Murray Mednick - On Acting and Performance in My Plays
by , Feb 1, 2018
Actors get it upside down. They think the point of acting is being impressive or admired, etc. when the real point is what Aristotle called catharsis—real being. Big mistake to think it’s about you, personally.
That’s what talent is – the capacity for being. That’s the opportunity, the meaning, of being on stage. It’s not your behavior or your looks; it’s the service to the play, which confers an inner freedom and an actual experience of presence.
The audience, of course, makes this possible—as Peter Brook suggests, with “organized attention.” What organizes attention best in this regard, in my opinion, is a play written with the consciousness that hears and understands from the stage, one that has real poetry in it and the opportunity for meaning, the connection between levels.
This has all turned out to be true in my life. In the past I was too self-demeaning to appreciate it. But I do now.
In 1969, I was invited by a theatre company in San Diego to write and direct a new play made from scratch—improvisationally, as it were—based on some poetry of mine. It was to be called The Shadow Ripens and ended up, eventually, as part of The Coyote Cycle. We pulled it off, I have to say, though I’ve since lost the whole thing. I bring it up now, because the event was a continuation of work done by Tony Barsha and myself on The Hawk, in New York—an experiment with actors.
At the time we thought anyone with the right training and attitude and something of a real text could work on stage. This turned out not to be true, though we did come up with a performable play in San Diego that had certain good, even interesting, qualities.
We, first of all, wanted to be honest and tell the truth about our lives. There was an emphasis on each character that we could build on, and a certain overall warning (gotten from Artaud) about a coming moral plague—which has more or less come true. (I should add that it rained for four months straight.)
Back in New York, especially on the Lower East Side, in the late 50s early 60s, poetry readings were important occasions in coffee shops and night spots. Readings were given all over downtown, including the Judson Church in the Village, at St. Mark’s Church on Second Avenue, and at a few bars or taverns, like the Cedar Tavern on Broadway and the Café Chino.
I was working lunches as a waiter at Mayhew’s Country Kitchen (good, rounded hamburgers with a nice pickle relish) on East Broadway. I wore a little red jacket and black bow-tie—and then nights as a server at the Five Spot or the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate and other Jazz joints. Sometimes I still worked hotels in the Catskills on weekends and holidays.
Reading one’s poems was a way to get your work heard and to get around and meet people and maybe start making a literary reputation and living a literary life. Everybody read – young and old, the known and the unknown. The readings were social, political and artistic events, and it became crucial to learn how to read – in essence, how to perform one’s poetry. Your style counted for something and was observed, styles going from the bombastic to the utterly quiet. Some poets murmured, some yelled, some chanted, others enunciated the meter – styles were continually evolving. I was young and wrote short, street-oriented poems, and was a shy reader. But I began to read a little and got to know a few of the poets and painters and anarchists in the East Village community.
I learned a lot listening to jazz – to Mingus, Coltrane, Monk and many of the great players of that time. And I’d learned to perform that special little act/dance called waiting on tables, and had even begun to perfect certain aspects of it: quickness, quiet, stoical equanimity and the ability to vanish and re-appear. That, too, was a performance.
For me, and for a few of my friends, listening to jazz, waiting on tables and going to poetry readings were all aspects that helped in the development of what is now called the Off-Off Broadway Movement, so decisive for the creation of a new genre of American Theater. The poetry readings increasingly had become identified as performances. Gradually, props started being used, music was added and shills were even planted in the audience. Some of us got into playwriting by observing directly the effects of language on an audience, and by sensing the special meaning of performance. The next logical steps pointed to a stage, a play and actors. There was a direct relationship between the techniques and social milieu of the East Village poetry readings and the beginnings of Off-Off Broadway – especially as an experimental approach to language and a real anarchical willingness to try new forms.
