18 October 2011

I take an acting class, scene 2

I did my homework. I read Glengarry, Glen Ross a few times. I broke down my scene into beats and played around with different objectives. It's easy to understand why this is a popular play, and why actors like playing in it. The language carries you along. The stakes are high. You can identify negotiating tactics; the conflicts are clear and easy to locate. 

To go a few steps further, I thought about animal imagery: rats and mean, cowardly dogs.

Class started with the teacher talking a bit about the meaning of sacred, and how we're creating a sacred space -- something set apart. Then we broke up into groups and rehearsed some more. I felt like apologizing to my partner, because Williamson is such a savage little prick. A prick with his own reasons, but still, I'd have to be a nasty piece of work to embody the character, and it seemed like a rude thing to do to such a civilized and nice guy that I'd just met. 

He hadn't had a chance to read the play or to work on it, but we did a few read-throughs, and I could sense and edge hovering around or below what we were doing.

Time was up. We then read through scenes together, in front of the class. This time, though, we worked on building the world of the scene, that is, the physical circumstances of the show. So, we'd drag furniture from where it waited along the walls and make a crude set. 

Building blocks

Our teacher would stop us and ask us questions: Where are you? Where's the place your most comfortable? The least comfortable? But know the difference between what's comfortable for you versus whats comfortable for your character. Through the questions -- where does the couch go? Would you have a window there? -- she would build the imaginary settings.  

This invariably improved the quality of the acting. None of the scenes really took flight, but each rose up a few levels. Again, the simple questions -- who are you? What do you want? What's stopping you from getting it? How do you want that other character to feel? -- clarified and enlivened the players. 

"Do you know what I mean?"

People still struggled with the text. It also completely messed up the rhythm of the scene. So, she gave a few players this exercize: Add  "Do you know what I mean?" after the end of each speech. That way, they can get off book -- away from the script, and engage with the other actor. The other actor has to respond with, "Yes, I know what you mean," or "No, I don't know what you mean." Again, it moves the person off the page and into the other characters' sphere. With Mamet, it works well, because so much of his work is based on repetition. Some real behavior starts to happen.

We also did a variation of this: "Did you just say (x)?" With X being what the character just said. The second actor replies, "Yes, I said (x)." This helps train the actor to listen carefully to the other person.

Our turn came up. We set a table and some chairs. Because the scene takes place in a Chinese restaurant, I grabbed a couple of pencils to use as chopsticks. What are you eating? What are you drinking? Are you hungry? The scene went better for me this time. With a clearly defined action -- something to do -- it felt better. I could sense a groove happening, the direction the scene wanted to go to. I noticed that my concentration tended to be weak. I also tried some sense memories around kung pao chicken and beer and garlic broccoli and fried rice (the menu I'd decided on) and found that I have some serious work to do in both departments. But it reminded me of the utility of those exercises.

Still, it was rough and pretty ugly work. But the point the teacher was making was about the vital importance of building a physical world out of the tools outside of you and inside of you.

She assigned some new scenes with new partner. The plays included Angels in America, Awake and Sing, and, for me, Becky Shaw.

Lessons learned
  • The basic, Stanislavski questions are the best way to begin to work on a scene, to start to make it real and rescue it from stereotyped behavior. Who am I? What do I want? What's preventing me from getting it? Where am I? Why does it matter? What's my action?
  • Leading actors through a series of questions engages them, and makes them own their work. (If you're crafty, you can lead them through questions to the place where you want them to be -- or, at least, that's what my mentor says.)
  • The more actual stuff you have that fits the world of the story, the easier it is for the actor.
  • Furniture is your friend.
  • The first moment of the scene sets the tone and the vitality of the whole scene. Well begun is half done.

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