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

Feminist Director Crisis of Faith: Elia Kazan

So I’m at home in Scranton for a little more than two weeks before returning to the city to direct Alcestis. Before I left I picked up a book at the Strand (another very famous New York landmark) called Kazan on Directing. Published just this year, it’s a collection of Elia Kazan‘s notes and journals. Kazan is one of the first American auteurs, in terms of both film and stage. He was a founding member of The Actors Studio and was an instrumental force in our nation’s two attempts at forming a national theater. (It wasn’t his fault they failed, America’s just pretty bad at funding the arts in general, and it didn’t help that a lot of America’s best theatre artists had Communist ties, sending certain American congressmen into hissy fits.)

Kazan also directed one of my favorite films of all time, East of Eden, the first film James Dean starred in. Dean is amazing in it, and the storytelling is just breathtaking. (Steinbeck and Kazan add up to a very twisted kind of Biblical Americana.)

Expressionism + Method Acting + Steinbeck = Awesome

After seeing East of Eden, I saw A Streetcar Named Desire, the film adaptation of Kazan’s acclaimed stage production (written by a troubled Southern gentleman named Tennessee Williams). I’ve talked about the ineffable charisma of this film before, but I will reiterate that it’s one of the most interesting studies in gender relations and cultural studies on celluloid. It both mourns and indicts genteel and blue collar Southern culture, setting up the two representations of these cultures (Blanche and Stanley, respectively) on a path to destruction.

Cultures collide. In the most disturbing and sexy way possible.

At least that’s what I saw in the film. I saw two equal forces fighting for the love of one woman: Stella. A woman who started out like Blanche, delicate, unprepared for the real world, and fell in with Stanley, a man she happily compares to an animal, because he gives her permission to be an animal sometimes too, to like sex, to be a sexual being. The battle for Stella is the fight between primitivism and ingrained chauvinism. Blanche found a way to empower herself through the chauvinism of the culture she grew up by cultivating a personality that needed to be taken care of, that made men feel secure in her dependence on them. Stanley and Stella have a troubled relationship but it is much more equal than any relationship Blanche wants to have.

Okay, that said, now this is what Kazan himself said about the piece:

Blanche is an outdated creature, approaching extinction, like the dinosaur. She is about to be pushed off the edge of the world. On the other hand, she is a heightened version, an artistic intensification, of all women. That is what makes the play universal. Blanche’s special relation to all women is that she is at that critical point where the one thing above all else that she is dependent on–her physical attractiveness, what men find appealing about her–is beginning to fade. Blanche is like all women, dependent on a man, looking for someone to hang on to: only more so! [Bold stands in for Kazan’s italics.]

Continue reading