We didn’t go to Yale or NYU, or go to plays uptown. We took our talent and instincts and intuition about the uses of speech and performance and began to apply them to the stage by experimenting – a completely natural, trial and error expansion of the medium. The sounds of organized language and ideas were rehearsed into the coherence and complexity of a play for the stage. That’s how new forms, new concepts and new approaches to theater began appearing at Theatre Genesis (at St. Mark’s Church), the Judson, Café Chino, etc. These were all places that had begun by presenting poetry readings and, after awhile, started presenting our plays— plays often connected to the local poets, artists and people of the neighborhood.
Also forming was a new approach to acting, independent of the usual methods of the day—the naturalism and psychologizing of the Actor’s Studio and other institutions teaching actors uptown how to make it in the theater, the movies or on TV. Those of us downtown wanted to find ways to present the material, not connected with the so-called Dramatic Arts. It was important, at least in my case, to understand the premise that what was happening on stage was what was happening, and was not representative of some other reality. It was a new way of understanding what Aristotle meant by catharsis – the connection to another level of meaning – a connection that might be attainable through the live theatrical experience. Of course, all the approaches to this way of thinking were not the same, but one consequence, for us at Theatre Genesis in particular, was an approach to acting that much more oriented to the text than to the interpretations or demonstrations of the actors.
In my own case, for example, I had a friend, Warren Finnerty, an Off-Broadway actor at the time, who was performing in a play at Theatre Genesis by Lawrence Ferlinghetti - a play called The Inspector with Baggy Pants. I was very attracted to the idea of using the techniques of modern poetry (free verse, New York street rhythms) on the stage with experienced actors performing the lines in the contemporary language of slang and street-talk. Warren (who later went on to play the guy at the gas station in Easy Rider) introduced me to the new Artistic Director at Genesis, a tall, bearded, mid-westerner named Ralph Cook. Ralph was also “Minister to the Arts.”
The church already had a poetry program and other activities for the people of the neighborhood. They had converted an upstairs storeroom into a “black box” theater and Ralph asked me for something of mine that he could read. I gave him some poems, and when we met again he suggested that I might want to write for the stage, as he was looking for young men like me in order to develop a whole new approach to theater. He wanted to produce plays that were more related to the people already involved with the church, especially the people of the neighborhood. He said he’d produce (and ultimately direct) whatever I wrote. At the very least, he said, it would be heard at the open, Monday night readings he was introducing, at Genesis using professional actors to read new material by young poets and writers.
And so, St. Mark’s Church on 2nd Ave. and 9th St. became my second home—my first home, really—as I began to learn that I didn’t have to be a lonely pot-smoking poet on the Lower East Side. I could be a lonely, pot-smoking playwright on the Lower East Side.
I liked Ralph’s approach. He always emphasized the text, good or bad. He had a kind of Zen approach to finding the character and making choices. He liked to say it was what was underneath the text—that by listening to, and adhering to, the text, the presentation of character and the meaning of the play would ultimately be revealed, a process that required patience and a certain non-interference.
Ralph believed there was a true inner world in the writing - something integral and true—and that it was the task of the actors to help it be revealed to an audience. Ralph once asked us how we wrote our lines and someone said something like “one line creates the next.” That was very helpful to him in terms of directing. He had a mystical kind of faith that there was meaning created in language for the stage that could only be found by listening hard, one line at a time. He would restrain various choices, both of the cues and the actors’ performance, until there was a real understanding of the invisible undercurrent of the play. It was “mystical” in the sense that meaning was associated somehow with his personal understanding of Christianity.
Ralph believed that there was something true in the hearts of the kids he was working with, which could be articulated on the stage as revelation. It was a completely different way of looking at the process of word-to-page, to-stage, to-audience, and he was able to encourage that search in the writing and demand attention to it from the very good actors we were able to attract. We congregated in the black room upstairs at St. Mark’s church, and the resulting style was hard-edged, crisp and dark, and reflected the social and political turmoil of the times. But I always felt, even in rehearsal, that what was happening in this process was an uncovering of something essential—not necessarily topical or political, or reformist or instructive, or representative, but a way of touching upon another level of reality. It was different, say, than thinking of playwriting as a career, or of performance as entertainment. The idea of a “career” was in itself antithetical to the integrity of one’s work.
