Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Return of Cliché Watch

I forgot to mention last week that the New Colony was on a brief sabbatical from webtopia, but they are back with a bang now, especially with the new Cliché Watch posting.  A conversation between Scott Ferguson and me about Children's Theater.  Check it out.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Close Reading

From Miranda:

Don't you think it's "testament to your burliness" not "of" on The@er? Testament is from the latin word testis, -is, meaning witness. You are a witness to your burliness not a witness of your burliness, right? Well, now that I type them both they both sound okay. Whatever. What do you think?

I think you're probably right.  I usually fix typos surreptitiously, but when they come to light with etymological notes, I guess I have to draw attention.  I think maybe I didn't really mean testament at all...

The Method, Cont'd, Cont'd

From Evan Hagemeyer, the good friend who sent me the McKellen video in the first place:
I was going to leave this as a comment on the Ian McKellen debate, but it turned out too long:

Almost everything is contained in one sentence: "I imagined what it would be like to be a wizard, and then I pretended and acted in that way on the day." How much more simple can you make it, than to say great acting (or great pretending) is joining imagination to action? The Craft is to do that well, and all the techniques and methods are accretions upon that simple idea - one that is somehow so easy for some (the talented) and yet harder for others. For most of us, it isn't hard to use our imaginations. The tough part is in the joining. So people need all sorts of techniques to help them leap across the divide from solitary, internal experience to deeds that give and share the being inside. Perhaps why we love great actors is that they appear to have mastered making the jump from "me" to "us". That's something everyone wants, except maybe monks, and even they live in communities.

But as the focus of actor-based entertainments (films, plays, tv shows) has shifted from a style more overtly based on archetypes to what we call "realism", the actor's training has become more therapeutic. Learning to be an actor no longer simply requires mastering the artful deployment of gestures, facial expressions, and vocal tones as required by the "type" the actor is playing. It means being a like "real person" with "real experiences". So the actor joins his own actual internal life to the internal life of some imagined person, and then displays to the world the results of that inward mixup. There is an amazing "Apocalypse Now"-parody scene toward the end of "Tropic Thunder", where the Robert Downey Jr. character is removing all the stuff he has worn portraying a black Vietnam-era sergeant. As he removes the wig and the mustache, and drops the accent, he regresses backward through various characters he has played over the years. And when he finally reaches his own voice, he looks up and says, "I don't know who I am."

One reason why I like your idea/ideal of acting that "gives" is that it implies its contrary - an acting that "takes". Now I don't think they are in perfect symmetry - the "giving" acting gives to the audience, whereas I think acting that "takes" is this therapeutic form of the craft of acting, in which the actor uses their portrayal of the character to fill some inward void - or worse: deepen it. The "filling" is what the Downey Jr. character was getting at. So I think the Method exists, and will continue to exist, because it recognizes something about the psychology of a lot of actors. They are drawn to the profession out of some profound psychic neediness and sometimes even self-loathing. They see that emptiness or lack filled up by public acclaim or approval for becoming something other than they are. And the Method says, "You've got pain? Great! Use it to become someone else." But that's a lie. We can only become who we are. But we can pretend to be someone else.

And to make sure Anne's comment is brought to light:

I imagine that techniques of acting come in and out of fashion in synch with cultural changes. The Method must have been very powerful for a generation that had trouble accessing their feelings. In our era of weepy Oprah segments, I would expect actors face very different cultural challenges to the ideal of intellectual/emotional/physical clarity and expressiveness. But even now, the Method is just the ticket for some individual actors.
And beyond either of those considerations is the question of what kind of play you're in. New writing may require new acting styles, and therefore new approaches to training actors.

It would be remarkably silly to ignore the historical power and significance of what we call The Method, but we all need to agree that it is really just A Method.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Tech Weekend Over.

