Christopher Aruffo, MFA, MBA, MSc, PhD
Acting Instruction 5: Endgame
Impulses are visible. Impulses create energy, and energy is the actor's use of body; therefore, like the wind or a magnetic field, an impulse is an invisible force made visible by its effects. First I saw this between the actors I couldn't hear, in my own rehearsals. Now I've seen it in ordinary conversations; across a table in the food court, the speakers nod and shift and respond, mutually creating a dynamic physical flow. By contrast, through the window of a theater studio, I see actors fail to connect. Their bodies activate only with the energy of what they have to say; they are physically blind to the energy being sent to them by their scene partner, and each new impulse flattens and dies against the invisible wall between them. Impulses are not only visible, but tangible; if you look for the impulses, you will see them (and what happens to them) as concretely as a balled-up sweater.
This leads to a practical definition of chemistry. "Chemistry" is people's impulses affecting each other. The more impulses that are shared, and the stronger the effect of those impulses, the better the chemistry is. If you think about your own examples of "good chemistry" between people-- even in real life-- you'll realize that you're evaluating their responsiveness to each other. If one person coughs lightly, does the other raise an eyebrow? If one of them relaxes a shoulder, does the other tilt their head? The words we speak are merely the most blatant of the thousands of impulses being constantly transmitted; actors with "good chemistry" will let themselves respond appropriately to as many as possible. You can deliberately develop good chemistry between two actors by causing them to acknowledge and respond to more of their partner's impulses. Whether there are only two people or an ensemble of two dozen, the impact of their impulses is visibly recognizable as chemistry. Because body impulses are visceral ideas, they create a physical connection as an unbroken flow of energy; where we see people with good chemistry we perceive a single physical entity.
This leads to an expanded definition of body. It seems to me that the most appropriate definition of "my body" is the physical matter which responds to my will. Sigmund Freud referred to the human being as a "prosthetic god"; that which our flesh is incapable of, we may accomplish by creating prostheses in tools, vehicles, and proxies. When I was visiting the San Diego Convention Center as an exhibitor in 1996, the loading dock buzzed with miniature forklift operators; I watched in awe as one of these men, manipulating a series of levers and knobs, positioned a metal plank with such deft precision that I would have sworn the fork's tines were his own two fingers. I sat in on a stage-combat rehearsal last semester and was amazed to see how-- after a series of presentations in which the actors swung dead metal objects at the ends of their arms-- one man picked up his weapons and his living limbs were suddenly that much longer. Your body extends beyond your flesh. Your body is whatever your will may act upon. If your body is already fully engaged, you can get more energy by kicking a chair. You can get more energy by connecting to your scene partner. You can get more energy by opening your body to connect to your environment and the impulses it naturally provides. Your body is as "big" or as "small" as you allow it to be.
This leads to a logical definition of stage presence. Stage presence is an advanced application of closure-- the same psychological effect which makes you see a rectangle when I type two brackets [ ]. If your body creates a visible relationship between itself and the space around it, then a viewer will be forced to perceive the space as part of your body, and you will seem "bigger". Once you recognize that this relationship exists, you can manipulate the size of your stage presence to whatever you wish it to be; in a scene where you are (for example) quietly nurturing a baby sparrow, you can maintain a "powerful presence" by asserting your body's relationship to the space around you. In a scene where your schemes are at last thwarted by the hero, you can shout and scream and bluster but physically fold in on yourself so you seem to become smaller and smaller. If you kick a chair and maintain your physical relationship to it as it clatters and tumbles, you become larger as its space is added to yours. But if, having kicked the chair, you disengage from it, then you are cut off from its space and will therefore appear smaller than you were before.
This definition of stage presence is logical, but it's still impractical. That is, I can define it, I can explain it, and I can use it-- but I can't teach it. I can't explain it any better than I have already done. I can demonstrate how to control stage presence with my own body, so that anyone can see what I mean, but I don't have any gimmicks or tricks or exercises which make these same strategies instantly comprehensible and accessible to anyone. It should be possible to teach stage presence, because we all do it; we instinctively create relationships between our bodies and the objects of our focus. A few semesters ago, one of my students brought his pet ferret into the classroom. Anyone looking at the scene would have been unavoidably drawn to the exact spot where that ferret sat, as every student's body was completely oriented to that point in space. I was able to apply this principle to a scene with some theater students-- rather than awkwardly reaching to look at a ring, they positioned their bodies to create a physical frame visibly centered upon the ring-- but so far, stage presence remains an elusive teaching concept. Either the students get it from this explanation, or they don't. Unlike my other strategies, I can't get them to experience it directly and immediately use that experience; I can only give them hints and clues and guide them toward a discovery. Good for the occasional exploration, but still not good for the classroom.
This is the reason I'd like to teach an advanced class. I've learned plenty about basic technique in the past semester, significantly advancing my understanding from the previous term, and I look forward to tackling it again next semester... but I wonder what would happen if I were working with a group of students who had already gone through this part of the process. What would we explore instead? This time around, in the early class, I have recruited three "ringers" (one in each show) with whom I've previously worked and who, therefore, understand the basic technique. I'm glad of their presence because they have been able to monitor and assist their castmates without my supervision, but that function has naturally prevented us from developing their own performances beyond the same basic technique. Given the stresses and challenges of the early morning slot, I have settled for that much. What could they accomplish if this process became a more complete curriculum? What does this develop into?
This week, I've seen the eventual results of the standard curriculum. Until this week, I didn't believe that the standard acting curriculum taught anything. Where a student tries to "make the scene good" instead of exploring technique, and a grade is ultimately decided by on-paper analysis rather than performance, I concluded that a student would finish a scene and learn nothing they could apply to their future performances. I was wrong. From this process, over time, a student learns how to make any scene "good".
