Wednesday, March 07, 2007
First, a basic orientation: I have always been suspicious of the way directors horded power. My first dissertation (I ended up abandoning it after several years when I realized that it wasn't a dissertation but an 8-volume set) concerned how directors convinced actors to give up interpretive power to them. The answer: create acting theories (such as Stanislavki's) that required so much introspective focus on the part of the actor that they absolutely needed a director to coordinate everything else. Job security.
Second, a basic goal: I have always felt that rehearsal doesn't really happen until the production is staged and the actors are off book. It is only when the actors start to be able to look at each other that real REacting takes place. So I wanted to create a rehearsal process that would get us to that point as quickly as possible.
Putting these two things together, as well as the fact that I am the author of Introduction to Play Analysis and teach play analysis each year, I decided that full disclosure was necessary. It seemed to me that the main way that a director maintains power is by withholding interpretive information. Prior to rehearsals, he analyzes and interprets the play, and develops an idea in his mind's eye of how each scene plays. Once in rehearsal, he reveals this information bit by bit.
I decided to do it all at once, upfront.
First, I had the script scanned and converted into a Word document. I then have been typing the following into the script, or posting it to a wiki set up for the cast:
1. An analysis of the play's conflict resolution structure: protagonist, opposing force, introductory incident, moment of engagement, climax, denoument, major dramatic question. This is there to give the cast an orientation to the basic story we will be telling with this production.
2. Character analysis. My two student dramaturgs made a list for each character of everything they say about themselves, everything others say about them, and all of the stage directions that pertain to them. The first two can give insights into their personality. The latter item, while time consuming, can be very revealing. If you are working with a published script (rather than an acting edition), the stage directions can be considered those things that the playwright really want you to know about the character and what they are doing. By lifting them out of context, sometimes a pattern is revealed (sometimes not).
3. I broke the play into 34 scenes that seem to have a complete conflict. For each scene I provided the following:
a. analysis of conflict resolution structure (see #1 above)
b. identification of large transitions within the scene
c. indications of places where I think the character goes from Point A to Point C, in the hopes that the actors will figure out what the unspoken Point B is.
d. full blocking
My intention in doing this is to allow the actors to share a basic understanding of the play, moment to moment. None of it is carved in stone, but is a starting point for rehearsal. By providing the blocking in the script itself, the amount of time it takes to stage the scenes should be reduced. In fact, in a miniature experiment, actors were able to "play through" a scene the first time with only a very few stops. This allows us to run scenes many times, and I hope have the entire show staged within four rehearsals (we have 3 hr rehearsals). Also, by providing all this information, I think it will empower my Assistant Director, who can take scenes off to another space and stage them, or rehearse them knowing the basic shape we are going for.
The major question that might be asked is whether I am limiting the actor's creativity. It remains to be seen. But had I done this work in advance, I would have been directing the show with my interpretation in mind anyway, but nobody would have known the full outline of my ideas. At least this way, anyone can argue. In addition, the amount of creativity will be determined by my own rigidity as a director, which would have been the case anyway, truth be told. Actors still will be expected to figure out intentions, explore emotions, talk and listen, react -- all the things actors normally do. So I am hoping this won't overwhelm them.
Anyway, we begin Monday. For the next two days, I'll be working through the script typing in blocking. Once finished, I'll have the scripts copied and distribute them at the first rehearsal. We'll see how it goes.
I have set up a blog for the cast to post their feelings as the rehearsals get under way. The URL is: http://uncaphiladelphiastory.blogspot.com. Feel free to check in and see how it is going!
"Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think." -- La Bruyere
"Comedy is the last refuge of the nonconformist mind." -- Edward Albee
"Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama . . . . Either one is serious about salvation or one is not. And it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe." Flannery O'Connor
" At least one way of measuring the freedom of any society is the amount of comedy that is permitted, and clearly a healthy society permits more satirical comment than a repressive, so that if comedy is to function in some way as a safety release then it must obviously deal with these taboo areas. This is part of the responsibility we accord our licensed jesters, that nothing be excused the searching light of comedy. If anything can survive the probe of humour it is clearly of value, and conversely all groups who claim immunity from laughter are claiming special privileges which should not be granted." -- Eric Idle
Monday, March 05, 2007
the NEA hoopla
Overweight southern senators are easy targets. They too easily become focal points of all evil, allowing the arts community to WILLFULLY IGNORE our own bigotry, our own petty evils, our own intolerance which -- evil senators or no -- will be the death of the arts.
