A few weeks ago I was doing an imagination exercise in a voice class with an undergraduate group. I would say a phrase like ‘torn curtain’ and would ask them to speak the images they saw from that phrase into the centre of the room. This is an exercise I use a lot to connect language and imagination. Sometimes I speak phrases and sometimes use the opening from novels or the start of a play.
When it came to discussing the exercise afterwards , I think I used the phrase, ‘prison cell’, one student said something very interesting . ” When you said the word I immediately saw an image and it grew and became more complex, but I felt unable to speak aloud what I saw. I found myself just saying words like captivity, criminal etc. So I could not say what I saw. I could only speak in concepts.’
It is very hard to be creative on a concept. To act with a concept. It can be done, but a concept is several times removed from a feeling. However, I puzzled to myself, you can move with a quality and a quality is a concept. Let’s move with pride, for instance. We can experience that concept because we can put it into our bodies by moving proudly . But can we put captivity or honour or acceptance into our bodies? A concept is like a hard nugget, not a softer more sensitive set of images. I find it hard to make an image from a concept. Images are easier to explore in a sensory and imaginative way than concepts…. “Well it depends what you mean by captivity...” I can hear someone saying.
And yet isn’t that what an academic approach basically encourages? Crisp concepts? Concepts can be tested and evaluated more easily than experiences, it seems. That means they can be graded. They can be assessed more easily. They can be valued. In short a price can be put upon them.
But in relegating experience, are we not denying a whole spectrum of learning not just in the arts but in all other spheres of life? It is very true that experience is being devalued in education.
To me it is rather like when the cd evolved as the way to play music. One of my friends told me about this, a BBC Engineer. He asked me to listen to the range of sound on a cd and then listen to an LP record. I had to confess that in comparison to a pristine LP record, the range of the cd sounded tinny. It is like the difference between a DSLR camera and a camphone. There is a depth with the DSLR camera which is not achieved with the phone even though both pictures are clear. So it seems to me with sensations, movement and feeling against exploring something through concept.
Interestingly my MA Chekhov group explored polarities in Blood Wedding this week . Polarities, for the uninitiated, are as they sound; life/ death, wealth/ poverty etc. They are the polarities the performers and director see in the play. They are the nearest Chekhov technique gets to concepts, but, and this is important, in order to explore them you have to use another more imaginative intuitive tool to plumb your character and the depths of the play. The concept cannot be explored purely intellectually. For acting it would be almost worthless.
So let’s say we are exploring wealth and poverty through the play. I name one wall wealth and the other, poverty. Using your character centre as your lodestone you place yourself as the character in the studio as to how they feel about these two polarities at the start. Are they more influenced by wealth? They stand nearer to it. Are the poor or aware and preoccupied with poverty ? They stand nearer to it . Then moving the character through the play , the actor moves first to one wall then another, sometimes running from one polarity to another ; sometimes pulling away from one only to be sucked back towards it. if they love Wealth, then perhaps they slide up and down against the wall… it is not just a question of placing themselves like some kind of status exercise. All the movement comes from their centre and the instinct they feel in their bodies. This is not an intellectual decision, but something that comes from somewhere deep inside. They move like this as they follow the character through the whole play.
In Blood Wedding Money and Land are important factors in the drama. The Bride and Leonardo were allegedly stopped from marrying because he was too poor. So is the Bride obsessed with her wealth and security at the start of the play, or is she simply unable to go against the wishes of her family? Is Leonardo obsessed with his poverty? this is more likely. None of these of course are discussed until after the exercise is completed, because you make the discovery by doing the exercise, not by discussing the concept. This exercise can provide those kinds of options/answers for the actor.
When you know the play well, these exercises can provide answers so specifically that you can even find precise moments where these changes in shift of polarity and changes for the character happen.And that’s of course another thing. In order to work in this imaginative way you have to know the play well. This approach is not an excuse to not do homework. You just do a different sort of homework.