Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Trance and performance
On Barbara Scott's recommendation to our Improv class, I have been reading Keith Johnstone's book, "Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre".
A couple of weeks ago, reading the chapter, "Masks and Trance," I found this quote from Stanislavsky: "I divided myself, as it were, into two personalities. One continued as an actor, the other as an observer."
To me, this was an exciting quote. In fact, in the nearly three years that I've been taking classes at ACT, this is what I've been looking for a reference to. Because this trance-like state has happened to me twice spontaneously, and I've been trying to figure out how to ensure that I can do it deliberately.
The first time this happened was in my Advanced Acting course at UNC-Chapel Hill around 1982 or 1983 during my final exam. The teacher, David Rothenberg, had spent most of the semester treating me like a hopeless case and all but encouraging me to drop the course. For the final scene, my scene partner and I chose "The Shadow Box," the scene where Beverly and Mark meet (a scene that often figures into Andrew Hurteau's Act III class at ACT). After spending weeks trying to apply the method that David had been teaching, my partner and I agreed that the method felt too unnatural and that we both thought we would do a better job if we abandoned all methods and just did what felt right and instinctive. So we continued to rehearse the scene with no further regard for the method we'd been force-fed.
When we performed in front of the class for our final exam, I found that part of me had no idea who this strange woman was who had just burst into my home waving a bottle. Part of me had no idea what she would say next or what I would say next.
But another part of me knew every word of the scene and knew all the blocking. Part of me, which I sometimes think of as my "inner puppeteer," would make snap decisions such as "it's okay to do (x)," or "doing (y) would be right, but not just yet....wait for it...NOW".
At the end of the scene, David had one single note for me. I had put my hand on my hip with my forefinger in my pocket, and he said that the gesture attracted his attention to the wrong place. He didn't give us any compliments on doing well, but he also didn't say that we'd done anything wrong.
I got an A-minus for the entire course.
The second time it happened was in 2005 at Circle In the Square in New York when I was chosen as an audience speller in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." The moment I left my chair in the audience, my inner puppeteer woke up for the first time in over twenty years. The part of me that could be seen by the audience had to appear completely natural and in-the-moment, which was easy because I genuinely had no idea what to expect at any moment. But this other part of me knew what the audience saw when they looked at me.
So, for example, if the lights went down on the stage, it was not okay to shift my weight or scratch my nose because my inner puppeteer knew that this would attract attention inappropriately. The lights were low because there was a spot on one actor, so any background movement would distract the audience from paying attention to that actor. Once the light went up again, then it was okay to scratch my nose.
When Leaf Coneybear fell off the bleachers for no good reason and sat next to me and pulled on his bike helmet, I could see out of the corner of my eye that the helmet was covered in little stickers. I was curious to see what they were, but I hesitated to look for fear, again, of distracting the audience. But then my inner puppeteer said, "No, that would actually enhance this moment. Don't just turn your head, turn your whole body so the audience can see that you are obviously staring at the weird kid." (Not only was his helmet covered in glittery butterflies and bunnies, it also had a big sticker on the back with his name and address scrawled on it, just in case he lost it again.)
During the number, "Pandemonium," when the cast whispered to us to dance, to join hands and jump up and down and turn around in a circle, to form a kick-line, I nearly froze, and I had a very strong, "But I'll look like a complete IDIOT!" moment. But before I could freeze up, my inner puppeteer said, "THAT'S THE POINT, YOU FOOL! JUST DO IT!!" So I just did it. I don't remember much of anything that happened for those two or three minutes, but I remember that the audience reacted well to all of it. Let me clarify: I remember what we did, and I remember pretty much the order that it happened in, but I don't have a memory of actually doing any of it myself. I remember it more as if I had watched it happen.
Even though there was no predetermined dialog or blocking, I was constantly monitoring myself regarding when it was correct to stand still or to move (and how much to move). I only regret one thing -- when I was approaching the microphone to spell a word, Mr. Panch said, "Mr. Green was once voted 'Most likely to play a general in a Civil War battle reenactment.' " My impulse was to wait for the laughter to stop and say in a deep Southern drawl, "You didn't say Union or Confederate." But I quashed the impulse because of the instruction we had been given not to try to be funny or "actor-y". I wish I'd done it anyway.
And when Derrick Baskin was singing "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" to me, he made a gesture that made me think I should take a step away from him. As soon as I started to move, he grabbed me and hugged me close to him while he continued to sing. This produced a giggle from the audience. So, receiving approval from the inner puppeteer to do so, I snuggled him back. Good laugh from the audience.
When I was back in my seat in the audience, I immediately started to convince myself that what I had felt was just a little personal mind game, or an odd moment of nostalgia, but it certainly could not have projected anything into the audience.
But when the show ended and we walked into the lobbies (Circle In the Square effectively has two lobbies -- one at street level near the box office, and another downstairs outside the auditorium), an extremely large percentage of the audience kept coming up to me to say hello. Easily a third of these people made some version of the comment, "Oh, you were from the AUDIENCE. I thought you were in the CAST." One young woman was so convinced that I was a cast member that she asked me to autograph her Playbill. Which was doubly odd because when she asked, I was standing next to Deborah Craig (who played Marcy Park), and she did not ask Ms Craig for her autograph as well.
So I figured that maybe it was something more than just a little personal mind game, and maybe that state of mind had, for the second time, allowed me to appear completely natural while actually maintaining strict control. And in both instances, people had responded positively to what I had done. It didn't just feel to me like it was the right thing to do, it seemed that the audience's responses confirmed that it was exactly the right thing to do.
So that's why I've been taking classes at ACT, and it's why I was so glad to run across this book and this quote from Stanislavsky. Not only does someone else understand what I've been looking for, not only does this mean that I didn't completely hallucinate these two events, this also means that there's a genuine possibility that I might actually find what I was looking for.