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‘As Good a Time As Any’ – The Interwoven Monologue

Third Person Theatre Company is developing its use of the improvised monologue. This is done by asking the audience for themes – such as guilt, separation or perseverance – usually taken from books they are currently reading. There might be six or seven actors on stage, who are given a theme each.

Each actor is also given a ‘psychological purpose’. This is what the character subconsciously desires. It colours the character’s view of themselves, of other people and the world, for example, ‘I want to be admired’, ‘I want to be rejected’ or ‘I want to lose myself in trivia’.

The actor must ‘programme’ this purpose and then has to use it to talk or ‘riff’ on the given theme. The emotions that the purpose creates are more important than the spoken words – because this is what the audience will primarily respond to.

Rather than performing in isolation, the company performs these monologues as a group – taking turns to utter a sentence or two or even just a word. The psychological purpose is held continuously, but the text is broken up. This can prove to be quite a challenge and the actors have to listen to each other in order to avoid overlapping.

The reason for this simultaneity is that it provides a richer and more textured experience for the audience. Some actors are able to pick up on words, ideas or emotions from other monologues and use these to season or develop their own. The audience will also interpret their own parallels.

This approach is rarely used in mainstream theatre – one contemporary exception being the Print Room production of ‘As Good a Time As Any’ at at The Coronet in Notting Hill.

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This play is a poetic presentation of eight interwoven monologues. Most of the text dwells upon the every day concerns of the women – “Why was I up so early?” or “I hope Imelda will make the bed.”

But through these concerns, we are able to see, in parallel, their different desires – to be secure, to be special, to lose oneself, to have a complicated life. And while ethnicity and class might provide some real differences between the women, the most stark contrast is between generations. We realise that what concerns us most when we are younger, such as ‘who will love me?’ and ‘What shall I do with my life?’ can be ameliorated by middle age. In middle age, existential anxiety is often lost under a mountain of preoccupations with the exigencies of everyday life – “I need him to look at that light in the hall”. Sometimes, however, a philosophical calm descends and the middle aged women have moments when life is glimpsed with the lucidity of those who have seen it all before – “She doesn’t want to talk about it… and I have to respect her privacy… but I don’t want her to go through what I did.”

In later life, the preoccupations become, understandably, more immediate and more visceral – “lovely spring morning… lovely I must say… but got the proper blues… feeling so weak” and “couldn’t be certain what the arrangement was… and so was all of a fidget and uncertainty.”

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Through the writing, Peter Gill not only manages to elevate the ordinary to the poetic, he achieves something quite remarkable – to present eight characters who appear to come – not from the brain of one author – but from the psychological perspective of eight separate people. The style ranges from the colloquial to the wistful; from stream of consciousness to the downright garrulous – this could easily be the collaboration of eight different playwrights.

And it is in experiencing this range of thinking – simultaneously – that we, the audience, reap the benefit of the form of the interwoven monologue.

Third Person Theatre Company are currently performing their improvised trilogy – ‘Stories within Stories’ at The Bread and Roses in Clapham.

Peter Gill’s ‘As Good a Time as Any’ can be seen at The Coronet in Notting Hill.

Happy Days

In its exploration of genre, Third Person Theatre Company has entered into the realms of what has come to be known as Theatre of the Post-Apocalypse. Because of the ephemeral nature of such improvised plays, such a genre is difficult to define or describe.

Seeing Natalie Abrahami‘s production of Beckett’s Happy Days at the Young Vic, with Juliette Stevenson and David Beames, makes us aware that pioneers of the theatre have explored this landscape before. And this production bears many of the hallmarks of the theatre to which Third Person aspires.

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Routine

We first meet Winnie and Willie going through the routines of what has become their every day life. In many respects, it is extraordinary, but it is presented as if it is ordinary. They give us the impression that life has been like this for some time. And they are used to it. They have developed ways of coping, complaining, interacting and enjoying. This routine is consciously ritualised in Winnie’s daily itinerary, e.g. She wakes with the alarm; she brushes her teeth; she combs her hair; she lays out all of her things in front of her; Willie reads excerpts from the paper. And while this life might be remarkable to the audience (because she is buried up to the waist in sand), it is not remarkable to the characters – they are used to it. They do this every day.

 

Many improvised plays start with a problem, but like Christopher Vogler writes in ‘The Writer’s Journey’, “If you are going to show a fish out of his customary element, you first have to show him in that ordinary world to create a vivid contrast with the strange new world he is about to enter.” When Happy Days begins, the audience might be unfamiliar with this world, but Winnie is not. It is her environment – no doubt things will change – but we begin by seeing what she does every day.

