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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

On Acting - II

Mime, Movement, Music & (E)motion

I am not the first.
I will not be the last.
But it is sure... there is a lot of consonance between the spoken word and the expressed emotion. It is motion captured in eternity. Perhaps that explains why it is an emotion. But the eternal question is: did the sound derive from the action or vice-versa, whichever the language. My conjecture is, they are independent, but interdependent and symbiotic.

It is true that without sound, movement can exist. For, sound followed silence and still does. Through the movement is the noise born, as an object - organ or not - cuts through the wind space of time. Still, sound can be found in silence. Do not we say that silence after a while gets deafening? But, but...

The talk here is more about rhythmic sound also called music, rather than noise. How does it belong to the realm of speech?

We breathe. Therefore we are. Is breath not the same to speech as punctuation to syntax? Whereas the collusion of two alphabets categorised as a vowel and a consonant give birth to smoother breathing of a word, two apparently perfect bed-mates such as hard consonants produce a louder (in quality) sound. I consciously use the word collusion. Is it not experiential that the unhindered sound of a vowel and the laboured production of a consonant are opposing parties? And yet when they combine they implicitly produce rhythmic sounds? Also, the consonancy arises because of the consonants. They are the Zeroes to the Ones that are Vowels (again, that oxymoron 'One...are'!). Without this marriage, the life of language cannot go on.

Anyway, music is, after all, a certain rhythm pattern of sound. Instrumental rhythm is made understandable to lesser mortals requiring (or in obstinate and polemical cases, even 'demanding') codification and structural logic through notations and textualised grammar. It takes a higher level of implicit honesty in a mind to understand the inherent grammar of music that is experienced than analysed. Blessed are such emotinally sensitised souls. These are the true jazz musicians, who understand those hundreds of rigid grammatical rules inside the science of sound production and yet do not make a beeline for it consciously. In fact, it is ridiculous to even describe grammar as rigid since the concept of grammar was invented in the first place to help bring about an organised approach to achieve the ultimate quest of the soul - perfection, fluidity and grace. It is the same with words. So, then, the duty of an actor becomes it to sensitize oneself towards this task. To become a jazz master of the spoken word. To seek to express effortlessly and gracefully that the speech brings joy to the ears of the listener. In some cases, the mastery of technique is there. The elocution powers of some actors far surpass a great orator that speech just remains a thing to marvel at and not empathise with.

What use is a speech that just touches the aesthetics and has no social effect? The same as a torrent of emotional confabulation that is not well enunciated. The attempt of the actor must be to bring about the poetry and rhythm of the word and the psychological connection to the context. It is then that the body that expressed those spoken words, the mind that motorised it and the meaning that the recipient audience received combine to make a holistic experience. Consequently, the word receives a communicative value in the context of the speaker-listener relationship. This is the true purpose of the spoken word.

Now, having said that, the whole trick (not a parlour trick, mind you!) is in giving the silence before the spoken moment its due space. The recipient audience as well as the uttering voice 'must' experience this space of silence before the utterance.

Because........... in this space does the body go through what the to-be-spoken word feels like; what the yet-to-be-voiced sound does to its (the body's) existence. That is why reaction becomes a key factor in exchange of dialogues in life as in stage. Else, acting whether in life or on stage would be one long spiel of improvisation. There is a lot of freshness in that because it keeps each person guessing. But it gets boring after a while like the characters in Horovitz's Line. They don't quite become Vladimirs and Estragons even after 25 years!

I am not an advocate of 'Naturalism' or the 'as is what is or where is' school of theatre and acting. I do, nevertheless, contradictorily, believe in the passage of an actor to a character. You may ask how! There be some who believe acting is a craft and solely a craft. NO... NO... NO! You can't mechanise your body to search for a certain moment of truthful movement. Without sensitising the muscles how can one 'feel' the movement.
Assuming the brain can be trained to 'detect' the movement twitches the muscles can perform, how would it connect to the spoken word on stage? If it cannot, how does communication between actor and spectator occur, what use is a text but an excuse for these two figures to meet from either side of the fence that is the fourth wall? Therefore...

An actor, I believe is an instrument of the state. (I use the word instrument consciously, in the full knowledge that it belongs to the area of technology and not of sense) A State of Mind. An actor in front of an audience or a group of audiences has the job of conveying the emotions of the character s/he is playing truthful to the body's experience. The body that s/he inhabits. Although the body is devoid of pain, and emotions are the visiting cards of psychological impressions (that are in turn results of the mind's recognition of grammatised and codified structures created by us, the civilised animals), these truthfully belong to the region called brain functions. That is why an actor is the instrument of a state of mind at a given time in a specific mental space represented or presented on stage through sets, backdrops or sceneries... or sometimes just furns or objects... or blocks of wood that homogenise and neutralise the naturalistic creation of a bedroom or garden.

