely receive from our teacher was now to be merely a test of my new stoicism, if not total indifference (do they use “crank” or “smack” in England?). But instead of ripping into me himself, Ben asked the rest of the class what they thought. Eight different people offered advice, but I was too stunned to hear any of it; at my old schools and the theatres where I worked in America, it was forbidden, punishable by shunning and verbal humiliation, for students or other actors to give criticism on one’s stage work. I liked it that way; the teacher or director could play the bad guy and one could just assume, with no evidence to the contrary, that one’s classmates and colleagues were awed unto speechlessness. At Friday’s class suddenly I had 30 teachers, directors, judges, and I wanted to destroy them all. However, when I considered that this was just a different approach to teaching and that I should try to adjust my thinking to accept rather than resist and write it off, a new and actually more worrisome problem emerged, both in my few harried moments at the center of the circle, and for the succeeding hours of class watching everyone else work. Not everyone knows the difference between giving direction and giving acting criticism. About half the feedback from the class (I hardly gave any, too set in my ways to open my mouth on another’s performance) was direction—“I think you should walk further downstage,” “I think she should sex it up a bit,” or, “maybe if he played it angrier it would ‘work’ better,” and this sort of input isn’t helpful to an actor who’s just trying to learn to “act” fully, whatever that means. It’s the sort of thing a director might say, whose only concern is making a production work—sometimes this stretches and challenges the actor but much of the time it’s merely pragmatic problem-solving. I got the feeling that when people offered real acting advice (“I didn’t quite believe you there,” “You dropped the last line and we couldn’t hear it” “Do you realize you’re shifting your weight back and forth while you speak?,” “I think she could have gone farther ‘sexing it up’” (that was to me)), it was by chance, and I hope Ben, who did give a few suggestions throughout the day on what manner of input is helpful, will make teaching the difference between the two an ongoing mission if he intends to continue having us remark on each others’ work.…

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Week One: Dry Heaves

I am troubled by how these first few days of school have felt for me, at 26, exactly like the first days of kindergarten, and middle school, and high school, and college: namely, dreadful. Somehow situations like this, a gathering of like-minded people, with aspirations similar to my own, expose to me the worst aspects of my character: my cattiness, my insecurity, my wish to be distant from and better than others, my fears that I am a fraud. This welling of my meannesses usually subsides after a few weeks, if that, as I get to know my colleagues and they become friends and collaborators rather than a mob of rivals ready to outshine me (the enemy phalanx), so I’m not worried about my ability to work and learn with them this year. Yet to articulate to myself for the first time the possible reasons for wanting to crawl into a hole whenever I start at a new school, or indeed, any new activity involving strange people, was striking for the clarity it gave me on what seems a near-comprehensive array of my character defects. The competitiveness that has no part in helping one grow as an artist, and begets the wish to crawl into a hole rather than learn and benefit from the strengths of others—the competitiveness that won’t even see strengths in others! I fear several years of working (and, mostly, attempting to work) professionally have made me quick to judge others, or specifically to gauge just how much of a threat they are to me in my attempts to get work. This can’t be at all helpful in a learning environment, and was, I suspect, a waste of energy in the professional arena as well. I wonder how much I could learn, undisturbed by concerns of how “good” I am or ever get to be, or especially, whether I will ever be recognized as such.

The drive to be “better than” spooks easily, and out of cowardice settles for being merely “different from,” but can’t sleep for fear that it is a short slide to “undistinguished.”
hit counter
Rental Car Coupon