 

In many of their play structures, rather than beginning with a problem, Third Person begins by presenting the world that is (accepted by the characters as being) ordinary. Once the audience is familiar with it, then it can be changed.

 

Character

In Happy Days there is very little in the way of narrative plot.   The emphasis is mainly on character. Winnie’s desires are multiple: she wants to have a happy life (hence the play’s title); she wants to appreciate life’s ‘little mercies’; she wants to be lost in trifles (and this causes her mind to flit from one thing to another); she wants to die in order to be secure (this explains why she is trapped beneath an ever-increasing mound of sand). Willie’s neurosis is that he wants an easy life and he wants to be told off at the same time.

 

Winnie’s fate in this mound of sand is of course a metaphor for the human condition. Life is a landslide that eventually buries us. The play, rather than trying to tell us the story of how she got here and how she might struggle to free herself, merely examines what it is to be human under such conditions. In its recent Visions of Hell trilogy, Third Person sought to free itself from narrative, and merely to explore what it is to be human. There is, however, still an obligation to the audience to be coherent and to reincorporate ideas.

 

Relationships

Relationships are paramount. Winnie’s relationship with Willie seems familiar enough, but it is her relationship with herself that most interests us: her struggle to remain buoyant; her struggle to stick to her routine; her struggle to engage with Willie; her struggle to cling on to her memories and the vestiges of humanity, like kindness and patience.

 

Creating relationships with status and dynamics are key elements in any improvised play. No wonder then, that Third Person places such emphasis on Meisner in its training.

 

Development

The play begins with life’s routine, but things do not stay the same, e.g. The parasol catches fire; Winnie’s eyesight deteriorates; her toothpaste runs out. These diversions test her ability to adapt; they are obstacles to her desires and cause her both loss, suffering and renewed attempts at coping.

 

Many conventional structures see resolution as the only available direction. Watching Happy Days, however, is a rich experience because there is no resolution – there is change, chaos, shift and Winnie’s prognosis is both bleak and life affirming – but there is no resolution. We leave the theatre still partially engrossed in the stuff of the play.

 

This is a fine line for any improvisation company to tread, because there is a burning desire amongst actors to explain everything – so that they can leave the theatre with a sense of completion. This must be resisted for the benefit of the audience. Coherence is essential, but solutions to life are not.

 

Setting

The setting of Happy Days is non-naturalistic. This is not a kitchen sink drama and the esoteric rules of this world are accepted e.g. both characters are accustomed to the ringing of the bell and the mounting gravel. Winnie does, at one point, refer to some visitors in the past, who came by one day and questioned why Willie didn’t just dig her out! But these people represent the outside world – the audience even. Most experienced improvisers will know that it is a mistake to ‘dig’ other characters out of trouble – however much the audience might will it. So Winnie is left to her own devices. The characters accept the world they inhabit.

 

Previous experience helps to colour the past, e.g. Winnie refers to a market, a lake, flute glasses, final guests at a party – as if they were a dream. She enjoys these memories. This gives the landscape of the play a history, but there is still no need to justify anything. The references are not contemporary – and this helps to broaden the appeal of the play.

 

When Third Person remove their characters from contemporary settings, the actors are forced not only to describe or ‘colour’ the new environment, but also, bereft of the usual paraphernalia of everyday life, like the drawing room, or the office, we see the characters stripped of their contemporary frames of reference, and the spotlight is now on their humanity.

 

Life is an increasing mound of sand that will eventually bury us; everything else is simply an illusion in which we have allowed ourselves to become lost.

Happy Days is currently showing at The Young Vic.

Improvised Plays: The Narrator

 

When we used to do plays at school, like the nativity or staged versions of Oliver Twist, there was always a narrator. This role was often allotted to the pupil who had a lovely, clear reading voice, but who couldn’t act. Sometimes the lines would be learnt, but often, this child was permitted to read from a (nicely decorated) book at the side of the stage.

There had to be a narrator because the stories were not originally written as plays, and the narrator had to fill in the parts of the story that form, time and budget would not allow to be shown.

The narrator had to attempt to be as ‘neutral’ as possible in their delivery. Standing still and speaking directly to the audience. Devoid of humanity. A dislocated voice in the void:
“In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world….”

In its ‘Visions of Hell’ series of plays, Third Person Theatre Company explores the role of the narrator. In this case, however, the narrator’s function of filling in additional material is not really necessary because the plays are entirely improvised and the company is not attempting to render a pre-existing story for the benefit of the audience.

