21 December 2011

I take an acting class, scene 4

For the next class, we played our scenes. Again, the teacher let the actors run through the piece without interrupting them, then asked a few questions, and next broke the work down, detail by detail. A lot of this was specific to the scene, and would be boring to read, unless you’re planning on working on a scene from Angels in America sometime soon.
     But, our instructor did suggest approaches that could work under a lot of circumstances. For example:

Play Status
This is based on the idea that in any relationship, status rules. One person is higher status, one lower. This relationship can shift. You fall from king to peasant or rise, depending on the dynamics of the scene. I’d come across a version of this idea in Keith Johnstone’s classic, Impro
     For weeks afterward, I watched myself carefully and observed groups of people at work or play, and sure enough, if you reduce relationships down to their bones, you can see this play out as your companions lunch or you enter a boss’s office. I’d thought the concept was crude. Then I looked around and confirmed that, yes, these status games do play out in real life.
     Once you establish who’s high or low status for a section of a scene, then certain behaviors can come into play. The powerful one, say, takes up more space, moves more slowly, displays stillness. The partner can shrink, scrunch up, slump. 

Use or lose the props
Our instructor pointed out that props must have a function, or not be on stage. They have to work to support an action or theme, and not be there just to cover up inactivity. If you inadvertently knock over a bowl, use it – that is, acknowledge that it happened as you would in real life, instead of being stuck on playing through the scene as you’d rehearsed it. 

Ditch the stage directions
Stage directions are usually written down after the first performance. So they reflect the movements and actions of the original cast or the choices director of the first production made. They may not make sense for your scene. Because they’re not carved in stone by the Author, you can try them out and use them. Or not. Unless Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams wrote them. Then you go to theatre hell.
     This was especially helpful in our scene. Some of the actions described in the stage directions didn't feel right, or I couldn't make them work. Maybe it's my problem. But having the freedom to try out other gestures in place of the ones written down made a huge difference in increasing the force and naturalness of the scene.

Two common faults
The scenes we watched mostly failed for any number of reasons. But the other scenes, as well as our scene, suffered from two common faults.
     First, they were all on one level. The actors had decided on a certain level to pitch it, a certain tone, and the would stay at that for the length of the scene. It's a bit like that fourth-grade flute player who hasn't mastered crescendoes or diminuendi or rubato.
     Each of the scenes were classically written. That is, they had a brief set up, rising action and a climax, with some dips and rises along the way. Like sex, actually. So, a lot of the work of the instructor centered on bringing out certain moments, adding some physical actions and varying the objectives to achieve some variety.
      The second issue is more broad, but still created problems. Everyone was still too nice. Too polite. That is, undramatic. Even granted with the permission to be mean, we actors still had a hard time pushing it. This would partly be because everyone has been socialized successfully to be nice -- we're all nice middle class people who are taking an acting class, after all.
     (Stars, must be so ravingly needy and ambitious that they don't have problems with being too nice. They have all experienced so much rejection along the way, that I'd guess whatever niceness they had got knocked out of them, too.)
      It shows up a second, larger challenge -- how to get around your own habits of acting and presentation in the so called real world. Again, after you pretend to be something for a certain number of years -- nice, for example -- it gets hard to ditch that, to dig in and find or imagine or create the quality that the author has in mind for your character.

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