Thursday, November 29, 2012


I’ve seen a lot of Albee’s plays; recently I was deeply moved by his A Lady from Dubuque in which he so perfectly encapsulates the world that revolves around a ‘cancer victim,’ as well as the victim herself. But nothing prepared me for the latest presentation of Virginia Woolf presented by The Steppenwolf Theatre Co. that recently opened on Broadway.  What I’m talking about and what is so stunning about this production is the attitude of George toward Martha, and George’s reasons for his seemingly vicious attack on and betrayal of her at the end of the play. In my opinion, George not only understands Martha’s pain, nymphomania, and inability to hold her drink – as opposed to him – but his love is strong enough to include an  awareness that his wife’s imbalance comes from a source so deep and so connected to her past that she has no hope of survival unless desperate measures are taken. 
            Both the acting and the directing suggest that this is a correct interpretation of this latest revival; Martha is not depicted as a tough, harridan type, as in previous Broadway incarnations of the play, but instead as a woman who is trying to force her husband to take her in hand because she is incapable of doing it for herself. And take her in hand he does, by forcing her at the end to face the ‘fiction’ in their lives, so, possibly they can uncover what their ‘truth’ might be. They do love each other, that much is clear.
            In this interpretation, George, beautifully played by Traci Letts gains our sympathy in spite of his apparent cruelty toward his wife, because we sense the compassion beneath his mordant wit. The younger couple - a ‘driven’ husband and his wife, a ‘mouse of manipulation’ - come into focus as ‘a drawing’ of the older couple who will later become ‘the painting’ that is George and Martha.  And I feel in Letts deeply intelligent performance of George, that Albee depicts not a weak, failed ‘man of letters,’ but one who actually cares for his wife at the expense of an all-out, go-ahead thrust toward a career. In his treatment of the younger professor, one can see that, yes, George is jealous and angry, but the driving force is a set of warnings, dished out with large doses of hilarious cruelty.
            Ultimately, the villains are neither George nor Martha, but a society that cripples the will of intelligent women, who are hopelessly trapped in views of the wife/mother model. And when they can’t bear the pain of feeling that they have failed in this ‘crucial area of womanhood,’ - and Martha is already drowning herself in misery, as well as alcohol, before the play begins - they will damage themselves and everyone around them in an attempt to escape their rage and depression.  
            Take the play’s namesake, Virginia Woolf, for example; a decent husband and a successful career weren’t enough to stave off a deadly depression.  There are several theories about her suicide, but she wrote incessantly about the difficulties of women, and one can safely assume that she would have stood a better chance of survival had she not been confined in a man’s world and had she been allowed to express her love of women more openly.
            In order to play characters of this complexity, actors must be very sure of their technique and know that the meaning of what is written on the page may demand precise and informed scrutiny. Take, for example, the brilliantly constructed British import, Harper Regan, which unfortunately is closing soon. Buy a copy, it’s worth reading. The playwright wrote the prizewinning Bluebird, also produced by the adventurous Atlantic Theatre Company. I would have given Harper Regan a prize too, not only for its ingenious construction but because the female protagonist - the play bears her name - translates terror into actions of all sorts. She’s not noble, but she’s imaginative and consistently courageous.
            This is the kind of contemporary play that really turns me on. I have a very personal reason for saying this. Harper is the kind of woman I would like to be if I had been born thirty years later. My generation shifted out of the girdles and Maidenform bras of the ‘fifties’ into the bra-burning, ‘let-it-all-hang-out’ liberalism of the ‘sixties.’ But most of us had no idea how to negotiate this ‘freedom’ we preached. We got family or husband to rescue us when we couldn’t navigate the train wreck of child care vs. career and never got either one quite right. I’m not saying that thirty years later – or even today – these problems have been solved, but it became easier to take risks. Society was much less of a problem – not everywhere, of course – but there were places to go where women could break out of whatever mold held them prisoner, particularly the one in some unconscious part of their own brain.  Harper is one such woman!
            During the early part of the play, she commits herself to a series of actions, some of them bizarre and highly questionable. But the play is so intricately fashioned that only near the end, do we discover Harper’s biggest challenge. It’s like Chinese boxes, except the smallest gives us a new viewpoint that erases all our perfectly logical assumptions of Harper up to that point. We see that everything she does relates to one Big Question. She always maintains her ‘human’ if not her ‘practical’ responsibilities. Skating on the thinnest ice, she skips around looking for whatever ‘truth’ exists in her situation. Entangling herself, trying out crazy stuff, but then finding out it isn’t what she needs, she moves on. So when she ultimately returns to her family, she is not going back into the fold.
            There are no answers in this play; but Harper Regan is able to see that family is the most important ‘undiscovered country’ that life can offer. Unlike so many husbands of yore, she returns not out of guilt, but because she genuinely finds family the one challenge she must face in life – in which love plays only a part. Because the darkness is so palpable in this play, the rays of light shine true and bright.
            I don’t think New York is quite ready for plays like Harper Regan – although it did extend its run slightly. It was well-regarded by the Times, but panned by the New Yorker in an outrageously dismissive review. It’s time will come; Cock is another play that’s a little ahead of New York’s timetable. It deals with gay issues in a completely new way. Ah, those Brits!  Well, they’ve been around a lot longer than we Americans… They have a right to their little jump on us.
            Of course, Albee isn’t contemporary or British – so much for theories and generalizations.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

