Friday, August 24, 2018


What does it mean to be educated in the paradigm of the theatre?

This morning I remembered to look to see what books have been published that I intend to buy.  "The Transcendent Years" by Marshall W. Mason is finally in print so I ordered it.  We were classmates at Northwestern University in the theatre department 1957-1961.  The book is about Marshall fulfilling the dream we all shared of an authentic, truthful, innovative repertory theatre company.  (Vids of Marshall are on YouTube.)  Why did it have so much impact on us? 

Even I, who never did stay in that formal context one might call "theatre", was always assuming those premises and practices without any conscious awareness.  It started years before college, but that's where it was strengthened enough to last a lifetime.

Attraction to totally "other" cultures and places, took me to the Blackfeet Reservation, and the willingness to accept their being, which is a matter of a continuum rather than a type.  First, not everyone there is a descendent of that "first encounter" tribe.  Second, aspects persist from before anyone knows anything about them.  Third, the dynamics of wanting to belong/wanting to escape, loving family/betrayal by family, willingness to go out-of-body for relief, and on and on and on -- because the variety and endlessness of options is part of being there, even when it feels like capture.  

The actor needs acute empathy to other people without any need to explain or take them someplace else.  This can be pain or joy.  They most likely will try to evade being known, because being secret is a protection and because being unknowable is what everyone knows, esp. as an indigenous person, and that feels best and wise.

The actor knows how to enter "liminal space" which is a state of mind where everything is provisional, maybe playful, tolerant of change, open to the unthinkable, accepting of the outrageous, able to feel vividly what is core to the other person.  The concept is worth a lot of reading, reflection and practice.  Directors and writers as well.

Even as processing a torrent of material relevant to a character, the actor (more than the director or writer) must be using the techniques of acting, particularly onstage.  Projecting loudly enough to be heard, turning enough towards the audience for them to see, keeping track of the rhythm/beats/music/emphasis.  This means splitting the self, which most humans are capable of.  

When splitting oneself and becoming someone else and keeping track of technique, the actor must be tenaciously anchored in his bodily quotidian identity, able to leave it and come back to it.  It is his or her default.  This is the hardest part for many but it helps to have the cue of place -- that is, makeup off, costume off, theatre left behind, home for soup and backrubs.  Film is much harder because some people will want the actor NOT to come back, instead to remain the commodity they have become.  This is true of politicians, ministers, and other role-users who lose touch with their identities.

Writing and being on the computer are both liminal spaces to occupy and must be treated that way to keep from losing one's self.  This is something that should be taught to kids in the early grades of school.  "How to be yourself, even if you take a break from it."  But if it's too rigid, it will prevent growth.

One key is knowing one's spine -- one's goal.  Let your spine be an arrow.  Let it be a composite but don't let it break.  This is what we call "morality".  It is also a component of what we call "meaning."

But even a single actor onstage is accompanied by many others in the story.  With skill, the audience also accompanies the actor through the story.  But don't get all precious about it.  As they advise about writing, "strangle your darlings."  This achievement is just preparation for what comes next, even if you are so bad as guessing what it is that you despair.

I have the advantage of reading Marshall's books -- I bought the earlier ones as well -- but I don't think he's read mine or that mine are relevant enough for him to be encouraged to do so.  Even Marshall's life has only a small overlap with my world, slight but triple -- partly memories of NU and Eagles Mere, the summer repertory theatre; partly my more-than-a-decade interest in the Gay community (as distinct from the Lesbian community); and partly his sharing of housing (I think) with two other people, Dwayne Thorpe and Bill Shaw -- the three of them were brilliant young men in a way I couldn't be, but loved watching.  Bill and I sat in on all AK's acting classes together and analyzed relentlessly.  It was a secondary safe way of participating in the work.  Bill became a professor and died young of brain cancer.  I'm not sure what happened to Dwayne.  It was Marshall who became a comet and confirmed what we thought about acting.

I'll never go onstage.  I don't want to, and yet it is with me all the time.  My high school dramatics teacher, Melba Day Sparks, was the reason I went to NU and took theatre.  She knew Alvina Krause and found her harsh.  I did not.  Much of the training in classes emphasized the great difficulty of life, of being human, of trying to find one's way.  No slacking off!  No pouting!  There are no small parts in life, only small actors!  Work!  Use it!  This is key to theatre as a paradigm.  What are your little choices in life compared to . . . ?

Beyond that.  In high school I read "Summer and Smoke" and loved it because it is about loving something/someone you can't have but without being able to leave it. My teacher said, "Do you think you understand this play?"  I said yes.  I meant, it's not about sex, it's about being human.  She let it pass.  But the question remains.  It's an actor's question. 

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