Tuesday, November 6, 2012

What Is "Organic Theater"? - Part 1: Speaking Out

This is the first post in a series, defining some of the tools we use to make the theater you enjoy on our stages.

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, okayI'm fine.  I promise.  Thanks.  And you?

Notice: 
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.

20 comments:

  1. I'm so stoked to try this. I've done a little bit of the Meisner repeating exercise and found it immensely helpful. I am a planner and a organizer in life, and acting is no different. My habit as an actor used to be to plan how I'm gonna play a scene, and then cleverly and deftly execute that plan. This is not acting; this is not living in the moment, and my task as an actor in grad school and now was to learn to discover as I went along as opposed to executing my clever plan that I made by myself before rehearsal. It's really hard for me to do - I am a control freak in recovery. Tools like these keep me in the scene with the other actor, and out of my organized thoughts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was the same way for a long time. I would go through a script and literally score it. I would circle all the verbs, notate the "beat changes" I thought were there, and a bunch of other things I can no longer remember. It was intense. When I started this work, I walked into my first read-through for New Village Arts production of TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (San Diego) with my opening night performance of Proteus in hand. Luckily, my directors (Fran Gercke and Kristianne Kurner) wouldn't let me get away with that. And that's what set off a series of events to study and create this Organic Theater.

      I still am a control freak in some behavioral respects, but I've been specifically working on it for eight years. It's hard to let go of knowing what's going to happen. You might do something to embarrass yourself. You might not hit your goal. People might not get it. There are all kinds of worries that get in the way - especially as we start to address REAL behavior, rather than NATURAL behavior.

      I always marvel at the people that seem to think it possible to plan every moment and beat and movement and intention AND live through a situation at the same time. And though you could figure it all out in advance and live it the same way as if for the first time every time, that takes all the joy out of it for me. We like to watch animals onstage because nobody knows what they're going to do. Including them.

      Delete
    2. Ha! A control freak in recovery. I love that. :)

      Delete
  2. Thank you so much so spelling this out so easily for us. I have tried to describe what we do in rehearsals, and I always fall short of the mark. I love that I can steer them here the next time that happens!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. And it's a relief for me to have somewhere to direct people, too. :O)

      Delete
  3. This process is the biggest reason I wanted (and still want) to work with The Seeing Place Theater. As both a playright and actor, I have tremendous respect and admiration for working this way. The last play I was in, the director lead us through early rehearsals this way, using structured improvisation, and it completely opened up the character and the circumstances to me. Albeit, slightly terrifying at first, trust in my fellow actors and my director lead me to an amazing experience. As a playright, simply put, thanks for thinking outside the box in your preparation to my play. I'd much rather actors experiment and truly find who these people are for themselves, than to just memorize lines and "emote" at the expected moments.

    This organic process is different, and wonderful. It is not for everyone, and that is certainly okay. But, I have found tremendous value in it, and hope that others can be brave enough, and bold enough, to give it a chance.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The best work to bring life as we know it to the scene.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Just watching this process the other night when I sat in on a Love Song rehearsal was very interesting. You could see the actor's brain working, but not in the intellectual, stuck in their head sense. They were living through the scene, reacting as one would to the different stimuli and surroundings, and as we do in life comment on it. If the actor is living as the character, all that's left is the actual words the playwright has written, which are naturally the next steps thanks to this process. Very excited to try it myself!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm really glad that was obvious. We're excited to have you try it as well.

      Delete
  6. I just engaged in my first "speaking out" session with you guys the other night on "Love Song." Most definitely challenging, but even after just the first go-around I found the successive attempt much easier and helpful. In essence, I think it's pretty much what we all strive for, a step we all have to achieve--make the character's thoughts yours. Speaking out is just one way to make that happen. I imagine it is a beast everyone who encounters it will have to wrestle with in their own regard, creating their own unique understanding of its usefulness.

    I found it interesting that you mentioned speaking out does occasionally have application in performance, when emergencies arise. I read recently that in one of the first previews of "Love Song" in London, Neve Campbell flubbed a line, muttered an expletive to herself, and had to stumble back into the scene, as though she hadn't just cursed herself. If her process had allowed her something like speaking out, where she felt comfortable contributing to the live theater experience and embracing the flubs, an audience might not have even noticed a mistake. (None of this is mentioned to discredit Neve Campbell, who I think is a fine actress and who I miss seeing in films these days.)

    Thanks for the explanation!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exactly. I really do hate it when people "flub lines" and them move forward as though nothing happened. In real life, you would address the problem, clear up the communication, and move on. You wouldn't just pretend you said the right thing in the first place. We all flub from time to time. I always relish taking that moment to restate what I was saying and move on. It's the most 'in the moment' anyone can ever hope to be. :O)

      Delete
  7. I'm so glad that you've decided to speak about (hah! get it- "speak (ab)out!!!") how this process works. It's been utterly fascinating learning and working on this with you in rehearsals for "Love Song." To add to your comment, in regards to audience response to the character work, it's something that I've witnessed with the Seeing Place. Specifically when I saw Pinter's "The Lover." It's a script I'm very familiar with. I remember watching one of your performances thinking, "Hm. That's interesting. I didn't know That was in there." Now I understand where it came from. I've always thought of myself as somewhat a detective in the way I choose to work as an actor. I tend to pick apart a script with hopes of getting into the playwright's mind and figure out why they're writing what they are or even, what are they getting at? This all leads to the intellect, though, right? What Speaking Out is teaching me, is how to transfer and articulate that intellect. Thank you! Great process and great article, ya'll!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's awesome. Thank you. I'm glad you're getting something out of it.

      Delete
  8. My first reaction to this process was excitement. Excitement for getting out of my head, using something simple to connect me to the moment and get out of my head. I used to have an acting teacher that loved telling us a story of Frank Lnagella just saying out loud on the opening night of a show, in the opening scene, "Man, I am so nervous right now." The audience had a laugh, and he went on to have a great show. Now given, when your name is in lights, you can get away with that stuff. But what the rest of us can take away - the power of connecting your inner thoughts to your outer reality. I love the idea of speaking out because it uses that concept, while still staying true to the text.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a great story! I wouldn't suggest it for anyone onstage, either. But thanks for sharing.

      Delete
  9. This process may sound intimidating to some, but "speaking out" is a really a natural process. Just not what we are typically taught in acting school. It is actually just voicing what is already in our heads--whether we realize it or not. And since it is done early in the rehearsal process, it is part of developing our characters and stories in a way in which no thought that we express can be wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Love that there is and always will be something new to stir up my artistic juices. Yay! Cannot wait to start work on my project using this process:)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Beautiful part deux, ya'll. I completely understand what you're getting at, and think what you wrote is so beautifully articulate. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete

We're so passionate about creating a conversation in our community - thank you for leaving your thoughts!