Sunday, September 30, 2012
In was in my first “dramatics” textbook that I read about the shared origins of drama and religion. “The Stage and the School” by Katharine Anne Ommanney. Copyright 1932, 1939,1950 and 1960. Some of the illustrations were photos taken by Louise Phillips at Jefferson High School, where I was so involved as a student. I’m not in any of the photos; however, my drama teacher, Melba Day Sparks, was in several of them. She had a shirt striped like an umpire’s shirt and she was very tall, once a Powers model, so glamorous for a high school teacher. She made it clear that she had a union card for backstage work, which enabled her to legally paper her office with black wallpaper imprinted with bright masks of tragedy and comedy.
In the Fifties Portland, Oregon, was sort of gray, but not in the new performance wing of Jefferson High school. (There was an outstanding orchestra and several choirs.) The stage, designed by Sparks, met professional standards. I was convinced that it was at the center of the universe. It came as a shock to understand that when you graduated, you had to leave. “Where are you going to college?” they all wanted to know.
I went to Mrs. Sparks and asked her. Melba Day attended Northwestern University in the days when the scene shop was down at the beach in an old shed. I picked up a brick from there and slipcovered it with felt to give her as a memento doorstop. She didn’t like AK -- too harsh. (She hadn’t picked up on AK’s “thing” about height. She didn’t understand that harsh was a good sign.) I don’t know who Melba Day's mentors actually were, but they were effective. She became the head of the National Thespian Society and was always active in that high school context. When I asked where I should go, she said Northwestern. So I did.
We were close. Everyone always wants me to housesit (they have never seen my notion of housekeeping), especially if animals are involved. So I stayed in her chartreuse house with black and purple and dark turquoise walls, taking care of a huge cage of finches, another walk-in cage of birds in the yard, and the doberman, named Charcoal. Victor Sparks had created “Charco-salt,” a condiment with a lot of smoke in it, which was very popular. They were not poor. There were stacks of high-end interior decorating mags that seemed an extension of theatre. On the mantel was a delicate porcelain nude, running alongside a racing leopard.
They moved out to a little farm on a hilltop and wanted me to come live with them, take care of them, and then I could write. I knew I would never write there. But I took refuge a few times. Then they moved again to a gated community with nursing and hospital facilities on the premises. The years went by. Vic Sparks died. When Melba went to remarry, I did the wedding. When she died (of alcoholism and esophageal cancer), I did the memorial. Being brilliant, hard-working, and glamourous will not prevent anyone from suffering and dying. But it can make a lot of people glad you were alive.
Tim’s experience was totally different. He began to act as a child in a relative’s theatre troupe. Little blonde eight-year-old man, he didn’t play Peter Pan -- he played Captain Hook! In high school he was Huckleberry Finn -- he never stopped. One of the things we both know is that theatre is dangerous; acting will change who you are. The edges of your life, the verge of the stage, can be knocked out so the sky is the kuppelhorizont and the planet takes a seat to watch. It won’t keep you from dying.
According to Benedetti’s acting book (“The Actor in You: Sixteen Simple Steps to Understanding the Art of Acting,” which I just brought home from the post office an hour ago) people watch tragedies in order to discover the truth. For those of us who mix theatre and life, poetry and life, the pain of life itself is excruciating enough -- why not wring the truth out of it? Once we break the illusions of being in control, of being able to decide whether or not we are “worthy,” of deciding what in our life we should try to preserve and hand on -- what then?
That’s where religion mingles with theatre. Not that religion has any more answers than a masked actor on platform shoes, but that it holds up a mirror. I read a description of a “performance” -- or you might call it a liturgy. It is between theatre and religious service.
Go into a closed room with an oscillating fan. Sit with a big sheet of chilled glass in front of you. Lean forward and breathe on it. Observe the cloud that is your breath, your life, as it forms on the glass. Lean back and see that the cloud quickly evaporates.
Do this again but this time with a partner who breathes on the other side of the chilled glass. You lean forward, you lean back, he leans forward, he leans back. Observe the life force of each other. Reflect on how you feel.
What is not included in the description is the idea of the chilled glass shattering. In the Scriver Studio we saved the biggest pieces of plate glass we could find because we held them against the bottom of plaster-cast molds to make sure the base was flat. If we saw someone had thrown a rock through a store window, we were there, asking for the broken glass. Someone gave us the glass out of the fronts of television sets but they had a peculiar trick. They would be leaning against the wall with other pieces when suddenly -- for no cause -- they would shatter. Not just crack, but shatter like windshield safety glass. They must have been cast (glass is cast molten and rolled into sheets) in some way that put them under tension.
Theatre is a safe way to look at life transparently and yet with tension.
This is Corinthians 13:
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
That’s just breath. Now lean back. Prepare for nothing.
