Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Should I tell?

I've been keeping my new blog address secret, but I'm sort of starting to be proud of it. It's a little wonky and silly, and nothing much really happens, but it sure sounds like my life, so I'm gonna go with it.

A diary, of sorts. Enjoy.


Friday, December 14, 2007

Bad Hair Day

There’s no real way of knowing what might make for a “bad” day on the stage. You might not have had enough sleep. Or too much. Or just the right amount. There may be something going on in your life that screws your concentration. You might get some news right before going on stage, or maybe there’s some someone in the audience you’re particularly eager to impress. Maybe you’ve had a few days off. Or maybe the tides are wrong, or the phase of the moon. Whatever it is, you feel it. And you speak the lines and hit your marks and yet you can feel a part of you is somewhere else, watching you. “Ah, you’re not really here, are you?” says this part. And this part is correct, you’re not here, but you just have to keep going, because people paid to see this, and theatre only goes in one direction.

And you have about as much control over this as the days that you have a bad hair day. You smile, and style, and tell yourself that maybe people aren’t paying too close attention tonight, and you use your best techniques (because that is, after all, all you have to fall back on), and hope.

This is where (at this point, still based on an incomplete reading) Grotowski’s theories and my experiences converge. There is a trance that one must achieve (that is the word that Grotowski uses, and I think it is apt) in order to allow a character to speak, to move, to “live and breathe”. Voudon practitioners, when they achieve union with whatever God they happen to be invoking, call the experience being “ridden”. The God “rides” the priest, the priestess, speaks through him or her to the gathered tribe, the community at large, and offers advice, instruction. Maybe the God stirs up the pot for his own amusement, maybe he tries to help with the crisis of the moment. The village, the community, offers what it has in trade: food, drink, tobacco, women, boys.

Roberto Calasso speaks of encounters with the divine in a similar way, but he uses the term “rape”. A much harsher word, but none the less accurate, bringing as it does the innuendo of the Voudon term to the fore. All encounters with the divine have an aura of compulsion, beginning as they do with the overpowering brightness of the divine and the grudging assent of the ego, and ending in the (to the ego) horrifying dissolving of barriers and complete immersion. “Good fences make good neighbors” says the ego, and the divine sweeps down laughing like a storm and wrecks the fences, tears up the stones, leaves the land disheveled and ravished, the ego reeling from the blow.

In Grotowski, he speaks of a humility, a “holiness” that is not the “doing” of an action, but a removal of barriers of not doing. A subtractive discipline, that allows the character to speak through one by the dissolving of the restrictions on action and voice and movement, that gives the slightest impulse immediate expression. This may be why he speaks of an ascetic aesthetic (to coin a ridiculous phrase). There is a monastic quality to the whole thing that stems from negation. Negation of the “self” in service to the character. Negation of the habitual constrictions of muscle armor and ways of speaking and breathing. When the ego sees these things disappearing, since death, non-existence, above all, is the terror of the ego, it freaks out.

I remember during my days at school, no classes were more fraught with emotional breakdowns and freakouts than the voice and speech classes. Inevitably, as people were forced to confront and attempt to change their speaking patterns and their muscular tensions, someone would completely meltdown. Crying, shaking, hysterical (I must admit to a few breakdowns of my own in that class. In a side note, my voice and speech teacher also inspired a huge crush when I was in school, which I figure is also only appropriate. Transference and all that…).

This would seem to be why acting was so closely aligned to the sacred in Greece, and why the church always frowned upon it. There was something unwholesome about these people, these actors, going into their trance. Something unhealthy about those who were not themselves for a good portion of their day. Almost like prostitution, the way they opened themselves and let the “other” live through them, and all for a few coins. In a world that prizes the hard edged, the clearly defined, the actor seems altogether too… squishy. Too easily penetrated. This may also explain the homosexual panic that many people seem to have when they encounter male actors, as well. And why the actors that we love the most are the movie star celebrities, the ones that play only themselves, over and over and over.

