Friday, October 19, 2007

Rehearsing and going insane, not necessarily in that order

First week of actually rehearsing Alice ad infinitum. What's sort of on the menu at the moment is that we've done a year and a half of developing ideas and characters and texts and scenes and situations, none of which are in any way causally related to each other or form any kind of plot, and now it's time to select the lucky winning content and string it together to form something.

It appears we're telling a story, but I mean that in the Lynchiest possible way, as in we're telling a story in a similar kind of way that Inland Empire tells a story. I can't even say if it's close to that or not at this point; it's so loose.

The first day Eki showed up with a 78-page script, which we read through, an activity that made us all giddy because it's not something that usually ends up being part of the process at N&H. The second day we worked a couple of beginning scenes, and that was fairly easy. The third day all hell (okay, small hell) broke loose with at least most of the actors. I wasn't able to get a hold of anything and was, in very good form, blaming the others for not giving me what I needed. Even when I realized that that was what I was doing, it was really hard to curb it.

Sometimes I wonder if, as performers, some of us are almost too attuned to each other. I mean, it's immediately clear to me when either Juha or Akseli are having even a 10% off day, and I know that they know when I'm not having a good day either, often before I'm even aware of it myself. Usually this is part and parcel of a very close working relationship, but it means you share a lot of the negative as well as the positive. Basically, we were doing a scene where everyone was together (not something we'd done before), and the characters were more from the classical Alice in Wonderland universe, including a dreadfully stereotypical Alice stereotyped by yours truly. We were lost and unable to give each other anything to go with. It wasn't pleasant.

But it's gone through that and has come out the other side. It's weird that we didn't really have a linear story or a main character before, and now at least in the first act we have an Alice, and her whole way of being is somewhere between the aforementioned stereotype, blank slate, and whatever else pops into my head. It's been very uncomfortable, actually, standing around trying to feel like I look like an Alice, and automatically my body was reverting to some kind of stiff caricature. Eki mentioned today that my body was way more interesting when I was just standing on stage, before I started "acting," and I realized that that zone of awful discomfort was where I was really supposed to be. This didn't make it any more comfortable at all, it just meant that if I felt kinda awful in a lost and squirmy sort of physical way, I was probably doing something right.

These are the kinds of realizations in acting that make no rational sense, and are probably not interesting to read about unless you're going through it yourself. I know I had teachers in school who tried to encourage us to find the discomfort and work with it, but the funny thing is that usually it's so glaringly strong and obvious that you can't "find" it. You just put on an attitude, feeling significantly better in the comfort department except that you know that what you're doing is completely fake and you somehow can't shake the feeling that it's not helping the piece at all, but don't know what else to do. But not knowing what to do is a very rich source.

I remember reading in Anne Bogart that stereotypes exist for a reason, and that for many actors it's a good thing to run into stereotypes instead of fleeing them, because you'll have to go through it anyway to find a way of doing a character that's actually got your real stamp on it. This worked for me in Kalevala dell'Arte (when we were building the piece, Carlo Boso called my acting "Disney commedia") and I'm inclined to think it could be a necessary phase for something like Alice. Alice is a world of stereotype, archetype, classic heroine herself. She's got more layers put on her than a Black Forest cake.

And the panic comes from the fact that three weeks ago we were happy as Larry to be playing around with perverse rabbits and queens with chainsaws, and all of a sudden there's a "real" Alice, a real Rabbit, Caterpillar, Mad Hatter, and Dormouse. And it's funny how thrown we were by trying to jump in and getting it all wrong, when we should have known that this would fuck us up, but we were still surprised.

This has to be one of the things I keep noticing these days: how I really, really keep getting surprised by things that shouldn't surprise me any more. I wonder if my artistic process is horribly inefficient. Or if that could be a good thing.

So today, here comes another loop - I've started to take on Alice in my own thinking, which is at once really encouraging and a bit sickeningly worrying. You see, Alice is confused at every turn and her identity and reality put into question. I got a direction that I completely misunderstood, and when I finally got on the boat with the others, saying, "But..what do you mean?... Oh! Now I get it," Juha burst out, "That was an Alice reaction." And from there I started to feel that Alice is more like a kind of behaviour, a state of confusion, the activity of constantly negotiating what is real and what is not, and not like any one little girl. But then I noticed I was answering questions directed at me, the actor, as Alice, the character; or as "myself through the filter of Alice the behaviour," and I started all at once to lose the sense of who exactly was answering the question. All of a sudden I didn't know where the thoughts were coming from, or to whom the question was addressed. And right after that, Juha's William S Burroughs line "Madness is confusion of levels of fact...Madness is not seeing visions but confusing levels," just about made my brain shiver.

