Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Brain Overflow (and gratitude)

The last two days of a theatre symposium here in Boston have definitely left my mind a little overflowing. The topic was Actor as Collaborator, and featured actresses Olympia Dukakis and Lynn Cohen as leaders/instigators of the discussion. The talk dealt a lot with the feeling of marginalization (and infantilization) that actors are feeling in the theatrical process, a lot of the time (not in every case). Though the focus was on actors, directors, playwrights, designers and others were invited to be part of the conversation (100 people were invited, plus students from Emerson).

Some of the talk was emotional, with people sharing horror stories from their careers. Some students expressed their confusion about what path to take out of school--starting something small and underground or heading to commercial theatre. On Monday, we sat in a big circle, of probably more than 60 people, and went around for hours, with each person having a chance to speak. A lot of it was just about getting ideas and pent up emotions out there, but what I really appreciated was the strong sense that no matter who was speaking, the assembled crowed really listened and thought about what was being said (which gets hard after multiple hours of this).

Late in the day on Monday, we split into breakout groups, and I was in the playwright/actor group. We had about ten people, split evenly between actors and writers. The conversation was warm and generous, and confirmed yet again how much I enjoy working with and talking to actors. I think we all recognized the importance of the director in the process, but all hope for the ability and opportunity to work more closely together in the future. We talked a bit about how collaboration depends upon possessing a common vocabulary and a respect for each other's artistic process. In Rhombus, our rule is always "impressions not suggestions," which I think could be amended to say "impressions and questions, not suggestions." Trying to rewrite someone else's play is a tough impulse to resist, and the same applies for playwrights wanting to give actors easy answers (thereby short-circuiting their discovery process).

So much was said on both days, it all tends to sort of blend together into a buzz in my brain. I was struck over and over again how much we all want to work together better. However, when I spoke on Sunday, I brought up that one thing I feel is lacking in our process is a better formal (or at least semi-formal) process for when the show is over to assess how we did. It's extremely rare to be invited to a post-production post-mortem, where the entire group of people who were involved in the production gather to say, "the way we did this really worked for me." Or else that it didn't and why. Directors don't say to the actors, "how did this work for you, when I did so and so?" Or does the director ask the playwright, "How was our communication? How could it be better next time?"

An essential lack in our theatrical process is this conscious intention to learn from our successes and mistakes, in order to intentionally mold the process that we use to create theatre. Effective collaboration requires more than just everyone dumping in ingredients when the soup is being assembled. Often folks are pressed for time and money and have already moved on to the next show, but our artform suffers for neglecting this final, crucial step. What I want is a theatre scene in Boston where audience members can't wait to tell their neighbors, "you must go see this show!"

Anyway, that's something that's been on my mind lately, and it mixed together with all the other theatrical goulash of the weekend.

One last point: Jaan Whitehead, a member of Anne Bogart's board (among many other smart things she's done) talked a bit about the economics of theatre in our society, and the fundamental conflict that the arts in our society face with market capitalism and popular democracy. Basically she reminded us, in very clear language, that the economic model for theatre in our culture stinks. I knew this, but I liked the way she explained it.

Several other actors in the audience talked a fair bit about finally coming to terms with the fact that they need day jobs in order to practice their art--and we're talking about incredibly talented, well-respected actors in the Boston theatre scene. Their comments, and the whole weekend, reminded me how much I appreciate my life, and all that I'm able to do artistically, even though it may not make me much money. I wouldn't trade it. I owe the assembled horde of actors and theatre folk a big thanks for that reminder.


Thomas Garvey said...

But what exactly is so terrible about suggestions? And why is "self-discovery" more important than efficient improvement? It seems that in other crafts, people get suggestions; in fact, they get instructions. Why not in acting? Just wondering.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Well, in terms of the writer, when someone makes a suggestion, it's generally both intrusive and lazy. The commentator is often thinking about the how he'd like to play to be if he was writing it, but he's not. It's the playwright's play and she might have a different way of solving the problem. As a writer, I'm interested in the perceived problem, but I want to craft my own solution. I've been around long enough to make the translation from suggestion to impression, but if you want to be useful to me, tell me how what I've written makes you think and feel.

This actually applies in all good criticism when it comes to art, including written criticism. I hate reading a review that says, "the writer should have written this instead." It makes more sense to say, "this didn't work for me because of such-and-such, because this is where it confused me, or didn't mesh with the characters. " It takes a lot more thought than just a snap reaction. When the reviewer decides to take a turn rewriting the work at hand, he's overstretched and lost focus on the reviewer's job.

