I AM NOT A MUSE (some thoughts on performance)

30/04/2010 at 4:09 pm Leave a comment

I am thinking about performance lately. Probably because I’m between shows and crave the boards, but also since it occurs to me how many different approaches to acting technique I’ve come across over the years. I have my own, but every time I hit the rehearsal room it’s a different animal. It varies on the material, the director, their vision, the other actors, and the amount of time available to get it happening. There are some fundamentals that I reckon any decent actor must bring into the room; but within those it is astonishing the degrees of separation between acting techniques. I thought it might be worth looking at my own approach to performance (if only for my own consolidation); and maybe discern some of the ways actors collaborate to bring something to the work that makes theatre greater than the sum of its parts.

Like I said, there are certain things that any actor should take into rehearsal if they want to survive. It’s pretty obvious, but for a second I’ll pretend that my readership has no performance experience at all (and who knows, maybe an aspiring actor will stop by one day and learn something). Also I want to talk about them because when I start a rehearsal process these are in effect the only things I take with me.

Performance is a high-wire-act between self doubt and self belief, and when the elephant in the room is your ego, it can be hard to juggle. Enough with the mixed metaphors – check it at the door, and respect the other actors and the space you’re in. Unless you’re the writer, director, solo performer, lighting operator and front of house manager you aren’t the only one with something at stake!

2*an open mind
It can be dangerous going in with preconceived ideas for a character. Even when you’re three weeks in. Keep your mind open to new possibilities or risk. By all means bring ideas, don’t turn up empty-minded! Just don’t get stuck on them.

3*cool head and a warm body
Again, obvious, but it takes about twenty minutes for your voice and body to get loose enough to do the rehearsal process justice. Get there early and warm up. Don’t be stoned or hungover, or rushing to get there on time. It throws everything out of whack. With that in mind, drinks at the first read are traditional, if not obligatory…

4*sense of humour
If you haven’t got one of these about your work then please go and become a tax lawyer or something equally thrilling. Show business is not your cup of tea.

So armed with these four or five fundamentals I can then walk into any room full of strangers and start the process of undressing and redressing my soul. In effect – this is my acting technique – forget Meisner, forget Stanislavski, forget Grotowski or Berkoff or Simon Callow or the innumerable acting theorists I’ve read or listened to. These basics are all you need to know in terms of technique and training. Of course, technique and training are a vastly different thing to experience. Try as I might to avoid it, it’s experience that always creeps back in. And it’s the experience that keeps me coming back. Let’s be clear – I rely on experience to navigate my way through the rehearsal process and craft the interpretation of the character that best fits. I rely on experience to inform the choices the character is making, I rely on experience to tell me I am capable of pulling it off (even if I secretly harbour fears), and I rely on experience to help with the general stagecraft that I might bring to a scene. But the last thing I want is to rely on experience to play the part.

That might sound a little strange (or perhaps not) so let me elaborate. In a post last year I wrote in response to a preview for References To Salvador Dali Make Me Hot at the Stables, I quoted a passage from Peter Brook’s The Empty Space; where he talks about the actor forgetting everything they have learned from the moment they first step on stage. This is kind of what I’m getting at, but it goes further than the differences between rehearsal and performance. Experience is a dangerous thing to rely on because you are potentially resting your character on past laurels. It is unfortunately very common in theatre and television (without pointing fingers you can probably think of a few actors who seem to phone in the same character in multiple roles), and these aren’t necessarily bad actors, either – but you will see the same vocal tics or mannerisms coming through again and again. This tendency is from us letting our experiences creep back into our work subconsciously – specifically the things that worked for us as actors once before, should work again. As such it’s easy to rely on experience to create a character that works.

Not me. It’s one thing to play, say Gregor in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and develop a whole set of body language and vocalisations appropriate for a dung beetle; but should I then fall back on those same techniques if I then get cast in Capek’s The Insect Play? Is that fair on the writers? The audience? It’s problematic, because the more experience we get, the better we are as performers, but the more susceptible we are to this trap. But it’s vital for the work that we continually wipe our slates clean to create original characters for the stage and screen. This same approach is even true within the rehearsal process. It’s a trick of doublethink, because you might go through a scene several times to sort out blocking, but every time is a reinvention, every time is the first time that moment has happened. You can’t call upon the experience of the last time you ran the scene to tell your character how to react to waking up as a giant dung beetle. Because it’s never happened before! Poor Gregor just has to figure it out as he goes along.

One approach I take to this paradox is to work the scene from a million different angles. I might try different accents when learning the gags so I don’t get caught in a particular rhythm. Long speeches get practised at a snail’s pace, or as if delivering a very serious lecture to the London School of Economics. Or while eating an apple. Whatever’s completely inappropriate for the part, really. That way when it comes to rehearsal, you’ve already filled a hot-air-balloon with possibilities and by the time you’re in the moment with your other actors, the truth of it just settles in comfortably around you. Another benefit of this approach is that such a mercurial concept as ‘truth’ can be taken so many different ways. So you might find one truth in one scene, and another in the next take – by deliberately avoiding the first truth and finding another – you can create multiple layers to a single moment; such that by the time you’re hitting the first preview, a character’s single response to an event can carry shock, indifference and relief all at once, because those are all variations on the ‘truth’ of the moment.

I never had any formal training, but I know all about the different ways actors create their wares. This is predominantly through working with them and listening to their late night ramblings on the topic, but also research and the occasional class. Everyone is different, and you can spot the schools, particularly in Sydney – where the Nidafication of Theatre is almost wholesale. But perhaps that’s a subject for another day, I personally think technique is only useful to a point. Similarly to what I was describing above, if we are always falling back on it, our performance is rooted in the past. It’s strong, and it’s safe – but that’s the problem. If I wanted to feel secure, I’d take out a life insurance policy and stay home, not get up on stage in front of two hundred people and recite bardistry.

With that in mind it’s obviously a very valuable set of tools to have on hand, given the total panic state that live performance can induce, I’m just cautious of relying too heavily on them. My favourite performances of past are the ones where I recall abandoning all sense of self and simply letting the character be. There’s no amount of training that can prepare you for that feeling the first time it happens. Because in effect, training is the sense of self we create, to fully embrace your role, you need to abandon training, self, experience, everything. I know there are theorists who posit that the only way to find truth in a character is to let your real ‘self’ play it. I think it’s only half the point – because the ‘self’ I think I am is also a construct. So we must destroy that in order to allow a new ‘self’ to inhabit our bodies – that of the dung beetle. And I am not a dung beetle, nor will I ever be, so I can only picture it, and nurture the growth of such a creature in my imagination, and not let my ‘self’ get in the way of such a thing assuming its potential.

I am not my character, I am but a vessel for the muse to speak.

Entry filed under: Inside Theatre PROCESS.


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VICTOR SANCZ vassanc [AT] gmail.com

since 2009

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