So, basically what I’m saying with all of the above, was that I was off last night. I was thinking about how fucked my life was and I lost my edge. When it’s there, though, that brilliant edge of concentration is really something to feel. It makes the bad hair days worth it, I’m telling you.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Towards a Poor (and miserable) Theatre

On the recommendations of a friend I worked with at Cortland Repertory Theatre this summer, I bought a copy of Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre, from which I realized I stole some, if not all of my ideas for my last post. I’ve been reading it with some interest.

So, not one to let close reading or analysis stand in the way of putting my foot in my mouth, here are some initial thoughts.

It sure seems dour. This is theatre of the hairshirt and the flail. He constantly speaks of a “holy theatre” that requires sacrifice and self-immolation (that phrase “self-immolation” may actually be a quote. Can’t be bothered to look it up right now). A digging into the psyche and laying bare of the roots of action and emotion. My God. How many more times do we have to go through this? Perhaps, as so often happens with gurus (and especially acting gurus) there is a slight disconnect between the technique and the practice, but it sure sounds like he is a patriarch daddy-type who practices psychology without a license, putting his actors through the wringer in an effort to wrest great performances out of them. I have had teachers like this and I find them reprehensible. If Grotowski is of that stripe, I have no use for this technique of his. Good DAY, sir!

Well, this may be my own daddy-complex (often wounded by imperfect men and women who have experimented on me in their well-intentioned attempts to “mould” me) complaining. He may have aught to teach me, so I will keep reading, but I read with a skepticism that I did not possess when I was younger.

I have read about the great British actors, Olivier, Gielgud, and Guinness for example, and they had no recourse to such techniques, no need to put themselves through such fresh hell with every performance. The texts were tough enough, the physical demands plenty to engage and leave them worn out and frazzled. Perhaps that is what Grotowski speaks of, that the great Brits did unconsciously. Perhaps what helps to make the greats great is an emptying out. An engagement with the audience, with their fellow actors, and with the material that exhausts the mind and body, leaving a certain purity to shine through.

Regardless, when I was a Christian (or rather, when I was religious-mad), I would have taken to Grotowski’s theories like a drowning man takes to water. I loved the idea of sacrificing myself. I was all about that, and especially for art, love, “God”, or whatever. Now, I look on theories like this one with a certain distaste.

One of the things I love about theatre is that it is fun. Not fun in the sense of “Ha-ha, ho-ho, hee-hee, aren’t we having a wonderful time.” Fun in the sense of play, a concentrated engagement with the subject at hand that allows one to push oneself to the fullest. The way children play. Not forced, not straining and painful and “intense” but fun! I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun.

Now, I know that, in many of the circles I run with, when I’m at work, I tend to be the less-fun guy. When everybody is getting goofy, starting to get slappy, I am the one saying “C’mon, guys, let’s just get through this!” Yeah, I’m that guy. Always have been. So when I say I’m having fun in theatre, to me that means doing the work as best I can, and being totally engaged and trying to become more than I am right now. Always striving. Even the failures and mistakes and wrong turns are part of the fun, for me. Everything else is just sorta distraction.

So perhaps there is something to the Grotowski fellow’s theories. I’ll keep reading and find out, but truthfully, what I’m looking for is something that treats the process, not as pain and suffering, but as play. It can be painful, of course, in much the same way that an athlete is in pain when he pushes himself in training, but pain is not the same as hurt, i.e. aches are not injuries, and hitting the wall and going on is not the same as vomiting up blood. Acting should not be an assault on the psyche of the actor. We’re not strip-mining. We’re panning. The river will bring us what we need.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

but is it art?

Based on a discussion I had with Patrick the other day, I thought I should post this. I’m not under any illusions that I’m widely read (unlike some of the folks that I’ll be discussing in this post), but I thought I’d put in my two cents.

I was perusing my list of theatre blogs on bloglines, and a thought struck me. Of the theatre blogs I read on a regular basis, there were none by actors. Directors, yes. Playwrights, yes. No actors.

Now this got me thinking yet further. The discussion on most of the blogs often revolves around what makes for good theatre. A recent discussion, for example, had folks from all over the New York scene weighing in on the relative merits of “production values” and what the term meant. It was an interesting discussion, to be sure, and one near and dear to my heart. A lot of times, people will be talking about theatre’s place in society, declining audiences, relevancy to other media, etc. And sometimes the question is as simple as: what is theatre, really?

