Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ramblings on the Collusion of Actor and Audience

Fresh thought. The Essence of Realization.

About a week ago I was listening to Pema Chodron on my computer. My step-mother had a CD of Pema that I uploaded into my i-tunes a few years ago and I hadn’t listened to it. In fact I was actively resisting it. No matter how often I learn that Meditation really works for me (I feel better and my brain works better), for some reason I resist it.

This was a Sunday afternoon. I had just gotten off the phone with my friend Jeff. He was going to meditate with a CD. I wanted to meditate myself. I remembered Pema on my i-tunes. I conjured her with my keypad and listened. I was sitting on my orange striped couch, eyes closed, teetering on the brink of consciousness when something she said brought my mind right to her.

She spoke of “Fresh Thought, The essence of realization.” I don’t remember specifically what she was saying about it. But it made me very excited. To me it was about Shakespeare. It is Shakespeare’s medium. It fuels the journey of his plays.

What are the alternatives? Stale thought. Rehashed ideas. The reporting of what you’ve already decided, An explanation of how you came to a decision. Watching someone think their way through a problem and come up with a solution in the moment is so much more exciting.

Fresh thought, realization, discovery, epiphany, revelation, they are necessarily in and of the moment. If Hamlet has a razor blade to his wrist, he is already engaged in “to be or not to be.” It is a sudden and visceral question of the moment, not a philosophical treatise on the quality of life. Each consequent moment skewers the two sides of the question, occuring in the moment. There is a need work through this question right now. Each thought freshly coming to him as he makes his way through the dilemma of whether to be or not be.

‘Fresh thought and the essence of realization’ is incendiary. Like a raging fire sucks oxygen into its flames, ‘fresh thought and the essence of realization’ on stage draws in both audience and actor. If the actor is in fresh thought, discovering each moment as he speaks it, the audience is drawn in. This dynamic collusion of actor and audience creates a third entity called theater. It requires not only both actor and audience, but the participation of each; the active involvement of each. An actor invites the audience into his world. But it must be an engaging and enticing invite. Fresh thought is such an invitation. As if saying, “Come on this journey where discoveries are made.” The audience then invests in its discovery with the actor (s).

In Flow (1990)Czikszentmihalyi asserts that there must be a challenge to achieve the state of flow. Boiling down a 300 page book to a sentence, there must be an achievable and engaging challenge with a psychic cost commensurate with the payoff. Drawing from that, in terms of theater, a challenged audience is an engaged audience.

The other night I went to see Space Panorama at the Under the Radar Festival at The Public Theater. Space panorama is a reenactment of the lunar landing in 1969 simulated by an actor using nothing but his hands. The simplicity was astounding. But this was not a sit back and be entertained piece. There was an inherent challenge. It required work of its audience; Pleasant work, engaging work, challenging work. The audience is challenged to relate the hand motions to the once ubiquitous film clips of the lunar landing. Or if you are unfamiliar with the film clips, decipher what his hands are representing. It becomes a little game where the challenge at hand is engaging and fun.

Toward the end of the piece, he creates the space capsule falling. His upper hand is an obvious parachute while the lower hand is the pendulum like falling space capsule. It lands with a splash in the water.

And then one hand was a fist, and the other was on top of that fist with the fingers spread and moving. It took me a minute to figure out, “Oh helicopters. Of course.” A simple and small challenge, but it kept me in the piece as it was being discovered. He wasn’t pushing the image. The helicopter was circling, as helicopters do.

Invite the audience in to your world

Perhaps a month ago I was having dinner at my friend Robert’s in Chelsea. He is a colleague in teaching and was one of my first teachers when I came to New York in 1984. We were talking about Equus. He began to tell me about the phenomenon of Equus in its original Broadway run. He had been to see it once and was heading back to bring a friend to see this new and extraordinary play. They were sitting in the audience and an announcement came over the loudspeaker. Tonight the part of Dr. _____ usually played by Tony Perkins will be played by…He said they were hardly a syllable into the announcement when the whole audience heaved a sigh of despair. Then, no sooner had the audience begun this spiraling plummet of despair, (I pictured irate patrons gathering their purses and coats) when the announcement concluded will be played by…Richard Burton.

