Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Week 3: Entry 1: Why is acting so hard?

At a recent conference in the UK entitled 'Acting with Facts', the film actress Sylvia Sims reiterated the old adage that acting is just about 'learning the lines and not bumping into the furniture'. Gosh...if only it were. Maybe that's why she has a resume as long as my arm, and I have one as long as her hand...

For me, acting is an unearthly and strange activity. How can we have at our command a whole range of emotions and sensations and actions at the flick of a wrist? How can we plunge deeply into our hearts, explore our imaginations, mould our bodies into all manner of expressions and experiences in the blink of an eye?

Last night's rehearsal was particularly difficult. It was a 'mechanical' rehearsal, in that I specifically requested looking at some scenes which had very precise staging or very rhythmic language. Tilly No-Body is something of a rollercoaster of a piece - highs and lows follow on from each other at great rapidity, and I realised in the course of the evening that there were certain moments into which I'd fallen with a specific rhythm. I had actually stopped really listening to what I was saying.

Miles is a wonderful director - chiefly because he's such a wonderful actor. He hears patterns, he see cliches, he understands the potency of language, as well as the ease with which we fall into routines as actors. And yet if we don't really listen to the words that our character is speaking - and I mean listen with the most impeccable honesty, verity and openness - then we're never really telling the true story of our characters' thought processes. And then we just utter 'words, words, words'.

There's a moment in the script where Tilly appeals to the spirit of Frank with the words, 'MUST I BE DEAD TO PROVE THAT YOU MEAN ALL TO ME?' As the writer, I'd written it in capitals, as it struck me as such an overwhelming thing for one person to say to another. It's a direct quotation from Tilly, but as I found myself honouring the capital letters by shouting the lines, I felt myself falling into the abyss of generalisation.

'Stop!' said Miles. 'What happens if you say these lines very quietly and earnestly?' Mmm, I thought, I'm not sure that will work.

'Okay,' I said... and gave it a go.

The minute I stopped playing the effect of the shout, and heard the enormity of the words, I could barely say them. The reality of feeling so abandoned by someone that you feel that they'll only realise your presence if you actually disappear (i.e. kill yourself) was just too awful. I suddenly felt the vibration of the words through my body in a way that had utterly eluded me when I yelled the words with dramatic effect.

Listening as an actor is so supremely hard. Partly because it's so hard in everyday life. So often while one person is speaking to us, we've got our own inner monologue going on inside, just waiting for the appropriate moment to interrupt and come on in with our own expression. If only acting were just about learning the lines. As for not bumping into the furniture, one of my props is a large acrylic walking globe with a life of its own, so sometimes the furniture bumps into me.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Week 2: Entry 3: Giving Tilly a Voice (b)

Finding Tilly's voice has been (touch wood) wondrously organic. I feel I know the terrain of her journey in quite an intimate way - after all, I translated her autobiography for 10 years! I've structured the play into 20 'Attractions'. I've called them 'attractions' rather than scenes, because I had initially thought there would be more playing with time, and leaping back and forth from one moment to another. As it is, the narrative is now more linear, as there's enough going on for the audience to try and make sense of without having to work out the time sequence.

However, I've kept the idea of 'attractions' as I like the word. And I like the premise on which it's based. The 'montage of attractions' is a term coined by the early Russian film-maker, Sergei Eisenstein. For him, an attraction might be any single image that contained within it potent emotional material. By montaging one attraction against the next - i.e. one image against a totally unrelated image - you could tell another story in the audience's head, as they put the images together. His most famous example is perhaps his film OCTOBER, where scenes of battle are montaged together with images of a cow being slaughtered in an abattoir. We - as the audience - make the connection that war is as brutal as the butchering of an animal.

There's still a certain degree of montaging that goes on in Tilly No-Body, and I give extensive program notes outlining each attraction for the inquisitive audience member. One of the strands of 'montage' includes the placing of Frank's words - i.e. extracts from his plays - against Tilly's words - i.e. what she really feels. In fact, giving Tilly a voice has inevitably been wound up with giving Frank a voice, as his plays are so revealing of the inner state of their marriage.

There are three ways in which Frank's voice comes through:
1) sometimes he 'possesses' Tilly, and we hear his voice through Tilly as in The Exorcist.
2) sometimes his voice is heard in the soundscape, to give him the power of an omnipresent, omniscient figure.
3) he is manifested as a puppet. This is real fun for me as the actor, because at last I have another actor on stage with me. I can talk to him, ignore him, I can throw him on the floor - in other words, Tilly can do things to Puppet-Frank that she could never have done in real life.

