Sunday, September 27, 2009

Suit the Action to the Word

I've been grappling with some thoughts on acting recently, and what follows is a first stab at articulating a few of them. It is far from polished. I decided to post it in all its rough, raw, redundant, contradictory and poorly proofread glory because I needed it out. Undoubtedly others have said what I'm trying to say much more clearly and concisely. I don't pretend to be breaking new ground here, mostly I'm just trying to understand some things better myself. Read it at your discretion and/or peril.


Acting teachers, when introducing actors to Shakespeare, frequently will announce "Shakespeare verse has no subtext." Like all such absolute statements, this one is sweeping in its implications, may inspire strong resistance, and yes, probably goes too far. Nonetheless if I ever teach a Shakespeare class, I will start with this statement too. I think it’s a good jumping off point for performers unfamiliar with his work; ultimately what I think it does is show actors that instead of bringing our modern understanding of human psychology to Shakespeare, we might be better off STARTING from his understanding of it. And yes, there are some significant, inspiring differences. At its most basic, this approach teaches actors to trust Shakespeare's language, and realize that richest stuff is in the words, not underneath it.

Right off the bat though, the word subtext is going to cause us some trouble. For one thing it’s a word that has slightly different definitions in the worlds of theatre and literary theory. Since these two groups each feel a strong ownership of Shakespeare, and a certain distrust of each other, we’re already in tricky terrain. English professors generally use subtext to describe a literary work’s underlying themes, the implicit meanings or questions the writer is exploring. It is what gives a work its greater resonance, its timeless quality even. It’s central to why we create or enjoy art in the first place.

Actors, however, use it in a slightly different way. Here, even before I’ve adequately addressed the first big ole can of worms, I have to address one of the big debates within the theatrical world, namely the relative value of Stanislavski. I THINK I’ll be able to duck the whole "which Group Theatre hotshot got Stanislavski right" debate (holy sweet mother of god, please), keep your fingers crossed, we’ve got a lot to get through already.

Stanislavski was an actor, director and acting teacher in Russia who, inspired by the writings of Freud, developed a teachable technique for creating characters on stage that contemporary audiences found startling in their psychological richness, detail, and, above all, truth. His focus was creating art, but he wanted art that rang true to an audience’s understanding of human behavior. Audiences found his results electric and his influence quickly spread. Most American-trained actors have at least been introduced to his approach, and even non-actors are probably more familiar with him than you might realize. Lee Strasberg’s method acting ("The Method") is probably the best known version. Anytime you hear jokes about ‘finding my motivation’ or actors seeking out experiences of the characters to truly portray them on stage, you’re dealing with some elements, right or wrong, of Stanislavski. Like all techniques its reputation has suffered from the abuses of loud people getting it wrong, or using it to justify their bad habits and self-indulgences, but when you strip all that away, I believe you end up with an exceptional box of tools for creating art on stage. It’s a technique, which is to say, it’s a way of creating a structure that improves one’s chances of being visited by inspiration, and on the days when inspiration doesn’t hit, one still can end up creating a decent work of art. (I'm also ducking the whole debate about the relative benefits of the outside-in/English approach versus the inside-out/American/Russian approach. Man, are there a lot of cans of worms out there. Yeesh.)

So, with that slight sketch of theatre history, let’s get back to subtext. When actors use the term, they’re grappling with all the unspoken, implicit communication and experience of a character. She may be saying one thing, but feeling something quite different. She may be saying one thing, thinking she means it, but doing something else that leads an audience to question what she really thinks or feels. It’s even possible she might be suffering no cognitive dissonance at all, what she’s feeling, saying and doing all match up perfectly. Frankly a lot of actors, especially young ones, tend to forget about this last option, because they think it's more impressive to make a character as complex as possible, but even in modern, subtext-heavy plays, it's important to remember that sometimes characters do mean what they say.