Which is great, because this is what the heart of the project was always about: where does a character end and where does the actor begin? What are the limits of personality? Is psychology infinite?

It's one thing to be in a very physical or technically demanding performance and have to monitor yourself all the time; it's another thing entirely to do something more akin to performance art, where there is no representation or confusion of levels but you can be very attuned to your own emotional state or whatever; it's yet another thing to have the experience where, for perhaps a moment or two, you get the sensation of having merged with a character, or you feel a character start to melt with you, or you momentarily forget what you're doing, or you notice in your real life that you're picking up a character's way of responding to situations. Traditionally that's quite Method. Somehow I have the feeling that it relates more to naturalistic acting than to anything else. But whether or not it makes for a good performance, it is a real experience for the performer. I think most actors who come from a more "physical" school aren't so interested in pinpointing the place where their character separates from their own personality because that's just not terribly relevant, but for any devoted Method actor, this should be a very rich place of study, no? To try to discover what nuances make you tick, in order to make another, created personality tick in a very lively way?

I'm not making a judgement call on which kind of acting is better; obviously, there's a time and place for everything. And Eki's style isn't naturalistic at all; he uses the term "transparent acting," which I kind of have to think about a bit more before expanding on it. But now what I find interesting is that I'm consciously noticing this "melting" as a part of the process. What would happen if you could play with that even more? Consciously? With a great deal of control? Can anyone control that kind of thing? What part of me is Alice, and to what extent is Alice in everybody? To what extent am I in everybody, or everybody in me? Should I, in this performance, constantly be looking for the spot where Alice begins--is that the key to acting this time?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Too much theory, confusion, and Abramovic (thank god)

Apparently I've been steeped far enough in theatre not to know certain things in other fields, such as the fact that the universe is expanding, there's a country out there called Iran, and Marina Abramovic's performance House with the Ocean View, in which she lived and fasted for twelve (!) days in an art gallery, living on top of three platforms, where there was a shower, toilet, platform for a bed, table and chair. She did not speak or write or read, and spent most of her (rather meditative) time looking at the audience, who would look at her. I mean to say she would give her gaze to one person at a time, and that person would gaze back, and anybody else in the room would be witnessing this exchange. Apparently it was even featured in an episode of Sex in the City, but I'm TV-less so I can't really be blamed for that. Here's something on it for more: the amazing Laurie Anderson interviewing (read: chitchatting with) Marina Abramovic.

What's really lovely about this piece is its spirituality. I have been feeling for a long time now that the general push in the artistic world, or my world in general, has been towards a spiritual direction. I grew up mostly atheist or at least agnostic; I went to church because I had to but didn't put any energy into it. I thought when I was a teenager that essentially religion, at least in the West, was pretty much dead. I don't know when the turnaround happened, but I'd wager not too long ago. Somehow it's even started to feel less cliche to mention it as a post-9/11 phenomenon. And I guess if I'm going to mention my own experience, I have to frame everything from the point of view of a white, middle-class, North American, politically left-leaning girl. The politically left-leaning is important: religion (Christianity at least, now often Islam as well) was always for the right-wing crowd, and the lefties were saddled with crystal-toting spiritual fanatics who, for all their wonderful intentions and energy, have not always been the most credible lot. When I was in high school, the vast majority of my friends were both intellectual and at least agnostic, if not atheist. I still do not have many friends who attend organized religious services, but more and more I find out that they're closet meditators, or pray, or are interested in Zen, or what have you.

Here's something wonderful I read tonight. Peggy Phelan's essay Marina Abramovic: Witnessing Shadows got me right at the end:

The condition of witnessing what one did not (and perhaps cannot) see is the condition of whatever age we are now entering. Whether we call this period "the post-postmodern age" or "the age of terrorism," it is characterized boy by an intimate reawakening to the fragility of life and a more general sense of connection to one another that exceeds simple geophysical, ideological, or other cultural proximity.


[Communicating under these conditions] will require practice, patience, humility, and the recognition that the social body, like our own all-too-human body, is both stronger than we guessed and unbearably tender.

This is the kind of thing I really want to work on.

Aside from all that loveliness, I just have too freaking much theory in my head. All of the E-opiskelijät (Performance students) were literally having to force ourselves awake in class today, not because of the subject matter, but because, as I discussed with most of us afterwards, our heads are so full of an overdose of -isms and -alities and yadda yadda that we suddenly feel like we really can't take in any more. I was trying to find sensitive yet sturdy parts of my hands to bite in class, hoping that the pain would force my eyelids to their upright and locked position, but to no avail.