On Directing A Lie of the Mind by Sam Shepherd
Liz Carlin Metz, Professor of Theatre, Knox College/Artistic Director, Vitalist Theatre (Chicago)
After the Performance Educators Conference on Physical Theatre
Though I have long integrated physical theatre in my approach to directing in both academia and my professional work, there is always more to consider and more to learn. The workshops with DAH Teatar and the discussions at the conference could not have been better timed, as I was inspired to take my academic directing to physical theatre levels that heretofore I had really only pursued in my professional directing. Moreover, I was encouraged to teach the classroom more like a workshop and to use work from the classroom in the rehearsal process in ways that I previously had not. The physical work that constituted the rehearsal process was intended to develop the actors toward visceral performances of intensely emotional and volatile people. (While the 1980s may have reflected Regan and a desire to return to the 1950s, the people who populate Shepherd's plays are rarely those who would be found in June and Ward's idyllic home.) Additionally, my analysis of the play concluded that Shepherd's writing is less based in cause and effect realism than in expressionism. I was reminded of a phrase I had heard Polly Teale, associate director of Shared Experience, the highly acclaimed British devising company, say of the goal of their expressionistic performance approach, "To manifest the emotions that are usually repressed in civil society." The characters of this play are not civil. The story may be cause and effect, but the behavior of the characters is not necessarily so. This encouraged me to take the process into physical theatre where the actors could improvise with emotional and action transformation rather than only analyze the through-line of the objective/obstacle. We did not completely eschew objective and obstacle, but we violated those precepts continually just as human beings continually self-sabotage or engage self-destructive behavior. The goal was to have the actors focus on reacting rather than focused on imposing the character's will—the writing allows the characters to impose will very forcefully and obviously, as each is so clearly single-minded. In fact, to labor that element would risk tipping into melodrama—the lightening fast tactic changes of the characters demanded dynamic transformation and the ability to do so on a dime.
The Physical Space:
The set for this play typically calls for three parallel spaces read left to right on the stage to depict the Montana home of Beth's family, a center space for the hospital or exterior scenes, and the California home of Jake's family. The point of the original set was to heighten the sense of alienation and isolation of the people who share the meta-space (of the stage i.e. culture). I decided, though, that because we would be heightening the acting style through physical theatre, I wanted to bring the physical world into greater visibility and activate the negative space in scenes as much as possible. I also wanted the actors to experience the challenge of creating work in silence that could be as dynamic as the moments of text. We chose to compress the three playing spaces into one space using simultaneous staging in order to achieve the activated negative space and so that the production might find even greater poignancy in the play's central themes. The vision of two people sitting on the same couch, though in their respective worlds they are seated on very different couches in very different parts of the country, might in fact cause the sense of isolation and alienation to become even sharper. The set designer, Professor Craig Choma, and I determined that there would be a couch, a large armchair, and a kid's rock maple twin bed, but the placement of these would come from the rehearsal process. A large open, raked space with a defined floor resolving into several fragmented, overlapping platforms thrusting out into the audience was be the extent of the physical space. This would provide the freedom to develop the staging without worrying about walls, doors, windows, set changes, etc. The only other scenic elements were dozens of suitcases, trunks, and boxes cluttering the playing space providing obstacles and seating spaces and a filmed scene played on the cyc depicting Jake's vision of Beth. The cast would spend most of the time on the stage either in the primary playing area perched within the space or on the perimeter when not framed by the immediate action. For example, once Jake was taken home by Lorraine, he remained in his bed until he left to go find Beth—this framed him as "absent but present" in multiple other scenes in which he is a topic including the hospital scenes wherein Beth's family cope with the nearly fatal beating inflicted by Jake on Beth, his wife, and scenes at the Montana home in which she yearns for him. The bed continued to be used as an element in those scenes—in the hospital, Beth's brother, Mike, perambulated Beth in a wheelchair around the bed and sat on the bed to talk to Beth, and in the Montana home, the men laid their guns on the bed and played across it, all while Jake continued to lie in the bed. In another instance, Mike's growing alienation from his family and loss of identity was emphasized as he sat on the couch ostensibly in the hospital waiting area, but remained on the couch as his parents took his sister home, where there is "another" couch, which they then sat upon ignoring his presence (and, in effect, his absence).