Sometimes subtext and motivation get equated, but while they're tightly entwined, they're not the same. Most modern plays (Post-Freud) will have lots of subtext, and actors love this stuff. It's like a treasure hunt; we know what a character says and does, but we may not know WHY she does or says it, and we have to come up with a reason. It's one of the ways personal interpretation enters the picture; if you come up with an answer to the question and it works without contradicting anything else in the play, then you can use it. Audience members may catch it, they may not, and even if they don't, they may still realize something intriguing just happened. When you go out with friends after a play or movie for coffee and find yourselves debating "so what was going on when he gave her that LOOK," you're discussing subtext. The actor definition, that is. (When you're discussing the title image in Brokeback Mountain, say, wondering if it represents the freedom of the natural world, or a prison of isolation, you're dealing with the literary definition of subtext.)

Directors have to handle both definitions of subtext, since they are responsible for shaping the overall experience for the audience. Essentially they help shape the actor’s choices so her character then tells the story that reveals the plays literary themes. For a play to work effectively, the characters' journeys have to support the larger theme. You got all that? You still with me?

Lots of directors believe actors should never concern themselves with things like a play's theme, for fear that this will distract or confuse them, cause them to be outside the character (that is, thinking like a director or audience member) rather than inside her, living her experience. For now I won’t get into why I think that’s a short-sighted approach perpetrated by insecure directors who believe actors must be treated like children, since as I’ve established, I’ve already bitten off QUITE a lot to chew on. Let me just say here that, bottom line, I agree an actor’s first, main responsibility is to her character’s journey, and anything that is too theoretical, or pulls an actor outside the action of the play, is counter-productive. I'll also admit some actors do get distracted by literary stuff, or try too hard to be clever, at the expense of truth. Mature artists though, learn to interprete the whole script, and root their choices accordingly.

Okay, so where were we? Shakespeare, right. Why do I think the statement "Shakespeare’s verse has no subtext" is a useful concept to teach to actors specifically? Obviously according to the literary definition, Shakespeare is crawling with subtext. This is also one of the reasons theatre people love him, of course; we like tackling big human questions as much as anyone, and Shakespeare has us doing it with characters who are psychologically complex, compelling and familiar. Since his characters are obviously driven by passions, urges, desires, and fears, discovering and communicating them to an audience is still necessary, right? Doesn't that seem to require subtext as we've defined it? Won't most of the juicy stuff be unspoken and implicit?

Not necessarily.

Okay, stick with me here. Stanislavski was inspired by Freud, remember. Freud has so permeated our culture that our thought is shaped by him whether we know it or not. Pop psychology is usually Freud-lite, frankly. We may sneer at how neurotic he was, we may suggest he was the king of projection his own self ('Sigmund, are you sure that's just a cigar? I think someone's in denial...'), we may wonder if anyone BESIDES him ever actually wanted to have sex with his mother, but he still has changed the way we view human behavior. His theory of the unconscious is so central to our understanding of human behavior now that most of us don’t realize that wasn’t always the case, maybe don't even realize it is, in fact, 'just a theory', not unlike evolution. Stanislavski’s technique, and the plays of Chekhov, Ibsen, Pinter, early Strindberg, O’Neill, basically most of the great playwrights SINCE Freud really require a theory of the unconscious to work fully. What this boils down to in part is, we believe characters can have strong, driving motivations that they aren't actually aware of.

Most people before Freud (and plenty of them afterward, even still) would have found this idea perplexing at best. The idea that we all had some secret part of our brains busily working away, knitting sweaters, interpreting things, having reactions, motivating our behavior without us even knowing it, well, that would have sounded like crazy talk. I know I’m getting into weird territory even bringing this up. I believe Freud himself said that Shakespeare basically first ‘discovered’ psychology (something about how Hamlet beautifully illustrates the Oedipus complex, for starters). I think a reasonable argument could be made that Socrates, Plato, and Euripides -just to name a few- dealt with concepts that act much like Freud’s theory, but that too is an issue for another discussion. Even the Elizabethans, as heirs to the medieval age, believed people could be motivated by forces they had no control over, but they mostly thought of it as madness, or demonic possession.

Because of our cultural thinking, actors have been taught to distrust what a character says, or at least to question it pretty closely. We’re taught that the important, real stuff, the actual drives of the character lie deeper than words. A character's words may provide a clue to her motivations, but probably won’t tell us everything, and might be misleading. Also because of Freud, but perhaps also because of the proliferation of film (which I would argue is a more visual than language-based medium), we as a culture have started to believe the most devastating or resonant experiences of a person probably can’t be put into words. We believe language is inadequate.

