Friday, July 20, 2007

Aging and the Optimal Ratio

I've decided that the secret to aging gracefully lies in the judicious exchange of waning nubility for waxing dignity. That is to say, in youth, one’s status and self-assurance may be based on physical attractiveness (i.e., nubility, and whatever the male equivalent is ⎯ not virility, really; and it's a measure of our society's sexist bias that whatever the term is, it is not so ready to hand as "nubility") and a carefree disposition; in old age, clearly, this is not a viable option, so one must stand rather upon the ground of impressive character and personal achievement. But the optimal ratio is, for each person, an elusive, unique and ever changing calculation, in the pursuit of which there are many more opportunities for humiliation than for attracting the admiration of others. Too late and too large a weighting of the first part of the ratio suggests a preposterous vanity; too early and too large a weighting of the second suggests defensive pomposity. It is essentially the same vice applied to different content.

This is why some gain status as they age while others lose it, and it seems to be only a lucky or skillful few who ever manage to maintain a more or less consistently high status throughout life. But, of course, an obsession with “getting the ratio right” is not only neurotic, it deprives one of some of the best chances to be a complete human being. Paradoxically, the most promising creative opportunities offered by life lie not in the straight and narrow path (yes, I'm mixing my metaphors: so what?), but in the ditches along the way---in exploring the humilations, as it were. So a little gracelessness can be a valuable commodity.

Those who play for a living ⎯ i.e., actors, musicians and other artists ⎯ tend to maintain the air of youth longer than those who have surrendered more fully to Freud’s “reality principle.” So we tend to be attracted to such people, at least in a facile way. But what is the price of such attractiveness? “Oh, you silly, silly man,” a distinguished woman blurted out to me after seeing me perform as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream ⎯ apparently intending this as praise, for hearing herself afresh in the sight of my quizzical reaction, she suddenly began to compliment the work more precisely. But I suspect that her initial impulsive comment conveyed her most truthful response, and I certainly don’t blame her. When one plays that sort of role, one is consciously choosing to create delight rather than respect, and it would be absurd to complain when one is successful.

Of course, I don't mean to say that in playing that sort of comic role one is acquiring physical attractiveness (if only it were that easy); I mean, rather, that one is performing certain attributes associated with attractive youth --- untrammelled enthusiasm, innocence, suggestibility and unquestioning optimism --- each of which is attractive in itself, but which, collectively, are (however unfortunately) at odds with a dignity becoming to middle age. The incongruity is amusing within the context of a fictional world, but generally repellent in the real one. Still, the ability to meddle with the ratio in this way is probably as valuable a skill for real life as it is essential for the theatre.

Brian Bedford, who has played Malvolio in three different productions at the Stratford Festival

I think of the actors who have played Malvolio in Twelfth Night, a character who moves from one sort of overemphasis in the ratio (too much dignity) to the other (too much "nubility"). This lack of self-knowledge makes Malvolo both amusing and contemptible, because he basically moves from one ditch of ludicrousness to the other without ever so much as acknowledging the path that lies in the middle. But each of the actors who has enjoyed a clear success in the role is the sort of person in whose company, offstage, one feels completely at ease. Brian Bedford, for example, is a charming, attractive, dignified man who seems admirably at his ease in any sort of social occasion, managing to also put others at their ease. I suspect this is because of the self-assurance that arises from being a master player of the ratio as opposed to an anxious slave to some fixed notion of what is most appropriate. One gains a greater than average self-knowledge from being so well acquainted with the pitfalls of disproportion and is therefore able to make a liberal but judicious use of the whole of the available path between the ditches.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Embracing Discomfort

Recently, I’ve heard a couple of allusions to theatrical origins in a way that has become quite common, along the lines of “since the first person returned to the cave with a hide and re-enacted the details of the hunt for the others...” This popular image is, I think, fair and intelligent speculation about theatrical origins: common sense suggests that theatre, in the broadest possible sense, probably began as instinctive communication about something of importance in a manner which is not far from Bertolt Brecht’s “street scene” ⎯ i.e., a person describes an accident to another person using a combination of narrative and re-enactment. As for theories of ritual origins, theatre and ritual may have shared some common origins, but the idea that theatre evolved from ritual is finally rather logically incoherent. Of course, the notion of instinctive re-enactment/narrative does not offer us much toward an explanation of the development of spoken drama, which is a much more complex matter; but, for that, see Jennifer Wise’s highly interesting and illuminating book Dionysus Writes.

But the real point of this post has to do with that image of the person returning with the hide of some large beast. For the image suddenly brought to mind something that I had read a couple of months ago, in Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee. It seems that when archeologists investigate the fossilized dumps of very early human settlements, they find very, very few bones of larger game, but many bones of smaller animals ⎯ mostly rodents, lizards, and that sort of thing. So the killing of larger animals, notwithstanding the popular image of Neanderthals bringing down tigers (or bears or wild boars or whatever), was an extremely rare event. And my assumption is that for a person used to killing rabbits or squirrels it would be an extremely stressful event at that, and one that would probably not be consciously sought out except on rare special occasions. The performance worthy aspect of bringing home the hide of large game, then, would be the triumph over the hunter’s initial terror at encountering a large predator rather an easy small victim.

At any rate, this seems only to confirm an idea that I have sometimes suggested to students embarking on an improvisation: as soon as you imagine something that you would very much like NOT to happen to you, you have the beginnings of a story. Of course, this means that to some extent, in order to be theatrically creative as an actor, one needs to be operating outside of a place of comfort. And yet, there is the paradox that, without a relaxed and well-centred mind and body, it is impossible to work in a creative manner. Hence, an actor’s best work is always going to occur in close proximity to some sort of optimal ratio between discomfort and relaxation. Too little of the former, and the work becomes insipid and listless; and it is this that is the more common problem with many actors: opting for an approach to a scene, even unconsciously, simply because it is in some way comfortable and not psychologically dangerous, rather than submitting to what the story has made necessary. The opposite problem, of too little relaxation, is the great difficulty that faces beginning actors, of course, and it usually leads to stage fright. But I think, in more experienced actors, who are unlikely to suffer stage fright, there can be a tendency to embrace discomfort without a sense of relaxation, and it is at these times, I think (and I am recalling a particular production I saw last year), that the work can become ugly and even repellent. Even in the most hideous moments on stage, I believe, we look for some sort of graceful artistry.