Thursday, April 29, 2010

Back to School: Or, rethinking restaging

I first have to come out and say I'm not usually a fan of "updating" performances. I have a decidedly conservative streak when it comes to reworking scripts.

I usually have two reasons behind this tendency. The first is that I'm not in favor of change for change's sake (which, I suppose, is a good enough definition of conservatism no matter what area you're talking about...). The second is that one often has to do some 'square peg, round hole' work to make it all fit when you mess with the setting. In my humble opinion, it doesn't always work and I think the impulse should be resisted unless you have a really good reason.

I especially dislike it when productions insert new or modern themes that weren't there originally... but that's a whole 'nother post.

All that introductory ranting aside, I've come to find my resolve on this issue getting much weaker. I've seen and performed in quite a few shows now that really pulled off the new setting well. A few years ago when I went to London for a theater study, I read a brilliant essay introducing light and scene design theory, which uses things like light, costuming and setting to reinforce the story's dominant themes and metaphors.

This may be obvious to some of you, but it sure was new to me when I first started. (By the way, if you really want to take this idea and run with it, pay close attention to film soundtracks the next time you go to one...but now I'm digressing) Back to the topic...

This production of the Magic Flute is definitely the best re-staging I've worked on thusfar. By putting it in a 1920s boarding school, all the weird abstract metaphors now have concrete meanings. Tamino's "trials of fire and water" are actual events where he has to face peer pressure and become a man of virtue. The three spirits are upperclassmen who know how to guide those under them in how it's done. Not to mention the fact that for about 20 years, the school building is the fundamental setting of all our "trials" in life. I especially like the fact that the "savage beasts" of the original storyline are portrayed by the Jocks. If that isn't the most apt metaphorical re-staging I've ever seen, I'll buy you a Coke.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

On Acting: Or, how you can't always fake it 'till you make it...

Holding off on the literary criticism for a bit, I wanted to share an interesting little experience I had in rehearsal last night...

Sarastro, my character, is in the same class as people like Dumbledore in Harry Potter, Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, or Nelson Mandela in Invictus. In other words, he has serious amounts of prestige, authority and power, but also expresses it gently and humanely. This is a pretty easy concept to grasp and very easy to spot on stage. It's also, as it turns out, very hard to produce... that is to say, hard to produce when you don't have it.

Authority is one of those tricky things. It's subtle. It's a subtext. It's when your posture, your tone of voice, and your very being project a blazing confidence that you are in control. As my staging coach mentioned in rehearsal, it's a lot different from exerting and posturing power over others. It's much more about the awareness that you could.

This is all well and good, and I could write pages explaining the concept. However, something else came up last night... see, I'm younger than most of the cast, new at this level of performance, and generally have been out of my element wandering around rehearsal spaces in the city after rushing there from work. All this put together, plus a few inner personal life issues, and it turns out Steve doesn't have a lot of that inner confidence that needs to be showcased. This makes acting the role rather hard.

Now, this is not going to turn into an emotive post. I'm not writing this to say "hey everyone look at me the emo kid who feels intimidated." Not at all. In fact, I found that very authority-reservoir within myself a bit more on my 10 minute walk back to my car that night, when I was listening to my iPod music and was more in my element...

...But it just served to illustrate pretty clearly to me that acting isn't all, well, acting. In a lot of cases, the only reason actors can pull of what they're doing on the stage is because they're not faking it. They're drawing on their own experiences, their own inner reserves, to go to that place (or show that emotion, or whatever) in the fake environment on the stage. It's the setting that's fictitious, not the actions.

If you think about that, there are huge connotations and implications on the nature of acting, or watching someone act, and the effect of it all on us as people.

For one thing, it raises the bar as to what you are messing with if the material is controversial or disturbing...
For another, it also holds more potential for the actor to discover things about himself or grow in the process of "taking on" a role. Indeed, more than that, it makes the euphemism "taking on a role" really mean something fairly concrete.

