Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Organic Theater" - Part 2: Physical Reality

This is the second post in a series, defining the unusual methods The Seeing Place Theater uses in our rehearsal process to create Organic Theater.

"We don't use blocking."  That used to be our catch-phrase.  You can't imagine how many people have been up in arms over that concept with us over the last three years.  There's always someone there to suggest that it's possible to craft moments, block things out to a 'T', AND live through a play as though it's the first time.  And while I suppose there is some truth to that in that we could easily represent life on the stage and pretend it's the first time, why wouldn't we just live each moment for the first time?

"How do we do that?"  You ask.  And it's an important question.  Many theaters just say they live it for the first time and still use blocking.  Some don't block and just encourage actors to find the story each and every night - and I suppose that if they were especially well trained, then that might work...but most aren't.  What we do is to answer a question, based in what I consider to be Lee Strasberg's greatest insight into the theatre:

What would I be doing if the scene weren't taking place?

When asked, most people seem to want to tell us what they'd like to be doing.  "Oh, I'd be at a bar with some friends."  From my understanding, Strasberg would commonly respond to this kind of remark by saying, "Great.  You go to a bar with some friends, and I'll get an actor who will actually do what he'd be doing here if the scene weren't taking place."  And that's the rub:
What would I be doing IN THIS ROOM if the lines of this scene weren't taking place?

And then we actually DO those things throughout our scenework.  That's our blocking.  That's our physical reality.  By answering this question, The Seeing Place is able to live through something onstage that is unique to each night, rather than setting the actions and their timing in advance. Another way to think of it is this:  If your scene partner had to run off to the bathroom and left you onstage by yourself, what might your character be doing here in your imagined reality?

To illustrate: Let's take the first scene of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for example.  What would Brick be doing if the scene weren't taking place?  Some things might be...
  • Cooling off from the hot day - might include fanning, ice from the drink, etc.
  • Drying off from the shower he takes before the play starts and any sweat that accumulates.
  • Keeping his sprained ankle elevated.
  • Drinking with the energy to fade out or "get that click" and maintain it, rather than to get drunk.
  • Getting dressed in silk pajamas...or getting ready for Big Daddy's Birthday Party - even though the lines might suggest otherwise.
At Strasberg's behest (which I constantly hear from my teacher, David Gideon):
Do what you would be doing if the scene weren't taking place, and don't stop doing it unless something happens to interfere.  But if there is an interference, stop and take the time to actually deal with it.  But as soon as you are able, go back to doing what you'd be doing if the scene weren't taking place - even if it doesn't make sense.

That's a very complicated statement - though we've found it to be relatively simple in execution.  Simple does not mean easy.  It requires a change of viewpoint from what we normally find in the theater.  Many actors in our mainstream theater seem to rely on the guidance of directors to be told what to do and where to go.  Even in TSP rehearsals, there is an occasional outburst of, "Just tell me what to do and I'll do it!"  But we don't let our group go through the motions onstage.  I'm not suggesting that there are not actors out there that are organic and alive in their work.  But we are a full company of actors that set out to remain creative in performance.  We have to keep our thinking caps on.  For us, it's not simply a matter of saying lines well or expressing whatever emotional reality is going on.  We're aiming to live fully into an imaginative situation onstage.  The tasks we do keep us concentrated and engaged.  We can't fake them.  That gives us grounding, whether or not we're having a good night at the theater.

The primary thing that The Seeing Place aims to create in our work is the simple reality.  If someone is drinking tea, we want them to actually make it and actually drink it.  If you need to sweep a stage, go ahead and actually sweep it.  That's the easiest part of acting.  As Lee Strasberg had posted over his door at The Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, "It's not about emotion."  That's not to suggest that the emotional reality isn't important.  But at Strasberg's insistence, we can't go for emotions:
"The emotions take care of themselves."

Of course, there will be exceptions and times when the play calls for something slightly different - as was the case in our production of THREE SISTERS, which had some "stand-in" props that were not 100% realistic.  But even then, we were still doing what we'd be doing if the scenes weren't taking place - within the confines of that reality.