BLOG #53: Taking note of two terrific shows recently arrived on NYC Stages, and why acting is so demanding these days…

If you have been following this Blog you will know that I am right in the middle of a very absorbing task: integrating the spirits of Meisner and Method acting techniques into a consistent teaching system. Other great masters such as Grotowski, Adler and Michael Chekov will be discussed at a later date. But right now I’m focusing on the great schism, which developed between Meisner and Strasberg, both of whom drew on Stanislavsky for their inspiration.  
            Hopefully, my attempt will help students, some of whom, like me, cannot learn a discipline unless it consists of a set of principles that fit logically together. If an actor is lacking a solid method of preparation, they run the danger of being confused when faced with a really difficult role, particularly when asked to play a character they despise.  I’m not just presenting a synthesis of the two teaching methods, but showing how each spurs the other on and their opposition is the very thing that makes them necessary to each other.
            Genius went into the creation of these techniques; before Stanislavski and the various schools that grew from his groundbreaking ideas, there was no philosophical/psychological system for acting instruction. The time has come to take these building blocks of information from the past and place them in a modern perspective so they become relevant to the work that is emerging today.
            It is interesting how serendipitous life is; last week I happened to view two plays, one fifty-two years old and the other brand new that exemplify the application of the most advanced analytical thinking to direction and acting.  The ‘old’ one is the highly acclaimed Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,  and the contemporary is Harper Regan, by the much-lauded British playwright, Simon Stephens, at The Atlantic Theatre Company. I was very excited to watch the way both embody everything that is energizing about the new way of viewing relationships in the second decade of the new millenium.  
            Great art is the embodiment of change and always contains elements that are not perceived at the time it is birthed. In the early ‘60’s when Albee wrote Virginia Wolf, the great changes in attitudes toward women which were about to happen, hadn’t yet. Wendy Wasserstein’s Uncommon Women and Others, set in a progressive women’s college in the ‘70’s makes abundantly clear how even the most ‘advanced’ women’s views about themselves were still seriously unsettled even ten years after Virginia Wolf.
            In the traditional well-made plays, exemplified by great writers like O’Neill, Williams, Ibsen, and Shaw, the problems of women generally arose from men attempting to dominate them or stereotyping by society pushing them to ‘break out’: Mourning Becomes Electra depicts a woman bored in her marriage and driven into villainous behavior; in William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Maggie is married to a man who ignores her, and when she misbehaves, casts her aside, Hedda Gabler commits an atrocity because she is maddened by a conventional marriage and then finds another man has stuck her in an even worse situation, St. Joan is done in by politics, but the hook they use to get her is an accusation of ‘witchcraft.’ 
            Moving into the latter part of the 20th Century and first decade of the 21st, the role that society plays is less evident in the conflict between men and women, but women are still depicted as pitting themselves against men in an unequal battle. If you look at the work of Mamet, Rabe, Shepard, Foote, Shanley, you see women struggling to be strong – or trying to ‘bring men out of themselves’ and be more communicative. These are stories of struggle; even if the men and women end up  staying together, which they almost never do, it’s the ferocity of the battle that counts - and the playing field is almost always uneven, favoring the man.  At the moment I’m not discussing the women writers – except for the brief reference to Wendy Wasserstein. They are very important and need a discussion all unto themselves.
            For a moment, I would like to return to Virginia Wolf - and later Harper Regan. I saw the original production of Virginia Wolf. No doubt, I said to my friends that it was, ‘Really cool, man.’  Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill boozed it up and yelled at each other in a wonderful, crazy way, and, of course I was a mere babe in the woods in those days and hadn’t much idea what was really going on. My father took me to see it; he was in Academia, and we laughed over the idea that this kind of booze-infused activity probably went on after we’d left the hosts of the faculty parties we used to attend together. (It wasn’t unheard of in those days for a daughter to accompany her father to a party!) I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing Virginia Wolf again, but I got tickets for my husband and daughter, who had never seen it. And they were very moved by the production and insisted that I go and see it. Well…. I was amazed at the difference between the version I had viewed and this one. I thought about it a lot, and finally pinpointed exactly how the interpretation had changed.
            This is getting long, and I will continue in my next blog entry…

Friday, November 2, 2012

BLOG #52: Tweaking Meisner and Method to create a workable method:

