Shrewpost 8: darkness

More true confessions. There is such an awesome sorrow in my personal and professional life right now that I feel my darkness bleeding on my fellows in rehearsal. I am like Pig Pen, except that the cloud that follows me around is not made of dust and dirt, but of bitterness and heartbreak; anger and confusion. The particular weather systems that have given birth to this cloud will remain veiled here. I am not interested in psycho-cyber exhibitionism. This is a blog post about my work on the character called Katarina in Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew. But I cannot write honestly about this journey anymore without getting honest about the intense interplay between my life and my work.This interplay is at the center of the actor’s art. The “method-ists” would have us make a temple in which to worship it, fanning the flames with which to cook the connections between our lives and art, making our own psyches into narcissistic offerings to “emotional truth”. There has been a backlash of late against psychological realism because of the excesses of some mid-twentieth century teachers. There are many expressions of this backlash: the popularity of the Lecoq school and its descendants, renewed interest in commedia dell’Arte, and a variety of po-mo academic approaches which regard any attention to the emotional lives of characters and actors as irrelevant at best and self-indulgent at worst. Some in this backlash would have us believe that the actor’s personal life should be sealed off from the thing he creates, creating a false objectivism more suitable to the hierarchical needs of auteur directors. I love many aspects of this backlash (see my blog posts on the commedia workshop I took with Antonio Fava as evidence), but I am equally mindful that the actor IS the art of acting. What you see on stage – whether it be in Chekhov, Shakespeare or Goldoni – is a creature with a beating heart and a mind full of memories and dreams, a soul full of victory and despair.

The truth, of course, is as Stanislavsky has taught us: somewhere in the middle, and more one way than the other depending on the play at hand. If I know anything about acting, it’s this: it resists dogma from all quarters, it is not an art of absolutes, it is eternally malleable and quintessentially personal. It cannot be spoken of meaningfully in generalities. It requires a specific focus which names and defines an event and all the players in it. Thus this blog.

I am a teacher of psychological realism, and so I have a front-row seat from which to observe all the ways my tender young charges navigate the connections they feel between the characters they are working on and the drama of their own lives. To say that an actor’s own anguish or joy should not effect her work on a role is to engage in a kind of willfull blindness and aesthetic repression. It reminds me of those brutal Victorian child-rearing pamphlets in which children were beaten into a kind expressionless obedience, and their feelings were regarded as insubordinate nuisances. My work as a teacher of acting – once the class reaches an advanced stage and an atmosphere of trust is established – revolves around helping my students be sensitive to, but not overwhelmed by, the feelings their work unlocks. Sometimes my work is in pushing them towards empathy, drawing more direct lines between their experience and their character’s. Sometimes it is in damping down those connections, lest the performance becomes a morass of personal release. And sometimes it is about helping a student face the fear they feel at the journey their character may take them on.

Such is the juncture I stand in with Kate. Perhaps it’s not fear I feel exactly. Perhaps it is that I so identify with her raging state at the outset that I resist the transformation our production is attempting. And yet I have described rehearsal several times recently as “my refuge”. I am deeply aware of using my journey in this play as an escape, a way to forget for a moment the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I am aware of channelling a feminine rage I am all too familiar with through Kate early on in the play, and of feeling grateful for the relief that channel affords me. I am aware of the way her journey into laughter changes me, lightens me, and how I suddenly find myself chatting and joking with my fellows, after having entered rehearsal in a shroud of gloom. I am aware of a deep tenderness in my kisses with Tom, and I find myself inadvertently hanging on him during breaks. I am aware of the hole he is filling temporarily. Strangely, I am aware of an equitable darkness in him, and some kind of secret sharing of off-stage misery, completely unspoken between us, fueling our connection none the less. Tom too sets himself apart in rehearsal: quiet, mysterious, melancholy.

What else can I do as an actor but bring who I am today into the concoction of influences we call rehearsal? Should I resist the catalytic response my performance has to the dark energy I bring to it? Should I cling to my personal despair and be unmoved by Kate’s transformation? Or should I be grateful for the blessings of a creative life, in which the vehicle for my salvation – Katarina Minola – is simultaneously a gift I offer to my community? Is this not a variant of what Grotowski had in mind when watching Cieslak in The Constant Prince: the sacred actor offering himself as a sacrifice?

Okay, so it’s a bit hubristic to make that comparison. But I remember when I first read Towards A Poor Theatre about 25 years ago, how that idea leapt out at me as true, and how I felt ashamed of my own spiritual yearning provoked by the idea of the sacred actor. I am ashamed of that yearning no longer. It’s the only way this bitch of a life makes any sense to me: as a spiritual calling like the rest, requiring personal sacrifice, devotion to others and service to high ideals.

Perhaps the degree of my identification with Kate can be summed up in an exchange I had recently with a reporter from a gay weekly here in Philadelphia. He was invited by the theatre to interview several cast members for a piece he is writing on our all-male production. “How is it playing a woman?” he asked me, in the first of what I assume will be an endless iteration of that query. “I thought it was going to be a big deal, ” I replied, “but it isn’t. I don’t actually feel like I’m playing a woman. I feel like I’m playing a person: a person in a very tough situation who is transformed by love.”

May it be true for me as it is for Kate.