01 September 2007

ZdG Busking Workshop Day Five: Nature Abhors a Doormat


Okay. I'm reading my own title, and I'm struck by how insane this idea was. Let's get a group of mixed-experience, barely formed personalities together and take just six short days to equip them with the skills necessary to perform improvised scenarios at a public event. Then let's just plunge them into said event, a trial by fire, if you will. Six days should be a enough, right? To train them from the ground up, have them create wholly original characters and develop them all into a scenario, right? Oh, and hey, since that's so simple, LET'S DO IT IN THE FIRST WEEK OF THEIR RETURN TO/ENTRANCE INTO UNIVERSITY.

I may have reached my own panic stage of this process. Hence the somewhat difficult title of this post, and my own use of logic in analyzing the details of this workshop. Silly Jeff: Logic has no place in the theatre.

You're probably thinking of "doormat" in terms of the standard allegory or personification--a person who allows themselves to be walked all over. Indeed, nature probably does abhor such people. (Can't be sure [Nature and I haven't been on speaking terms ever since she made me 5' 8 3/4"], but I'm pretty sure Darwin will back me up on this [Darwin! Represent! What what!].) However, I actually mean it in the sense of a metaphor taught to me early in my own college experience. I believe it was my freshman-year acting teacher, Mr. Hopper . . . though as someone awfully prone to axioms he gets most simple lessons ascribed to him . . . who advised us, "When you come to rehearsal, wipe your feet at the door." He wasn't simply advising fastidious tidiness, but a different respect of the space. You're there to work, and whatever emotional turmoil your day may have consisted of, it shouldn't interfere.

However. That's a lesson in professionalism, and theatre has the interesting distinction of basing its business upon rather un-"business-like" behavior. Theatre is a study of nature, specifically human nature. I don't believe a true distinction can be drawn between how we feel in our lives and how we feel in our work. We can compartmentalize all we like--we can be damn good at it--but the truth of the matter is that we are who we are, as ever-changing and inconvenient as that may be. An artist learns to use it, to appreciate it for what it is, and maybe even engage it rather than try to shut it away.

Last night one of our actors surprised us. We were walking about the room in our burgeoning characters for La Festa Italiana, in a sort of guided exercise in which Dave talks the actors through exploring specific physical and emotional qualities in their characters. It came to a stage in which the characters were to begin interacting with one another, and we tried to emphasize the need for an intention, a want that can only be fulfilled by other people (this is key to successful walk-about characters in a busking performance). One actor was adamant about refusing contact--it had clearly become their intention to avoid. In the discussion afterward we spent some time discussing helpful and difficult aspects of character, and in so doing we came to the isolated actor. I was about to explain how it is less helpful to make a character who has no reason to be out in public for this venue, when they explained that a relative had just been diagnosed with cancer and painfully disintegrated into weeping.

Whoops.

So there we are, standing in a circle, as this poor student weeps. The actors on either side reach around them for the supportive, non-suffocating hug, and I sort of lose my sense of reality for a moment. I've had students lose control in class before, but never one so mature and with such a personal reason. At some point, seemingly hours later, I approach the actor and get eye contact to say that if they want to step out for a minute that's okay. They do, and we say a few words to wrap up that phase of the session before giving everyone a break. As is to be expected, several people are affected--and some very deeply--by the emotion, and it takes us a while to get back to the workshop. But we do. And we get back on the plan, after a quick, spontaneous game of
catch to lead back in. The upset actor even eventually rejoins to observe and re-involves themselves at the end.

We have a day off now, during which time we've given them plenty to think about. At the end of class we divided them into their respective families, and asked them to come back on Sunday with a costume, a prop and a piece of music that expressed their characters. Our workshop Sunday will be the day before the performance, and we'll have five hours with them all to get them ready. We have a lot to get done yet. But they'll come with everything they have, and that will get us through.

2 comments:

Davey said...

Sounds like you delt with a challenging situation in a good way, particularly b/c you aren't exactly trained to deal with that sort of thing. So, what do you think: Is teaching in your future long term? I don't mean instead of, I mean in addition to. Jen is still teaching even though she makes more than you and I do combined just because she likes to do it, and loves to stay in touch with the next generation of players.

Jeff Wills said...

I definitely enjoy teaching, Davey. I would like to continue it no matter what happens with my acting career. Would I do it in lieu of full-time acting ("full-time" being a relatively subjective term here)? Don't know. Think about it all the time. I do know I wouldn't feel right about doing so without getting some more formal education, and I'm not ready to re-enter that environment.

Not just yet. But this experience is helping me get a kinder perspective on such environments...