Saturday, September 29, 2012
Here in my hand is a little booklet entitled “A Report from Dean Dennis from the School of Speech.” It is the equivalent of a blog, meaning that it is the collected letters that Ralph Dennis wrote, mimeographed, and sent to a list of friends while he traveled around the world on sabbatical. As it happened, the time period coincides with the period of my gestation (B. October, 1939) which is totally irrelevant compared to the other coincidence: the beginning of WWII, which cut short the trip. This is what made the “posts” significant enough to be underwritten by Washington Flexner, a Chicago patron of the NU community. I’m grateful, because it allows insight into Ralph Dennis, who had much more to do with Alvina Krause as teacher of acting than did Stanislavsky. It was Dean Dennis who hired and supported AK.
http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/tc/id/45353/rec/1 was the source for the above photo of Dean Dennis as well as the flyer for his talents as a Chatauqua speaker, both edifying and electrifying. His specialty was travel and culture, his style was the Mid-Western practical idealism of a Harry Truman sort. Not that he wasn’t capable of whimsy. Consider the following:
“McCarthy was a well-known entertainer, whose Chicago-based radio show, The Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy Show, aired on NBC from 1937-1956. In August 1938, during an appearance on the show, School of Speech dean Ralph Dennis awarded McCarthy an honorary “Master of Innuendo and Snappy Comebacks” degree. What’s so strange about that, you ask? Well, McCarthy is a dummy. No, I’m not insulting his intelligence–McCarthy was actually a ventriloquist’s doll. McCarthy’s creator, Edgar Bergen, discovered at a young age that he had a talent for throwing his voice. So while attending high school in Chicago he created a dummy, named Charlie McCarthy and modeled after a local newsie, and began performing as a ventriloquist. In the 1920s, Bergen came to Northwestern originally to study medicine, but soon decided to transfer to the School of Speech and eventually dropped out to pursue his career in entertainment. (From www.Northbynorthwestern.com()
Looking back from 2012, it may be Dean Dennis' founding of the Summer Institute that impresses us more. www.northwestern.edu/nhsi Sentimental, idealistic, romantic, and calling its participants “cherubs,” the whole thing might strike us as almost unbearably twee if so many good consequences hadn’t come from it when the cherubs grew up.
This “blog” was in the beginning meant to be a tour of the glories of the world, a sharp inquiry into European colonialism, a sympathetic visit to the world of the -- well, the “Third World” before it was called that. Lots of shipboard conversations with ex-pats after the sun had sunk below the yardarm -- and all that. Sometimes funny and sometimes dismaying. By the end Dean Dennis has learned a lot about colonial hell and devilish oppressors. As he says, “The British world is a wonderful one -- for the British.” By that time he had been in trouble for calling a half-caste “brother” and for running out of money because of changes in banking rules due to the war. His patience wore thin.
But his reaction was not to “oppose slings and arrows.” Rather, he became a defender of isolationism, an appreciator of Evanston, Illlnois, as a center of civilization and intelligence. Or what he took for those qualities. One of his favorite friends is Lew Sarett, poet and naturalist. He’s more progressive than liberal. His eyes are opened. He says, “I do not believe that we are so holy, so righteous, that it is our duty to arm to the teeth and preach sermons abroad. . . . I do not believe that our democracy is challenged by the war in Europe. I believe that our democracy is challenged by its own internal weaknesses. I believe that it is our job to make democracy work here and to let the other nations of the world govern themselves as they sit fit. I do not believe that God wants the United States to be the moral policeman of the world.”
Alvina Krause was not inclined to be a revolutionary or a radical, though she could accept innovative theatre on its own terms. Like the Chatauqua society (like Harold Bloom, a bit of a throwback), she appreciated the good old Greeks and Elizabethans and the well-known standards, the well-trodden boards of Ibsen and Chekhov. I can’t remember her talking about attending Broadway plays or even Chicago touring companies. (Maybe she did and I didn’t know about it.) I have no idea what she would have made of the theatre companies (like BTE, now) who use circus skills, multi-media, and group-written scripts. I never heard about her traveling anyplace, though she would refer to Oregon now and then, where she taught as a young woman.
I don’t know why she and Lucy settled in Bloomsburg, though it is clearer why Eagles Mere seemed a good summer repertory location. It was just decayed enough to make room for a lodge full of actors and a barn full of plays. Enough summer people came to form an audience, though much of it was year-round local. She was proud when they saw the relevance of the Great Dramas to their lives, but there was a little bit of patronizing in it.
I could find no biography of Dean Ralph Dennis on Google in spite of his MAJOR contribution to the Northwestern University School of Speech. He has no entry in Wikipedia. The time between the World Wars goes unremarked, except for the Depression which has suddenly become interesting again. Someone with access to the NU archives should get to work. In the meantime, I am glad to have acquired this booklet in 1960 -- I have no idea how or where -- because it is such a window, sometimes in ways Dean Dennis could not have anticipated, though he’s remarkably non-sexist and admirably willing to visit shantytowns.
He reads conscientiously and chats up the locals, but is very glad to get home where they can brew a proper cup of coffee and keep the rooms warm, let alone the plumbing functional. Somehow, I have a feeling that his “cherubs” were precursors of the Peace Corps. But a woman in those days was not likely to take off on a tramp steamer with a backpack. I don’t know whether AK would have done it if she could have.
Friday, September 28, 2012
Commonly it is assumed that the sacred is impossible to perceive by science because it is unaccountable, mystical and magical. Of course, there have always been those who thrill to math and find meaning in formulas. I want to take an idiosyncratic path through all this. I am as interested in “show” as “tell.”
Begin with the eukaryote, the tiny one-celled creature with a nucleus that can “have sex,” that is, share genomes with another one-celled creature. No longer dependent on budding, thus producing clones, the little critter has laid a pseudopod on creation. In the beginning was the Code. (A Word is only a Code.)