Sometimes Frank is clearly telling Tilly what to say next. After all, he was the playwright, she was the actress, so his job involved giving her a voice. Sometimes I play with the fact that Tilly doesn't know what to say next, as Frank (for various reasons revealed in Tilly No-Body) is choosing not to give her words to speak.

As for the technicalities of me as the actress giving Tilly a speaking voice, I have chosen to adopt a gentle German accent. It's not too heavy, as I don't want to distract too much. The intention is just to give a slight alienation to the voice. Besides, accents are like masks, they give you something to hide behind as an actor. They can be both releasing and empowering.

As for the singing voice, I'm pretty much using my own singing voice, coloured by the German accent. One of my fellow faculty did ask if I should try to change it more, to make it sound less like mine? My answer is no, because the songs are deliberately Brechtian, rather than psychologically real.

Brecht was a huge fan of Wedekind, who (by the way) wasn't actually a very good actor. He was rather wooden and stiff, and often suffered stage fright - and yet he could be immensely compelling in his emotional connection to a role. Brecht's 'making strange' or 'alienation' technique was heavily influenced by Wedekind's acting style.

I'm quite happy, therefore, for the songs to jolt the audience's sense of 'reality'. In fact, the first song is called 'The Ballad of the Family Suicides' in homage to the kind of titles Brecht used for his songs in his plays: they were often called 'The Ballad of...'

Interestingly, the lyrics of both Wedekind's cabaret songs (such as 'The Auntie Murderer') and Brecht's songs (such as 'Mack the Knife') frequently contain dark, sinister, blood-thirsty images. In homage to both of them, here are a couple of the lyrics from Tilly's first song, 'The Ballad of the Family Suicides':

'My sister, she retired one afternoon,
As we took tea in the adjoining room
Then she let out a scream
That froze our blood to ice
She'd cut her throat -
And guttered out her life.
She suffered unrequited love
Now you see there
Her bloodstain on the carpet
By the chair...'

And this is based on facts from Tilly's autobiography...

Week 2: Entry 2: Giving Tilly a Voice (a)

I had initially intended to commission a professional playwright - the acclaimed British writer of stage, screen, television and radio, Lucy Gough - to write Tilly No-Body for me. I had met Lucy about ten years ago, when I had been cast in one of her BBC Radio 4 plays, The Raft. I had instantly fallen in love with Lucy's writing, and as soon as I met her, I fell in love with the person and the talent as well.

Lucy and I had talked a good deal about Tilly Wedekind, and had both found the material very alluring. As I undertook various pieces of research, I would send Lucy information from US to UK, with extracts from Wedekind's plays, Tilly's autobiography, personal responses to the material, etc. Then in July 2009, Miles and I made a trip to Munich to stay with Margret Greiner, my German language & research collaborator. Margret is another woman with whom I had instantly fallen in love at first sight. A striking lady, with a great wit and sensitivity, she and I had also become mutually entranced by Frank and Tilly as we'd developed our collaboration in September 2008.

That July 2009, Margret took myself and Miles around Munich, and we walked the streets, sat in the cafes, saw the apartment and visited the theatre where Frank and Tilly had worked. Margret also took me to the Wedekind archive, where we're poured over letters scripted by Tilly. Two struck us particularly - one written on tiny paper in tiny handwriting from the sanatorium when she recovered from her poisoning: it was addressed to a theatre director with whom she wished to work. The second was in huge scrawling letters on a big piece of paper to a lover who had spurned her, and in which she accused him of cold-blooded murder. (The lover turned out to be Tilly's daughter's husband...) The two sides of Tilly were blatant and exciting. (I'd already fallen in love with Tilly, long, long ago.)

One of the most impressive moments for me was visiting the graveyard shared by Frank and Tilly in the Munich cemetery. Although Tilly outlived Frank by nearly 50 years - during which time she had several other love affairs - it was with her husband that she found her final resting place. Beneath the art nouveau Pegasus which adorns the memorial, I knew that they lay together - I trusted they were more tranquil in death than in life?

