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.