Monday, January 30, 2006

Lessons and Issues

I've been distracted and useless for most of the day, getting pre-premiere butterflies as I often do. As an exercise, I've started sorting through the issues I had to face during this rehearsal process, in an attempt to derive a few personal lessons. I'm not such an old dog that I can't learn a few new tricks.

1. Themes
Early on, I looked at "three themes" in Lear--the familial, the political, and the cosmic. I decided my work with the actors would focus mostly on the first theme, and that I would leave the other two spheres to the designers, or just let Shakespeare take care of them himself. I think I made the right choice. Rather than spend a lot of early rehearsals examining outdated political or philosophical concepts like the Divine Right of Kings or the Great Chain of Being, I found a familiar hook for both the play's major plots (Lear and his daughters, Gloster and his sons).

The thing I learned here was that, once I'd settled on the family approach, I didn't even need to seek outside analogies. I don't think the cast needed to locate parallels in their own family histories, or correlate stories they'd heard about tremendously dysfunctional families. For the most part, they just used each other, trusting that the faces they saw each night they came to rehearsal would, inevitably, coalesce into a family unit. And that's what happened, and happens with any well-oiled ensemble. What I mean to say is that Dale's interpretation of Lear did not suffer from his own personal lack of daughters...because by the time we were ready to mount the show, Dale had "adopted" Beverly, Brittainy, and Anna-Maria as surrogate daughters.

When you feel close to your cast-mates, you don't need to replace their faces with imaginary or remembered ones. You just use your imagination, play a bit of "what if." "Now that Anna-Maria is like a daughter to me, how would I feel if she rejected me in public?" The game of make-believe becomes almost ridiculously easy from there.

Not every show (or even every Shakespeare play) has family placed so centrally. But in any play, you want relationships to be intense and feelings to run deep. Part of the reason actors have acquired the reputation of being flaky is their professional commitment to the cast of each production; in order to act well, they essentially need to fall in and out of love every time they do a show. It's actually a lot of work.

2. Status and Rank
I obsessed about this quite a bit in the first weeks of rehearsal, but I can now see that, like the family dynamics, issues of status tend to work themselves out naturally on stage. Part of that process happens late in the game, when costumes arrive (and Melissa's costumes say a lot about individual ranks, which is exactly what I asked for).

But mostly, it happens early, and not because of any hierarchy within the cast itself (strong casts tend to be extremely democratic; I don't think I've identified any divas in this group). Near as I can figure, it has to do with blocking. When a character is speaking, they gain in status--usually because they are vying for status through their words. The same is doubly true of movement, if you agree with my axiom that "every movement must mean."

So I think what happened here is, my cast patiently endured all my unnecessary status exercises, waiting for the time when they could see each scene spread out upon the stage. Once it was clear who was standing upstage, who was downstage, and who was moving at what time, their sense of status and rank just settled into place. If I asked Oswald (for example) to move during one of Kent's lines ("That such a slave as this should wear a sword"), the actors onstage understood implicitly that this meant Oswald had a higher status, even though he was not delivering any lines at that moment.

Status isn't unique to Lear, or Shakespeare; it's intrinsically woven into all good drama, and having an instinct for detecting shifts in status is one characteristic of a great actor. Some scripts make it super-duper-easy to see status see-saws going on (Albee's Zoo Story comes to mind). If Lear turned out to be a bit more complex, all that meant was that the actors waited until their blocking was in place, and then played the cards I dealt 'em. Simple as that.

But that brings me to...

3. Blocking
Can a play block itself? Some Shakespeare scholars believe that the King's Men had no rehearsal time whatsoever; they just learned their individual parts and strode out onto the stage, come what may. I thought I could devise a system that would enable the cast to work out their own blocking, using status shifts as a sort of miracle equation. I'd managed to pull off a similar feat, albeit on a much smaller scale, when I directed Othello in 2003.

It didn't work with Lear, mainly because I chickened out and just went ahead and blocked things the old fashioned way. But I can now see, based on what I just observed about status, that I was using the wrong tools. If actors use blocking to determine status, then it's no good asking them to use status to determine blocking. Maybe if I'd done way more table work, or come right out and "assigned" status shifts in each scene...but if I'm going to spend that much time on status, I might as well spend time blocking instead.

In other words, the blocking-status equation turned out to be a chicken-and-egger, and so it's probably a good thing I backed out before I wasted too much time on it. I'm not sure if this means all hope is lost, and a play this big and complicated will simply never block itself...but I'm going to have to go back to the drawing board if I really want to find something that works.

Why am I so desperate to circumvent this stage of the rehearsal process? Partly, I want to buy myself more time for text and character work, because I know there are way more juicy secrets buried in a script like Lear, and I think we barely managed to scratch the surface during this process.

But I also have to rely on my previously stated axiom: "Every movement must mean." Actors need to feel a sense of ownership of their bodies and their blocking. T
hese are the keys to characterization, and on a much more primal level than voices and lines. And yet, what use is my axiom, if I, the dictator/director, tell them where and when to move? Obviously, I try to explain why I want Oswald to move on Kent's line. And I know that good actors are adept at inventing motivations for whatever crazy blocking notions their directors have dropped in their laps. But there will never be the same sense of ownership that comes when an actor moves of their own volition, because their character MUST move, because if they don't move they'll explode.

With small cast shows, there is usually more time to let actors explore their options. And with small cast shows, the repercussions are usually less dire if an actor decides he must alter his/her blocking (ie. there are fewer fellow cast members to confuse). Here, I feel as though I have failed to afford this cast the opportunity to take possession of their physical selves onstage--and that means their world will never be as real, as complete, as self-contained as it deserves to be.

The good news is: the memory of an actor's body is more durable than the memory of an actor's mind. That means they will continue to move as I've directed them long after they have forgotten how each bit of blocking came about. And by the end of the run, no doubt they will feel ownership of ther movements, as they already do of their lines, their characters, and their props (watch Ron fondle his cane, and you'll see what I mean). So, for now, the solution to my self-derived conundrum seems to be: block 'em early, so they can forget that it was you who blocked 'em. Hardly ingenious, but it will have to do for now.


Blogger cpc said...

Good points, but the bottom line is... it's a great show! I jumped when the thunder struck. I held my breath when Kent teetered on the barrel in the stocks. I cried with Lear over Cordelia. And this was the director's preview. It's only going to get better. I can't wait to see it again.

Kudos to all (even the director).

10:11 a.m.  

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