The following week, I met up with Lucy in Cardiff and began to share with her my research. We were staying the night in a B&B, and at 2am I awoke as if possessed. I suddenly knew I had to find the courage to write the play myself. I felt such a bond with Tilly and such a deep rooted need to tell her story, that a strange energy worked its way through me. Had Tilly's spirit wisped its way out of the ground at her graveside and entered my imagination? I sat on the bed in the B&B with all the research spread out around me and I suddenly saw the whole structure. It began with an empty stage. It began with a bottle of pills. It began with the attempted suicide... Then the rest was a kind of flashback through Tilly's life, showing the audience what had brought her to this point of such utter despair.

I didn't go back to sleep that night. I knew I was on some kind of strange mission.

At 7.45am, I gingerly knocked on Lucy's bedroom door. 'I think I've got to write this...' I said.

Lucy, being the unique person she is, absolutely understood. And that was it... I knew I had to leap into the river Spree with Tilly... I had to feel the freezing water and wonder whether on earth I could swim to the other side. I hoped that if I couldn't, Lucy would be able to throw me a life buoy...or at least alert the lifeguard!

Week 2: Entry 1: Musical magic

I've been a songwriter now for some years. This is something I share with Frank Wedekind. He used to sing his cabaret songs in the haunts of Munich to the accompaniment of his lute. Some months ago, I ordered an antique 1920s German lute off ebay. I never really expected it to arrive - or if it did, I thought it would be in matchsticks. However, all the way from Bremen - and completely in tune - arrived the German lute. I fell in love with it immediately.

The first part of Tilly No-Body that I wrote back in September 2009 was a song called 'Tilly Dances' . Late in their marriage and after a good many difficult times, Frank and Tilly Wedekind re-kindled their romantic flame. A fanatical journal writer all his life, Frank would note in his diary whenever he and Tilly made love, the words: 'Tilly danced'. This image struck me as very poignant and romantic. And it inspired me to write the first of 5 songs for Tilly No-Body.

In addition to the songs, I also knew that I wanted a soundscape to be a significant part of the piece. Solo pieces bring with them all sorts of challenges, not least the lack of other actors on stage with whom to work. However, I firmly believe that as an actor, anything can be a partner - the audience, a prop, a piece of set, an item of costume, and indeed a sound.

My composer/sound designer is a wonderful musician and great scholar, Dr David Roesner. David and I have known each other since 2003, when we were both hired as new faculty in the Theatre Department at the University of Exeter, UK. Within 4 years, David was the Head of the Department. I meanwhile had winged my way to the US.

David's scholarship has won him acclaim, and his insights into and practices of music theatre (NB not 'musical theatre', which is a rather different genre) struck me as exactly what was needed here. Not to mention, he is German. Not to mention, his mother - Margret Greiner - has been my German language collaborator on the project since September 2008 when I met her with her husband, Bernhard, who was a visiting faculty member at UC Davis for a quarter.

When it comes to rehearsing Tilly No-Body, the tricky thing is that David is between Germany and the UK, while we're in California. Initially, he suggested that we Skype him into rehearsals. However, the time difference of 8 hours would mean that our 6pm-10pm rehearsals would be taking place at 2am-6am for David in Europe. While most theatre people are night owls, there are limits! Instead, Reed (our Stage Manager and Assistant Director) has been recording extracts from rehearsals, putting them on a kind of YouTube link, and enabling David to see what we've been up to in rehearsals in the comfort of his own time and space. This process has proved incredibly successful. In fact, David has been extraordinary in his ability to respond to the daily rehearsal notes and to reconfigure or remix music as and when required. He really is operating from a place of intuition and creative intelligence on many occasions. Perhaps the most impressive has been his response to my writing a new song...

After one run through, Miles, Reed and Sabba all agreed that the gap between the penultimate song - a reprise of a song called 'Sitting on a Powder Keg' - and the final song, 'Tilly Dances' seemed a little long. Could I write another song?

As it was, I realised that one of the speeches that I'd given to the Frank puppet - an extract from his play, Censorship - was a little dry. I had already looked to see if I could cut it, and yet every line of text seemed important. So, what would happen if I turned the speech into a song? What happened if we suddenly saw the Frank puppet sing?...

...The speech in question involves Frank recounting a tightrope walker whom he saw in Palermo. The girl had performed tricks - including a strip tease and somersaults - while walking on an elastic rope with knives positioned underneath the rope...

Palermo... That's Sicily, isn't it? What about a Latin-ish sounding song? A kind of Spanish guitar type of sound, with maracas, or castanets, and almost a little bit 'camp'?

