HAPPY SPRING, dear reader! I can excitedly report that in my little neighborhood, the last few days have truly smacked of spring. The sun is out, the sky is blue, the moss is lusciously verdant, tree blossoms are in bloom, and bulbs hidden in the earth have sprouted and are reaching skyward. Glorious.
Coming through winter carries victorious feelings, for me. I appreciate this time of year for that. Somehow, optimism feels more natural when the sun is out and the sky is a source of gentle warmth.
Correspondingly, it has felt like a productive week in my little world. Here are three takeaways.
1. There’s magic in trusting oneself
Thursday I finished facilitating an exploration of Macbeth with a group of teenage students. Shakespeare floats in and out of The Monday Night Acting Lab from time to time, but this experience was quite different.
I didn’t want the experience to resemble some of the dreary English class readings of Shakespeare I encountered in school. It worried me that in the first week of our five-week class, no one jumped at the opportunity to discuss what we were reading. I had collaborated with each of them in workshops before, and I knew them all to be articulate communicators… Even though they gracefully summoned the courage to read Shakespeare’s language aloud, vocalizing their reactions and talking about it seemed to be a more nerve-wracking prospect…
In week three, I decided to ask why…
Their answers connected to the fact that Shakespeare’s writing has a reputation of being difficult, and that made trusting their own reactions scary.
I asked them to dismiss the notion of understanding things correctly or incorrectly… To just notice whatever they noticed about or from the language, and to use the remaining sessions to practice having an opinion and articulating their reactions.
In week 4, things began to rise up and fly.
I wish we had more time to keep exploring… After we finished the script, we had two sessions left. We devoted one to Macbeth’s Tomorrow speech in Act 5 Sc. 5. We worked with it as a group, passing the lines to one another, and also individually, listening to their individual interpretations, noticing the subtle variations. Our last class we spent with the witches in Act 1 Sc. 1., exploring whatever was—from their individual perspective—the quintessential witch-ness of the witches… Linking the brain, imagination, body, energy, and voice to the words.
By the end of our time, the freedom of discussion flowed with insightfulness. They had begun trusting themselves to talk about their reactions, ask questions about what made them curious, and articulate their interpretations. That is what growth looks like. I wish they could have seen what I saw.
Trusting oneself is not always easy, but it has magic in it. Allow yourself to participate.
2. Coming up from underground
I get to physically venture back inside a theatre space again to direct a group of acting students in playwright Steven Dietz’ masterful creation, This Random World. Wednesday I watched auditions, and came away absolutely floating with excitement… I have reasons for optimism. And, after a year of online conferencing, working at something the old fashioned way in a theatre space was glorious.
3. Experiments in The Lab: Cold readings
On Monday we devoted much of our evening to cold reading explorations.
Cold readings are difficult. We all have such an individual relationship with the process of reading to begin with, doing it aloud intensifies matters. There are a few basic tips and tricks I’ve noticed seem to empower a broad sweep of actors to do somewhat more confident and effective work:
I. Read your audition side silently to yourself first and form a hunch about it. What are the words on the page about? What do the words on the page need from the actor?
II. Give yourself permission to trust your hunch. Follow that hunch and hang on for the ride.
III. Dismiss ideas of ‘getting it right’ or ‘doing it wrong’. Your job is to reveal the actor you are. What might this character, this script, these words look like in your hands? That’s what auditors are watching and listening for.
IV. When you do get around to delivering your audition side aloud, go slowly enough so you can hear what you’re doing and pivot as you go. It will help your tongue to trip less over challenging words or phrases that feel alien to you. It will help your eyes to see what’s actually there, and not edit in something else. It will help any humor in the text land more effectively. It will help you breathe.
Apart from that, cold reading is and will always be the essence of thinking on your feet as an interpreter. It is about trying. It is nerve-wracking and can feel vulnerable. But as we see so often elsewhere in life, allowing ourselves to be a little vulnerable can open the door to something wonderful.
Meanwhile, we can practice reading aloud as often as we can and gain some ground!
We needn’t always look strictly to plays to practice cold reading skills. So much of the challenge is thinking on our feet. Interpreting quickly. We can practice by reading anything aloud. Novels, poems, news articles… Dictionary definitions, Shakespeare, song lyrics… Recipes and directions for assembling furniture also work.
On Monday we worked with five sides:
One from the poem War Music, by Christopher Logue.
One from David Harrower’s play Knives in Hens.
One from Salman Rushdie’s novel Two years Eight months and Twenty-eight nights.
One from Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined.
One from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.
Working alone can make for interesting challenges… In scene-work with others, there’s so often an element of something like tennis at work between actors… ‘They’ve hit the ball toward me that way, and so it makes me do this in response…’ In a trusting, flexible and healthy collaboration, scene partners do indeed impact each other’s imagination and energy as they work together.
How can we impact our own imagination, when we’re working with language alone?
The sky is the limit… and what works for one may not work for another, but we can make a game of trying as many tools and exercises as we can think of, and see how they impact our collaboration with the words.
“Those who have slept with sorrow in their hearts
Know all too well how short but sweet
The instant of their coming-to can be:
The heart is strong, as if it never sorrowed;
The mind’s dear clarity intact; and then,
The vast, unhappy stone from yesterday
Rolls down these vital units to the bottom of oneself.”
(Excerpt from “War Music” by Christopher Logue)
I asked one of the Lab participants working with this excerpt to see what might happen if they focused on that image of “the bottom of oneself”. I asked them to find a physical place for it, something in their own body, and to create a little physical anchor there… I asked them to feel from there, breathe from there, speak from there, and choose the words from there…
Experimenting with linking the image in the text and their physical being did seem to help open a striking and startling quality of life in the language with them, but who knows if the same approach would help anyone else explore the same words? Other experimental what-ifs for our various excerpts included things like:
*What happens if you say these words while pushing the person you’re addressing back with a big (invisible) stick?
*What happens if you say these words as if you were walking upstream through very cold, shin-deep water?
*What happens if you say these words to defend your behavior to the person you trust most?
The game goes on. So much of any artist’s lifelong work is to discover and refine a process that actually stimulates and serves them.
Easter Sunday, 2021
© Jeffrey Puukka, 2021