- Michael Shurtleff
I don't normally find myself quoting Michael Shurtleff, but it rang particularly true when it was brought to my attention by Erin Cronican (our Managing Director), who is directing our upcoming production of John Kolvenbach's LOVE SONG.
There seems to be an epidemic going around our theaters. I call it playing nice.
We spend our lives learning how to avoid conflict. In my opinion, that's really the main thing taught in the majority of public schools: socialization. But we get it from our parents, our peers - literally everywhere we turn, we're taught how to get along. We learn very early on that Sharing is Caring, that we can't hit people or roar at them when we want something. We can't just take food off of people's plates. We learn to bite our lips, watch our mouths, hold our tongues...the sayings go on and on. And all of these maxims serve us very well in life. Not so well onstage.
The truth of it is: we can't afford to behave onstage the same way we do in life. Many of the great acting teachers have cited a difference between Naturalism and Realism onstage. I'll go into greater detail on that in another post. But the long and the short of it is this: We go to the theater to see ourselves. It's why we chose The Seeing Place as our name, the literal meaning of the Greek word, "Theatron". In our minds, the theatre should be a place to express the things that we don't want to admit about ourselves in public.
We can hardly aim for that kind of goal if we insist on behaving in an everyday fashion onstage. But how do we go about achieving that kind of heightened expression without setting blocking or levels of emotion? What's to keep the strength of the story intact? What's to keep us from avoiding conflict and behaving naturally, when that's what we've been taught all our lives?
In every theater around town, actors and directors alike stress the importance of raising the stakes. But how do we do that?
To answer that, I think Phil Connors says it best:
"It's the same thing your whole life. Clean up your room. Stand up straight. Pick up your feet. Take it like a man. Be nice to your sister. Don't mix beer and wine - ever! Oh yeah...don't drive on the railroad tracks. I don't know, Gus. Sometimes, you just have to take the big chances. I'm bettin' he's gonna swerve first. I'm not gonna live by their rules anymore. You make choices, and you live with them."
- Groundhog Day
Essentially, we have to change the way we're looking at the world. David Gideon, my teacher, talks about the importance of recognizing the fact that we get applause onstage for the same things that we'd be thrown in jail for in real life. But that's not just going to happen of its own volition. We literally have to give ourselves permission. Because there are no consequences onstage. We're there to celebrate the reaches of humanity. And we all have to play with the same kind of openness that we did when we were kids, playing make-believe.
That said, there is still one more piece to the puzzle. Simply acting with abandon doesn't help tell a story. Though it's tempting, we can't just be free onstage. Why not? Because that would destroy the reality of the play - unless the character is a psychopath. We still have to live within some guidelines.
There is a sign posted in our rehearsal space. It reads "GO AFTER WHAT YOU WANT." And it really brings the whole thing to the surface. How many people do you know that say they want to be actors, and yet when you ask them when they went on their last audition, they couldn't even begin to tell you? I'll bet they have the same problem in their work onstage.
The singularly most difficult thing for an actor to find in a play is: AN ACTABLE OBJECTIVE. Many of us are taught to look for some action verbs or what our characters want is. But in reality, what are our characters aiming for? How are they going to get it? Those are big questions. And we spend a lot of time answering them at The Seeing Place.
But it's not enough to have it in mind - in life or onstage. We have to DO something about it. I can know that I should exercise if I want to slim down until I'm blue in the face. Nothing's gonna happen if I just think about it, though. Sometimes, I literally need to force myself to act on my desires. It can't be a matter of 'when we feel like it'.
Because our characters are at big points in their lives. They're taking action. There's a reason that Long Day's Journey Into Night takes place THIS WEEKEND at the Tyrone mansion - not last weekend or next weekend. This is the time the family DID something.
I learned this from one of the greatest books on playwrighting ever. On the second page, it says...
Let's begin the process simply, with a one-line definition of a story:
A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why.
- THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby
One more time, because I think it's important:
A speaker tells a listener what someone DID to get what he wanted and why.
The objectives are our lifelines in the theatre. If I go head first after what I want, and you do too, then BAM - immediate conflict. I've been told that the greatest stories happen when two opposing viewpoints on living go into battle. Just because Torvald loses the at the end of Ibsen's A Doll's House, it doesn't mean that he shouldn't be fighting for his life all along the way. Otherwise, we'll know what happens in the end before he does. Our failures onstage are what tend to give us the greatest successes.
It's in that collaborative competition that the story is told. We can't afford Kumbaya in the theatre. I don't want to give my scene partners the benefit of the doubt. I want to challenge them. I want them to challenge me back. It's just like any other game we play. We should play to win.
There seems to be this idea that in an ensemble theater, everyone should give to everyone else. We agree. But we shouldn't make ourselves smaller to do that. I'll end with Marianne Williamson's overquoted quote that is especially pertinent:
Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate,
but that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.
And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give
other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.
What are your thoughts on the subject?
This is the third post in a series, defining methods The Seeing Place Theater uses in our rehearsal process to create Organic Theater.
Other posts in this series: Part One: Speaking Out | Part Two: Physical Reality