That's what I saw displayed this weekend. I attended the department's production of Dating and Mating in Modern Times-- a series of twelve monologues presented by eleven women. I was told that the rehearsal process was essentially this: the actors were asked questions and told to respond "in character", so they would improvisationally create the characters' backstory while they became accustomed to the character's physical Shape. I was informed that, except for running the monologues, this had been the director's sole approach. As a "showcase" production, the director had cast both graduate and undergraduate students (usually, the grad students are favored exclusively), and the responses of each group to the same process were blatantly different.
All of the graduate performers, without exception, were programmed. One of my students applied this term and it seems to fit perfectly. The graduates had surely done their analyses; they must have "scored" their scripts with intentions and objectives and whatever else they'd been taught, and carefully considered how each little choice affected their speeches. Each sentence communicated exactly what it was supposed to mean; each inflection and each movement was specific and deliberate. Because the performers knew how to keep their focus and maintain a relatively high energy, each of their monologues was, without question, "well acted"-- but every sentence was spoken exactly as planned. Each monologue was a lively recitation, but within a plastic veneer that prevented them from being honest and real. The first two monologues were from graduate students, and I was so dissatisfied by them that I began to wonder if maybe my expectations were unrealistic and unreasonable. After all, the monologues were by women, about women, for women; maybe I just didn't relate. But then the first undergraduate came on, and I breathed my relief, because I saw that it wasn't just me (or just the men).
All of the undergraduates were real, and the effect on the audience was obvious. The undergraduates-- presumably less familiar with the process of "making scenes good"-- performed as they had rehearsed, allowing their Shapes to respond to the available impulses. And the audience, who had calmly sat back and appreciated the graduate students, leaned forward and engaged with each undergraduate. The graduate students, through their programmed actions and expressions, destroyed their access to the spontaneous and sincere reality enjoyed by the undergraduates; furthermore, by denying the natural impulses in their speeches and in the environment, their bodies were operating on an internal, contained and regulated energy which the audience could not share. If you weren't looking for this, you wouldn't have seen it. Each of the graduates' presentations was an effective and entertaining recitation, with all of them "well acted". There is certainly a place for this in the professional theater, as some directors value consistency over anything else, but the graduates' learned technique of internal "programming" kept the audience firmly at arm's length.
I was grateful to have seen this, because it gave me the foundation I needed to initiate a discussion with one of my students. I had been puzzling the entire week over what to do with this fellow. Of all the students in all three sections, this guy is perhaps the one with the most stage experience, and on occasion he has made sharply insightful directorial suggestions which, if I'd had more time, I would have wanted to explore more fully than a brief verbal encouragement. On the face of it, he seemed to have the most potential for success, but as late as this week-- despite his apparent comprehension of the "natural read"-- almost everything he did or said on stage was still forced and unnatural. My dilemma arose because he wasn't ruining anything for the other actors. From our rehearsals, he knew how to maintain the necessary pacing and energy, so nobody stumbled over him and he didn't drag anyone down; and even though he has three long speeches that can't be understood as he currently speaks them, the background actors were doing something interesting at that point which inadvertently made it seem that we weren't supposed to pay attention to him. His delivery might be plastic, but it was harmless, and the other performers were find enough in his delivery to effectively react and play off of him. If I did nothing at all, the show would still succeed... but he would stick out glaringly from the ensemble as the one "bad actor". I couldn't imagine that he would want that to happen, especially when he said in his bio that he wants to continue acting, but how could I broach the topic without damaging his morale or destroying the contribution he was already making? How could I ask him to improve without making him think he was doing a bad job?
Seeing Dating and Mating gave me the ammunition I needed. It helped me understand what he was doing, and gave me the perspective to frame the discussion as a warning rather than a criticism. What he had been doing was "programming" his performance (I'm employing a verbal twist here for the sake of brevity; once I explained the circumstance with a flood of words, it was he who boiled it down to the term "programming"). He acknowledged that he had been building himself in that direction from the start. Because he knew his castmates had so little stage experience, he didn't trust them to progress, so he developed his role and his performance apart from them. This, I assured him, is absolutely normal. Most amateur theater stinks, and most amateur performers will give you nothing to work with, so continued experience in the amateur theater will train you to perform despite your castmates instead of with them. But the "programming" process is crippling, as it cuts you off from your audience and limits your performance to what you're capable of planning for. I compared what he was doing to the Dating and Mating cast, and explained that this is where he could end up if he persisted in this direction. You've got everything you need internally, I urged, so now open up to the life around you. You've got so much potential-- why confine it? Why act in a box? Connect, relate, open. Add to what you've got and see where you go. If your castmates give you nothing, let your character assume they are boring people and fight to get a response from them. When your castmates don't respond naturally, let your character struggle to bring them into your reality. Include them as what they are, and the audience will be with you. Block them and you block the audience as well.
This conversation gave me a new perspective on his three longer speeches. I'd thought before that perhaps he was just speaking words, and tried some strategies to help him understand better what he was saying... but those strategies did not work. This time, I wondered if maybe he did know what he was saying, and his incomprehensibility was the probable effect of ignoring his castmates. This could definitely lead to meaningless delivery, because being understood depends on having a listener. So rather than try to drill into his monologues, as we'd done before, I advised him to use them to make me respond, and for a model I pointed out how I was "checking in" with him as I spoke. He tried this, and he naturally achieved most of what I'd been trying (and failing) to do with him before. The effectiveness of his objective suffered as a result of my not being the actor to whom he'd actually speak this, as my responses were not exactly those of a young girl-- but he succeeded in speaking to me openly instead of delivering the programmed lines. If he lets go of that programming, and lets himself naturally communicate, I dearly hope that should transform his performance from "harmless" to "effective".