The Rehearsal Process: Read Through
The rehearsal process began with a read-through in which actors read roles other than those in which they had been cast. The goal of this technique is to hear and respond tothe entire play instead of submerge oneself into one's character arc. Additionally, it diminishes the temptation to "act" at a juncture in the process in which very little is known or understood about that which is to be acted. From this read-through, we extracted in the form of single words associations to themes, behavior, characters, action etc. These words were written on large sheets of paper and taped around the space, as well as maintained in rehearsal notes that nightly were sent to the entire production company. The goal in this process was to extract themes and responses without delving into analysis and intellectualizing about them, so that the abstraction of the ideas would be free to resonate with the actors as they moved into the physical work. Of course, outside of rehearsal, the actors and I all engaged in research and shared much of that over email, but we did not allow it to become the subject of rehearsal. One of the challenges that the actors had to resolve included bringing the roles into the 21st century and being accountable for how a modern audience reads behavior through the lenses of research and popularized information on cycles of abuse, definitions of masculinity, post second wave feminism, post Viet Nam nationalism, post Reganism, and current perceptions of physical and emotional violence.
Focused Ensemble Building:
We began with physical work designed to build ensemble. Many of these exercises are familiar to most acting teachers—variations on work that include moving through space, falling and catching one another, improvising off of one another's body, and creating a safe and supportive environment in which to take risks. The one permutation that I added to these preliminary exercises was to frame the last half of the nightly work in concepts that we had extracted from the read through, so that the actors might allow those concepts to reverberate within their bodies and prompt them to initiate and respond to action from those concepts without analyzing them intellectually. The stage management team took careful notes on this process, which I reviewed and reserved to bring back later in the process, once the actors moved to text, in order to keep the eventual work grounded in this work.
Techniques: Viewpoints, Contact Improv, The Conduit, Lecoq, and a Little Neuroscience
From ensemble exercises, we moved into technique exercises that included Viewpoints, Contact Improv, and my work called "The Conduit," which connects the body to intentional desire and allows the actor to control intentional desire via the breath and the text. At Knox, we have a student who trained in Viewpoints, so I brought her in as the movement coach. A member of the cast was trained in and teaches Contact Improv and some of the other members of the cast had taken the Somatic Practice course in which Contact Improv is taught, so they were able to help to teach the rest of the cast. I chose these two techniques for specific reasons. Both encourage spontaneity while also cultivating spatial awareness. Both also encourage using the entire body to express, rather than relying on mere affect and attitude. I wanted to heighten the actors' peripheral senses so that they might work with filling space beyond their immediate bubbles. Viewpoints teaches actors to respond physically to anything that happens in the space. Additionally, Contact Improv encourages participants to sense and initiate safety, presence, intention, direction, and emotion physically. I also used some Lecoq exercises that help develop awareness of other(s) in space with and without reliance on sight. These exercises also require actors to be aware of negative space and how to fill it and how to vary it. Again, the overall goal through all of these processes was to encourage actors to respond without preplanning a response or censoring an impulse by teaching them to trust spontaneity. Moreover, this work heightens the actors' presence, as it allows them to behave truthfully with size, which many naturalism-trained actors often struggle to do. To some degree the work may seem to echo basic tenets of Meisner in that the responses come from the self, as at this stage of the process the self is the part of the character the actors are exploring. However, the training is not situational, but physical and non-verbal. Moreover, I understood that as I was not going to ask actors to plot out psychophysical actions, I would need to develop in them an ability to respond to the text and the other person(s) in the scene in order to discover action as an impulse. As in the ensemble exercises, I also began to frame this work through side-coaching with the concepts extracted from the read through.
The movement coach focused the Viewpoints work to encourage actors to find individual physical selves that evolved in response to the nuances of their emotional selves. Actors found various physical states that utilized regions of the body and space relative to various emotional matrices. This was informed by my research in neuroscience focusing on the body's homeostatic states and impulses as the soma experiences varied emotional states. These states were developed as fight or flight impulses that the actors explored throughout their bodies and in space so as to develop character specific vocabularies of emotionally and intentionally responsive and motivated movement. This then became the foundation out of which the actors developed the "blocking" for their scenes. The side-coaching became very actor and scene specific. I assessed the work in rehearsal and via the notes in order to isolate visceral and expressive moments from the exercises so that I could extract responsive concepts from which to further coach individual actors. Again, even in the movement coach's sessions, I took time in each night to isolate an individual character's conceptual realm and frame the work around those character-specific concepts. In most instances, the actors recognized the framework as pertinent to them and activated the exercise accordingly. Additionally, this allowed other actors to understand the play of those concepts in their characters' realms.
