The Alchemy of Acting

I know I’m supposed to be on break, but this quote from James Dean won’t leave me alone.

When an actor plays a scene exactly the way a director orders, it isn’t acting. It’s following instructions. Anyone with the physical qualifications can do that. So the director’s task is just that – to direct, to point the way. Then the actor takes over. And he must be allowed the space, the freedom to express himself in the role. Without that space, an actor is no more than an unthinking robot with a chest-full of push-buttons.

So this semester at CMU has been crazy, and one of the conversations that keeps coming up between me and my colleagues in Theatre Lab (a class where the grad and senior directors, grad playwrights, dramaturgs, and the junior actors get to put on plays like they’re a group of cousins at Grandma’s house. Quick, experimental, and low stakes and safe, if you let it be.) Point is one of the questions that keeps coming up is “Should we treat actors like kittens?”

Now the subtext of that conversation is, how direct can you be with actors? Not only do you tell them when something’s not working, but do you help them make it work? There are many philosophies about this.

Some say don’t say anything about emotions, just tell them where and how to move. Some say explain the situation but leave the acting to the actors. Some say ignore the Stanislavski and give the actors extremely specific directions, let them know the end result you need.

The Wooster Group and some of the directors at CMU do this, what one of them calls “abstracting acting.” When Kate Valk, one of the veterans of the Wooster Group, visited CMU, she told us that Elizabeth LeCompte, the director (in so many words)’s goal was to give the actors so many tasks that they “stop acting and just do.” She might ask them to skip in place while speaking in monotone and counting backwards from 300, then all of a sudden Phedre takes on a whole new light.

That works for the kind of theater that Wooster and some of the directors at CMU do. Usually referred as experimental theater, the theater of “abstract acting” uses non-linear narratives, alienation, and many technical effects to create an experience that stretches audiences’ understanding of what theater is. Wooster has deconstructed many classics of theatrical literature including Chekhov, Miller, Shakespeare, and Gertrude Stein. (Redundant, I know.)

Wooster’s Hamlet broadcast Richard Burton’s iconic Hamlet behind the actors, forcing audiences to confront the legacy of Hamlet they often hold new productions to. (An oversimplification, but it’s hard to analyze a Wooster show quickly.)

But what happens when you do something that’s closer to Stanslavski (though just barely)? Continue reading

How to Destroy Superman: The Doctor, Batman, Senility, and the Pandorica

[Note: This post contains spoilers for the DC Comics’ The Death of Superman storyline, and The Dark Knight Returns (among others), and Doctor Who Series 4 and Series 5 including the episode “The Pandorica Opens.” It has not yet aired in the United States. You have been warned.]

I am going to tell you right now that Batman is the greatest superhero of all time, precisely because his only superpowers are a bank account and psychological trauma. He is the superhero that is closest to the reader, even more so than Stan Lee’s everyboy Spiderman, who fulfills all of our empowerment fantasies, but always shows us the best in ourselves. Batman is a triumph of the human will to fight back in the face of unbearable pain in order to inflict that pain on others. He is our darkest fantasies brought to life.

The Ninth Doctor bears a strong resemblance to the pre-Frank Miller era Batman, a man who has found new purpose as a result of losing almost everyone he loves, and he slowly creeps toward the darkness and thirst for vengeance that belongs to both the Tenth Doctor and The Dark Knight we see in The Killing Joke, The Long Halloween, and The Dark Knight Returns.

Dark Knight Returns is an interesting topic to bring up, because it shares so many connections with the Doctor’s current [Eleventh] incarnation. The Dark Knight Returns is set in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world where a formerly retired, middle-aged Batman dons the cowl once again to bring down Two-Face after the treatment Bruce Wayne funded fails to cure him of his psychopathic tendencies. But the Gotham police force is a little less grateful than usual. They’re not sure Batman’s vigilantism has a place in this world anymore. He’s become outdated. (Remember Eleven’s “I’m stupid.” statement? How often has he been missing things lately, making the wrong calls?)

Batman’s reappearance also pulls the Joker out of a catatonic state in Arkham, suggesting that the hero attracts, even rebuilds his villains unintentionally. (iDaleks anyone?)

“You’re like iPods. One in every color.”

(Dark Knight Returns also sports a female Robin who rivals Amy Pond in terms of quips and needing to be rescued.)

The interesting thing about the Doctor is that he is both Batman and Superman. As of the 2005 revival, he has a dark trauma in his past that gives him the purpose and drive to save the universe again and again (because he failed to save his own people.) Like Superman, he is an orphan of a dead culture, and grew into the individual we know and love as a result of his “adoption” by humans. (I know it’s hard to think of William Hartnell as a baby Clark Kent, but just go with me on this one.) The Doctor’s companions softened him from a persnickety old man to a formidable clown whose cartoonishly long scarf or piece of celery in his lapel hid a dangerous brand of competence. (We are going to ignore Colin Baker’s silly costume.)

Pay no attention to the man in the tacky outfit. 

This paradox of the Doctor as both Batman and Superman was brought to a head with the most recent episode of Moffat’s new series. Continue reading

I Want Bill Nighy to Say Nice Things About Me Someday: Musings on “Vincent and the Doctor”

[Note: This post contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor,” the tenth in series five. It has not aired in the United States yet. Read at your own risk.]

This is going to be one of those “dark night of the soul” posts, folks. So sorry in advance. I’ve been missing thanks to a particularly rough patch of what the Elizabethans called “melancholia” and busy-ness (a combination about as ill-advised as mixing tequila and Everclear.) And then there was the moving back to New York just in time to say goodbye to one of my dearest friends who had to return to her homeland, Leeds. (In my mind, she wanders the moors like Catherine in Wuthering Heights, except less obnoxious and prettier.) And now Glee is becoming uneven and boring and even kind of problematic at times.