The one-celled creature could only respond. (That’s an actor’s word.) It could go towards things that were good for it, and avoid things that were bad for it, including any molecules dissolved in the fluid in which the creature floated and motivated. (This became our sense of smell.) There were no organs, so substances were taken in or thrown out by pushing them through the wall of the cell. (The image in my mind is always a medieval housewife emptying a chamberpot out the window!)
Over the millennia, things got more complicated but it still all came down to intake and outflow. Complexification demands more clever “engineering.” This was emergent structure -- there were no engineers, not even one great big engineer in the sky. So -- notochords, tubing for carrying concentrations of fluid with special ingredients like oxygen, and little pumps to drive it. (Do you know an angleworm has nine hearts?)
Sensation became routed, matrixes developed to specialize, and a laparoscopic head-end developed at the top of the notochord. “Mesenchymal cells migrate from the primitive knot to form a midline cellular cord known as the notochordal process.” [DO look it up! http://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=notochordal+process&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8] Something very parallel happens as a persona develops. We say in acting, “What is the SPINE of this person?” meaning motives, yearnings, aim in life, the coherent spear of intention. But the action is always back at the boundary, the skin that separates the creature from the milieu, that prevents it from dissolving. Every sense evolves from that skin, but now the tip of the spear, the brain -- originally only a knob at the top of the spine -- is the guide sorting out the two actions: go forward/ingest, retreat/avoid.
On top of the neural tube things form: diencephalon, proencephalon. telecephalon. It’s all just fancy talk to most of us. But the point is, as it gets more complicated, the creature takes in more information from outside the skin and therefore must do more sorting and classifying, and therefore can allow more measured and subtle responses -- maybe just a tightened lip, a tilted eyebrow, a clenched butt muscle. Now we’re performing our anatomy. Our persona is our performed body as we take in sensation and release “response.” In a good actor, one sees the taking in, the quick-sorting, and the decision to act. We call that “inevitability.” Authentic. The differences in the way we sort information and act on it, we call “personality.”
One creature can see these things happening in another creature. Your dog sees what you’re thinking. (Your cat sees, but figures what does it have to do with her?) Even a fly or ant can try to avoid your swatting hand. Some humans are better at it than others. Some humans signal more than they think, often mixed signals -- hands saying one thing, feet saying another.
I once stood just outside a shark’s aquarium (hoping the glass was at least six inches thick) about two feet away from the shark’s eye. It did not see me. It did not care. It did not know i was there. Sharks sense only things in the water with them, possibly through subtle electrical charges or dispersed molecules of blood. The starring night sky as seen from a dark place can seem as inscrutable and uncaring as that shark. Or you can be that shark, cruising, always cruising the stars in case of something meaningful -- meaning edible.
“Meaningful” to a human is more than food. Meaningful is what supports survival as individuals and as species. We ingest ideas/ideals and excrete the ones that don’t work. Mostly we take huge amounts of information in through our senses, sort and discard much before the real import of the pattern gets up through the brain stem, the reptile brain, the limbic system, the cerebrum and eventually to the frontal forebrain where our clearest and most intense humanity is focused, the little camera at the tip of the fiber-optic. But it happens in a flash.
If something is strong and clear enough to make it to that level, maybe with the help of arts or scientific ideas or just another human creature, then it may be intense enough to be “Sacred.” It shakes and shudders us, fills us with light, paradox, epiphany. When you’re a little kid, a powerful movie can do it. Some of us search all our lives without ever feeling it -- the membrane between us and the universe may be too thick, too guarded, too quick to censor and filter. Or our self may be clenched against pain and starvation. Our curiosity atrophies because our lives are too safe -- we are sessile in our shells, letting the bits of sustenance come to us on the tide.
What Performance Art can crack open an adult oyster, well-anchored? Ritual? Violence? Sex? Drugs? Threats of burning in Hell? We keep trying to find out. These days it takes a good deal of study and skill. Atrocities don’t seem to move us much anymore. Injustice? Personal danger? Combat? Poverty just dulls us. Therapy? How much can we absorb from a fellow creature? Can you get an oyster drunk? (Is there anything more phallic than a geoduck?) What paroxysm of epiphany will wake up a Wall Street banker who doesn’t even work on Wall Street anymore?
Or let’s look at it the other way around. For a child who has been abused and sexually taken to climax by a well-loved adult, in a storm of pain, ecstasy, love and terror, ever be content with an ordinary life? Can a person tortured to the edge of death and forced into gratitude by the tiniest respite, ever reach out? Can a man captured by terrorists and forced to choose which leg will be shot off, ever stop making choices in his head? We are our bodies, we are our minds, and we are both -- there is no boundary. The boundary is at the skin. Wonder in the front end; boredom out the rear end -- the result is AK’s “astonishment of living.” Life is stalking us. The Sacred is dangerous.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
The idea was simply to type up my notes from the acting classes I took from Alvina Krause between 1957 to 1961. It’s turning into Pilgrim’s Progress. The sources I will name now are not morally invested like the symbols in that hoary old book, but they are representative of different points of view that both inform and frustrate attempts at biography or, more pointedly, attempts to describe and evaluate acting methods and the teaching of acting. The big cyclorama “green-screen” constructed by the media, of course, is the Stanislavsky “Method” that has seduced so many, promising them fame and fortune to say nothing of passion between the sheets, mumbling pillow talk.
