Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Strange Interlude (Washington DC)

I had the opportunity to see Strange Interlude at Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washing DC. 
Strange Interlude, for those playing the home game, is O’Neill’s attempt at creating a stage version of an inner life.  The script, therefore, has lots of idiosyncrasies in which the characters break from the scene to talk have these sort of soliloquies while everyone else on stage ignores them.  Interesting in concept.  Super intriguing for when it was written and first performed.  I would even say it is something I would love to play around with now. 
A couple of things though, first, if it is a character’s internal world, why not let the audience in on it.  Instead of it being a monologue to some made up point in the sky, why not take it to us.  Draw us in as the inside of the characters mind.  Good literature already does this.  Well, at least well written first person literature.  Think of how you felt when you read, say The Lovely Bones, or The Great Gatsby, or almost anything by Kurt Vonnegut.  Heck, even Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy does it.  When done well, attaching the audience to a specific characters point of view brings the audience into the story, invests them with the power of “I” instead of “they”.   I would love to see contemporary theatre tackle this idea (and if you know anyone who is doing work like this, please let me know – I would LOVE to see it!)
Also, today I want to talk about pace.  Ok, those who know me, or read this blog lots, know that I have a huge issue with what I call “butt in seats time”.  For the most part, I think almost all shows longer than 2 hours can and should be shortened.  (Some of the time, without even cutting text.)  I mean, not always, St Joan was def over 2 hours, and Iwould not have changed a single thing about that show. 
But back to Strange Interludes… it was 2 hours and 45 mins.  Yep, that’s right.  I mean, on the plus side, it did have two intermissions, which helped.  However, that is just too long really.  I mean, the story itself doesn’t need to be a 3 hour story.  It really doesn’t.  But most upsetting about the show was not just the time, but also the pace. 
I’ve had several conversations recently in which I have talked about, what I felt like, was a need to pick up the pace.  And each time I realized that what I meant, and what was being heard were not the same thing.  So let me explain myself before I go any further.   When I say something needs to be faster, or the pace needs to be picked up, rarely do I mean that the actors need to speak faster.  Mostly, because that is rarely the problem.  In fact, that is probably the biggest misconception about pacing – that pacing means talking faster or slower. 
My mentor, Lanford Wilson, once said in a rehearsal “Dear God this show is too slow.  Pick up the cues.  Stop thinking and then talking.  People don’t do that.  You don’t think before you talk, you think as you talk.”  This is what I normally mean when I say pick up the pace.  There are rarely reasons to have Mac Truck pauses on stage.  And when there are, they need to be earned.  Pauses become meaningful when they are rare.  Think about the last time you had a conversation.  Or raise the stakes, think of the last time you had an argument – when you were really mad.  How many pauses were in that moment?  For most people, the answer will be very few.  The argument occurs at the rapid pace of thought.  When the silence comes, it generally represents a point won for someone.  Either one participate has been so hurt that they can’t process, or one participate has just realized that he/she is wrong, or one participate has come across a topic so painful that they cannot skip blithely into it without re-centering themselves.  That is life. 
However, in theatre, we are often subjected to moments of thought before the line (which, to be fair, is totally ok in rehearsal as actors and directors are trying to find the reasons that this line must be said at this moment).  In performance, however, it is killer.  In performance, it can take what could have easily been a very good 2 hour and 20 min play, and turn it into a very slow 2 hour and 45 min play. 
When the pacing is off at this level, I find it hard to concentrate on what is happening on stage for long periods of time, because I don’t care.  If everything is given the weight of a pause, then nothing actually matters.  When I was in undergrad, I once had to do a directors book for a scene I had directed, and in it I had to make a temporal graph of each moment of the scene.  In the end, it kinda looked like a crazy bar graph or a line from a lie-detector.  And while I don’t physically do that anymore, it was an invaluable lesson for me in what pacing really means.   Life doesn’t happen in the same pace, so neither should theatre.   Theatre, I think, should happen at the pace of life – the life of the character, the life of the story, the life of the show, and the life of the performance.  And yes, there will be a little variation across the board on that.  (Though, I tend to agree with Peter Brook when he said something like – good work runs the same time while bad work’s time varies extremely.) 
Anyway, that is my two cents for today.  Thanks for listening!   Feel free to let me know what you think too!

1 comment:

  1. You have some keen insights. In many of life's situations, people do not think before they speak. And yet, in at least as many, they reword what they're going to say before they say it. They take a moment to evaluate the situation and then proceed with tact. If an actor is actually going after something, then in all likelihood, that actor will need to readjust midstream. And if you remove those moments, you also remove that part of the humanity.

    As an actor and a director, I certainly strive for pace, and yet I find it very difficult to juggle even a stage reality with pace. Because acting is about more than opening up and letting her rip. As an audience member, I'd rather see a living, breathing play done in three hours than even a well-done, planned out production in an hour and a half.

    I have never seen a show that was alive AND had brisk pace (and by that, I mean constant talking, whether quick or not). In fact, usually, when I see pace achieved - even well, I wish that the actors would take the time process the information they're receiving, so that I can witness the reality unfold. Usually, when I see an "earned" pause, I tend to be offended by the intentional nature of it. It's obvious if actors are not living. Even if they are "convincing", if they know what they're going to do before they do it, so do we.

    I don't see why one moment should matter over another moment. Nor do I see how that advances the storytelling. If I watch someone live through an event, then the whole event has importance.

    I also don't necessarily see how an actor talking to an audience shares any more than the actor talking to himself. Much of the time, I like to break fourth wall in my work, but I find that it highlights the nerves of the audience more than anything else. It's a cute, funny, trick. It can be connective in that an actor can't always go through a planned routine with a new group of people. Aside from that, I'd rather see someone be able to live in a private world onstage. Maybe 1 out of every 100 performers I see is able to do that.

    I definitely agree that life and theatre do not and should not happen at the same pace. It's just as annoying to watch someone take everything in, to pause before every line. That kind of extreme attention to listening and receiving information is just as publicly self-conscious and ridiculous as the aforementioned.

    Based on your last paragraph, I think we agree more than we disagree. And it would seem to me that you probably don't love to see the kinds of plays written by Eugene O'Neill and Anton Chekhov. Personally, I don't believe in cutting anything. And those plays are intentionally long. I think it speaks more to the attention spans of our generation than anything else that anything over 2 hours is problematic. But maybe they have also lost their connectivity to the times.