According to Robert, The audience that previously gave a collective desperate sigh, now collectively gasped at their good fortune. Their sinking ship, had not only stopped sinking but had somehow become an airplane.

“Richard Burton taught me something about acting that night.” Robert continued, “The curtain rose and I couldn’t really hear him. I wondered if being in film too long had squandered his voice. But this was Richard Burton. Then I realized something. He was making me listen to him. He was speaking just loud enough for me to hear.”

I imagined the whole audience on the edge of their seats leaning toward the stage, reaching out their hearing to meet Richards performance half way. Thoroughly attentive and keen, pleased to be in union with the performance. Actually an union of actor and audience together creating a theatrical experience. I left Robert’s mulling this lesson Richard Burton inadvertently taught my friend.

Pushing at an audience will force them to withdraw. Engaging yourself in your intention, and the subsequent discoveries revelations and epiphanies will draw them in. Think your way through the problems. Need the words to investigate and discover the answer you seek.

As a young actor my instincts were always big and broad. I think part of it was misguided politeness, perhaps desperation. For many years I thought it was my job to take care, “here let me get that for you” “Let me do that for you” “Here let me” It served me well when I was a waiter.

Actually, I was watching a friend teach class this summer and she told an actress, “Don’t be a waitress on stage. You may do it in life. But don’t do it onstage.” I only partially understood. The actress didn’t get it at all. But those of us who are most comfortable doing for others, are at a disadvantage. We do more than our job and the dramatic tension flattens. As actors, we need to be a bit self-ish, do only the work that is required of us, and fill it 100 percent.

When I was studying with Michael Langham, I was working on Proteus’ long soliloquy at the beginning of Act II scene 6. He is on the horns of a dilemma of what to do about his new found love for Silvia, especially in regards to his girlfriend Julia, and, his sworn bosom buddy Valentine, who happens to be Silvia’s actual boyfriend. I was working out the problem in broad strokes “entertaining” the audience in every moment. Or so I thought. I was pushing the information at them. All my energy was pushing right up under their noses. There was no working to understand what I was talking about or identification with my problem. I was sending it right to them, clear and energetic, desperate to be liked, to accommodate and be brilliant.

Mr. Langham suggested I talk to my self. So, I began again. He stopped me, “No, talk to yourself. Don’t pretend to talk to yourself. Don’t make a show of it” So I tried again. And I did, I worked out he problem for myself, thinking my way through each moment. I was sure everyone would be bored to tears with my self-involvement. To my mixed shock, horror and delight, everyone was drawn into my dilemma, totally engaged.

How was this possible? This sort of information rubbed the wrong way against everything I had ever thought about life and acting. It must have been a fluke. How does that work? I wondered. I continued to experiment with it and very slowly learned to trust it, a little bit. But it was that kind of thing, where it was new, risky, not worth taking a chance on when it mattered. I had always gotten such praise for my energy and power.

However, in more classes, with Earl Gister, with Lloyd Richards, with Olympia Dukakis this was the information I got. Less is more. Even still, it wasn’t about less or more, it was about engagement in what I was doing, figuring out, planning, discovering in the moment.

My father’s dog, Kodi, won’t catch anything thrown to him by someone he hasn’t learned he can trust. Often the dog biscuit or morsel of food will hit him in the face and fall to the floor. When it does, naturally, he flinches a bit. An audience too flinches when pushed at too roughly.

Yesterday, I had auditions for my Tuesday class. It is a very simple audition. Two lines of Shakespeare and five minutes of adjustments. A handsome young man got up to work. He gave us his two lines of Shakespeare in big broad strokes. He was doing his work as an actor and the work of the audience too. He was not engaged in what he was doing so much as telling the audience how to receive his words. Everyone in the room leaned back as if in a light wind tunnel. They grimaced a bit, smiled to be supportive, but, his energy shot out with a force that pushed up right under each nose.

