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Russian, English, dressing

Well, and there are roughly (and inaccurately) speaking, two major schools of thought in America about acting. I tend to call them the English and the Russian school; they are also called Technique and Method, and various other names as well. Essentially, they are questions of how an actor prepares to play a part. My job when I’m acting is to convey certain things to an audience, and in order to do that persuasively, I must develop certain instincts and reactions that are not my own. It’s not just “pretend to be angry”, it’s in large part “show anger in the manner that Monsieur the Vicomte would show anger.” This is very different from the way Your Humble Blogger would show anger (as well as being different from the way the fellow behind the nom de net would show anger). So, I have to figure out how to show anger, which means that I need to figure out how Valmont shows anger.

Now, the Russian (or Method) way to do that is (broadly speaking) to imagine as much as possible about Valmont’s past and his inner life. How did he grow up, what made him angry as a child, or as a young man, who is he most often angry at, all that sort of thing. And, of course, as I need to show a variety of emotions over the course of the play, and as emotions are for the most part interconnected experientially, I need to think about this with almost any conceivable feeling, and to make my answers consistent and recognizable. One useful way to do that is through improvisations, where the actors work together in various situations not covered in the play. Then, over time, throwing out what doesn’t work or isn’t consistent, I create a complex and textured inner life for the character, which then informs the way I show emotions in the scenes of the play.

The English way (or Technique) way is to externally imitate known models of behavior, paying careful attention to the technical aspects of those models. That is, I play Valmont as being like a certain person, or like certain aspects of certain people. Generally, this begins by finding certain effects I want to create, and then molding the character around those effects. Or, as Lord Laurence Olivier would say, finding the right hat. Once I’ve got the right hat, I know that Valmont is the sort of person who would wear that hat, and then I know what sort of person he is, and how he would express anger. It’s (all together) more complicated than that, of course, but that’s the gist of it.

Now, to the extent that Your Humble Blogger has had actual acting instruction, it has been heavily toward the Russian side of the fence. On the other hand, by temperament and inclination, I lean toward the English side of the fence. As a result, I’m pretty happy with either, or with such combinations of methods as aren’t really annoying. The director of lLD is very much English (being, you know, English), and very clearly has no use for Russians and their ilk. As a director, she’s firmly in the traffic-cop school; keep the actors in the light, make sure they can be heard, and keep them from bumping into the furniture. There has been some discussion of character, but it has been largely within the context of what happens on stage and how it should be played.

Hrm. Some Gentle Readers will, by now, be bored to tears (or have moved on to play Word Sandwich again), and others will have no idea what I’m talking about. Let me attempt to be somewhat more specific. Our Director will stop a scene in rehearsal to say that the scene needs to be faster, or that a particular scene can be slower, or that an actor is being blocked, or is out of the light, or in some undefined way looks wrong. She will not stop a scene because she feels the actor is not in the moment, or is not expressing motivation, or should be angrier, or sadder, or more triumphant. Very little time is spent talking about what a character feels at a given moment in the play (much less outside it). A great deal of time is spent talking about at what precise moment the actor should enter, and where he should walk to, and perhaps how he should stand when he gets there.

So. All that is background. Now we’re up to last week or so, and YHB was beginning to get a trifle worried that the scenes between Monsieur the Vicomte and Madame de Tourvel were not working. My own diagnosis was that there was just no chemistry there. We were getting across the plot points, but there was no reason for the audience to believe that these two really wanted to sleep together, and that when they finally did, the proverbial sparks would etcetera, and that the experience thereof would utterly derail them both. The actress playing Madame de Tourvel was also worried, I believe for the same or similar reasons, and we approached the Director, who seemed on the whole complacent about the whole thing, and essentially asked for an extra rehearsal to see if it could be improved.

Now, for most of the shows I have done, such a rehearsal, attempting to correct an acting problem, would be conducted more or less on Russian lines. That is, probably there would be an improv or two, discussion of what worked in those improvs, and an attempt to incorporate those discoveries into the scripted scenes. I did not expect our Director to give us improvs, but I did expect some discussion of the problem and its roots, and then the proposal of an essentially character-based solution. Think about such-and-such a thing, she might say, or we might hit on some fundamental misunderstanding we had made about the relationship, or about their agendas during the scene or some such.

So, when we arrived and began immediately to simply run our scenes, and when our Director stopped us several times not with character-based comments but with blocking changes, my reaction was not particularly positive. The blocking’s not the problem, I thought. And then we ran it through with the new blocking and the scenes worked. The chemistry was there. What was supposed to be happening and had not been happening was, in fact, happening.

I was astonished. I mean, I know that’s what happens, that’s the way the Technique works, but I had never experienced it quite that starkly before. I still don’t understand how it worked, properly. I mean, I do see that the blocking is better that it was before, but I would have said it was incrementally better, rather than being fundamentally different. The experience of the scene, however, is fundamentally different.

Or so it seems from up on stage. Impossible to tell what an audience will see without an audience, after all, but I am far more confident going in to the week we Open than I was a week ago. Now we just have to deal with how slow the whole thing is going. There must be a way to shave ten minutes off the thing.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


I am reminded of PJ's Circumcision Principle: You can cut 10% off of anything.

Fascinating post. Keep 'em coming!

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