A lot of things both large and small are on my mind this morning, but since Monday marked the beginning of our second week of rehearsal for The Good Soul, that is what is greatly occupying my thoughts, weighing on my normal buoyancy, waking me at 3am with my brain churning with obsessive thoughts while I try vainly to brush aside the lurking demons of second thoughts.

All this is not necessarily a bad thing-just what I typically find myself in at milepost 1 on the journey of creating a new performance. As you have no doubt read in the Book of Great Clichés, all journeys, including rehearsals, begin with a single step followed by another. Every rehearsal period is unique into itself-different traditions, different atmospheres, but there are generalities of structure and approach about which I will make some very generalized observations. In England and America, we often begin by reading the play, in Germany that is not always the case. Some of this is no doubt dictated by the fact that Germans rehearse for 12 weeks the English for 6 (this was not always the case. When Peter Hall founded the RSC in 1961 he struggled mightily to obtain the funding from the Arts Council that would allow for a five week rehearsal period rather than the 2 weeks that typical at this time in the British theatre. He was opposed by commercial producers who argued that as a subsidized theatre the RSC would be gaining an unfair competitive advantage over the West End, and he found himself frustrated by the RSC actors who, unused to the five weeks, and not knowing what to do with the extra time put off really digging into the material until week four. ) American theatres often come in at three and a half or maybe four weeks from the first day of rehearsal to the night of the first preview.

There are other factors at play in these different theatre cultures that affect the style and emphasis of what eventually arrives on their respective stages. English actors will often spend a much longer initial period sitting at the table and barely looking at each other. Their focus is on the importance of the words, and the rhythm and inherent music of the text. Americans get on their feet with script and pencil in hand as the director quickly “stage” the movement that actors will spend much of the ensuing rehearsal period working to fill out and justify. The Germans, with the seeming luxury of their twelve weeks, typically come to the text itself much later, spending the early rehearsal period not picking up the actual play script but engaged in exercises designed to explore the plays underbelly, its subtext-what is really happening in each scene, rather than what is said.

Right now, I find myself grappling with the very nature of what the word “rehearsal” means and how the time spent in this activity affects the very nature of what will ultimately be presented to our audience. In English we call this time ‘rehearsal,” the French say répétition, and the Germans have two words “probe” and “übung.” The “probe” is as it sounds-a testing of the “stoff” the material that makes up the blueprint of performance that we call a text, and the ubung (meaning to drill or practice) is a separate activity.

In the last 4 years of Stanislavsky’s life, living under house arrest and working with a small group of actors, he experimented with his own new way of beginning work. This is not found in his books, but was transcribed by an actress in the company Marian Kneble. Stanislavski’s called this new process “Active analysis.” We might call it dramaturgy on your feet. He designed it to explore, (like the Germans) the inner actions of the story, actively on the feet, right away before saying the actual words. This involves a minimum of discussion and the focus is on doing. What does the character do? The body not the mind is the key to this intuitive way of cracking open the nutshell of the play.

“As you begin you know nothing. You work from self with the text only as inspiration, The work is done energetically rather than intellectually-to change the energy in the room.

Language come last not first. Just the way it does in life

Barbara has been working in Pittsburgh with an actor named Cotter Smith, who is one of the few people in America knowledgeable in Active analysis. We are not doing Cotter’s work. He has taught Barbara who now uses it in teaching her acting students at Carnegie Mellon. Barbara, not permitted yet to experience the germs of a theatre, has explained the basics to me and generously passed along her notes. So, that means we are at least two degrees of separation removed from actual Active Analysis. But our version, however limited it may be, has made for a most stimulating first week. I’m certainly excited to see what happens next. What happens today as we go on to using the actual text. How will this way of beginning affect this rehearsal, this production, and the creative life of Irondale going forward. I have high hopes were moving in the right direction, struggling to create performance that is genuinely alive.

Or it could be just an interesting side step. It’s going to take a while to find out.
As Zhou Enlai replied to Henry Kissinger in responding his question in the early 1970’s, “What do you believe is the impact of the French Revolution?”
“The impact of the French Revolution? Too early to say.”
That is what is on my mind today. Au revoir.

 

Jim Niesen

irondale

Author irondale

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