Invalidpost 2: feeding the kelp

What a love/hate relationship we have the audience. Lillian began a rehearsal recently by talking about “the kelp”.

“The what?” I said.

“You know – in the audience, “ and she made the seaweed waving under water gesture, both arms extended over head, swaying softly from side to side. And yet, all we are doing, we are doing for the kelp.

Griffen has again been the source of an important costume piece. First it was Inos’s hair, and now it is Thomas’s teeth. Thomas, the dolt Argan wants his daughter to marry, needs to have an instantly comic effect. It should be clear that this is a match made in hell for Angelique. So I have been experimenting with an over-bite (think of the Monty Python “Twit Of The Year” sketch). But Lillian pointed out that without anyone else screwing up their faces like that it make me look like an actor doing a gag. “If you can find some fake teeth, then fine” she said. So, after rummaging around in the toy bins downstairs, I came across some gag teeth Griff had received as a stocking stuffer a couple of Christmases ago. When I tried them in rehearsal, we could hardly get a line out, people were laughing so much. So now I’m going to my dentist to be fitted for a well-made set of ghastly teeth. But Griff’s are in use in rehearsal, stuck to my teeth with chewing gum.

Lillian understands the “mechanical” quality of rehearsing comedy, what Fava might call the “scientific” nature of it. The modern term is formulaic, and it is usually pejorative but it shouldn’t be. She drills us in the routines we invent that she likes. It feels like rehearsing a dance, or learning a football play. It can drive some actors crazy, but I enjoy it. I love digging into the precision of a moment, breaking it down into its component parts and really learning it. In the ethereal world of acting – so dominated by realism – it feels solid and concrete to me. It’s an aspect of my art I can hang onto.

And it helps that so far, what I’m doing has been met with laugher. After going through a series of voices, looking for Thomas, Lillian smiled at me and said, “You’re one of those fearless actors, aren’t you Benjamin?” How is a person supposed to respond to that? I mumbled something and stared at my feet. But it’s clear that – so far – she and I are on the same wave-length. To some extent, Lillian’s right. I have the most over the top roles to play, and the task with roles like these is to go as far out on a comic limb as you can and still be in the world of the play. There is huge courage in it, but I don’t feel it as such. It feels like joyful release to me, a wonderful emptying of my perverse humor, and my fear is greatly tempered by working in a room full of people who love me.

Lillian is all about what I call “robust collaboration”. “Don’t get fragile on me” she said during a trying note session. What she meant is, bring me your objections, your questions, your ideas, but don’t wilt, because it’s hard work what we’re up to. Comedy like this hangs us up because of our need to understand what we’re doing before we do it. But this is impossible. Comedy brings home the reality that we only make worthwhile discoveries in the playing of it, swinging further out on the limb and knowing that when it snaps (which it does frequently in rehearsal), we will drop on to something forgiving, at least we will in a rehearsal guided by a good director. This need to know before doing is related to the pernicious effects of judgment, in that this need is driven by our obsession with the “good” or “right” choice. But it is in our willingness to be “bad” and “wrong” that our comic genius lies. When we throw off the constraints of judgment, we begin to manifest the quality that Lillian calls “fearlessness”, and we open ourselves up to choices which may be transgressive, eccentric, impolite, obscene and very, very funny.

I was taught a pedagogical sequence some time ago that I have thought of rehearsing Invalid. It describes how we learn. We go from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence, to unconscious competence. In realism, we can hide our incompetence, since mostly what we are doing is behaving like ourselves. So our mistakes are camouflaged. But our incompetence is on full display in comedy, in which the distance between my choice and the laugh is sometimes huge when I start, but my task is to close it up in rehearsal. “Lear is not hard compared to this” says Lillian.

The formulaic aspect of comedy is intentional in commedia dell’Arte. Fava would say, the plots are all the same, the set-ups don’t change very much, everyone knows what’s coming. This is why it was so easy for Moliere to take commedia and adapt it. Once you’ve seen a few commedia plays, you get it. There is a critical culture which regards formulaic comedies as bad plays – but they’re not. They are plays which rely on other theatrical virtues besides great writing in order to succeed. They rely on the virtues of the fearless comic actor: boundless energy, physical and vocal expressiveness, comic ingenuity, skilful collaboration and great audience sensitivity. Fava regards the dominance of the written play as the end of the pre-eminence of the comic actor in the commedia tradition, who, he writes, would regard memorizing lines as akin to lip-synching pop songs.

And in keeping with the commedia tradition, we are playing fast and loose with the Invalid script. At the read-through, James told us not to be precious with his lines. So we have been changing them, adding new ones, cutting things, all based on the virtues of the comic actor. When the actor invents something funny while rehearsing, Lillian usually keeps it. “We may throw it out later, but let’s hold on to it now”.