Monday, November 22, 2010

The Glow

I had a wonderful opportunity on Saturday to interview Leslie Reidel, Professor of Theatre at University of Delaware and Co-Artistic Director of Enchantment Theatre Company, and ask him some questions about authenticity.  Talking with Leslie is always educational and inspiring.  From a conversation of about 2 hours, I can only extract a small amount in this particular post but what Leslie had to share sheds a great deal of light on this very pressing question of how to define authenticity.  Expect at least one more post on this!

I started the interview asking about physicality and movement. In a conference paper that Leslie gave me,  he referred to the physical a great deal, so it seemed like a very key component of an authentic performance. He began by talking about his interest in shifting away from a behavioral or psychologically based model of acting to get at something more fundamental. How much more fundamental can we get than particle physics?  (Interesting turn, no?)  Leslie told me about a NOVA program he had seen years ago on subatomic particles -- quarks. The physicists were able to predict certain directions of motion in the path a particle would take.  Sometimes it would move "up" or "down" but other times it was completely unpredictable and the scientists described this as the particles' "charm." Really fascinating stuff!

Glowing bacteria!
Leslie's interest is in how drama is in us at the level of particles or DNA rather than something we acquire. How are we as actors behaving like quarks? Or are we? Should we be? I think absolutely we should. If anything is at the basis of authenticity, how do we get to a more basic building block than our atoms and our subatomic particles, our quarks? Obviously, drama and writing is a kind of construct but if we can construct these things with our most basic building blocks in mind, wouldn't that make the construction a more truthful, authentic one?

One other science-related item for this post. Leslie also brought up the work of Bonnie Bassler, a microbiologist at Princeton University.  Here's a link to a video of her speaking on "How Bacteria Talk." In a nutshell, she has discovered that when bacteria reach a critical mass, they become luminescent. And that is how the theatre works! Leslie made an explicit connection between Bassler's work and Aristotle's discussion of catharsis. This can only be reached when there's a critical mass of people. It can't happen when you read a play by yourself in your room. This point ties in to a some previous posts where I talk about the importance of audience to authenticity. You cannot truly achieve an authentic performance without the audience. And damn, if you can make your audience glow ... you've really got something there. Something authentic.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Essential building blocks

Finally! I feel like I had a breakthrough this evening. My semester-long delving into this question of "authenticity" in performance should ideally be relatable to the same question of authenticity in composition. "Ideally" has become a bit more practical tonight.

Last week for class, I read Jacqueline Jones Royster's article "When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own." Tonight, I went back to this article for a closer look, and I'm so glad I did. Although Royster is more concerned with voice than authenticity, the two seem to go hand in hand and she defends her range of voices as being all authentic.  She does not clearly define what she means by "authentic," however. (I will come back to this by and by.) Royster takes issue with the current approaches to voice, which see it as strictly "a spoken or written phenomenon" (30).  So far, so good -- this can apply to performance as well. It comes from an author's written word (or voice) and is then spoken by the actors.  I agree with Royster that there is more to it than just that written and spoken word.  The "more" is that slippery, seemingly indefinable thing called "authenticity."

Royster goes on to argue that we should see "voicing as a phenomenon that is constructed and expressed visually and orally, and as a phenomenon that has import also in being a thing heard, perceived, and constructed" (30). Ding! ding! ding! ding! ding!  Voice is not just visual (written) and oral (spoken).  It needs to be "heard, perceived, and constructed," which means someone else must be there to hear, perceive, and construct.  Every voice requires an audience.  By extension, every performance requires an audience.  Without an audience to receive the performance, to hear it, to perceive, and to construct it, it will fall apart.  It will not be authentic!  I emphasized "construct" because, to me, it seems like the most important building block, the cherry on top, if you will.

Every performance has a voice.  Perhaps it comes from a written text.  Perhaps it is improvised.  Perhaps it is even silent (dance?  Lavinia in Titus Andronicus?).  Even in these cases, I would argue voice still comes through whether it be in music, or perhaps the voice of another character.  But it originates somewhere -- written -- and comes out of an actor or performer or musician -- oral.  Check.

