Friday, November 30, 2012


The following was written by Alvina Krause, the legendary acting teacher, as an end-of-season evaluation of the productions at Eagles Mere Summer Playhouse in 1963.  I’m transcribing and accumulating these plus AK’s Master’s Thesis from 1933.  (  The name of this play was “All the Way Home”, better known as “A Death in the Family.”  It began as a novel, was a play and then a film.

Acting is creating -- acting is a creative art.  Imagination is the actor’s Creative Capacity.  Creative imagination and capacity can work only with and from realities, from tangibles, from things.  Tangibles: things, sounds, a necktie, a train whistle, a whiskey bottle, a jar of ginger snaps, a scuff on the floor, a brown coat, a blue dress, a teapot, etc. . . . ad infinitum.  These are the tangibles with which imagination works, creates; these are the tangibles which start off associations, from associations, linked associations stem the subtext of our inner lives.  These and our choices -- and you need to think a lot about this if you want to be great actors!  What is character?  The sum total of the choices we have made.  To paint a picture or go to market square; to take a drink or go for a swim, to buy a Chalmers or an ice box for Sally; to go to the movies or read “War and Peace,” to visit Great Great Gran-maw -- think how that event determined Rufus’ life, not to mention Jay’s and everyone’s!  We are the sum total of our choices -- the people you create are the sum total of their choices.  The author -- a playwright -- cannot put these on paper;  he can only give you the words which are the results of choices and associations with the environment which has posed the alternatives.  To marry a Catholic or not -- To live in Knoxville or the Canal Zone -- To stay a mail clerk or go into law -- to be an undertaker (they get rich) or to pay the mortgage or take a little trip. (Great Grandmaw’s) farm is not clear of debt -- did any of you make associations relating to that fact?)

Never again set out on the process of character creation without asking questions such as these, and without setting up the facts of environment which touch off the choices and which forever after are associated with that choice and the results of that choice.  Emotional, mental and physical patterns of expression and the words we say and the things we do are the results of this process of associations.  When I walked into rehearsals that Thursday morning the situation was alarming: you were saying words, doing things you had been directed to do, and playing at emotions which you thought belonged to these words and acts.  In short, you were headed straight for the boring performance of a Broadway flop -- and naturally you disliked the play.  (The people who dislike are following your procedure, believing the lines are the play).  The lines and the stage directions are keys to character, they provide a framework, they set up the situation -- But actually they are the skeleton which the actor, through the creative process, turns into a flesh and blood living human being with a past, present and future.  

I’ve mentioned before how the transcription of AK’s notes, plus the neurotheories of Damasio, are so useful to me in creating “The Bone Chalice” as a theory of liturgy or ritual.  Both are about the “thingness” of things, how they acquire meaning.  The exercise AK invented to get her actors activated was for them to spend an hour on the set “explaining” the objects that were either there as props or imagined to be there.  They told each other about the big chair where the father sat or a particular vase or a photo of the family, until their own minds, interacting with each other and with the things, had woven them together to some degree.  Then this imaginary onstage “family” came to life.  In the end the production was one of the most moving and successful of the season.

Gene Reeves, who was Dean of Meadville/Lombard Theological School for the later years I was there, decided to do the Vespers service traditional for Friday night.  Using the same technique, he asked us each to bring an object that had meaning for us and, during the service, to explain the object to the group.  I brought a bronze casting of my old “learning” horse’s head that Bob Scriver had made.  But I should have brought something with LESS meaning, because I burst into tears.  "Thingness" is not about emotion.

Ronald Grimes, a “ritologist”, has also experimented with asking people to explain objects to each other after giving the objects close attention, but he used simple things like a leaf or a stone.  Likewise at PNWD Leadership School we were asked to find a stone (we met at a beach) and explain it to a partner -- how the markings were, what the smoothness felt like, what color it was dry as opposed to wet -- and then give it to the partner.  We were surprised that after the exercise people quietly asked for "their" stone back.  I was given a little white quartz very smooth stone.  I think I still have it.

“Attachment” theory is that emotion forms around what we know well and intimately, whether it is a person or a object or a behavior.  What you sense becomes you.  In fact, the next step is that the IDEA of it becomes an object in the brain -- even an abstract concept becomes built-in to the molecular structure of cells.  I need to read much more about this.  But I know that it takes effort to either de-activate or transform a meaningful complex intimate idea, particularly when there are many significant and rewarding sensory cues: color, lights, aromas, sounds, and so on.  But particularly human relationships.

Many will be reflecting on these phenomena in this Christmas season.  For the lucky ones there will be the satisfaction of fulfilling expectations and perhaps exceeding them or adding new layers of meaning.  For the unlucky ones there will be broken attachments or maybe not even meaningful things to remember.  The resourceful will make new events, using the material culture around them, the thingness around them.  Like those many stories about poverty in which someone managed to, say, find enough tinfoil in a waste can to make an ornament and hang it on a shrub in the park.  Even a story can be a thing.  If you can think it, you can attach to it.

No comments: