One Step Beyond…

October 27, 2009

It’s fascinating to me to that it appears that many people want to make sure that through their training and research they find out whose technique or system was “right”, and to do this would mean coming down and landing in one camp or another.  Have we decided to settle in the Stanislavsky camp or some seemingly opposing camp such as Meyerhold or Chekhov?  It’s as if as we must determine that only one master can exist as the definitive truth on the subject of acting.  It’s as if our very worth is wrapped up in proving who “right” and who is “wrong”.  To me this is like standing in front of a exquisite buffet with food from all the very best chefs in the world and then making it one’s task to go about determining which dish is not only the best one, but the “right” one, the one that somehow has more credibility than all the others.  Perhaps this is the part of the academic pursuit that I don’t fully understand, but my first impulse is to simply celebrate the bountiful feast in front of me.  This is how I feel about the discussion of Stanislavsky, Meyerhold and Chekhov, and even Hagen, Miesner, Strasberg, and dare I say Mamet.  This is a feast of insight and study into the art of acting…I say “Gorge thyself!”

Please don’t get me wrong, I whole heartedly enjoy the discussion that compares and contrasts all these approaches.  From these discussions we discover aspects of the people and their various approaches that we may not have gleaned before.  We sharpen our own understanding and practice of the techniques that each master promotes.  I suppose part of me wants to question the spirit of how we go about it.  Perhaps instead of solely focusing on where and how these various masters differed, we should focus on the similarities between them.  I am always struck with how many times one master’s approach seems to echo another’s, or how one approach is clearly an extension of the another approach that had gone before.  One might suggest, and I believe truthfully so, that much of what Chekhov was exploring was a clear extension of much of what Stanislavsky was working on.  This in no way invalidates what Stanislavsky put forth, in fact it’s likely that without the predecessor’s work the successor’s work would not be possible.

It occurs to me in reading about Chekhov’s approach to acting, he has taken aspects of the classic Stanislavskian system and turned it on its ear by extending it beyond the realm of a logical and repeatable examination of character and circumstances, and made it into a fascinating esoteric exploration of imagination unbound!  How exciting!  This would not however be possible without Stanislavsky taking the time and effort to break down his understanding of acting into a clear, concise system that could then be studied and furthered.

It could be said that Chekhov’s Psychological Gesture is an extension of Stanislavsky’s examination of character objective.  Where Stanislavsky is looking for an articulation in words, Chekhov is perhaps looking for an articulation using image and a coinciding inner gesture.  Some might say that Chekhov is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain for actors, meaning some might say that his is a more intuitive, right-brained approach to acting.  Of course we know that acting requires a beautiful balance and interplay between both the right and left parts of the brain, and both are extremely valuable and necessary to create a good performance.  It might also be true that in our western world we could all use a little more intuition in our approach to our art.

Psychological Gesture is a brilliant way of distilling a character’s essence into something that can’t be fully explained, but rather must been seen or experienced.  I love the intuitive nature of this exercise, and in fact do we not do this in life all the time?  We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we are without words to describe an event, feeling, person or situation, and we resort to some physical gesture to try to communicate to the listener what we mean and feel.  A similar process happens for the actor with Psychological Gesture, but that gesture is in an inward event and may not be the same as anything physical that is happening on the outside.

Chekhov’s use of Eurythmy is another way of intuitively approaching character.  How does the sound of vowels and consonants affect our inner gesture and vice versa?  All of these exercises are designed to distil for the actor an intuitive, right-brained image or sense or feeling on which can be hung the central basis for a character.  Later practitioners of acting like Uta Hagen have chosen to include these types of associations in their teaching.  Hagen has said that any amount of research that will lead to an inspired moment on stage is worth all the effort.  She argues that it in addition to the practical actor’s work of addressing character, given circumstances, objectives, actions, etc., it is also completely valid to use one’s imagination to find more right-brained associations like “my character has the feel of a rainy street in Paris”, or “at this moment I feel like dog being disciplined by its master”, or “at the end of the play I feel as though my body is in an outstretched  position, hands and arms in the air, feet pointed, and I’m soaring through space!”

So, here we are almost 10 years into the new millennium and we have rich buffet of acting approaches in front of us…I suggest we celebrate and fill our bellies with a variety of all the delicious foods before us.  Pick and choose what we like the best.  Take more of what is most tasty to us, but because we’re adventurous, risk-taking artists we’ll still sample those items that we’re less familiar with, the one we thought we didn’t like as kid and who knows, we may find something there we love!  When we were kids travelling overseas and having to try food that was foreign to us, my mother would cry out to my sister and I, “Trysies everyone, Trysies!”  So we must not be afraid to go beyond the text, beyond the body, beyond the mind, beyond the spirit, maybe even beyond time and space to truly find the essence of a character and an inspired stage life.  Take it one step beyond…


We had seen God in His splendours, heard the text that nature renders.

We had reached the naked soul of man. – Earnest Shackleton

This quote by the heroic Antarctic explorer of the early 20th century sums up a great deal of what true theatre of the soul could and maybe should strive to be.

Why do we go to the theatre?  (And here when I use the term “theatre” I include the cinema, or at least a portion of the film industry, because much of what is talked about here is true for the world of film as well.)  In truth there are many reasons why we go.  It may be for entertainment, to escape, to learn, to grow, to laugh, to cry, to understand, to be challenged, to connect with ourselves and our fellow human beings, etc., or any combination of the above.  No matter why we go, I believe that we are all searching for some kind of transformative experience.  We’re looking for something that transcends this temporal plane in some way and allows us to catch a glimpse of a new way of thinking or living.  Perhaps we’re seeking something that has the potential to release us into a new sense of freedom.  Or maybe it’s an experience that reminds us of our connection to our fellow human beings.  This experience could happen in any number of ways.  We might find ourselves transformed by spending an evening laughing at an outrageous comedy, or weeping at a tragedy that touches the depths of our soul and moves us to reconsider our relationships or our circumstances.

I believe there is something inside all of us that longs for transformation.  Not unlike the caterpillar that spends her whole life crawling earth-bound, and then one day, after much effort and many trials, she is finally free.  She gently lifts her delicate body with her graceful wings and takes flight.  She is a new creature, with a new life and purpose.  She is transformed.  This transformation rarely comes easily.  The butterfly must never be helped out of her cocoon.  It is the fight and struggle to get out that gives the butterfly the strength she needs to fly.  If she is aided in her attempts to escape the transcendent prison of her cocoon, she will develop the strength she needs to survive in the world.

I believe that we search for transformation in all kinds of ways.  Thrill-seekers are looking for a transformative experience, as are most drug addicts, alcoholics and sex addicts.  In fact it was one of the most influential English writers of the 20th century, G. K. Chesterton, who stated that “Every man who walks into a brothel is searching for God.”  Most people of faith are searching for transformation, no matter what set of beliefs they subscribe to.  Much of the quest for the further exploration of outer space is in many ways a search for transformation, as are many of the scientific disciplines.  I marvel at the fact that we’ve spent over four billion Euros to build the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the Suisse-France border to basically conduct one experiment.  This one experiment will either prove or disprove our Standard Model of the universe.  We will either carry on in our pursuit to further understand the universe with the assurance that we are going in the right direction, or we will discover that everything we thought we knew was wrong and we have to start all over again.   Either way, obtaining this information is nothing less than exciting and either way the scientific community is in for fully transformative process.

I feel that the theatre is one of those rare places where for centuries people have congregated to hear stories, and through those stories, have hoped to find transformation.  It’s fascinating to me that one of the core mediums we use to communicate transformation, or to communicate matters of the soul, is stories.  There is a sense that in order to truly talk about some of these concepts, transformation, the soul, we must move into another form of communication, or dare I say communion.  “The play’s the thing!” Stories are the stuff dreams are made of, and epic journeys, and life lessons…we grow through stories.  There is a reason that so many religious leaders and people of faith have used stories to get their message across.  Jesus did it, Buddha did it, Confucius did it, Ghandi did it, Rumi did it…and some of these folks combined their stories with action.  There you have it.  Story + Action = Theatre!

