nicholas-hope-actor

Actor As Interregnum

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The actor in performance is, by the very nature of performance, in a state of interregnum. McAuley writes: "It is through the body and the person of the actor that all the contributing systems of meaning...are activated, and the actor/performer is without doubt the most important agent in all the signifying passages involved in the performance event." (McAuley, pg 90) The actor is the carrier of intention and signification in the unfolding of meaning within a performance built from an antecedent text and/or process: he/she 'acts' as the interregnum between written or conceived 'text', and the reception of a performed realization of that 'text'. This paper explores the concept of the actor as being 'between states'. Beginning with examples drawn from a comparative analysis of theatrical practice in Oslo and Sydney, then reflecting on these using a Drew Leder and Merleau-Ponty influenced model, the paper treats the creation of performance by the actor as the creation of a bracketed, mutually agreed horizonal world in which an audience takes part in the 'project of a life in process of unfolding' (Langer, 129). Merleau-Ponty's body-subject/world dialectic – the consistent transcendence and inherence of the body-subject in, of and toward the world and the future, itself a present yet always in-between state – is mirrored in the creation and act of performance, and in the communication of meaning. Performance, and performance- preparation, become in-between states.

 

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Oslo, Friday 8th June, 2007. I had been sitting in on rehearsals for the Norwegian National Teateret's production of Ludvig Holberg's Ersasmus Montanus, as part of a participant- observation programme for a PhD investigation into the effects of climate and landscape on performance. The Oslo Nationalteateret is a government funded theatre, receiving up to 90% of its funding from both the state and the Oslo commune, and employing up to 75 actors as part of its ensemble – some as permanent members of staff, and some as freelance actors.  Friday June 8th was a warm day. The company were heading into the long six-week summer break that broke the ten week rehearsal period in two. The rehearsal space for that first five weeks was a huge warehouse, which also served as the theatre workshop, situated a half- hour's drive outside Oslo, in an industrial suburb dominated by the main railway repair workshops. All 11 actors were glad to have finished for the day; the temperatures were reaching into the high twenties, there was no air-conditioning in the building, they were hot and tired after a four-hour rehearsal period with Hungarian director Gabor Zsambeki. JP (Jeppe/Per), an actor in his 27th year with the company, gave me a lift back into the city. I questioned him about the rehearsal process. JP complained about the director. "This man is Hungarian, he doesn't understand Holberg, we have done Holberg in school, it's like an English man with Shakespeare. He doesn't know it.

 

And saying to that young man he hasn't learnt his lines! It is difficult, it is not plain Norwegian it is a mix of Danish and Old Norwegian and something in the middle this dramaturg girl has made, and the young guy has only had 2 rehearsals in five weeks! But he is not an evil man, he's nice, but the communication is too weak. He is not Norwegian." Two months later, on 13/08/2007, roughly a month after rehearsals had recommenced (now on stage at National Teateret, Oslo), this issue of language and familiarity came back during a note session between actors and director. NAM (Nille/Anne Marit) expressed a fear during notes that all the actors were feeling confused, that they were not connecting on stage. Gabor asked why. JP explained that it "is the language, it is so archaic, it is very difficult for people to learn." NAM agreed – "Det er ikke muntlig" - it is not organic, it doesn't fit well in the mouth. Gabor argued that it should be like Shakespeare to them, but JP and NAM disagreed – it is nothing like Shakespeare, it is the nature of the Norwegian language, Gabor is not Norwegian and cannot hear the subtleties. Gabor replied that he believed language was not the problem; actors should be able to overcome language and communicate on stage without it. PDF (Per Degn/Finn) agreed: "I do not think it is the language, speaking for myself, the language is something you need to get used to, for me I need to drill in what I am doing and when, I need that kind of rehearsal." Fast forward another month, to a participant observation placement on the new play 'King Tide' by Katherine Thompson, being rehearsed for the Griffin Theatre Company, Sydney, Australia, with director Patrick Nolan. Griffin are a not-for-profit company established in 1978, operating out of the 120 seat Stables Theatre in Kings Cross, Sydney, and concentrating on the production of Australian plays. On 24/09/2007, two weeks into the five week rehearsal period – interrupted by one week of re-writes – the company moved from the initial rehearsal room in the attic of the Wharf Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, to a larger room at the University of NSW, Randwick, where they stayed for the remainder of the rehearsal period. The room had been 'marked out' with tape to represent the stage and set design, and the first thing the director did was take the actors onto the space to 'map out' the geography of the imaginary setting: the placement of the house, the rooms, the beach and the rocks referred to in the play. The actors went through it with him, and referred to various houses and beaches they knew to try to create a mental, agreed picture of the space. TM (Taka/Massa) began to draw the space as he understood it – Patrick corrected the drawing; they all went through it again, positioning themselves on the taped-out space and 'pointing' to the areas of sea, rock, house, etc. Three and a half weeks later, they moved into the Stables Theatre, and the same process repeated itself for the first hour or so of  he technical rehearsals. TM, attempting to define the geography within the new space, climbed into the seat racks to give himself the elevation he believed the character would have in the 'real' of the imaginary space. BK (Beck/Katherine) said – "I know where the tree is, it's okay!" as he 'pointed out' this item to her from his vantage point, and he answered: "I really need to see what it is I am looking at or it won't make sense." Patrick joined them on stage, and they drew the whole thing again, using the theatre space now as the 'true' space of reference. The other actors – ST (Sal/Tony), JR