I don't want to give anyone an excuse for failure. Not even myself. I'd almost forgotten how, at the beginning of this semester, I pressed into service scripts that I wasn't sure I was capable of directing. I was sure any experienced theater person would scoff: actors find these shows difficult, so how could I seriously expect non-actors to succeed? But I put those doubts out of my mind so firmly that I surprised myself by remembering them this week. In the morning session, we had two casts which were each missing one person; we tried running one of them, but with that missing piece the energy was stubbornly low and the pacing was considerably looser than it should have been. At its conclusion, I grimaced and acknowledged that we'd gotten through it, but at really only twenty percent of where we wanted it to be... at which point one of the performers, bursting with curiosity, asked the other cast (who'd been our audience) if they had any feedback. I liked it, was the response; I thought it was entertaining and fun. Not wanting to contradict, I had to explain-- I'm holding you to a professional standard. If this show isn't good enough for us to charge admission to someone who doesn't know you, then we're not there yet. These shows are actually very complicated, I admitted. They're hard! But I didn't tell you that because I knew you could do them, and now don't you dare cave in and say oh well, it was too much for me anyway. You're already doing it. And we'll still make it better.
I'm forced to admit that the shows don't have to be good. Reading my students' bios, I've been surprised to see how many of them have never been on stage before, or how many of them haven't acted since their primary years, and I know that their lack of experience is part of the everyone's expectations. The audience is expecting us to play the loser's game. They know they're watching non-actors, and they'll be adequately impressed just to see that everyone remembers their lines. "If a dog talks, one is amazed that it does it at all, not that it does it well." I didn't have to push any of my students to do anything more than saying lines and they could've been fooled into thinking that was the most they could expect. I had to acknowledge this when I saw a student-directed production this weekend, and it can be summed thusly: a 25-minute one-act was performed in 50 minutes. But the audience, whatever their specific complaints might have been, clapped with honest enthusiasm for the effort of all the actors and crew. This show, I had to admit, is what we're being compared to. These performers were selected by an audition process, and are for the most part theater majors, had more hours of rehearsal than we've enjoyed, and this is what they've done. As randomly-selected non-actors, nobody expects anything better from us. However, I don't accept that as a reason to allow failure.
I won't give up on anyone. I will never say to myself "oh well, that's the best they can do" and stop trying, because I know that anyone is capable of an excellent performance provided they actually want to. The catch, such as it is a catch, is that I have a very specific idea of what constitutes an "excellent performance": a base of honest, natural communication, layered over with the circumstances of the play. I have been repeatedly reminded, this semester, of how critical it is to establish and maintain that base of communication. Each time I (or they) have tried to layer anything without first conquering the basic mechanics of the conversation, it has become fake and weird and confusing and we've had to completely strip away whatever we were trying to add and return to the basic mechanics before we could proceed. C.S. Lewis said it well in his preface to The Great Divorce:
I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A wrong sum still can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot "develop" into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit... if we insist on keeping Hell we shall not see Heaven.
This is what we did on Monday when I was rehearsing with two of the afternoon girls. I had scheduled time with them individually because what they were doing was not working at all. One of them was the same girl who had so potently flipped off the taxicab earlier in the semester, so I knew she had the power her role required, but in each rehearsal her body was persistently weak. She kept retreating into corners with a crumpled stance, peevishly whining her lines. As we began the Monday session, I told them flat out that I'd made a mistake by giving them so much to do and think about. You already have everything you need, and all I've been doing is getting in the way of that. So throw away all of my stuff, I said, and let's hear the lines. They did this, and I was relieved that it did sound natural and unforced (if dull).
Step by step, we fixed it up. First let's add one thing, I said, turning to the girl who had been whining. I tried one of Keith Johnstone's tricks: play "high status", I said. Whatever that means to you, do it, and let's see what happens. And sure enough-- pow. The whining disappeared immediately, and her bent-legged posture was replaced by that same brick wall I'd seen on the imaginary New York street. But something was still off, and I asked them to try again so we could find our what it was; very quickly I stopped them, gestured to the other girl, and said "Very simple! Receive the impulses." Because until now her partner had been whining and weak, this girl hadn't noticed the stronger impulses now being generated by the sturdier body. A third run revealed that, also in response to the whining, she had gotten into the habit of diffusing her own impulses instead of delivering them, so we changed that. A fourth iteration found a few occasions where she was actively preventing impulses from entering her body; I could see how her body was physically keeping these specific impulses about two feet away. I assured her that this would be how she could successfully "not listen" on stage, but asked her for the sake of this performance to let every impulse in for maximum effect. Which she did. And then we had all the dynamics we needed, and the conversation was active and energetic where before it had been dull and listless. But it still wasn't interesting. This is where I took a deep breath and proceeded to attack the objective. We're not telling the story, I said. We need the objective.
The deep breath was for two reasons. For one, my theory of the relationship between objective and event was still only a theory; although a few of the other shows were telling their story, I hadn't done any explicit work with them on their objectives. Their success could have been accounted for by other unknown and unnameable factors, so I didn't know for sure that the objective was the best thing to try here. For another, I was unsure that the taxi girl understood her character's story well enough to know what her objective could be anyway; I remembered trying to discuss it before, and what I principally remembered of those discussions was her confusion. Still, with all the mechanics in place, the next step had to be the analysis. First I asked her to tell me her version, then I volunteered my version; as we seemed to agree, I asked her for a potential objective, and I was startled when she immediately suggested a strong and appropriate objective. Let's try it, I said. And click. The scene came to life... up to a point where it came apart, but then I was able to make a quick suggestion in the context of her new understanding, and snap the entire scene not only had energy and purpose, but they began finding humor and fun where I hadn't even known it was supposed to be funny! We tried their second scene and almost immediately wrestled it into shape.
