Thursday, February 23, 2012

What is a Behavioral Story?

The theatre is a funny place.  People come from all parts, for all reasons.  Many are drawn to the emotional and expressive freedom that we seem to enjoy onstage.  Some just need some applause in their lives.  Personally, I've always thought that theater could be hands-on sociology.  It's just that I so rarely get a chance to experience it as such - which is the reason I felt the need to bring yet another theater into the world. 

One major thing that seems to differentiate The Seeing Place from many other theaters is our concentration on behavioral storytelling.  In short, that involves the motives and impressions that are communicated to the audience, not necessarily in words.  We spend about four weeks per rehearsal process, simply learning about the playwright's story and the individual character journeys.  Then we set out to understand how we can connect to the playwright's vision and resonate with it on a nightly basis.  It is only after we have supported that vision and built a strong sense of the stories we want to tell that we can even begin to prepare our work for the stage. 

It's a point of constant amazement to me that most actors are so concerned with what they're going to do with a role, either affectively or professionally, that they rarely take the time to discover the specifics of the situation in which their character is living and what insights the playwright has on our world.  Mostly, there is an overemphasis on the spoken word in theatre, so that actors are usually concerned with how they are going to say what they say, rather than the lives of the people they create.  Beyond that, most rehearsal processes (if they aren't directed from the actor-as-puppet perspective) encourage actors to learn on their feet, so that the excitement behind building a character is limited to throwing ideas at the wall to see if they stick.  Unfortunately, without thoughtful exploration, it is very difficult for most actors to repeat the wonderful things that are discovered in rehearsal, so that the results can only be copied most of the time.  If, by chance, there is some life within the actor, it typically happens more out of luck than any other one thing.  And that is what The Seeing Place has set out to address.

Most recently, in our rehearsals for our upcoming production of Three Sisters, I accidented upon a new exercise. It came out of a frustration that in all of our tablework and story-building, I wasn't sure who knew what as far as the insights we'd gleaned, and I wanted to make sure we were all inhabiting the same world. We also had a recent cast change, and it seemed the best way to introduce our new actor to the group and the play.   I asked everyone to sit down and write out a paragraph, detailing their characters' situations and what stories they are all trying to tell.   I also asked them to decide upon a superobjective. Even after a month of tablework, we had more to learn: and by the end of the night, we all had a very personal journey to share with the audience. 

I am playing Andrey and also answered the question. I think I had the same response that many of us shared: I sat down to do my homework and found that simply putting pen to paper and trying to define my character's story connected me to what has always unconsciously driven me to play Andrey. I realized that I have an intimate story to tell about this world through Andrey. For me, his story is that of a lonely man, looking for a family. He has been trying to become a great academician to earn his late father's love his whole life, and has recently become the man of the house.  Though he is a passionate and great artist, he is under constant pressure from his condemning sisters and his estranged wife to build an equitable career, so that they can fulfill on their opposing dreams.  Finally, he settles for a life apart from his own ambitions and throws himself into his children for the love he's been seeking.  It's a story that many of us live, and many of us are afraid of.

Now, that's a story that I can tell through behavior.  We all know people like that.  And that's the basic minimum that I need to know in order to share, in my work, my insights into this world.  Contrary to popular belief, the playwright doesn't mean a thing if I don't mean something with his words and his story.  And he's written more than just lines - especially a writer like Chekhov.  It's such a joy to live through his stories as an actor.  He seems to write people straight out of our lives.

It may seems like an obvious exercise, but often times we don't do the simplest things to plan out our work as actors.  Many seem to want to leave things up to chance.  In our group, we're constantly fighting against a mentality that doesn't want to mess with anything.  Most actors don't seem to know what a story is, and don't take the time to learn.  It seems too academic to most.  But it is only in that practical understanding of the people we create and the situations they are in, how they operate within those situations and the things that they learn, that we are able to communicate.  That way, we can set up problems to solve in front of an audience on a nightly basis.  It is said that a good story happens when two opposing ideas go to war.  We believe the best theatre is created when the entire ensemble is informed and engaged in collaborative competition.

Thanks for reading.  What are your thoughts on the subject?

1 comment:

  1. I love this post (and not only because I subscribe to it as a company member of The Seeing Place.) In school we're taught about subtext and having a reason for saying the lines the way we do, but rarely are we taught how to connect subtext with a larger story. One of the problems I've seen in the theater is that many plays have great actors who are all telling different stories that are not connected with one another - it's almost as if one person's story is fighting with the other's. If a company can agree on a common vision for the play, then each character will have a vital place within that vision, which gives space for the creation of a behavioral story.

    One of the other things I've noticed is that, in most plays, smaller characters are treated as such - from everyone! The cast members with larger roles often dismiss them, the director's spend less time working with them, and therefore the audience sees the characters as a throw away. But the playwright has included the characters for a very important reason - and it's our responsibility to search out what that reason is. In our process at The Seeing Place, we ask the actors with smaller roles to do just as much work on their characters and their stories as the larger roles, so that everyone can follow that story and believe it. Each person is the leading character in their own life - we strive to make that the case in our shows, and we do that through the behavioral storytelling that Brandon has so eloquently described.

    I'm curious about other's thoughts as well... bring on the comments!


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