Posts filed under ‘Inside Theatre PROCESS’
WARNING THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS
“I have no original ideas.” Anyone doubting the veracity of Simon Stone’s recent explanation of why he’s so prone to adapting other people’s texts should go and see this droning, bloodless take on Ingmar Bergman’s film Face To Face. The production is ill-advised and ill-conceived, lacking in tension, complexity or depth. It’s not for lack of trying. Messrs Stone, Upton and Wright have made some effort to contrive convey the tale of an outwardly happy woman’s psychological decline and redemption; what a marvellous thing to aspire to unpack the strange pressures of being an attractive professional female in today’s world – or maybe just This Is What A Crazy Woman Looks Like. As writ by men, adapted by men, directed by men. Thank You Captains Patronise.
Fool me once. I had similar misgivings about Stone’s explanation for Strange Interlude- it being a woman’s story and so forth. At the time I put these aside and looked for the positives. I’m not so sure anymore. So many plays or films are out; this could be adapted from actual women’s stories, not some Svengali intellectualisation of what must be going on deep within the mysteries of She but an Actual Woman with Ovaries’ Experience. Asking too much? Apparently. These aren’t women’s stories, they’re stories about how it’s ok, we understand chicks are total whackjobs, so we’re expressing our sensitivity towards women’s issues by making these psychodramas where the madness of women is exposed and we demonstrate that men must do what must be done before women might not know what to do with themselves.
The thought of these three affluent white males conspiring to determine how such a story might be told is jarring at best, and at worst, actively nauseating. A couple of vignettes: a) man at dinner with woman drunkenly comments on her breasts. She gives him her phone number (NOTE TO SELF TRY THAT NEXT TIME); b) an attempted rape is abandoned because “she’s too fuckin’ dry”. Later she laughs it off and reveals she wanted him to go through with it (YEP MEN WROTE THIS QUEASY YET?). While the innocuous staging of such moments is perhaps the most shocking thing about them, I’m not sure that it’s a man’s place to tread the path of trivialisation when it comes to sexual assault. Regardless of your intent. And let’s assume for a second that the minds behind this theatrical ingrown toenail are on the level, genuinely wanting to talk about women’s mental health through the theatrical form. Why this play? Why now? Without knowing the arcane secrets of pitching and programming which got Stone directing two shows within several months dealing with loveless, mentally unstable women and the men who care; at some point during those decision processes we can safely assume the phrase “I want to do this” came up. Twice.
And here’s the rub: “I have no original ideas” is just one of the eyebrow-raising comments Stone has made doing publicity for his shows. The latest epigrammatic “theatre texts have no literary value on their own” caused a minor storm in a hiccough on the social medias when the comment (echoed at the time by STC Director Andrew Upton) was published in the lead-up to the play. What are we to make of these remarks? Well a pinch of salt for starters, given Stone’s tendency for public quips that are less than thought through. But if in fact he is referring to the theatrical value of performance (something I rank above literary value), as I suspect; then it is the director adding to the script which enables a greater truth to be found. In a nutshell, the principle espouses that the value of theatre texts is in their being spoken. They are written to be spoken aloud, enacted – and it is in this process that a text can truly come into its own. A script can adopt entire new sets of values this way, and this value is found in theatrical forms such as subtext or composition. In other words – actions speak louder. Good writers understand this and leave the dialogue ‘open’ for actors and directors to add subtext on their own.
Unfortunately, in this case nothing is added to the script by having it staged. The play is bereft of action. Dialogues occur with contrived movement to make things seem dynamic – with nothing relevant to the thematic content to create a powerful composition (almost certainly the strength of Bergman’s career). At one point the ensemble merely sit and listen to music. The same problem occurred in Interlude as well with entire scenes portrayed in a virtual tableaux – and by adding nothing in terms of mise-en-scene the result is a tensionless series of lamenting conversations. If the content of these conversations as written hold no literary value, what value is there in staging it so uncritically? We’ve seen all these tricks before.
