Following her previous post, Opera Works Mezzo-Soprano Lila Palmer shares her thoughts on the first Input Weekend with Mike Alfreds and Polly Teale.
“Unless the theatre can ennoble you, make you a better person, you should flee from it” – Constantin Stanislavsky
Saturday morning found the Opera Works gang congregating in the foyer of Lilian Baylis House, drinking last minute cups of coffee and running lines under their breath. In preparation for Mike Alfred’s visit (see Part I), we had been asked to prepare a scene from Chekhov’s The Seagull (recently turned into an opera by Thomas Pasatieri). Today we would have nothing but words to hide behind, a daunting prospect for many. Mike kicked off with a chat based on the principles found in his best selling book, Different Every Night, in which he details his own journey as a director to valuing the actor as the most significant part of any theatrical production, and by extension, the actor’s process.
Now bear with me here. This post is all about us developing an approach to actorly ‘process’, but there is reason that most actors and directors are reluctant to talk publicly about ‘process’ to the general public outside of a rehearsal room. The ‘process’ is both personally exposing and involves a great deal of navel gazing. In trying to get at the bones of a human character, one inevitably ends up excavating oneself. This means two things: firstly that the revelations that ensue are most revelatory to the person experiencing them, but tend to sound like so much self-indulgent new-age twaddle to an external observer. Secondly, that for a group of people to put themselves willingly through the process, the room has to be in some sense, ‘safe’. In other words, DISCLAIMER: this may get a bit touchy-feely.
To get back to Mike. In an operatic context, in which singers (myself included) usually simply try to sing fairly well and jump through the hoops set up by the director and conductor, the idea of putting a dramatic developmental process at the forefront of preparing a performance is nothing short of revolutionary. The month to six week rehearsal period for most operatic performances usually precludes a layered process of working on character, even should a director want to do it, so it was a real treat to get to dive in with Mike and develop our personal toolkits for preparing a role. It also struck me as an encouraging stance from ENO for the future theatrical success of our medium.
Mike’s process for us on the day (drawing heavily on Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares) was to help us establish an idea of the actor as a fully ‘reactive’ entity. His premise is that prepared with knowledge about a character by analysis of their wants, or driving motivation, through a work and at the specific scene level, the actor is freed to respond organically to an acting partner in the moment, and can even deploy different tactics (‘to berate’, or ‘to seek affirmation from’ for example) to try to achieve their aim. I won’t try to reduce Mike’s (excellent) book to a paragraph, so I will tell you how that worked for us in practice. When we began ‘playing’ the scene assigned, Mike had us mentally focus on the objective that our character was trying to achieve in the scene, and keep that at the back of our minds all the way through, allowing it to dictate stress, tone and action, rather than planning an outcome beforehand. Most singers are control freaks, so this was tough for everyone. We tried ‘playing the objective’ with a series of different partners, and I was astonished to see how the continuity of objective allowed an incredibly wide spectrum of performances, varying according to the dynamic of the two actors playing the roles but maintaining a compelling authenticity and freshness. As the day progressed we tried out other tools, such as ‘points of concentration’, a technique reflecting the ability of the human psyche to maintain focus on more than one thing, so for example, worrying about having left the oven on and continuing a conversation with one’s boss. As I watched other members of Opera Works experiment with ‘points of concentration’, I was struck by how differently each individual imagination painted each scene. In this case, it was clear from the physical response of each actor that in one person’s landscape a moon was rising, whilst another could smell the soft scent of summer blooms drifting on the air. Thus, as observers, we could too. At 5 pm we stumbled out of the building, having experienced (as Mike put it) five weeks of rehearsal and development in the space of one day.
Sunday dawned to pouring rain and across-the-board travel disruption. By some miracle we all arrived in time to start promptly at 10 a.m., led by the elegant figure of Polly Teale, current Artistic Director of Shared Experience. We began with a series of warm up exercises aimed at generating both focus and group awareness (e.g. pausing and walking by intuitive simultaneous group consent). The sense of the group beginning to fuse as an ensemble was palpable. Just as quickly however, Polly pulled the rug out from under us with a sort of warped game of musical chairs.
