Scholarly Focus: Artistic Dualities in Directing, Devising and Acting
At a recent post-show reception for the play ‘In The Cotton’, I had the chance to speak with the emerging playwright and social justice advocate Morgan McGuire. We spoke about the changing world for creative artists in America and how the profession was in flux. I related to her a story about how when I was young actress, director and writer in New York City, my managers were furious with my inability to choose a specific subdiscipline on which to focus. At one point when I had a writing for performance workshop that interfered with an off-Broadway acting opportunity, they told me to “choose one rabbit to chase. writing, directing or acting.” To which Ms. McGuire, current day professional screenwriter, playwright, producer, actor and filmmaker replied, “Guess they didn’t understand it’s all one rabbit.”
When it comes to directing, process and product are not binaries.They are dualities.They are entities that thrive under specific related circumstances. It is true that you can have an excellent high quality production with a dysfunctional rehearsal process. It is also true that you can have a strong healthy rehearsal process that leads to a mediocre production. Many schools of thought in the discipline advocate one over the other as the focus of the true artist.
What my research in directing has focused on over the course of my career is not the idea that we should choose one over the other. Rather it is the idea of the non-binary. The understanding that the two distinct entities of rehearsal process and final production are related in deep and meaningful ways. That in preferencing one over the other, we lose the potential impact of why we make art in the first place – to make sense of our world. Making meaning begins with the artists and ends with the audience. To truly utilize the collaborative nature of the art form is the strength of the medium itself. This collaboration begins in the intentional rehearsal process and ends with the highly crafted product. Without this excellence of product, the collaboration with the audience is incomplete. Without the intentional rehearsal process, the collaboration with the artists is incomplete. Only through a commitment to the whole collaboration as one distinct entity can we honor performance well.
One: A deep commitment to the intentional rehearsal process and the ways in which we build innovative, bold and rigorous rehearsal constructs. These constructs should enable actors to engage their deepest imaginative capabilities while simultaneously demanding the dedication that pushes them towards taking big risks in order to create meaningful work.
Two: A deliberate and purposeful crafting of a clear aesthetic in production that weaves individual strands of performance, design and text into exciting and cohesive metaphors that engage the audience’s imaginations, unsettle their understandings and delight their intellect.
These two essential components may require different skill sets but they are interconnected in that the journey towards one requires the map that the other provides.
Devising, another subset of theatre performance, is further down the road of collaboration than traditional theatre. In my definition, is the act of ensemble created text, movement, design and performance. This kind of work requires a commitment to multi-vision; the threading together of many different points of view. A strong devised piece contextualizes an idea through many different lenses which are in conversation with each other. Collaboration and group dynamics are at the center of this kind of work and the ability to actively listen and respond are just as important, if not more, than each individual’s independent point of view.
However, devised processes work best when they are not a democracy. The director/lead devisor’s job is to craft a workshop process that yields the most variety of ideas. This early act of facilitating the group dynamics as well as the evolution of the content of the piece demands strong attention to detail and planning. The careful craft of designing a workshop process that allows for the greatest amount of exploration while still providing just enough structure to work against, is what allows devisors the ability to come up with so many exciting and innovative ideas in form and content.
Once the initial ‘generating’ component is over (generating written material, movement and/or design ideas), the director/lead devisor’s job is then to either create or support the discovery of an organizing principle that helps thread all the disparate pieces of the work together in a meaning filled way. As opposed to a traditional director who decides the main idea or concept for the piece, the director/lead devisor creates the way in which a group can discover the main idea or question of the piece. Once this question is discovered, it is the main work of the director/lead devisor to maintain this through line and cut away all the rest of the material that no longer fits the ultimate goal of performance. Then we move into the rehearsal process, and the director/lead devisor must find a way to support each individual artist’s journey from team collaborator into their specific roles of actor, designer, playwright, etc. Once these roles are established, the director/lead devisor is then free to watch, respond and make choices in all areas of production towards the betterment of a cohesive final piece.
Being the director and fellow collaborator in an ensemble created production is no easy task. Finding the right balance of listening, leading, making decisions and allowing for flexibility is the key to creating the strongest work. In devising, the idea of duality of process and product is even more defined.