Building on our success, the taxi girl asked me about the play's final scene. It doesn't make sense compared to what we've just done, she said, and she proceeded to explain to me what would make sense instead. I had to agree that yes, what she had in mind was definitely a better ending than what we'd tried before. She nodded triumphantly and, with a little further discussion, convinced me that she had known her story perfectly well, but had been deliberately not performing what she had interpreted because she was trying to do instead what she thought I wanted!
Her statement underscores and validates the point I made early on: if an actor is doing the "wrong" thing, it's because they don't understand their purpose in that scene. Fix the understanding, and you fix the scene. The experience of these two girls, as they turned a weak, lame scene into something energetic and funny, offers a clear example of the fact that they have what they need without my meddling. I coached them to use their natural communication skills, I prompted them to give me useful objectives, and I helped them make specific choices about how to use their skills and their objectives-- and I took away all of my instructions. I took away all my impositions, so all that was left was their natural selves and their own understanding of the show. Ironically, of course, the less I tell them what to do, the more they give me what I want, but it took some confidence and not a little courage for me to reject the "work" I'd done and to trust the natural talents of these two young ladies.
Nobody wants to make an ass of themselves. Everyone wants to do a good job. If you accept Keith Johnstone's assertion that people are not untalented but phobic (which I do), then an important consequence is that when you see a bad performance, you can't assume that the actor is doing the best they can. You have to believe that they are doing the best they know how. Any shortcoming is to be blamed on the approach, or on the technique. Never the performer.
A few weeks ago, I dropped in on a rehearsal of Hamlet. They were in their last week of dress rehearsals, and I arrived at the closing fight scene. As Laertes lay dying in Hamlet's arms, my attention was drawn to one of the guards in the background, who was gawking and gasping with wildly exaggerated facial expressions. At one point this actor even clapped his hand to the top of his head like he was in a Keystone Kops movie. I could hardly believe what I was seeing; how could he possibly think this was appropriate? The next day, I saw him rehearsing an earlier scene talking to Hamlet about the Ghost, and he was quivering with blatantly feigned terror. Because this actor's ridiculous responses had survived this late into the rehearsal process, I reasoned that the director must have decided to ignore him, but I knew the fellow and I wanted to protect him from looking like a fool.
As they were preparing their final dress rehearsal (the next day following) I sought him out in the dressing room. I first informed him that I had an opinion to offer that was outside any preparation he or the director had done, and I would only volunteer it with his consent to listen. He allowed me to speak, and I proceeded to tell him what I'd seen. Your energy, your connection to the scenes, your responsiveness are all top-notch, I said, and the way you're responding would work extremely well for a farcical comedy; but you aren't in one of those. You're in a classical tragedy. Before I could go any further, his eyes lit up and he said yes, you're right! When I've played background characters before, he said, it's always been in a musical... so let's see now, how could I change that for a tragedy? I suggested simply that tragedy was more about contained, controlled energy and finer shades of expression, and I left him as he practiced new ways of narrowing his eyes. I wasn't sure whether he'd take my brief and hurried advice, or if it would merely transform into something different but equally inappropriate; however, when I saw the performance, I was relieved to see that he had completely changed his style. He was focusing his energy into specific channels rather than blasting it everywhere; where he had been broad and comic he was now intense and serious. I was doubly gratified when, after the performance, I overheard an audience member specifically praising his work.
Many people find it difficult to give constructive criticism to an actor. Despite best intentions, an actor often receives criticism as a personal attack. This example from Hamlet helps illustrate and clarify a formula for offering criticism that creates enthusiasm instead of discouragement or resentment.
1. Respect the actor's work.
2. Respect the actor's ability.
3. Acknowledge what they were trying to do.
4. Describe an alternative or
5. Express your opinion of why their choice doesn't work.
I put these in order of greatest to least importance. It's easy to respect the an actor's ability-- almost reflexive-- once you accept that everyone is inherently talented and capable. It's harder to respect their work-- almost impossible-- if you don't understand what they were trying to do. Whether or not you like what they're doing, they are nonetheless doing what they believe is right, and they're doing it as well as they know how. Sometimes they'll turn to you and say "okay, that was horrible, what do I do to fix it?" but you can't help them, and you can't even agree with them that it was "horrible", unless you know what they were trying to do. If you disparage any actor's best effort, they will naturally resist and resent you, despite their having apparently given you license to condemn their work. Don't be fooled if they say flat-out that their work stinks. They were, nonetheless, doing what they thought was best, and they will keep doing it, especially if they don't understand what they were doing. If they were operating "on instinct" without any technique, then they will continue to pursue the same failing strategies, trying to incorporate your suggestions into their existing attempts, because they don't know how not to.
Both you and the actor need to understand what he or she is trying to do. The actor needs to understand so they can know why your suggestion is an alternative and determine how to abandon the ineffective strategy. You need to understand because otherwise you will not be able to show your respect for their work. I made this mistake repeatedly in my first two years here, and unfortunately developed a reputation as a harsh critic; fortunately I have produced the results to show that I know what I'm talking about, but I was both flattered and concerned when one of the performers in Dating and Mating, with whom I have barely a passing acquaintance, said to me after the show "I saw you in the front row and thought oh gosh, now I'm intimidated!" But it's not up to me to tell a performer whether their work is good or bad. I can show them an alternative and let them decide what they want to do; that can help them as a performer. I place opinion at the bottom of the list because my opinion provides no useful benefit. All my opinion can accomplish is to change their morale... or their respect for me.
