Friday, November 14, 2008

Died laughing

Cheeks.  Still.  Hurting.  From.  Tuesday's.  Rehearsal.

In rehearsal it is often hard to tell if something is absolutely rib-bruisingly hysterical because you have a) discovered a comic moment so pure and undeniable that all audience members will be helpless to escape its contagion or b) found something that will be funny to you and only you because you know the actors very well and/or you are filling in necessary contextual blanks that actually allow the gag to make sense.

Honestly: either way, I left Tuesday's rehearsal feeling like the luckiest guy in the world.  I was actually paid (very little, it's true, but still...) to laugh so hard that internal damage was more than likely.

Though these might be famous last words, I think we may have actually tip-toed up to a workable process for Theatre Is Dead.  In the past, with the notable exception of The Man Who Laughs (which had no spoken text and was therefore immune to this particular issue), we've struggled to find theatrically viable ways to introduce text into the process.  Right now, scene fragments are trickling in as fast as Kiran can write them, and it was important to me that, as we experimented with her text in rehearsal, we didn't lose the commedia-esque stylization and physical comedy vocabulary we have been exploring in November.  Usually, we spend a few weeks exploring style-work, add the text in, get paralyzed by psychological analysis of the scripts, and wait for weeks before actors can actually feel enough ownership to begin exploring the scenes in their bodies again.  This is no good.  There has to be a way to explore style, character, relationships, physical space, and text together without one getting compromised.  

I'm hoping that the solution lies in rethinking what the "unit" of work is.  In prior shows, when rehearsing a scene, we might work page by page, or french scene by french scene, or by clusters of beats.  We may start by staging that unit silently, finding strong actions to communicate the character's objectives.  Problem #1 is that these actions are often quite "psychological;" they express the character's mental state but don't necessarily mesh well with the style in which we eventually intend to play.  Eventually, we'll layer the text in and on comes problem #2 when the physical actions dull and the actors become statues with scripts in hand.  

So, to avoid both problems we've changed the way we draft a scene's realization.  Instead of breaking scenes down arbitrarily or by psychological "units," we've tried breaking down in chunks more appropriate to the performance style.  As a vaudeville of sorts, the smallest unit of rehearsable action in Theatre Is Dead is an "act" (Not as in, "Act 1: Scene 3" but as in a "magic act").  Instead of viewing an entire scene as an "act" unto itself, we're breaking it up into many different smaller "acts" which we are, in the tradition of commedia dell'arte, calling "lazzi."  So in Tuesday's rehearsal we rehearsed "Lazzo of the Jacket," in which Dave's character tries to switch jackets with a corpse.  Before we even showed him the text of the scene in which this lazzo would appear, Dave improvised the given circumstances of the bit.  Because it was broken down as an "act," and not a "unit" of psychological thought, the same stylistic rules applied: exaggerated physicality, complicity with the audience, clown logic, etc.  

What Dave created through his improvisation was directly usable in the scene itself once we added text.  The action doesn't "mickey-mouse" the text because, unlike the actions that usually emerge from our silent scenework, it was not created to reveal hidden subtext; Dave's "Lazzo of the Jacket" was created specifically to amuse the audience.  In this model it is up to playwright, dramaturg, and director to lead the actor to lazzi that will, when complemented with text, create complexity (or at least, excess), character, and humorous juxtaposition.  

I guess the simple moral from all of this is: each aesthetic demands a drafting style befitting its ends.  You can't create a sculpture if you start with brush and palette.  Further, the tools you'll eventually use to shape the marble or clay or chickenwire or whatever will determine not only the final aesthetics but how those aesthetics affect the receiver of the work.  If you're hunting for new aesthetics and new responses, sometimes you need to invent (or repurpose) new tools, new materials.

Who knows if the seeds of these thoughts will be of any use to us in future projects.  Life in the lab is always interesting: experimental drug X may work on patient Y but not on patient Z.  But something will work for patient Z; you just need the time and the resources to figure out what that might be...

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