Learning From Angels

Cameron McCallie

I’d like to start this post with a question that I had meant to ask during our discussion of Brechtian theater. We had discussed that one of the ways that Brechtian theater acknowledges Stanislavskian theater is by doubting it (or perhaps vise-versa)? In any case, I find myself slightly confused as an actor. I’ve always worked using the Stanislavskian method. The idea of finding truth behind your actions makes the most sense for me, as well as deriving actions from characters. Our Brechtian reading mentions the opposite- characters should be derived from their actions. I know that one of our goals with The Laramie Project is to approach it with a Brechtian style, but I feel that we are approaching the acting with a Stanislavskian approach. Am I wrong in thinking this? Is there something to be gained in this contradictory approach?

My next reflection is on the spectacular production of Angels in America. The entire event was a truly wonderful experience, and I’m grateful for our department for allowing this opportunity to occur. It was very cool to meet with the actors in between shows. I remember Prior mentioning how important is it to “forget” the lines and listen more, creating a more realistic and better scene. I appreciated his honesty in mentioning that it is certainly a risk, but one worth taking. I think this advice will be tremendously important in the Rob Debree vs. Aaron McKinney scene. It still blows my mind how many lines these performers had to memorize, especially if working under this philosophy- I have a tremendous admiration for their stamina.

Another thing that I gleaned from the production is how important and yet how subtle character shifts can be. The woman who played Hannah Pitt was extraordinarily convincing in all of her numerous roles. While costumes, props, and make-up play a big part in these transformations, she made subtle tweaks in her physicality and voice that did most of the work. I remember her saying in the talk back a very simple piece of advice: “I know where the doctor holds his head”. One of the biggest challenges for me in Laramie has been developing physical and vocal differences between my three major characters, all of whom are middle-aged white men in positions of power. I hope that in the next month, I will be able to reflect back on this performance and the advice that I’ve been given in order to uniquely distinguish these characters.

One thought on “Learning From Angels

  1. Cameron,

    Good question about the Brecht – Stanislavski divide. One very quick and probably unsatisfactory response is that Brechtian acting is probably most specifically bound to plays written *by* Brecht. The idea of building character from action works in particular harmony with his plays because he’s building a dramaturgy of distantiation within the text itself. Just as a classic Stanislavskian performance approach finds one of its most harmonious expressions when coupled with the plays of Chekhov (not the least of which because Chekhov was a playwright with which Stanislavski intimately collaborated as a director).

    This being said, I think we are safe to say that there is a kind of Brechtian dramaturgy at work in the *structure* of Laramie that has a direct impact on the acting. Does that make sense? I think I might have said this some time in our class discussion. There is a linear *argument* and even a progression (however disjointed) of time, of a beginning to an end; however, the play does not move forward in strict cause-effect (except perhaps in Act 3 but even the trials are interrupted by flashbacks and flashforwards). We open on a montage, introducing the TTP characters and the Laramie citizens who are inhabiting the same bodies at the same time. So from the get-go the play thwarts and clear identification with one person to a three-dimensional role that develops over the shared time in the theater. As actors, you all have to hop in and out of characters and scenes with, at least to the eyes of the audience, only the dialogue as your guide. In some sense it is the perfect self-contained theater world of Stanislavski but with the disjointed chaos of who, where, and when of Brecht. So distantiation is not on the actor’s shoulders alone. It is a kind of active commentary threaded into the text and, as Jeff’s been crafting it in rehearsals, the staging as well.

    All that said, when characters are speaking either to each other or imagined/real TTP members (which, remember, can be represented by on-stage actors or by audience members), the commitment to their point-of-view, beliefs, emotions has to be credible, real. What becomes “Brechtian,” and Jeff can jump here and correct me if he feels I’m asserting my own reading of Brechtian performance vs. the one he is working with, is how quickly that emotion is released and, sometimes, picked up again four or five scenes down the line. The lack of continuity, of catharsis, that the constant switching of character and moment, disrupts the audience’s tendency to identify with any one character for more than a few brief moments. It’s not a pure expression of the way Brecht required his actors to be both in and outside a character, but it’s one that’s manageable give the composition of the Laramie script. (Again, Brecht’s theory of theater was total … not just acting but dramaturgy, scenography, music … so outside a Brechtian text the “rules” that govern Brechtian technique are a bit more flexible. They have to be because they are usually quite divorced from the kind of political theater to which Brecht aspired.)

    I think a blended Brecht/Stanislavski technique that Jeff has articulated quite brilliantly in the smaller rehearsals is for folks to create in their minds the direct question that motivates your response. No one just speaks to describe; those monologues that seem to exist unmoored from an interaction with another person must be motivated by a provocation, a want, a need to tell your interrogator something they do not currently understand or to counteract an idea or perception they’ve just articulated to you. What’s Brechtian about this is that it isn’t motivated by realistic setting or slow build-up of action or interaction. It just happens (as Trish Steiger says, “baboom” pg. 42) and as quickly as it is manufactured and presented it is gone, and you are on to the next character, the next interaction, the next response. What’s Stanislavskian about it is that for that one moment, it has to a fully present and genuine response. It has to come from an internal logic that you’ve worked out, behind the scenes, in relationship to the text and that character’s ultimate journey through the text. We have to believe that you are really saying what you are saying for a purpose. Otherwise, it’s narration without motivation.

    The ability to distinguish your three characters from one another is a challenge. Again, here’s where the Brecht and Stanisklavski approaches might clash. One part of me says that the more Brechtian approach would be to not make a great deal of distinctions between the three middle-aged white men in positions of power. The greater political choice would be to show how *similar* they are in this community versus making them each individual beings with different motivations based on personality, background, and position (however similar those positions might be). However, I think that Laramie’s “documentary” impulse is better embraced by finding some key distinctions, not running all middle-aged white men together as a monolith in this community because they do play distinct, different roles in this story. The idea that Julie Fishell mentioned of a key physical characteristic around which you build a characters movement and action on stage seems a nice mid-way point between the commentary of Brecht and the naturalism of Stanislavski. Perhaps starting with some rather exaggerated distinctions between your three “white guys” will help you locate what’s comfortable and credible. I always think it’s easier to pull back from a big choice than to make a small, intimate gesture more exaggerated but you might work differently. As we add some costume pieces and props this week, those elements might be helpful as well. I keep remembering Christian’s comment from the Angels meeting about how happy he was when he and Jeff got to play the hot dog scene, or being able to hold a notebook in another scene. Those props offered a way to anchor himself in a particular here and now even as the world around was abstract and unrealistic.

    I hope some of this helps. Again, Jeff, jump in and let me know if I’ve gone too far afield in my discussions of Brecht and Stanislavski.


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