Saturday, July 31, 2010

More light!


Holy Cribbins, what a fortnight! Hard to believe that after just nine days in rehearsal with it, I'm off to Edinburgh tomorrow to do a month at the Traverse with Tim Crouch's The Author.

After a week working alone with Tim, and Andy and Karl the directors, this past week the other two actors, Esther and Vic, got back on board, and we spent a ravishing, often difficult, few days together at the Royal Court's Theatre Local space -- a sort of magically unprepossessing vacant shop unit at Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre. As a working venue it certainly has much to recommend it -- especially the big shop windows which mean that anyone passing by can look in and watch the rehearsal process (while we, from the inside, could -- and frequently did -- enjoy ourselves watching those passers-by, in all their tickling individual uniqueness); but I think we'll all mostly remember a desperately unhelpful working environment -- heavy heat, bad artificial light, no air, nothing soft, only head-pulverizing pressure and drabness, which slightly got the better of all of us from time to time. Nonetheless, we finished the week with a second rehearsal in the company of an invited audience, that turned out to be full of energy and laughing and attention and a palpable emotional weight -- all the things we wanted, all the things the room seemed apt to squash. An exhilarating end to this preparatory phase.

It's been really stretching for me -- enlarging, in all the best ways, but also just stretching, in ways that have sometimes been tense and painful -- given that this is the first time that I've ever acted in someone else's play. (The first, at least, since my formidable bathing-suited Badger in a May Week Wind in the Willows at university in 1995!) It's been so interesting to discover what my process as an actor -- I'm resisting the temptation to smother that word in scare quotes -- actually is. Interesting in itself to find how little access I have to my director-self when I'm in acting mode, meaning that the notes I've got from the (brilliant, brilliant) directors are often pretty familiar -- they're things I find myself saying again and again to the actors who've worked with me. Which seems funny in a way; but equally funny, I suppose, to expect anything else -- otherwise, all good directors would be great actors, and we know that ain't necessarily so.

What a scenic route I had to take, though! Oh, brother. By the afternoon of day two I had sort of led myself down an unexpected garden path of a sort of psychological realism -- which is not at all what I would generally imagine myself needing or seeking. I've always been pretty avowedly materialist about scripts: it's text on a page, it just needs activating, we don't need to know anything outside of that text, these are not even "characters", they're just voice-filters to help us hear particular qualities in the actors we're listening to. What's my motivation? The script is my motivation, the director is my motivation, the predicament of my imaginary audience is my motivation. What's my back-story? Paper coming out of a printer.

But... But! Something weird happens, it turns out, or at least something weird happened to me last week. If it's all about the text then the first task is close reading, is paying attention in the highest resolution, with the most total fidelity, to that text. So you start to see particular features in the prosody, incidents of rhythm, quirks of syntax perhaps, hints of idiolect... The punctuation, the punctuation, always the punctuation. But out of this kind of meticulous, almost strenuous reading, questions arise that immediately begin to titillate the imagination. Why does this speaker speak in this way? Straight away I notice that he breathes differently than I do, his breaths are shallower. He repeats himself, but these are not exact repetitions but patterns, a sense of circling symmetries, moments of self-closing. Slightly wonky chiasmus. Lashings of parataxis. A picture emerges of a man who is nervous and in need of reassurance. A man who is scared to think too deeply of anything. This portrait starts to form, not (or not only) out of the content of the man's expressed thoughts and opinions, but also out of a dash here, an ellipsis there. By Tuesday afternoon -- my second day of rehearsing -- 'Chris' (crucially, all the speakers in the play share their name with the actor portraying them) has a biography and a psychological and emotional hinterland that feels full and real and almost overwhelming. He is, at moments, a figure of fun -- I mean the play seems as if it might be poking fun at him, or inviting the audience to think of him in this way -- but I am more excited by the challenge, in a play that is so much about the nature of seriousness, to dare to take this character seriously. In a way this means taking "him", all his nervousness and apparent shallowness, to heart.

That Tuesday night, I dream I watch my mother dying. Separately I dream that Jonny and I agree, but do not quite enact, a suicide pact. Even in these dreams I can feel an almost physical soreness inside me. I wake up filled with anxiety and distress. Walking down a suburban street in Barnes en route to that day's rehearsal venue, I start to cry. I don't want to go. I have done exactly what the character of Vic, who is an actor in The Author's embedded play, describes doing: taking the character he's playing home with him. I talk to Andy and Karl about the upset I'm feeling, and they are brilliant, brilliant, and it's all OK: but when we have our first conversation about costume the following day -- and with this play, that starts with a preliminary question about whether I'm going to want a costume at all, or whether I'm happy to wear my own clothes, to just turn up at the theatre in whatever I've been wearing that day -- I surprise myself by wanting at least part of a costume, for the sake of the near-ritual of changing into it. I find I want to be protected from the possibility of any recurrence of that distress. I also want the clothes I'm wearing to help transform me -- just a shade, just a nudge -- into "Chris": I know he breathes differently; I think he sits differently. I want him to have smarter, less comfortable shoes than I do.