 

(Jack/Russel) and NA (Nat/Anita) again joined in, comparing the 'imaginary' space to other places all knew – the cliffs at Bondi (rejected), certain Northern beaches, and one of the Southern beaches, until all had agreed on a 'known' location. In both cases, the concern of the actors was to access and establish familiarity – with language, with movement, with real and imaginary space. JP and NAM, in Erazmus Montanus – a play with an elaborate and realistic set - consistently spoke of the difficulty of making the text 'muntlig'; and PDF, cornered in the cafeteria following the note session, and questioned about his want of 'drilling', advised that he always felt more familiar with a role once he was comfortable with the 'blocking' involved – the physical actions and placements.1 JP also mentioned this, in the form of a complaint: the moves or blocking kept changing – "it changes all the time, nothing is ever set, på slutten av uken er det bare tomt" (at the end of the week it's just empty). In Erazmus, some of the actors would regularly walk through the blocking of a scene at high pace in order to 'set' it into their memory and make it close to physically automatic – especially those scenes requiring fast, complicated moves, or precise physical 'stunts' – and would react with dismay when it then changed.2 TM and the actors in King Tide, working with a set that was largely empty, were very concerned with getting a visual idea of the imaginary space - as TM said, it wouldn't make sense otherwise. King Tide was unfortunate in losing one of the actors half way through rehearsal due to illness; both she (SG) and her replacement (ST) spent a good deal of time defining the physicality of stepping over the (imaginary) rocks of the cliff-tops surrounding the (imaginary) beach. The building/shaping/performing of a character appeared, in both plays, to be hung on the creation of a solid backing of familiarity with place, setting, habitual movement, 'organic' control of language, and personal links with referential character points. Throughout the two processes, this 'linking' to a sense of personal understanding based on prior or understood experience was common. During King Tide rehearsals, TM constantly referred to his own experiences growing up in Tokyo to elaborate and identify how he thought his character, a Japanese tourist, was thinking and feeling, specifically when working on his final revealing speech (watching a suicide jump at a train station) – and later in the rehearsal augmented his stories by bringing in a photo album of himself in Tokyo to share with the cast. ST compared her relationship with her stage daughter, BK, to her relationship with her physical daughter, and with her mother; NA, BK and JK also alluded to moments or situations from their past or from their current living circumstances, to explain, question, or make sense of their character on stage, or their reactions on stage. These sessions would be shared with those people involved in the rehearsal at that time, and become part of the growth of the piece and of the community of the cast, occasionally being 'revived' over lunch-time talks or tea-breaks. JK, sitting on the lawn with me eating lunch one day, drew my attention to the apparent shock shown by TM and BK, the youngest members of the cast, when he admitted to having left a previous show half way through a performance to attend the birth of his child. It changed their view of him and the nature of the job, he chuckled; it gave him and  1 'Blocking' in theatre is the establishment of the 'map' of movements of the actors on stage. 2 The older actors, and those with smaller parts, regularly voiced dissatisfaction to each other, and to me, about the constant change of blocking. 5 the process of acting a more real perspective. At the same time, the story as told in rehearsal grew out of a discussion of sibling affection and loyalty, specific in the play to his and ST's brother/sister relationship; the world of the play and of performance was being tied in to the world of real, lived life – ironically, real lived life as it interrupted the world of performance. In Erazmus Montanus, a period piece set in the mid 18th Century, actor RH (Ridefogd/Håkon) arranged for a change to his costume because his personal experience told him that the character – a farm overseer - would be less 'dressy' than the costume department suggested – it would be more of a working farm person – as he was himself when growing up as the son of a farmer, an experience which, he explained to me, gave him an understanding of the character, that informed his costume choice. Actors would refer back to previous period pieces they had done when asking questions of Gabor, the director; and he would continually walk onto stage, gather the appropriate actors around himself, and explain the emotion or affect he was looking for by relating an anecdote either from his own past, or from an apparent store of stories he kept for this purpose. At times, the actors would respond with their own 'similar' anecdote, establishing a 'bond' of understanding and shared links – though asked afterward about this, JP dismissed it as 'useless' (PDF, on the other hand, thought it 'a useful tool'). In the larger picture, although the two productions were vastly different in many key respects – economics, bureaucracy, cultural context, geographical placement, rehearsal period, language, to name a few – the basic techniques being used by the actors were similar. The aim appeared to be identification with the character they were playing, in the context they were playing it. A Brechtian alienation of actor from character, for instance, was not a consideration. Erazmus Montanus, although a comedy with a touch of farce, employed an acting style of slightly heightened naturalism (Gabor, in the final rehearsal week, choosing to cut some of the more stylized moments he had introduced, because they became, he explained, "too portentous" in the overall acting context), whilst King Tide, as a drama, utilized a very definite naturalistic style – Patrick asking people at one point to be aware not to fold their arms too much, as people didn't do that all the time in "real life". I would argue that all the actors were using a generalised Stanislavskian-style entry point that looked toward personal identification with the character to be portrayed, and that allowed them to feel familiar with the role and the 'place'; to "make sense" of it, as TM said, to "know it" as JP said; to "find the truth of it", as both directors said, at different points; to understand how they would act, or why they might act in a certain way, in a similar situation, by marrying character and situation to their own understanding of life.