This “blogging” is a way of working that wasn’t possible before the Internet and that will be disconcerting to some and fulfilling to others. Those who think of this blog as a “Montana” or even Blackfeet source must be braced, but not because I’m going to shocking in terms of revelations and broken taboos. (I DID shut off the “safe search” feature but I’m not making people sign in after a warning that I might talk about sex, which seems to be the only “adult” subject matter.) This is not directly about cowboys and Indians.
I’m working in reference to the thesis by David Press, available like all Ph.D. theses through http://www.proquest.com which is a thesis archiving website. $37 “A PH.D. THESIS FOR CARNEGIE MELLON ENTITLED "THE ACTING & TEACHING OF ALVINA KRAUSE: THEORY AND PRACTICE” by David Robert Press. In the past it has been brushed aside but it is carefully footnoted. The trouble is that AK had a change of heart midstream.
I’m also working off the notes I took and my memories of the time period, as well as the notes generously posted by David Downs, who was AK’s designated heir as acting teacher in the NU Department of Theatre, defined as stage acting in repertory. (DavidGoingOn.blogspot.com ) By comparison “Industrial” theatre (I’m thinking mainstream Broadway musicals or film and television) are different. The kind of theatre now represented by groups like “Looking Glass Theatre” who create their own productions, often from local history mixed with classical mythology and including such things as juggling, puppets or trapeze work, develops out of and -- I would argue -- is a logical continuation of AK’s understanding of theatre as a community within a community. (Sample at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZq5W-hVKaE Looking Glass has connections with NU, just as it did with Steppenwolf and Second City.)
The much broader and more philosophical department of “Performance Arts” at NU was separated not so long ago, maybe thirty years. It would include my idea of a person as a performance (which I’m drawing from various psych contexts, including Internal Family Systems Therapy and Gestalt), “flash” performances that are possibly high culture (“The Messiah” at Christmas) and possibly social protest (pouring blood). These ideas are open to ethnic and highly experimental means, often as technical methods become available -- projecting Mapplethorpe nudes on the sides of buildings in public squares or streaming sequences filmed by children on the tiny screens of smartphones.
Performance Arts is open to “philosophy of performance” in the same way as everything spiritual -- whether part of an institution or not -- is open to “philosophy of religion.” Both are interested in the human creature and how it works. We know we take in sensory information (some yearn after super-sensory mystical information), do something with it according to our internal structure, abilities and needs -- then act and interact. Sometimes we are more interested in the individual and sometimes the greater community -- clear up to the most extreme and inclusive patterns that are the cosmos.
My informal (and involuntary) guides for this grandiose enterprise are Brian Rusted at the U of Calgary, who was at Northwestern in the early Eighties when the two disciplines separated, and Robert Benedetti, who was at NU when I was, except that he was mostly in the Department of Interpretation. I’m bound to get things wrong. Rusted has been reading my blog for a long time. Benedetti always terrified me at NU, so I approach him gingerly but he HAS written well-respected books on acting as well as doing a bit of social action in the fine movies: “Miss Evers’ Boys” and “A Lesson Before Dying,” powerful and much praised films in which he was both producer and actor. He still teaches acting and is emailing me.
The person you can’t see but who is a strong contributer and provocateur for more, more, more thinking is my close friend, Tim Barrus, who has roots in the wildly exhilarating San Fran days that were crushed by AIDS. I was a costumer for Eagles Mere. He was costumer for fabulous, incredible, disruptive theatre. (If you go researching, remember Wikipedia can be HIGHLY misleading, simply by omission.) Since 2006 or so, one of my daily tasks has been to find ways to explain a cruel world to street boys by using what I learned as preparation for ministry to nice educated people, mostly prosperous and in families. Remarkably, sometimes it worked, and NOT remarkably, sometimes they had to explain the world to me.
A big part of arts (and religion) is finding dimension, not getting deflected off into teeny-tiny issues of immediate personal interests. If all the pain and struggle of learning one’s field and skills is to count for anything, it has to be aimed at the Ultimate. Not just “love, sweet love,” but also justice, facing the abyss. (AK would mention Antigone right about now.)
Usually I end these posts by circling around to the beginning, so I will. AK’s life and work are remarkable because this small town woman (literally “small”) lived through two World Wars and the Great Depression (not to mention the Roaring Twenties) on a major urban university campus without losing her focus or her tenure. Then in old age she found a way to survive the Aquarian dislocation of the Sixties and Seventies by returning to small town repertory theatre. (My guide here is Jim Goode of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. www,bte,com) Surely she still has much to teach us, whether or not we are actors.
And in the background -- oh, they are always sneaking up (It’s a performance art form.) -- are the Blackfeet who were always noted for dream narrative and oratory, ceremonial performances and trickster politics. When a local female drama teacher (white) was fired for “romancing” her lead actor (enrolled), no one was much surprised. Happens on university campuses all the time -- always has. (Yes, even same sex schools. Even seminaries.) The force for life, for creation, for survival, drives everything. The difference is that we make plays about it. Did you know AK wanted to cast Benedetti in a production of “Oedipus”? I kinda wish it had happened. The rehearsals might have been more exciting than the opening night.
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Walt Whitman claimed that he contained multitudes and we all assumed that he was speaking metaphorically -- that he didn’t have some kind of multiple personality disorder -- but maybe the truth was neither. Certainly the counseling work of people like Dick Schwartz, a founder of Internal Family Systems Therapy suggests that Walt had “parts” or “modes” or “roles” he could put to the front of his consciousness to suit the occasion. Same as the rest of us do. Few of us actually have the consistency of personality we pretend to -- all of us are different on formal occasions, or under stress, or a bit high either chemically or situationally.