Seeing Hamlet in performance, I didn't understand what they were doing. When asked my opinion, that was my answer: I was confused. Each of the actors was playing a completely different style. Hamlet and Claudius were modern; the Ghost was playing melodrama; Gertrude and Rosencrantz were classical; Guildenstern was Off-Broadway; Polonius and Osric were in a farce; Ophelia and Marcellus stuck to straight drama; the gravedigger was lightly comical; Laertes was in over his head. There were others, all in their own worlds, which created a strange patchwork. I freely admitted that I didn't care for the mix, and I would have preferred to see everyone in the classical style, especially as I had felt the Queen's performance to be particularly effective and I lamented it as unmatched by the rest-- so in confessing my opinion of the show I would say in the same breath that I really wanted to know the process they went through and how they got there, because I just didn't get it. A conversation with Horatio explained it: everyone had (to use his words) accomplished a "personal exploration" through their role. Whether deliberate or not, the director had given them the freedom to do this, and so they did, and I can imagine that this is entirely appropriate for academic theater. How curious it was, though, to see the show as a mixing of styles! One of the textbooks in my graduate sequence, Acting With Style, claims that "style is knowing what kind of play you are in," which is an amusing but incomplete definition, because it omits how you can know what kind of play you're in.
I currently understand style as the circumstances of a play. Not the circumstances within the play's story, but the circumstances within which the story is effectively performed. In my second semester here, my classmates and I were attempting to perform Greek scenes, but our class was held in a tiny black-box theater. The instructor urged us to "be presentational" and "use large upward gestures" and to hyperexaggerate each word; we would do as he asked, but we felt like jackasses; we thought to ourselves, no wonder this style is long dead. But one day we were brought into the basketball stadium, where we stood looking up at thousands and thousands of empty seats. When we launched into our monologues, you can imagine exactly what happened: we became presentational, using large upward gestures, and we hyperexaggerated each word, so that our sounds and actions would carry and be understood in this cavernous arena. The circumstances forced the style, not the other way around. As we proceeded through other styles-- historic and genre-- I gradually came to discover that style begins with the logistical demands of a performance space, and then it includes the psychological demands of a script. The physical and psychological conditions which create the most effective show: that's style. That's how you know what kind of a play you're in. You can play a farcical script as a tragedy, or a romantic script as a dramatic thriller, but you'll get a better performance from any script if you play the style for which it was intended.
Fortunately, with my students, the only styles I have to worry about are different types of comedy. The physical conditions are the same-- a small, 80-seat black-box-- so I only have to consider the psychological conditions. And, with these or any style, by "psychological conditions" I mean only one question: how are the impulses to be handled?
I'm fairly certain that the impulse transaction is what distinguishes drama from comedy. A received impulse is a received impulse, no matter what, but comedy seems to place greater importance on how impulses are returned, while drama seems to find itself in how impulses are processed. I had previously thought that drama would always be more slower-paced than comedy because of time needed to process each impulse, but you can flip a fast-paced scene between dramatic and comic by shifting the emphasis of each impulse transaction. That is, comedy lives in the reaction to an impulse, while drama lives in its effect. Think of a fast-paced, heated argument. As long as the actors' reactions stay on the surface level, swatting back and forth like a ping-pong ball, it's funny-- but as soon as the impulses begin to penetrate it becomes dramatic. An impulse can penetrate and still stay comical if it causes a funny reaction; an impulse can be immediately returned and still stay dramatic if its return is a deliberate (if unconscious) extension of how it was processed.
I'm sure that this is an oversimplification, but for my purposes it seems to be a worthwhile guiding principle.
So.. am I teaching anyone anything? I don't think I'm being disingenuous if I say that all I'm doing is directing some one-acts. In the process, I have to show people how to apply the skills they already have; I suppose you could say that I am "teaching" them how to do that, but they're the ones that are actually doing it. I don't show them anything new; I make them aware of what already exists and let them apply it.
But if I am going to evaluate our efforts, and determine whether or not the students are getting better at acting, how can I do that? There is "no management without measurement", but if there is no syllabus and therefore no stated criteria for success or failure, what can I measure? As I found out from that one failed rehearsal, trying to drill into the scenes themselves is definitely the wrong way to go, because that turns focus wrongly onto the analysis instead of the performance. Although I can assess whether they're speaking and behaving naturally, that's not something you "get better at". Either you do it or you don't, and once you're aware of the difference you'll notice when you don't. Sometimes you hit it, and sometimes you miss it, and the ratio increases with practice. It's impossible to think that I would know how to determine any individual's natural rate of progress, much less figure out whether they're measuring up to themselves. I can't really use the show itself as a measure, either, because each show is drastically different and will succeed for completely different reasons. In short, despite my wanting to make these the best shows they can do, there are too many factors for me to think the "quality" of their work is a reflection of what they may have learned. No-- instead, the answer is in the work itself.
The salient question: Do they have the confidence, and have they gained the competence, to work together without me? My own words return to haunt me ("rehearsing without a director is ludicrous") but given that they must rehearse without a director, I've been able to check the difference in what they bring back to their sessions with me. The difference I'm looking for is not-- I can't emphasize this strongly enough-- to see if what they're doing is "better". The difference is this: are they showing me what they know they've achieved, or are they showing me something they hope I'll approve? It tends to follow that if they know what they're doing, the scenes will get "better", but it's essential to recognize that the performer's confidence is key. The quality of the scene is a result of their confidence; and, no matter what the task, to get different results you have to change the cause. It's my job to make it possible for the actors to work productively, to make the task self-evident so they can pursue improvement and recognize success when they see it.
No show exemplifies this more clearly than the one I mentioned last October 29. On that day, we managed to get through 3 of the show's 22 beats, but then I wasn't able to touch the blocking again until mid-November. When we convened for that rehearsal, I had given us three hours-- it took the place of the week's regular sessions-- and I fully expected that we'd be lucky to struggle to the end of the show. I was stunned and amazed when instead, after I prompted them to "show me what we have now," they proceeded to run through the entire thing and it all worked. We had to clarify a few things, of course, and fix a few problems, but they hadn't needed my judgment to know that what they'd created was the right thing to do. They just did it.
As we head now into the final week of rehearsals, there are two shows that I am deliberately leaving alone. They've got what they need, they know what they're doing, and I suspect that at this point it's most valuable for them to explore on their own. There are two shows that I'm paying extra attention to because they are the most technically demanding, and I expect mainly to help them release their attention to technique and start telling the story. All the other shows have one or two scenes that still need polishing, but I feel confident that by the end of the week every one of these productions will be ready for an audience.
It's an unfortunate but logical irony that the busier I am with the shows, the less time I have to write about them. Well, there's only one more day to go before we actually start performing, and only three more days before we're actually done performing, so if I'm going to get any pre-show thoughts recorded now's the time to do it. Many of the actors seem to be champing at the bit; last Friday, in the morning class, while I worked with one show the other two decided to rehearse by performing theirs for each other!
All of the shows are now "ready to go". Although, as I watch them, I can't help but see how much further these performers could take it and how much more could be discovered, the bottom line is that all of these shows are now ready to be presented without excuses. There are a couple shows which still have one or two significant steps to take-- such as adding objectives, or pulling together the pacing of this or that scene-- but in every case nobody needs to be shown what to do or how to do it. They just need to do it.
If I have any further comments I had better give them during the day during our last class-time rehearsals. Come the evening, despite its being a final dress rehearsal, I'm going to do my best to say as little as possible to the performers about their shows. The only thing I'd need to change would be something that made the show unwatchable, and I think we've managed to hammer all of those away; the only things I'd want to change would be little twips and twiddles which, by virtue of their being overspecific, would probably cause the actors to get distracted during the performance as they tried to hit those new bits that I'd introduced. So it's better to say nothing.
That's not just theory. Last semester, with the one-act that I directed for my directing class, I was dismayed that in their first of two performances the actors were clearly trying to do the play "correctly" according to what they thought I had told them. I resisted every urge to tell them what to do; I figured that if I tried to fix anything, then the following night they'd be trying to do that instead of performing. The following night, they threw away their inhibitions and made it work. Also, with my students' one-acts, the first day was full of what could only be described as shyness; this was the first time they'd ever tried performing these in front of actual people, and they weren't sure it would actually work! The second day, they had the extra confidence to say "yes, we can do this," and it showed. I'm confident that my students, this semester, know what they're doing-- but they'll just have to get past the surprise of the audience being there. Because there are 50 classmates who will be watching them on opening night (a hefty crowd for that little black-box theater), I'm hoping that Monday night will become the "can we?" night and fill them with confidence for the two performances.
My students have good reason to be confident already. The question on everyone's minds isn't if the shows will "work", but how well they'll work. Because they learned the lines as early as they did, the shows have had the chance to grow. Because we began with an understanding of impulse and energy, everyone was able to build and discover naturally, instead of forcing what they felt should be. I've seen plenty of productions where, right into the final dress rehearsal, everyone had essentially given up on doing a good show and was instead hoping that the energy kick from an opening night crowd would make it work. These actors know that the audience is the recipient of the energy they create, and not the other way around, and they've been doing a marvelous job making sure that they've got their act together before that opening curtain.
What if we had another semester, or even another two weeks, to work on these shows? I don't believe that this process could have been shortened. Every one of these shows has been developing gradually and consistently over the course of the semester; where I'm seeing great strides forward this week, it's because of the foundation that we have built over the past few months, not because of the deadline looming over the next two days. If we were to continue working on these shows, I can easily see how we would progress. With everything they create, they show me additional potential which I work to help them realize. And because they're using impulse in natural conversation, it's shockingly easy for us to do. That's where the forward leaps are coming from.
This happened in the early class. Two of the actors begin the show by having an argument, and the argument was fairly tame. We only had a few minutes left, so I said to one of the two that the harder she made it for her partner, the easier the scene would be. So first, make yourself more driven in your objective. We ran it; she did it. Next, I said, make sure you aren't letting him convince you yet. We ran it; she did it-- and did it so well that it looked like she'd thrown up a stone wall between them. This gave me the idea for the next suggestion. I told her, we need to do this without your detaching from him; I have the image of one of those castle walls with the archer's slit in it so they can attack without being hit. Does that make sense to you? She grinned and said that made sense. We ran the scene. She did it. The scene worked better than ever. All this in just five minutes.
To put it another way, I think we've passed a tipping point. Up until now, I've had to focus my attentions on the weakest areas of each show to make sure that they became performance-ready. The better a performer was doing, the less attention they'd get from me. Now that I'm not looking for glaring flaws, I begin to see where the stronger performers could be further strengthened, and where there are further opportunities they could take advantage of, and I get to help them explore.