You may think, as a result, if you followed the rationale behind my argument, that Stanislavskian 'method mumble' and Meyerhold's 'physics of speech' are no different. Lecoq and Strasberg are merely the obverse sides of a classical coin of acting; that all these talk about realism and naturalism, representationalism and presentationalism, impressionism and expressionism are just corollaries and theories of the same belief. Yes. There is only one Truth. It is not out there... but in here. The truth lies in the tooth. And the tooth is out there... in the way of our breath, which the body experiences.

This perhaps, then, is why the art of acting originated in mime (or acts without sounds), movement, rhythm and in course of time, orchestrated rhythm, appended through percussion and wind instruments. My credo is, an actor must learn to breathe and breathe properly with the sole focus being to fill the body... in a yogic sort of way. When one breathes deep and in total concentration, oblivious to external impressions, one's body goes through an experience that is truly exhilarating, revealing and releasing. That is when we de-mechanise and defamiliarise ourselves to the sensory experiences that have come to clutter out modern and day-to-day lives. That is when the sounds really connect to meanings civilisations have attached to them. That is when a sound becomes a word, a verbal symbol of a pictoral object such as rose or lemon or violence or Kafka or sky.

In the last 300 odd years since the Industrial revolution, we have de-centralised the sounds and individualised the noises to the noise of a scooter or the noise of a baby in need of diapers or the noise of the commode flush or the noise of amplified and mic-ed voice et al. But we have not thought about the capability of the brain to store and retrieve when required all these noises. We go about our hurly burly daily existence forgetful of the complexity we have webbed us in. An actor suffers as a result of this, because an actor has ceased to realise the specialness of oneself and has gone about becoming another zombie on the move in the traffic of daily life. Time we helped break an actor's un-trance.

Let's start breathing genuinely.

On Acting - I

Acting is a process, they say. To me, acting is a journey. It is, to borrow a term from Lecoq, the transposition of one's accrued experiences into characterisation. The accrual never stops and the characterisation only gets better with more experience. Few people realise the difference between playing a character and putting their own personality on parade. In a movie or in front of a camera this may be required, for the medium has come to need star branding to sell. Theatre, on the other hand, is until today largely untouched by this vice. But soon, soon... and I dread that day!

Perhaps, in order to avoid that, actor-trainers and directors who work on process-oriented input must need focus on instilling the essence of acting: to show the difference in enabling an actor be sensitized to elemental emotions and how that could facilitate an actor portray another persona with an entirely different manner of presence.

Actor training and preparing to act involves much the same ritualistic process as a Religious Medium takes to go into a trance. Acting too is a state of trance. In this sense, acting is no different from religion, which partially explains the abundant presence of the element of performance in the Bhakti movement. Be it an Abhang singer, a Bhajan singer of the Meera and Andal variety or an Arayar dancer, the levels of involvement is of a quality that defies earthly proportion. They are totally surrendered in body and soul to the transcendental and unconscious of their physical this and here. An actor playing a role must aim for this. When the trip comes to an end, there is exhaustion but peace and harmony with oneself. And the tools an actor needs to be endowed with must become the equivalent of the drums the facilitators use to help the Religious Medium trance into one, the lines spoken the theatrical counterpart of the ululations that accompany the 'parai'. But...

If an actor consciously and conscientiously does not seek to build an armoury of this sort, it cannot happen. Trainers and directors striving to bring this to an actor does not suffice. It takes two to light the candle. These tools would never turn into a tuning fork or a percussive presence to be put to use to take the step beyond the mundane threshold for a magical journey into that illusive world of creation. If an actor gets there, then what the audience could get is sheer magic. An actor must seek to become the flying carpet on which the audience can travel into elsewhere. An actor must work hard to achieve this. For, does it not take hard work and more for an artisan to weave the perfect carpet! This flight of course, does not require air to launch the carpet like a balloon. It needs music to elevate. This music is the actor's internal oneness with the emotions of the role s/he is playing. And, to be able to achieve this oneness, one needs to connect to the character's individuality as well as the cultural and sociological belonging either in a community or time or both. For, we are all products of social structures, of time, space, civilisation etc.

Hence it follows, anyone wishing to act must spend time thinking the role out before committing the lines to memory. The key physical and psychological vocabulary of the character must first be learnt by the body before the verbal requirements, because everything begins with the body and ends with it.

