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

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.

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