Truth is, I’ve come late to that requirement, i.e., of career, and I’m not sure I know how to handle it, even now. Or how to even be interested in it. I should also add, right away, that good acting is good acting wherever one sees it, and it is a pleasure to witness it anywhere. But putting the text first seems to have an orienting influence on the staging of my work—and letting the character emerge organically from the text. Of course, this premise of letting the text be first must be accompanied by carefully choreographed transitional movement, a minimized use of behavioral crutches and/or props, stripped-down sets and an absolute adherence to the principle of not speaking while moving, i.e. not upstaging one’s words while traveling from one place to another on stage. Instead, one waits, as I say, “until you get there.” Another principle I insist on for myself, especially given the “vaudevillian” nature of my texts, is to face front and avoid playing scenes in profile to the audience.
I’ve noticed over many years of producing and directing my own plays, especially during the audition process, that actors are taught to overcome bad writing; they’re taught to make up for lack of substance by portraying phony, or artificial, substance—emotional reactions, easily-understood, familiar behavior, lots of reliance on props, facial expressions, easily recognizable and repetitive timing and so on. Television (and the movies, usually) is dependent on this mediocre approach to acting because the writing, the text, is not deemed important enough, alive enough, interesting enough; the dialogue is cliché-ridden and second-hand. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that not much is known in the industry between a good text – one with both theatrical and literary value—and the endlessly familiar story lines and talking runs that require ordinary acting at best and, even worse, cover-up acting to help sell the inadequate writing.
Cover-up acting is making bad writing look good, or at least plausible. And the business being what it is, for the most part, that’s what actors are taught in acting classes. There’s a minor industry in the United States, especially in New York and Los Angeles, devoted to this axiom. And an entire audience has been developed that has become accustomed to this level of performance, finds it acceptable and is put off if you don’t give it to them—poor writing, easily understood story-line, naturalistic acting, followed by a commercial—nothing too taxing.
So you have an audition and the first thing the actor wants is to do something he or she thinks has meaning—that the text is merely an outline for showing his fascinating, inner, psychologized-life, that the real meaning is coming from him via his so-called acting. Because the writing can’t possibly do it by itself, even if the actor says the lines honestly and directly and on time.
At auditions for my work, one wants to disturb this approach as fast as one can. It gets in the way. Actors don’t seem to have the time today in America to do the proper, more exacting, relentless and honest training in regard to the simple saying of lines - not enough time and not enough support. Theater in America (with the exception of Broadway musicals, which are mainly spectacular, obscene money traps) is a sideshow, almost a freak sideshow, taken seriously by the mainly ignorant media-consuming citizenry. Even little countries like Denmark and the Netherlands support the theater arts more than we Americans do and I don’t know what to do about it, except to put down these thoughts, such as they are, and express my disappointment; this is a major cultural failure.
Theater is first and foremost a literary art that finds its life in performance on stage. Therefore, one must be well read, and knowledgeable about words and ideas. One must memorize. One must rehearse. Plays evolve inside out. Repetition. Research. Trial and error. Teamwork. Listening. Thought. Vanity and self-love are thereby banished, or put aside, or worn away and rubbed out by the common goal, the friction, the struggle, of finding and performing the play as a group.
Plays, like airplanes, have a certain speed. To slow up in order to feature an actor’s “moment” is to encounter turbulence and/or, worse yet, a crash. It’s not good to slow things down (in my work) so that moments can be found and deepened. Too much depends on timing. The lines are more important than the actor, and may live, I hope, on the page long after he or she is gone.
First as I’ve said above, the text is paramount. Meaning, interpretation, so-called character, intention, motive, all those trappings common to acting classes, psychological and emotional, is, or should be, in the text. The text is already written and it’s all there. If the text is good, if the text is right, if the context is proven, the actors don’t need to write it or re-write it with their “acting.”
Start with the text, the rest will follow. That’s RULE #1. The text is all you need. Don’t do anything to get in the way of it. Rehearsal will get you where you need to be, eventually, and will reveal the true worth of a play, good or bad. Bad acting and/or over-acting can make a good play bad and a bad play worse. But the text will lead the way.
Movie actors just walk in with it because they’re usually playing themselves. That’s not acting. My father worshipped Douglas Fairbanks and John Garfield, not the characters they played, which was incidental, actually, to the real event, the images of Garfield and Fairbanks on the big screen. Further, movies are a one-time shot. What you see on screen is what you get forever. With a play, one encounters living time in which the play changes—or ought to change—with the audience. Timing changes, heart attacks occur, drunks fall down, actors forget their lines, etc.
RULE #2 is that the art of theater is mainly for the ear. Theater is not visual high-jinks, spectacle, or the set. It’s about the language, about speech. Much depends therefore on the musicality of performance—right tone, pitch, rhythm, pace and timing—and silence. Qualities of voice. And I don’t mean musicals. No matter how smart they seem to be, it’s an exaggeration of the medium. All that singing and dancing. False. Beckett was right. He kept movement on stage at the absolute minimum—actors in ash cans or buried in sand—so that the language and its silences could be heard.
Transitions should be minimal and crisp. No extra movement. No blackouts. I have, myself, come to avoid entrances and exits as much as I can (as did Beckett). Characters can enter or exit by standing or sitting or taking a step, as in my plays, Villon, or Adele, etc. On stage, every move counts and is, or should be, intentional, stylized. This helps to avoid all the visual and acting clichés that we’ve become accustomed to in the various media. The naturalistic imitations of “life,” such as walking and talking at the same time, or playing in profile, and all the rest of it, are for the camera, not the stage. It’s important to me that this distinction—between the “naturalism” induced by cameras, and the presence of being on stage – can be heard and felt in the quality of performance, in its stylistic integrity.
So, RULE #3 - behavioral gestures must be minimal and intentional. Acting is not about behavior. It is about relating the text to the audience. Theater is a special art. It is not necessarily realism or naturalism. It creates its own, special reality, in which there must be no unintentional, naturalistic movement—speaking lines while walking or playing with props, or sitting down or getting up, (think of all those kitchen tables and doors and back-yards). Such things are not right for my plays. Get where you’re going, or do what you’re doing, and then speak. The language is thus emphasized at the expense of behavior. This approach (a good old, traditional, classical rule in theater) is best for my work (though we do fool around some with phones and chairs, as in The Gary Plays).
Play Front. This is RULE #4. Profile in the theater is anathema to me. It’s for television and movies. And there are no close-ups. Close-ups in Theatre are in the language as soliloquies or monologues. For those who do them—always play out as much as possible, facing the audience. There’s no camera on you. It’s the words, the delivery, the naked truth. And you don’t ever have to look at the person you’re talking to. You can look away. You can look out. The audience then can be a kind of mirror. Don’t jump around in the way of the words. Be still. Be a vehicle for the text.
No two performances are ever the same, because the audience is there, of course, and live—trying to pay Attention, basically, a listening attention. You must know you are on stage in front of a new, live audience in real time—sighing, sleeping, nose-running, coughing, noisy teenagers, grumpy old men, the blue-haired wife asking her deaf, white-haired husband what the whole thing means, etc. Mostly stupid. But every performance depends on the living presence of the audience. The proscenium, the so-called fourth wall, is an inner phenomenon, a quality of inner concentration.
I've found, for myself, in Villon, for example, that direct address and eye contact with the audience, judicious and well timed, are effective, and can be powerful and helpful, at the least, as awakening factors - depending on the needs of the text. The perennial Fourth Wall is inside.
Projections work very well in my plays, generally, so long as they serve and don’t upstage the language. Why this is, I don’t know, or can’t explain. It may have to do with the nature, or quality, of thought and imagery expressed in the text.
Acting talent is a real phenomenon. It has to do with an innate understanding of what it means to be on stage. In the old days, I thought you could teach it. You can’t. It’s there or it isn’t. In addition, an active intellect in the actor is a boon, as is the ability to memorize, and to show up on time for rehearsal. Also, a vision of how one is on stage from the audience point of view is important. For me, ideas and clear thought are gold on stage. All these enhance the pre-eminence of the text and the stylization of performance.