The theatrical value of course is found in the earnestness of the performance – and earnest they are, almost to the point of a complete lack of tonal variation within some of the speeches. It’s this-is-the-emotional-state-I-am-feeling type stuff – but the trick with long speeches is to coach the actors out of simply giving over to the intensity of the emotion. Startling moments of intense anguish are fine but audiences crave a counterpoint, because madness does rationalise, it does talk to itself, it doesn’t actually know that it’s insane. Understanding how to get actors to deliver this doublethink is how to reach the complexity required for a text like this to work. And there is none. She’s fucked up. End of story. This is a cardboard cut-out of emotion, delivered with photorealistic intent – but there is nothing behind it. No matter how experienced the actor you must identify and draw out the intricacies in madness. It is this that allows an audience to extrapolate and learn from the characters’ experience. Otherwise we are looking from the outside in (the hallmark of this production) and the result becomes an exercise in academia. Actors of the standard we are used to seeing at the STC can portray any emotional state you might want – but even the best demand direction, so that difficult emotional scenes don’t get washed out by monotonic shrieking and we can engage with the subtleties.
If the text has no inherent value and you add virtually nothing to it, one must ask the inevitable. Why would you want to do it at all? The emotional climax certainly beckons as one of the key moments when the play, like a sleeping elephant rouses momentarily and shuffles its feet. But any empathy or intrigue is washed out and sterilised by the cavernous void passing itself off as a set design and unfortunate glass screen betwixt us and the actors. Could you make the one interesting scene any less accessible? Whatever fine acting may have been occurring up there was diluted by the cleverness of the problem solving, and although I knew when to feel moved (they brought in the minor chords, see) it was cold as the proverbial dip in the Fjord, I felt nothing. Why this play? Why now? A fascination with Bergman doth not make a good reason for the level of expense going unspared. When I was an undergraduate theatremaker I was enamoured with the likes of Jim Jarmusch. What a guy! I actually wanted to be him, would you believe… Does this mean I wanted to reproduce his filmography for the stage? You bet!
Of course I saw quite early that filmic and theatrical composition are totally different animals. When writing for film one takes on an utterly different language to surround the dialogue, because any writer worth their salt knows that frame-by-frame the meaning of the words can warp and swell according to the context of the staging. So when you write for film you write visually. Every close-up, every hand held pan, every dolly becomes a part of the composition, the dialogue, the rhythm of the work. Then there’s the editing process, a chance to recreate the story once again. So when we say “texts have no literary value of their own”, it’s kind of true, because meaning and subtext is created in how it’s delivered. Writing for theatre has no such luxury, as such we must write with enough space for the subtext to grow in rehearsal, that the actors and director can explore the nuances and reinterpret. Composition can add to or change the meaning but we are working outside of the medium that made Bergman such a powerful artist. So whatever your intentions, not understanding this is the road to Hell. For a play about such difficult, deeply held emotional states (and nothing else) is it too much to ask to put it up in a way that actually lets the audience in?
I have no objections to experimentation, or adaptations, or translating film to the stage, and I would rather see an artist try something new and fail than do something obvious and safe to succeed. Unfortunately this is not risky, nor does it succeed. Good intentions can only go so far, some shows belong in small theatres; and surely, with our current arts media if this was one, it would get the lack of recognition it deserves.
Face To Face, by Ingmar Bergman, adapted by Andrew Upton and Simon Stone, featuring Humphrey Bower, Mitchell Butel, Kerry Fox, John Gaden, Wendy Hughes, Anna Martin, Jessica Nash, Queenie van de Zandt and Dylan Young, playing at the Sydney Theatre until September 8th.
(and other stuff they won’t teach you at drama school)
We recently developed a bit of full-on facial scruff for a some performance work. It took about six or eight weeks to get to the appropriate length and about an hour to shave off for a gig that lasted two-days. We thought this was worth logging on the web because in recent times it has become clear that beards are coming back, and not just on the jaws of auteur director types at that. Historically in times of financial uncertainty facial hair has come back into fashion (something about anxiety in the modern man being offset by the visible virility of the something-something-sexy-man-hair and like metrosexual is so 2006 or whatever. But perhaps that is a topic for another day…
The beard is back, and in rehearsal for another show last year we got into a conversation with a recent WAAPA graduate about moustache cultivation techniques. Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) the majority of young male actors (and by the look of them, most young men) think growing a beard is simply a matter of *not shaving* for several weeks. This far from the truth. Theories on the subject have been explored, expounded and explained to us over the nearly two decades of life in and around the theatre, for the most part by the old-school actors passing on their wisdom to the up-and-comers such as yours truly while shooting the breeze about various theatre-tricks-of-the-trade. It comes down to one or two basic techniques:
- Let your stubble grow out for four or five days.
So there you have it, a complete how-to on getting your soup-strainer in impeccable shape. No longer must we put up with Grug-style facial fungus when we have the technology to grow a beard and not look as though we’ve just got back from Nimbin. Not mentioning any names of course…
While it’s perhaps surprising more ‘trained’ actors aren’t given this kind of granular practical performance skill set, there are other tips and tricks we’ve learned whilst on-the-job that young actors can possibly bring to their craft. Here are just a few more to bring to work with:
- Lighting a match onstage? Use two matches at once to avoid misfiring and having to fumble around for another one.