When I work on my “Bone Chalice” project, which is about designing liturgical experiences that will evoke intense experience of meaning without any dogma or institution (most of us call that spirituality or the Sacred but one expert suggests that "performance art is liturgy for the unchurched"), I’m forced to think about what the “individual” human consciousness really is. I’m trying to integrate the following list of issues and more. What IS a person?
1. The unformed child
2. The forming child
3. The child who is traumatized or abused and copes by forming a separate identity or maybe several. (This can be labeled “dissociation” but it's not all that “dissociation” can be.)
4. The adult who has separate personalities in different situations. (ie: at a party, at the store, playing an instrument, doing housework. I’m big on jokes at the checkout counter, but not at home.)
5. The adult who has split off internally into separate “named” people who are not necessarily aware of each other and often quite different. This is the formal “multi-personality” person: Sybil and Eve and all that. More usual is an internal “no go” area that one doesn’t think about. A cancelled identity. We could say "repressed."
6. The person, adult or not, who while reading or watching a movie “becomes” the character in the story.
7. An actor who takes on a character as a professional occupation.
8. A person hypnotized and told to take on a different personality, maybe an earlier version of themselves. Maybe a chicken.
Because a person is one physical body, we tend to believe that each contains only one personality, but this is plainly not true. But this is a separate issue than the idea that the brain sorts sensory information at separate matrixes of neurons. We should not think that one little spot in the brain contains one identity and another little spot contains another one. Rather, it’s my belief that a brain is like one of those desk-sized light boards or sound boards of switches that manage electronic equipment for stage lighting or for recording music. That is, the differences of personality are different calibrational mixes of resources available to all the personalities. The only obvious limits would be curtailed sensory input (deaf or blind) or limited ability to respond (paralysis or missing limbs). Personality belongs in the academic discipline of Performance Arts because personality IS a performance, not an entity. It is what the entity can perform.
Therapy or acting training are thus so closely allied because both aim to expand the ability to perform identities. Performing identity in a technical way by imitating a walk or a way of dressing is not the same thing as the internal creation of a persona, which is the true origin of performance subtle enough to signal authenticity to the onlooker. This internal creation is best handled through the use of metaphor because it is an economical and natural way to carry “thick” meaning.
Now I’m going to make some flat statements that are really meant to be working hypotheses so they can be measured against established therapeutic counseling and acting training. I’m going to include my ideas about maturation and social pressure.
I. PERSONA FORMATION
I propose that just as the earliest years form the matrix in the brain for sensing and organizing thought categories, the years of the adrenarchy (6 to maybe 10) are normally the period in which identity forms: the sense of who one is, how others can be expected to treat one, and what powers one has to affect others. Abuse or neglect in these years are deeply distorting.
I propose that when the persona forms, there is a “platform persona” which is the “location” of that dashboard of possible responses, their calibration and cross-actions. Maybe: 10% pride, 20% aggression, a trace of testosterone, a shot of adrenaline, and 50% protection” -- the result: a big brother. This is sort of like those joke “recipes” for personality or love or success: (99% perspiration, 1% inspiration.) But there is a certain consistency to the patterns that is what we recognize as the person we know.
The Presentation Persona is the face one wears in public, whether meek or bold, animated or stoic, and so on. It tends to be the aspect of ourselves that will get us what we want, whether polite, aloof, pitiful or seductive.
The Parasitical Persona sounds kind of nasty but needn’t be. It’s a kind of borrowed identity or one that comes from one’s relationship to another person, maybe a parent or a partner. One likes to be what one’s loved one wants to present or needs to depend upon. We all begin as parasitical growths in mothers. The Dionysis myth is about Zeus allowing his son to be a parasitical fetus in the flesh of his leg.
You could invent more kinds of personas. So there are two tasks for the client or actor: one is to understand one’s own “personality board” as used unconsciously and habitually. The other is to expand or reconsider for future growth.
II. PERSONA PROJECTION
Transformation of oneself into a new identity can be an occupational necessity, as for a surgeon or a soldier, as well as the stock in trade of the actor. Social expectations will suppress the hostile minister, the wild child.
The Trickster is a cross-cultural character who embodies the ability to change from one identity to another. Sometimes Tricksters bring a way of escape from an intolerable situation and sometimes they are simply con-men, swindlers. It’s not the end result of transformation but the means of achieving it that is managed by the persona control board.
Personal conversion can be quite a good thing for the party concerned as well as for others, maybe for society in general. But it can be confusing as in the stories like the old man who wants to be taken across a river but must be gripped and borne even as he changes into a leopard, a frog, a flame. Proteus. Sometimes a loved one goes through terrifying changes like that and then we have to hang on to them.
III. PERSONA TRANSCENDENCE
Maybe this is the ground of saints and heroes, when people exceed themselves and all expectations, possibly because of extraordinary circumstances but possibly because of suddenly discovered and activated inner potential. Or simply intense motivation. Often it is released by the arts, but it could be kindled by any acquisition of skills and insights: science, law, human relationship as in originating religion.
These are thoughts just forming, still crude and tentative.