The same thing applies to suggestions on acting in rehearsal. The rehearsal process is not about efficiency. It doesn't help for the director or playwright to get up at the start of rehearsal and say to the actors, here is how you should say your lines, move here, move there. Voila. Let's open tomorrow. Actors are not props, they're living breathing humans who are interpreting the role through themselves. They need to figure stuff out. If you cut the process short, you get a hollow result.

This is why actors complain about increasing shortened rehearsal times. There is actual discovery going on during rehearsal and that takes a certain amount of time, of trial and error. It's why not every production of Shakespeare is exactly the same. If you want to see something that has just one result, go see a movie.

Yes, at some point, in the process sometimes actors get lost, and then directors need to come in and offer suggestions, choices, possibilities. (And sometimes, instructions, I admit.)

You say that in other crafts people get suggestions. Sure. And they're often just as unhelpful. I wouldn't tell a painter who asked me for feedback how they should paint a face. But I might offer my impressions what I see and what I feel like I'm missing. The language of useful criticism is carefully thought out--the key word is "useful." How do I say something that helps the artist understand the impact hiscreation has on me, such that he's can modify what he's doing to obtain his desired result?

Patrick Gabridge said...

I love your question, Thomas. I left to go make dinner and I keep coming back to these ideas, because I'm so tempted to qualify my answer (as I did in the previous response). I want to say, "of course, the director has to have final say, sometimes has to tell people what to do, etc."

But one of the points of symposium, and I agree with it, is that if you want a collaborative process, then you have to treat all the participants as active, equal collaborators, and that includes the actors. Fully.

Olympia Dukakis put it so well, when she said the director isn't there to tell people what to do, it's his job to safeguard, to channel, the Story. What story is this production of this script trying to tell? In a sense, "director" is a misnomer. It appeals to people (like me) with a strong tendency to want to control things and tell people what to do. Perhaps the better term would be "guide" or "reflector." The actor cannot see himself on stage--the director sees the actor, the set, hears the music, and has to maintain a sense of the entire evening's performance. A very, very hard job.

I'd say that in order to do that job optimally, the director needs to let the other people do their jobs. That means let the designer solve design problems, the actors solve design problems, the writer solve script problems. The director is the most direct representative of the audience. The director's job is at any given moment, even though he's seen the scene a million times and there's no lights yet, not costumes, is to imagine it fresh from a virgin audience's experience.

And for a while, I was thinking, "well, impressions not suggestions, that won't always work. What if someone can't be seen, or can't be heard?" The director should say, "speak louder," right? But I'm not so sure. Maybe the director should say, "I can't hear you. I can't see the actor behind you." I would argue (I think) that's there's a subtle yet important difference between those two responses. One involves the other person as an active participant in the creation of something, and the other doesn't.

Part of me says, "yeah, sure, but what happens when the situation descends into chaos" and I think of various disasters I've seen underway. But I'm not sure the ultimate answer is to have the director spend more time telling people what to do (I'm sure some will disagree) or doing it more forcefully (or louder).

There's also the question of "vision." Is the director present in order to his achieve his "vision" of the play, and thus, if things do go a certain way, it's the job of the director to "steer" the actors and designers towards that end result? That's certainly one way to operate, but again, I'd say that is not a truly collaborative process, and is not making full (or even appropriate) of the talents brought by the participants.

Navigating all of this would seem to make directing a play a lot harder than it would appear, because the temptation, both culturally and personally (for some of us) is to desire and expect the ultimate role of "director" as the "decider." And in some ways, yes, decisions must be made--the colors of the set need to be decided, the fabric of the costumes must be chosen. But I still am not sure who should be making that decision. This example was raised in the symposium, and I nodded, thinking, sure, the director has to pick. But is that really true? Or does the director need to tell the designer, "my sense is that this color goes more with the story's attempt to establish such-and-such" and then let the designer argue for a final choice and allow the choice to be made by the designer. Is the ultimate role of the director to allow as many other people to make decisions that ultimately all establish the strongest version of this story, told be these people? and to guide those decisions into a coherent, vibrant production?

Thomas Garvey said...

I think, Patrick, that you're so busy qualifying yourself because you can perceive, at some level, the lack of realism in your claims. You say, for instance, that "The rehearsal process is not about efficiency." But then you turn around and mention that "actors complain about increasing(ly) shortened rehearsal times." Hmmm. So it would seem that the rehearsal process IS, in the end, about efficiency, at some level. At least I can't think of any production of any show I've ever been involved in that actually was alotted all the rehearsal time it truly needed. Not a single one. In the end, the director has to bring the production in on time, and on budget, and that means, as you put it, that "decisions have to be made," and then the rehearsal has to move on. Or the actors may soon be unemployed. Happy with the process, but unemployed.