STYLE: Because the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival was produced outside and site-specifically, for the most part, an acting style began to develop in the company that was identifiable and had certain attributes—a physical sense of the space, an extra effort to be heard (not necessarily connected to volume), causing an enhancement of the non-sentimental approach to character and motivation, and a special emphasis on speech (language that could compete with the environment for attention) and direct awareness of the audience as part of that environment (the sky, the horizon, the woods or the buildings, etc.). The audience needed to be singled out, as it were, and held to the text. The set was the site, which was open to the city. Over the years, an acting style—one could say a certain ironic attitude and stance on stage—evolved, that remains most suitable for my work and that of my colleagues at the Festival.
Mention should be made here of the various literary influences that played such an important role—in New York and later on at the Padua Workshop. They were chiefly Artaud and Beckett, Genet and Brecht, the older European Absurdists, like Ionesco and DeGhelderode and that old-timey American search for one’s own authentic voice as was carried on by the many poets and writers living on the Lower East Side.
Again, avoidance of naturalism, so prevalent in all the media, is a necessity. Stylization means attention and refinement, such as a minimum of movement (I was very influenced in this by Chinese and other Asian theater techniques with their small, precise movements, such as a raised eyebrow) choreographed exact and quick transitions, a vision of a simple stage look with limited sets and avoidance of cliche. No “acting.” Avoidance of too much profile to the audience (actors don’t need to look at each other all the time). Play “out.” No movement or behavior while speaking.
As I said above, much of this approach was learned at the Padua Festival, where holding the audience’s attention meant no upstaging of any kind, including the walking and talking routine—i.e. upstaging one’s own text with various behaviors. Wait till you get there and then say what you have to say. I think this is an old principle, going back centuries and I try to follow it, still. It suits me. Don’t speak while traveling. That’s for the movies. On stage, you are meant to be heard.
PRESENCE: This is an attribute of awareness—knowing I’m in a body, on a stage in front of an audience. It’s like a magic carpet. I ride, as Peter Brook says, on the attention of the audience. More and more, speaking for myself, I like cautious, judicious eye contact. “I know I’m here with you, but something in me, though, remains intact and in the play. Inviolable. I never leave the play. The play is my inner and outer world.” Also, I must have a vision of myself from the audience point of view. It is a form of self-consciousness that brings a certain dimension to the performance and which can be found no other way. The question of merely demonstrating the inner emotional life of the character, and being true to it, as is taught these days in acting classes, is nonsense for the sort of theater I and some of my friends do. It may be important in a film close-up; it’s not so important on stage.
MOTIVATION: The prevailing theory here, so far, seems to be that one wants something and there are obstacles in the way, and out of that struggle to get what I want in the play comes the so-called “arc”—the famous “dramatic conflict.” That may be true sometimes in realistic drama, but for the most part in plays like mine the aim for the actor is to bring a level of awareness into the theater via the linguistic movement of rhythm, theme and circumstance—the main circumstance being the heightened awareness made possible by the stage. The aim is to be an instrument of the text so that “heaven and earth” can be connected. In other words, it is Aristotle’s catharsis caused by the evocation of another level of reality - awe, pity and terror, or as Artaud put it, of the frailty and cruelty of the human condition.
PRECISION: Everything counts on stage—every movement, every hesitation. Clarity of speech follows like a chime. Two steps back means two steps back, not three. A gesture is absolutely refined and timed. Timing is absolute. Sense the audience’s attention, and you’ll know how long to wait; sense the audience’s attention, and you’ll know when to move, when to speak. The director of course must know all these things in his bones. He must know, on principle, before the actor knows, and adhere to these principles. Gestures and spacing must be refined until they are absolute pictorial and spiritual gems in their own rights. Envision the picture that the audience has of the stage. You must know it. Transitions must be pristine and quick and minimal. Get quickly from here to there. It’s a part of what happens onstage, where everything counts. One can say that the perfection of timing and synchronization between light and sound and the movement of actors is an aspect of paradise, i.e., another level of Being, higher than ordinary life, for which we aim.