Working with Masking Concepts: Emotion, Concentration, and Presence
The raw and open emotional states of the characters were then countered with mask work to experience the sensation of feeling states internally while repressing or hiding external manifestation. This process directly relates to work with DAH Teatar and their work with Lecoq. One of the DAH actresses, Maja Mitíc, observed that the actor "must not release 100%, or there is no danger of yet more potential." Clearly, for the audience, the potential of something unknown is more disturbing than seeing all there is to see. Moreover, the actor playing opposite responds to that potential, as well as what is present. Both actors are then able to use the negative space of the potential to heighten their responses. The idea that an actor wouldn't "give his all" was at first difficult to digest, as it seemed a cheat. Maja encouraged actors to play a given expression or gesture at 100% in rehearsal and then experiment with varying the percentages of expression. The initial impulse could be felt fully, but was not necessarily expressed at full, and in some instances could be completely masked, but the actor would be able to keep the ember burning within and flash in and out of it (this became key to the actor playing Jake). The result was tantalizing in that one could sense that the character was right on the edge of emotional balance at all times.
As we honed the play into repeatability, each moment continued to crackle with the potential of all that had been explored. The physicalized impulses contained within resonated and were subject to fluctuation and new discovery. Their awareness of one another allowed them to ride these fluctuations together and keep the performances alert, alive, and on the edge of balance. Additionally, masking was utilized by the actors to remain engaged emotionally when not in scenes, and even to respond to the text physically, but from within their respective realms. For instance, Lorraine might be sitting upstage on her trunk drinking bourbon during the Montana scenes, but she retained a physio/emotional intensity and gestural body that was identifiably Lorraine, and she was able to shift physically or move as Lorraine within her realm but at moments in the scene being played in the playing area that would seem consonant to the audience. This allowed the actors to hold onto their through-lines, listen intently to the play, and respond to the emotional life of the play without upstaging the action and without the need to devise inner monologues—rather, they listened and responded in the moment: they were part of the action even when peripheral to the action. This heightened level of actor concentration and focus contributed to a heightened state of presence as experienced by the audience. It was one of the signal features of the DAH performances that moved me deeply and that I sought to develop with my students as central to the creative process.
Integrating Text: Under reading
As we moved into text, we began rehearsal of a scene by reading the scene—again, with actors reading roles other than the ones they were playing. Then they moved to their feet in mini-versions of prior exercises, which had proven particularly provocative and illuminating for those individuals. At this stage we introduced under-reading to the process. Under-reading is a technique in which actors not in a given scene read aloud for one another so that the actors in the scene may be on their feet responding to the text, allowing their bodies to recall prior work somatically and improvise within that lexicon. This will transform the prior work because of the new elements of listening and responding to the text, but the habit of response versus analysis and the developed physical vocabulary should dominate. This process allows the actors to follow the roadmap of the text and to sense the necessary orchestration of the scene, but to do so physically in the moment as opposed to analytically before the rehearsal. It also allows actors to focus more on their partners in the scene so that they can respond to the action and provocation simply because they do not have their noses in a script, reading the text of both characters, which activates the analytical frontal lobe of the brain more dominantly than the motor cortices of the brain, which fire more dominantly when physically reacting improvisationally*. Of course, the frontal lobe will be engaged to some degree, but it is a matter of proportion and of developing neural pathways that engage the motor cortices and the emotional centers of the brain effectively. It is important to note for those unfamiliar with under-reading that the readers must be expressive—they do not act or direct the roles, but they do not read flatly, as stage managers are often taught to prompt (I would note here that I teach my stage managers to prompt using a degree of the expressive values that the actors have brought to the scene so that what is heard by the actor is heard in context, and sometimes it is the value more than the word that cues the actor). The under-readers develop an ability to continually look up from the script so that they can read in response to the actors responding to the text, thus creating a response loop, but one that the actors in the scene drive.