Lee Strasberg's insight into this element of human behavior, which The Seeing Place uses in our work, is based in an observation that Strasberg made about people, which is that in life, we don't stop doing what we're doing to have conversations.

David Gideon, my teacher, has given the following example (I'm paraphrasing):  If we're driving to Boston, we don't stop the car to have an argument.  We may begin an argument and respond so intensely that we feel out of control and NEED to stop the car to deal with the situation, but as soon as we've got it back under control and can continue driving, we do.

And that's how The Seeing Place goes about doing something unique to each night.  Sometimes, the emotional reality interrupts in one place or another, sometimes it doesn't.  Sometimes, we're doing one activity in a certain place in a scene, sometimes another.  It's completely based on how things play out that night.  But it's all connected to the logic of the scene, the play, the character, and our own observations about people and our world. 

I've even used this approach in plays that were stringently blocked by a director.  In reality, the director doesn't want to have to block actors that stringently much of the time.  If the actor comes in with a logical life to carry out onstage, most directors are more than willing to work within it. 

All in all, I find it to be much more fun.  After all, it is a play.  :O)

What are your thoughts on all of this?

Other posts in this series:     Part One: Speaking Out


  1. As you know, Brandon, I'm about as deep as a thimble. Given this non life-threatening depth I can definitively state that what you are saying is a universal acting truth, regardless of schools.
    My initial training was Uta Hagen based. That's where I first learned that acting was the living truthfully in imaginary circumstances. Later, at David Mamet and William H. Macy's Atlantic Acting School I learned that the life on stage was founded in this tenet: deny nothing, invent nothing. And in Bill Esper's class I learned through repetition exercises, to be (ridiculously) in the moment.
    All of these truths are the same, so, to me, doing the scene that is not the scene is a no-brainer. I have also learned that improv training helps.
    As for blocking, specifically… I've always seen that as more the director's sight picture tool. And by sight picture I include the plain, everyday esthetics of the blocking (sight picture) along with the dramatic tensions to be displayed by dynamically placing the actors to underscore or undermine a relationship.
    To be honest, I have, on occasion, found myself heading for a space on stage because I just felt it was fucking time I moved. Deep as a thimble, remember? But more often my action is induced by the truth being played out in the scene and, at times, these blocking moves are not what the director desired, to achieve his end. If my reasoning for my action is persuasive enough, and the director is smart enough, I will prevail and the director will compensate some other way. If the director insists on my refraining from that particular impulse, a lot of times I find out later in the scene that there was a sound dramatic reason. Then, of course, there is that director who's just a dick, and, well…

    1. You're absolutely right. Sometimes, directors have a stage picture that they want executed so that an overall tone or story can be told. This is also true when it comes to design elements - sometimes an actor is required to go to a certain spot on the stage to satisfy a lighting cue. In this process, we train our directors to create the environment where an actor can reach the result organically. It's a huge challenge for a director, but a heck of a lot of fun.

      Thank you so much for stopping by, Einar, and for giving us your thoughts!

  2. Rehearsing for LOVE SONG and going through this process, I can confidently say it has been among the most rewarding and scariest thing I have ever done on stage. Scary because of the moments I have had that can only be described as cluster fucks, and rewarding because I have never felt more organic and alive in my work. Working this way bring you closer to the character's truth and essentially that means closer to your own truth. It's not easy by any stretch of the imagination but it is the right work for me and the type of theater I want to be involved in.

    1. I'm so thrilled to hear about this - both as your director in LOVE SONG and as your fellow actor. We're going to have A LOT of fun playing together! Even though, technically, we're not on stage at the same time... (details, details...)

  3. What excites me about it............. it removes the need for an actor, when being blocked by a director to move,at a certain moment, to a specific spot on the stage, to ask that age old question, "But what's my motivation?" lol Now, when involved in the process you describe, I will never have to move or do anything unless it arises from my moment to moment character's needs and wants.

