Friday, September 28, 2012

BLOG #49: Cobbling together Method and Meisner: well not exactly…

That’s just the point – these two techniques are not stuck together but rather wound around each other like strings of DNA. I’m searching for ways to describe how actors can achieve the best results from working their way through these, seemingly, diametrically opposed acting systems. Is it boring? Let’s see…                                                                          In Blog entry #46, before I went off on my diatribe about the NY Times criticism of Sam Shepard’s play, Heartless, I compared the differences between Method and Meisner to the way in which Freud and Jung approached the new field of psychology. This is what I said:
          Freud’s ideas created the first big break with the past when he unveiled the theory that we have an ‘unconscious mind.’ Jung then split from Freud by postulating the ‘collective unconscious.’ Freud constructed the first model for psychological analysis, and Jung, rather like Meisner, discovered that the space occupied by our psyche is a shared one – that as individuals we are part of a collective and are interacting even though we think of ourselves as being single.
          The best way to clarify this incredibly complex idea is with an example. Not that the example is simple in any way, but more engaging than dry description and hopefully will make the whole idea easier to grasp. Two students, a man and a woman, have been working on one monologue apiece from a scene in G. B. Shaw’s St. Joan. This scene is the turning point of the play, just before the French literally ‘sell’ Joan to the British, although she has performed all sorts of ‘miraculous’ feats that have allowed the French to defeat the British enemy, who still occupy French soil. Joan, played by Actress A, does not know of the French plan and the Dunois, played by Actor B, so far her loyal general, will refuse to fight from this moment on. Shaw, being the great playwright that he is, has written two monologues, where none of the ‘facts’ are discussed. Rather, he allows the characters to speak ‘from the heart.’ 
          Joan, the ‘maid’ of Orleans – not yet St. Joan, who will have already been burned at the stake and thereby probably learned a thing or two about diplomacy – is still innocent of the shrewd plotting that will soon cause her appalling death. Dunois, a few years older, a nobleman, and wise in the ways of the Court will betray her because… well, he would lose his position, his lands, and quite possibly his entire family would be wiped out if he didn’t go along with the King’s decision to throw in his lot with the British at this point. (Although Dunois is closely related to the King, he cannot afford to go against the royal plan.)
          Now, this kind of research isn’t particularly encouraged in either Meisner or Method training – it might be considered a little ‘old fashioned’ to worry so much about nobles and peasants and French and British history of the 15th Century. Why not just update it to now? I’m not against that at all; however, one must know the facts of the original, in order to update anything. Some of it comes from a careful reading of the play, but Google fills in a lot more and is very accessible. There is no getting away from the fact that an actor must learn to do research, but that is not the subject being discussed at this point. Suffice it to say, Dunois’ relationship to Joan and her plight was a lot more complicated than Shaw describes in his play, but he got the essential points So, we move on.
          Actor B is preparing a monologue in which he tells Joan that he will no longer fight for her. Basically, he says that God is unpredictable and that their side can only continue fighting if he believes that they can win, and now that he’s stopped believing that he has decided to quit the fight. Otherwise he will be sending his soldiers into an unequal battle to be senselessly slaughtered. Abruptly, he changes the subject and accuses the King, also present in the scene, of not giving him enough credit for his role in winning the battles for France up to this point.  This suggests that he may be a little jealous of Joan and trying to win more credit with the King. Having been her devoted supporter, he now effectively switches his position and undermines her determination to fight until all of France is under one King.
          The first big problem that Actor B faces in working on this monologue, whatever method he uses – since they all agree on this point - is figuring out the character’s objective. Here is a brave person who has fought hard for a leader he believes in – and now all of a sudden he’s changing his position, using an excuse that doesn’t really hold up. He never thought their side could win, he just believed in her. Why doesn’t he believe in her now? This is the kind of situation that causes an actor to tear his hair out. Here the character is letting down his comrade in arms and he’s whining to his ‘commanding officer’ that his contribution isn’t sufficiently valued. How does the actor get on track with this? First of all, what is the character’s over-all objective? He has to be clear about that before he can figure out the objective in the monologue. Meisner won’t help here. Well, maybe a little, but sense-memory will be a lot more effective.
          Actor B can ask himself the question: when have I been in a situation like this? Then he can concentrate on the breathing and relaxation process, focus on his body and his senses, and see what comes up for him – what situation in his own life he slide into the character’s dilemma and believe in wholeheartedly. He came up with an ‘as if’, which we will get to very soon. And you will be surprised as it has nothing directly to do with generals and wars.
          In the next entry, I will discuss Joan’s position and what issues she is dealing with in her monologue. Then we will examine how their differing objectives lock the two characters in opposition to one another. One can use the Meisner Knock-at-the-Door improvisation along with the Method work-on-self. But the whole process has to be organized and each piece has to fit into the other. If the approaches don’t dovetail, the whole system breaks down in confusion and hopelessness. We’re all familiar with that! Let’s find a way out of it…