            In the last Blog entry, I talked about the importance of backing the Meisner Knock-at-the-Door exercise directly with personal sensory work rather than ‘making up a story’ and then backing that with personal material. In this way, one has only two stories, the one in the script and one’s own, and the task is to ‘feel’ them as one. Sometimes it can feel like chasing the Minotaur, but – to mix metaphors – for the true actor there are many pots of gold throughout the labyrinth.
            Working in this way – without made-up circumstances - partners are required, through sensory work, to dig deeper into themselves and find a personalization of the other actor; this process of ‘searching the self’ puts one’s own feet onto the trail of the character and brings one directly into the situation in which the relationship with the partner is embedded. As I have said before, this is a very complex idea, and I will continue to describe it from different points of view in order to make it clearer. It cannot be grasped all at once.
            To continue on from the last entry; Actress A was beginning to show signs of feeling more comfortable with the idea of the Voices and how they translated into ‘objects’ from her own life. Actor B was going through a similar process; his question was different, of course. He had to ask himself ‘what was his most difficult memory of having to break away from someone he loved.’ Or put another way, ‘when had he felt the necessity to follow his own path, however the devastating the consequences might be for someone close to him?’ The second is better because it opens a clear way to Actor B’s/Dunois’ objective.
            Both characters have very strong objectives. Although technically Joan probably has the stronger need, Dunois feels at this point that he stands to lose everything if he continues to fight for her cause, but he also knows that he is abandoning her.  So the scene – or in this case the two monologues can be approached through improvs, in which the actors switch between ‘pursuing an objective’ or ‘dedicating him/herself to an activity’.
            So far, we have principally discussed how the actor who has the objective prepares his role. Now we must show in detail the preparation of the actor who is more ‘acted upon;’ the one who is satisfied with the situation as it is. This is an odd word to use vis-à-vis Joan the Maid, who was never ‘satisfied’ a moment in her life. However, before the moment in which this scene takes place, Dunois has lead her armies to victory , so one could certainly agree that his generalship was satisfactory. Now, however, he is shifting his position and asking Joan to accept his decision to drop out of the fight against the English.
            She has no inkling of his altered stance at the beginning of the scene and continues for quite a while to be her ebullient, confident self. Even in her monologue, she doesn’t appear to have accepted his withdrawal of support – clearly she is still of the opinion that she can change his mind. (There is another monologue at the end of the scene by which time she is fully conscious of the trap into which she has fallen, and line by line she resigns herself to her fate with immense intelligence and dignity, at no point showing even an ounce of self-pity.) But at the point in the scene under discussion, her objective is to win back Dunois, so one could say we are observing one objective up against another objective.
            Since this is the case, why can’t we leave out the ‘activity’ altogether? Because the ‘activity’ is not called an ‘activity’ for nothing. It’s certainly not called a ‘passivity!’ And even when I didn’t know why I was doing it - I have always required students to rehearse scenes from both points of view: first, ‘taking the objective’ and then ‘doing the activity,’ or vice-versa.
            Meisner defines a good ‘activity’ - for use in an improv - as something difficult to execute that leads to a necessary result. Example1: you have broken a dinner plate that is part of your mother’s set. She has a dinner party coming up immediately and you have to glue it back together. Example 2: your finicky boyfriend’s birthday is coming up in a few days and you’re shopping on the Internet for a present. Your girlfriend has just broken her leg and you’re trying to write a poem to cheer her up.           I used to attend a very good Meisner class and knocked my head against these improvs over and over again. I spent hours and hours behind a door creating imaginary circumstances. And then I began teaching classes of my own, perpetuating what I had been taught. I have always felt that the premise was right, but that it required ‘something more’ and ‘something different’ while going along the same general path. I think it’s always like this with methodologies. They fit the time in which they are set up, and then as things change, they morph slowly. And, of course, there are actors who do better following one method more deeply as opposed to another. But that is not my subject here - another blog entry-in-the-making.  I will state, categorically, that most actors need both Meisner and Method – and lots of other things too, but these are absolutely basic.
            This is my thinking – I may have said this before, but not quite like this: Method is me, myself and I taking in the world and being affected by it from over here where I stand, while Meisner is me being tossed around by the world and endeavoring to hang on for dear life to a piece of me, myself or I.
            So, to get back to Actor A and Actress B and their improvs on St. Joan; they alternated struggling with their activities and bursting in through one another’s doors for several sessions. However hard they tried, the work kept falling into lifeless and unfocused patterns. The actors were becoming bored and almost despairing. This is not unusual, as human beings are not machines and our systems need to adjust slowly Finally, I did something I avoid when there is more than one actor present.  We had a discussion about the ‘sensory objects’ they were using, Actress A for her ‘activity’ and Actor B for his ‘objective.’
            In the next entry I will take a little breather from this subject to discuss a couple of plays I just saw, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf and Harper Regan - and their relevance to this discussion…