My two greatest enemies are bad habits and fear. The more amateur stage time an actor has had, the more likely it is that they'll have learned to "program" their performance, and the more time they'll need from me to show them what they are doing, why they don't want to do that, and how to trust the natural reading as an alternative. But where that is purely a matter of time and repetition, fear is a worse enemy because there's no telling what causes it. As with anything, if you can't determine the cause, you can never change; you can only manage results. You have to know what kind of effort will get you the results you want.
A number of years ago I drove across the country for my holiday vacation. Around two in the morning, one of my tires blew out on a stretch of Louisiana interstate, near the swamps, where there were no streetlamps, no nearby exits, no phone signal, and no other traffic. I had a spare, but I saw that the bolts I needed to remove were underneath a metal cap, and while my traveling companion held the flashlight I struggled to unscrew the cap. It wouldn't come loose. I found it very difficult to turn, but I kept trying. I twisted and grunted until my palm began to blister from the friction. Two hours later, after various attempts interrupted by frustrated pauses, the cap seemed to have lifted slightly away from the tire, perhaps a millimeter or two, but my hands were dirty and bloody and chafed with pain. Finally, a tow truck drove by and its driver jumped out. He took one look at my tire, retrieved a crowbar from his truck, knelt down next to the cap and BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! With three solid blows, the cap popped off neatly. There was no threading. It could never have been "unscrewed".
There are a couple of my students who, although delivering an adequate performance, are allowing only a fraction of their potential because they are hiding in a shell of fear. I've spent sessions with each of them working on impulses, delivery, energy, objectives, or whatever else, and even though we get results I have the distinct impression that we are merely pulling chips and flakes off of the shell. We're twisting a cap that has no threading; we might move it a millimeter or two but the process is painful and pointless. Somehow that shell has to be shattered. I know they can shrug it off occasionally; I've seen it in class. But can they trust themselves in performance? What will it take? This I don't know, but I will ask them and see what we can do.
While a cast was running their show, I accidentally tripped over a chair. I caught myself quickly, but felt that I still had the momentum to complete the fall. Since it seemed I could do this safely I decided to take the tumble-- partly because I enjoy pratfalls, but also because I was curious about whether or not my distraction would make the actors break character. I maneuvered myself to the floor and let the chair clatter in my wake.
This did make everyone laugh, but after the initial distraction (and evidence that I wasn't harmed) they drew that energy right into their performance and soldiered on. I was delighted, and at the conclusion of the run-through I told them how I'd allowed myself to fall to see if they'd break. I was surprised, and somewhat taken aback, when instead of congratulating themselves they looked at me blankly. It seemed odd to me-- that I would have to explain why they should be proud of themselves-- when suddenly I realized what I had done. I had tested their concentration for no reason than my own curiosity. It was easy then to interpret the blank looks as disbelief at my betrayal; how could I have shown such little trust in them as to trick them into proving something to me? If they're going to be proud of what they're doing, they're going to establish their own measures; following my criteria transforms the play from our collaborative effort into my project alone instead of theirs. Fortunately, after a moment of confused silence, one of the cast members volunteered, "nice cover, Chris," and we could laugh that I had invented this cover story to avoid looking foolish for having fallen down. I dropped the matter immediately and resolved never to test anybody again.
Nonetheless, it was marvelous to see them integrate an unexpected impulse into their performance. Every so often I have to remind an actor to use the impulses they're given, especially if they're unexpected. Occasionally an actor is uncertain and thinks that discovering an unexpected impulse (such as bursting out laughing in the middle of an argument) means that they've screwed up, but more frequently an actor with some amateur stage experience will think that by following an unexpected impulse their stage partner is doing something wrong. The other night, in a two-person scene with totally natural blocking, one of the two plopped herself down directly upstage of the second actor. The second actor obligingly faced directly upstage, but she had been told before that this was "wrong", and I saw her growing increasingly uncomfortable. Finally she broke character to tell the other actor to get out from behind her. After the play was done, the second actor drew attention to this moment and started to explain to the first actor how you're never supposed to upstage somebody like that; but I interrupted to point out that, with our natural blocking, that's where the impulse took her so that's exactly where she should have been. And how splendid that it should, because it caused you to feel a real and powerful impulse! I saw how the impulse affected you, literally fighting to get out of your body; you could have used it to move to the other side of the stage, or to find a different vertical level, or even to push her away from behind you. Instead, you threw it away and lost the opportunity. If you get something real, something strong like that, use it!
I deliberately took the risk of making it sound like she'd made a mistake-- "you threw it away"-- because she was unnecessarily playing high status to the other actor. I believed she had the confidence to feel that I wasn't tearing her down but making a constructive comment on her work, and smart enough to grasp my blatant implication that she mustn't blame the other actor but instead respond in character to get what she needs.
In any case, this semester I have discovered the value and power of playing low status. If Dale Carnegie had read Impro's chapter on status, then How to Win Friends and Influence People would be markedly different. Status awareness is critical, and the status of the teacher or director must be low. At its most basic level, playing low status means trusting a student's ability to understand and achieve what is necessary. Playing high status is most likely to cause a student to follow your directions instead of using their natural intelligence. My assistant director discovered this for himself in his first attempt at directing a dinner-table conversation (without my guidance or interference). The first session, despite his sincere desire to help the actors, he had assumed that he was going to tell them what to do; the session was thoroughly unsuccessful. He began the second round with an apology, assuring them that they did know what to do and he was just there to provide coaching and guidance where necessary; at the end of the hour he came to me with the gleeful announcement "We have a show! This is going to work!" I don't believe that high status is conducive to collaboration, whether or not the asserted high status is accepted by those involved. Playing low status, you can support others' decisions and assume responsibility and blame for failures; playing high status, you block out others' contributions (or filter them so that they become yours instead) and assign responsibility and blame for failures. If there's a way to make that work, I don't think I want to know it, because I can't imagine it being anything but difficult.