She instructed us to place an equal number of chairs to people loosely across the room. She then beckoned me over and explained that my objective would be to sit down in a chair, whilst the group’s objective would be to prevent me from sitting down. My knees would also be pressed together when I moved to impede my progress. In that single moment, a number of thoughts occurred to me. At the most basic, it occurred to me that the room had suddenly become an arena in which for the duration of the exercise I was other and the group was united against me. On a secondary level, it occurred to me that creating and uniting against an outsider is one of the most basic ways in which a group creates a bond, something necessary for the OW folks to develop. I began my journey to the other side of the room, and the empty chair. Like water, the group moved around me, but as I moved forward, I was relieved to hear friendly laughter. The laughter gave me courage. Since the group’s concentration wasn’t entirely focused on their objective, and breaking that focus with sympathetic laughter, I knew I’d be able to break the group dynamic fairly quickly and reclaim a seat. I noted though, that my body wasn’t as confident about this as my mind. I found myself curling in on myself, adopting the posture of passive supplicant. Once I had reached a seat, watching the others laughingly go through the same process, and jumping around myself, I wondered if anyone else felt the same as I had. The sensation of moving between ‘other’ to ‘pack’ was quite heady. As I turned the experience over on my way home, it occurred to me that the exercise forced each of us, consciously or unconsciously, to confront the deepest fear any person has when brought into a new group: rejection. In a way, meeting that fear at the beginning of the day was a complete liberation. Once that had happened and we hadn’t died of shame on the spot, what was there to lose? Talking to a director friend later in the week, he mentioned that many actors are highly resistant to such exercises, precisely, I imagine, because of the disquieting strength of those primal feelings.
As the day progressed, Polly continued steadily stripping away our veneer of comfort. She had us line up against one wall and cross the space of the room under the influence of a particular emotion, such as jealousy. She encouraged us to allow ourselves to experiment with how the emotion affected us bodily at different levels of intensity. Then a few of us had to play those 1-10 levels for the group. Crucially, after trying out the 10-level (pure venom) she had us ‘mask’ the feeling to level 1, whilst improvising imaginary conversations with other members of OW. I writhed inside when it was my turn. The fact is, the performing arts are highly competitive, and there are times when all of us have to mask jealousy or resentment of colleagues, often while being genuinely happy for them. It occurred to me that once again Polly was asking us to do a reveal. And like poker, if I played the emotion authentically, I would in fact be revealing my particular coping strategy for dealing with professional and personal situations in which jealousy arose. Not the greatest idea with a new group of colleagues. Who wants to be that vulnerable? Most of us try to keep our basest emotions hidden even from those we love, party to avoid giving them power, but also due to the sneaking suspicion that very few of those who love us would still do so if they were privy to the ugliest bits of our psyches. Then again I figured, what was the point of this day if I didn’t go there. After all, this was supposed to be about getting at the truth of human behavior. Ouch. So go there I did. The horrified faces of my colleagues made me question whether this had been a good choice, and I silently prayed I hadn’t alienated anyone irreparably.
I’m fairly sure there were revelations of an equally piercing nature for the rest of the group. In an exercise with chairs OW members Will Morgan and Laura Cheetham explored the respective objectives of obtaining forgiveness and withholding it; whilst simultaneously playing the counter objective of fearing rejection (Laura) and feeling blameless (Will), all without speaking. You could have heard a pin drop. The narrative of a genuine desire to understand (Will), and repeated rejection of that tactic eventually morphing into much less honest placating, and Laura’s trajectory from hurt, to anger to disengagement, vacillating all the while between frustration and desire was painfully truthful, and there were some downcast eyes as individual memories of such moments in life surfaced. In these simple exercises, it became clear how the tools we were learning could be applied, and not just to understand imaginary characters!
We ended the day reading a scene from Diane Samuels’ Kindertransport, brainstorming as a group the conflicting objectives at play between two of the central characters, Evelyn and her daughter Faith. The scene in the play dealt with ideas about motherhood, belonging, growth, departure and independence. As the debate on objectives intensified, with individuals beginning to voice life experiences in support of this or that perspective, I was conscious of how high the stakes were in personal interpretation, and of Polly gently drawing the group back to the text as the primary arbiter of those choices. We got there. As we packed up for the day and headed across the street for a decompressing glass or two, there were hugs and check-ins between emerging friends. And I realized that rather than driving us apart, those very personal explorations had spontaneously generated a sense of mutual care.
Mezzo-Soprano, Opera Works 2013-14