Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Theatre History, Part 4

As much as I desired transcendence in acting, at USL the faculty was determined to keep its students' feet on the ground and and bogged in mud. None of that arty-farty mumbo-jumbo for us. For us, it was pacing, projection, articulation, memorization, blocking, and obedience to the director's whim.

In Mother Courage, I made the mistake early on of asking for an explanation of a cross from UR to DL (that's Up Right and Down Left), and Dr. P, the director, rushed from his place in the auditorium to the apron of the stage and shouted that I was to do what he had told me to do because he had told me to do it, and let him make it clear he would brook no insolence from the likes of me. He had earned his Ph.D., and I, of course, had not!

I was a very young eighteen-year-old, sheltered throughout those years, and now unprotected for the first time in my life. I knew in that instant that I would never make that same mistake again. But how to save face, how to go on, how to cope?

I reasoned then that since I had a certain intelligence, I would figure things out for myself. I would continue reading the forbidden canon of books on acting theory and build my parts in solitude. I had lived a secret life for so long, it was an easy choice for me to make. Self-expression in a small Louisiana town back then was not an easy thing to do, better to live in one's mind, dream, and wait. Back then, I'd only encountered people remotely like myself during those few years at the seminary in Ohio. Down here, I didn't yet know if there might be others like me.

So I shut my trap and learned my blocking. I was familiar, and perfectly comfortable, with the odd psychic split that occurs in actors when they are performing and, at the same time, observing themselves from the back of the house. I'd done that all my life. It was simply me. From "out there", I began to see the pictorial value in the blocking. From "inside", I discovered reasons for the action.

I learned my lines. There was a standard way of doing this at USL, as well. Periodically, Dr. P would sit us all down for a speed read. I found this useful, though I noticed it carried its own danger, as it was possible to set the phrasing of the dialogue in implacable rhythms that would never vary.

I learned to pick up cues. That seems so funny now, but it was an important element Dr. P drilled into us.

And I learned to fix any mistake that might occur onstage right then and there and then go on.

None of these lessons was wrong. I needed to learn them, and I don't regret having had to endure the process, but that process only fostered my loner existence. I had so wanted to belong to a group of other people like myself, to share myself with them and they with me, but, no, that was not to be. It was still necessary that I stay quiet and keep my thoughts to myself.

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