He had a prop so I asked him to just take the first beat of simply contemplating the prop and how it came into his possession. “I left no ring with her.” He made a profound adjustment into fresh thought. His voice dropped decibels, his concentration focused on the ring and the whole class leaned in to listen. He continued, asking the question, “What means this lady?” as if he had no idea. He and the audience were rapt in the same dilemma. Then he broke into his second line, “Fortune forbid…” Big loud and boisterous. And the whole group en masse unconsciously leaned back, kind of pinned to the wall. He had returned to the presentation of stale predigested thoughts. The whole group felt the difference between the two lines and responded.

Theater is a collaboration of audience and actor. The actor has to concentrate on his task and let the audience do their part. The focused and specific choices of an actor on stage will draw an audience in. He can even talk with them directly, if he needs them to help work out his dilemma. But he can’t push at them and expect them to travel this journey with him happily.

Talk to your Heart

I was having coffee with my friend Natalie the other day. She was telling me of a recent romantic tragedy in her life. As we shared our varied experiences, she suggested I pick up bell hooks book, All About Love. I did. The preface knocked my socks off. It was I was looking in a mirror of text. The subsequent chapters are proving more challenging. The Preface begins with the quote:

It is possible to speak with our hearts directly. Most ancient cultures know this. We can actually converse with our heart as if it were a good friend. In modern life, we have become so busy with our daily affairs and thoughts that we have lost this essential art of taking time to converse with our heart. – Jack Kornfield (Hooks, All about love: New Visions. 2000)

I thought of Shakespeare’s soliloquies. I then considered Isabella’s words:

Go to your bosom,
Knock there. Ask your heart what it doth know
. – M4M II ii

I saw then, Isabella is not only telling Angelo how to find mercy, she is giving a very simple instruction in soliloquy. Soliloquies in Shakespeare are so often simply conversations with the heart.

It has always seemed to me in a soliloquy there are essentially three “people” at your disposal to talk to: the audience, a higher power and yourself. Sometimes, what or whom you are talking to is named:

Gallop apace you fiery footed steeds…” Juliet is talking to the sun

Disguise I see though art a wickedness…” Viola is talking to her clothes

Fie Fie, unreverend tongue to call her bad…” Proteus is talking to his tongue

O hateful Hands…Be Calm good wind…Poor wounded name my bosom as a bed shall lodge thee…” Julia constantly switches whom or what she is talking to.

But what Jack Kornfield and Isabella both mention above is something even more specific, that one can talk to the heart. Even more than that you can receive an answer. Shakespeare knew this. He put the words in Isabella’s mouth. It is an antidote to presentational superficial Shakespeare.

In working with Michael Langham I learned this lesson working on Soliloquies from Two Gents, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Macbeth. What I learned over and over in my studies with him and others was: an honest, authentic conversation with the self was riveting. I learned it through my own experience and through watching others practice the same conversation.

Further, when I have this kind of conversation with the heart onstage as an actor, authentically, something special happens. I feel a kind of wholeness, grounded and centered and yet open and full possibility.

When Hamlet begins “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt…” to whom is he talking? Well, easily he good be talking to God. He calls his name out a few lines later. He could easily be talking to the audience, “Hey folks I am at the end of my rope, can you believe what is going on here?” Or he could just as easily be talking “with his heart as if it were a good friend.” Shakespeare’s characters know how to do this instinctually, that is why they speak alone on stage. After all, Hamlet ends this particular soliloquy with the line “but break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.

Romeo talks to his heart, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” II ii

Olivia talks to her heart, “Not so fast, soft, soft.” 12th Night I v

It is not written in stone that you MUST speak only with your heart. As the Julia example above shows us, to whom or what you speak often varies. The subtle and not so subtle changes within the text can suggest speaking to the heart, the audience or some god; or element; or prop. The element of choice lingers large.

But Isabella and Jack Kornfield open for us another character to talk to onstage, the heart. The heart that knows. The heart that is a good friend. Brutus’ conversation with his heart is already underway when he opens his mouth to say, “It must be by his death…”

Sebastian in Twelfth Night makes a distinction within himself. He says that his heart tells him one thing and his brain another. He wishes his friend Antonio were there to act as arbiter between the two.

I’d like to think that Isabella is right, the heart knows. However, especially in tragedies, sometimes characters either don’t listen well, misinterpret, or disregard what is said to them by their hearts. Perhaps they get confused like Sebastian. What is important, is the deliberation, the conversation and climbing that ladder of thought to a conclusion, reaching a decision only when the conversation or thought brings you there.