The mind has pain, not the body. The mind only directs, but the body it is that acts. The body is the actor, and we only know too well that once the actor goes on public, the director just cannot intervene. Therefore the mind work must necessarily happen before performance and thoroughly at that. And let the body then do its work. Not for nothing that the mind is the capitalistic and managerial head of the hierarchy and the body the toiling bourgeoise labourer. But if the labourer does not work, capitalism would come to a standstill. Same theory applies in theatre too.

We, unfortunately, rarely let the body do its work on stage. Instead, we keep interrupting it by thinking. But letting the element of play come in consciously rather than just letting it happen as practised. That is not a successful trance. It is not even a successful attempt to fake a trance. In movies it is different. To me, the difference between theatre acting and camera acting is like the difference between going into a trance and day-dreaming. The latter can and often gets broken and is continual, not continuous. The former is a single, unstoppable stream like a non-stop, long-haul flight. If it is faked, the audience would see through the veil. So what is the solution? How do we complete our commitment to ensure a total experience for the audience?

Train the mind. Train the body. In the sequence.

Train the mind to let the body listen and store so that these can be implemented later. For, as someone said, education is not the mere accumulation of knowledge, but the successful application of it. Today in Chennai, given our imposed hurly-burly existence, as in life so in theatre, we have forgotten the habit of observation and listening. We do not bother about other presences around us and flitter about glibly like a cascade of words from a stand-up comedian's mouth. Time to stop that and pay attention to the greater teacher of all - Life. Let's start at the basics - the mother of all theatre - Life and pay attention to the real actors, the people around us. Did not the Bard say All the world's a stage, etc etc...?

Community Theatre: or why I like to keep off big-budget mainstream theatre

This was an article I had posted on May 28, 2007. When I read through this, I feel vindicated after all these years. I find this true today as it was then. You're welcome with your thoughts.

This installation is from K-20, the 20th century Art Museum at Duesseldorf, Germany and titled End of the 20th Century by Joseph Beuys. Since I witnessed it, it has influence my thinking a lot. It's about the existential angst every artist goes through at some point of his career. Now on to the article...

Ever since the arrest of Mr. Chandramohan, an artist from MSU Baroda on May 9th, there have been hue and cries, and waves of protests, bandhs, signature campaigns across India from across the artists' community.

In Chennai too, on May 14th, a few artists gathered at Lalit Kala Akademi (on Greams Road) around 4 p.m to raise slogans and protest as well as to do a signature campaign. Only visual artists as well as some regional theatre artists, besides the omni-present press photographers, were present.

The English theatre community of Chennai was busy as usual with its whatever existence, preparing for a busy forthcoming season full of comedies. Need I say we are as far from reality as Pluto from Sun. And briefly a glimpse of the vandalising scene from my last year's production of Gautam Raja's WOOD appeared in front of my eyes. I felt proud. How truly inspiringly visionary can art be! How insightful was Gautam's play, even if it was called cliche!! Just to cite an example, I quote a passage from the play, an exchange spoken between The Artist & The Art-house Manager in the play: 

ARTIST: As soon as you know that others are going to participate in your process - it all suddenly looks like rubbish. The knowledge that people are about to see your work, talk about it, write about it automatically moves you on, matures you - and that really is the only way you can keep going. Past failures. Never successes.

MANAGER: So if you sell all of them you'll stop. Painting

ARTIST: Not that kind of success. That success is noisy, it involves everyone. I'm talking abou the quiet success - you alone with your work. Quiet success doesn't exist. Only in patches, phases. Never enough to make you happy. Only just enough to keep you honest.

MANAGER: I wish everybody would realise that.

ARTIST: Eventually they all do. How long can cheers echo round an empty hall? How long before all the ghosts leave and there's just you?...

I truly believe in Gautam's statement about cheers echoing round an empty hall. Hence I have stopped PRODUCING plays, like they do babies in some families. But, at that moment, I also felt a little twang and a tinge of irritation in me. I felt, for once, so disenchanted, disenfranchised and alienated from most of the manufacturers of English theatre in Chennai, of whom I have been a part the last 15 years!!!

It set me thinking.What does the word community mean to people involved in theatre? Is there a community theatre in Chennai? What is or must a community theatre like or do?

Asking a question such as this is to ask what a nation is or must do. At the foundation of a society is the community. It is the bringing together of individuals from various walks and professions of life. A profession, in turn, need not necessarily be always with monetary objective. A priest at a place of worship is an example. A priest is a service personnel who does not expect monetary or material reimbursement. When the fabric or web of society in a particular place is represented by a cross-section of professional congregation, we call it a society. And the best representation of each particular profession come together to make the founding fathers of a town, village, etc. Thus is a community formed. or so we are informed through history.