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Naturally, the print freak in me is intrigued by a new word: gapencillitin, a word from the Garifima people, an African-descended minority group quoted by Dwight Conquergood in an essay about Performance Studies called “Interventions and Radical Research.” Gapencillitin are the folks who always go around writing everything down. My father was a good example with his little pocket-notebooks and mechanical pencil (which doubled as an earwax excavator) noting what photos he took, the names of the people (sometimes misspelled), engineering and geological facts, and so on. It was a diary and an expense account. He rubberbanded the notebooks into chronological groups and stored them in a trunk. When he died, they all went straight to the dump.
Print, in its administrative and industrial aspect, is supposed to be separated from “literature” which is seen as an investigation of the soul, an invocation of the creative, a way of recording the wisdom of the ages and the heroism of the past. All very intransigent, ineffable, and transcendent. But distinctions and groupings are still the essence of the academic management of knowledge, and it’s usually rather late in life that the educated finally realize that they’ve been kept on a reservation. That there other bodies of knowledge recorded in human bodies, sung and told and painted. Now, of course, there are “metric” languages in computers that only a very few understand. And again still other bodies of knowledge that -- because they are taboo -- are far more powerful and life-controlling than any print, even the ones still intercepted at the borders of the country as obscene.
What do we do with all this stuff? I’m lucky that I’m investigating among professors who are absorbed in starting up the new academic year because they don’t have time to do much more than send me articles and I can’t absorb the contents very quickly in spite of having a background curiously appropriate for this kind of thinking. (Religion, anthropology, theatre.) It is a kind of thinking few are aware of -- sort of meta-thinking -- and (alas) I discover that if I try to explain to some people, they get angry. But I don’t intend to bundle it and store it for later discard.
It’s got to be woven into stories. My core story this time around is the life of Alvina Krause, but what it’s backing me into is heartbreak (broken love affairs), madness, struggle, post-modern thought (oh, cripes), forbidden territory, and other swamps and couloirs. I meet wannabes and has-beens, but all the time I want to get back to my own “bone chalice” -- meaning the deep meanings in my own skull. (“Performance art is liturgy for the unchurched.”) Yes, brain theory is one of my dependable guides, but it turns out that the whole body is the brain. All these years I ought to have been walking. Or dancing. It would have made me more intelligent. (Don’t say, “I told you so!”)
My yearning has always been to see things freshly, ambush them by strategy, throw back the curtain and see the core. I HAVE witnessed someone’s heart stilled for surgery. I HAVE seen Maria Tallchief, Cherokee, dance the Russian Firebird. So -- what about it? What do I do with that stuff?
The ministry training forces me to think about the state of the world and whether there is anything to be said about it, done about it. Most of the info we get is gathered by people born about 1980 or later. They know nothing, they are paid nothing, they have no crap detectors except their own suspicion, which is highly erratic. They are assigned, disciplined, and simply rewritten by editors who haven’t left their desks and their narrow lives since 1980. In no case is this more clear than that of the American Indian, but the complaint applies to just about everything. We NEVER get a balanced account of anything. And everyone who comes to the rez for the raw experience insists on seeing what they expect.
Now let’s look at the famous “middle-class” -- a mythical population of people said to be honest, hard-working, comfortable, family-valuing, gun-carrying, TV watching, tax-paying, regularly voting, doctor-obeying . . . We’re told this group of people is based on manufacturing incomes. Oh, and small family businesses like stores and farms. Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a sit-com. Or maybe they were always doomed as soon as manufacturing changed. In nature the evolution of organisms is controlled by two things: drastic over-population putting pressure on those not well-equipped to survive so causing them to disappear, and constant shifts in the mega-conditions of survival, such as the economy, climate, disease, war, migration (kind of a domino effect when people try to survive). But we pretend that we don’t let the poor people and the marginal just die.
One way to survive is to form another layer of interconnectedness, in the way that the forbidding of alcohol consumption created an entire underworld that supported this illegal but desired substance. Once that network existed, it has gone on to support all sorts of illegal activity in “good-paying jobs.” Earlier it was the need to escape slavery that created an underground railroad. Something parallel happened to the money community: the need to hoard. One way to combat overpopulation in stricken countries is for them to sell the children, who are expendable anyway. The network for transporting, credentialing, concealing -- they’ve always been there since the days of slavery and picture-book wives.
The temptation is always to try to “engineer” the survival of those we consider desirable and deserving. “The War on Poverty” and all that. (We lost.) Or the creation of Israel. Scholarships for the deserving poor. We do this out of “compassion” we say, but college sophomores would say that we do it to make ourselves feel good. (Self-interest is almost always discovered about that age.)
It was in my self-interest and over the objections of my mother and my advisor that I took courses from Alvina Krause. Here I am again, though there’s supposed to be a division between what she was teaching and the present state of “Performing Arts” which is where I seem to be working. Actually, I think I’m standing next to a permeable membrane with one arm sticking through it. The one holding my pencil as though it were a torch. I think of Cocteau, Orpheus.
Monday, September 24, 2012
Sam & Beulah Strachan, South Dakota schoolteachers
My grandmother, Beulah Swan Finney Strachan (1871 to 1953), could reel off poems one after another, dozens in an evening. She came from the great era when children were required to memorize. No doubt it was partly a shortage of books, a lack of radio or television, and many long snowbound Michigan evenings. But also it was the era of oratory, elocution, and artistic self-expression by the “cultured.”