As Jack Kornfield points out, we are unpracticed in this art in our modern world. Perhaps as actors this is a practice we needs must incorporate in our lives. To have this kind of conversation with our heart onstage authentically, must take practice. It takes time to know a good friend. Experiment. You can model the behavior for yourself. Use it in your meditative life. Or if that is not your thing, You can step inside Brutus, Romeo, Hamlet, Sebastian, Prospero, Hotspur, Hal, Juliet, Viola, Julia, Olivia, Cleopatra etc. and find the dialogue with your heart. Practice it with Shakespeare’s words and learn to follow the impulse that arises. Keep the thought fresh and in the essence of Realization. Listen to what your heart says.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Green With Envy

“Lentulus becomes white with terror and a shade of green flickers in his cheek for a moment.”

I was meditating on this moment written in GB Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. It seemed an odd stage direction for an actor. How can one manage that? How can one directly fulfill that stage direction? I don’t think one can, directly. But it can be used as a guide post. “Ah, this is where the man (Lentulus) gets to in his experience with Ferrovius.”

I thought of earlier in the evening when I was reading about the differences between contour drawing and value shading.

Contour drawing is about the lines. Defining the space with lines. Direct and by name linear. Now, Contrast this with Value Shading, where the object in question is defined by shading. It is defined by the lights it catches and the shadows it creates. My brother Scott, a natural born artist, drew this way instinctively. He sculpted his drawings out of rendered shadows. As a kid I used to look at the drawings he did in the margins of his schoolbooks, notebooks and wonder how he did it.

This particular evening, however, I was drawing from a photograph, the head of a lion. It was actually a sculpture of a lion’s head from the side of a ancient Roman Temple outside of Lebanon, in a place called Baalbek. At first I was working in contour drawing, a sketch really. I caught the shape and the sense of it. There was no mistaking it. It was indeed the lion. But it lacked the personality of the sculpted lion in the photograph. No doubt, this was partly due to my lack of skill as an artist. I am proficient enough, for hobby. But there are no galleries knocking on my door. However, I think some has to do with the limitations of the technique.

Begrudgingly I switched. I am much less skilled at value shading in drawing. In fact I am intimidated by it. There seems so much less control of the outcome and my fear is that the whole drawing will go out of whack without establishing the outlines first. The proportions and body parts will be all askew and fall willy nilly where they may, An ear where there should be an eye, one side of the face twice the size of the other.

I did switch however, and the drawing that emerged, this drawing definitely emerged out of the paper as it came into being, was a much richer portrait. There was subtlelty and nuance and unmistakenly the subject I was hoping to represent. I was much more pleased with this drawing. It had life in it. The contour drawing was technically proficient. However, this second drawing although a little messier, definitely had more going on. It caught the three dimensions more fully.

For some time now, I have given students the note, "You are only giving me the shape of something" perhaps it was anger, misery, joy. Like my contour drawing of the lion, it was unmistakably what they were trying to portray. But it was hollow, unfilled. Even though, I gave the note, I didn’t quite feel I fully understood what I was saying enough to get my point across. After my experience with line drawing and contour drawing, I understand my own point of view more clearly.

These actors were giving me an outline of what they wanted to represent but not filling it, living through the moment. In trying to fill it directly, they only made the outline darker, which in turn simply highlighted the emptiness within. The approach was limited. (Usually I have found that it comes from trying to play an emotion rather than an intention, action, task...whatever you want to call it.) However, if the switch is made to playing the intention, thinking your way through a problem at hand. The value shading that I discovered in drawing begins to happen in acting. It is part of a greater whole.

An actor following his stage directions in a linear fashion can not suddenly turn his cheek green. But if he is following a path akin to Value Shading and building his personage, his character from the stuff within himself as an actor? ... he just might turn green. OR it might flicker there for a moment. If that is the kind of fear he is actually experiencing in the moment. So, we find our way to the experience of it through the action we are playing. It is drawn out in us rather than muscling it up or trying to achieve a flicker of green in our suddenly pale cheek