Saturday, September 8, 2012

BLOG #48: In Heartless Sam Shepard digs into one of the most critical personal and political issues for our time…

How does Sam Shepard’s play, ‘Heartless,’ deal with the man/woman issue, and why does it matter so much? (For fuller comprehension, please read Blog entry #47.)
          By the way, I am well aware that this blog is aimed at actors and not meant to furnish a critical analysis of playwriting. However, I think that actors should be constantly researching drama through viewing films and plays - whenever possible - and reading them, as well. It is extremely important to know how a script is birthed by a master playwright/screenwriter. Remember that the character you must identify with as an actor has been conceived by the writer and printed onto the page – although many changes may occur during rehearsal and shooting.  You need to know the precise relationship of your character to the objective of the script. I’m spending all this time with Heartless because I think it holds crucial insights into some of the most important personal and political issues of our time.  Actors need in-depth knowledge of how to bring both heart and mind into their comprehension of a script.
          So we have established that Heartless principally explores male/female relations. The battle between the sexes has always been fertile territory for playwrights.   Good dramatic writing on this subject usually shows women doing their best to stave off the effects of male thoughtlessness, selfishness and cruelty – whether overt or subtle – and losing (tragedy) or winning-by-losing (comedy). The tragic version takes center stage in A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen – Nora can never see her children again after she leaves her husband, Torvald. The comic variety is present in, well… just about everything ever written by Noel Coward – and just about every television sitcom.
          Other types of dramas that involve internecine conflicts between husbands and wives include women who are put upon and then do ‘evil’ things to their husbands, like Medea killing her children or the ‘cold killer’ type like Bette Davis in the film, Another Man’s Poison. But the point is women either die or horrible things happen to them as a result of their ‘folly’ in retaliating against negative male behavior.
          The suggestion is that women, however bad the situation may be, are not allowed the dramatic license of murder unless they get caught or destroy themselves. Women who walk out on men usually pay a price, but men frequently leave women and go on to do other things without having to account for their behavior. Shakespeare often shows us this pattern: Brutus in Julius Ceasar emotionally abandons Portia, who ends up killing herself, and then there’s Ophelia, whom Hamlet is contracted to marry until he’s consumed by the need to avenge his father’s death. Ophelia kills herself. And what about Antony leaving Cleopatra because the war takes him away? Another suicide, by asp, this time. Do we condemn these men for their actions? No. We are inclined to nod our heads sagely and say, “They had more important things to do.”
          There is one notable reversal of this behavior in Shakespeare – trust the bard to ring all the changes on human behavior – and that’s Cressida in Troilus and Cressida.  She abandons Troilus for Achilles and gets away with it. But, do we respect her? Perhaps, but she didn’t do it for a noble cause – and she was absolved of her ties to her former lover by Pandarus, who has a whole school of bad behavior named after him on this account!
           So Shepard has a bevy of current and classical writers raking over the same subject of man vs. woman, man always wins. What makes his angle so fresh on this well-worn subject?
          His first major play on the war of the sexes was Fool for Love in 1983. Returning Man begs Woman #1 to let him stay – after walking out on her for Woman #2. We’ve seen it a million times. But seldom has this issue been so wittily presented, with both protagonists apparently equally strong.  Nor does it usually feel like such a slap in the face when the man ultimately abandons her again – although the evidence of betrayal is there from the start, and the man never logically refutes it.
