In the past fortnight I had the final two of five Advanced Scene Study Meisner classes which were, in the end, good fun.
I was involved in two scenes from The Physicists by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, playing a different character in each. It’s an absurdist satire, based around a physicist in a mental institution and two spies from foreign countries living there in order to obtain his discoveries.
Reading the script, it’s clearly absurd in that a lot of what’s said isn’t believable in a realistic depiction of the world. But, despite this level of absurdity, it still, like most plays, reads like it’s simply people standing in a room talking. There’s not a noticeable amount of thrilling action (a couple of murders aside) or slapstick for example. And so, when it came to performing the scenes, our initial approach was to treat everything realistically, like normal conversation and behaviour. However, it became apparent this didn’t quite work — it’s too slow and sensible, and the nature of the play means dialogue has to be much snappier and physical behaviour must be bigger.
I struggled with this at first, which I found annoying. Back at LISPA, where everything we did was various kinds of physical theatre, I was used to being physically expressive and over-the-top. I played a grotesque commuter who ended a scene by gleefully ripping the heart from a tourist, spraying blood everywhere. And a red-nosed clown of a past-it ballet dancer wearing a tiara and tutu, performing an earnest but terrible Swan Lake. The level of physicality required by The Physicists shouldn’t be a problem for me.
I realised I’d divided my acting into two worlds. While work at LISPA was devised physical theatre, often with little dialogue, the more recent Meisner Technique training has been aiming at work with scripts, and is about being “truthful”. We’re attempting to react “honestly” and “naturally” to the situation and one’s scene partners. It feels like performing successfully using this technique would be to be not “acting” at all, but to be entirely “realistic”.
(I’m putting all these words in quotes because each could be quibbled with and defined in different ways. Imagine I’m waving my hands vaguely and caveating each word with “sort of”.)
And so when we began trying these scenes we all started off trying to be “honest” in our reactions and “realistic” in our performances, which worked less well whenever the scenes became more absurd. It was hard to break out of this mode of performance. Anything over-the-top felt fake and put-on rather than “truthful” and, despite my intentions, I’d keep feeling myself pulling back to being “normal”. It was like I’d never spent two years struggling with physicality and masks and clowning and the rest.
Recognising that I’d mentally divided acting into these two distinct modes helped a lot. I realised that I could be more absurd and over-the-top — I’d done it before — I just needed to let that mode in while delivering the lines and reacting to my partners. I, and everyone else, started heading in the right direction in the final class, which was a great improvement. Knowing our lines and cues well enough to deliver them more rapidly than felt “natural” encouraged more manic behaviour and it all began working much better. The more you throw yourself into it, the more there is for everyone else to react to, and everyone collectively builds the heightened state.
It’s a shame the classes are over but it was satisfying to leave the scenes having found how to make them work better. And, for me, to realise I can join these two distinct parts of my training together.
Just like anyone’s social media, these posts don’t provide a 100% thorough view of a life. I choose only the events that are most interesting to me and that I’m comfortable sharing. Most of us, online, are lying by omission, giving the impression we’re happier than we really are. This can make others feel inadequate, comparing their real life — all the bad as well as the good — with only the good fragments they see shared by others.
I’m not sure there’s a solution to that. Like most people, I’m not comfortable sharing every doubt and worry with the entire world for ever. And few of us would want to read that day after day.
So, in an attempt to deal with this in one go: you can, with most of these posts, take it as read that there have been doses of self-doubt scattered throughout the previous week or fortnight. These days a portion of my brain is increasingly devoted to asking “What are you doing with your life?” and “Where are you going?” with no balancing segment able to come up with decent answers.
My “career” appears to have plateaued (to be charitable) a decade or so ago. A few attempts at change have come to little. I don’t want to be bothered by it — objectively I’m doing fine — but, as alluded to above, I compare myself to others and, what with minds being illogical, I consistently find myself coming up short. “I don’t know what I’m doing but everyone else does. No, they don’t. They do, see, you’re rubbish!” I plod on. But some weeks, like a good chunk of the past fortnight, that feeling becomes more overwhelming, and even hanging out with friends can briefly feel like a struggle, never mind anything more professionally and socially demanding.
On we go.
A few weeks back I accidentally took up Amazon on their persistent offer of a free introductory month of Amazon Prime. Remember, way back, when Amazon’s check-out process was held up as a great example of simple and efficient usability that everyone should copy? These days one must constantly stay alert to avoid signing up for unwanted services. My concentration lapsed during a recent rare purchase, I clicked the wrong button out of three confusingly-worded choices, and here I am.
A month of free Amazon Prime Video! My first use of online video streaming! Unfortunately the video choices were mostly uninspiring, not helped by such dreary presentation.
However, I have taken the opportunity to watch Transparent and, like so many people, I’ve been enjoying it a lot, two seasons in. But… but… why are they all such terrible people? Almost every character is self-absorbed and deluded, talking and talking without listening to others, making decisions without consulting those affected, sharing things that should be secrets and holding back on things that should be shared. They’re awful. We’ve all had our bad moments but this is relentless. The few supporting characters who possess even a morsel of decency and empathy — such as Davina and Raquel — stand out from the crowd like visitors to an asylum. The terrible people remind me of the spoiled, self-entitled characters on Search Party that I watched recently and, of course, the appalling gang on Girls. Liberal America looks like an unbearable place.
Obviously, this isn’t enough to stop me enjoying the show, or those others, but it’s getting a bit wearing. Suggestions for good American comedyish-dramas that feature characters with a shred of awareness of others’ needs would be appreciated.
I hope you have a good week.