Archive for the ‘theatre’ Category

What makes things “dramatic”?

February 22, 2010

The following two random pieces of text offer some bizarrely similar insights here.
First, from a recent Onion AV Club interview with Olivia “Teacher from Rushmore” Williams:

“We had an ancient Prussian acting coach at my drama school who said the worst offense you could commit was to let your subtext show. He would say: [Prussian accent] ‘Your subtext is showing.’ That is the point of acting, it is to be saying one thing and not be allowed by society or your predicament to show what you’re reallying feeling. In a way, I think that’s why the therapy generation has killed scriptwriting, because all you ever get is people going, “Hi, I’m feeling really angry right now.” And if you say that, you’ve got nothing left to act. The excruciating moments of drama are when people are allowed to show or way what they feel.”

Second, from an article on Mad Men that appears in the latest issue of Jump Cut — (if you haven’t seen Season 2 of the show, watch out for SPOILERS):

“In season 2, episode 8 (A Night to Remember), when Office Manager, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), temporarily takes on the job of script reader for the newly formed TV sales department, the opening may be in part due to Peggy’s earlier successes. It’s easy to project some proto-feminist movement, even as the harsh sexist environment reasserts its dominance through the hiring of an inexperienced man to permanently take over the new position. The department has become successful because of Joan’s insight into how to sell soap to women and when interest will be piqued on daytime TV. When Joan discovers that she has been unceremoniously replaced — the torpedo bra torpedoed — and is expected to train her replacement, her disappointment is overwhelming. (Or is that our disappointment?) The emotion is allowed only the briefest moment of escape before Joan’s façade reasserts control.

The program’s richest moments are ruptures like these, brief moments when the characters experience confusion or disappointment but then struggle not to let it show, when their real selves and the images they have constructed come into conflict. These are moments of vulnerability, of reality asserting itself briefly into the world of the image. Our clean, colorful 60s fantasy is interrupted by such casual brutality. We are reminded of the real constraints under the binding clothing, the actual challenges and limitations of the period.”

Mad Men is set in a world where social norms that we take for granted haven’t arisen yet, so it’s doubly poignant when Joan gets passed over for that promotion and can’t do anything about it. I’d argue that you also see this effect in non-Mad Men period pieces where great attention is paid to courtly facade — Jane Austen adaptations, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, the movie version of Remains of the Day…etc.

So, with respect to Ms. Williams’ remark, *is* acting all about hiding the character’s feelings while also expressing them? Or could it simply be the case that British actors are trained with a certain type of drama in mind?


“Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” in Four Acts

July 25, 2008

Dramatis Personae

Chef Ramsay — Vigilante of good cooking (also posessed of copious reserves of money)
Owner — Befuddled man, his noble heart is racked with worry and tremendous debt
Manager — Fast-talking egomaniac, both lazy and overbearing
Chef — Beleaguered kitchen worker whose inspiration to cook has seeped out of him
Various Waitstaff — None-too-bright women who bemoan the lack of customers
Customers — Average Joe(s), having two functional states: very angry or very satisfied.


(Chef Ramsay arrives at a fledgling restaurant. Finds the staff engaging in Group Think)
Ramsay: Bloody hell, look at this restaurant! (tastes the food) This is the worst food I’ve ever eaten!(enters kitchen) This kitchen is without a doubt the dirtiest, most disgusting kitchen on the face of the planet!
Chef: I am nonchalant…(shrugs)
Owner: I am embarassed! (faints)
Manager: Who is this #*%& to come here and criticize my restaurant? (seethes)
Ramsay: You are all lazy, stupid, and hopeless!

(commercials, and a re-cap of the situation)


Chef Ramsay:(confidently) I have hatched a plan. (To staff) You guys are terrible, but you have the potential to be better. Let’s clean the kitchen!
(Cleaning montage proceeds)
Ramsay:(cooking) I am introducing a new menu with high quality ingredients and simple, robust flavors!
Manager: (grumbles)
Chef:(raises eyebrow suggestively)
Owner:(hugs Ramsay with enthusiasm)


Ramsay: It is opening night at your new *redesigned* (new decorations unveiled) restaurant!
Manager: (paralyzed)
Chef: (skeptical)
Various Waistaff: (disorganized)
Customers: (some *very angry*, some * very satisfied*) Food!


Manager: I realize now that humility and self-discipline are positive values
Chef: I know now that I enjoy cooking.
Various Waitstaff: I like having customers to serve.
Owner: I hope I can recoup my debts before this publicity stunt is over!
Ramsay: My work here is done!


an encounter with Theatre of the Oppressed

May 19, 2008

Last Thursday I broke my routine threefold: (1) I left work early, (2) I squeezed awkwardly aboard the jam-packed 1 train to the Upper West side, and (3) I witnessed a revelation. Concerning (3): Brazilian community activist and writer Augusto Boal gave a brief lecture and demonstration, in front of more than three hundred curious folks including myself, gathered in a Riverside church basement. The topic was Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal’s method for social awareness, therapy and action which has become a worldwide phenomenon.

