Friday, March 26, 2010

Mastering the Art of the Question

If I had I wouldn’t tell you how even if I could.

I think it’s important that asking a question is a real act of inquiry. If there was a template for the art of asking a theatre question, then it assumes a template for answer. The purpose of the question is not to find a complete answer, but to find an answer that opens the door to a more resonant mystery. Twenty years into being a director, I’m still understanding what questions to ask and how to ask them. But I’ve learned something, so like any good invitee to a potluck, I’ll share what I have.

The Question is particularly important when dealing with Pinter. His characters exude history but rarely explain it; he presents the actor with a myriad of choices without much of a road map. Yet his work only comes alive with the actor knows in their core the what and why. For the past week we’ve been exploring questions on our feet in rehearsals. What does that look like? We’ll run a segment; ask questions; run it again with those answers in mind; then I’ll provide some direction in terms of blocking or physical activity (never full blocking); and we’ll run it again.

Before discussing the mechanics of Questions, it’s important to understand that it’s a specific tool, for a specific task, with strengths and weaknesses. Some directors ask almost no questions, preferring to give “direction”; others ask questions almost exclusively, a self-guided tour for the actors in developing the piece. Questions are especially good for creating specificity (of history, emotion, and action), and common understand among the characters. They can be used to develop blocking based on the identified emotion and action. Their strength comes from being generated by the actor who is seeing the answer with many more nuances than if you had told them your answer. But there are other tools that can be useful. You can “paint the picture” for the actor to find the emotional texture you’re looking for: “This is frustrating” becomes “it’s like trying to carry a leaky pail of water up a mountain to a dying friend.” I wouldn’t use that particular example, but it’s much more specific than frustrated or angry. Another tool is to provide blocking that shapes the emotion: “fix her a drink, but make as much noise as you possibly can doing it.”

The weakness of Questions is that they are time-consuming and you may not get the answer you want. If the actor gives you an answer you don’t agree with, you’re obligated to try it—not just because you’re a schmuck if you don’t, but because they may have found something you missed. Generally speaking, I ask more questions in the beginning of the rehearsal process, use blocking as a shaping tool in the middle, and paint more pictures towards the end.

In my opinion, I’ve yet to find a book on directing that does a good job of teaching how to ask a question. “What’s your character’s favorite food, favorite color, favorite drink?” are, frankly, stupid questions. “Are you close to your parents, did you go to college, what was your first sexual experience?” are only marginally better. “What happened the moment before the scene started, where are you coming from?” are important questions that should be asked—but they’re also generic. There are other standard questions that are vital: What do you want in this moment (what’s your objective)? What do you think this means to the character? What are you feeling? How does that feeling come out physically (sweaty palms, damp chill, lumpy stomach)? What do you do to hide that feeling? All of these questions should be asked in the process, as well as questions about whatever facts and guide posts the script provides. For example, it may mention where they met, and it’s good to make sure both actors caught the reference. And you can ask follow-up questions about the specifics of that meeting—who approached whom? Was there an immediate attraction?

But how do you find the deeper questions that affect the performance? That are unique both to the script and to the actors embodying the roles? As written, it is very easy for Rebecca’s character in Ashes to Ashes to be dislocated and morose; she is grappling with enormous denial and grief. But this loses its impact if it’s all we get to see of her. In the early rehearsal process it’s important to delve into the grief, denial, morbidity, and dislocation in order to make it real. But the script doesn’t provide many clues as to the opposite side of her character, how she manages to make it through the day without driving herself and everyone else to suicide. To explore this issue, I asked her if she had lunch with her girlfriends. Yes, regularly. How did they see her? In their company was she charming? Effusive? More competent, able to organize, make things happen, was the answer. She was very efficient, controlled. She was somewhat of a leader. It was not exactly the answer I expected, but it was distinct from dislocated and morose, and it was playable. The compartmentalized aspect of her answer made sense, given Rebecca’s tendency to start new conversations with, “By the way, did I mention….”

Observing what the actors are doing and comparing it to my expectations (or defining the problem I’m seeing) is the first part of the process. The observational aspect takes the question beyond the generic into what is specific to the play and the actors. It takes practice but is easier than working back to the question. To find the question, it’s helpful to determine if the “problem” you’re seeing is about vague motivation, or how something looks in a more physical sense, or an emotional state (they look agitated but really the character is in control here). Compare it to the vision you had in your head. Then ask what it is about the their history or desires that makes the character look the way it does in your head. Why are they in control? Perhaps because they are a powerful businesswoman. If the script doesn’t state that, ask it as a question. If it does state that they are successful in business, ask if they’re accustomed to being out of control or on the losing end of a deal.