Overnight, I wrote the song 'The Girl on the Elastic Rope'. I played it rather primitively on my guitar and sent it to David as an MP3 file, along with the lyrics and chords. Within 2 days, back came the most wonderful accompaniment. Had I been a better musician, it would have been exactly how I would have played it. Not only was I overjoyed that David had written so perfect an accompaniment, but that he'd done it from half way around the world without being in the rehearsal room with us. Bravo, Maestro!

Week 1: Entry 3: Set

So Frank Wedekind loved the circus: for him, there was something erotic and mysterious about the way in which a tightrope walker or a trapeze artist defied gravity. He frequented circuses, and as a young man in Paris, he haunted the cabarets of Montmartre, the images of which are familiar to us with the paintings of Toulouse Lautrec.

When I first started writing Tilly No-Body, I knew that the set needed to be a fluid space. The storytelling is very fluid - the very first scene involves a pharmacist's shop, a busy street, a hotel lobby and a hotel bedroom, all in the space of 2 minutes. Working with Miles (the director) and John Iacovelli (the Professor of Scenic Design at UC Davis), we fixed upon a faded circus ring. In this ring, we have a large trunk - originally alluding to a touring troupe, now veering towards a box depicting caged tigers as seen in a multitude of period circus posters. We also have what we've come to call the 'elephant podium' which is essentially a series of circular steps with a top platform, which becomes all manner of both real places (e.g. the banks of the river Spree) and metaphoric places (e.g. something alluding to a musical box with one of those tutu-ed ballerinas on top, to give a sense of Tilly being both a doll and something mechanical).

John Iacovelli is a multi-award winning designer, with a flair and a passion which are very infectious. He works fast and mercurially, and it's extremely exciting and daunting working with him. He absolutely understood the atmosphere of the piece and the palette of colours which would be appropriate - blues, golds, reds, silvers. And the images that he initially showed us of circuses, animals and artistes engaged all of our imaginations powerfully. Being such an incredibly busy man, he's not had a chance to be in rehearsals yet, as he has a number of shows opening, both in and out of state. However, we've mocked up the 'elephant's podium', and we have a great rehearsal trunk which we're customising as we need.

With any piece of new writing - particularly such a multi-location piece as Tilly No-Body - a creative team is always aware that things may change in rehearsal. As it is we've been able to be quite clear of our intentions re: the storytelling, atmosphere and style, and by the end of the first week, the images that resonated round my imagination for the months of development are beginning to take potent and vivid shape. We also have a great shop team here at UC Davis: our production manager, Eric Steggall arrived less than a year ago, and yet it's hard to imagine life here without him. Eric has an ability to spot potential troubles a mile off, and shoot them square in the face. The team responsible for building the set - Daniel, John and Bryon - are a great cocktail of personalities. Daniel's quiet-spoken reassurances when suddenly the elephant podium looked a little precarious for the amount of running up and down involved in the mise-en-scene were a blessing. Byron is always funny and provocative, and when back in the spring I was learning to walk on a walking globe (an activity that Frank taught Tilly to do for his play The Stone of Wisdom), Byron was often at hand to throw the appropriately supportive - or gently mocking - comment.

The third part of the triumvirate - John (also known affectionately as Murph) - is doing the most amazing job on creating 2 figures/puppets to look like Frank and Tilly. John studied sculpture, and the heads that he has carved for Frank and Tilly render the whole idea of the puppets highly attractive and possible. At the moment, we're having a few problems building the bodies, as there are very specific things that I want the puppets to do - not least, to remain in whatever position I've put them in once I let go of them, so that I can manipulate them in a dialogue without one character 'dying' while the other is speaking. In other words, they can't be marionettes, which lose all life without the operator above them. In fact, John is working on a design not dissimilar to the figurines that artists use to fix in still-life positions for their drawings. I think this is going to work particularly well, given that in addition to the circus there are also references to artist's studios and easels and paintings.

Week 1: Entry 2: Costumes and Props

Tilly No-Body deals with the premise of identity: who are we as actors? What lies beneath the mask? How do we peel away our social, professional, personal, domestic masks to prepare a blank canvas for creating a role? In fact, once we do peel away the masks, does anything lie beneath?

One of the recurring images in the play is the sloughing of skins, like a snake. To take the audience through this narrative, I wanted to have layers of costumes that are literally peeled away to reveal another disguise underneath, until finally we get to the 'real' Tilly underneath.