I inherited some of her books from the pre-WWI era, novels for adults by Gene Stratton-Porter and for children by L.M. Montgomery, famous for “Anne of Green Gables.” Both kinds of books had plots that honored the person who could speak “literature” of a high class nature, as illustrated in the Canadian television versions that had Anne going to White Sands to hear the famous actress recite heart-rending poems and even to deliver her own passionate and dramatic memorizations. Gene Stratton-Porter, in her novel “Laddie” portrayed another ugly duckling of a child who entertained herself by “preaching” in the pasture alongside her pet rooster, whom she nudged with her elbow to provite a crow in lieu of an amen.
This is the context in which Alvina Krause started out, winning a contest for oration in her Wisconsin high school even if she WERE freckled, tow-headed, short and countrified! (Her description of herself.) It was the bit of culture that took her out into the world with a two year normal school degree entitling her to teach high school English and dramatics. Oh, and physical education. (She coached the Seaside, OR, high school basketball team to a state championship.)
The following is from a fascinating essay in “The Sage Handbook of Performance Studies." It’s written by Paul Edwards.
Having begun my academic career in the now-vanished category of “interpretation teacher,” I suppose that I suffered “the misfortune of teaching literature,” as Jonathan Brody Kramnick (1998) terms it, “. . . in a moment when its founding rationale has been called into radical doubt” (p. 244). English elocution came into existence alongside “the appearance of the category of ‘literature’ in the later eighteenth century” (Guillory, 1993, p. 213). The age that gave us the English-language “classic” gave us as well a use-value for literature, a form of “cultural capital” (Guillory, 1993): the rise of “literature” helped to shape the public sphere and its protocols of communication. So did the performance of literature, which for two centuries (under various names) capitalized on the trained performing body as a communication medium. From its beginnings, elocution’s market-driven goals were divided and sometimes self-contradictory. Did elocution belong in universities or in trade schools? One of its audiences sought enrichment from belles lettres through embodied performance, while another (sometimes overlapping) audience sought training in the persuasive delivery of any text, as a tool for activism or professional advancement. The manuals on elocutionary delivery that became popular in Georgian England contained training drills on shaping meaningful sounds and exhibiting through gesture the signs of deep feeling. “Passion for Dummies”: I find it hard to read these books and not compare them to present-day computer manuals, designed to help us with everything from simply turning on the “machine” to making us appear expressive for the widest possible audience.
AK’s facility for speaking took her forward, but it was not enough -- far too mechanistic and limited -- so she added the physical body, taking up the equivalent of elocution: eurythmics.
Edwards again: Elocutionary training attained its greatest respectability in American colleges and universities with the founding in 1914 of the National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking—known since 1997 as the National Communication Association (NCA). [Northwestern’s School of Speech is now its School of Communications.] Most of the association’s members, at the time of its first convention in 1915, were school teachers whose platform oratory embraced both public speaking and literary recitation. Yet as “academically oriented” performers (Rarig & Greaves, 1954, p. 499) they were eager to distance themselves from the “rubbish” of popular platform entertainment with which the label “elocution” had come to be associated during the late-nineteenth century.
Not surprisingly, the two schools divided very much along the same lines as denominations, since schools and churches at the time were much entwined, using the same space for the same communities. One was looking for dignity and scholarship (the aspiring middle class) and the other was looking for the passion that would move audiences (the vulgar folk). Compare to the “learned” versus “enthusiastic” categories of preachers.
With the rise of performance studies associations from contrasting traditions, scholars like Richard Schechner (2002) have begun to speak of a two-brand model of performance studies pedagogy in American universities: with literature, as exemplified by the academic department at Northwestern University, and without, as exemplified by the NYU department.
So the Interpretation Department of the School of Speech kept its attention on literature rather than theatre, though Alvina Krause had been crowded over to teaching acting. (Her Dean informed her on Friday that she would begin teaching an acting course on Monday.) Rather heroically, she gathered up every kind of humanistic thought she knew (heavy on the Greeks and the Elizabethans -- as were my high school teachers, the same age as AK) -- and set about teaching acting. As time went on, she became psychologically separated from Interpretation and began to demand the same from her students. (I’m guessing. I don’t know for sure.)
The larger society, with its emotional connection to New York and Manhattan, was fascinated by the Method, which fit with their interest in the mysteries of psychoanalysis and the movement of acting to film. By the post-Fifties people were more interested in movie stars than literature, except by the creation of writing stars. Brilliance, success, admiration and honor was attributed to unbridled self-expression and soon we were plunged into the Age of Aquarius. Then along came post-modern thought and overturned the boat so that we all had to swim for it. Literature was the least of it -- survival was the goal. What is print or live theatre in the face of television and film? We were about to find out: social revolution, that’s what !! Naked people, sex, plotlessness, outrageous ideas, gaudy extravaganzas. Possibly in reaction to that, along came the musicals -- at first appeals for social justice (“South Pacific,” “Oklahoma”) and then pure spectacle and then (off-broadway) social criticism again.
Where does all this leave us? What do we call this? Performance Studies, that’s what. And at NU Performance Studies have swallowed Interpretation but not Theatre. Theatre is now the musical “industry.” But also, Performance Studies have now taken on social issues.
This is probably not accurate and not even academic, but it seems to me rather explanatory. Even familiar. Like my grandmother, who so loved to attend a really good live show, the kind with skits and then a play. And she was only in Portland, OR, not New York at all.
