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Oedipus

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In preparing the performance of Oedipus, my cast and I followed in large part the theory and practice of Stanislavski, especially the “Method of Physical Action”. In this essay I will counterpoint the notions of Stanislavski’s system with their application in my personal preparation and our group rehearsals.

While searching for the ultimate training system for actors, Stanislavski noticed a gap between the physical and mental behaviour of the actor on stage, as well as between the physical and mental preparation in the actor’s work on the character. This was due to the long internal and emotional preparation of the actor before his effort to create physicality in the character. By that time, though, the internal emotional choices of the actor had already found a physicality that was most likely to be clichéd, uninspired and lacking in theatrical form. Stanislavski realized that the physical life and psychological processes that the actor underwent needed to be explored simultaneously, because they were interdependent. This led him to the simple, yet radical discovery that emotions could be stimulated through physical actions. This move from ‘Emotional Memory’ to his ‘Method of Physical Actions’ was an important shift in actor training at that time, which works well until now having been interpreted in different ways by his successors.

THE METHOD OF PHYSICAL ACTIONS

Stanislavski’s System proposed that a series of physical actions arranged in successive order would spark the necessary emotions in an actor’s performance. He thought that these emotions emanated from the unconscious and should be brought out through indirect means. He therefore created this ‘Method of Physical Actions,’ a physical map designed for the actor, who would follow it consciously until his “unconscious” emotions would emerge.

Units and Objectives

In order to create this map, Stanislavski developed points of reference for the actor, which are now generally known as units and objectives.

A unit is a portion of a scene that contains one objective for an actor. Thus, a unit changes every time a shift occurs in a scene. Every unit has an objective for each character. This objective is expressed through the use of an active and transitive verb; for example, to seduce her or to annoy him. This active (action driven) objective then had corresponding physical action(s) that would help to achieve the objective. The objective was directed towards another person in order to ensure interaction and communication with others on stage.

Analysing the scenes of the play under the light of the notion of units and objectives, during the time before starting the performance, my objective was to place the audience firstly in a mood that would combine relaxation, anticipation and a bit of restlessness – and I did that by playing the first piece of music in the guitar, which was sweet and uneasy at the same time – and then, prepare the spectators for the “bad news”, by playing the second piece of music, which was more rhythmic and strong.

In the first scene, I was playing the priest. In that scene, we wanted to trigger Oedipus to act in the favour of his people. We did that by standing completely still and by using the depth of my voice.

The Chorus’ objectives were to make Oedipus think, to tease him, to prevent him from doing something, to make fun of him, to trigger him, to provoke him, to criticize him, to justify him, to sympathize with him.

The Messenger’s objectives were to bring the news to Jocasta on the death of Oedipus’ father and then give the news on Oedipus’ origin.

Through line of Actions and the Superobjective

When objectives are strung together in a logical and coherent form, a through line of action is mapped out for the character. This is important in order to create a sense of the whole. Stanislavski developed the concept of the Superobjective that would carry this ‘through line of action.’

The Chorus’s superobjective in the whole play was to be Oedipus conscience’ voice and to help the audience understand the story and to arouse emotions for the characters.

Analysis of Text through Action

In analysing an action, the actor answers three questions, ‘What do I do?’ ‘Why do I do it?’ and ‘How do I do it?’ This helps the actor understand the aim or main idea of the play. Earlier, Stanislavski would spend long months around the table with his actors, analysing the text and breaking it into small parts. Later he changed this practice because he felt it led to a separation of emotion and behaviour. Stanislavski, at this later time, started rehearsals almost immediately after discussing the main idea, analysing the psychophysical behaviour of actors on stage in action. The analysis became active and the sequence of dramatic situations is improvised.

We were given these questions by Catherine and I thought about them for each of my characters.

Priest: I ask help from the king, being the voice of the people, I represent the people who want to learn why the plague is devastating the city and require from the king to give explanations and why he seems so indifferent to the city’s needs. I did that by standing still and giving depth to my voice.

Messenger: I bring information, being a messenger by profession; I came to inform Jocasta that Polybus had died. I also bring the good news that Oedipus will become King. I then inform Oedipus that he is not real son of Polybus.

Chorus: The Chorus role is to help tell the audience the given circumstances of the play, to entertain the audience, to enhance the workings of the plot, to explain the characters and events. The Chorus reacts to events as they happen, expressing a longing for calm and stability, seeking to maintain the status quo. We wanted to put the Chorus at a different position than that of mere humans. We wanted to be everything else, beyond the protagonists. We wanted to be the city of Thebes, the plague that was devastating it, its people, the sadness, the joy, like a materialisation of emotions and thoughts and intangible things.

Truth, Belief and the ‘Magic If’

Stanislavski stated that truth on stage was different from truth in real life. This was an important factor in acting, especially so in realism where the aim of the actor was to create the appearance of reality or ‘truth’ on stage. In Stanislavskian technique, as in most other theatre training techniques, an actor does not actually believe in the truth of the events on stage, only in the imaginative creation of them. This then posed the problem of creating the appearance of reality for the spectator. Stanislavski’s answer to this problem was in the creation of the ‘Magic If.’ The actor tried to answer the question, “If I were in Macbeth’s position, what would I do?” Thus, the character’s objectives drove the actor’s physical action choices. Through the stimulus of the powerful ‘if,’ an actor could make strong theatrical choices that would appear to the audience as real, true and believable. In Stanislavski’s opinion, the actor who had the ability to make the audience believe in what he/she wanted them to believe, achieved ‘scenic truth.’

Messenger: I had to show that things took place as presented in the play; to convey the message that Polybus had died and all the other news. I had to be on the stage, know my letters and simply respond to what was going on at each moment. I changed by behaviour, my voice, my movements; I changed the way I would think; my body changed its posture. In my home I used to walk up and down, trying how the character and his voice would be. He had a lot of facial expressions, he let himself free to move, free to speak, free to have a different style from the other characters.