Often when coaching someone in public speaking or beginning any position of authority, it's often said "fake it 'till you make it". That points to the fact that we learn by doing more than we learn, then do it. But there's also a flip side to that little phrase... and I think that sometimes it may more true to say that you can't fake it until you've made it.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Introducing the Magic Flute: Or, here we go again, Steve is in a show...

Now that the production of The Magic Flute by MetroWest Opera is kicking into full gear, I've finally had the chance to dig into the story some more and I'm really surprised by how many things I've found in it that I like. (Particularly since the work when staged with its original text and setting is a rather bizarre surrealist Freemason allegory.)

Fortunately the directors of MetroWest are taking a few moves out of the modern theater playbook and are playing fast and loose with it to make it a bit more enjoyable. On most occasions, I'd balk at such things, but in this case, I think it works. We've gotten rid of a lot of the misogynistic and racists spots and with my own few subversive tweaks here and there, there's almost nothing objectionable to it now. In fact, since the plot is admittedly vague and uses a lot of generic symbols (light and darkness, vanity and virtue, "righteousness"...) I'm finding plenty to think and write about while working with it. I hope to share a few of those in the next couple of weeks.

Here's a quick run-down for those of you who don't know the story, so I don't lose anybody later in my musings...

Tamino, a noble and enthusiastic brave lad, is rescued by the servants of the Queen of the Night from a tight spot with a giant dragon... they in turn recruit him to rescue the Queen's daughter Pamina, who has been kidnapped by the ominous Sarastro. Tamino, seeing her picture, is all for it and marches off...along with the help of a goofy and cowardly man named Papageno, a bird catcher with a weird costume. Oh yes, and in order to help them accomplish their mission, they're given a Magic Flute and some Magic Bells.

Once they come to the gates of Sarastro's temple, they are blocked from entering by the guards. There the guards inform Tamino that he was deceived, that Sarastro is actually the paragon of goodness and the queen is evil.

After meeting Sarastro himself and being shown the error of his ways, Tamino agrees to undergo the Three Trials (cue thunder clap and rumble), become an initiate of the Temple of Wisdom (cue angelic choir and shiny lights), and generally rise to the status of brave and upright manly man... the process, the evil queen is vanquished, a sketchy servant is foiled, Tamino gets the girl, Pagageno gets a wife, and lots of pyrotechnics are used.

Next entry I'll talk a little about the big themes that get worked out in the story, and maybe the big ideas of each character... in other words, why we care about such an odd story.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Christ Is Risen!

Indeed He is Risen!

Thy Resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing. Enable us on earth to glorify Thee with purity of heart!

Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

This is the day of Resurrection! Let us be radiant, o ye people! Pascha, the sacred Pascha of the Lord! From death to life, and from earth to heaven Christ our God has raised us who sing this hymn of victory!

Come, let us drink not drawn from a barren stone but the Fountain of Life, springing forth from the tomb of Christ, in whom we are established!

Divinely speaking Habakuk, now stands with us in vigil, and brings to light an angel saying Christ is risen as all powerful.

Let us arise in the dawn and instead of myrrh offer a hymn to the Lord, and we shall behold Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, who causes life to dawn on all.

Thou didst descend into the nether regions of the earth, O Christ, and didst shatter the eternal bars which held the prisoners captive, and like Jonah from the sea-monster, after three days Thou didst arise from the grave.

He Who delivered the Children from the furnace, and became man and suffers as mortal, and through suffering clothes mortality with the beauty of incorruption, is the only blessed and most glorious God of our fathers.

This is the chosen and holy day, the first of Sabbaths, the Sovereign and Queen of Days. The Feast of Feasts, Holy day of Holy Days, on which let us bless Christ forevermore.

Magnify, O my soul, Christ the Lifegiver, Who rose form the grave of the third day!

-The Matins Canon of Pascha