          The fact is that we are fooled by his charm and a sense that he, himself, believes in his ‘repentance’ – although he never really repents. We are transfixed by his need to return, and by the need of the woman, although she does everything she can to appear independent of him. She has, in fact, taken up with Guy #2, who shows up in the play, and although he actually has a job and treats her nicely, he isn’t half as cool or good looking as ‘Returning Man,’ who is such a charismatic loser, women in the audience drool over him, and the men would give anything to be him – so they could get the women, if not for any other reason.  Shepard’s dialogue in this play goes way beyond amusing, actually; it has the flavor of the American West and the spirit of ‘can-do.’ We fall for Returning Man who’s actually a total louse and loser, because he is, quite simply, the personification of the American Dream Man – the one the American Dream is built on. Without him, we’re bored and everything we want doesn’t exist. The play doesn’t solve anything, but it shows us exactly the dream/nightmare in which men and women were engaged at that moment.
          Twenty-seven years have passed since the writing of Fool for Love and now it’s time for the full-blown nightmare of Heartless.  Curiously, or purposely, the play has a feeling of Greek tragedy, although it still takes place in Shepard country: the spacious, mountainous Far West of great views and fresh air. One of the characters actually jumps off a mountain – and lives. Could it be that she is already dead?
          The delightful, clever dialogue we associate with Shepard is present only fitfully, and he is still cagey about anything too factual. Our leading man is no longer charismatic and witty. He’s confused and aging, but one thing we know for sure is that he’s deserted his wife and children.  The women – all four of them attack or give him the cold shoulder to begin with, but he is persistent in his attentions to all of them.  Only one sees through him, the mother, because she’s too old to be attracted, has seen it all, and was probably married to and deserted by a man exactly like him. Besides, she is wise enough to hold everything together while the man is causing chaos. (I’m not going to give away the plot, because I seriously hope anyone who reads this, will go and see the play if they haven’t already done so!) Two of the women are horribly maimed, and according to their scars, it isn’t just in the area of their hearts. It is suggested in a hazy Shepardian manner that the third is in the process of falling prey to exactly the same predator as the other two.  The point of all this is that women don’t change their position in relation to men because they have been ‘predatorized.’ They make every effort to do so, but something stops them. Again, Shepard shows us this horrible fate without attempting to explain it.
          We are the Chorus in this heartfelt Greek Tragedy. Obviously, not all of us fall prey to this hideous male/female machination. Some avoid it altogether, and others realize what’s going on and their fate combined with their own characters allow them to make choices so they can eventually escape. 
          In this particular election year - taking into consideration that half the electorate are women - a play that addresses the subject of women passively allowing men to violate the sacred space of the female body should be taken very seriously. By the way, many women are not deterred from aborting unwanted children by making it illegal. They find ways that are often extremely painful, life-threatening and frequently leave them unable to bear children when they are ready and desire to have them. Whether Sam Shepard had any of this in mind when he wrote the play is up for grabs.
          What is perfectly clear is that one of our foremost playwrights feels compelled to write about the fact that women – complicit or not - are still at the mercy of frequently unmerciful men. There’s an unseen character in Heartless, who is none-the-less ever present: the man’s dog. Is the dog ‘stupid’ because it fails to bite the hand that betrays it? Or does it just need more time to figure out its options…

