Sunday, February 14, 2010

On Realism and Naturalism...

The last few days my cast and I have been playing around with the "no obligation" rehearsal. That is to say, there is no obligation whatsoever to the audience. It is only a technique thing. Obviously not to be used in performance. But it was suggested to me by my buddy, the veteran actor John Bader. It was a good suggestion.

We work the beats, the moments, with no concern about being heard, or getting a laugh or finding a dramatic moment. Instead, we work for each other. It is only necessary that the actors hear each other. It is a serious step toward absolute naturalism.

Now, naturalism is a double-edged sword. It is a really tough thing to do, sometimes. On the surface it seems the easiest way to work. But mostly what happens is that the actor simply retreats inside himself and the volume drops and, well, it just isn't very exciting. Remember, we're talking about a play, not a movie. Not a TV show.

Naturalism reached a zenith in the fifties. Strasberg taught it as though it were the savior of American acting. He had, long before, read the first book written by Stanislavski and was convinced a new era of acting was upon us. Of course, in reality, Constantine S. had written THREE books about acting. American teachers had only the first one translated into English at the time, so that was the one they taught. And, as I've mentioned before in this blog, the first one was specifically about teaching the actor how to rehearse, not to perform. So, in typical American fashion, we got only a part of the information and made our choices based on that.

I remember years ago, my buddies John and Jeff and I would sit around the living room of their big house in Brooklyn, near the promenade, and tape our conversations with each other. We were young enough and naive enough to think our conversations would make good theatre. After an hour or so of talking (usually accompanied by a LOT of beer), we would transcribe it and then try to recreate it live. A noble thought. In fact, other actors have done this very same thing and it has been documented - we were not terribly original about it.

What we learned, of course, is that we were boring. We were completely on the wrong track in trying to find a way to act absolute naturalism.

We even went further. Jeff Wood, one of the handful of great directors I've worked with, was making a short film. It was about two bums that made their money singing in the subway. So, as a rehearsal project, John and I, the two lead actors in the film, stayed up all night once, with Jeff watching eagle-eyed from a safe distance, and played a broken guitar and put out a hat for change and sang all night in a midtown subway station tunnel. True story. We were intentionally very bad. John was playing the guitar and singing, as I recall, and I was sort of his half-wit second banana. John could neither sing nor play the guitar. I don't remember exactly, but I think we sang the song, "High Hopes" all night.

At the end of the long night, in which John and I never once broke character (ah, youth), I think we had exactly one dollar and sixty one cents in the hat. People would hurry by and toss off comments, mostly stuff like, "You guys need to do something else for change." Or, "That's the worst subway act I've ever seen." Or "Jesus, shut up." The buck sixty one was entirely sympathy money. But that was what we wanted, that was the point.

I don't remember what became of the project. I know Jeff never got around to actually making the film. But, even now, all these years later, I think it was a fascinating exercise.

For me, anyway, the entire evening (and we're talking about ALL night), was about naturalism. Could passersby ascertain that we were not really bums, but actors pretending to be bums? I don't think they could (John and I were dressed rattily and had smeared some grime on us). Although the exercise was naive and tiring (I would never in a million years do that today) it taught me something - naturalism is boring and requires intense concentration. And not especially effective.

Now REALISM...that's a different story. And HEIGHTENED realism, well, that's something I've been striving for for a quarter of a century. The Steppenwolf boys used to do it better than anyone I've ever seen. If you don't know what heightened realism is, just watch John Malkovich do ANYthing. That's it.

It is something I'm exploring while doing Harry in From the East to the West. Quite literally a heightened sense of everything on stage.

Tuesday night I'll see if I'm on the right track.

See you tomorrow.