Sunday, March 04, 2007
'Excellence' is the other key-word of the new domineering ideology. What is 'excellent' about a piece of work is rarely - and only vaguely - denned. Lord Mogg is fond of 'excellence', but has as far as I know, failed to produce a definition or a description of it, clearly believing it to be self-evident…. Excellence matters.
But what exactly is it?
I'm afraid I'm not in a position to tell you, having been cut several times by the arts establishment for not being excellent enough - indeed for not even aiming at this common-sense excellence.I can tell you perhaps which new plays, or their authors are 'excellent'. Tom Stoppard, for example, is unbelievably excellent; the characteristics most admired being cleverness, wit, sophistication, cynicism, and the ability to vulgarise a few strands of recent philosophy. Politically well to the right, bitterly anti-Communist, refusing to boycott South Africa, and very unwilling to talk about any of these, Stoppard is therefore reticent, as befits a 'non-political' writer, and right-wing at the same time. David Hare, the left-wing equivalent, is not so clearly excellent, and has not a few problems, being fortunate in having friends to fight for him. Howard Barker is the new Crown Prince of excellence, making a virtue of difficulty and ambivalence. He writes: 'The theatre must start to take its audience seriously. It must stop telling them stories they can understand.' This is going in the right direction for excellence, or a season at the RSC. Barker also writes some very intelligent and important things about the authoritarian in the theatre - left as well as right - with which I heartily agree. But this sort of intellectual arrogance is the tool of the sub-Stoppard, the weapon of the people who would rather have the audience not know what is being said, but vaguely feel it to be important.
I don't wish to attack my colleagues personally, but they are in their work contributing to a mythology of excellence which I cannot endorse.
I have, earlier in these talks, tried to outline some different criteria for evaluating a piece of theatre. Outside the mainstream of bourgeois theatre - which I do not dismiss - I have pointed to the need for a whole layer, across the country, of a rich, thriving, popular theatre, a theatre which connects with groups of people rather than nations, which grows from the traditions of popular entertainment, rather than from misapplied modernism - a theatre that calls on the long-suppressed sub-cultures of the working classes rather than the inflated achievements of high culture - a pre-modernist rather than a post-modernist creativity.
In Roadside Theater's case, from 1991-1996, we conducted an intense national effort to demonstrate that low-income and working-class people of various ages, geographies and ethnicities would gladly attend professional theater. As we were preparing our strategy, we were advised by sociologists, polictymakers, colleagues and others that for various reasons we would fail. Some went so far as to argue that the arts are ionherently elitist and have no business seeking diverse audiences.
At the outset we found ourselves wrestling with questions that had no satisfactory answers. What is a public space? What is an affordable ticket price? How do different groups communicate differently? What are acceptable event protocols — e.g. should young children be welcome? What community organizations should be invited to become partners and co-sponsors? The key, we determined, was finding presenters and local leaders who were willing to tackle these basic questions.
Our goal of building a diverse national audience caused more work for everyone — swimming upstream is always harder than going with the flow of the status quo — but in the end we were successful. According to six years of tracking by independent AMS Research of Connecticut, 73 percent of Roadside Theater’s national audience earns less than $50,000 annually and 30 percent of those earn $20,000 or less a year. Seventy percent are rural people, and 33 percent are not white. We were excited by these results and fully expected our not-for-profit colleagues to join the celebration. After all, we had conclusively demonstrated that there were no insurmountable barriers to broad attendance. It was now plain that any arts organization could attract a true cross-section of its community — a good thing for the box office, for democracy and for art.
Alas, our news was greeted, as they say, by a deafening silence. Apparently we had misunderstood something important. As we reflected on our effort, the warning signs became apparent. One such sign showed itself in a city in northern Alabama. We were at a point in our six-year effort when we had hit our stride. After months of preparation, we arrived at the Alabama venue to be greeted by a big crowd. "This is twice as many people as show-up for our performances!" exclaimed the presenter. "Standing room only!" And the audience was a cross-section of the whole city. We were excited, and the working-class people attending had a great time, because they understood our Appalachian working-class play better than many who were from the more formally educated class. The nimble reactions of the working-class helped lead the other audience members through the drama. We thought, "What a success! We’ll be back here sooner than later."
Four months later we called the presenter and said, "Haven’t heard from you. I guess you want us back." He replied, "I can’t commit right now." Nine months later, we called back again, said, "Surely you’re just crying for us to come back." He repeated, "Can’t commit right now." So, finally, on the third call we said, "You know, let’s drop the charade. You’re not going to ask us to return. Why?" And the presenter said, "The play was really good. We’ve not had such a big crowd before or since. But our board of directors just didn’t like the way y’all talked." Alabamans didn’t like the way Appalachians talked!