Acting and Actor Training
“One generation’s truth becomes another generation’s cliche…Actors we consider perfect today will almost certainly be seen as flawed tomorrow. If this were not so the art of acting would petrify. But this dynamic vitality, this constant evolution which keeps the art of acting a living thing, exacts a price. All the years of passionate struggle to understand the elusive essence of acting has resulted in a bewildering array of systems, methods, theories and techniques. The actor is left with many questions…Most private acting teachers today are either students of great master teachers or were students of their students. A student of Stella Adler will teach her work with minor variation. In college and university programs, the emphasis is different…Colleges and universities incorporate methods taken from many sources… Each training institution has its own unique offerings and emphasis. With so many options, what should an actor do? Should he gather a representative sampling of many approaches, collecting various tools for his tool box or should he study one method in depth in hopes of acquiring a single and coherent acting method? Most acting teachers would say that acquiring a complete technique requires both approaches.” (Brestoff xii).
As an actor and acting teacher who teaches 4 different levels of acting technique here at Bucknell University, I seek to both utilize for myself and offer for my students a methodology for the ‘complete technique’ that Richard Brestoff, from his book ‘The Great Acting Teachers and their Methods’, mentions above. I seek to offer technique that embodies depth, but from multiple sources. In order to do so it has required me to delve deeply into my own research in performance training, not just dabbling in the occasional workshop but spending years training and certifying as a master teacher. In 2010 I certified as a master teacher in Michael Chekhov acting technique. I now use this technique both in my teaching as well as in my acting and directing scholarship.
Although my acting is somewhat limited (due to my commitments to the academic calendar) I have used the MC technique in preparing for roles for many years. In addition, I primarily direct using the technique in rehearsal and I have recently published my first textbook, offering techniques on how to use the acting method for directing actors in production. I have, for many years, also taught a variety of other methods in my acting classes, but only as introductory samples. This past year, based on discussions with my students as well as my own desire to understand my craft better, I decided to begin training towards certification in a second method. The second method, The Sanford Meisner acting technique, both complements and directly contradicts much of my training in the Michael Chekhov method. Despite that fact, I have found exciting connections between the two and have begun integrating the new method into my rehearsal process alongside the Chekhov technique.The results have been astonishing. To myself as an actor, director, educator and artist who continues to grow alongside my students.
My plans are to complete my certification in July 2018 and to continue experimenting with the two methods in combination, as well as publishing on the result of these applications in an upcoming new textbook. This book would examine how the two methods compare, complement and contrast one another as well as how the two might be integrated in order to strengthen acting pedagogy, rehearsal process and production.
The Michael Chekhov technique’s strength is as a method of character study and play analysis which stresses strong connections between physical and intellectual approaches. This method seeks to develop characters kinesthetically and requires collective commitment from the entire ensemble as a whole. Although some of the work is done alone, the most relevant inquiry takes place within group work during the rehearsal process. In directing and acting, I have found this kind of ensemble exploration of text to be both physically and intellectually freeing and an excellent medium for working in particular with undergraduates for whom both risk taking and thinking divergently can sometimes be major obstacles.
The Sanford Meisner method’s strength is as a performance technique that offers a tangible way to connect actors onstage in vibrant and visceral ways. The technique centers on authenticity and requires a high degree of actor commitment and courage in order to fully embody a sense of truth in performance. This work is training for the event of performance and offers specific craft on high intensity scene and monologue work. In directing and acting, I have found this work extremely practical and viable in supporting the actor to achieve high caliber onstage moments as well as palpable connections to the other actors onstage. As a director of students and as an educator, I am carefully implementing this into my rehearsal process as well as my classes, offering the students this excellent opportunity for advanced performance work onstage, while still creating an atmosphere of support and alternatives should they feel this work is too difficult or uncomfortable for them to undertake as developing artists.
For a video of a university wide presentation I gave on devising, please see the Performance, Playwriting, Presentations Tab – bottom of the page.
For a video presentation for the National Michael Chekhov Association on the use of the Michael Chekhov technique in my production of ‘The Seagull’, please see the Performance, Playwriting, Presentations Tab – bottom of the page.