As a director, perhaps the most important reason to play low status is that an actor can't use something that doesn't make sense to them. If you tell them to do something (high status) they may try it-- but if it works then it's because you told them to, not necessarily because they understand what they did, and there's an even chance that what you asked for won't be there the next time around. If you ask them to try something (low status), then you give them a chance to decide if they will and thereby evaluate why they would. In the same rehearsal where I fell down, one of the performers had done a splendid job of finding silly actions, but I noticed that her enthusiasm for these actions had begun to wane. On a hunch, prior to the run-through I'd recommended to her that she find all of her actions in the available impulses; when she reached her silliest scene it changed, and even though the new actions worked well I could see her surprise at what was happening. Afterwards I took the opportunity to point out how, if you want to do the same actions in each performance, all you have to do is find the impulses that make those actions happen and collect the impulses; but I wouldn't have had the opportunity if the actor hadn't allowed herself to make that exploration for her own sake, instead of abandoning what she'd had to do what she'd been told.
I certainly don't want to overlook that she knew exactly what I meant by finding her actions from the impulses, and was furthermore able to do it! I continue to appreciate the fact that the actors, practicing on their own, are able to improve. My dance class is winding down, and in our final project I am amused (if disappointed) to know that the only thing required of us is to remember the moves we've choreographed for ourselves. Today, we met for about fifteen minutes just to make sure that we hadn't forgotten them; nobody mentioned anything about making it "better" because, naturally, nobody would've known what made the difference. When my students work on their own, I try to make sure they know what they're doing and how to check themselves.
Tomorrow we have our final "polishing" rehearsals during the day, and then the evening brings our first performance! I haven't been this excited about opening a show for quite a long while.
I'll have more to say myself, soon, but for now here are a selection of student comments about the semester's experience.
Looks like we did it again.
This semester was a success. We succeeded with the process and the product. The students' experience of exploration and discovery led to the their enjoyment of the art and the audience's enjoyment of the shows. Although the late addition of the early class proved to be a bit of a boggle-- my mishandling of its dynamics led to a severely abbreviated process for its four one-acts, and ten shows together is a very long night no matter how enthusiastic the audience-- it turned out for the best for all of us. On both evenings the audience was wonderfully, marvelously engaged and responsive, and on the second night the house was jammed beyond its capacity. Friends, family, classmates, roommates, and significant others crowded in to enjoy the show; some had traveled hours just to be there. How we managed to get everyone in, especially with no actual house manager, remains a mystery.
What made it work is that everyone cared. Everyone wanted to do well. Normally, students look forward to their class performances with the eagerness of the proverbial root canal; all they want is to get it over with as quickly as possible so they don't have to do it again. But the attitude of these performers is exemplified in this comment, which is all the more significant for having come from the early-morning section.
The audience was receptive to what was going on and to see the story we were trying to convey click in their minds and I was shocked to find that I just appreciated that so much. I don't remember wanting so bad to make something GOOD.
I did have some reason to worry about our success. During the performance nights, I began to feel badly for the early-morning shows. Each of the four shows from that section evidenced at least one significant flaw which I feared would make it difficult for the audience to appreciate the actors' work. However, I was relieved when I saw their classmates' responses (their final assignment was to write a mini-review of the other shows). Partly, I had underestimated the generosity of the audience; they were willing to accept the flaws and appreciate the good part of the work. Although this wasn't ideal-- I didn't want any of the shows to require excuses-- in reflection I had to acknowledge that if any of the other six shows had been presented two or three weeks prior, they would have been at roughly the same stage of development, and shown the same kinds of flaws. The shortened process of the early morning was demonstrating itself in the final performance; but fortunately, despite their flaws, the shows were still better than average and the audiences still seemed to appreciate them.
What was even more exciting is that, in their mini-reviews, people identified the flaws. I was pleased and impressed that if someone didn't like the acting, they were able to articulate why and what they would have done to change it. They used the language that I'd introduced-- not because they knew that these buzzwords would get them an A, but because these concepts had become part of their understanding of theater. Low energy. Dropped impulses. Weak objectives. No relationship. Reading this was doubly refreshing because the writer knew that an actor could have done better, and (perhaps more importantly) the writer knew what they would have done to fix the problem... or even to perform it themselves!
I didn't videotape the performances, and I feel that was the right decision. Amateur videotapes of live performances never live up to the original experience, and for this reason alone I suspected that a videotape would be an inadequate document. Now that I've seen one student's recording of their show from the first night, I'm sure of it. Granted, the second night was superior to the first night-- just like last semester, the first night was "can we do this?" and the second "yes we can!"-- but even if we had videotaped the better performance, what's totally missing from the videotape is the physical energy of a live performance. You can't feel the audience; you can't feel the intimacy of the space; you can't feel the connection between performer and viewer. On the second night, the audience was so engaged with the fourth show that, when one character insulted another, they spontaneously shouted "ooooOOOOoooo!"... if you had been there that night, you would have too; you would've felt it was inevitable. Watching a videotape, though, you'd merely notice after the fact that the audience had reacted. Furthermore, I was dismayed to realize that when you're watching a live performance, you feel and follow the impulse, but when you're watching the screen you watch whatever happens to catch your eye. Without a video editor to help direct your attention, without the live energy to stimulate you, it gets pretty boring pretty quickly. I still don't know this for sure, because there was no videotaping on the second night, but it seems likely.
I still have some leftover topics to write about which I'll probably tackle after I write final assessments and afterthoughts for the students. For now, though, the verdict is in: success. Congratulations to everyone.