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

BLOG # 47: More on Sam Shepard’s Heartless NY Times Review. “The man who became to drama what the Kleenex was to the handkerchief…”

I first encountered Sam Shepard in 1970. Some guy I was mad about – probably my first husband - and I went down to the Astor Place Theatre to see Shepard’s Forensic and the Navigators.  I had no idea what it was about, but its total madness drove me wild with delight.  Clive Barnes wrote of that production:
Despite my worst instincts, I cannot prevent myself from mildly loving the plays of Sam Shepard…  Mr. Shepard is perhaps the first person to write good disposable plays. He may well go down in history as the man who became to drama what Kleenex was to the handkerchief.

Barnes went on to recommend that’ people go and see for themselves what this young upstart      was up to.’ But Kleenex, indeed! If we were going to make a comparison today, we could say perhaps   that Shepard is to American drama what Jasper Johns is to the American flag.             
Whatever Shepard is trying to get at it, he intrigues us with a simultaneous layering of equally outrageous story-telling and action. Atrocities of a highly political nature are all but concealed in an infinite repertoire of often absurdly rendered personal crimes. And he succeeds in making this phantasmagoria seem almost natural by embedding it in the details of everyday reality.
             Of course, he changes things around, but he always links the horrors of the past to the brutality of the present.  In Fool for Love, an old man – long defunct – sits in the corner spying on and in some way controlling the vicious quarrels and prurient antics of a young couple, both of whom may possibly be his grandchildren. Buried Child makes unacknowledged infanticide the cornerstone of daily misery for the whole family. When, finally, the youngest living member flees into the night he sees all of his forebears pushing up against the windshield until they become“…faces I’d never seen before but still recognized.” Lie of the Mind presents mirror families; the attempted murder of a young, beautiful woman, fought over by two violent men who end up in a Mexican standoff. A third, less testosterone- infused, barely manages to slither out between them to claim the lovely lady. Directly impinging on the action of the protagonists is a host of mothers, fathers, a sister and a dead grandfather - who looms even more gargantuan in memory than the living - with alcohol supplying a constant source of negative energy.  And then there’s, True West, an audience favorite, which embodies all manner of fratricidal tendencies, not only the familial variety but also the ‘brotherly hate’ that poisons the American way of doing business and conducting all manner of public and private affairs.
             By making his points elliptically, always a little fuzzy or absurd, he keeps us amused but also forces us to ‘figure out’ what he’s talking about. A major example of this technique is the dead child in Buried Child – the play which won Shepard a Pulitzer Prize.           
When I saw it back in 1979, I had no idea what he was actually getting at, but it was fun to watch and I sensed there was a deep something-or-other going on. To minds more scholarly and mature than mine was at that time, it was obvious that the dead and hidden child was real, but it also represented a ‘collective past of unacknowledged and helpless victims’ and the ruckus on-stage could be, with a little shuffling of characters, any American family dealing with its poisoned roots. How and why the child died is spelled out in a way, but it seems that incest themes in Shepard might be a way of describing too much closeness from one’s forebears and lovers – a closeness that is like dynamite and creates explosions. And I’ve always had a hunch that Shepard is also making an oblique reference in this play to the murder of the Native Americans and the stealing of their land. In any case, he is showing how atrocities from both our personal and collective history collide with present day reality.      
             All in all, Shepard’s writing encompasses the horror and humor that many of us experience growing up and living in America. But like Jasper Johns’ flags, Shepard’s plays ring many changes on the American dream, because unfortunately, that’s exactly what it is – a dream.  And serious plays, like serious art, at least tweak and often turn our dreams into nightmares – because at the bottom of it all we need someone to show us the truth, unvarnished at least, if not harsh and ugly.
             And on that note, in my experience, no play of Shepard’s, has been harsher or uglier than Heartless. But I find it the most truthful and dead-on, literally, in its themes. In fact, as I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, it is like a Greek myth, only the ‘hero’, Roscoe, played by Gary Cole, is a total anti-hero. He doesn’t have the charisma, suavity, good looks, youthfulness or humor that we associate with Shepard’s bevy of leading gents. And this is because Shepard wanted him like that – he’s an ‘everyman’. Not that every man is like this character, but he represents the majority of a certain male breed, very prevalent in America, which up to this point has promoted itself as a bastion of equality in relations between men and women.
             In the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, while America was having its way with Vietnam, at least at home it was successfully challenging religious beliefs and societal prejudices in order to win legislation that allowed women to claim sovereignty over their own bodies.  Steady gains have been made in the area of women’s rights for decades, in just the same way as racism has been so diminished that we were able to elect an African-American president. But now, suddenly, there is a tremendous push to erase all this good work, as if these were just words on a blackboard.
             How is it possible that after all this time, the freedom of women over their bodies is being called into question? How can it be, here in the new millennium, that an American male politician –regardless of the party to which he belongs - can get away with saying openly that a fetus conceived from rape shows that the women’s body gave consent?? How can he do this without being immediately scuttled by his party? It’s as if the fundamental human status of women’s equality to men had been spirited away in the dark by little male gnomes.
             Or are there little female gnomes, as well?
Since we’re talking about a year in which there is an election campaign, these questions all lead to THE BIG QUESTION: how in the year 2012, in a country where we have one vote for each person (let’s leave out the issue of poll tampering for the moment) and women are at least half the population – how come these politicians who hold such inhuman, atavistic, and misogynistic views aren’t afraid of alienating the majority of the female population?? What makes them think they can still get the votes they need in spite of their highly public obsession with women’s private parts? (In an economy where many middle class families are already hitting the poverty level – you’d think women would be thinking smaller, not bigger, families.) This aim, ready, fire at women’s sovereignty over their own bodies is the $64,000 – or is it the $1,000,000,000,000 question - in America today. And Shepard has the guts, intelligence and heart to explore it in Heartless.
             From where I’m sitting, this is an issue that the NY Times failed to address in its revue – and it’s an unforgivable oversight, considering the immense danger of America electing a government next November that will marginalize women. Could a playwright find an issue more relevant than this one to explore right now? Even if a critic disagreed wholeheartedly with the argument put forth in the play – not to even mention it in a review? Really. More coming on Shepard and Heartless in a few days.