Pause … Silence …Curtain

Harold Pinter
Image via Wikipedia

Harold Pinter has exited the room.

There can’t be too many theatre lovers who aren’t aware of the great man’s passing on Christmas Eve 2008 after a long, ravaging illness. A seminal playwright for the late 20th century, Nobel Laureate, actor and latterly an activist, Pinter never lost his anger which bubbled to the surface most obviously during the last 20 years of a crusade against the violence of war.  Whilst rage, fear, hurt, delight, and thinly-veiled barbarity are palpable in the carefully groomed text of his plays, you know the disgust and the disquiet driving the action are focussed, as was the anger in the man himself, on outing systemic violence.

I recall working on a production of Old Times in the mid-1970s for Queensland Theatre Company. We were a company of three actors under the direction of Alan Edwards, then also Artistic Director for the company. Old Times was for us a fascinating, always challenging assignment; you felt that in this play more than in ones by other writers that there was something more to be discovered,  something out there on the edge and about to slip away, or perhaps something even missing from it all. And perhaps this elusiveness would defeat you, leave you stranded wondering what the hell was going on.

The sense of a vacuum waiting to be filled is panic-inducing for an actor, and there can be much to panic an actor working on a Pinter.  The directions Pause and Silence which pepper his scripts are the most obvious signs in this landscape of disquiet and emptiness, and they always, always poke at the core of the actor’s process. You have to dig into those layers to find the currents in the deep waters of the text and its inhabitants. It has to be said also that in the mid 1970s Pinter on the mainstage of the state theatre company was also what we call ‘edgy’ today. It was a leap of faith in the audiences.  It’s hard to believe now, but one of the real concerns was whether or not audiences would ‘get it.’  Rehearsals were hard going at times, but oh it was ultimately good stuff.

Pinter’s plays were always a thrill to explore … and I use the word ‘explore’ deliberately. The nuances of his seemingly flat speech, the anger that drove so many of the exchanges, the challenge of creating a back-story that worked for you, and how to manage with integrity the meaning of those wretched ‘pauses’ and ‘silences’ were tasks worked through daily on the floor.  Is a pause shorter than a silence? How long should they be? Should they be timed for performance? … all of these seemingly trivial questions ranged round the rehearsal room. Ultimately the precision of the text with its pauses and silences are clues by the playwright to get you digging deeper into the dynamics of character, relationships … the play’s action. What was missing, that panic-y feeling of something else ‘out there’ was of course, what you had to find as an actor, and bring to the performance. Pause and Silence were no more than signposts along the way.

Old Times is a play of memory and truth … among other things! One line still resonates for me:   ‘As I recall it, so it happened.’ It’s one of the more intriguing ‘truths’ I’ve learned via a playwright, and  it’s stayed with me for the 30 or so years since I discovered it in the playing. In these terms then,  how fluid, how indefinable, but right somehow, and ultimately how lonely are our individual truths.

Vale Magister.

Andrew Eglinton has written a lovely and very personal reflection on Pinter over at London Theatre Blog. I do recommend it. You’ll also find the transcript of Pinter’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech and a video of the speech in Andrew’s post on LTB. There are also heaps of notices, obituaries and tributes to him below.

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It’s the ‘best of the year’ season …

Donmar Warehouse
Image via Wikipedia

Between Christmas and New Year’s there’s always a sense of the big roundup. For years, network television grabs the ‘biggest’ ‘worst’ ‘best’ etc. of everything and rehashes a package to remind us of the biggest, worst and best of the past year. These programs always remind me of the leftover Christmas ham that is also reappearing endlessly at this time.

I sent off a tweet this morning hashtagged #theatre which asked my stream which production they would rate as the best of 2008. Of course it’s a personal thing, but I’m more interested in why.

Want to join in? If you’re on Twitter add me @Dramagirl (you knew that) and put your choice and reasoning out there. Hashtag it #theatre (but you have to follow #hashtags first – you knew that) for it to work. We can then check out who saw what, where, and why. Fun.

If you couldn’t give a toss for Twitter, then add your comments here.

My bid: “The Chalk Garden” at the Donmar Warehouse in London. I saw this on a fine, summery afternoon in July. It was a whiff of lovely British writing from the mid-1950s. That year, Ms Bagnold’s fine play was rather swamped by “Look Back in Anger” (1956 was quite a year for theatre). Experiencing a beautifully paced production of a domestic psychological thriller, and with a superb ensemble cast made this year in theatre for me. Finely-wrought realism still works.

PS: I nearly didn’t see what was by then, a sold-out season. Raced through Covent Garden trying to find the Donmar, which is buried deep – one of the best kept secrets around in more ways than one. More directional signs please.

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With warmest wishes for the season …

Christmas #26
Image by kevindooley via Flickr

The Groundling is taking time out to be with family, to reflect on the year that’s passed, but mostly to take it easy, eat, drink and be merry.

With best wishes to you for the quiet joys of the season. May it be peaceful and all that you desire.

I’ll be back in a few days. In the meantime, thank you for visiting my small part of the blogosphere; I appreciate your visits.

Take care.

Twitter and the Groundling

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase, source unknown

Groundlings love being in crowds and in-crowds. It’s part of the buzz at the theatre for a start. Now the social-networking addicts’ favourite application, Twitter has a brand-new (about an hour old as I peck away here) International Theatre Group. How about that!

And what’s the point, apart from indulging your addiction? Joining this group, as with any other dedicated Twitter group aka a dedicated-directory means that you can stay in touch with like-mindeds, extend your reach, get more hits on your blog … and hopefully get other theatre folk to leave comment and come back for more.

