Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Sorry I Laughed

Laura Rocca, Lydia Wilkinson, Jenny Melo and Arianna Pozzuoli in a happier moment in the Queen's Unversity production of Les Belles Soeurs. Photo by Tim Fort.

My favourite response to create in an audience is to make them laugh and then make them sorry that they laughed. Perhaps this sounds sadistic, or manipulative, but in my view, it is where the best possibility lies for audience members to feel that they have grown or been changed in some way as a result of seeing a performance. Laughter usually implies a certain amount of detachment, and apart from the inherent good of how great it feels to laugh (“the best medicine” as I recall Reader’s Digest called their dismally unfunny humour column), it suggests the possibility of an ironic perspective. But, to then see something which makes one reassess one’s initial reaction, to regret the laughter, is, in my view, not to negate or withdraw the initial reaction, but to add another level of perspective to it, to grow inwardly, to achieve a "perspective of perspectives" (which I know was how Kenneth Burke defined irony, but please ignore the confusion). I suspect what I am saying here is comparable to Soren Kierkegaard’s argument about how irony provides a transition from the aesthetic to the ethical (though it’s been so long since I read him that I can’t be sure of that).

But, philosophical analogies aside, it’s really quite thrilling to feel an audience collectively amused and then appalled—the emotional equivalent of feeling your stomach drop or whatever as the roller coaster passes the crest and begins its descent. The first time I can recall encountering this phenomenon was watching Neil Munro perform in Trevor Griffiths’ play Comedians when I was a teenager. I was exhilarated by the experience at the time, and I suppose I’ve always kept my eyes open for genuine opportunities to recreate it. Perhaps the best chance I’ve had —or at least the one I recall most vividly— occurred during the university production of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Soeurs, just a few years ago. The character of Rose is loud, crude and somewhat funny, but Tremblay has given her a monologue in which she speaks of the suffering she endures in her marriage. It would be fairly easy to perform the monologue in such a way that the audience continued to laugh, and it would be relatively easy to perform it so that it was serious throughout. But the most powerful approach seemed to be to have Arianna Pozzuoli, the young actress playing the role, begin the monologue almost as if it were stand-up comedy, then, by breaking the timing, break off the laughter of the audience, only to suddenly reveal an inner pain that caused them to fall into a deeply aghast silence, as they found themselves plunging suddenly from amused condescension into nauseous empathy. I think it really was an existentially enlightening moment for many, if not most, of the people who saw it, the full depth of Tremblay’s intentions surging through their hearts and robbing them of breath. God bless Arianna, who nailed this trick perfectly night after night; because, over the last few years, this moment has probably been spoken of to me more than any other single moment in anything else I’ve done.

1 comment:

Michael said...

I was talking with Grahame Renyk about a moment in rehearsals for QMT's Into the Woods where a similar thing seems to be occuring. I'll try and explain it as concisely as possible.

Cinderella has just gotten her Prince to admit that he has been sleeping around behind her back. He retorts "I was raised to be charming not sincere." She slaps him right in the face, and their argument continues.

My question to Grahame was how do we avoid the inevitable laugh that the Prince's line will get, so that it doesn't feel like it disrupts the energy of their argument. His advice follows very closely this idea of scolding the audience, and said that he had been discussing the idea with you during Master Builder. His advice was: let the audience laugh at the line, hold the beat a bit longer before Cinderella goes in for the slap and then let it rip. The slap will probably get a laugh too, because people will have been jolted out of the drama of the moment, but if Cinderella powers through with her next lines then the laugh will be muffled quickly.

I'll be interested to see how it plays out once we're back in rehearsals come January.

By the way, when I was in an interview (Nov. 28)with the Queen's Journal I was explaining this instance as an example of the black comedic tone of the show and they incorrectly attributed it to me when I clearly said it was my professor's technique. But you can't really count on the Journal to get it right most of the time.

Michael Murphy