In improvisation, a narrator is often used as a contingency. What if the actors get stuck? What if nobody paints the location? What if the plot gets tangled and the play needs to be tidied up and rescued? Well, bring in the narrator, and he or she can sort everything out.

In this case the narrator becomes a fixer.

But what if there is no need for a fixer? What if the actors are capable of doing the fixing themselves – painting locations and solving problems that arise within the scene? What if there is no linear narrative which requires untangling? Then such a narrator becomes redundant.

The narrator is then, therefore, free to explore other functions. He or she can come on as an observer to witness the play as if on behalf of the audience. Is this an Everyman character? A Godlike figure? A conscience? How does this silent witness affect the relationships on stage?

The narrator might come on stage as a provocateur. Whether he or she is seen or unseen, his or her role is then to provoke the characters and destabilise the play.

The narrator could come on stage as a catalyst or a sage. Causing pivotal moments in the relationships in the play. And there are moments in certain structures, e.g. The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, where this is entirely necessary. The hero might need to meet a sage, whose function is to give him or her the tools, with which he or she must venture into ‘The Underworld’.

Some theatre companies might want to use their narrator to bring some kind of coherent meaning and understanding to events and relationships that have taken place for the benefit of the audience – an interpreter of sorts. But such summarising can often be at the expense of the audience’s own understanding, interpretation or experience.

One of the most poetic of narrations comes in Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. Most of us are familiar with the rich Welsh tones of Richard Burton establishing the location of Llaregyb – its characters and relationships, before we plunge into their lives in more detail and meet them on a more personal level. Here, the narrator’s primary relationship is with the listener. The narrator’s role is not to tell us what and how to think, but rather, we are being invited to listen and to create the pictures of this village in our imaginations:
“Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional, salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row. It is the grass growing on Llaregyb Hill, dewfall, starfall. The sleep of birds in Milk Wood.”

Such narrators, unlike the well-behaved child with the beautifully decorated book, are rarely ‘neutral’. Thomas’ Narrator takes a rather wry, curious and sometimes moral stance. Indeed, is it ever possible for human being to be entirely neutral? There will always be some residue of character. There may always be opinion or influence or interference and – if not of character, then the actor’s own personal agenda might rush in to fill the void.

The Ancient Greeks developed the narrator role as an important function of the play. They called it the chorus.

“Plays of the ancient Greek theatre always included a chorus that offered a variety of background and summary information to help the audience follow the performance. They commented on themes and demonstrated how the audience might react to the drama. In many of these plays, the chorus expressed to the audience what the main characters could not say, such as their hidden fears or secrets. The chorus often provided other characters with the insight they needed.” (Wikipedia)

It could even be suggested that the chorus was itself a character in the play.

In Frank McGuiness’ reworking of Sophocles’ Electra, performed recently at the Old Vic, there are different choruses for different functions in the play. In a contemporary sense, the chorus performs the function of a therapist or a ‘life coach’ for the protagonists: listening, supporting, challenging. There is something very human about this role – it is not a neutral robot – and yet there is a more ‘even’ emotional quality to the thinking. In Freudian terms, the chorus, is perhaps, the ‘super-ego’ of the play. He or she, while not having the omniscience of a divinity (for that would ruin the drama), does possess a certain wisdom, which is used to reflect and provoke the protagonists. For example, when Electra is indulging in her own angry bitterness, railing against the murderers of her father, invoking god to take revenge, Chorus says:

“Hold your tongue. Has it never dawned on you how much you make your own misery. You pile on your agony. You’re a feeble woman fighting mighty enemies.”

These are not the words of a neutral commentator. Chorus, here, is taking a protective position, challenging Electra with the emotional equivalent of a slap across a hysterical face. Chorus is nurturing, parental, wise – and demanding.

The chorus is a more versatile and engaging function of the play when it performs the role of an additional character. However, a character must have a psychology, a childhood, a super-purpose if it is to come to life on stage and interact with others. Without it, how would such a character have any kind of agenda or relationship to events in the play?

This is the responsibility of the playwright, and, to an extent, the director. In Greek drama, the most notable difference between the chorus and the protagonist is that the protagonist must ‘lose’ and ‘change’. The chorus does not – it is an ever fixed mark.

