Monday, October 01, 2012


In nature, thrashing around is what creatures do when the situation is so serious that there is no skill or strategy or strength that will let them escape.  In the jaws of the carnivore, at the last moments of fatal wounds, the body wants to live and thrashes in hopes that the random action will set it free.

In approaching creative acts, at the beginning of the enterprise it is important to allow this thrashing around, maybe muted to mere experimentation but sometimes extreme.  For an artist, underpainting, small studies, mockups, might all be helpful.   For a dancer, just moving around in a studio.  For a writer . . .  you’re lookin‘ at it.   People think that rehearsals for plays are a matter of learning to do exactly what the director or playwright wants done, but in fact it is often a period of experimenting in subtle and minute ways -- “tweaking” if you like.  Not always something major like, say, translating “Taming of the Shrew” into cowboy lingo (I did that, if you want a copy of the script.  It was easier than I expected.) but sometimes more a matter of internal attitude to adjust for style and maybe things like timing or set changes.  For a play, all this is done ahead of time.  For a movie, it is done both while shooting (maybe twenty versions of one fifteen-second reaction shot) and in the editing room.

People who paint know that if they put a bright yellow splotch in the upper lefthand corner, no matter what it is supposed to be, every bit of color and composition after that will have to take the yellow splotch into consideration.  What AK seemed to have as her central genius was not so much being able to crack open actors to their own inner lives (which she did when she could) but also the ability to look at the painting and say,  “Look, in this particular sort of painting, that yellow splotch badly needs a blue line top-to-bottom on the right hand side.”  That is, she had a sensitivity to the pattern of the whole and how that would affect the audience.  One can see that in her Eagles Mere notes more than anyplace else.

Carl Rungius’ equivalent was his practice of drawing a big X on the canvass from one corner to the other and then aligning the elements of the picture (downed trees, rock crags) on that X while the subject of the painting (moose,  mountain sheep ram) was at the crux.  This led the eye through to the focus.  AK also was wanting to lead the thought and emotion of the audience to what was the importance, the message.  It was composition in time, voice music, and movement through stage space.  

By obsessing about “the Method” people manage to avoid all these considerations, which are as much matters of experience as academic training.  Also those sunk in “Method” can avoid the on-set film community, which is the “holding community” that contains a play as much as the script is.  In undergrad years in the Department of Theatre, School of Speech, I sometimes saw emotional “thrashing around” as people fought for their identities.  Quite seriously, they felt their identities were dying.  As aspiring actors.  To make way for their real selves.  Often that meant recovery of deeper identities.  An identity is “emergent” -- it comes by itself.  You don’t choose it.  The same phenomenon sometimes showed itself at seminary.

Once I was obsessing about whether I were “feminine” enough.  An older and wiser person in the conversation said,  “Knock it off.  You are some kind of version of female so far as you know, and nothing else matters.  Just be what you are.”  Ah.  And the aspiring actor must discover what version of actor they are, with the yawning possibility at hand that they might not be actors at all.  Maybe just ordinary useful stage people.  Maybe something outside theatre.  The problem comes with wanting to be a star.  And keep the politics out, dammit. 

The opposite of “thrashing” is freezing, which is what I’ve often seen among American Indians, even adults.  It was a survival necessity a hundred years ago and earlier.  One froze to become invisible, to be safe because there were enemies, both red and white, who would kill you.  Even fifty years ago the kids wouldn’t dare do anything unless they were convinced they could do it “right.”  They knew if they did it “wrong” they might be beaten.  So if they were asked to do something they didn’t understand or thought was risky. they froze.  It was safer.  If you demonstrated how to do it, if you did it alongside them, they might take the risk.  Teaching acting is sometimes like that.

Now it has changed.  Rez kids of a certain prosperity feel they are not just safe, but entitled to get out there and do stuff.  Suddenly they shine in speech competitions.  They put on plays, dance and sing in musicals, paint, compose -- not so much writing.  Still afraid of the English teacher with the blood red pencil.  But new identities are emerging.

As I read through some of my old books about acting (the bulk of them seem to be from just before WWII and a few just after because they were what AK used as texts -- I posted a list on I begin to realize they are teaching one kind of acting, the kind that worked with the kind of plays being staged.  I think it simply became film.

Peter Brook wrote quite a brilliant book (“The Empty Space” 1968) trying to sketch out some categories for discussion.  He called his four essays, originally lectures, The Deadly Theatre (the old, fusty one), The Holy Theatre (trying to reach something unseen), The Rough Theatre (wild and wooly romping), and The Immediate Theatre (the living event that happens “emergently.”)  Interestingly, he concludes that good theatre needs good audiences and that the latter can be created or attracted.  He’s talking about experimental theatre companies supported by people who are specifically engaged with their work.  Very contemporary sort of preoccupation.  Difficult to consider when you can't see your audience.

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