I’ve spent most of my spare time this week digging into esteemed director, Anne Bogart’s book A Director Prepares. Every page has been absolutely enlightening and I can’t believe that I am only now encountering this text for the first time. Bogart’s straightforward, logical approach to the artistic process is a refreshing and inspiring. In college, where we were required to read text after text of the same regurgitated and watered-down versions of Stanislavski and Meisner, I would have welcomed a book like Bogart’s. She acknowledges the forefathers of the dramatic methods, but she also paints the dramatic process in a realistic light. There is no sugar-coating or overly high brow language. Bogart gets down to brass tacks, breaking down what she perceives to be the seven main areas of art-making: Violence, Memory, Terror, Eroticism, Stereotype, Embarrassment, and Resistance.
Today, I’d like to focus on the section on Violence. Bogart is not referring to overt physical violence. She is instead referring to “The decisiveness, the cruelty, which has extinguished the spontaneity of the moment…” (Bogart, 45). Theatre is an art of consistency. We set everything, from entrances, to the angle of a chair, to moments of physical action. When we set an angle or a gesture, we take away all other possible options. We are violently denying the actor any other choice, but the one that has been established. If we leave more of the choices intact, we are delving into the world of improvisation, which is entirely different form of theatre. In a staged and scripted production, however, we are required to set circumstances and parameters for the actors. It is only once these violent boundaries have been drawn that the actors can begin to do the real work. As Bogart says, “they accept this violence and work with it, bringing skill and imagination to the art of repetition” (45).
Perhaps the true art behind acting is how to behave naturally in unnatural circumstances. Actors are violently denied all but one option for every moment in a performance, yet they must find a way to make the discovery of that set option seem organic and spontaneous. Working with young actors is a wonderful study of this paradox. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I’ve said something along the lines of “Just be normal.” to a young actor in a play. To an inexperienced actor, the act of decisively limiting options can be almost paralyzing. You put a normally lively and engaging young person on stage with a set traffic pattern of blocking and movement, and he or she instantly turns into a robot. The young actor is so violated and stunned by the limited choices, that he or she instead chooses nothing. Most of my work with young actors is about getting them to re-engage. We must wake up the imagination and begin to explore ways of enlivening the given circumstances.
Another fascinating aspect of Bogart’s chapter on violence is the section on distortion. To distort something is to awaken it, and “the function of art is to awaken what is asleep” (53). Of course! An awakening is at the center of every show. How many plays have we all seen about taking ordinary people and putting them in extraordinary circumstances. Let’s think about the last 5 plays that I’ve seen:
1. Chinglish by David Henry Hwang at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Berkeley, CA) – A humdrum American business man from Cleveland must overcome huge cultural and language barriers in order to forge a deal in China that will save his family’s business and, ultimately, his life.
2. Urinetown by by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann at Music Box Theatre Co. (Danville, CA) – Poor, regular folk must scrape every penny and band together in order to survive during a water crisis which forces everyone to pay to pee.
3. Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine at Shakespeare in the Park (NY, NY) – An ordinary baker and his wife must undergo a series of extreme tests and fulfill a witch’s demands in order to conceive a child.
4. Onceby Enda Walsh at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (NY, NY) – An Irish vacuum repair man and a Czech single mother come together to produce a record that will change (and save) both of their lives.
5. War Horse by Michael Morpurgo and Nick Stafford at Lincoln Center Theatre (NY, NY) – A poor farm boy runs away from home to join the army, facing countless terrors and challenges on the European front of World War One, in order to save his beloved horse.
In each of these shows, the central characters are ordinary people who are woken up by an event or series of events in their lives. The awakening is not easy. It is fraught with peril and violence., but it is this awakening that propels each of the central characters into action and leads to the ultimate catharsis which leaves both the characters and the audience feeling satisfied.
When I first read the synopsis of Anne Bogart’s book, I was skeptical as to the true value of violence in the artistic process. I didn’t understand what she could possibly be referring to. As soon as I began reading the actual text, however, it became immediately clear. Change is a difficult and scary thing. It is for this reason that Bogart views actors as heroes. Actors willingly throw themselves into violent and difficult circumstances where options are limited. When you are on stage, it is like being locked in a cage with only a small, set toolbox of words and props to help you safely escape. The risk is high, but the thrill is huge. As any good playwright will put their characters through a massive, violent awakening, the actor must go through it twice – once as himself and once as the character. It sounds almost impossible, yet some of us willingly undertake this task every day. Call it what you will – crazy, thrill-seeking, impossible, eccentric, heroic. Perhaps it is foolish to subject ourselves to such violence in order to expose some sort of greater truth. But audiences are still paying to come on the ride with us, so perhaps we theatre folk are really the greater fools.