- Don’t listen to anyone who tells you how fantastic you are. It unnecessarily inflates your ego which in turn, makes it that much more difficult to leave at the door. All the best actors (while often total raging ego fiends in the real world) know only too well that the complacent performer is a dead actor walking.
- There is no such thing as ‘your natural voice’. Every character has their own vocal tics and tone. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need to constantly fall back to ‘natural speech’, it’s a myth designed to prevent actors from getting stuck in a particular speech pattern for their lines, to free up interpretation. But your ‘natural voice’ changes every day, every hour, depending on your circumstances. It’s just that mostly we aren’t conscious of it.
- And the one thing they definitely don’t tell you at Drama School is possibly the most important thing of all: Industry Politics is Bullshit. Don’t get caught up in that insider mumbo-jumbo crap about the right way and the wrong way. Right, Wrong, Good, Bad, there’s only one mistake to be made in this game and that’s pulling your punches. This of course does not preclude the power of listening in collaboration. Just know when to hold ’em. For every visible in-club there’s a whole undercurrent of creative practice happening on the fringe, willing to accept and embrace difference. If we all stop playing the game, everybody wins.
But perhaps that’s a topic for another day…
Any other industry secrets you might have learned while working in this wild and woolly world of walking the boards? Do Share!
…Within about ten minutes of the preview starting one of our actors was somehow bleeding gently from the face. And we kept going. And the audience thought it was makeup and stayed with us. And we took them to a place that I don’t think anyone expected to end up.
For my one-hundredth post, something of a milestone, I wanted to write something a little different. I thought about wallowing in reflection on the past year or so, but that’s so naff, I should at least wait until I run out of things to say. But I would like to thank all the readers who have encouraged and offered feedback on my little theatre weblog. I have certainly learned a lot in the process of writing it. And there’s a lot more to come! Because when I’m not writing about theatre, I’m thinking about theatre, or possibly about how much I dislike umbrellas (but that’s topic for another day) – and while on break I made a point to read as much as I could and really develop my core beliefs about the what, how and why of stagecraft.
For example; in a recent post I espoused my discovery of the wonderful contradiction that the best ideas are those that can’t be done – which far from being the Yossarianesque paradox of productivity it may seem – has actually been a fundamental driving force behind nearly everything I have done creatively since living memory. Highly liberating to realise that the anguish of creative pursuit is directly linked to the impossibility of the targets for which I am reaching. It’s why I can’t bear mediocrity in art. ‘Safe’ choices bring me pain. But I digress.
I got the idea from a marvelous book called The Art & Craft of Playwriting in which the author Jeffrey Hatcher says:
“A playwright has to believe in certain dramatic and theatrical principles, and my life in the theater has taught me the following…”
He goes on to outline a set of core statements that mark his work, from the basic structural tenets as: “I believe in beginnings, middles and ends” to more abstract epithets like “I believe all plays are mystery plays”. Whether or not one agrees or gains insight from these is not the point (the book itself offers much more to writers which I cannot) – but I found it a fascinating exercise to create my own list of core beliefs that a life in the theatre has taught me. Because it’s not as immediately obvious as one might think: much of these are intuitive, and not so easy to articulate things which are a foundation of an understanding of a medium that encompasses so much of our lives (whether we are audience or artist) – beliefs are often not found in words, but instinct.
So anyways. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share. I’ll skip the more obvious and conventional; since many other writers before I (like Stephen King and, um, Aristotle) have outlined and debated what makes good story; let’s just take it as a given that elements like music and character are in play. For this list I want to dig a bit deeper and hopefully express a set of beliefs that are both personal and universal, giving insight to who I am as a writer; and not at all an esoteric wank-jam that indulgently self-promotes my credentials in thespianism. Or at least somewhere between the two.
I believe that art is conversation.
OK, so this one is kind of obvious; but it’s vital for any writer or artist to be aware of what they are trying to say in the context of the broader theatrical discussion. So artists must spend equal time listening, watching and being guided (towards or away) from others’ art as they do creating their own. It’s also the core belief that drove me to begin this blog – in a fit of disdain for theatre writers who nit-pick away at what artists are doing in theatres without paying any mind to what it is they are trying to do. Like listening to a debate and saying to the philosopher: “I have no idea what you just said but I didn’t like the way you said it…”. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: art is conversation, it’s been going for millenia. It’s not that hard to learn the language if you want to get involved.