And it's intriguing to me, when I hear these kinds of complaints, to compare actors to dancers and musicians. When I directed a musical, I was struck by how little resistance I got from the musicians and dancers involved, particularly once they sensed I knew what I doing. They, too, were "figuring things out," drawing emotion from within themselves, but they knew they had to do it on the fly, and they never imagined that they themselves were the best guides of their performances - in fact, they wanted clear direction, which they would then interpret. By way of contrast, I can think of many, many instances in which after a very good solution to a moment was suggested by me, or another actor - which everyone immediately sensed 'worked' - one or another of the performers still wanted to work and re-work the bit in question - essentially, still wanted the solution to be theirs, even though time was short and there was a lot of other work to do.

And when directing actors, I'm aware more and more of a growing assumption that they should have political control over what are essentially aesthetic decisions. Actors seem to imagine that this political struggle will result in better productions - because, as you put it, otherwise, the production will not make "full (or even appropriate) use of the talents brought by the participants." Oddly enough, though, we know from stage and film history that many of the greatest performances were produced with the actor actively fighting their direction, or being manipulated, as you put it, "like a prop." I'm not arguing for that approach, but at the same time, alas, it's clear that it has worked; there's really no demonstrated historical argument leading from your claims regarding actor process to actual performance quality.

Of course, everyone, like you, wants to craft their own solutions to artistic problems. But the only way to truly claim that prerogative is to produce and pay for your own show. Otherwise, you are being paid by someone to whom you are trying to dictate your own demands - an interesting relationship, surely. And of course in an ensemble, one person's solution may conflict with another's; there are many competing perspectives to be balanced. Then who wins out? Who should respond to the director's "impression" and who shouldn't? Process alone can't really get you there.

And in the end, I have to confess as a critic, and as an audience member, I'm not really interested in process all that much. And I don't think I'm alone; nobody sells tickets to "processes," because nobody would pay to see one. Hence actors I think have to be realistic in their demands. Actors shouldn't allow themselves to be railroaded, or treated as cattle, and they should always feel free to give feedback - but I don't think they should lose sight of the fact that in the end, they aren't "resources" to be coaxed into a wonderful experience that coincidentally gets the job done. They're there to get the job done, regardless. And directors and designers and producers most like to work with actors who understand that.

Patrick Gabridge said...

I certainly don't dispute that you can get to an end result through any range of methods. And many of them have worked just fine, as you point out. The same argument can be made for dictatorships--they can make the trains run on time. But I'm not sure it's ultimately the most satisfying method.

I agree that audiences don't care about the process, they only care what they see on stage. I do think the process ultimately has impact on the result.

But keep in mind, part of what I'm talking about is when the participants involved say that that they're interested, up front, in a collaborative process. If that's the case, if the director and actors say, "hey, let's all be collaborators," then what is the role of the director?

I'm not sure the way to determine the right model for this is to argue from the case of what happens when participants act badly. Directors and actors are all capable of acting with their own egos as primary focus. I would argue that most actors, however, are acutely aware of the production demands of a show, especially in terms of time. They know when they're asses are going to be up on the stage, and they want a good product for the audience just as much as the director, if not more.

Thomas Garvey said...

Well, not to drag this out interminably, but I do want to point out that in my experience, when a "collaborative process" works out well, the people involved are almost always on the same page from the very beginning; they agree politically, they've been trained in the same way, they know each other well, and there's already an assumed pecking order in place. In which case the "collaboration" is almost superfluous.

Thomas Garvey said...

And please, really - fascism? Dictatorships? Do orchestra players complain of fascism? Do plumbers and carpenters?

Art said...

Some plumbers complain of socialism.

(Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Patrick Gabridge said...

Thanks, Art. (We needed that.)

Thomas--I totally agree that it in order for it to work, everyone needs to be on the same page from the beginning.

As for fascism, of course it's a stretch (big stretch, perhaps a silly stretch). But do plumbers and carpenters complain when people boss them around instead of letting them do their jobs, of course they do. Independent contractors in the trades hate being told how to do something they already know how to do, which is why being a general contractor on a site is such a tough job. (BTW, Olympia Dukakis and Rocco Sisto both mentioned that they often think of themselves of plumbers rather than artists.)