the body problem


In a previous column, I wrote about considering the Body when auditioning. Silly me. The Body should always be considered.

Here’s the thing. Playwrights and Composers inform, Designers and Technicians build, Directors construct, Actors think and emote, Audiences’ synapses are meant to provide the final puzzle piece – which happens only when permitted, only when plays are not over-written or ‘then and then and then’ but that’s part of another rant, I’m halfway digressing, nice to know I’m running true to form but just the same I’ll cut to the chase.

The core of theater, what distinguishes it from other media, other arts, is intent- and language-spewing bodies in relationship with other bodies, embodied minds, the dichotomy of conscious and unconscious response influenced and caused by behaviors of the Body.

Each script I see mounted calls for specific physicality, be it in response to relentless bone-chilling cold or illness-unto-death, conditions of two plays I’ve seen in recent years. Although I single these plays out for the purpose of illustration, they are in the vast majority of productions I’ve seen, in almost all of which the directors did not consider the Body, either the characters’ or the audiences’. In the first example, characters wore fairly thin gloves and layers upon layers of clothing, sat on “frozen tundra” for long scenes, and stood up without the sense-memory-driven behavior of even stiffness, much less numbness from the cold, much less frostbitten fingers or bums. In the latter, actually in two different plays, a character lay dying with far more verve than I can muster on a good day and I’m a fairly energetic sort.

I’ve watched characters fairly represent orgasm, then behave with the same energy and focus as they had prior to the sexual act, or suffer an injury to an intimate part of their anatomy yet be bounding about within a minute or two. How can I suspend disbelief? I’m willing, perhaps even more willing than the average theatergoer because I know firsthand (over a fifty-year span in all facets of the work) just how much time and effort and love go into mounting a production. Of course I want to be sucked down the rabbit-hole of the play, but when my chemical and electromagnetic receptors (not to mention my eyes) are given information that conflicts with the given circumstances, I’m knocked away. Audiences pretend to suspend disbelief, participating in what Jonathan Miller calls “a sort of worn currency which they hand around in order to establish a conviviality.” They do it to support the social contract of sitting in a theater being polite to the people onstage, in the face of blatant pretenses.

On the other side of the coin, Dame Judith Anderson as the Nurse in MEDEA (Jeffers trans.) took a full minute to cross the stage, a minute in which she inhabited and embodied her character’s thoughts and feelings and desires, a minute which grew other characters’ and audience’s tension as they wondered with greater and greater care what would happen when she stopped.  When Lynn, Vanessa, and Jemma Redgrave played Chekhov’s THE THREE SISTERS, the two elder Prozorov sisters looked over the youngest’s head and the whole of their history passed between them, carried by the fine muscles around their eyes, their mouths, the unconscious tightening of one’s shoulders and loosening of the other’s, a tension that gripped my stomach as surely as if one of them had punched it.

No, the Redgraves’ lifetime of unspoken communication can’t be formed in rehearsal, but the techniques and trust engendered by actors living in their bodies within the frame of the play can make a vital, believable, grounded approximation. And Anderson’s cross can be achieved in a rehearsal room with the care and attention of directors and actors.

So why isn’t it?

Ah, that’s for another rant, one on emotional and relationship homework, on subtext masquerading as actors’ finished work. It’s coming, never fear, and the blame will be placed squarely at the feet of directors who are beloved of actors because the actors get to, well, you know, in front of an audience who will likely give them a Standing O for you-know-whatting onstage. Audiences who don’t know any better, and why aren’t we teaching them? But again, for another time. Yes, I’m leaving you blogus interruptus, the better to foment your own conjectures or conclusions on the above.

‘Til next time, and in the meanwhile, please be good to the Body.



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One thought on “the body problem

  1. Pingback: your audience is asleep | mise en théâtre

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