More method, less madness

ACTING UP

It's amazing. How on earth have I managed to get where I am today (where am I today?) without having had a "super objective"? Without having even heard of a super objective.

Not that everyone is actually endowed with super objectives. They are a privilege confined to actors. The chap we have to thank for conceiving them was a Russian named Konstantin Alexeyev. He is better known by his stage name, Stanislavsky.

Ian, our instructor, devoted a class or two in our short course to the theories of this renowned director (1863-1938). I got the feeling that Stanislavsky is still greatly revered, although his insistence on the studied introspection of actors as they bury themselves in a character is now seen as inappropriate to some forms of drama.

We did scenes from Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire," to give us a feel for Stanislavsky's methods. Just before we, as our characters, said anything, we had to say in a word what our specific aim was. Words like "pleading" or "attacking" or "confronting." Like the balloon from a cartoon character's head that says "Thinks...."

We learned to say "I" when referring to our character, rather than "he." We learned to differentiate between what we, as our characters, were saying, and what we, as our characters, were thinking. They could be direct contradictions.

All this fascinated me - particularly as I had relied mainly on impulse and instinct, and had never thought in such detail or so analytically before.

Now that I, at last, have a part, I am trying to apply something of what I have learned. Sort of. My little role as prison chaplain is also in a play by Williams ("Not About Nightingales").

The production is fast approaching. I do feel a bit short on rehearsal time. And I need someone to tell me whether my attempt to follow Stanislavsky's principles is in the least successful. What I just don't know is how you can tell if all the intense inward thoughts and feelings you muster and foster are actually conveyed to the audience or not.

When I acted in the past, I did my best to suit thought to action and word, but I realize now that I was mostly concerned with "my performance." What Ian seemed to be saying was: Concern yourself with your thoughts as the character - and the performance will look after itself.

But I'm not sure.

In his book "Being an Actor," Simon Callow explains that Stanislavsky "is based squarely on the concept of Action: that everything in a play is done in order to achieve a want of some kind."

This resolves, Callow says, into objective, action, obstacle. Action subdivides into activities - inner and outer actions and obstacles. Then finally: "The whole sequence of actions in a play adds up to the character's super objective (their whole thrust in the world of the play."

Although I, the chaplain in our play, appear for, perhaps, four minutes total, and only in one scene, Claire, our director, sat down with me for an hour and we discussed every aspect of "me."

I was amazed how much Williams tells about my character in the few short speeches I'm allotted. I appear at a time when the tense expectation of an awful happening is rapidly building. Aware of my character's place in this dramatic climax, I'm paradoxically determined to try out my newly acquired super objectivity - and to invest every last phrase, pause, and word with feelings deep and true.

All this means I may slow the play down considerably! But since that redoubtable Russian also said: "There are no small parts, there are only small actors," I feel I should stand up for my rights. And act big.

*A weekly series.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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