So armed with that testament of my burliness, I spent the weekend mopping up fake blood off of floors, walls, guns, and cats as part of my work on Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Northlight Theatre.  I've always found tech rehearsals really aggravating -  they're just so long, so dull, so precise, I'm instantly exhausted.  In Viewpoints, and really acting in general as I've received it, the ideal state is one of something like "active relaxation." Tech weekend for me is spent in a state of "passive anxiety."   A lot of the time I'm not doing anything, but I have to be ready to do almost anything. Anyway, the real trouble with spending two hours a day mopping up blood is you begin to wonder if its worth it. For this show, I actually think it is.  
Famously, McDonagh one had four shows being produced in London at the same time, it is said he's the only man besides Shakespeare for whom that is true.  McDonagh is not Shakespeare, but he is a remarkably interesting theatrical writer. Dominic Dromgoole, in the perfect, perfect, brilliant, perfect book The Full Room (read it!!) says this of McDonagh:

We are delirious at being suddenly allowed theatrical delights we have been denied access to for a long time. These plays are naughty, they’re wild, they’re elaborate and beautiful pranks. The sheer wicked bliss of having writing like this in the mainstream [theater] is so great, such a surprise, that people frantically try and ensure that it doesn’t go away. The ring-fence of art is drawn around it, and all is well.

Dromgoole holds this up as a kind of explanation for the profound interest in and excitement around McDonagh in the face of his perceived lack of substance.  This was written before McDonagh had written The Pillowman (and I think even Lieutenant) but, the point is profoundly valid.  The Fight Choreographer for this show Nick Sandys (who will also be directing a production of Macbeth I'll be a part of this summer at First Folio), pointed out on the first day of rehearsals how cinematically McDonagh writes.  Stunts like having two guns held up to a person's head and then being fired at point-blank range: there's no way to do this safely in the theater.  On one level you're tempted to think: "Well if you wanted to write a movie, why didn't you just write one?" But the interesting thing is Lieutenant would not work as a movie.  It would be completely unremarkable - the set is essentially static, the character types are utterly vaudevillian, the surprise and delight at violence would be absent entirely.  It is essentially theatrical.

What McDonagh has succeeding in creating in The Lieutenant of Inishmore is a well-made play with a cinematic imagination, the permission he gives himself in this creation is as much the spectacle as the blood cannons I mop up after. And for this testament of freedom, I think tech weekend is worthwhile.  

Thursday, April 23, 2009

You said only wimps did theater

Would a wimp have this?

Yes. One wimp would have this.

I am now licensed in the state of Illinois to clean replica firearms. It's a great day for freedom.

By the way, does that uni-bomber photo count as method acting?

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Method, Cont'd

A loyal reader writes:
I’ve returned a number of times to that wonderful clip you posted on your blog. The more I think about it the clearer it seems to me that Sir Ian is completely correct but not entirely complete. By that I mean acting is as simple as joining craft to imagination and then “pretending” to be the character. But there is a critical additional element – freedom. The actor has to give himself the freedom to fully pretend. He can’t think about pretending, he can’t prepare to pretend, he must give himself the freedom to simply completely do so. Indeed this is the essence of all creativity from Jazz, to poetry, to particle physics; the creative act is the ultimate assertion of personal freedom. The creative act, by definition opens new ground, expands frontiers, and in ways large and small redefines the universe. To do so requires freedom. A kind of freedom that comes from within. A clarity and openness the both allows and demands the creative response. It is as simple as “Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian. Action this wizard shall not pass! Cut. Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian” and as complex.
I fear I may come off a little flip about what we call “method acting.” This is sort of on purpose, but people who know me know that my real problem isn’t flippancy but a surplus of sobriety over almost anything. My real opposition stems from my belief that “method acting” as such is a broken system and I suppose my sloppy reasoning thinks what might start with teasing will grow into a substantive rumination toward an alternative. This is not what I’ve seen so far, unfortunately, and I think while a lot of people recognize the limitations of sense memory and American Stanislavskian approaches, few have had the drive to come up with another system. This is the foundation, though not the limit, of my respect for Viewpoints.

I also have a theoretical quibble with “the method,” which is the way in which it emphasizes the actor’s experience (feelings) over the task in hand. Conversely, take a look at Peter Brook’s dissection of the work of acting in The Open Door:
Daily life consists of being “any-old-how”. Let us take three examples. For instance, if one is taking an exam, or when one speaks with an intellectual, one will endeavour not to be “any-old-how” in thought or in speech, but without realizing it, “any-old-how” will be in our body, which will be ignored and limp. However, if we are with someone who is in distress, we will not be “any-old-how” in our feelings, we will certainly be kind and attentive, but our thoughts may be adrift or confused, and the same with our bodies. And in the third case, when one is driving a car, the entire body may well be mobilized, but the head, left to itself, can drift into “any-old-how” thoughts.

