03 April 2007

Repeatable Action

This was a very necessary skill for an actor, according to my dearest college acting teacher, Gary C. Hopper. He was the one who enthusiastically took on all the Freshman classes for their first year of training, like some kind of manic Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, and took a very personal interest in each and every one of we chosen few (seventy-five to start, I believe) forgetting all we thought we knew and undertaking his approach to creating believable, effective moments on stage. It was always with a huge, toothy grin that he would offer scathing criticism of our naive little choices, and with said same grin he gave us his own pearls of wisdom regarding the oldest art. Acting axioms, if you will:

  • "In general" is the enemy of good art. (This one is stolen, I believe.)

  • Would you like some fries with that Big Mac? (Translation: There are no discernible stakes to what you're doing, so why are you even on stage, you douche bag?)

  • Acting! Theatre is my life! (Translation: People must be able to see, at all times, that glint in your eye that tells them you derive your greatest joy from moments spent in rehearsal and on stage.)

  • His intensely formal formula for explicitly stating one's intention in each scene: "Because I feel _______, due to having been _______, I want to _______ [NAME OF CHARACTER], so that s/he will feel _______, resulting in _______."

Apart from these axioms (I know that last one isn't an axiom, and I would ask you to kindly shut the hell up), he would also use these little phrases to recall to our minds earlier lessons. Case in point, his sing-song recitation of the words "Repeatable action!" whenever you failed to fulfill established blocking, or claimed you could juggle and proceed to drop a ball. It's common sense, especially for a theatre actor. That actor must be able not only to produce genuine moments on stage, but do so with consistency every performance.

I am magnificent at this. I won't lie to you (not even in my Mind). At this, I rule. One director, who worked with me on Proof and Over the River and Through the Woods... out at The Northeast Theatre, once wrote me that I was "the most consistent actor" she had worked with. But it is a double-edged betleH, this madness of skill. I mean, who delights in the knowledge that they are non-deviant when it comes to art? Reliability is a good thing in one's fellow actor, I agree, but we'd all rather have a moment on stage be alive than choreographically consistent. And supposing one's consistency is actually a regularity of badness or, worse yet, mediocrity?

My love of the repeatable action has deep roots in this kid's psyche. (By "this kid's," I am of course referring to myself in the third person, thereby cautioning you that a. I'm about to get all psychoanalytical on yo' ass, whilst simultaneously consoling you that b. I appreciate the dramatic irony of self-aggrandizement and how it relates to an actor talking [much less writing] about his or her person.) I was pretty much always a guy who appreciated a good plan. In school, I used to get tense about going into a class without knowing what we were supposed to be doing that day (see 3/8/07 for analysis of my absolute need to know everything about everything ever). One of the main appeals of theatre, in my earlier days of interest, was the presence of a script. When I would get into arguments with my friend Bridget (sorry to put you on the spot, B, but you were the only one I fought with when I was growing peach fuzz) I would actually kind of have to step out of them in order to gather my thoughts. I couldn't just get mad and say irrational things. That would have been, you know . . . irrational.

And the patterns continue into Jeff-the-Present (as opposed to Jeff-the-Past, not Jeff-the-Absent, nor Jeff-the-Only-A-Card). All this circus stuff I've gotten myself into, you think that's solely because I wish I were a vigilante superhero? Predominantly, sure, but solely? And the clowning I've been working on, I suppose I just like the idea of self-imposed humiliation? (Well okay: You have a point there.) No, it's choreography. As is my tendency to take jobs with theatres with which I have previously worked, rather than putting my proverbial testicles on the metaphorical line and playing Rizzo in some West Village cabaret. Not loyalty, oh no: Choreography.

And step-ball-change, step-ball-change!

There's something to be said for choreography. Get not me wrong. Only what good is it without that certain indefinable passion, that razor's edge that makes everyone sit up and feel something? For the past several years I have worked hard at letting go of the need to be choreographically precise in my acting, and allowing that spirit of madness (this is the word a control freak uses to describe spontaneity) into my work. A Lie of the Mind is a pretty classic example of this effort on my part, and I don't write this solely for the purpose of pimping my show on you. (Predominantly, sure.) My performance only lives (I'm talking basic life support, here) when I let go of our decisions in rehearsal and let it all happen for the first time, yet I resist this condition, I suppose because it feels hokey, or irresponsible, to me. Well, to my left brain, anyway. And let me tell you (I'm here to say [even for me, the parentheticals are getting out of hand in this one]), if I'm at one end of the control/chaos spectrum, Friend Todd is at the other. He's brilliant at letting go. In a way, this contrast between us makes for perfect casting of these roles. Still, I feel a need to rise to his level in that ratio of consistency and life. I have a lot to learn from Mr. d'Amour.

Because I feel limited, due to my inhibitions, I want to kick ass in this show, so that the show will feel sufficiently ass-kicked, resulting in my career rocketing to new artistic heights.

Repeatable action is a valuable skill in theatre and film, but talent trumps all. (As to defining talent, someone once said, "Talent is like pornography. You can't define it, but you know it when you see it.") In life, I think the talent is in determining when a repeatable action is really called for. It can be easy to get stuck in a rut, and scary as hell to come bounding out of said rut headfirst. Yet necessary, I believe. We were not made for ruts. I applaud people who stick to their principles, but I shout for them that break the rules in order to learn something new.


dave said...

In particular, I like:

# Would you like some fries with that Big Mac? (Translation: There are no discernible stakes to what you're doing, so why are you even on stage, you douche bag?)

# His intensely formal formula for explicitly stating one's intention in each scene: "Because I feel _______, due to having been _______, I want to _______ [NAME OF CHARACTER], so that s/he will feel _______, resulting in _______."

and would be interested to see thier effects on your gaming.

Jeff Wills said...

Ah! Well, that's part of the rub, isn't it? My theory is that part of the reason gaming became less interesting to me was that I became more engaged in the work of acting. Hopefully I have come around again. At any rate, Camp Nerdly will tell the tale...

Melissa said...

Hmm - Repeatable action. Interesting.
I'm going to think about it, get some sleep and write tomorrow.
However, my gut instinct is the following -
I push dancers (and actors)to find an action based in purpose - there might be a moment that the purpose is forgotten, but when the performer focuses I believe it will return -
It is choreography, and thank goodness! The body is the final teller of the story - (although I'm biased)
An actor or dancer can have loads of glow in their eyes, they'll read as a madman if their body isn't telling the same tale as their eyes.
Muscles work from memory
thus, the repeatable action.
Training your body to match your innner glow thingy

there is certainly more to that....lots of layers...Sarah Sunde and I are coming up w/entire theater theories based in it...but it might get weird and it looks very long in this little box.
So I'm done (for now)
a choreographer

Jeff Wills said...

Sounds very in keeping with the ultimate goal in most acting, A Choreographer. Nobody's interested in watching talent erupt on stage without some appreciable purpose, or at least direction. Most of an actor's training--in a long-term regard--is focused on getting one's mind, heart and body unified in action.

I should have been clearer, however, and explained that I was drawing a distinction between "choreography" and "dance" in this context. All I meant by the word choreography was planned movement--dance is something more, choreography (in some cases) plus training and heart.