I want to briefly sum up what he was talking about before I forget…

OK. So Boal started off with the story (apparently from Dostoyevsky?) of the bureaucrat who did not save a baby that was being attacked by a dog on the grass in a public park. The rule was “Don’t walk on the grass” hence he was legally unable to do anything without seeking approval from the park ranger, by which time it would be too late to save the child. The idea is that we’ve been desensitized. We’re trained by society not only to follow the rules and trust the experts, but also to be atomized, profoundly isolated and self-serving and pathologically unsympathetic towards everyone else.

The bureaucrat is so in tune with the ‘letter’ of the law that he has no feeling for the ‘spirit’ of keeping off the grass — such a thing is irrelevant to him. In this example, Boal says, words are the crucial instrument of oppression. Now I was silly enough to major in English at a liberal arts school, so I’ve heard this kind of theory before. The general idea is that language, this stucture for symbolic communication that we use, tends to conceal its power for stucturing our minds as well. Consider the paradox that powerful men invented the word “justice” to justify their crimes. Or that the word “democracy” never truly described government for and by the people, certainly not in ancient Athens where women and slaves were barred from political participation.

So perhaps, according to Boal, we should move towards aesthetics –> communication through the senses. Theatre of the Oppressed is the aesthetic expression of needs rather than the verbal description of them. In order to make this theoretical jump you have to maintain, as Boal does, that every human being is an artist. The goal of this particular form of art is to regain our sensibility; first to see ourselves and then to try to change.

If your goal is to play the piano perfectly, you practice. If your goal is to regain your sensibility, you pay attention to what you are feeling. For Boal, the next step is to act out your emotions.

Boal used the group to demonstrate one technique, among the many that Theatre of the Opressed calls upon for this purpose, called Rainbow of Desire.  Basically you (the protagonist) select an incident or recurring situation in your life that causes you great feeling. This invariably involves conflict, hence a second party. Then you try to isolate the different elements of your own desire in the situation. (If you pause to think about it, desires are always complex — never pure.) Choose a member of the audience to act as the second party, along with a few others to physically represent your various desires with respect to that person. Position them around the second party in whatever way seems correct. Allow the scene to play out as it will, calling on your second party to speak their mind, as each of your various desires also articulates their distinct point of view in whichever sequence you choose. Keeping this in mind, you ask yourself: how has the second party seen you up until now? How would you want him or her to see you in the future? In response to these questions you change the scene to what you’d like it to be, rather than what it is now. The audience is encouraged to participate as much as possible in this process. So rather than being passive spectators, we must become “spect-actors” both observing and shaping our own lives.

Why employ theatre for this kind of change? Boal says: “Theatre is both concrete (physical) and very abstract. The beauty and danger of theatre is that you must go deep inside yourself. Sometimes I don’t see myself. The multiple mirror of the regard of others allows me to see myself. Theatre can be a mirror in this way.”

We have to be protagonists in this process. And to be a protagonist is to run a risk. Boal points out (along with other gurus I admire like Chomsky, Eve Ensler and J. Krishnamurti) that Western culture in general and American culture in particular is obsessed with security. Contrary to what your TV tells you, you will get neither immediate nor complete relief. But you and I know that we *can* become much more than what we are, and of course it’s by doing that we become.

Waiting for Laundry — a tragicomedy of ubran life

March 20, 2008

VLADAMIR: What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Laundry to come—


The D-Train and myself staged an extremely surreal reading of Samuel Beckett’s most famous work Waiting for Godot at a Brooklyn laundromat earlier this week. Ostensibly we just wanted to kill two birds with one well-aimed stone: cleaning clothes and finishing library books. (Incidentally I was fined a fortune by the BPL recently– did you know that the late fee for DVDs is $2 a day??) Yet I’m starting to think that laundry and Godot are perfect for one another. The text of the play has been interpreted in a million different ways– I’m not familiar enough with it to do a close reading. But I can spot some of the major themes: ennui, absurdity, endless repetition, the foolishness of hope, etc. Doesn’t a trip to the laundromat evoke these kinds of themes as well?

You lug your clothes out to the perpetually open laundry place, load the washer, make sure you have enough change to run the machine, watch the clothes go round and round, sit around blankly until it’s time to put the clothes into the dryer, wait around again until it’s time to fold ’em up, trudge back to the apartment with your burden. Repeat x infinity, every two weeks or so — a classic Sysiphusian task.

Beckett is perhaps the most prominent playwright in the so-called “Theatre of the Absurd”…but what’s *absurd* about cleaning your clothes? Well, the same thing that’s absurd about life i.e. it’s meaningless. You need clean clothes this week, sure, but you’ll need them again in another two. The absurdity is how important you believe this need to be, against the background of nothingness.