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From personal experience of developing a character through a rehearsal process, and from discussions with acting compatriots, this journey of 'marrying' character and situation to an understanding of life – an understanding which itself grows with the research, actions, reactions, and bodily movements incorporated throughout the exercise – (this journey) is akin to finding ones cognitive, corporeal balance in a world whose level of unfamiliarity is on a sliding scale, depending on the nature of the text, and the daring of the casting process. The words, moves, and relationships the character has are not those of the actor-as-person; the world inhabited and endowed on stage and in rehearsal is usually not the actors lived-in world. Rehearsals become a process of exploration, often clumsy and generalized at first,

 

hopefully gaining in confidence and precision as they continue. The actors learn to 'live' in their endowed world, and their adopted personality, by finding a personal truth that will resonate with both acted character, and self. The distinction Drew Leder draws between dis-appearance and dys-appearance in his work The Absent Body is a useful descriptive tool to utilize here. Leder describes the disappearance of the body as a thematised 'object' in normal functioning as threefold: attention 'ecstatically distributed to distant points'; parts of the body 'backgrounded and forgotten'; a 'metabolic machinery (supplying) energy, without demanding ... attention or guidance.' (69) We walk, run, use tools, ride bicycles, drive, in this 'normal' state that renders absent from any major focus the actual use of the body: we simply are the body in motion, in use. Dys-appearance is that sudden thematisation of body-part or function that occurs when some 'dysfunction in the motor sphere', or 'affective disturbance', (84/85) or the onset of pain, disease, hunger, tiredness, or the like, causes the body to stumble, as it were, in what Leder, following Merleau-Ponty, would call its intentional transcendence. Essentially, our attention is drawn to that area of dys-functionality within our expected functionality in the world. We pay attention to our steps if we trip; we tread carefully when finding our way in the dark; we stop exercising if our heart twinges, and worry about sudden, painful death. And if we begin a new task – learning to ski, for example – we 'concentrate explicitly', as Leder writes, 'on its bodily performance (even) though this will later become tacit.' (85) In a state of dys-appearance brought on by dysfunctionality, our focus and energy is pulled back into the bodily realm, until we have re-established functionality, and can 'disappear' the body once more as we throw our focus outward. The actor who first approaches a character, then, can be thought of as in a state of voluntary dys-appearance; in the most extreme cases, faced with developing a new accent, a new physicality, a new attitude – or at least, a new empathy with an unaccustomed attitude. One of the jobs the actor has is to find and incorporate these new ways-of-being in such a way that they become 'natural.' That they appear real, unforced, 'organic', as NAM from Erasmus Montanus would say. That they do not appear acted. In short, that they disappear from focus, in order that they become part of the character for the actor in their approach to the part, and for the audience, in its interpretation of the character in the part. If the physicality, accent, attitude or other characteristic presents as false, it presents as a dys-appearance, an "ill" appearance (from the Greek); it draws attention to itself and away from the thematic whole it is meant to be a part of, and distracts from the development of meaning, for both actor, and audience. One part of rehearsal is the process of finding mastery over those  elements of introduced dys-appearance, to bring them into a state of disappearance. This is, effectively, what the actors from Erazmus Montanus and King Tide were doing in attempting to establish geographic, blocking, and/or language familiarities. Leder is developing his theory of the Absent body with reference to Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty's ontology, developing but unfinished through The Phenomenology of Perception and The Visible and the Invisible, leads to his theory of Reversibility: a theory which, M.C. Dillon argues, centres initially around carnality – "the body and its unique capacity to sense other things by sensing itself" (Dillon, 1988, pg. 213)