Well, what is it? A friend of mine recently expressed interest in getting involved in the extensive performance poetry scene in New York, and asked me to sort of introduce him to some of the better venues and groups working in them. I’ve had some experience with these groups, and I knew some of the folks pretty well, so of course I agreed. The angle of the performance of poetry interested me pretty intensely for a while a few years back, but I found I didn’t cotton to it as much as I enjoyed traditional theatre. But if you really think about it, aside from the conventions (verse instead of “natural” speech (though not always!), physicality based on gesture rather than full expression with the body (again, not always!), roots in hip-hop and its culture) what’s performance poetry but a different kind of theatre? At its essence, it’s a person using their voice and body to tell a story.

Is anything else necessary? Not costumes, not lights, not microphones, not sets, not pre-written, naturalistic (or otherwise) texts, not directors, not props, not musicians, not really even a stage. Nothing but someone with an audience telling a story using their voice and body.

The voice distinguishes it from dance, the body distinguishes it from radio. Other than that, it’s fair game. Anything else is convention. That gives a lot of leeway. TV shows and movies could be considered a subset of theatre, since the story is told using broadcast images of people telling stories. Animation could (I suppose) also be considered a subset, since representations of bodies are used… though one would have to argue about the more surreal elements of, say, Looney Tunes, and I don’t intend to do that here.

Performance poetry, is, obviously under this definition, another subset. The text is verse, the gestures have their own conventions, but the story is still told (or even only evoked) by a person using their body and voice.

I love working with directors. I love to take direction and work in collaboration with people who have differing visions than I. But under the definition I’ve posited directors are definitely non-essential. Witness the phenomenon of the “actor-manager” in British (and, I’m presuming American) theatre up until very recently.

Playwrights (and, in fact plays as conventionally understood, as in: stage directions, so-and-so speaks, such-and-such also speaks, they are told to do things, all as words on a page) are also not essential. Which is not to say I don’t like reading plays. I LOVE reading plays. I’m just trying to peel things down to essentials, here, and by this definition, not so much.

So that begs the question. Why is theatre being defined online by people who are, as far as I can tell, non-essential to the matter? This is also not to say that they shouldn’t. On the contrary, everyone should come up with their own definitions, and I love a good debate over ideas, even ones I agree with. But why are they the face of theatre? Where my actors at?

Well, I talked to both Stephanie and Patrick about this matter, and they both pointed out the same thing. Most actors are not writers. That’s all. In fact, many actors I know could be considered by some definition to be functionally illiterate. And lazy.

When I count the number of plays I’ve heard and seen ruined by an actor who couldn’t be bothered to speak the words of the play as the author wrote them, or who blazed past the meaning of the lines by completely ignoring such elementary considerations as punctuation, I’ll admit to becoming a little steamed.

Well, I can write (somewhat), and I can read (a bit), and so I guess I’m gonna write a little about that.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What's all this, then?

Why did I start a new blog?

Because I wasn't posting here, and sometimes it takes a new enterprise to reinvigorate my enthusiasm for a form.

Because I was reading this compulsively at work and thought, "Man, that looks like fun, but I can't draw."

Because I'm thinking that, if I do it every day, I might do some posting here by accident.

Because I know that if I have a form that is constrained, I will inevitably think of things that don't fit in the form, and then I'll write them here, and that will be nice.

Because I think I'm just crazy enough to do something ridiculous and have it work out OK.

Because some people have more than one creative outlet, and some of them end up being kind of interesting.

Because little steps are just as valid as big steps.

Because I wanted to notice and appreciate things more.

Because in noticing and appreciating things more, I hope to become more grateful for my life, and therefore more in love with it.

Because I am trying to save my life from time, but I am restricted by my own laziness and so therefore must make arbitrary games in order to trick myself into enlightenment.

Because I am trying to save my life, period.

Because I am afraid that things are going to get much, much worse before they get better.

Because I will stem the tide of fear with humor and lighthearted-ness.

Because I still believe that life is worth living.