Two Dated Ideas

So, this is gonna get some of the theater ideas off my chest that I’ve been mulling lately.

As usual, I’m gonna start with a disclaimer. In the world of theater, there are ideas and labels thrown around all the time that tend to be used in a variety of terrible ways, and every approach to theater or acting always brings to my mind the artistic equivalent of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. Every tool that people have generally gets handed to them like a borrowed weed wacker, and the artistic lawn usually has the dead spots to prove the tool’s uselessness.

Also, I once had a friend tell me that she had started to seriously study physics, and it turned out she was just reading “The Dancing Wu Li Masters”, and as much as I laugh about that, any use of any term that I throw out needs to be interpreted through the same casual approach to study. I don’t have a graduate degree in Acting, I don’t have an undergraduate degree in anything, and, in fact, I failed out of high school.

So… There’s that to consider.

The two biggest influences on modern theater seem to be Brecht and Stanislovski, or, most specifically, a Brechtian approach to creating theater and a “Method” approach to acting. (I’m gonna leave it ’till tomorrow to talk about Brecht, because that’s probably easier for me to talk about.)

Now, I should say that these influences aren’t actually cited often. In fact, probably never, because they are both so pervasive. And both of these ideas are far more in depth than what the casual theater practitioner thinks about them. Certainly for “Method” acting there are definitely techniques that a lot of actors don’t follow to the letter, and almost nobody describes themselves as “method actors” without doing so with tongue in cheek.

But the fact is, this naturalistic approach to theater and to acting is so pervasive that it’s hard to read “An Actor Prepares” without laughing at what seem like obvious and simple lessons. Where we are now, in 2008, very few people would attack the role of Othello by rolling their eyes and behaving like an animal… in fact it would be a shocking and offensive idea.

I’m gonna switch terms, if that’s all right, because method acting has a method, and very few people follow the method to the letter. But the inspiration behind the method is the same inspiration behind what so many other schools are trying to get to, which is honesty. The supposition is that a dishonest performance will lead to bad theater, or less good theater.

This is certainly true in a lot of cases, and definitely if you watch, say, “A Streetcar Named Desire” (which a lot of people would claim is the beginning of this revolution, the true distillation of the method on display) you can understand the full power of this honesty. Imagine if Olivier had played Stanley (instead of, apparently, glowering just off camera) and you can see how perfectly pitched this acting style was for this moment.

But, here’s the thought experiment I go on. Stanley rapes Blanche, we’re pretty sure, although there’s a further thought experiment on just how much of a rape it is, but that happens off-screen. What if it happened on screen? What if they followed through and you had to watch Stanley rape her right there on your screen. What if you saw entry?

That’s where we are today. And I have to steer away from movies for a bit and go back to theater because the stark nudity of human emotions on screen does provide a barrier for the audience, so that a movie like “Kids” is disturbing but it isn’t *assaulting* (if that makes any sense). The plays of Tennessee Williams can be done in this naturalistic manner because he feels a responsibility to reveal what needs to be revealed and a restraint to hide what will be too difficult for an audience to watch.

Now, our stages are full of violence and sex. Which is great, violence and sex are great tools, as proven by Streetcar. But in an overzealous need to prove audacity, bravery and truth, we’re asking actors to stand on stage fully nude, or to accept acts of violence with various degrees of realism… and even worse, we’re asking audiences to watch.

I saw The Homecoming a few months ago, and I was totally floored by the power of the performances and the writing. God, it was horrible, this spiral you start slipping down, and it became more and more horrifying as it went. And the story, of a woman who tries to escape a life of utter and total degradation but, in the end, can’t escape her own need to destroy herself utterly, is full of violence and sex.

I was queasy, I really was. And titillated, somewhat. But at no time did we have to watch her being *fucked*. She didn’t disrobe. And it wasn’t in the manner of most movies now, where two people screw off camera and then during their next conversation, the woman holds the sheet up so her boobs are covered. It was in the manner of brilliant writing, where the play only shows us one room in a rotten shitty old house, and it isn’t the room where actual screwing happens.

Violence on stage is even worse, made just awful by the heightened realism of a play. I recently saw Nosedive Productions “Colorful World” and the fighting and violence in that play were a ball because the whole thing was over the top, the entire piece was supposed to be a cartoon. The stage combat became choreography, a dance.

But in plays where the actors stage “naps” and falls and punches… One of two things happen. Either it doesn’t seem real, which is a failure of the approach, or it seems totally real, and I’m suddenly terrified for the safety of the actor.

When a person appears naked on stage in front of me, I adjudicate THE ACTOR, I’m not seeing the character.In True Love, the Charles Mee piece, the lead woman walks on stage totally naked, and, curse my brain, I thought “there’s Laurie Williams, totally naked!”

There are times when the honesty of a performances leaks out on to the real world, and I find that hard to deal with. In a production of Glass Menagerie, the woman playing Laura limped out to take her bow. In a production of Chess I saw, the lead woman could barely make it to the end of the show she was crying so profusely. Even in shows I’ve produced, I’ve seen the psychological effect of realism shock an audience clean out of a story. A woman shows up on stage, the characters talk to her, she leaves and later, one character says to the other, “what do we think of fat chicks” and I *heard* the collective gasp from the audience, who knew *exactly* to whom we were referring.

It’s tough. And obviously, these psychological scars are worth it, to me, in order to tell a shocking or compelling story. And sometimes people fall out of the story for a second, but then get right back in. They worry about the actress for a second, but then they go back to the journey. I’m not sure where the line is, but I do know that realism and honesty in a performance, above all else, is not the final say in good storytelling. There are times when an older approach to acting would actually enhance a show, I really believe that.

Obviously, I don’t want an end to nudity or violence, I love both things. We used nudity to comic effect in “Fleet Week” and violence to tell a story in “Dirty Juanita”, but I’m not sure that our modern method for honesty goes hand in hand with those things. I think we need to be very careful to pay attention to the times when we are being brave and honest, and the times we are being crass braggarts. It takes a lot of guts to get your ass kicked on stage, or to get your breasts licked… but I think in both cases, you had better be sure you’ve earned the massive discomfort from your audience, and the screeching brakes you’ve maybe just put on the storytelling.