Introduction to Directing with Unanima – weeks 2 & 3

Actors

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Today we worked with two actors – Phoebe Brown and Sam Warren – to explore different texts and how we might go about staging them. The focus of the session was to learn how to speak to actors in a way that could influence their performances, as well as to explore the different meanings that emerge from a scene when played in different ways.

The first scene we looked at was the one directly following King Duncan’s murder in Macbeth; a good example of two characters pulling in different directions in a situation. Lady Macbeth is pragmatic and urging them to leave the scene of the crime, Macbeth insists on staying. Why Macbeth won’t leave the scene is one of the questions we first debated, as would any acting company. Is he in a state of shock with what he has done, or has he had a moment of absolute clarity? Does he blame Lady Macbeth for the deed he has performed or is he staying here to invite his own damnation? We got the scene on its feet and tried out each of our various questions. A number of the participants had instinctive reactions to how the scenes should be played; that an actor should be faster or angrier or move around more. We discussed the limitations of giving direction that only commented on external factors (speed, attitude, movement) as it can make actors only focus on solving their appearance rather than what lies behind it. Instead we explored finding narrative reasons for the direction we gave. For more speed someone gave Lady Macbeth the note that dawn was already breaking and people would be awake soon to discover them. For more movement in the scene someone offered the idea that Lady Macbeth continually wanted to touch and calm Macbeth who in turn could not bear to be touched.  We played it end on and then traverse, the latter giving the scene “a tennis match” quality as one participant described it. One participant wanted something from the scene that she couldn’t find the words for, so she got up and improvised the scene with Macbeth herself.  As Macbeth spoke his lines, she interjected forcefully throughout, eventually backing him into a corner. While actors aren’t always happy about being fed lines, being fed the attitude behind the lines was quite useful here, as it led the actress to think about why Lady M might use these lines to push back her husband.

We then looked at the opening scene from Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. With no setting or character description, nor even allocated parts, the scene was beautifully mysterious. However, the subject of someone withholding and then sharing a secret was something everyone could relate to. Having listened to the almost abstract scene, the group then pitched in their ideas of who the couple might be (friends, lovers, ex-partners, colleagues) then where they might be (home, a restaurant, a loud nightclub) and what the unheard secret was. We looked at how these readings totally changed the performances, the relationships, the body language, the tone of voice and the use of the space. We saw how new meanings came out and new resonances that certain words had. We started to explore underscoring the scenes with sound and music, looking at how we could use music to manipulate the audience and also to steer the tone of the performances. Taking this theme of a disclosed secret, the participants then devised their own scenes in collaboration with the two actors. Following on from the Churchill exercise we decided our three focuses were on relationships, place and event. Once these things were clear they could build a scene and would have markers to focus their direction as they watched each other’s work.

Space

Armed only with some plastic chairs, the group split into three and were each tasked to create a representation of a space; domestic, public and external. We then wandered through each of the spaces, receiving a quick descriptive tour of their features. With plastic chairs as their main material, the spaces looked aesthetically basic but functional. The groups then rotated so that each would devise a scene within a space created by another group. After they had rehearsed their scenes and presented them, we started to realise the spatial limits of each environment and how we could alter space to become more playable to actors and watchable to an audience. In each group a person was a designated director. This was the first time in our sessions that participants were working as stand alone directors, rather than offering direction as part of a group. They showed great facility for discussing actions and motivations with each other, though I noticed that many of them directed the scenes very close to or sometimes inside the action. After the first run-throughs, the directors were asked to step out of the action to watch it from an audience’s point of view. This again opened up new ideas about staging and making action more visible. We discussed the notion of ‘cheating’ action, so that while it may lose some authenticity it becomes readable to more of the audience. “Why do you need to always see their faces?” one person asked. “Because the story is told through reactions” was someone else’s answer. One participant directed a scene with such attention to detail, guiding every movement and gesture to the exact second. However, she continued to give a running commentary of direction during the run-through which, although aesthetically quite fascinating to watch and listen to, left the actors slightly struggling to establish where to place their attention. This led to a conversation about trusting them to negotiate their own way through a scene and how a director’s goal is ultimately to create self-directing actors.  The director felt bad about over-imposing on the scene with her voice, though her rhythmic and spatial precision had been pretty astonishing.

Having looked at the functional use of space we then explored what was possible in terms of the use of material and objects that were more expressive. Each of the three groups were given two quite arbitrary materials; Group one received red and white knitting wool and two plastic buckets, group two received some green garbage bags and a large bunch of red and white carnations and the final group were given some fairy lights and a bag of lemons. They were then tasked to make a space that did not correspond to a functional logic, but had an internal logic between space, colour and texture. Each group set about making three quite beautiful mini-installations, balancing colour, texture and shape. Each of the pieces, viewed at model box size, would have made for exciting staging propositions. We then adjusted and expanded each of them to become playable spaces within the studio theatre we were working in. They therefore had to rethink the elements in relation to the wider environment and the human bodies that would interact with it. The knitting wool became and explosion of red and white entwined around the hands of the first group. “It’s the Macbeth murder scene!” one of them pointed out. We then discussed who in this environment would most likely be Macbeth and how could this be altered or reinforced purely though positioning. We went around to each of the newly playable spaces and made similar observations and adjustments.

We looked at another enigmatic scene from Churchill’s Love and Information, this time called ‘Fan.’; a dialogue in which two people obsessively compare their respective devotions to an unnamed celebrity. We explored how the scene meant different things in different spatial formations and how the actors based the tone of their performances depending on their setting. Effectively we directed the scene by directing the environment. We then placed the scene within one of the spatial installations one of the groups have made to see what chance encounters took place between performer and object. Playing the scene surrounded by flowers and debris added a broken sadness to their obsession. As the setting wasn’t functional, we saw how the actors were forced to make expressive use of the environment, rummaging through flower heads and garbage bags as they frenziedly competed in their love for the idol. Someone suggested projecting a large image of Justin Bieber’s face over the scene. Fandom has never looked more desolate.

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