Chorus: As previously told, we decided not to be simply human; he had the emotions and the posture of the audience, of things, thoughts and concepts altogether.

Imagination

Stanislavski likened the study of his ‘Method of Physical Actions’ to a study of the grammar of a language. He cautioned however, that just as knowledge of grammar alone does not guarantee beautiful writing, knowledge of his techniques was only useful to an actor if accompanied by a fertile imagination. Stanislavski reiterated the use of the ‘theatrical’ and ‘imaginative’ faculties rather than trying to copy reality by rote: There is no such thing as actuality on the stage. Art is a product of the imagination, as the work of a dramatist should be. The aim of the actor should be to use his technique to turn the play into a theatrical reality. In this process imagination plays by far the greatest part. The more fertile the actor’s imagination, the more interesting would be the choices made in terms of objectives, physical action and creating the given circumstances around the character.

For each scene, at my home and during the rehearsals with the group, I was imagining that the facts were exactly as related in the play: Gods above our heads, Oedipus really killed the Sphinx, the Sphinx being a frightening monster, which could actually chase you. Our trigger line was “Apollo”, which made us lift our hands above our heads automatically.

Priest: I truly believed that my city is dying, my family, my own people, when I was walking in the street I was even seeing people dying in ditches. When speaking, I wasn’t thinking of the words, I was thinking of images of death and pain.

Messenger: I was driven by movement for that role; since I had decided to play it like that. I was following my (his) own reaction to each event.

Chorus: We were truly believing in fate; being both the patients and the disease.

Through personal work and group work, during the rehearsals we tried to serve all the aforementioned and the following concepts of Stanislavski’s Method of Physical Actions, explained briefly.

Concentration

Stanislavski was concerned with actors getting distracted by the audience while performing on stage. He sought ways to counteract this distraction. He however did not advocate that the actor forget the audience, or tries to believe it did not exist. That, he felt, would be contradictory to the art of theatre, because the audience was an important ‘co-creator’ of the performance.

The audience for me was Thebe’s people. I was focused on the performance because of the vivid images I had in my mind.

Subtext

An important function served by imagination is to discover and fill in ‘subtext.’ Subtext refers to the meaning lying underneath the text/dialogue. This subtext is not spoken, but rather, interpreted by the actor through intonation, gesture, body posture, pauses or choices in action. Thus, through the actor’s imagination, the subtext ‘spoke’ to the audience. Stanislavski said: “Spectators come to the theatre to hear the subtext. They can read the text at home”.

Motivation

Motivation or ‘will’, ‘feelings’ and ‘mind are considered by Stanislavski ‘impelling movers in our psychic life’. Stanislavski insisted that an actor was either driven by emotions or by the mind to choose physical actions. This in turn aroused the ‘will’ of the actor to perform the given actions. Thus, the ‘will’ became activated indirectly through either emotions or the mind.

Relaxation

Stanislavski’s thoughts on relaxation were based on the premise that in order to achieve control of all motor and intellectual faculties, the actor needed to relax his muscles: ‘Muscular tautness interferes with inner emotional experience’

Communion

Communion for Stanislavski was communication with the audience indirectly through communion with other actors. Stanislavski called for the unbroken communion between actors which would hold the attention of the audience. He differentiated between being in communion with a real partner and in communion with an imaginary person. With a real partner, to be in communion, one had to be aware of the other’s presence, see images and actively transmit them through spoken words with energy.

Adaptation

Adaptation required the actor to answer the questions ‘What’ (action), ‘Why (aim) and ‘How” (adaptation) with respect to an action problem. The problems of action and aim might be addressed during analysis of a play text, but the problem of adaptation would depend on the actor’s interaction with others and the adjustments that would have to be made. Another way to look at adaptation was the overcoming of physical obstacles that would constantly need adjustments in order for the actor to achieve a goal. Adaptation was really dependent on communion because the actor needed to be completely aware of the other actor in order to make adjustments. An important function of adaptation was that it allowed the actor to transmit ‘invisible messages’ that could not be put into words. In that respect, adaptation could be employed to communicate subtext. Stanislavski felt that an actor of limited emotional range could produce a greater impact through the power of adjustments, than an actor who felt deep emotions but could not express them adequately.

Tempo-Rhythm

Tempo-rhythm can act as a powerful bridge between the inner experience and its physical expression. For Stanislavski, tempo-rhythm was both inner and outer. Emotions to him, had a distinctive pulse and pattern to them. ‘Tempo’ referred to the speed of an action or an emotion. The tempo could be fast, medium or slow. ‘Rhythm’ was, internally, the intensity of the emotional experience. Externally, it was the pattern of gestures, movements and actions. Stanislavski believed that tempo-rhythm was extremely vital in order to execute physical actions in a concrete and truthful manner.

The Physical Apparatus

The quality of the actor’s performance depended on, not just the creation of ‘inner life’ but also the ‘physical embodiment’ of it. An actor’s body and voice were, in Stanislavski’s opinion, the physical apparati that were needed in order for the actor to fully express every nuance and subtle shade of character. Stanislavski saw the body and voice as ‘instruments’ that could be trained and could help the actor give shape to an action. He insisted on training the actor’s voice just like that of a singer’s, identifying ‘resonators’ located in the ‘masque.’

The body needed to be trained, to improve posture, and make movements supple and graceful. There was no room for mechanical gestures or mannerisms in the theatre. For Stanislavski, a gesture needed to reflect inner experience. It then became purposeful, logical and truthful. The physical technique, he felt, would train an actor’s feelings for truth and form

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