All philosophical problems are linguistic confusion – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Some years ago, my long time friend and SITI Company member Leon described an idea for a book he wanted to make. It was a dictionary of theatrical terminology. It occurred to him that in this culture at least, because of the variety of methodologies and practices, there wasn’t an agreed upon understanding of common terminology used in the work of the actor.
For example the use of the word objective, which comes to us via the Method of acting as derived from Stanislavski in Russia, is very common in education and rehearsal terminology. On the one hand, an objective has to do with the character’s intention, what she is working to achieve, what she wants from another character in the scene, and how to get it. Already we are in a tangle of assumptions. The first assumption is that of character, what that is, and whether such a thing really exists at all for the actor. Second is whether a character, which isn’t real, actually wants something. And third, that an objective has anything to do with a psychological story. If you believe in a character then you believe in a psychological story. And if you don’t believe in a character, then you are free not to believe in a psychological story. And so these words, and our various ways of understanding them, might make the prospect of working on a play with a cast of total strangers in a regional theater really confusing.
In the American Method thinking about objective, the idea is that the character (now we’re already in the weeds) wants something from another character, e.g., love, respect, money, sex … well, it really ends there doesn’t it? In the Russian translation of objective the word can mean task or problem. Here, again, we are in some gray area. What is a problem? Is it that the character wants money or love or sex and can’t get it? Not always. In the SITI Company, when in rehearsal and it isn’t going well, someone will usually stop to ask, “Wait, what’s the problem?” And when one of us says this, the answer comes usually as a physical one. The problem is usually solved by trying to alter the tempo, or the arrangement of the feet, or the spacial distance between the actors. On a side note, I’m thinking of the famed actor, writer, and member of the Peter Brook company, Yoshi Oida who wrote in, I think, THE INVISIBLE ACTOR, or maybe it was AN ACTOR ADRIFT (both of which I recommend), that if a scene isn’t going well in rehearsal, try changing the tempo. I’m also thinking about a comment made by an astute audience member about the SITI actors of THE BACCHAE saying that they were fixated on the specificity of the actors’ feet. For SITI actors the solution comes first in the body. Answer the question with your body. I’m reminded of Stanislavski again who famously said to an actor standing before him, “No. The rhythm of how you are standing is wrong.” Don’t take my word for it. Take the words of Yoshi Oida or Constantin Stanislavski and think about real things you can do. And real means looking to the body to solve the problem of the scene. No attempt of remembering a more potent childhood trauma, or failed relationship, or satisfying revenge scenario is going to solve your problem. The director Declan Donnelann would perhaps say, There is a target; the target is the other actor; and the target is always moving.
These past two months of covid quarantine, the SITI Company has been in Work/Space rehearsals on Zoom for 3 and 4 hours each weekday, training together, reading scripts, sitting together silently. More recently we have been processing the passing on June 5th of our teacher and friend Mary Overlie who is walking in space through the Bardo now. We’ve been processing her legacy with her friend and co-creator Wendell Beavers who is helping us understand more deeply the story and language of the Viewpoints, the truth of what has happened over these 40 years or so, and how we got to where we are in that complex history. We’ve also been holding ourselves to the important, often difficult, and necessary task of doing anti-racism work. In all of these conversations I’ve noticed that language, the privilege that language sometimes displays, the systemic privilege it sometimes hides, and the thoughtlessness with which it can manifest even with the best of intentions, can overlap. Wendell prefaced his conversation with us with the words, “we’ll probably fail”, and “let’s be compassionate with ourselves and with each other”. Phrases like these also arise in our anti-racism work. They have also arisen in earlier conversations over gender identity and gender pronouns, and how to navigate a studio of students in training sessions. Every day has been an opportunity to listen, and to speak, and to fail. And to fail again. Artists understand that failure is at least 90 per cent of the daily work. Somehow that is tolerable in the safe frame of a project, or in the company of long time friends and colleagues who are failing alongside you and holding you up at the same time. Outside the safety of a shared studio, however, this daily failure is recognized painfully as the natural consequence of honestly showing up, being witness to, and being painfully present with realities that have been with us these hundreds of years. These are the given circumstances in which we are called to action. With presence comes the pain of compassion. And the presence and the compassion, or lack of it, is reflected in how we use our language.
My son is an extraordinary young man. He’s an activist and political organizer – a strong product of his generation and the times in which he is growing up. He is also teaching me language that we “boomers” need to negotiate the evolving landscape. It caused me some disquiet when he decided at a young age to become an actor. Apparently his parents were actors, and he grew up among the members of the SITI Company so …. I didn’t encourage it. I reserved judgement on his early endeavors. I didn’t want to pressure nor to discourage, but come on, this is not an easy life to send a child into, right? Anyway, to our happy surprise, he was cast in his high school play as the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN. I was terrified for him. He was thrilled of course. I knew the trouble this would bring. He knew that he had a big role, and a big responsibility in the play. He had a lot of language to learn and to understand. To make a long story short, he asked me when it finally came time to perform what he should do.
What you should do?
Yes, what should I do? What should I be thinking about? How do I do this?
Partially, I think, he was thinking about being a narrator and what does that kind of role do? Also, he was beginning to realize that, as a young, not yet actor, he didn’t know what to do to keep him in the performance. Once the words were learned how to act it. Without hesitation (a trauma of parenthood – not knowing if you’ll have an answer when the big questions come) I said, “Don’t miss it.” That’s what I said. Now, here’s what I meant. What I told him was to listen to what he was saying. The trap is to get caught in the “character” and to mean what you are saying. I should add that, like every actor all the time, his real question had to do with feeling what he was saying. It is the problem of the actor’s concern over emotion in their performance. What I wanted him to know is that as a beautiful, sensitive young man, if he actually listened to what he was saying, as he was saying it, with compassion, it would surprise him. Emotion happens. You can’t do anything about it but be ready, create space for it, plant your feet, and be present with the audience, and the language. And so before he went on I reminded him, Don’t miss it. And he didn’t. And even now, that has been a phrase we say to each other when we need encouragement from each other whether on stage or off. To “Don’t miss it.”
Why do I tell you this story? Well, it has to do with presence doesn’t it? Speaking without presence (I think we all know) can be dangerous and often damaging. Presence is rarely about thinking about something, if ever. In presence there is no time for thinking. Presence is not about remembering something else while doing what you are doing now. Presence is about going to the body and sensation to solve the problem of being there. And isn’t that, at least in part, the role of the theater? “To solve the problem of being here?” If that is true in your theater, then the phrase “solving the problem” floats to the surface. So, then, your objective is to solve the problem – not in your head, but with your body, in the present, with real things you can do. Learn the language.
And to, Don’t miss it.