Of course, the PLAY ‘S the thing. The actor serves the play, not the other way around. Furthermore, I’ve been known to assert that the playwright is the owner of the direction of the play—having written it out of the living of his life - and that it’s spiritually criminal to deprive this person of the joy of completion, which is about those fundamental choices of light and sound and movement, and the life and death of a moment. Too often these are cheapened by directors, usually for the sake of a lower level of understanding, i.e., so the audience “gets it.” Playwrights, if they have the chops, in my opinion, should direct their own work.
PLOT: Aristotle had it wrong in some ways, though hubris and ego remain tragic human failings. In Ancient Greece, everyone knew how the story went and what would happen in the end. But nothing new happens really, and there’s nothing new in the End. The issue is song, language, elevation of thought. For us, there’s always the struggle for consciousness and understanding, and the question of conscience. In our time (and in the time of the Greek masterpieces) we are destroying the Earth and each other. And therein lies all plots. Plots can be subtle, thematic, contradictory, irresolvable. Comedy and tragedy are intertwined, two sides of a coin.
STRUCTURE: Plays are certainly not structured solely upon so-called dramatic conflict—protagonaist, antagonist. Structure can be thematic, as I said, or musical (based on what I call an “internal rhyming” of phrases and ideas) or based on contrast, contradiction, juxtaposition—on stage events that are purely linguistic, as in Clown Show for Bruno, or site-specific, as in The Coyote Cycle, or Shatter ‘N Wade, and Switchback.
Actually, these are all combinations of all these things, but are not dependent on plot —namely, on who gets what in the end. Things do happen in plays and have consequences, but they can’t be entirely explained. Lately my play, Mayakovsky And Stalin evokes the ripples of history, an “arc” we arrive at through juxtaposition and sequence, and the historical projections of the set (projections are the set) as various scenes are played out on stage. We all know what happened to these people, but the stage event is its own reality.
POSTURE: We are in our bodies. The power of presence begins there. Posture and gesture in the theater is part of the grammar of the whole. They can’t be left to chance, like any ordinary meeting in the street. Meetings on the street or in the bathroom or at a policeman’s ball, are automatic – naturalistic, mechanical baloney.
When actors meet on the stage, a choice appears: shall I step up toward the gods, or do what I always do? i.e. what I did yesterday and tomorrow and what I will do and say the day after. Because of the stage, and the honest aspirations of the play, another condition appears: one toward having choice within a heightened level of being, made possible by the play. Maybe it’s a pause, or a look right, or a look left, or a look down, or a flood of tears, or a hanging. Myself, I prefer a good line delivered in the right way, body still, and then a timed and well-executed walk away, or look away, or a step back, a glance at the audience, a trip and a fall, etc. In any event, not mechanical or automatic, but unexpected.
Finally, my thoughts on the famous “method”—feeling another person’s (the character’s) feelings as though they were your own feelings (or failings). All people feel the same feelings at one time or another, or the same failings. So if you feel your own, you may indentify or be identified with the so-called character you think you are playing (some version of yourself.) I’m almost embarrassed thinking about this so-called method. What happened to the Mind, to Thought, to the fact that we are in living bodies?
A key insight into this issue is the idea (well known) that dialogue is action.
The actor’s so-called inner state is secondary to his mastery of the text, his understanding of, and service to, the text. Turns out, in rehearsal, following the lead of the text, all inner or psychological searches turn out to be useless. The play will find you and help you to know who you are in the play. Of course, all this might be different in the movies, when you have a camera up in your eyes and you have to be feeling something or thinking something, usually bogus, having nothing to do with the magic of language.
So, what is real acting? First of all it is linguistic, i.e., demanding a mastery of the usage of language on stage. It is the understanding of the use of voice and silence. It is an understanding of what movement is on stage: heightened, precise. Finally, an actor has an understanding of his role as a vehicle for catharsis—i.e. for bringing about a connection between worlds, between levels of meaning. From the point of view of catharsis—plays are ultimately for the actors. In performing as vehicles for the Text, and with support from the attention of the audience, the actors get to freely ride between this world and another world, a world—as the Ancient Greeks thought—of the Gods.
