Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Truth and Artifice, Language and Earthquakes

Contributed by David Sedgwick

Theatre is a strange undertaking. As performers we “strut and fret” upon the stage while the audience willingly forgets (or tries to) that they are watching a performance. But the ultimate goal for both groups is to feel that what is transpiring is “real.”

It reminds me of an assessment tool that a friend was taught at her acting school. When giving feedback to classmates, they were to describe their own emotional/mental state as being “at zero” if they completely believed what they were seeing on the stage. If, however, they still liked what they were seeing onstage, but were aware of the acting (e.g., if they noticed and appreciated a specific choice), they described their reaction as being “at positive.”

I believe that this technique was mostly used to give feedback on scenes and short pieces. When watching an entire play, it’s very rare as an audience member to feel completely transported for the entire duration. Even a truly bravura performance, say Mark Rylance’s in “Jerusalem,” contains moments when, however excellent the acting, you can’t help but notice the technique at work (you’re “at positive”); then there are also many moments when you absolutely forget that Johnny “Rooster” Byron is fictional and he isn’t really standing in front of you (you’re “at zero”).

It’s a handy way to talk about performances, but reminds us of how very fragile the illusion is that we’re creating on stage. And its destruction often occurs because of the actors’ behavior. For example, when I see an actor giving an otherwise totally true performance suddenly “reset” and retrace his verbal steps after fluffing a line, I am instantly reminded that what I'm watching is pure artifice. My friend would describe my reaction as “being at negative”…!

These two competing drives of artifice and truth are frequently on my mind as I rehearse Three Sisters for The Seeing Place Theater. The company’s goal is not to “present” the play, but to live through the moments of the story in such a way that the audience feels they are witnessing real human interactions. One way we attempt to do this is by focusing not only on the character’s lines and their objectives, but also on their physical behavior at its most basic level. For example, we improvise and experiment with what the character might be doing in the circumstances of the scene, were nothing else happening. This helps us to stay in the world of the play and to share the story non-verbally as well as verbally.

This part of our process reminds me of those times in my life when I’ve had the opportunity to see theatre in languages I didn’t know. Years ago, my theatre school classmates and I were invited to travel from Sydney, Australia to participate in an international theatre training symposium hosted by a Turkish university acting program; the other guests were performers from theatre schools in Sweden and Poland.

The Swedes presented The Tempest - in Swedish, the Poles, a Greek tragedy - in Polish, and the Turks, a Greek comedy - in Turkish. All the actors and staff from the four very diverse countries spoke some English, but as the representatives of the only “English native” country, we Australians presented … a piece that was primarily movement- and song-driven, had gibberish in place of English speech, and incorporated folk-songs from around the world in languages such as Swahili and Japanese. Yet our piece was perhaps the most easily understood of the four, even though we hadn’t taken advantage of the one common spoken language amongst us. Conversely, I found watching the performances of my Greek, Polish, and Swedish colleagues absolutely riveting – I wanted to see how much I could glean just from their behavior, since I had no idea what they were saying most of the time.

Sometimes, an absolutely unique shared experience between performers and audience is created that exposes the fragility of our theatrical illusions in an extreme way. In 2005 in Tokyo, I performed in a production of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” playing the insufferable Bernard Nightingale. I had just about finished tearing strips out of Valentine for daring to suggest that scientific knowledge is more important than artistic creation, and for questioning my paeanistic speech about Lord Byron…

As I'm about to finish Valentine off, the whole building starts to shake slightly – this is Japan, after all. We actors attempt to proceed with the scene, but the quake intensifies and doesn't die away. Several members in the front rows of the audience make a beeline for the door, worried about a large chandelier swinging threateningly overhead. The actress playing Hannah backs right out onto the thrust, worried that a light might drop on her (she is 6 or 7 months pregnant at the time). From the wings, I can see the stage manager ready to leap to my aid should something fall on me - I'm standing dead center-stage – but he doesn't come onstage because he's still fervently hoping that somehow the show will go on.

The quake, seemingly so terrible and frightening, but in reality only a minor rumble by Japanese standards, passes and subsides, and the front row audience members sheepishly return to their seats. But the show has stopped, the fragile illusion that something real was happening on stage has been absolutely shattered by Mother Nature. There is a palpable sense of expectation both on stage and in the auditorium – how to get back on track? Since it is theoretically still my line, I pause theatrically, look to the heavens, and cry apologetically in Bernard's posh RP accent: “Sorry, Byron!” It made absolutely no sense - but everyone in the room - audience, actors, and crew - laughed in relief, and somehow the scene proceeded. About two lines later, the shock finally hit me and I totally went up.

I hope that no primal forces of nature will interrupt our performances of “Three Sisters,” but we nevertheless hope to move our audiences in other ways. We have the 19th century Russian, Anton Chekhov, one of the keenest observers of humanity's strengths and failures, as interpreted by the 20th century Irishman Brian Friel, sometimes described as the greatest living English-language playwright, being expressed by a company of mostly American actors, trying to live through the story in such a way that it might be recognizable to anyone from any era or any nation.

All performers hope to share stories that are universally human, and yet specific and unique to every performance and audience. It's a tall order, and that's why it is so exciting to try.


David Sedgwick is an actor, ESL teacher, and occasional director. He is the Associate Artistic Director of The Seeing Place Theater, and is currently appearing in their production of Brian Friel's version of Three Sisters, playing Colonel Vershinin. Before moving to the United States, he performed extensively in his native Australia and in Japan; in the USA he has worked with several regional and off-Broadway companies, and has become a "regular" on the Off-Off-Broadway scene.

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