Thursday, April 1, 2010

Blocking: From Abstract to Visible

Between Ashes to Ashes and St. Nicholas, the process of blocking has been a fairly intense workout. At the beginning of Ashes Pinter indicates and Devlin is standing and Rebecca is sitting; at the end of Ashes Pinter indicates that Devlin is standing and Rebecca is sitting—and that’s about all you get. They don’t engage in any physical activity, and what we discovered is that they don’t even touch until the end. Nicholas posed a similar problem: it’s a one-man play where the character is supposed to tell us a story rather than show us the story. Neither play offers much in terms of obvious movement.

A play, in some respects, is a challenge to make the abstract visible. Athol Fugard described it as creating “truths the hand can touch.” For me, blocking is dialogue. Movement, whether a threatening approach or simply leaning back in a chair, is a “reply.” Ultimately, you should be able to cut the sound and still understand the play in all its nuances. There’s no wandering about the stage or lounging in a chair.

For Ashes, I employed a couple of techniques to “reveal” the blocking—much of this past week has been about blocking the show. The first technique was with the help of the set designer. In addition to the “two chairs” that Pinter describes as the set, we added a chaise lounge. Because they don’t have a back, chaises are very flexible in terms of how you can sit and move on them. They also create a third level (lying in addition to standing and sitting). They're flexible, which is why they appear more often on stage than in real life. The characters drink during the course of the play, so we situated the bar cabinet in the thrust where they would have to cross to it. We placed the chairs at an inconvenient distance from the coffee table—though frankly I think this will change; it hasn’t been that useful and it’s awkward as hell.

With just two characters (and no physical activity as a part of the plot), the question of whether they are moving away or towards each other becomes important, and also closer or farther from the object of their discussion. Are they trying to connect or avoid? Is the immediate conversation soothing or fearful? For a small section of the play I did an exercise with the actors. In the scene, Rebecca is talking about her lover, but also digging through her hazy memory to a terrifying truth about him. I had the actors sit facing each other on a bench and gave her an object. If she felt her words were advancing towards the truth, she was to move it towards him—making it a shared object; if his questions or her words made her retreat, she was to move the object away from him and closer to her. She had to move the object once for each sentence she spoke. The result was something like this:

REBECCA: Did I ever tell you about that place ... about the time he took me to that place? [TOWARD]

DEVLIN: What place?

REBECCA: I’m sure I told you. [TOWARD]

DEVLIN: No. You never told me.

REBECCA: How funny. I could swear I had. Told you. [AWAY]

DEVLIN: You haven’t told me anything. You’ve never spoken about him before. You haven’t told me anything. What place?

REBECCA: Oh, it was a kind of factory, I suppose. [AWAY]

DEVLIN: What do you mean, a kind of factory? Was it a factory or wasn’t it? And if it was a factory, what kind of factory was it?

REBECCA: Well, they were making things --- just like any other factory. But it wasn’t the usual kind of factory. [TOWARD]

DEVLIN: Why not?

REBECCA: They were all wearing caps ... the workpeople ... soft caps ... and they took them off when he came in leading me, when he led me down the alleys between the rows of workpeople. [TOWARD]

DEVLIN: They took their caps off? You mean they doffed them?


DEVLIN: Why did they do that?

REBECCA: He told me afterwards it was because they had such great respect for him. [AWAY]


REBECCA: Because he ran a really tight ship, he said. They had total faith in him. They respected his ... purity, his ... conviction. They would follow him over a cliff and into the sea… [TOWARD]

The exercise helped identify when she was retreating and when advancing; we then simplified and translated that to movement on her feet. I like this exercise because when you move on your feet it can feel awkward, obscuring the impulses. By starting with an object, the impulses remain clean.

Impulses, of course, are the key. Finding and acting upon the impulses. Acting upon them and then honing them. One can sit on a chair in retreat, but one can also curl up on a chair in retreat. There are, we discovered, dozens of ways to half-ignore someone onstage. We played with knitting, testing the perfume sample in a magazine, lying down, and rattling the ice in one’s drink.

Edward Albee said, "Every line has two purposes — one, to delineate character, and two, to advance the plot." If every line advances the plot, then every line is an action, every action has an impulse. It’s delineated by being honing down to the right expression of that action for the character.

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