Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A train that turns into a bird: Performing absurdism

Today I was asked to articulate how absurdism and naturalism differ from the actor's point of view. This is roughly what I came up with:

One can visualize a character's naturalistic "through-line" as a train moving progressively closer towards a final destination. It might change speed, it might have to avert obstacles and change tracks, but its only objective is to arrive at its scheduled station stop. Once the train reaches its destination, it has undergone a complete (and coherent) journey and this journey changes it (or at least its location).

Now, imagine that same train cruising towards its final destination, only this time the train temporarily turns into a bird. It flies along for a little while, perhaps reaching its nest or perhaps not. At some point it transforms back into the train in exactly the same spot it flew away. As it continues to drive down its track, it might change into a car, a submarine, a bumble-bee, each time diverting into a new journey, only to return back to the tracks. And then, once the train finally arrives at its appointed destination, it finds itself back at the station it originally departed from; there has been no change, and the train simply begins the journey again.

Did anyone follow that over-extended metaphor? I'm not sure I even did, but I guess what I'm getting at is that in absurdism, the character may have a primary objective, but he/she has to indulge quite a few other objectives which might have nothing at all to do with that super-objective (ex. Romeo's super-objective might be to marry Juliet; absurdist Romeo still wants to marry Juliet, but must stop along the way to count his chest hairs, to pretend to be a lizard, and to prove that God is dead, all with the same commitment as his romantic goals). These detours will run to the end of their course and then deposit the actor right back into the struggle to reach his/her final destination. Unfortunately, due to the cyclical nature of most absurdist plays, the character never has the opportunity to reach the final destination, and even if he/she does, this success is often tempered by the realization that the achievement of the objective was ultimately futile (turns out Romeo and Juliet have gotten married, divorced, and remarried several times a day for the past 10 years).

Where this clearly gets frustrating for a perfomer is the attempt to create a character that can contain the primary objectives AND all of the divergences. It might be more useful to think of a multiple-character model, as there is rarely any thread connecting these disparate moments. Robert Leach, in an essay on Meyerhold (not an absurdist), articulated what could be extrapolated as a primer on absurdist performance, substituting "set role" and "mask" for "superobjective" and "detour":

"When he [Hamlet] finds Claudius praying, his set role is that of the Revenger; but moments later, in his mother's bedroom, his mask is that of the disobedient child...like Hamlet, we change: we behave as a child when with our parents...as a supplicant to our Bank Manager, as a 'good fellow' to our acquaintances at the pub, as a conscientous worker to our boss, and so on."

Where absurdism throws all of this into disorder is that the absurdist playwrights would have us act like a child with the Bank Manager and as a conscientous worker with our parents. But the actor's task remains fundamentally the same...

Okay. Enough. Comments?

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