I believe that theatrical metaphors cannot be expressed in any other form.
It’s no wonder there’s such controversy surrounding theatre as literature. For something that so often springs from the written word- it shouldn’t be this complicated, should it? I’m thinking of the Premier’s Literary Awards Fail last year (and I am yet to have my final say on that matter – another day perhaps). But I do agree that a script is a skeleton of what we can classify as theatre, it takes a special lens to see past the written word into such mercurial quantum possibilities as what a play can be . And that’s a living, shifting metaphor. One hundred productions of the same set of words, lived, breathed by one hundred ensembles – never quite the same, never repeated. To wit: words actually limit theatrical expression, such that it heralds far more scope for meaning and discussion than mere literature. For my money, when book snobs say theatre is not literary – they’re absolutely right. It’s So Much More.
I believe that actions speak louder than words.
It’s the Curse of the Thousand-Fold Entendre, the fantastic irony of dialogue that is meant to both reveal and obscure. But every great writer knows that story is driven by action, no matter how many witty ripostes come searing through, if nothing is actually happening… it’s not very dramatic. Or even comic. The funniest lines are usually so because the character is trying to do something sincere, not say something clever. A fatal trap for writers to fall into. Which brings me to stage directions. I don’t know where this business comes from that directors and actors dislike stage directions. What an absurd prospect. All the great plays have key moments of action which are either incidental [helping himself to cucumber sandwiches] or vital to the plot [putting the manuscript into the fireplace]… More likely, is they hate unnecessary stage directions. We don’t like unneccesary dialogue either, but that doesn’t stop most writers including it! Moving on…
Well, those are the beginnings of my basic tenets of theatre. There’s a few more to come, but since this blog is in excess of a thousand words I might just revisit the rest later. Too much else to do right now!
What do you think? What are your fundamental beliefs about writing, or theatre, or performance?
Wait a moment. I’ll just pop my head up from the swamp of scriptwriting to see what’s what. Hmmm: it looks familiar, but strange things are afoot. People are asking after me. I’d better explain…
Deeply embedded in the writing process, I have gone submarine on all things digital in an effort to boost my scene output. These past forty posts are a kind of distraction I had intended to buy some time with while I cook up the proverbial all-hell that I hope will break loose in the climax of Act One. Then they ran out, but I still wasn’t finished, and now I am buried under a mountain of handwritten notes, scenes and gags depicting the events (as constant readers may have guessed) occurring in the upstairs rooms of chéz Katie.
I want to reflect on the process; but first things first – for those who have expressed an interest in reading the completed script – my thanks, we are nearly there. I will make it available as soon as I possibly can. The piecemeal structure with which I have self-published is hopelessly inadequate for the dedicated theatre reader; but for that I make no apologies as there are many reasons why I went down that road, mostly selfish, partly experimental, and just fractionally, because I thought people might be interested! Funnily enough, this smallest of motivations for feeding out teensy chunks of scene over several months has had the most profound impact on my understanding of the composition process; upon which I will elaborate in the coming series of posts outlining a set of core beliefs I have about theatre and writing. These have unfolded amidst my consciousness as a direct result of the digital decluttering and oddly, simply by knowing that these scene fragments were scheduled to publish, where just about anyone could read them!
You see, everyone reckons that writing is this isolated, lonely process, and they aren’t exactly wrong. But I thought: “Why should it have to be?” Sure it’s not finished yet, and there are scenes missing, and some of the lines appear to have been hacked from the offcuts of too-chewed scenery bits left to rot after a bad run of some nineteen-seventies romantic comedy… But I digress. The mere fact that the first half was going out into the world while I frenetically pen-and-inked the scenes for the second half meant I was free to experiment. I needn’t worry about getting the balance right in structuring Act II; since I instantaneously knew just where I have gone wrong with Act I. The knowledge that literally anyone could read the work-in-progress meant every flaw was spotlighted in my mind, and realising it didn’t matter was extremely powerful in that it left me completely free to dip my pen and writhe in the agony of getting the second half into some kind of general shape. It was a real benefit, not being bogged down anymore. That’s a big problem for me, writing a project like this which feels so stupidly ambitious at times I fear I’ll never live up to the vision. But then it dawned on me.
I believe the best ideas are those which can’t be done.
Or at least, they seem that way on paper… but as we know, theatre is so much more than words on a page. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some typing to attend to.
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.