Enter the audience.  The audience (whether a piece of writing or a piece of dramatic art) hears.  They hear the lines, or the music, or the sounds.  Check.  They comprehend them, they "perceive" them, and they process them.  Check.

But if the audience does not consent to construct, to build this world with you (whether a writer or an actor or a dancer, etc.), then I would argue there is no authentic performance.  It is the last and ever so crucial step.  Construction.  If we do not consent to work and build together, we'll have an empty shell.  Royster places a good deal of responsibility on us, not only as speakers but as listeners.  I think she is absolutely right.  She says, "voicing at its best is not just well-spoken but also well-heard" (40).  No pressure, folks.



Royster, Jacqueline Jones. "When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own." College Composition and Communication 47. 1 (1996): 29-40. Jstor. 14 Nov. 2010. Web.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

In pieces



I am recovering from two days of season auditions for our company, during which time we saw nearly a hundred actors. These lucky hundred people were whittled down from nearly a thousand submissions we received online. We are also accepting video submissions this week, and from this pool of talent and skill I have the happy and terrifying task of choosing two companies of actors numbering twelve and fourteen respectively.

When I got home this evening, from the depths of my deeply fried brain came all these bizarre thoughts about the audition process. I am supposed to make an incredibly difficult and crucial decision based on very little data -- data which suggests how authentic a performance an actor will give me in February or next July. But the audition process has to be one of the most manufactured and awkward processes ever.

Many companies do a two- to five-minute audition slot. Actor enters, smiles, states their name and prepared piece, smiles, states their name, and exits. How on earth can you get to know someone and their work in such a short amount of time? And as an actor, how on earth are you supposed to manufacture an authentic performance? And yet ... it happens. I've seen it. (PS - It's so cool.)

Over the last few days, I've been watching a lot of video submissions as well. As difficult as offering an authentic performance in an audition is, it is confounded by the addition of a video camera. Walter Benjamin in his excellent article "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction" argues that "situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated." I realize, and I know our actors realize too, that submitting a video audition is better than nothing, but it's not as good as being in the room. The art (at least this kind of art) is somehow "depreciated" by the camera. These are not carefully crafted films in which the camera is being used in a particular way to tell a story. The camera is a tool so the actor can convey to the auditor certain information -- but the information will hopefully be an inspired and authentic snippet of a performance. I think the camera tends to get in the way somehow, in such a case as this.

Benjamin defines a thing's authenticity as "the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced."  But what is an object of art's "essence"?  What does it have to do with its duration, its place in time?  This is even more confusing with theatrical performances which are constantly re-produced.  Furthermore, if we look at an actor's performance of a single monologue, how can the question of authenticity be applied?  The monologue is lifted completely from the context of a play, and often does not make sense unless you happen to know the context.  How can it possibly be considered authentic if the "beginning," as well as the middle and end, of the story have been removed?  (Incidentally, this is partially why there are so few really great audition monologues, which are self-contained stories with a beginning, middle, and end.)

I don't feel like I am any closer to answering these questions.  I would say definitively that I have seen authentic performances in an audition -- both in person and on camera.  They do have an "essence".  A connection happens between the actor and the audience -- but I'm not certain that can be defined either.

All of these questions are supposed to tend back at some point towards Composition Theory.  This is always at the back of my mind in these posts, and I'm going to try to bring a little more to the forefront here.  I think I can translate these questions about theatrical authenticity to writing as well.  Writing is an activity of contrivance -- so is theatrical performance.  Benjamin's "essence" could apply (at least in a modern, though not so post-modern sense).  And I think a connection is established between a writer and his/her audience.  I find it just as difficult to define these essences and connections, but I do at least think there is a parallel.