What had happened, of course, was that certain people just didn’t like sharing their evening with certain "other people" in the community who might even know more than them about some parts of life. For such folks, the arts are akin to their country club, a chance to get away and be only with their own kind. Alabama was not the first or the last place we would have this experience.
I would argue that such class snobbery permeates the theatre from top to bottom, including what the theatre blogosphere considers worthy of admiration. For the most part, we just don't just don't like how real folks talk!
"I could have called [these lectures] 'Telling the Story' - because that's what theatre does. You go into a space, and some other people use certain devices to tell you a story. Because they have power over you, in a real sense, while you are there, they make a choice, with political implications, as to which story to tell - and how to tell it.
But we go in, watch their story, and come out, changed. If their work is good, and skilfully written, presented and acted, we come out feeling exhilarated: we are more alive for seeing it, more aware of the possibilities of the human race, more fully human ourselves. So far, so wonderfully universal. But this story we watch can have a meaning: a very specific meaning. What if we are black, say, and we go to see some splendidly effective, but completely racist theatre show? What if we are Jewish, and go to see a piece of anti-semitic drama such as one could easily see in Germany in the 1930s? Are we quite so exhilarated? Quite so fully human? Or would we not feel demeaned, excluded from humanity, diminished in our possibilities and a great deal more pessimistic about the future of the human race than when we went in? The meaning, and value, of theatre can clearly change from country to country, group to group, and - significantly - from class to class.
What does this mean then? That not all stories are so wonderfully universal? That the political and social values of the play cannot be the same for one audience as they are for another? What a terribly confusing state of affairs!
How can you know where you stand? How can you be suitably academic, objective and withdrawn? How can you make a universally valid judgement?? It is next to impossible to take the existence of various different audiences into account, to codify their possible reactions to a piece of theatre, to evaluate a piece of theatre from within several frameworks. So what do we do?
Well, I'll tell you what most of us do - we take the point of view of a normal person - usually that of a well-fed, white, middle class, sensitive but sophisticated literary critic: and we universalize it as the response.
The effect of such a practice is to enshrine certain specific values and qualities of a play above others. For example, mystery - or mysteriousness as it so often How often has this 'all-pervading air of'mystery' been praised by critic and academic alike, from Yeats's Purgatory down through Beckett to our own cut-price product, Harold Pinter? Mystery, the ingredient that leavens the loaf - or should I say makes the dough rise
But many audiences don't like mystery, in that sense of playing games with knowledge, and words, and facts. They become impatient, they want to know what the story is meant to be about, what is supposed to have happened. They wish a different order of mystery. But because we have universalized the critical response to 'mystery' that proclaims it as a truly wonderful thing, we now have to dismiss those audiences as philistine, as outside true theatre culture, as - and this is the Arnold Wesker refinement - in need of education. My belief, and the basis of my practice as a writer in the theatre for the last ten years, has been that there are indeed different kinds of audiences, with different theatrical values and expectations, and that we have to be very careful before consigning one audience and its values to the critical dustbin. Unfortunately, almost all the current assumptions of critical thought do precisely that, by universalizing white middle-class sensitive but sophisticated taste to the status of exclusive arbiter of a true art or culture. I intend to devote the third of these lectures to a more detailed analysis of the differences of value between the two main kinds of theatre audience in this country, the 'educated' middle-class audience, and the 'philistine' working-class audience. For the time being let me just note that there is indeed a difference, and that I do not accept the following assumptions:
1. that art is universal, capable of meaning the same to all people;
2. that the more 'universal' it is, the better it is;
3. that the 'audience' for theatre is an idealized white, middle-class, etc., person and that all theatre should be dominated by the tastes and values of such a person;
4. that, therefore, an audience without such an idealized person's values is an inferior audience; and
5. that the so-called 'traditional values' of English literature are now anything other than an indirect expression of the dominance over the whole of Britain of the ruling class of the south-east of England.
To be more specific, I do believe that there is a working-class audience for theatre in Britain which makes demands, and which has values, which are different from those enshrined in our idealized middle-class audience. That these values are no less 'valid' - whatever that means - no less rich in potential for a thriving theatre-culture, no thinner in 'traditions' and subtleties than the current dominant theatre-culture, and that these new basis for making theatre that could in many ways be more appropriate to the last quarter of the twentieth century than the stuff that presently goes on at the National Theatre, or at the Aldwych.