The most flexible and open and free of all postures, in my opinion, to give another example, are those of the clown, or the harlequin.
He is inwardly still. He scrunches down or scrambles up, but you will not make contact on his quiet level. It’s too high for you, and you must pay by watching closely. You think his suffering is cheap or acceptable. It is not. It’s expensive and hard-earned. He is aware of his suffering, and he has a role to play. He has to wake up every morning in no-man’s land. So you approach carefully and bow, those of you who have the presence of mind—and pay close attention.
He cannot be pigeon-holed or predicted, and he pops up like an athlete on a trampoline. He winks or smiles or cries. A great contradiction lives in him, and he is only saved by the reconciliaton of the play, or the act, which he will present sooner or later, for the dimes of recognition thrown into his hat. And he gives you olives as a present on the side. And yet, his suffering is great (as Artaud tried to suggest). He will remind you that his way of life continues, privately, as soon as you’ve gone away.
More power to him—the Troll, the Trickster, The Fool. He knows how to wait. He is not disconnected to his body. One foot can move and not the other. His hand gestures are well thought-out and precise. He never compromises his inner life. His voice is a treasure house, his face is an open secret. He is suffering this life. He suffers you. He knows you are watching him. A higher power protects him. He serves this power when he speaks.
FURTHER NOTES AND SOME REPETITION
The question arises: does one write for an intelligent audience, or so that everyone, including the stupid, can “understand?” In practice, one must be intelligent, or nothing new is discovered; there’s no fun working with so demanding an attention, on so high an intellectual level, unless one does one’s best, so the question becomes moot. In any case, one can’t write like other people, not for long, and if you do, you are lost and confused. So you must be yourself, as they say, and only God knows what that it is.
THE CHORUS: A way to introduce thought, commentary, narrative, poetry. It’s very appropriate, in my opinion, for the modern stage. There are various ways to do this and I’ve more or less tried them all. Not in the old way of a bunch of people walking around on the stage, but as a voice, or voices. You can see examples of these possibilities in The Gary Plays.
ASIDES: An important tool, used selectively. All the way to the audience, half-way, or aloud to oneself.
STAGE DIRECTIONS: Should never be psychological or motivational, and kept to a minimum or be absent altogether.
DIRECTION: As I’ve said, the Author knows best about his own work. My favorite directors have been John Steppling, John O'Keefe, Maria Irene Fornes—who all agreed with me about direction, and were stalwarts in the early days of The Padua Playwrights’ Workshop and Festival. My own personal method is to stop and go, stop and go, having the courage (finally) to articulate my own intuition as we go, until I get it the way I want, and then to run it, over and over and over, and get it right.
There’s a certain symmetry and thematic rhyming to my work which begin to strike the ears of even the most dense and closed-up actors. I do not take notes, because it’s too late then for me. You need to catch things and work them on the spot. Gradually, if you pay attention, the play begins to take shape by itself. After all, it has already been written. We don’t need any added “stuff.” As Ralph Cook, my first teacher, at Theater Genesis in New York, used to say to actors, years ago, “stay out of the way of it.”
And I can’t help but emphasize the value of PRECISION. To be precise itself effects everything, and timing, especially: when to move, how to move and how far, and timing in speech: pauses, hesitations, tempo, volume. Precision in these things is rarely seen and is intrinsically a pleasure for the audience. A highly evolved precision in performance, including transitions, can only be accomplished through a rigorous, repetitive, demanding rehearsal process. There’s no way around this requirement for serious theatre artists.
These considerations all have a special significance now, as the very meaning and value of existence itself is called into question, forgotten or completely ignored by powerful phonies and liars of all political stripes. Somebody has to tell the truth, and value its meaning. Those people are us - playwrights and actors. It’s in the language we speak, in its rhythms and music - this sense of truth-telling or lies. We have to uphold and reinforce this sense, or I don’t see anything good coming down the road in our seriously degenerated political system. The shit, as we say, is hitting the fan.