Performance Journal: Performing the Layers

In a rehearsal this week I articulated to myself a sense of the layering of objectives. In one of the final scenes in The Elephant Man, Treves discovers Mrs. Kendal revealing herself to Merrick in his room. Treves banishes her from the hospital and, losing all the emotional ground he’s previously covered with Merrick, tells him he cannot have or enjoy this gift she’s given him.

After Merrick receives an unexpected visit from Ross (his former manager for a touring freak show), Treves is found in Merrick’s room reading about anesthetics. Merrick asks several spiritual questions of Treves, and rather than answering, he tells stories and talks around the topic. As we rehearsed the beginning of the scene, the air grew thick between the actor playing Merrick and I. It soon became evident to me that Treves was there for an underlying reason: to eventually let the looming question land – why did he send Mrs. Kendal away?

Closer to the surface, Treves must avoid revealing himself to Merrick via humor and sarcasm. The convincing objective is simple: to get him to leave you alone and not to open yourself to him. The underlying objective, or the subconscious layer is almost the opposite: to begin the inevitable conversation. Lower still, once the inevitable conversation has begun, the overarching objective is to reach some sort of closure and to indeed open yourself to Merrick.

The lower layers are not played like the upper, more urgent ones, but they intimately inform them. Without the desire to finally be open to Merrick, because he sees so much of himself in him and subconsciously knows he will learn about himself through him, he would not have the information to, in effect, desire the exact opposite: to avoid the encounter with the truth. Treves encounters an Oedipal dialectic within himself at this juncture. The more he avoids the truth about himself, the more he searches for it, and out of this he must destroy what he sees.

Brecht asks the actor to define their intentions as well as the character’s through which they articulate that intention. To me, the deeper layers are as much my objectives as a person performing onstage as they are the objectives informing and fuelling the less abstract objectives in within the upper layers.

While inherently different, Brechtian and Aristotelian forms of tragedy converge here. For the performer, there is an ultimate search for the truth about them within the character and in that is the heart of tragedy.

More on this later…

Elements of a Score

Ryszard Cieslak in The Prince


While watching more Chaplin films, I recalled an excerpt of an interview with Ryszard Cieslak of Grotowski’s Polish Lab Theatre, by Richard Schechner published in Performance Theory. Cieslak refers to what he calls the ‘score’ of a performance: a dynamic set of predetermined physical actions which, like a musical score, provide a map of gestures and thought processes from which the performer can choose to use. These Gestik actions are objective and do not necessarily reflect what the performer him/herself feels, but provide the audience with images/pictures of what the performance wants to communicate. Chaplin, for example, doesn’t necessarily feel the anger we the audience see, but we see it (and sometimes feel it) because there is a pool of ‘angry’ actions and gestures from which he consciously selects the most organic and fitting. He puffs his chest, shuffles around lightly on the balls of his feet, lifts his arms and quickly drops them, cricles his would-be opponent, pulls his jacket halfway off, lifts and furrows his eyebrows. This score of actions are all gestures Chaplin rehearsed at length and was able to conjure up in each moment with great truthfulness and comedy. Like an improvising jazz musician, he quickly and knowingly selects his next measure from a pool of loose, readymade riffs. Cieslak likens this meticulously created score to “the glass inside which a candle is burning. The glass is solid, it is there, you can depend on it. The flame [inside the glass] is my inner process each night. The flame is what illuminates the score. Just as the flame in the candle glass moves, flutters, rises, falls, almost goes out, suddenly glows brightly, responds to each breath of wind – so my inner life varies from night to night, moment to moment. I begin each night without anticipations. I want only to be receptive to what will happen. And if I am secure in my score, [I know] the glass will not break. The score remains the same, but [each night] everything is different because I am different” (Schechner 1988: 47).

There seems to be a creative balance between pre-determined structure and intuitive impulse. As Cieslak points out, as long as there is a well-known structure of physical, intellectual and emotional actions to follow, the performer can allow him/herself to improvise on each measure based on how they feel in that given moment. Having a well-known score of actions to work with also serves as back-up when the moment is lost. It is impossible for a performer to keep the flame alight every night in each moment, so having the glass (the score) to protect these moments that would otherwise be lost is a valuable tool to keeping the momentum of a performance moving forward.

Lastly, having a previously articulated score of actions (physical & psychological) allows for the kind of critical distancing an actor needs to make from his/her character. If an actor is to have an active opinion of their character and their role within the social structure, they must have the opportunity to simply follow their written notes and observe from the outside, tweaking and adjusting these notes based on what they see.

Charlie Chaplin and Gestus

I’ve recently begun watching clips and films of Chaplin’s work. It is important for 21st Century theatre artists to check in with such a pivotal player in the creation of modern American performance. A cross between a vaudeville act and a clown, Chaplin discovered ways of using his body that was both comically exaggerated, honest, and recognizable. His performances are composed of a revolving repertoire of physical and facial gestures. By using white face make-up to pale his face, his expressions were always able to go back to a neutral tone. From there he could move in and out of various expressions that allowed him to quickly transition from one motivation to another.

Chaplin’s techniques inspired Brecht’s development of the term Gestus. Carl Weber describes Gestus or Gestik acting as “the total process […] of all physical behavior the actor displays when showing us a ‘character’ on stage…” (Weber 2000; from The Brecht Sourcebook). Brecht’s concept of Gestus includes not only the physical behaviors of an actor on stage, but correlates directly to who they are in their social reality. The actor’s entire Gestus (their physical score or repertoire) helps define their social positioning. As the Tramp, Chaplin performed a certain player within his social realm: a wandering, modern nomad of sorts. In each film, he finds himself trying out one trade after another be it a circus performer, factory worker or miner. His trademark shuffle of a walk and curious eyebrows, the constant adjusting of his hat and the way he fiddles meekly with his cane are all elements of his distinguishing himself as a unique character responding to social stimuli.

The famous ‘Table Ballet’ scene from The Gold Rush is a short, but illustrative example of the way an actor’s face can be neutralized and written upon by their Gestus. It is not the gimmick of the forks in the loaves of bread that is funny in this sketch, but the way Chaplin uses facial expressions to perform the dance. It’s as if the forks are his legs and the bread his feet. It’s as if his face is a blank page being written on before our eyes.