Last night I received some terrific actor inspiration! I went with some friends to see a production of corporeal mime (which, for those of you unfamiliar with the art form, is something like a combination of story based theatre and modern dance). It was entitled Waiting for Ulysses and presented as part of the Theatre de l’Ange Fou‘s White Church Theatre Project. It was compelling, beautiful, funny, and unnerving. The performers are from all over the globe and they perform and study the techniques of Corporeal Mime created by Etienne Decroux (who taught Marcel Marceau as well as my teacher, Jewel Walker). Their home base is in London, UK. This is the second summer season the company has performed in its space in the beautiful Wisconsin countryside. If you are in the Spring Green area anytime now through Aug. 12, I STRONGLY recommend stopping by and catching a performance! (I have their schedule posted at the end of this entry.) They have rehabbed a beautiful old white church in a valley not far from American Players Theatre and Taliesin into a performance space.
As a performing artist myself, walking away from the production I can’t help but dwell on a couple of aspects…
First, the use of gesture and it’s powerful yet economic ability to convey a whole history. One of the performers in the role of “Penelope” (Ulysses’ hopeful, pining wife) brushes at her long hair, evidently her thoughts are elsewhere and likely on her long lost husband. This type of gesture is something I am making of use of in Hamlet. There is a moment after the my father’s ghost leaves me with the charge of “remember me” where director John Langs suggested I literally “from the table of my memory… wipe away all trivial fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past that youth and observation copied there.” It is a gesture I return to a few other times in the show, particularly when Hamlet finds himself off track and needing to return to the focus of revenge. I do it on “about my brains, hum…” There is a moment when I drift into lovingly, reaching out in friendship to Horatio but need to get on point with “something too much of this.” I return to the gesture again in the play within the play when I need to get the distracting heartache of Ophelia out of my way. Some might consider this a little obvious or cliche, but I find it to be a touchstone of character and story. Not only is it a touchstone for the audience but for me as Hamlet as well. It is a grounding experience, a return to objective and intention. I loved seeing this play out in MANY different ways in Waiting for Ulysses.
The other thing I could not stop considering was the instant and dramatic arresting of attention that happens when a solo performer is confronted by the entrance of one or more other performers. This is nothing unique to mime, but with the absence of language it’s dramatic effect was more apparent to me. A man alone. A woman enters. Already there is drama. Will they see one another? Do they know one another? Who will engage whom? Love? Hate? Fortune/Misfortune? What will happen!? Similarly, this drama occurs with the entrance of three or four or five more performers, etc.. However, when a stage is crowded, as in a big court scene or armies in battle, we have a potential to return to a level of stasis similar to a solo performer on stage. This is not to say the level of drama is better or worse, just different. I find playing monologues very daunting for this reason. With one or more other performers in a scene there is an inherent sense of unpredictability. On the basest level, what if the other performer drops a line or a cue? BOOM drama. On the highest level the two performers work in a state of acute awareness of one another, freeing themselves up for spontaneity and surprise. Alone, delivering a monologue, there is the trap of performing for the sake of accuracy or correctness which is not particularly freeing. This is why an audience is so helpful. I never really enjoyed rehearsing Hamlets famous speeches until I had that first audience there to share in the experience. The same trap of static energy can happen in those large group scenes too. There are so many folks on stage that everyone must be responsible for his or her part, so as to not cause a chain reaction of chaos. It has not been uncommon for me to be sitting in an audience, sitting back while witnessing an apparently epic crowd scene and then find myself on the edge of my seat for a simple two person scene that follows it. The balance of thrill, spontaneity and “presence” must be especially paid attention to when working in these two situations. I find it especially challenging moving from “To be or not to be…” into the Ophelia scene. My goal is to make “To be or not to be” as readily necessary and tension filled as the extraordinary energy that arises when I am interrupted with what becomes the “nunnery scene.” The funny thing is that I never REALLY know how well it is going until it is over and Ophelia has arrived. I rarely succeed at reaching the potential I see waiting there, but from time to time I get a taste of what is possible and that is reward enough to keep me hungry for more.
Seeing these elements so vividly on display and in such a marvelous production is enormously helpful. I can’t wait to get on stage with this renewed inspiration! Come on out and see some shows at APT and then slip into The White Church Theatre Project for Waiting for Ulysses running now through Aug. 12th!
The White Church Theatre Project is in the former Wyoming Valley Church
6348 Hwy. 23, south of Spring Green. $10 donation. 815-441-8828