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.


Miss Canadia said...

Interesting...I'm working on improvised duologue with my year 10s right now, and one of the ways I've been getting them to either tone it down (scene about a first date that gets interrupted by terrorists/u.f.o.s, etc.) or liven it up (10 minutes of text-message 'intrigue' really isn't intriguing) is to throw a plausible but uncomfortable/awkward twist at them whilst they rehearse.

I'm still teaching drama by instinct rather than intellect, but it's exciting when something works and the students engage rather than recite.

Deborah said...

I can't help but think of a Spinoza quote that was made with regards to Heidegger's work. (A quote, I should mention, that if applied to the wrong areas of life, could keep you in an unhealthy relationship or an unfulfilling job for far too long.)

"All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."

Siscoe said...

Very interesting post and quite fitting, for me at least, since I happen to be reading The War Of Art by Steven Pressfield at this exact moment (I laughed inwardly at the person who suggested I read it, but I'm glad I decided to give it a shot anyway). The book is written for writers not actors, but it contains this same idea that fear is both something you need to embrace and to beat as an artist. My favourite part so far, besides the forward written by the author's friend who describes trying on all his clothes one day and putting together various outfits in order to procrastinate from doing any actual writing (which sadly I've done before), is a section entitled How to be Miserable, where Pressfield writes, "The artist comitting himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation...He has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell." Masochistic, perhaps, but strangely inspiring nevertheless.