Third Person Theatre Company uses chorus to the same effect – as a character with a particular moral or immoral agenda who can intervene, provoke and support – rather than a neutral commentator. However, because these plays are improvised, the role becomes much more fluid (this can even vary from actor to actor). The chorus can attempt a version of neutrality but get embroiled in the stuff of the play. The chorus can also be unreliable . And ultimately, if the chorus is changed by events in the play or appears to ‘lose’ emotionally, then the audience will soon realise that this dependable ‘super-ego’ has been subverted – in effect, becoming ‘ego’.

This is theatre.

Our school teachers might therefore do well to give the narrator role, not to the strongest reader, but rather, to the strongest actor, and kick that ‘beautifully decorated book’ deep into the wings – on prompt-side – where it belongs.

Visions of Hell

On Sunday, Third Person Theatre Company will perform Visions of Hell (part III)- the third in their series of improvised pieces in what has come to be known as Theatre of the Post-apocalypse.

The work is structured around a series of two-handed scenes/relationships – all of which happen in the same general locality as each other. There is often a separate ‘narrator’ figure, who is able to move between these relationships – observing, commenting, intervening. There is little emphasis on narrative and more focus on characterisation and relationship.

What is the reason for setting such improvised theatre in post-apocalyptic surroundings?

Setting the play in an unfamiliar environment forces the actors on stage to create the location. Gone is the kitchen sink, gone is the sherry decanter and gone is the water cooler. We are no longer in Hollyoaks.

And, rather cheekily, the kitchen sink, the sherry decanter and the water cooler may still exist in the play – but not as we know them! They are removed and recombined to make uncanny oxymorons: the kitchen sink might provide infinite amounts of washing up – like the ‘magic porridge pot’; we could be imprisoned inside the sherry decanter; the water cooler might mark someone’s grave.

This creation of the world is done using the vivid (and sometimes peculiar) imagination of the actors and must be combined with rich sense data. But also, it is a collaboration of the different impressions that the actors bring to the stage. For example, if actor A comes on stage into an environment where she thinks everything is now in a liquid state and actor B comes on stage believing that he is trapped in an infinite IKEA store, then both ideas must be communicated and accommodated and the ‘infinite IKEA’ will have to, somehow, be in a liquid form!

It is also the actors’ job to communicate the setting to the audience. Most audience members want to leave the theatre after the play feeling that they have been transported. But if the actors do nothing to colour the location, then the audience will always (subconsciously perhaps) assume that the play is set in a living room or in an office – or worse, in the black box of the theatre itself. But sharing the setting with the audience and other actors can be quite a tricky business. The narrator, of course, is free to describe things in what ever way he or she sees fit, but within the scenes, the actors must become skilled at describing the setting in a nuanced and almost incidental way, e.g. “The sand always gets in my eyes when the wind picks up like this.” or “Something ran over my face again last night; I think there are mice living in that trench of yours.”

Sometimes the setting can be described indirectly by longing for what is lost, e.g. “Do you remember water? The holidays we used to have? There was always water. I’d like to sit by a pool once more, reading a book. Then, when I’m too hot, I will fold the corner of my page and slide my body into the blue. So that every inch of my skin is covered in its kindness. I won’t swim at all, but drift – losing myself like an astronaut who has escaped his ship. And best of all, when I get out again, I will stand, and I will feel the prickles on my skin and I will shiver. I will bloody well shiver!”

The title ‘Visions of Hell’ can be somewhat misleading as there is no obligation for the actors to replicate or explore classical concepts of hell. (The title itself is an oblique reference to an amusing heckle offered by a BBC Radio3 audience member when the orchestra were underachieving!) Hell in a broader sense, rather than being a place under the ground where Beelzebub, Mammon and Moloch await the orders of Satan on the shores of an eternally burning lake, can often be defined as ‘living in a state of ignorance’. This is a more familiar world to us – where ego has replaced self-awareness; where our own subconscious (and sometimes conscious) stupidity can corrode the relationships that we hold most dearly. This is the stuff of the theatre.

There is rarely a collective response to such theatre. And the audience would do well not to try and achieve any kind of conscious understanding. When theatre like this is done well (and with improvisation, nothing is guaranteed!), the audience’s experience is often fragmented and interpretations can be varied and ambiguous – coming close, perhaps, to what Howard Barker calls the ‘Theatre of Catastrophe’.

And in cases where there is no script to light the way, such visions of hell (or visions of ignorance – or even, perhaps, visions of humanity) are best presented in settings where the relationships, the thinking and the emotions are removed from their familiar surroundings and stranded – to be examined – in some kind of bleak afterworld.