Sunday, September 23, 2012
D.W. Winnicott might be the best expert at talking about the “space” that forms between two people intent on each other while engaged in a common subject or pursuit. It becomes a living entity in itself. He talks about the exchange between the mother and her child as they play. The rest of the world disappears as the focus encloses these two, creating something larger than either of them, or both of them, something emergent, something synergistic, something “more.”
We say we “connect” with someone who offers absorbing conversation or maybe flirtatious body language. It’s as though filaments weave us together in that moment, something emergent. Hard to describe. You had to be there.
When the theatre succeeds, the actors and the audience weave that space between them. When I used to preach the magic space didn’t always form, but when it did, the feeling was transcendent, the sharing was intense, the time was memorable. Speech coaches will say, a sermon is something created in the sanctuary BETWEEN the congregation and the preacher. It is not words on the page but something living. It is different from reading and having the ideas come alive between your eyes and the page. It won’t: it will be all in your head. I’m a manuscript preacher -- if I handed you my text, it wouldn’t be the same. When I was circuit-riding, I preached each sermon four times: it formed something totally different every time.
This seems to be close to what Victor Turner means when he talks about “liminal space.” It is one of the secrets of the “creativity” everyone obsesses about so much, but it cannot be achieved by “trying.” It’s about attunement, participation, engagement, exchange.
When David Press tried to interview Alvina Krause about her teaching methods, she often found it hard to explain why she had done what she did. “It just HAD to be,” she would say. Of course, everyone makes decisions and takes actions that are based on thinking down below the water level that marks consciousness, but there was something more than that. I often saw it when I sat in the back of the auditorium, tne one now named for Alvina Krause -- though Annie May Swift Hall is now occupied by the Performance Studies department. It was partly eye-contact and body tension, but more than that, it was the empathy between the actors on the stage and AK just off the apron. She was feeling them.
“Feeling” is often put down. When I found Suzanne Langer’s “Feeling and Form” and went head-over-heels for it, I was quickly discouraged by my advisors. (I snuck around and read the rest of her books anyway and now she is respected! So there!) She is a good guide to Krause‘s thought. In a university environment, one is supposed to be rational and NOT touchie-feelie. Fine, but not when ACTING, when so much of the thinking is IN the body. Like love-making, though I hesitate to say so because in this culture so many things are defined by sex that it has lost most of its meaning.
In 1957-61 the terms of “liminal” or “emergent” or “whole body thinking” or “mirror cells” just didn’t exist yet. AK didn’t have the terms for what she was doing. But she wasn’t about to give up the idea that she was definitely doing SOMETHING and the inability to explain made her fierce and stubborn. Neither did David Press -- writing his thesis in 1970 -- have terms, except through the theories of Stanislavsky and the Method. But no one likes to be defined by the work of someone else. AK resisted.
Let’s go back to babies. It’s clear from videos that very young babies gaze into their mother’s eyes and try to imitate their expressions. At the very least, the warmth of the maternal gaze makes them kick their feet and blow bubbles. A baby who is not moving, who is not looking, is in big trouble. But an adult human, not obviously in danger, may freeze while thinking -- all energy going into the thinking, but not necessarily the brain. Maybe the gut. Maybe a clenched muscle group. Maybe that stare is covering for a kaleidoscope of remembered sights. The paused moment can contain a flashing multitude of thoughts. Then comes the decision and the inevitable action.
Part of expanding consciousness so that one can participate in shared exchange is making it safe. Can any taped or footnoted interview ever be safe? In the classroom the teacher has much more safety than the student, but also needs more internal space because of layers of consciousness: awareness of the student’s history, considerations of style. The student needs to be in the “now.” This is very hard to convey but once you’ve hit it a few times you know the surge of energy, the vividness, a kind of light that comes. Then you can feel for it again next time. So AK would push until they got it through trial and error. Then she would recognize and mark it for the student.
So much of acting is about the management of one’s consciousness. As I understand it (and I have not studied Stanislavsky so I’m coming off of counseling and general life), this is what the Method amounts to. If one can transparently produce the authentic conscious feeling the character has, maybe by remembering one’s own, then the audience can see it and feel it as well. What makes the technique so difficult is that it is the water in which we fish swim. It’s always there, but usually beneath consciousness.
Both the neuroscientists (the real ones like Antonio Damasio, not the pop writers) and the Internal Family Counseling experts say that a person is a active process that can handle several personas or parts or layers at once: you as actor, you as character, you as student, you as guy-who-heeds-to-remember-to-pay-a-bill. Onstage some of those must be put on hold, self-protective as they may be, so there is more room internally for the actor and the character. The teacher or director merely stands in for the audience. An actor freely and confidently moving through the feelings of the character will cause the audience to do their part in creating the actual play in the space between the proscenium and the back wall of the theatre.
This quote is from Winnicott’s “teddy bear” book: ”Playing and Reality.” (Technically, it’s object-relations theory.) “Psychotherapy [acting] takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient [actor] and that of the therapist [audience].
Psychotherapy [acting] has to do with two people playing together. The corollary of this is that where playing is not possible then the work done by the therapist [teacher or director] is directed toward bringing the patient [actor] from a state of not being able to play [act] into a state of being able to play [act].”
(This post was also put on www.thesilvercomb.blogspot.com.)