  4. Having experienced this approach last winter while performing in Seeing Place's "Three Sisters", I have come to realize that it is not really about "We don't use blocking." That thought is an unnecessary distraction. I certainly have worked with directors who in a completely anal way want to block every movement on stage, almost down to the inch! And even when that happened I just listened, nodded my head and then proceeded with the scene using that as a guide, but did not--could not--do my work with a constant tape in my head of "walk here now, walk there now, etc." The main focus of my acting training has been about being driven by actions and activities (thus, why it's called "acting"), and most certainly not by blocking (or by the way by adding unnecessary attitude.) Especially when I'm working on text written by good or great writers, I've learned to trust the words and act by taking action through motivated movements and/or activities that come from within me. I observed in "Three Sisters" that a broad framework of "blocking" did develop, but not as a prescriptive set of instructions from the director, but rather as motivated movements that the actors living through their characters had created themselves. And it seemed that those movements always were consistent with the script, just not because a controlling director told them to do them.

    1. Thanks, Alan! I love how you highlight that an organic physical reality doesn't exclude the possibility for staging to set over time. Sometimes in rehearsal or in performance, we stumble upon something organically that helps us tell a story in a way we couldn't before.

  5. I have personally found this idea of "what would you be doing if the scene weren't taking place" super helpful. I guess in the past it has come as a natural process of rehearsing, but I can't say how many times, if an emergency arose and my scene partner had to run offstage and pee, I'D be the one caught with pants around my ankles. My very first play in high school, I played John Proctor in "The Crucible" (very age appropriate). During one production, I was performing the first scene between Elizabeth and John--our Elizabeth was busy preparing the place for dinner, and I had just come in from farming. At one point, we got into heated talk and I accidentally tipped over a stand holding a water pitcher, water spilling all over the place. I acknowledged the fall, but then just glared at Elizabeth, as though it were her fault for getting me heated, and continued on with my lines. Like a champ, our actress playing Elizabeth pulled out a towel and started mopping up the mess, while I continued to hurl down abuse upon her. She carried her "what would I be doing if the scene weren't taking place," into an actual incident that had occurred onstage, and the result was incredible! She turned what seemed like a disastrous mishap into an opportunity to deepen the story. In so doing, she helped tell the story of a housewife in the 17th century (to clean the mess a man made), the relationship of John and Elizabeth, and Elizabeth's overall take-charge attitude. It was a wonderful moment I'll never forget, and it came as a result of her owning the circumstances of having other things to do besides the immediate scene of "talking with John."

    I do have a question about not setting blocking. Like most actors, I love the freedom of getting to act on impulse nightly. From a director's point of view, however, I can see how it might be frustrating. Do you think this can ever complicate the concept of a show? Does part of a director's vision necessitate setting certain stage pictures? For instance, do you think it's possible to perform a Beckett piece in this style?

    1. Great question! I hope Brandon chimes in here too, but I'll give you my perspective.

      As the director for LOVE SONG, it's my focus to make sure that the story is being told. This is done by a simple reality being created on stage and a common, overall story being told by the actors in concert with one another. So, how can I make sure this happens while also making sure that a stage picture happens?

      Today in rehearsal, we were talking about a moment in the script where, after a monologue by Joan, her brother Beane finally takes his "first" bite of the sandwich. One would think that organic storytelling would mean that Beane gets to take his first bite whenever he wants to. In this case, though, the playwright had created a stage direction that I, as the director, would like us to adhere to. My job as a director, then, is to help guide the actor playing Beane through his work to find out how and why he would wait to take a bite. What else could the actors create to make that moment happen organically?

      - The waiter could wait to deliver it until that moment, but I think that's too easy.

      - Beane's objective could involve proving to his sister that he's well adjusted (and, thus, waits to eat his sandwich until the moment she orders her food.)

      - Joan's objective could involve making sure that her brother takes care of himself, with one tactic making him drink enough water (whereby, he can't really take his first bite due to Joan's behavior.)

      Those are just 3 of many possibilities that could be tried in rehearsals, and then it's my job as director to make a determination about which objective tells the story in the most cohesive way.

      It's not an exact science, but this is the way The Seeing Place commits to telling a fresh and alive story each night. Our ultimate goal is for audience members to see themselves in what's on our stage. Our work is not merely reproduced each evening - it's created from evening to evening.

  6. As others have said, it's all about living truthfully in the circumstances. If something breaks the audience is going to notice - shouldn't the actors as well? "No blocking" to me is less about the absence of blocking and more about the addition of truth. Of course there will be moments in plays were blocking is specifically scripted or called for (the first bite of the sandwich in Love Song, a fight scene) but to me, what is most important, is the lead up to how these moments occur and what happens after. All of that MUST be organic and truthful. It can not be forced or blocked. An audience sees a play because it is the day something extraordinary happened and every day is extraordinary for an actor - that has to be incorporated into performance.

  7. I feel like "do what you would be doing if the scene weren't taking place" is so magically simple, and I'm pissed I was an actor for 17 years before I heard it. I keep thinking back to past roles I've played, mentally re-rehearsing them in this vein; I want to go back and play them all again. I've always considered it my job as an actor to organically motivate whatever blocking the director wants - a lot of the times, you just can't make stuff fit and flow from one moment to the next - there were always spots in my performance where I would think, "well, it's time to cross down to the chair because Jim needs to sit where I'm sitting now." I relish the opportunity to stay in the moment and have less technical things to worry about.

    I really, really like the analogy about the acting teacher as mechanic and actor as car. I've always said my favorite directors are the ones who know where we going, but who let me drive and create the route.

    Thanks for sharing,

  8. Ahhh!!! I am so excited to work with you guys. It seems like it would be an obvious thing to somply live in a situation, but when you break it down, there are so many plates constantly spinning in our heads and the situation at large. This process forces us as actors to embrace everything that we are dealing with. Not just the words, not just the other actors, but everything available to us. Let's do this!

  9. This is what "BEING ALIVE ON STAGE" feels like! Blocking is one of the major flaws in theatre because it suppresses an actors creativity. The reason for it to exist is for the Director to have utter control. It does have a place though in Community Theatre, school plays and in teaching so that inexperienced actors can learn direction. But as an actor, blocking is the same as "writers block". It's a wall. But through this process of "what would I be doing IN THIS ROOM if the scene weren't taking place" creates a natural blocking for your character. You naturally start ending up in the same places every time so there is no need to "block" things ahead of time, it just happens (the way real life just happens). I think "IN THIS ROOM" should be used when describing this method. It clarifies the process and makes it less confusing to the actor. And we all know how confused actors can get :)

  10. Blocking seems to be one of those things that comes standard with every rehearsal practice I have been apart of. Whether it was strict or loose, it was always there, It was just one of those things that I never really questioned. I love this idea of physical freedom, even though it is a big pill to swallow. Because even if blocking inhibited creativity to some degree, it has always felt safe. And, on the flip side, not having something blocked going into performance feels unprepared. Unless of course there is some kind of process that glues thing together. This process would be the ideal constant the actor could rely on. My acting teacher always says prepare and then improvise, and I feel that is exactly what is going on with this process.

  11. Thank you for this great post and it's been truly wonderful reading everyone's comments and/or experiences. The first thing that comes to my mind is a question I've been asked on numerous occasions from people outside of the "biz." - Why do I prefer live theatre as opposed to other areas of the acting art form? When I eventually figured out an answer I was satisfied with, I responded, "because where else can I feel so terrified after a blunder that literally all of my senses come alive?" I'm highly aware of the time, the audience, the noises in the room, my heartbeat, my frantic Rolodex in my mind, flipping pages as to where I could have possibly gone wrong and how do I get out of this??? I've learned to personally love that time. It sucks, don't get me wrong. But, I love feeling it. However, I'm a pretty analytical person, and generally focus on my lines, and to some extent blocking, to guide me through. Whether or not I've been aware of it, what the Seeing Place is reinforcing in me is this use of action, objective and identifying/(and mostly) articulating all that I would be doing to make you (the individual, not the supposed character) to get you through that, is pretty darn cool. To live it fully.


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