Welcome to you if you are on the Twitter group. Please leave a hello below. If you’re not, why not join us?

The hashtag is #theatre (note the spelling).

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So you want to be an actor? … we have a problem

In 2007 I wrote about American scholar and practitioner Robert Hornby‘s ‘The End of Acting’. It’s a book that has a strong point of view about the art of acting and the education of artists.  I’ve enjoyed dipping back into it since a first reading in 1993.

That an actor needs training is, from Hornby’s perspective, a given. In that post I noted the importance the author placed on skills aquisition for the actor in training:

… these are means to an end, ’skills rather than art itself, and like all artistic skills must be learned to the point of becoming second nature. Only then does acting begin.’Three things you need to learn, Nov 2007

So what skills or knowledge do you need to be an actor, a creative artist? What kind of education does an artist require?  They’re good questions, and they continue to exercise the minds of many, as they have done in the past.

The idea of formalised, western actor-training in specialised institutions came to us quite late. Once upon a time an actor learned on the job. The integration of courses of study into higher education departments came in the latter part of the 20th century, and after drama had been well established as an discipline in its own right either within university Departments of Literature or Departments of English.

From the mid-1930s, there was a move by influential British figures to establish a modern training for actors based on the French model.  Michel St Dénis the French director, teacher and theatrical innovator was consulted, and from this time until his death in 1971, St Dénis was perhaps the most influential of the European theorists on the development of English-speaking actor-training curricula.  St Dénis’ program of study was built upon European foundations, and whilst programs of study have developed beyond his original blueprint, this influence can still be felt in the curricula of schools such as Julliard (US), RADA (UK), NIDA (Australia) and other high-profile actor-training institutions. The European push has had, and still exercises its generative influence upon the training of theatre artists in Australia, the UK, and in north America. Historically Australia has pretty much always looked to the UK and then the US for inspiration when it comes to developing theatre-training programs of study.

NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) Australia’s first theatre-training institution opened its doors in 1959; NIDA is now affiliated with UNSW. Indeed it has always been physically close to the UNSW campus, occupying as it once did the premises of the Old Tote Theatre Company on the university’s campus. NIDA is housed in its own splendid buildings these days, but it remains just ‘across the road’  from UNSW. In time Australian CAEs (Colleges of Advanced Education) also developed training programs for actors and other theatre practitioners from the 1970s. Most of these colleges and institutes then morphed into universities from the late 1980s.

This shotgun marriage was a political act driven by the federal government’s rationalisation of the higher education sector; colleges of art and universities were amalgamated … in some cases … under duress.  Apart from the organisational and governance differences which now affected many of these formerly autonomous organisations, what really seemed to matter was the new feel in the corridors.

What had been an industry-style training program of study found itself side by side with more academic or theoretical programs. There were inevitably gains and losses over time as some schools literally disappeared or courses of study were abandoned. In the best of these amalgamations, the practice of the art form informed theory and vice versa; courses that claimed to focus their study on the intersection of theory and practice were developed, and a newer discipline often called Performance or Theatre Studies developed.

It has to be said that the relationship in these institutions between the theorists and the practitioners, or between the theorist-practitioners and the artist-practitioners was never an easy one; perhaps the relationship was never really understood.  Fundamentally the issue was whether or not creative arts skills training was appropriate i.e., ‘academic’ enough in a university setting.  This false dichotomy which separates out learning outcomes continues to plague pedagogical discussions on the best or most appropriate way to train artists and creatives. The sad outcome was that a pecking order was battled over; a competitiveness encouraged to ensure survival.

David Grant (Queen’s University Belfast) published a paper which explored the link between actor-training and advocacy for court-room practitioners. He noted:

It has become conventional in higher education to analyse learning outcomes in terms of ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’. … I would propose the adoption of a third term – ‘qualities’ – to identify those attributes which can only be acquired by systematic and consistent practice. (my emphasis)

Practice is the key word here. Grant’s ‘qualities’ relate to Hornby’s ‘three things’ in that they are learned through experience, through doing. Hornby focuses on three attributes which a trained entry-level professional should have aquired over a course of study. These are: how to relax, how to relate to a scene partner, how to pursue objectives. Easy, right? Yes and no.

Hornby’s attributes are not particularly difficult to teach, and it’s worth saying that there are many angles from which to approach this training,  but the key ingredient is/has to be time … time to accommodate the reality of experiential learning. Hornby goes on to say that these skills have to be learned over and over again. It’s time consuming … and here’s the rub: time=money. In a time when cost-cutting and restructuring is a fact of life in most higher education institutions in Australia, the inevitable outcome for performing arts training is clear: the ‘resource-rich’ i.e., labour-intensive programs are the first to go.

Courses and programs designed to educate the next generation of artists are being reviewed … nothing wrong with that, indeed this should be one of those ‘rolling’ activities that exercises the mind of all educators. If however, it’s cost-cutting which is driving … as it almost always does … the reviewing and restructuring, then the exercises is being approached from the wrong end. These exercises always lead to no small degree of angst in those academics tasked with the job of rationalising their program offerings, and anxiety for those who will be affected.  It’s not overstating things to suggest that the future of our creative artists, and the quality of the industry is at stake when penny-pinching leads the charge for change.

The importance of  intensive, immersive engagement in experiential training for creative artists cannot be overstated.  It’s not possible to cut short skills-training and expect artistry to begin. Nor is a legitimate program of arts training possible without such engagement.

I’m worried …