For an actor’s intentions to be perfectly clear, with intellectual alertness, true feeling and a balanced and tuned body, the three elements—thought, emotion, body, must be in perfect harmony. Only then can he fulfil the requirement to be more intense within a short space of time than when he is at home.
The method appeals to the totality of this work and the difficulty of it. Too often the alternative to the method is to pretend as though acting isn’t work, that it is easy, and this is part of the fun of Sir Ian’s explanation. But Brook’s discussion, like my loyal reader’s, neither erases acting as work, nor makes it into pure magic.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Good Start

These are amazing.  

(Hat Tip: MEKS)

Acting That Shares, Cont'd

This will be the last video for a while, I promise, but I made Miranda watch this like fifteen times in a row the other day and I'm still excited about it.  And so on the subject of acting that shares, as in that scene from The Apartment or Lance Baker in Mauritius, I have to offer this great example from the BBCs I, Claudius with the amazing Derek Jacobi.   Start at about 1:52 and watch the panning shot of the actors listening to Agrippina's story.  Jacobi's Claudius is the first in line. 

Is it Naturalism?  By no means.  But it is, I would argue, natural; and, more to the point, it is communicative, expressive, motivated, honest, and compelling.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cliché Watch (Bonus Edition!): Acting Out Indirect Discourse

One of the challenges of acting is not working too hard.  What I mean is, as an actor you're stuck with a certain limited amount of text and months to deal with it, analyze it, embellish it, and it can be very tempting to take every opportunity to endow your allotment with interest.

An instance of this occurs far too often with indirect discourse and it is so profoundly unnatural and uncomfortable I can't believe actors get away with it so often.  It's acting out indirect discourse.  In a scene a character says "Jimmy told me that he wasn't going up there no matter what."  An actor will want to change voices half way through and say, "Jimmy told me that, 'he wasn't going up there no matter what'" or if a little more clever the actor will at least say, "Jimmy told me that he, 'wasn't going up there no matter what.'"  

This is ridiculous.  If you were supposed to act out that part of the story it would be in direct discourse, "Jimmy told me, 'I ain't goin up there no matter what.'"  That's how it works.  Listen to someone tell a story, ever, and you'll know this.

I suppose the reason this gets me so excited is that I've been able to identify it as part of what forms the line between acting and making faces.  I've been thinking about this a lot recently.  I have a real preference for acting that shares--one of my favorite film performances is probably Jack Lemmon in The Apartment--but there really is a difference between big hearted, demonstrative acting (I'm really thinking of comedy here) and making faces--empty expressiveness.  That is, I feel like there's a big difference, but I can't pin it down.  Miranda says that I better not be able to pin it down--that there must be magic--and god know she's right. But this sounds like a dare to me.  I'll keep working on it.

P.S. In the link, check out the way he tilts his head when he takes his hat off.  

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Method


(Hat Tip: ELH)

Faithful Adaptations

Ok, the new cliché watch is up now at the New Colony, and both sides are actually up already.  My co-debater is Crystal Skillman, a playwright working out of New York.  Should make for a fun time!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ironic Musicals

The new Cliché Watch debate is up at The New Colony.  My co-debater is John Pinckard, a producer of musicals and theater in general in both Chicago and nationally.  Should be fun.  Do add your own two cents, anyone can comment!

The Tempest

Tonight I saw The Tempest at The Steppenwolf and, in general, I liked it.   Above all there are two things that really struck me about the performance:  one that I really loved and that opened my eyes, one that left me deeply disappointed.  Good news first.

Depth.  It's so simple we never even think about it, but another aspect of the genius of theater is depth -- simple, literal, spatial depth.  Film has no depth in this sense.  Light is insubstantial and it is laid against a screen -- necessarily thin.  Even shadow puppets (another medium of shadows, light, and screens) imply depth, but film is predicated on translucence, and the physical presence of film is only millimeters thick.  The stage and staging of The Tempest, under the direction of Tina Landau, however, insists on depth.  The stage is largely empty and from the house we can see all the way back to the cinderblock wall, every drop, every traveler, and ever set piece is partial -- pipes and short curtains, narrow screens -- so that we are provided units of measurement in space.  In a brilliant scene Ferdinand moves a pile of wooden girders from up right to down left where they remain in a pile for the rest of the show.  And by which we can record movement in the space.  Most moving, perhaps, was the amazing moment in the masque when several booms with large hanging flowers descend over the stage, fixing a beautiful grid upon the scene.