Stage managers transcribed the under-reading physical rehearsals understanding that it would change every time the scene was worked (video can be helpful in this process). I reviewed these notes and "blocking" iterations in order to identify moments that were particularly expressive, provided character connective tissue, or effectively scored the text in order to coach the actors back toward those moments. That this process may not be linear is not at all important, as each moment will eventually fall into place in the whole and the connective tissue will be found as well. (When utilizing transformation as the key acting process, the connective tissue may not be as readily apparent to the intellect of the viewer while watching, though it may be felt and even recalled viscerally.) As the actors worked in rehearsal and reflected on the work outside of rehearsal, scenes began to take shape. The actors began to claim the language, sometimes only keywords at a time, but eventually they felt the need for the physical act of speaking to make specific and precise what they were doing and feeling—they needed the words of the characters. In this regard, the act of speaking intentionally becomes a highly felt physical gesture and not a cerebral fore thought, and learning lines is very easy. Through a kind of distillation process, the actors began to repeat blocking that felt expressive to them. Though I might shift an emerging scene physically on the stage in order to balance composition or space use, the actors largely found the blocking from within the dynamics of the scene and through responding to one another. In one mid-process rehearsal, we discovered that the long, climactic scene between Lorraine and Sally worked best with the big armchair in the up left-of-center position—they became tiny and lost together in the final moments of the scene as a result of the position. Craig Choma heightened this effect through an eerie light cue that further isolated them on the stage. As this was the climactic scene for their character arc and story line, I decided to allow their story to dictate the position of the chair. As a result, we then had to work all of the other scenes with the chair in a new position. The actors adapted without hesitation because their rehearsal process was responsive in the first place. The new position of the chair did not change their impulses, only the stage pictures.
The Audience and Beyond:
The resultant production was very visceral, physically explosive, and also heart-wrenchingly tender. The audience post show discussion noted the themes as we had explored them, but also indicated tremendous empathy for the abused and dysfunctional individuals such that we felt gratified in having successfully brought the themes into the present while keeping the story in the 1980s. The audience revealed that the simultaneous space effectively transcribed the characters onto one another similar to a palimpsest, and transformational moments of character shift and emotional weight kept them on the edge of their seats. Audiences were very interested in attempting to put their finger on what was different about what they had just witnessed and asked very penetrating questions about the process. It was clear that the tension created by the play was palpable. I was very happy with the degree to which we had mined the non-realism potential of this play, especially because the audience did not receive it as "not real." Whether one regards Shepherd as a hybrid of expressionism and realism or a combination of poetic lyricism and sheer in-your-face assault, the approach to his plays requires much more than "memorize the lines and don't bump into the furniture." The play also resonated with an ongoing campus discussion of sexual responsibility and the role of men in perpetrating and, very importantly, in the prevention of sexual threat. The actor who played Jake was deeply active in campus initiatives on this subject and reported many discussions initiated by the production in all kinds of campus settings that went on for weeks after the play.
The actors expressed satisfaction with the work as having been deeply engrossing, provocative, and closely allied to their class work. The first year student playing Beth was initially terrified of being cast, but she grew to feel more secure through the deep ensemble bond that developed among the cast. She did have a mid-point mini-crisis because she did not know how to assess her progress or determine if she was doing "a good job." The process did not allow her to attain her more familiar somatic levels of homeostasis that she identified as "good acting" based on prior success. She reported having fleeting moments in which she felt "good," but was worried because by the mid-point she was accustomed to having a role completely under her belt and being able to just perform it in rehearsals. This is precisely the kind of acting I am seeking to divert, so I was delighted that she felt a bit at sea—the development of new somatic markers is unsettling (she was subsequently nominated for the annual endowed acting award, so I think she gained some perspective). Others in the cast have gone on to pursue other physical theatre experiences—Lorraine is currently completing her second summer at Celebration Barn Theatre in Maine and will study at the Moscow Art Theatre this fall; Sally has taken Michael Chekhov Technique classes in Chicago; Jake attended several major Contact Improv intensives where he has been instrumental in developing work that has therapeutic implications; Meg decided to major in theatre having seen with DAH how to combine her love of physical learning with her desire to be socially responsible and politically influential; Baylor (a non-major senior) took his first Beginning Acting class in the following spring term and has decided to participate in his community theatre; Mike has continued his interest in physical theatre and has moved to Chicago where he will pursue further study.
Ultimately, I was impressed with the students in that we had taken the physical theatre approach to a script in rehearsal much further than we had previously and their success and growth attest to the value in doing so. I feel confident that each student will be able to function effectively in traditional rehearsal settings, but that they also will bring to those rehearsals a more deeply engaged physical self. In the winter of 2012 I will direct Twelfth Night at Knox and fully expect to use physical theatre techniques to activate work on verse. It is clear to me that the ongoing conversations about physical theatre associated with DAH and as an outgrowth of the ACM Performance Educators Conference have rededicated me to work that both fulfils me as an artist and reinvigorates my teaching.
*The Music Instinct: Science and Song, Elena Mannes. Mannes Productions Inc. and WNET. ORG Properties LLC. 2009 PBS Distribution.
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