 

This sensing of self is likened to the body or flesh 'folding back on itself' in a process of dehiscence, a paring away of flesh, flesh turning inside out, to uncover meaning in the world; the 'self' becomes a distinct body-part of the world-as-whole, an organ of the world. Our perception/perceiving at a pre-personal, pre-individual level is, in a sense, self-observation, continues Dillon, and dehiscence is that process that allows similar-but-different, that allows the self, the other, the world, to exist as a whole. In acting terms, we can think of Leder's disappearance of dys-appearance merely as the incorporation or developed extra-familiarity of new motor and intellectual characteristics and habits; but there is an added dimension. This new actor-as-character in a state of focal-body-disappearance, is, at the best of times, carrying with themselves the carnal and "unique capacity to sense other things by sensing" themselves, as character-in-a-state-of-focal-body-disappearance. Their appreciation, apprehension of, and apprehension by the world, is in this newly familiarized form. Suddenly, the world the actor-as-character performs in - senses, reacts to, adapts to – is endowed with meaning for actor and audience, by the actors very ability to operate in it according to the focally body-disappeared nature of his or her familiarized character. In Merleau-Ponty terms, a sense of self is developed within an interworld of shared intersubjectivity, and will always be adaptive in order to retain that self-sense within a developing world, and to retain the ability to measure self against the response of the world. This description also applies to Stanislavski's approach to character development in his Method of Physical Action – indeed, Stanislavski compared the creation of a character to gestation and birth: "Our type of creativeness is the conception and birth of a new being – the person in the part. It is a natural act similar to the birth of a human being." (Stanislavski, 1980, pg.294). The performance world has a different horizonal perspectivity, and a different reality, than the non-performance world. Rehearsal allows that horizonal perspectivity to become part of the shared, intersubjective interworld of the performers – whose initial dys-appearances develop or disappear in the same temporal process in which that world becomes known. This is the world presented to an audience and, where a performance is successful, invested in by them. The horizonal perpectives become mutually agreed. Yet, as Stanislavski says, the actor-as-person is always watching the actor-as-character: a sort of regressive cogito – the self watching the self, (being watched by others!) A character works within performance with a pre-established intentionality, presumably known in advance only to the performers, and unfolded bit by bit to an audience as part of the overall unfolding of meaning. Body disappearance in Leder's sense – the incorporation of characteristics and attitudes – allows an actor to operate 'in character' through the changing potentials of performance; audience reactions, technical failures, timing differences, the variations from other actors, and so on. Yet at the same time, that sense of the actor-as-person watching themselves in performance allows the maintenance of pre-established intentionality. (My own) Personal experience of being on stage acting in a play has carried with it an almost physical feeling of 'holding' audience attention; of at times being able to manipulate it at will, because it has been given; and at times, of physically losing it – and of planning how and when best to regain it. Post-performance analysis between actors back-stage often involves a discussion of these recognized points. The process is one of an in-between state on stage – of attention to role, to other actors, to audience, and to the corporeal, fleshy feel of 8 atmosphere – the feel of self-and-others on stage involved in the united construction of meaning, and of audience-others joining in with, searching for, and encouraging of the reveal of meaning. A hyper-attention, if you will – the feel of being a 'medium' of communication. I watch myself to maintain that character-based focal-body-disappearance and intentionality; but I watch myself aware of every false step, every false accent twang, every audience rustle, every gained or lost moment of meaning. I tread a line between the inhabiting, and the modulation, of performance, and of meaning-construction. The effectiveness of a performance, as I have suggested above, however, is not solely up to the actor; meaning is not solely 'delivered'; it is invested in. Gay McAuley writes: 'The specificity of theatre is not to be found in its relationship to the dramatic, as film and television have shown through their appropriation and massive exploitation of the latter, but in that it consists essentially of the interaction between performers and spectators in a given space.' (5) This interaction and investment carries with it significant interpretive assumptions. As  McAuley writes later: 'It is now widely accepted that the body is enmeshed in culture from the moment of conception...that the way people use their bodies at any moment of their daily life even when asleep, is the product of their cultural "habitus"...and that this habitus can vary significantly even in societies that are geographically and developmentally close.' (116)  An audience is seeking to read meaning through the vast amounts of significations being presented: spoken text, spatial placement, gestures, emotive affect, silence. In current Western fourth-wall theatre and film, central