Over several rehearsals I noticed that the actor playing Devlin was very comfortable touching Rebecca. There was a lot of ease and power in that choice; it felt almost like ownership. But we’d established (through earlier questions) that she had more money and that he was the one who needed answers from her. His comfort in touching her was the right embodiment of his motivation—to control and take power—but it felt at odds with how successful he is at it, and it was different than I had imagined in my head. But that’s just in my head—my observation. Was I missing something? So I thought backwards to the core of their interaction. I asked them what their sex life was like. The answer: almost non-existent. Who was responsible for that? She put up walls, but he was never all that active or interested before. They were not an affectionate couple. So we agreed to try it with him rarely touching her. Not only did that reshape the blocking, it further defined his character. Suddenly, he was in conflict with himself, wanting to physically control her but unable to break through the walls of taboo. This is particularly important because in the end he does so. The journey, we discovered, is the major arc of his character.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Starting a Visual-Emotional Palette

I don’t think I asked a single one of the questions from my first post during the read-thru rehearsal. Just goes to show how useful my prep was. To be fair, we did cover all of those questions in the second rehearsal. After the first read, we talked for quite a while about the origins of Ashes to Ashes. It’s one of the few plays that Pinter actually attributes source material: he wrote it after reading Sereny’s biography on Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer. Perhaps he felt safe in revealing his source because the play has nothing to do with Speer on the surface. But that’s just the surface. Albert Speer was a part Hitler’s inner circle; he was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to 20 years. He is the only one of Hitler’s inner circle who claimed that what the Nazi’s did was a horrific crime, and they should be held responsible. He also claims—and there is some reason to believe it—that he was unaware of most of those crimes. He was deeply moved by the testimony of victims at the trial, deeply repentant for their wrongs, and adamant that despite his contacts and duties he had no knowledge. Sereny was fascinated by how the mechanism of denial could keep Speer truly in the dark, what subconscious monsters must have been nibbling at the edge of his thoughts, and how truth and penitence came hand in hand to Speer. In that respect, Ashes to Ashes can been seen as the inner dialogue between these elemental forces in Speer’s head. If so, then the common interpretation that Rebecca’s mind “decomposes” at the end is incorrect. Lisa-Marie and I agree that there is something else at happening, and she had an idea what it was; to find out what you’ll just have to come see the show.

We’ve had three rehearsals so far, but before I get into that, I wanted to talk about one aspect of the director’s prep—specifically the visual/emotional palette. I think it’s especially important with Pinter because he deals so thoroughly in the subconscious. Before meeting with designers and actors, I spend time trying to find images that connect on some level with the play. Pinter said that Rebecca is like a woman drowning, so I immediately gravitated towards water images. I look for matches in tone, color, and subject. Saying: “The play is like…” is a good starting point, and then free-associating through image connections. These become helpful in talking with the designers and communicating the feel of the world to the actors. As a result, are walls are going to be fabric, reminiscent of a sail. The color palette for the set and the costumes is built from this standpoint. And the sounds of water, being underwater, will become part of the sound design. I’ve put together a short montage of some of those images. The second half of the short video are some shots of our read-thru and a few exercises.

For those interested in another aspect of the production, you can see the step-by-step development of the postcard for Ashes to Ashes on the 2nd Wind Website here:

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Director's Excavation

Harold Pinter

Typically, by the third read I feel I understand a script. Then, on the fourth I discover new things about the characters. By the fifth or sixth read I'm comfortably in charge of its rhythms, resonances, character motivations, and relationships. With Ashes to Ashes by the sixth read I wasn't even at the first stage of overconfidence. Now, on the twelfth examination I'm beginning to understand its rhythms, structure, and some of its resonances, but much of the play remains a mystery. That, precisely, is Pinter, and what makes his work such a directorial challenge. I think that's why I prefer him to Beckett-- Beckett's work is one of the few that makes sense of Mamet's absurd advice to actors to "just speak the lines" as written. The grunt of the interpretation is turfed to the audience. But with Pinter, the real work lies in the rehearsal process-- it can't be completed in the director's head, nor tasked to the viewer. The challenge is unearth what resonates for the actor, select which choices are supported in the script, then build a cross resonance through the structure. To do this, we need to excavate ourselves as well as the characters.

Too many blogs are errant ramblings through the writer's thought process. I'm going to do my best to make this blog practical: not a tutorial (that would be far too arrogant), but a road map of how we got to the final product, the questions, exercises, discoveries, and tactics. I'll focus on the directorial process of Ashes to Ashes, and do my best to update twice weekly. Unlike the previous Second Wind episodes, this blog will be more text, less video.
It you are unfamiliar with Pinter's Ashes to Ashes, I highly recommending finding a script. It very much epitomizes what is meant by "Pinteresque". While the definition of this term has fluctuated-- sometimes insightful, sometimes silly-- I think it's best defined by an emotionally charged, visceral language within an abstract situation. It's characterized by deeply emotional (often menacing) words in a world whose characters, relationships, and rules aren't clear. Rebecca's first words in Ashes are a revelation that her lover used to hold her throat, bring his fist to her lips, and command her to kiss it. The listener, Devlin, is perhaps her husband, perhaps a current beau, perhaps her therapist. Rebecca maintains the act is one of adoration towards her, and even though Devlin is the one demanding answers, one feels it is Rebecca who is in control of the interview.

Tomorrow is the first read for Ashes, with Lisa-Marie Newton and Lol Levy in the roles of Rebecca and Devlin. I'm thrilled to have Scarlett Kellum and Fred Sharkey returning as costume and set designers for the production. First rehearsals are all about character analysis, discovering what makes these people tick. As a director, I find equal important in asking questions and providing my viewpoint. What questions I'll ask my actors depends on the prep work they've already done; but I've written a few starters: are these two husband and wife or something else? Who has more money (and thus more status)? How does Devlin organize the myriad of details he collects? Did Rebecca actually have a child? And for the actors personally-- what unspoken secret or history exists in your family, and how did it shape your life?