But what makes it theatre of the soul?  If there is anything about us that exists beyond the physical, it must be the soul.  Our brain dies with the body, but I suspect that the mind lives in two places, both the brain and soul, so that when the body dies somehow consciousness is able to live on in the seat of the soul.  It is that part of our being that I long for the theatre to touch.  Only then does it have the power to change, to heal, and to offer a kind of transformation.  A comedy can cause us to laugh so much that we momentarily lose touch with our left brain and allow ourselves to be lifted out of our troubles, even if only for an hour or two.  That is transformation.  The same can be true in the sweet pathos of a drama where as we grieve with the characters on stage we are transported to another plane and we are reminded of the oneness of humanity through the commonality and communion of suffering.  That is transformation.  In the astonishment of the circus or a stunningly original movement piece we can suspend our disbelief, become like children and allow ourselves to be taken on a journey we didn’t think possible.  That is transformation.  Well-crafted spectacle can often take our breath away and launch our right brain and cause it to soar.  This is transformation.

Theatre of the soul is not about doing a certain kind of theatre in a certain way, or within a certain school of thought.  Theatre of the soul can be created anywhere, anytime, in any kind of venue, with any kind of people.  It can happen in an old schoolhouse where a group of amateurs are putting on a play for the local community; it can happen in someone’s living room or around a campfire while a storyteller weaves her magic; or it can happen in a fully-equipped theatre as a group of professionals committed to their craft create that magic night after night.  Theatre of the soul can happen spontaneously at a party or a concert, or it can be part of a show that has been carefully crafted to bring about the conditions within which transformation is possible.

Theatre of the soul is taking place all the time if we foster eyes to see and ears to hear, and I feel that one of our primary privileges as theatre artists is to nurture these gifts and keep our soul-antennae tuned and maintain the hunger in our bellies for soul food.  And when we find an opportunity to cook up some soul food, whether it’s a re-heat in the microwave or making it up from scratch, we must put on our apron and get to it with all the commitment and passion of an executive chef!

We must take Earnest Shackleton’s lead when it comes to the soul.  Good theatre has the potential to become theatre of the soul if it seeks to reach out and touch that part of us that is transcendent…if it desires to reach out and touch the naked soul of man.

Toporkov and Me…

October 6, 2009

What a fascinating account of working with Stanislavski.  I must say that I really felt that a lot of what Toporkov experiences during his the first portion of his time with Stanislavski is quite similar to what I am experiencing here at York.

It’s heartening to see that much of what many of go through as actors is not uncommon, and is not particular to this day in age.  The very fact that Toporkov describes experiences that are almost word-for-word experiences that I have had, comforts me to no end.  I’ve shared the struggle he describes when he was doing a “comedy” at the Krosh Theatre where he was working on a speech he gives just before jumping to his death.  This speech is supposed to bring some empathy from the audience, and perhaps even bring the actor to tears.  What an impossible place to be for an actor.  How does was one make their way through a mess like this?  There are so many trappings for the actor…so many holes for one to tumble into.  I’ve found myself in similar situations and like Toporkov, found that success was elusive and seemed to be at the whim of the muse.  This is one of the most frustrating places for an actor to wind up.  One feels out of control and as if one is left to merely step out on to the stage and hope for the best.  It can be incredibly demoralizing, humiliating and humbling.  It puts one into a state of doubt and questioning that can be debilitating.  I’m so glad I’m not alone in that feeling.  I’ve often heard it said that actors are the most insecure people around, and I’m sure this is one of the reasons why this is true.  How grateful are we to have a “system” that allows us to find our way through this kind of murky mess to a place of creating a genuine life of the human spirit.

It’s also heartening to realize that Toporkov struggled with the notion of “getting into one’s head”.  Toporkov was in the habit of working out what he was going to do on stage, even how he was going to say his lines.  We know of course that today this would be a preposterous way of approaching a role.  How can one do all this and still be in the moment and remain alive?  This is not to be confused with doing one’s homework on a role in terms of character, relationships, given circumstances, etc.  This must all be done regardless.  The aspect of “getting into one’s head” that Toporkov and I are referring to is more about actually working out your reactions and your actions in a way that do not allow for any spontaneity.  Most actors need reminders to “get out of their heads” and Toporkov’s journey is a remarkable comfort.

Much of what Toporkov goes through and is challenged by are the same kind of reminders I’m receiving here at York.  The constant challenge to abandon the tricks that might’ve worked in the past and rather enter in to the work with beginner’s mind (a wonderful notion) has been a kind of artistic salvation.

I feel that the Stanislavski that is revealed in Toporkov’s book only confirms that this detailed, generous, passionate theatre artist who is has something to offer all of us, is truly the father of a step forward in the world of theatre that is unparalleled even to this day.  Thanks Stan…from all the Toporkov’s…and me!