characters are often presented as characters for an audience to identify with – as recognisable types, as alter egos, or as figures of self- identification. Meaning is tied to the ability to follow and understand a characters' point-of- view; to recognize, understand, and in most cases sympathize, or better still empathize, with the emotional journey(s) of the central protagonist(s). Stanislavski's central concept for an actors' approach to theatrical circumstance, was the application of the proposition "what if?" – what if this circumstance happened to me – in this place and this socio-historical setting. The audience is asking, and being asked, to invest in exactly the same proposition; their entry point is the actor. In this sense, cultural specificity becomes a point of convergence, or divergence. Shared understandings of social codes, conventions, places, events, are unwritten ways of establishing familiarity – for the actor, and for audience identification with the actor/character. How dys-appearance is disappeared is – arguably – geographically, socially, historically, culturally constructed. Take the examples of the actors in King Tide, attempting to locate a visual image of the coast according to their own shared local images; or JP and AM in Erasmus Montanus arguing that the director had no idea of Norwegianness. NA in King Tide referred to specific Australian female political figures to suggest her choice of physicality and costume at one point; and TB, a young actor in Erasmus, constantly presented a bow-legged, arms akimbo physicality for his farm-boy that other actors engaged with, but the director consistently denied. Other examples include observing a rehearsal of The Glass Menagerie at National Teateret in 2006, and noting that in the first run of any confrontation  9 scenes, the actors chose to create as much personal space as possible between themselves, and to turn away from each other and speak in low voices: culturally specific choices, as I found out later, but choices I personally did not recognize as confrontational – and which, therefore, led me on different interpretational paths. Similarly, my viewing of the Sydney  Theatre Company's version of Hedda Gabler, which I saw after an extended period in Oslo, had me struggling to accept the physicallities presented by the Australian actors: there was something overtly non-Norwegian about the looseness of limbs and the informality of stance within the formal setting of Hedda and Tesman's house. In the same vein, Sandra Hall, writing a film review of The Book of Revelation, comments on an event based in Amsterdam in the book, but relocated to Melbourne for the film: ...because of the notoriously laconic character of Australia and Australians, it somehow fails to pack the same punch. In fact, it skids dangerously close to parody. (Sydney Morning Herald, Sept. 9th 2006) In the rehearsals I observed of Erasmus Montanus and King Tide, the actors were involved in a process of finding a method of presenting and understanding their theatrical characters, by finding points of contact between character and self: by, as said above, 'marrying' character and situation to their own understanding of life. In Leder's terms, by disappearing dys- appearance. The choices they made to find that marriage were placially, socially, culturally, and largely historically, based in their own shared, lived-in world. Those choices were, then, based in the same world that most of their audience shared: the choices of disappearing dys- appearance, were choices an audience would feel familiar with. The dissonance evident in the examples cited above – Hedda Gabler, The Glass Menagerie, The Book of Revelation – underline the shared cultural specificity of audience and actor in choices made and recognized. I have argued that the actor is in a state of interregnum in rehearsal and performance; that the process of finding the meeting point between character and self, and of maintaining character intentionality as well as the focal-body-disappearance of assumed characteristics, places the actor as in between the role as character, and the performance as meaning. More than this, however, the actor as the entry point for audience in the unfolding of meaning, acts as an interregnum, wherein audience identification with character, and audience entry into the emotional and meaningful journey of character and piece, relies in part on the convergence and/or divergence of familiarity – and belief – in the choices made. The audience enters into and follows the construction of meaning and affect via the actor; Coleridge's 'willing suspension of disbelief' is, in effect, an extension of the disappearing of dys-appearance effected through the medium of the actor. 10 Hall, Sandra. "The Book of Revelation, Anna Kokkinos." Sydney Morning Herald, Sept. 9 2006.

Holberg, Ludvig, and Rolf-Inge Pedersen Hjelseth. Erasmus Montanus: Av Ludvig Holberg. [Molde]: Teatret vÂrt, 2005. Langer, Monika M. Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception : A Guide and Commentary. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989. Leder, Drew. The Absent Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. McAuley, Gay. Space in Performance: Making Meaning in the Theatre: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, and Claude Lefort. The Visible and the Invisible : Followed by Working Notes, Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology & Existential Philosophy. Evanston [Ill.]: Northwestern University Press, 1968. Stanislavsky, Konstantin. An Actor Prepares. London: Eyre Methuen, 1980. Thomson, Katherine. "King Tide." Sydney, 2007.