This community essentially needs entertainment. At times, beyond entertainment, the entertainers also become the moral voice of the people, reminding them when they go off the righteous track. Thus, theatre becomes the voice of the community. And this has been seen time and again throughout Indian, European as well as even American theatre communities.

Now if we take Chennai as our immediate and monumental example, we neither have community nor such a theatre. If you think I am being sweeping in my statement, remember, I am talking Chennai's English theatre. For there is no righteousness left nor moral guardians amid the fast exploding bourgeoisie BPOs of Chennai (since there is no morality there consequently need be neither guardians, in a city were DOKs and F&Gs and Dollar Shops have become symbols of culture).

As a result, all we have left of theatre here is entertainment. Rather, those who practise theatre mostly believe only in entertaining theatre. This belief that we are the decision-makers of what the public want is wrong. We must not drive the market in the wrong direction for our own personal ends. IT IS NOT REALLY A DOG-EAT-DOG-Survival world out there. Well, at least, dogs are not greedy. Anyway, we must, as practitioners and responsible decision-makers observe what needs to be done to keep the society on the right track.

Needless to say, we cannot change the society, as Brecht believed, by portraying the wrongs on stage. But theatre needs to voice out opinions. This is what happens in every part of the world where theatre is said to be alive. This is what WOOD is all about. This is what Theatre Nisha's recent show of SATHE was about. And this is what even Dummies' VISHWAROOPAM is all about. Holding more than a mirror to the society as it were!

Theatre as a voice of community may be marginal compared to the so-called mainstream theatre that receives more attention, attract bigger sponsorships and subsequently has the muscle to pull more audiences. But again as some C.S Neville (or is it C.A?) said in his treatise "Democracy and the Individual", it is actually all about the Might of the Right over the Right of the Might. Quantity or majority need not always be right. This is where the need for smaller theatre companies or what are called community theatres become important. This is also where works such as an Anna Weiss, Oleanna, Final Solutions, Sathe, Thus Spake Shoorpanakha, The Zoo Story, etc matter. They are not irrelevant to the consumptive public because they are art or they speak in a language different from what the entertainment-seeking juntaa understand.

The argument that these plays simply do not or cannot speak to numbers or satisfy sponsors' need for footfalls make them untenable or ill-required is stupid and corrosive in the long run for the existence of theatre itself. While mass entertainment 'speaks' offhand and shows an escapist illusion that their audience can consume alongside their Coke and Popcorn, in the same breath, without having to carry the hangover, these plays 'address' issues that are apparently irrelevant to a materialist consumerist society. These works are born out of a deeper need.

Artists who produce these works do so out of a deeply felt need to voice out rather than for money or fame or passion to perform in front of people. There is no exhibitionist narcissism of the number-theory booting mainstream commercial theatre here. This is perhaps why they are small. They believe that somehow the rot that is setting in the mindset of a McSociety can still be stemmed. If entire Chennai had only Spencers and Reliance Freshes or Cineplexes and Multiplexes, the city would get boring. The smaller neighborhood shops have their own charm and reason for existence.

What must be applauded of these theatrical oevures is their ability time and again to come up to the public viewing for less than the price of a cinema ticket at multiplexes and Mayajaals. Since their recipient audiences are equally smaller in draw, they are produced in smaller, comparatively lesser appealing theatre houses, knowing fully well they would not in Eight out of Ten cases break the red barrier vis-a-vis finance. However, they continue to break fresh grounds. And we would see in the future, that these minimalist but well-planned theatres would grow in numbers, especially among the youth. Of course, some youth subvert even that. There are weeds in every field of crop. But...

In Youth lies idealism, vision and energy. In youth does one discard the fear of the unknown. Whether out of curiosity, impulse, impetuosity or visionary zealotry, youth is what takes risk. These theatres are all about taking risks, not only financial, but also in several other ways. Hopefully, the Chennai youth would get out of the current malaise and veer towards a theatre that shows its disenchantment with bedroom farces and conservative trends; that fights against non-dynamic, safer form of theatre that does not provoke the audience into uneasy thoughts.

There does seem to be a mushrooming of newer groups. This is either due to a feeling of rejection by existing companies or disenchantment with lack of real opportunities, or even because of a certain need to be 'one's own'. Whatever the reason, the basis is that the founders often have their own ideas. Where there is idea, there is hope. Hence one expects and hopes that there is a certain hidden belief in the hearts of these young and idealistic theatre wannabes that theatre has an innate power to change, if not transform. After hope comes prayer.

We who believe in smaller and community efforts just have to pray these newer groups do not fall prey to the need to fill houses. Once one falls into the clutches of the need to have audiences to fill their seats, one ends up doing exactly what those who pay, patronise or sponsor want. Already a few such have been lost, am afraid, for good!