Additionally in group scenes, of which there are many, the Ms. Landau makes engaging use of lines and clumps.  In the scene, for instance, when the King and his cohort first find themselves on the island they form a kind of circle facing in all directions and examining their surroundings.  Then, when confronted by Prospero at the end, they are in almost a straight line as Prosero maneuvers around them.

The terrible moment in the play was the very last one, but it was so bad it's almost infuriating. Of course the reason it is so frustrating is because it came so close to being brilliant.  Here's the final speech of The Tempest, so I never forget it:

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Amazing: the speech continues to perpetuate the story while not only acknowledging the audience but demanding their activity, and not the "audience participation" of becoming actors or storytellers, but truly participation as an audience -- applauding and completing the story by this collective imagination.  Frank Galati does this speech beautifully.  He begins by removing his coat and his hat, setting them off (on that pile of wood!).  He crosses casually centerstage and glances back at the costume pieces like he might have left Prospero there.  He looks right at us and the lights have changed a little, very clear and simple -- a man raised on a platform.  He says the final words, asking for the applause of the audience "Let your indulgence set me free." There is a miniscule pause (one second max) then a sound cue and a blackout.  

This is perverse and cowardly.  The stakes have been made very clear, if we do not applaud and even more importantly do not send him to Naples all is lost.  He has forsworn his magic: this is the only way.  What should happen, what I was certain would happen, is that he stands there waiting until we applaud.  The blackout and "swoosh" sound cue ends the play before it's over. The end of the play is everyone agreeing to send Prospero home, or -- and Shakespeare, must have understood somehow that this was a possibility -- we decide he should be confined on the island forever.  This production takes the audience out of creative act of the theater and it broke my heart.

My heart is strong enough to remember a good night at the theater, the visuals really are stunning and there are some good performances, if you get a rush ticket you should go, but you should try to applaud before they cut to black.

(Be forewarned: there are vests in this production of a Shakespeare play.  If you are sensitive to such things, you should stay at home.)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Theresa Rebeck On Structure, Cont'd

Zev Valancy, of On Chicago Theatre and a dramaturge and critic about town, had this to say about my recent post on Theresa Rebeck:
I guess I have the same question as you--where are these people attacking structure, or disregarding it? In any literary department in which I've worked, faulty structure or poor storytelling are pretty strong marks against a script. I've never heard a solid structure attacked, except when that's all there is. If the structure is strong but the characters aren't interesting, or the plot, while well told, isn't credible, or the play has nothing interesting or true to say, then those are the problems. The structure might get faulted, but only because nothing else works. I may be wrong, but I'd love to see who is actually attacking or disdaining story.

I think Zev hits it on the head. Part of the story here lies in the kinds of reviews that Ms. Rebeck's plays get, Mauritius, for instance, has been called both "Mamet-lite" (Trib) and "Mamet unplugged" (TOC), why is that?  My guess is that this really does stem from the play's suspenseful structure.  The plot takes center stage in a way which I do suppose is unusual today in theater.  We talk about plays really being about characters, we sometimes talk about Idea Plays (as though that means something).  Really though, the crisis is that attending the theater has become enough of a rarefied experience that Entertainment as such seems something to sniffle at.  Ms. Rebeck's choice to situate this snobbishness in plot says more about her own writing than about the broader context of this problem.  

Zev's comment that plot is all well and good as long as it is not all there is, is important here because I think that praise and disdain is a little more cyclical.  A lot of good plot makes it easier to miss finer points which makes it easy to dismiss writers as "lite" or unsubstantial. Fairly or unfairly.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Debate Rages!

Keep Checking The New Colony as the debate grows throughout the week...and beyond!

Theater Company Blogs: Discuss

The new Cliché Watch in the new open format is up at The New Colony, with Special Guest Star Nick Keenan. Enjoy!