We’ve been watching the new season of Curb your Enthusiasm as our bedtime entertainment the last ten days or so. We so wanted it to be good. Over the years it has been our guaranteed laugh out loud diversion. (Remember Beloved Aunt, The Baptism and Krazee-Eyez Killa?) Alas, we found season 10, with the exception of episode one, sadly disappointing. Over the years we have been delighted by the show’s pushing-the-line-sense of humor and its loosey-goosey improvised style. All of which were missing in the new batch of episodes.

So, what went wrong? A classic rule of improvisation is you build on the notion of “Yes and…” An idea is introduced and is then developed throughout the scene, story or entire season, until it transforms, emerging into a whole new sequence. Pig Pen Theatre, one of my favorite companies, uses their own variation of “yes and” building material in rehearsal. The ands build in such rapid-fire succession, that I once told them it should be called “Yes, interrupt.” This year’s Larry’s show was sunk by a plethora of interesting offers (beginning ideas of a sequence) which seldom developed beyond that.

I am now jumping around myself and leaving it up to you to decide if I am falling into the Larry rabbit hole or playing Pig Pen “Yes, interrupt.” At this point I don’t know which it’s going to be.

We’ve also been watching a lot of the excellent videos of stage productions which theatres, primarily German, English, and American, have been entertaining us with during the hiatus on live performances. Many of these have featured what we might call a country or culture’s signature playwright, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Goethe which got me thinking, “Who is America’s signature writer?” Barbara favors Williams, and I agree with her, but would not quarrel with O’Neill or Miller. Any other nominations from the floor?

It’s also been interesting watching how the particular acting style of a country colors the mounting of plays from other cultures not their own. We once saw a production of Baby Doll at the National in London with Jonathan Cake, which fully embodied a Shakespearean majesty. Watching other productions, which at times are thirty years old, still reveals the committed and specific physicality of the German actors which is evident going back as far as the Peter Stein work from the early 1980s and are still evident today in the much more contained work of Thomas Ostermeier with his blend of Meyerhold, Brecht, and Stanislavski techniques.

But when I think about an “American style” it gets more complicated for me. Is there an evolving American stage tradition such as we once associated with Helen Hayes, the Lunts, or the Barrymores captured for us to see in the acting style captured by their occasional film appearances.

When I was a young actor I was exposed to the work of the Long Wharf and the Yale Rep. Each had a strongly individual style of acting-the long Wharf, led by Bill Swetland, Joyce Ebert, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Emory Battis, remained rooted in what I would call a continuation of this kind of classical American stage acting, while the more cerebral Yale company, offered an experimental, director based European approach heavily influenced by the non realistic work of people like Andre Serban and Andrzej Wajda. (If you don’t know these people, you might want to look them up. They should be much more well known than they are today.) The important thing is that both styles were the work of permanent companies performing in a unified way of working.

But now these kinds of companies are mostly gone. Actors come into these theatres for one show and seem more influenced by a hyper realistic cinema style of acting. Stage acting, even in New York theatres, seems more like every man or woman for themselves.

How many American actors are able or desire to base their careers on the stage, working night after night for their entire lives, in front of a living, knowledgeable audience?

My personal “yes and” has now led me to a bit of a downer place.

So, let’s end with a joke: Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams walk into a bar….

And that’s what’s on my mind today.

 

Jim Niesen

irondale

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