Tuesday, November 6, 2012
What Is "Organic Theater"? - Part 1: Speaking Out
For a long time, we've been very hesitant to talk about our process. It tends to get a bad wrap. Anytime someone doesn't understand something we do, they blame the way we work - as though there would be no problems if we were to just follow the theatrical norms in our business.
The biggest mystery seems to revolve around what we call "Speaking Out" (In the past, we've referred to it publicly as "Structured Improvisation", because we felt it needed a layman's term). Over the last three years that The Seeing Place has been around, people have taken this phrase to mean anything from a lack of textual analysis to a complete disregard for the playwright. Both could not be further from the truth.
It's hard to describe what we do in terms that people outside of it can understand. As with bike-riding, there's a lot of jargon representing uncommon experiences - that are best learned in action, rather than words. Simply put, "Speaking Out" is a means to combine the Actor's thoughts and impulses with the Author's words.
Speaking Out is a practice that we've borrowed from Lee Strasberg's work. For those unfamiliar, I like to describe it as being similar to Meisner's Repetition Exercise, because it functions to answer the same problem - helping the actor respond impulsively and get out of his own way. As far as what we do at The Seeing Place is concerned, it is a rehearsal technique that allows our actors to actively keep their creative juices flowing and address any difficulties that come up. The main benefit is that it forces actors to really talk and listen to one another. As Bobby Lewis said, "If it's not talking and listening, it really doesn't matter how much more it is."
We've found that with Speaking Out, we are able to facilitate actors in effectively getting their work into their lines. There is a common worry that speaking your thoughts will put you in your head. That is not the aim. It's not about creating new dialogue. It's about living in the situation. In our process, there should be no discrepancy between the actor's spoken thoughts and the author's written lines. Speaking out is not private subtext. The other actors can and do hear you. They respond in the same way as you would to someone screaming "Hello!" at you. Actors are encouraged to take the same energy of their thoughts into their lines. This gives them a means of addressing expression - so that their work gets out of their heads and into reality.
Without giving a formal tutorial, what we do basically looks like this:
Let's say that the lines of the scene are:
A: Hi. How are you?
B: I'm fine. Thanks. And you?
Speaking Out is loosely structured like this:
A: [1st actor speaks his impulsive thoughts, then] Hi. How are you?
B: [2nd actor responds, speaking impulsive thoughts, then] I'm fine. Thanks. And you?
In action, let's say that actors A and B are in a lover's quarrel. Let's say that A stormed out of the house, giving B some time to pack up and leave. This is an example of how this conversation might manifest, while speaking out.
A: I can't believe you're still here! Hi! How are you?
B: I'm...really sorry, okay? I'm fine. I promise. Thanks. And you?
1.) There is no distinction made between the author's lines and the actor's thoughts. (In the last example, lines are only in bold to provide clarity. There should be no notable difference between lines and thoughts in either energy or volume.)
2.) The actors thoughts affect the manner in which the author's lines are said.
3.) The actors can choose to speak freely within their own lines, but offer no improvised thoughts after they give the cue.
4.) B is responding in situation to A's behavior, though not necessarily to the improvised words. In other words, B does not say "What made you think I was going to leave?"
It looks very complicated. And it is at first. There is a learning curve. But only because Speaking Out requires actors to be active participants in their work. They are forced to think on their feet. They have to get personally involved. They can't plan how they are going to say their lines. They have to go with today's reality, right now. It will be different tomorrow. In this way, their work is full of life each and every time. They also bear the full responsibility of communicating with their scene partners - because everyone is accountable to keeping the ball in the air.
Every actor, I'm sure, can identify with the following experience. You plan out exactly what you want to do in a scene, you have the creative juices flowing before you enter, you walk into the scene and...say lines without doing what you set out to do. Oops! We've all been there. Speaking out gives you a practical tool in rehearsals to address those kinds of difficulties in the moment.
You may be wondering why anyone would bother with this kind of work. First of all, it really is fun to live through an imaginary event, rather than represent it. But the chief reason is this:
The playwright does not and cannot mean anything without the actor's interpretation. In order for the playwright's words to sing, they have to resonate personally with the actors.
Also, please keep in mind that this is a rehearsal technique. It's nothing that ever happens on our stages. In production, you'll only ever hear the author's words, unless there is some unavoidable emergency - which happens in any production from time to time (it's the fun of live theater). Most audiences comment that there is very personal character work and a lot behavioral nuances in our shows that the actors seem to share. That's a direct result of Speaking Out.
You may worry that The Seeing Place does not hold writers in the highest esteem. We absolutely do. In fact, we do everything we can to dissect the situation, the story, the characters, and our own interpretations. The playwright wrote way more than the words on the page. A play is a skeleton. It is our call as actors to give it life.
Please comment and ask any questions you may have. Please also share any experiences you've had in improvisation as a rehearsal technique. Either way, we'd love to hear your thoughts.