"It’s beyond words" is a concept Shakespeare, and all the Elizabethans, would have most likely found ludicrous. (Interesting side-note. We go to see a play. The Elizabethans went to hear a play.) For them, the human experience couldn’t be understood without language. An experience might be difficult to put into words, one might have to work at it, distilling it down to verse might be the only way to get at it, but everything that could be experienced could be articulated by someone. Post-Freud, even if we believe an experience can be put into words, we still may think that the words and the experience are two separate events. For Shakespeare’s characters on stage, there is no separation between thought, word and action. They are all one thing. The language IS the experience.

This assertion might lead many to think I’m suggesting Shakespeare's characters lack complexity and depth. Nothing could be further from the truth. They experience overwhelming emotions (good and bad), inner conflicts and ambivalence. They use irony, metaphor and simile. They lie when it suits their purpose. Nonetheless, they never lack the ability to put all those experiences into words, and the words don’t float on top the experience, they don’t report the experience after it happens, they ARE the experience. Far from rendering his character’s facile, this actually gives them vigor. They say what they mean, and mean what they say. Even when Iago is lying his face off (which is to say virtually anytime he’s not delivering a soliloquy) he knows he’s lying, he knows why he’s lying, he knows what he’s fighting to make happen. Most importantly, he needs those words, his actions can’t exist without them. Shakespeare’s characters all need their words. (Frankly any well-written character does, which is part of why learning to do Shakespeare well is a good foundation for learning to act in any other play.) We’re all familiar with the idea that Shakespeare wrote beautiful language, but often people interprete that to mean his language is 'heightened', ethereal, somehow rarified and pure. Actually his language is fully wrapped up with the human condition. Read Juliet's 'Gallop apace' speech, as she waits for her new husband to come to her, to find out just how earthy Shakespeare's poetry can be (some useful information; the verb 'come' had the sexual connotation for the Elizabethans that it does for us, and orgasms were sometimes called 'the little death'. Aren't you intrigued now?). Sure, the characters will sometimes address big issues, but it's never because they're in the mood to philosophize. No, they're grappling with important things because something about their lives right that instant demands it. The sound and the content support each other, and the character saying the lines can’t put it any other way.

Okay, yes, let me reinterate, I know I’m making sweeping, absolute statements here, and even I can start to think of characters who might be exceptions to the rule, but I still believe going to meet Shakespeare at HIS understanding of human behavior rather than dragging him immediately to our Post-Freud/Stanislavki world is at the very least a useful exercise. Sure Mercutio’s Mab Speech seems to get away from him in a way that suggests he’s not in control, and maybe that suggests unconscious motivations (though I would argue it proves him to be of questionable sanity, and as his names suggests, prone to mercurial mood changes). Sure, Regan says her father, King Lear, ‘hath ever but slenderly known himself,’ and self-ignorance seems to assume an unconcious (but I would argue his real problem is a huge ego, a weakness for flattery, and undertanding others but slenderly.) Beatrice and Benedict may be the most clearly driven by unconscious feelings at some points, but I would also point out that neither one of them ever speaks a line of verse. Not one. They speak prose throughout the entire play. Which, yup, you guessed it, is a topic for another time.

Add to the (now gargantuan list) of things I might write about later is how studying Shakespeare has shaped my own relationship with words. When I was a young, closeted, shut-down teenager, his language first came to force me to rejoin the human race. Learning to embody, not just speak his words, was scary, heady, and ultimately very healing. Even so, I needed to spend some time afterwards relearning to trust my body, and that was best done through the medium of dance, mask-work, and physical theatre. I'd learned early on to lie with words, but my body was always a terrible liar. Only in the last ten years have I come to realize how unconsciously I accepted the prevailing cultural concept that strong emotional experiences defied words, that articulation could only render something small, facile or cliche. I'm returning to language, to words, and finding out just how much power they can have.

So my advice to actors and readers of Shakespeare boils down to this; read the words. Start from there. Assume everything you need to know about the character is there in the text. Once you have the structure of the character's journey, then you may start noticing subtext, but don't assume that all the good stuff is hidden under the surface, waiting to be discovered and interpreted. Maybe this approach won’t get you all the way you need to go. But it’s going to be a damn good start.