Why, WHY? Masks and Curtains.

The Duchess is admonished by her brother. [Zita Monahan and Darragh O'Brien]

The Duchess is admonished by her brother. [Zita Monahan and Darragh O’Brien]

Whilst rehearsing the scene in Duchess of Malfi last week where the two brothers discover their sister has had a baby, and vent their rage at her disobedience, we first explored the ‘what ?’ And the ‘how’ of the scene; how does the Cardinal respond to his brother, rather than Why. What and How revealed a myriad of possible Whys, some of which were helpful and many which were not. It is so much easier to follow what and how and desperately important when you are dealing with such a labyrinthine story as  Duchess of Malfi. I can imagine if we had been a more table-work type company we could have spent months filleting the text. Months we do not have. And to what avail? To kill the creative impulse by creating a thin ice of intellectual understanding based only upon our direct life experience – a narrow sort of truth. This approach does not mean you ignore the text ( how could you even consider that with such visceral and profound stuff ?) Ultimately the language moulds the physicality, psychology and being of the character. ‘My mind is full of daggers’ says the Duchess, as she despairs and rages against her tragedy. This image alone conjures up her psychological state at that moment – get that into your body by making a stabbing gesture

But why do many actors feel they have to start with ‘Why?’ when it unleashes a whole confusing gamut of unactable facts? Starting with why seems to offer little or no juice, when it comes to playing. What is it that seduces them? WHY? ( Now I am asking why! ) Is it our idealised Method based background as actors? Or our sometimes misguided faith in science where the WHY appears to the outsider to be the only important result? Or is it a desire to make us feel as artists that through exploring WHY first, we are doing something ‘real’ and ‘important’ ‘adult’ and ‘serious’? Anyone who has worked psychophysically knows this process of exploring the piece through Imagination and body  is every bit as serious and a lot more demanding than an intellectual poring over the script at a table for hours where your energy is often finally sapped before you get up to work.

‘Why’ for me is like the ‘masks and curtains’ the Duchess speaks of. It has a place but it is mainly obfuscation . It protects us from the raw feeling and intuition necessary for our work. Also, the ‘Why’ may be labyrinthine but it is logical. Life, character and emotion are often not logical yet as performers we still have to grasp the character’s journey and intentions. As someone said when doing Measure for Measure two years ago, where we used Chekhov Technique as the bedrock of the rehearsal process, working on her journey through gesture rather than discussion,’I could never have put this character’s journey into words but now I understand it.’

A brilliant example of the dubious nature of WHY was Simon Russell Beale’s discussion of his performance of King Lear [The RNT production] where he suggested Lear might have some kind of Alzheimers . Who cares? In this case the WHY actually diminished his performance in my opinion.

I am not suggesting that actors and directors ignore WHY but explore it later in the process. In ‘real life’ we can know why something happens without having any real understanding of it. Nowhere is this more true than in the academic approach to theatre when students are sometimes encouraged to believe they can go out and do it without the real rigours of training. We can understand an approach from a book but without practise and learning through the body we have no experience of it and no learning we can effectively put into practise. Imagine if you read about how to play the violin but hardly did any practise, or learned the rules of basketball assiduously but only played  now and again?

On March 3rd , my co-tutors and myself at CORE theatre college will be running an intense but part time course for 10 weeks in Galway which will include three performances in May. This course puts the imagination, the body and creativity at the centre of the performers work. The HOW and the WHAT before the WHY. The imagination and the body before the intellect. Teachers are trained in Chekhov and Lecoq and there will also be a voice module. There are only a few places left for this course so if you are interested check out http://www.coretheatrecollege@gmail.com . And Theatrecorp’s production of The Duchess of Malfi plays the Black Box Theatre Galway 3rd – 7th February phone 091 569777.

2 thoughts on “Why, WHY? Masks and Curtains.

  1. Hugo Moss

    This is a passionate piece about important stuff, Max – a near rant, I’d go as far as saying – very necessary and all of which I completely agree with. We as you know have been rehearsing a play here which is now in its first run and I have to say that over 8 months of deep and broad exploration, not once did we ask ourselves a single why-question. Not because we’d decided we weren’t going to, but because it just wouldn’t have occurred to me that it would be a useful thing for an artist to do.
    We now have a play where the characters’ why’s are beautifully open to nuanced interpretation by different audiences on different nights.
    So perhaps I’d just tweak your phrase “I am not suggesting that actors and directors ignore WHY but explore it later in the process.” and end it thus: “…but let the WHY take care of itself.”

    Reply
  2. Tony Hegarty

    Yes you have in many ways highlighted the difference between science and art; or between the qualatative and the quantative research methods. This difference, or this boundary, is of course totally illusory based on poor old Descarte’s split between the subjective and the objective. It is symptomatic of most of our alienation from the living planet we inhabit……there is no boundary other than that of our own imagining. See Wilber (1979) or visit http://www.hugofgaia.com (see Max’s links)
    The movie “Avatar” (James Cameron) really expresses this wonderfully: you have to plug in to that beast you are riding…so off we all go on this miserable Sunday and plug our bodily USB into a tree or the wind or even the rain…it could be amazing!

    Reply

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