A week or so on from all this, I'm astonished that I ever got to that point. After a weekend of line-learning, which I suppose helps re-establish the textiness of the text in my mind and body (especially because I learn text very visually -- if I'm recalling a memorized script, I have quite a strong picture of the page in my head), I felt on Monday almost embarrassed, in fact almost disgusted at myself for such self-indulgence and naughty elaboration. Two other actions had helped enormously by then. Thursday had included some cuts in the text, and among the excisions was a single two-word phrase -- I won't say what! -- that, for me, had had massive emotional freighting, a whole unignorable thread of backstory that had affected everything else that I'd thought about this guy. This complex, awkward set of ideas about who this man is and what he's holding within himself is suddenly, with a one-inch stroke of a pencil, not there. I think the missing narrative is bound to leave some residue, but thankfully, it doesn't, except as another reminder of the supernatural weirdness I've allowed myself to inhabit for a while. The other action is almost as quick. After checking with the directors that it's OK, I do a search-and-replace job on the script, and replace all of Chris's exclamation marks with full stops: and suddenly, my attitude towards him, and towards the task of playing him, changes hugely. We've been discussing whether or not the character is gay; we think there are plenty of lines and references to suggest that he is, but they're not conclusive. Somehow, though, the heavy sprinkling of exclamation marks (which, actually, are a feature of Tim's writing throughout -- the other speakers have them in abundance too) have screamed 'gay', a particular, almost caricaturish gay man. The problem of giving a voice to this character -- giving voice to, but also, yes, giving a voice to this character -- has been a source of conflict, or rather 'conflictedness' in that shrinky sense, for me. Expunging all those exclamation marks makes it possible for me to see past the emphatic gayness of the character -- a gayness that has felt terribly at odds with my own, and therefore given rise to a lot of fear and internal cringeing. -- I don't know if Tim knows that, having made such a fuss about honouring his punctuation, I so thoroughly overhauled it!; at any rate, it gave me a lot more room to work with, and I think he's pleased with the result, so I hope it was the right thing to do.

Around the beginning of the second week, the very gentle and supportive notes from my brilliant, brilliant directors started to include "lightness". I was a little bit suspicious of it initially, and actually, after a while, a bit annoyed. I felt like I was carrying around about seven suitcases of stuff that was necessary for a full reading of the character and of the play. Those imaginary suitcases were full of material that had been carefully excavated or effortfully wrought and the request for lightness seemed quite at odds with all that work I'd been doing. By midweek I almost wanted to say: well, OK, lightness, sure, but with all these seven suitcases to carry, there's a limit to how light I can be! It took a gruelling dread-encumbered car-crash of a first public run, and a fair bit of turbulence in the room one way or another the following day, before I could finally hear what they were actually saying -- which was, of course, "lightness" as in: "Put down the suitcases, you are endangering yourself and others." A couple of days ago, tentatively, I started to drop the luggage, and found that I was perfectly OK without it -- in fact, far more OK than I'd been up to this point.

"Just say the words," Tim is fond of saying, and in a way it's true, and in another way it's not true, not by a long chalk. There is no "just" because words are never "just" said, least of all in such fine writing as his script. But I started to remember some of the things that I've told actors in the past. "I need you to do what the piece needs you to do." "Let the script do the heavy lifting." "You can lean a little harder on the text." "Just try and surf it / skate it / dance with it. Let it lead. Let it make the shapes for you." etc. etc.

And above all -- yes! Lightness! -- Actually, the word I tend to use (I must somewhat wincingly confess) is leggiero. This is lightness as a musical term -- funny how often in the past couple of weeks we've fallen back on musical terminology (and musical models in general -- something else I utterly depend upon in my own practice) -- and it's a nice word to say, it has lightness in itself. I remember saying it a lot on Escapology, where the task of improvising almost all the script every night could sometimes become heavy and cloying for the actors, who inevitably and very understandably would want to recall things that had worked for them the previous night or on some other earlier occasion, but which would usually have hardened in the interim and would often feel heavy in the re-playing. To play leggiero is to dance over the surface of the moment. The best players of classical music -- the best interpreters of Bach, Haydn, Chopin, Webern in particular -- have a little extra leggiero in their loafers.

(I told Jonny about this leggiero thing and he thought for a few moments and then he asked, as if it were an unrelated question: "Do you think it's a good thing for a director to be friends with the actors he's working with?" Which in the context sounded a bit like: "Do actors ever punch you for sounding like a cock?")

On lightness: I'm reminded of a really useful conversation I had with Kate McGrath (of producers Fuel) while I was talking with people as part of my research project at the National Theatre Studio earlier in the year. I was telling her how great it was to have as part of my attachment at the Studio my own little office, where I really felt I could, as it were, put my bags down -- aided by the confidence that everything was all right there in the room if I needed it, I hadn't thrown anything away, I was just allowing myself to not carry it all around with me all the time. She agreed that it was a good idea to try and reduce that baggage -- not give it all up, but make sure it was all portable. (Edgar's words in King Lear: "How light and portable my pain seems now...") And she said this, which I found very strikingly true: that of all the artists who are in the final stages of their career, the veterans, the elders, the ones we find most appealing, most compelling, are the ones who feel the lightest. This feels like an acting-out, or a living-out, of that fairytale of Goethe's supposed last words: "More light!" -- literally as a request for a shutter to be opened, but also easily taken to be a plea for more enlightenment. That we ourselves might be more light, in our sense of what we carry with us, seems an obvious corollary, even if no more than a felicitous accident of English. (There are of course plenty of less happy reverberations -- light as in 'trivial', not least. Anyone for a little light music? Light verse? Light refreshments? Enoch Light and the Light Brigade?)