Now, I will end these particular ramblings for this evening.  But I have talked so much about auditions, I feel it only right to end with sharing a video audition of my own from about two years ago for your viewing consumption.  So:

Hello, my name is Tara Bradway and today I will be reading for you Joan la Pucelle from William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 1.






Thank you.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I have you now!

After weeks of ruminating and several hours playing with colorful post-it notes, I have finally come up with doubles for The Bookend Project, which you may recall is a dual production of Titus Andronicus and The Tempest.  The Project is this year's contribution to our Shakespeare IN THE RAW project, but is also primarily work for my Introduction to the Profession course.

I had to turn in a short paper for class a few weeks ago, and I was just awash in a sea of possibilities. My initial inclination was to subvert expectations. I want interesting doubles! Unfortunately it seems like we are not encouraged to expect the unexpected.  It's weird or uncomfortable, or maybe it just won't succeed. And we're afraid of failure, aren't we? I'm less afraid of failing and more afraid of mediocrity.  I'd rather fail spectacularly than play it safe.  That's why I do Shakespeare IN THE RAW.

So in my short paper, I was trying to subvert the expected double of Lavinia and Miranda.  I feel like that is where most companies would go with this. Well, I think more of the actors I hire.  I think they can handle the challenge of playing outside the box.  I think the audience can handle it too.  Where I decided to go in my short paper was move based somewhat on instinct, but I did find basis for it in the text (though I won't overload you with that argument): Miranda and Saturninus.  How cool!  Now that I've teased you with that tidbit, that's not actually where I'll be doubling in this production.

Keeping in mind that this project is studying the arc of Shakespeare's revenge play, I wanted the doublings to reflect this binary of revenge/forgiveness. As I was moving the post-it notes around, it struck me that this has a lot to do with relationships. Of course. And not just relationships between characters (both within and across the two plays), but relationships between actors as well.  I am about ready to dig into these but I wanted to offer up a taste of what I'll be discussing in my long paper:

Prospero/Saturninus
Ariel/Tamora
Sebastian/Titus
Antonio/Marcus
and a discussion of why Aaron will not be doubled with a character from The Tempest

Monday, November 1, 2010

*Eyes* and *Qualities* finally rhyme again!

It must be like watching the original, unadulterated, completely undigital versions of Star Wars!

In ten days, students at Kansas University will be performing the first original pronunciation performance of Shakespeare to take place in the United States: A Midsummer Night's Dream.  I encourage you to watch their video on YouTube, where you can watch them in rehearsal and hear the original rhymes preserved.  Click here for a detailed article on the production.

This production, of course, has me thinking about authenticity.  Is the production going to be more authentic because the actors will be speaking as Shakespeare did?  Because the rhymes are finally going to ring true in our ears, as they haven't in hundreds of years?  I really enjoy listening to original pronunciation (OP), not that I have many opportunities to do so.  The first place I heard it was in Ian McKellen's Acting Shakespeare, which aired on TV in 1982 but has just come to DVD in 2010!  He does a very small bit of Macbeth in OP and it's just extraordinary to hear.  I really couldn't say what the experience of hearing the entire play in OP would be like.  I suspect my ear would get used to it rather quickly, but I have a pretty decent ear for accents.  Would I get too caught up in the rhymes?  What if the actors themselves are not very good?  The novelty of OP is not going to last very long if Helena is not terribly compelling, right?  I can only speculate, since unfortunately there's no way I can make it to Kansas to see the production.

But it's quite a question, does OP make the production more authentic?  I think perhaps it does to a certain extent, at least historically speaking.  In calling us back to our language's past (as Paul Meier points out in the video, this is the accent the first Americans would have had), there seems to be a sense of the authentic.  We tend to value our roots, our origins.  This, however, is not the sense of authenticity I am seeking this semester.  Not quite.  As I mentioned above, if the actors do not present a compelling story, I don't care what sort of English is coming out of their mouths.  So it appears I have one small requirement to add to this definition... for something to be authentic, it must be compelling.  Well, it's a beginning.
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