Thursday, April 22, 2010

High Drama

Pretty ridiculous goings-on at the TimeOut review for The Taming of the Shrew. The central flaw in thinking about criticism is treating the critic as anything other than an audience member. Anyone can fall into this trap - critics especially - but what matters is that they're audience members, it's their whole claim to legitimacy and the whole point of reading their opinions.

Improv, Brevity, and Brecht

I recently took an improv class at Second City. It was great getting to do some comedy again and I haven't performed in a long time so it was a really fun class. A lot of people told me it would be great for my writing and for a while I didn't know what they meant. I learned an important lesson eventually, but Brecht got there first.

In The Good Soul of Szechuan (opening Sunday at Strawdog) there's a great scene where two characters decide to sell a tobacco shop. At that exact moment another character enters who wants to buy it. It's funny when you read it because it's so precise, but it's theatrically necessary since it moves the story along. On TV, there would be a cut-scene, then an establishing shot, then a conversation about selling it. Brecht cuts to the quick.

This is true in improv too. My teacher Rob made us do an exercise where in three lines we got all of the exposition of the scene done. Who we were, where we were, and what our relationship was. This makes for a lot of hilariously to the point opening exchanges, "This is the worst carnival ever, Mom", "You're a hell of a best man, Carl", etc. Less information tends to feel more natural-

A: Hi.
B: Hi.
A: How are you?
B: Fine.
A: Did you sleep well?
B: Ok.

-But way better is:

A: You look tired, honey.

This says volumes more about their relationship in less time and moves the scene forward. Peter Brook writes about the danger of the "any-old-how", meaning that onstage we're looking for something more than life. I'm biased, but I'm inclined to agree. We don't have a lot of time, and we know how people talk. You're free to get to the point. You want to tell a story. You are not bound by anything. Why would you be required to do anything other than what you need to do? One of the most deadly things onstage is describing the immediate future and then delaying it. If a character says, "Let's get some ice cream" you can have stage crew hand them ice cream. You can have them mime it. You don't need to blackout, strike the set, set up the ice cream shop, and then have the characters waiting in line, selecting a flavor, paying, waiting, getting it. We know.

In a world of waiting, brevity is magical.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Plus

Looking for a female actor of Inuit descent who can play and look in their mid to late teens. Can speak Inuit or Eskimo-Aleut is a plus.

I sincerely want to know how many people show up at this audition. This has something to do with a post from a while back on ethnic authenticity for play-making. It's a complicated issue because, of course, on the one hand I have little doubt that this actress exists and while color-blind casting is still (absurdly) a controversial issue it's important that she has the chance to play this part. On the other hand, could she really not be played by a Yup'ik? Fundamentally this comes down to a really simple tension: we still call them shows but we're obsessed with being.

Eric Clapton kind of looks like my dad, but K. Todd Freeman could play him a million times better because he's a goddamn brilliant actor. He doesn't have to actually be my dad or look like my dad to play my dad. He doesn't need to convince himself that he's my dad, he needs to encourage an audience to accept he's representing my dad. We don't paint the back of the set.

Love Is My Sin

A couple of weeks ago I had the overwhelming privilege to see Love Is My Sin and this is what I wrote the next morning:

If we learn nothing else from the last standing of the great geniuses of the 20th century stage, let it be the following two items. First, to start always with an empty stage, to build nothing but what’s needed to bolster the work at hand. Second, that “tradition, in the sense we use the word, means ‘frozen’” and that “all form is deadly”.

To see an effortless, elegant institution of these two great insights, one can encounter Brook’s Love is My Sin, the subtle and surprising etude of the master at peace. In under an hour of legato grace, the piece lilts through some twenty or so of Shakespeare’s sonnets performed as a vibrant and active memory play by two frank theatrical domestics Natasha Parry and Michael Pennington.

If you want to make an enormous mistake, you should purchase the little booklet that includes the text of the sonnets and follow along on the page. To do this (as too many at Friday night’s performance) misses most directly the handsome magic of their performance. At once presentational and deeply felt, you can see onstage a century of theatrical training on hand at every word, glance, gesture or breath.

The trouble with performing sonnets is that there are essentially two imperfect options. Either you can chop at them, parse them, and divide them between actors, or you can give them as whole thoughts. The trouble with the first form is that they are more dynamic for being the struggles of a single author; externalizing their arguments makes their conclusions feel forced: either a victory or a loss than an insight or a resolution. The trouble with leaving them all as soliloquies is that their form is so strict and predictable, that barring trance-like repetition, the formulaic back-and-forth of the performers becomes more like the world’s calmest tennis match than a piece of theater.

But Brook is too smart, and the performers are too great for either of these to be significant hurdles. The form of the piece is primarily of the volley option, but the memory structure allows for the performative, rhetorical sense of the sonnets to evoke examples of feelings felt and opinions held, argued for convincingly, re-created honestly, but not necessarily of the present. And then: an ultimate transcendence of accord concludes the work, and liberates, subverts, and ennobles the preceding form. I’m covered with waves goose-bumps just recalling it; I am literally fighting a flood of tears in an Au Bon Pain in La Guardia. Sure, I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night, and Good God, that ever the only reason for tears was perfect theater, but Love is My Sin is unequivocally perfect theater, short of breath, long on depth, huge of heart; worthy of tears. I will hold it close.