In turn I'm reminded of one of the biggest revelations that I experienced while I was on that NT Studio attachment -- it has a page to itself in the notebook I kept all through those eight weeks. "I'm realizing," says my memo-to-self, "that, quite often, I'm a bit too hot." I think of all the marvellously useful things that happened in those two months, there's nothing that's more directly impacted on my practice so far than that lightbulb moment. I was walking around the Arte Povera galleries at Tate Modern, finding to my surprise that I wasn't really engaging with the work -- which was, after all, by some of my favourite artists in the world. Amazing stuff, but I was feeling bored and disconnected. So I took a moment to examine how I was actually feeling. And then I noticed that a really big part of my physical experience at that moment was my coat. The heaviness of my coat. I took my coat off and suddenly Jannis Kounellis and I were on speaking terms again. -- Eureka!, and other triumphant exclamations best uttered whilst running naked down the street.

So, yes, so, lightness, leggiero, and finally, in some sense at least, being able to "just say the words". Certainly, this seems to be the best relationship you can have with a piece like this. (Pausing briefly to note that The Author has a pretty constrained physical life -- all four actors are seated throughout -- so there's not much else to do but say the words... -- which is perhaps why it's so tempting to do so much more than just say them...) Because then there is balance. Even before I was one, ha ha, I always felt that to be an actor is not simply to act, but to act for, to act on behalf of. You act for the piece. You act on behalf of those who are not themselves, not yet, well-placed to act. You get out of the way and let the play take place.

I can't wrap this up without a postscript. I will have seemed to describe above a process that has been intense, upsetting, difficult -- and so it has been: and for all that I've managed (this weekend, at least) to avoid carrying "Chris" around with me, I'm still aware that there's a little knot of something in my chest that I strongly suspect will come out as a big sob at the least convenient and most alarming moment over the next few days. It's a harrowing play, harrowing partly because it's also very funny and tender and humane. It's also conceptually very, very clever, very smart, not in a cool way, but in a way that makes orienting yourself within it a continually entangling, confounding experience. (I never saw it, so I might be way off, but the idea at least of Robert Lepage's production of A Dream Play set in a rotating cube keeps coming to mind.) For actors and audience alike, The Author is manifestly a real experience, created out of a thousand flickering moments on the threshold between the simulated and the actual. Because it layers what if and what is sort of stereoscopically on top of each other, it becomes that rarest of events, a game with real consequences. To be with it even six hours a day in rehearsal is exhausting and mind-spinning. So what I most want to say is this. I couldn't have been better supported, better held, more kindly and compassionately treated. Andy and Karl above all, but all the other actors too, everyone in the room, everyone takes seriously and makes ample room for the processes by which we can best take care of each other. I marvel at it constantly, and I am learning so much that I can only hope will inflect my own practice as a director and maker. I thought I knew how to make a safe and supportive room, without hierarchies, without carelessness, without violence. I think I know a lot more now. On day one, Karl said something which I recognized immediately. "The work we do is nearly the most important thing. Actually, the most important thing is the way we do the work." I recognized it as an aspiration; these guys brilliantly, brilliantly make it a reality.

I know I've quoted it in these pages before, but it's been stamped on my brain these past few days: that wonderful opening to the manifesto of the Living Theatre: "To call into question who we are to each other in the social environment of the theatre." The Author does this with surpassing elegance and intelligence and clear-sightedness; so does the process of staging The Author, in this company. I feel really, really honoured to be a part of it.

And, o man!, I'm so excited about being in Edinburgh this time tomorrow. My year off last year, my first in a decade, has re-sharpened my appetite for the festival and the city. I spent a very happy couple of hours going through the Fringe programme and the EIF brochure this afternoon and starting to book some tickets. I'm going to try to avoid cramming too much in. I want plenty of time for strolling in the rain and wandering in the park in the rain and having leisurely lunches in favourite restaurants and watching the rain come down outside. I have decided I am going to make friends with the rain. I'm going to pretend it's a composition by John Cage. It's all good. Perhaps I can pretend that not being able to get a ticket for the Wooster Group is a composition by John Cage also. ...Or that might be slightly beyond me. (If anyone's got a spare, you know where I am!)

We have wi-fi at the house so normal service at Thompson's should not be interrupted while I'm away, as it sometimes has in years gone by. Actually with a bit of luck I might be posting a bit more than usual. Quite fancy doing a proper diary sort of thing. We'll see, won't we.

Probably see half of you in the Traverse bar, come to think of it.

Last one to get rained on is a rotten egg.

xx

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