Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Blocking + Balance = Rehearsal Goodness

More thoughts about the thematic issue of balance, which I'm still convinced is somehow at the heart of the characters' negotiations with the world, and with each other:

When learning about Shakespeare, one of the first concepts that high-schoolers get dropped on their collective lap is the Elizabethan World Picture. That phrase comes from a book by E.M.W. Tillyard, and it refers to the way Shakespeare and his contemporaries envisioned the structure of the universe. Elizabethans imagined the cosmos as a hierarchical construct, a ladder with God at the top, the Devil at the bottom, and humankind somewhere in the middle. Or not just somewhere, very precisely placed beneath angels, and above animals, plants, and inanimate objects.

Even mankind itself had an inherent hierarchy, a miniature version of the Big Picture. The King was at the top, followed by royalty, nobility, knights, commoners, and finally peasants and beggars. Women were subservient to men, Jews were subservient to Christians (can you guess who invented this hierarchy?), and so forth. Everyone, and everything, had its place.

Now here's where the Great Chain of Being comes into play for us: when the hierarchy gets disrupted somehow, it sends shockwaves throughout the natural universe. When an ordinary man kills a king, for instance (as in Macbeth), or when children disobey their parents (R&J), or even when a king voluntarily submits to his inferiors (Lear), all of nature recoils at the deed. In Shakespeare, you tend to get earthquakes, storms, lions in the streets and sometimes (if you're really lucky) two-headed calves!

So Lear abdicates, and the universe--nature and civilization alike--promptly goes ass-over-teakettle. By the time he got to Lear, Shakespeare had used this thematic device so often that he could afford to parody it by putting it into Gloster's mouth (at a point in the play when Gloster is still more or less a buffoon):

"Love cools, brothers divide. In Cities, mutinies; in Countries, discord; in Palaces, Treason; and the Bond cracked ‘twixt Son and Father."

Students can grasp this concept--the hierarchy of the universe--without too much trouble. But it's rather abstract, and tough for actors to translate into concrete theatrical terms. For one thing, the images of the chain and the ladder are vertical; but unless your stage has a lot of levels and balconies to play in, your actors will mostly be working horizontally.

But there was another, related cosmic metaphor in Shakespeare's time: the Spheres. The Ptolemaic vision of the universe which placed the Earth at the centre and expanded outwards to the stars. The Spheres suggest authority through concentric circles, which you can easily depict on a horizontal, flat stage. It's not a perfect correlation (since, if I recall correctly, Heaven was actually on the outermost sphere), but we can crush it a little and make it work.

Now, this is where Balance comes in. For a universe of concentric circles to function smoothly (picture a great machine, like Augra's astrological contraption in The Dark Crystal), it needs to be perfectly weighted and balanced. It needs a single, steady weight in the centre, and a number of precisely calculated weights on each outward circle--probably the weight would have to be more evenly spread out as you go outwards, otherwise the whole thing would tip over.

Now picture those weights as human beings, with the King in the centre, and all of his people revolving around him--royalty on one ring, nobility on another, knights and servants and beggars on others, everything precisely placed. Everyone's movements choreographed to keep the machine functioning.

Now take the King out of the centre.

Things wouldn't fall apart immediately. They might do so, especially if the King's disappearance is a violent act which shakes the whole machine (Macbeth again, or Julius Caesar). But if he simply stepped back, onto another ring...well, ajustments would have to be made...people might have to move over, or step from one ring to another...and if someone on one side moves, it means somebody on the far side of the machine will have to move as well, to counter them...and suddenly the whole thing becomes terribly precarious. The only way to stabilize the machine would be to get somebody new into the centre spot.

But there isn't just one person. There's two daughters, plus Cornwall and Albany, plus Edmund, barrelling towards the heart of the machine with such reckless abandon, he doesn't care what topples over in his wake. And then there are others, like Kent and Cordelia and France, who want to get Lear back into his spot in the centre--so they have to move in such a way as to block the others. It's like a chess game, except the board keeps tilting, and if you're not well placed, you'll fall.

I think that, once this idea gets illustrated to a cast, it will be very useful for blocking purposes. In fact, I think that I can combine it with my early work on personal rhythms in such a way that the characters will practically block themselves. Advances, retreats, and lots of concentric movement will all fall into place, because the actors will be watching one another, calculating balance, compensating for other movements and groupings on the stage.

And fast blocking means fast memorization, and that means more runs, which means a better, tighter show. Three cheers for balance!


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