We are, after all, fish out of water.
http://alexmatsuo.com/2013/07/05/theatre-of-catastrophe/

Jaques Tati

Watching an actor like Jaques Tati makes you realise that there are such things as natural stage presence and comic timing. We all have these qualities but most of us allow them to be subconsciously interrupted or sabotaged. With Tati, it all appears effortless.

He seems to play the ‘earnest innocent’ quite frequently and this character colours his choices and timing. But what makes his performing so engaging are the minute detail of the characterisations. And this is usually down to observation. As actors, we have to continually observe the world around us – its characters and processes in order to create a library of mannerisms, movement and timings. Jaques Tati presents a footballer, a policeman, a tennis player or a boxer so effectively – not because of broad, cliched strokes, but because of the detail – a look, a gesture, posture, reactions, facial expressions. And part of the joy of watching an actor like this is seeing parodies of the familiar world around us. In order to build such a library, the best thing an actor can do is engage with the world – suspend judgement – engage, observe, empathise and remember. What a beautiful job.

Acting is Reacting

‘Acting is reacting!’ – the ancient adage of the actor.

It’s the idea that when you’re performing, you don’t need to ‘do’ or ‘create’, anything you just need to react to the stimuli around you: the temperature, the space, the light, and most importantly, the other people – and what they’re giving you.

In their search for the holy grail of ‘good acting’, loads of actors cling onto ideas like this. It can become a mantra.

But then they can get anxious that any kind of ‘character work’ contradicts this mantra. Actors want to play ‘a character’ but they see this as a ‘creation’ not a ‘reaction’. And that Joan Littlewood, Harold Meisner and even Stanislavsky himself might be rather disappointed in them if they start ‘pretending’ to be someone that they’re not.

The solution to this is to see the character as a reaction as well – the actor is reacting to the given world, the other characters, their own subconscious. None of it is a new creation – just a synthesis of old attitudes and feelings that we react to.

For example, when an actor plays King Lear, he or she finds the part of the psyche that wants to be powerful and wants to be held in awe and wants to be respected and wants to be loved. Sam Kogan calls these ‘psychological purposes’. The actor sits with these purposes and the exterior world, the historical context and the text. And then reacts to them – allowing these ‘wants’ and circumstances to colour the thinking and allowing other characters to react to them as well.

This is still reaction – not creation.

What if I don’t have thinking or feelings like King Lear? How can I react to psychology that I don’t have? Won’t I have to create it? Joseph Campbell suggests that there are archetypes which are universal to all of us. We all have the capability to want these things. It’s part of being human. So, in different ways, we all have the ability to play King Lear.

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Amour

Amour by Michael Haneke won The Palm D’Or in 2012 and other awards in 2013, including BAFTAs and Oscars – not surprisingly because the story is so simple, so touching and so ordinary.

The film is largely improvised in spite of the fact that there was a script. Good example of when actors learn lines but then improvise the life within those lines, so that the nuances of human behaviour can be observed in minute detail – even down to very subtle gesture or even changes in the eyes. The result is something very human and familiar.

In loads of films, it is possible to learn the lines and the action, then just repeat it all in front of the camera. In this case, however, the lines and action are learnt and then set aside so that the life of the character can begin. I suppose this is not technically improvised, therefore, but it feels like it. You forget your script and go along the character’s journey, reacting to events and people and how you feel. The scripted lines appear along the way like breadcrumbs left in the woods.

“Acting is not about dressing up. Acting is about stripping bare. The whole essence of learning lines is to forget them so you can make them sound like you thought of them that instant.”
Glenda Jackson

Under The Skin

Just been watching Jonathan Glazer’s film, Under The Skin. Huge casting challenges, minimal script, largely using local non-actors and improvised preparation.

Director and producer keen to use discrete cameras so that the actors, the non-actors and the public were not aware of a ‘crew’.

In addition to the performing, the filming and decision process itself was largely improvised with many early decisions and choices being radically adapted during the shoot. Many of the effects are shot without CGI wherever possible and the result is quite disturbing and visceral.

Brave filming. Not over-telling the story so that the viewer is continually obliged to re-orientate, engage and piece together what is happening. Best experienced when you haven’t read any reviews – or even the back of the DVD case!

The result is enigmatic, atmospheric, poetic. This economy of Glazer’s poetry can also be seen in his advertising:

Hello!

This is a personal blog about my experiences as an improvising actor. It follows me through various shows, meetings, chance encounters, accidents, parties, stupidity and poetry – all of which is improvised and some of which is planned.

© 2016 gareth watkins

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