Long runs and Diderot

We are in week three of our run here at FST. We’ve gotten the kinks worked out of our system and the show goes pretty smoothly every night. Audience responsiveness varies from night to night, but for the most part we’ve found our groove.

My parents were in town and my father asked if I got bored doing the same thing every night. And though the answer was not yes, the answer sometimes rides very close to being yes. The challenge now is to find ways to keep the show fresh, to stay engaged, to trick yourself into believing each moment is new—which on a literal level it of course is, except that you are doing the same thing you did the night before and the night before that.

I find I have to trick myself into staying engaged and keeping the stakes high by incorporating bizarre substitutions. Everyone onstage has to urgently poop, or maybe I’ve just pooped accidentally in a public place, or I’ve just swallowed a live bird and it’s flapping around in my stomach and the only way to save it is to get my scene partner offstage as quickly as possible with what they want. For better or worse, these things tend to work for me. The problem is, I get used to them and have to think up more and more ludicrous situations. My teachers from drama school would say this is where “technique” comes in: this is where I’d Alexander myself and try to release my voice, and ground myself in a center and hopefully by doing those things I’d find engagement, or at least convince everyone else I was engaged. And its true, the more you can do those things, and the more Buddhist you can be about the present moment, you can get back in it and you are off on your way.

Anyway, with all of that psychodrama going onstage every night, you can see why I found these passages from Diderot of relevance, and perhaps also why I find them a little mystifying in terms of actual practice.

In The Paradox of Acting (1773-8) He writes that the actor:

must have a good deal of judgment. He must have in himself an unmoved and disinterested onlooker. He must have, consequently, penetration and no sensibility; the art of mimicking everything, or, which comes to the same thing, the same aptitude for every sort of character and part.  (198*)

He writes that actors who “play from the heart” are “uneven” (198), and that the actors of excellence

are too apt for too many things, too busy with observing, considering, and imitating, to have their innermost beings deeply affected…It is we who feel; it is they who watch, study and give the results (199)

He later states:

The actor’s whole talent depends not, as you would think, upon feeling, but upon rendering so exactly the outer signs of feeling that you fall into the trap. He has rehearsed to himself every note of his passion. He has learnt before a mirror every particle of his despair…The broken voice, the half-uttered words, the stifled or prolonged notes of agony, the trembling limbs, the faintings, the bursts of fury—all this is pure mimicry, lessons carefully learned….like other gymnastics, it taxes only his bodily strength. He puts off the sock and the buskin; his voice is gone; he is extremely tired; he changes his clothes, or he goes to bed; and he feels neither trouble nor sorrow, nor depression, nor weariness of the soul. All these emotions he has given to you. The actor is tired, you are sad; he has had exertion without feeling, you feeling without exertion. Were it otherwise the actor’s lot would be most wretched on earth  (200)

Part of me finds this really appealing. How marvelous to be a true mimic, completely devoid of need for any kind of emotional investment. But I also find this a tad incomprehensible. In the first place, I don’t quite know how you fake engagement, and secondly I wonder if there is something intangible the audience picks up on, to do with concentration and investment and the spontaneity of play. But perhaps this is my being to fearful to trust the mimicry, to trust myself enough to go without feeling. There is always an inevitably a distance between what I the actor feels and what the character is experiencing, but to what degree?

Diderot, of course, was not an actor so he cannot speak from experience—his observations come from his acquaintance with Garrick. He does, however, draw a lovely parallel between the actor’s work and the work of a writer that I particularly like:

Is it at the moment when you have just lost your friend or your mistress that you will begin composing a poem on her death? No! woe to him who at such a moment delights in his talent. It is when the storm of sorrow is over, when the extreme sensibility is dulled, when the event is far behind us, when the soul is calm, that one remembers one’s eclipsed happiness, that one is capable of appreciating one’s loss, that memory and imagination unite, one to retrace, the other to accentuate, the delights of a past time: then it is that one regains self-possession and expression. One writes of one’s falling tears, but they do not fall while one is hunting a strong epithet that always escapes one; one writes of one’s falling tears, but they do not fall while one is employed in polishing one’s verse; or if the tears do flow the pen drops from the hand; one falls to feeling, and one ceases writing. (201)

*All selections from Theatre/Theory/Theatre, edited by Daniel Gerould.

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