The good news is the essay for Smart Pop has now been proofed and sent for formatting, so you can look for the book, which is a kind of post-mortem dissection of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse edited by (Whedon family writer and creator of Warehouse 13) Jane Espenson, in October 2010. I’m still sort of in awe about that happening, but I’m also getting all kinds of anxiety about it now. It’s stupid really. It’s just one essay in a book of 18 and it’s not saying anything (too) offensive and sometimes it’s funny, which is great, and the conclusion is actually kind of powerful (I think.) But I guess my anxiety has a lot to do with Doctor Who and Vincent van Gogh. Ready for a dramatic leap? Here we go!

Continue reading

Censorship, Lyra, and the Scoundrel Christ: A Love Letter to Philip Pullman

A long time ago in a land we once called high school, a movie came out that I was sure was going to exceed the meaning of the word awesome. I had already seen and fallen in love with the film adaptations of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, my second favorite fantasy story (and third favorite Medieval Studies curiosity story, after Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Avi’s Midnight Magic.) I had become so obsessed with the LotR films (as they are affectionately called) that I spent my days watching videos like this:

If the Lord of the Rings adaptation could work, then my favorite series, His Dark Materials, might have a ghost of a chance. And with Sir Ian “Gandalf, Richard III, general BAMF” McKellan as Iorek Byrnison and Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel, how could it go wrong?

How much would I have paid to see him and Nicole Kidman do Asriel and Marisa’s final scene in The Amber Spyglass? ANYTHING. ANYTHING!

Continue reading

Wanting a Bit of a New York Recess: On PLAYGROUND!

So being in New York is amazing, but it means missing the Playground Festival at Carnegie Mellon, and that makes me profoundly sad.

The Playground Festival has been an institution at Carnegie Mellon for seven years now. The main principle is that sometimes when you’re really busy learning how to make theatre, you don’t have a lot of time to just make theatre. Playground changed that, lending resources out to student productions, installations, readings, performance art, and (in recent years) the errant film.

By no means is the Festival perfect. There are three main production spaces and ticketing is always an issue in terms of both space within the theaters and the long lines that crop up at the beginning of every new ticketing session. As the Festival grows in popularity, more proposals get sent in which sort of inevitably means more proposals get rejected. Usually we all heal by the time Playground Week actually starts. (Or we become distracted by our own huge projects. Thank you Cass and Olivia for bringing me on to Dr. Horrible!)

Even with some of the hurt feelings, Playground is a wonderful opportunity for both students from other departments and other schools and citizens of greater Pittsburgh to figure out exactly what goes on in the School of Drama once you leave the infamous “watering hole” of a lobby. Continue reading

A Little Note on “Women’s History,” Search Terms, and Kathryn Bigelow

Okay, first of all guys, sorry about disappearing off the face of the Earth. The Vineyard’s been crazy and I’ve started scene study class with the brilliant and eclectic Erica Schmidt so things have been busy in a fun way.

I have a bit of a meta-post today in response to a lot of the searches people have been using to find my blog, particularly this post. A lot of queries about 1) Kathryn Bigelow’s height, 2) her relationship status and 3) what she looked like when she was with James Cameron. So without further ado… Continue reading

Denny Crane: A Feminist/Queer Studies Love Letter to Boston Legal

Okay, confession time. My first crush was Captain Kirk from Star Trek: The Original Series.

What am I looking at? Oh, just my ego's shadow.

Now here’s the thing about Captain Kirk. He’s a jerk. He’s xenophobic, expansionist, and a professional chauvinist. And he never really apologizes for it. As a feminist, I should hate him. But he also does stuff like this:

Continue reading

Christina Hendricks Is More Than Her Curves!

Doesn’t it seem like it’s always Fashion Week somewhere? New York magazine recently did a feature on Christina Hendricks’ modeling work. She appears on the cover in a corset, apparently from her own closet.

Okay. Now look at her face.

New York is heralding the “return of voluptuous.” What they seem to have missed is that the only place it left was white Hollywood, and it hasn’t been gone that long either. Continue reading

Single People’s Weeks: This is Not a Love Story: Zooey Deschanel and the Refusal of Romance

As I’ve recently been documenting, I’ve felt a little assaulted by images of romance, particularly heteronormative romance and chick flicks. It might just be because it’s getting closer to Valentine’s Day, but I’m starting to feel a little down as a single white female in Manhattan.

You're lettin' me down ladies. You're lettin' me down.

When even Carrie from Sex and the City is married, I’m failing in the romance department. But I’m not going to get depressed, and I’m not going to settle, and I’m not going to join eHarmony and become one of those gawdawful commercials.

Because, despite what the multiplex wants to tell you, the point of your life does not have to be to find a partner, have two point five kids, and spend the rest of your life making them make up for the fact that you gave up the rest of your life for them. How do I know this? I watch Zooey Deschanel films. Continue reading

Single People’s Weeks: Hedging, Kathryn Bigelow, and “Women’s Language”

As promised, as part of Single People’s Week(s), today’s post is not about relationships, but it is about gender. And language. Maybe. I mean, it seems that way. Maybe you can tell me at the end?

Is language gendered? Was Robin Tolmach Lakoff right when she wrote in her book Language and a Woman’s Place that women use more approval seeking constructions (“that’ll be okay, right?”), more intensifiers (very, extra) and qualifiers (a bit, not exactly, maybe), and more uncertain rising intonations (ending a sentence on an upswing, suggesting the interrogative, kind of a verbal question mark) in order to not offend men? Does a female director/writer/producer, or, to be more general, a female leader, have to speak differently in order to be accepted by the mainstream? Continue reading