It would be impossible to start finding the stage pictures in rehearsal without - from the very early days - having some rehearsal costumes. UC Davis is blessed to have the most terrific costume department - and the most wonderful Professor of Costume, Maggie Morgan. Maggie, Miles and I talked a good deal about costumes back in March when I was writing the piece. Circus is a recurring image, and Frank Wedekind loved trapeze artists and circus animals. His plays are riddled with animal references, and one of his most famous plays - Earth Spirit - begins with a ringmaster in a circus. Between us we have devised a peeling away of layers of costume that take us through various circus characters, until we reach the 'skin' of Tilly.

Maggie's designs are fantastic, and with Wardrobe Mistress Roxanne Femling and master-tailor Abel Mercado, they provided me with some excellent rehearsal mock-up costumes as well as some of the actual performance costumes. Because all the clothes come off or are put on on stage, it's vital that every zip, popper, button is part of the stage choreography, and their contribution in early rehearsals has been invaluable.

Props are equally important. Miles Anderson, the director, has a passion in the theatre for 'moments of magic', and the circus lends itself wonderfully to this. He has sprinkled lots of moments of unexpected 'magic' throughout the show, and this has been a huge surprise and challenge to me. The material of Tilly No-Body is quite dark - hey, it starts with a suicide attempt. Miles's aesthetic is so colourful and playful, that he has found a contrapuntal style to the show that I never would have imagined. As an actor, I love it! So the early rehearsals have been littered with props - silk handkerchiefs, sponge balls, masks, feathers, whips and a walking globe. These too are part of the choreography of the staging, and we've not even talked about actually building a character yet!
Week 1: Entry 1: Creating a Safe Rehearsal Space
The key to creative freedom in a rehearsal room for me is undoubtedly a spirit of fun, collaboration and openness. Our director, Miles Anderson’s opening gambit on Monday September 13 was to express his desire that we should all have fun. The minute the process ceased to be fun for any of us, then the time had come to quit - or at least express that loss of fun.

What does it mean - to have fun in a rehearsal room?

For me as an actor I have to know that I can trust everyone in the room to respect what I’m doing. I don’t mean that in any supercilious, precious way. I simply mean that if I’m expected to be vulnerable in the rehearsal room, then I need to know that no one in that room is going to ridicule or deride the offerings I dare to make.

With a one-person show, the level of vulnerability is particularly high. There’s no one to turn to on stage except myself. I’m very lucky in this situation because the rehearsal room is a very familiar space to me - it’s the blackbox Arena theatre in the Department of Theatre and Dance at UC Davis. I teach actor-training in here, so I know it as a laboratory space. Also, there are only four of us in the rehearsal room: Miles (the director, whom I’ve known for 5 years and with whom I’ve worked as an actor); Reed Wagner (the Stage Manager and Miles’s chosen Assistant Director) and Sabba Rahbar (the Assistant Stage Manager). I asked Reed to be involved in this production as I’d seen him in action a year ago, as the Stage Manager in Sideshow’s previous production - Elephant’s Graveyard. Reed is a student majoring in Dramatic Art, and last year - at a mere 19 years of age - he had impressed me hugely with his ability to take an authoritative position with fellow undergraduates, graduates and faculty. His courtesy and maturity were striking. As Miles got to know Reed in our early production sessions, he was impressed by Reed’s insights into the script, and so Miles asked him to be his Assistant Director, as well as the Stage Manager, thereby giving him a double investment in the production’s growth. I was delighted.

I’ve known Sabba Rahbar since her stage managerial involvement in a production of The Seagull in March of this year. She is also actively involved in the student theatre group, Studio 301. Sabba is another Drama Major whose intelligence and reliability belie her youth. Not only is she a rock-solid production member, she also has great insights into the material of Tilly No-Body.

So what a treat! To have 3 wonderful, creative and mature people in the rehearsal room. The need for a safe space is made all the more important by the fact that I’m faculty and two of them are students: it’s quite a vulnerable position in an educational institution to really try and practise what you preach. I’m the Professor of Acting: I need to show that I’m a decent actor, or my whole credibility is questioned. Also Tilly No-Body is tricky material - it involves someone having a nervous breakdown, it involves someone attempting suicide, it involves someone trying to be talented and sexy and inspirational to her husband, Frank Wedekind. It’s delicate terrain. All the more important that - as I squirm around on the floor having pretended to just take poison, or I cavort on top of a costume trunk attempting to lure my imaginary husband - the people in the rehearsal room don’t find this either deeply embarrassing or just plain funny! At the end of Week 1 of rehearsals, I’m feeling pretty okay! Thanks, team!