This entry follows along from numbers 49 and 50.
The next time we met for class, Actress A (Joan the Maid) and Actor B (Dunois, the General) were prepared to engage in a Meisner Knock-at-the Door improvisation; this was to help them identify with their characters in two monologues, both of which came from the same scene, in Shaw’s St. Joan. As I mentioned in the previous Blog, I keep the set up very simple - just parent, lover, friend, etc. - so each partner can slip in their own personalization of their ‘adversary’ in the scene. Yes, the partner always becomes an ‘adversary’ in one way or another, because all drama is based on conflict. And the actors are asked to be very specific about how they personalize each other and the situation in which they find themselves - and a myriad of other details, which I will describe in a moment.
As I have mentioned before the actors had been working for some time on these two monologues. Along with extensive sense memory work, they had also engaged in Meisner Knock-at-the Door exercises. We began each two-hour session with a discussion of how their preparation had worked for them and what problems they encountered during the week when they worked by themselves on their monologues. Usually, they expressed a kind of ‘general confusion,’ which almost universally grips actors, who have the courage and stamina to grapple with their roles as if they were dealing with their own lives. I insist that they stick to their guns, no matter how much their own experience may appear to differ from the characters they are endeavoring to play.
Although this process requires imagination, I believe that the actual facts of our lives must be the basis for relating to the facts of the character. I do not believe in ‘pretending’ that we have had the same experience as the character or that we should try to match our experiences to those of the character. Instead, I believe we need to identify our deepest area of trauma and how it sends each one of us on a search toward an objective, which evolves constantly from our creative work. A true actor works from the complex premise that human roots are an entity, which can be ‘felt’ - if not totally comprehended – across eras, cultures, races, gender preferences and all other divisive factors. It’s an extraordinary trip but not for people looking for quick results or an easy ride…
In order to encourage this process of identification, I ask questions about the text that cannot be answered simply. They can only be arrived at through a series of steps, which in turn raise more questions; all of which eventually lead to a deeper understanding of the script itself. It arises from the actor recognizing things in the character that are particularly relevant to their own life.
I tend to harp on the negative, not because I’m a sadist, but because it is incredibly difficult for actors – or anyone else for that matter - to dredge up their primal pain. Yes, primal pain – not anything recent. After all, the seeds of our trouble lie in our early years; and for many of us we only managed to survive that period by burying the details of childhood in a deep fog of forgetting. Therefore, it is really counter-intuitive to go chasing after those memories and bringing them to the surface.
But what makes this process for acting particularly difficult is that figuring out the ‘source of tragedy’ is only the beginning.; one needs to continuously fight off the ‘flight from pain,’ as the actor must often dwell for extended periods in that ‘shadow land’ of discomfort and fear. For instance, how does one honestly ‘get down’ with St. Joan, who spent the entirety her teenage years under the stress of obeying a set of extraordinary demands from Voices that only she could hear and then faced imprisonment and trial followed by a horrifying death. The actress playing her in our society, today, has to battle against a kind of moral imperative to turn away our conscious mind from shameful or deeply painful occurrences. The need to ‘be cool,’ as well as our survival instinct, instructs us that ‘we need to stiffen our upper lip’ and go on. How many times I used to censor myself as a young actress for ‘wallowing in misery’ when attempting to get to the bottom of my character’s motivations. There is a myth that one doesn’t have to suffer for one’s art, and it’s so prevalent that it gives ‘Method Acting’ a bad name. Humph!
Here is a series of questions I asked Actress A about St. Joan. How did the Voices start? What did the Voices sound like to her? Why did she feel that she had to do what they said? How did she find a way to deal with the difficulty of putting into practice the imperative to do ‘impossible’ tasks? At first, she couldn’t even imagine how to go about it, so I kept encouraging her to ask herself this question, “When have I had an experience like this?” Pretty weird, eh? “When have I had an experience like listening to ‘Voices’? Whenever I suggest that a student ask themselves this sort of question - which I am forever doing - I close my own eyes, breathe, ask myself the same question and go into a brief meditation…
I’ve just done it now, since I’d forgotten what came up for me when I asked Actress A to meditate on the Voices… Asking and meditating, however briefly on my response, turns a ‘good idea’ into real experience.
I must test myself each time to make sure that I’m in the same ball park as the student. I can teach only from a position of ‘discovering for the first time.’ It gives an edge of energy and excitement, even if the memories are upsetting – especially when they are upsetting. The process can be annoyingly slow and confusing for students, but for me nowadays, the answers pop up quickly so can encourage my students that this process actually works. After a while, these memories fit into the pattern of one’s whole life, bringing the character directly into line with oneself.
I’ve discussed this process elsewhere and will refer to it again and again, attempting to make it clearer and more accessible; for the work at hand I’m endeavoring to explain how we segue from it into the Meisner improvisation, which will be the focus of my writing for the next blog entry…
We will continue this analysis next time in Blog #52. Please stay tuned: