November 19, 2008
Tempest #9 – First Workshop

[Next entry: November 24]
Last Sunday, our first workshop. Eight people plus me. After briefing everyone on where the bathroom is, introducing one another, all that, we plunged into the first segment of the workshop: vocal expression.
We always link voice with physical activity: the voice is physical. And especially working in this style of puppetry, involving both hands inside the puppet, the actor’s live hand as the puppet hand.
We start with a slow stretching, letting the impulse of one stretch flow into the next, always involving the whole body. At the same time, we vocalize, letting the placement, pitch and timbre be affected by the stretch, just finding what sound comes out of you. Play freely with this for a time.
* Keep all the body in some degree of movement all the time. Think of the stretch as informing the rest of the body — nothing is neglected, nothing outside it.
* Let one “phrase” of movement flow into another, the sound transforming as it does. Find the next stretch from the one you’re in.
* Use as much breath as you can.
* Keep an open throat always.
Then we stand hand to hand with a partner, with enough pressure to feel “joined.” Work together, giving and taking pressure, moving in various directions. Mirror face and voice.
* Stay relaxed except in the muscles that must actually work. Engage the whole body; get past the above the waist/below the waist dichotomy in which we generally interact.
* Find your voice mutually, both in what your partner is doing and what’s suggested by your bodies.
* Breathe in unison. Use a lot of breath, even when you’re making quiet sounds.
Keeping the vocal muscles relaxed while the rest of the body is working requires an ability to isolate muscle groups. This is essential to stage relaxation, especially in puppetry, where the puppet’s weight and position may require long periods of stress.
And we’re looking for a unity of vocal and gestural life in the actor & puppet. Much of the gestural language will be closer to the style that was likely prevalent in Shakespeare’s theatre: illustrative or metaphorical gestures, rhetorical in style but fully invested with feeling, more as we’d expect from an Italian storyteller.

This might be called “non-realistic,” because we think of expressive realism as what’s accepted in our own culture: a near-total disconnect between the vocal and the physical. I talk to you in a party with a few hand waves for emphasis. If I used extreme gesticulation, you’d move away. And yet in other cultures, the highly expressive gesture would be felt as “real.” Hamlet’s advice to the players — fit word to action, action to word, as opposed to merely sawing the air — was probably indicative of both a fuller and more explicitly mimetic gestural language in Elizabethan acting than anything we’d remotely see in today’s Shakespearean acting — based in rhetorical training, in a physical vocabulary that today is reduced down to a few hand wiggles. Yet our puppets allow us to be fully embodied.

So we’re basing our style on he premise that there’s a difference between Shakespeare as a realist and “realism” as we think of it. “Real” doesn’t mean “just like I normally talk.” Shakespeare is an absolute realist in terms of all the questions you ask about your character or your scene in any play: my motivation, my circumstances, the stages of action, the change-points in the scene — all those questions apply. His characters’ faces are real and tangible. But his style — i.e. his means of expression — can swing from the naturalistic to metaphoric expressionism in an eye-blink. There’s a vast transformational capacity.

Trying to make the verse sound “natural” doesn’t mean trying to make it sound as if the people don’t know they’re speaking those particular words, chopping up the lines, working against the rhythm, disregarding the sound values, all those little TV acting tricks. It means making the verbal expression organic with the physical and with the heart of the creature speaking. It’s not a matter of “being faithful to the verse” for its own sake; it’s because it’s a vehicle that’ll get you where you need to go, the difference between riding a motorcycle or a tricycle.

Puppetry opens that door to expression. You might not be able to get away with a broad gestural & vocal expression on the traditional Shakespeare-festival stage, but a puppet has license, as long as you make it real by the truth of its content and with guts.

Which leads us to our first analysis of the verse, and how to treat it. We all know that Shakespeare writes verse in iambic pentameter: -‘-‘-‘-‘-‘. Except that he doesn’t. If you take the first lines of Miranda’s first speech to Prospero (from the First Folio) and try to speak that with a regular stress, you’ll go nuts:

If by your Art (my deerest father) you haue
Put the wild waters in this Rore; alay them:
The skye it seemes would powre down stinking pitch,
But that the Sea, mounting to th’ welkins cheeke,
Dashes the fire out. Oh! I haue suffered

But the extraordinary thing about the iambic rhythm is that however radically you screw round with it, when you return to it, even with a few iambs, it asserts itself, it dominates. It’s almost like old racial laws that declared you black if you were 1/16th African. So I would say, instead, that Shakespeare writes in relation to iambic pentameter. It’s the ground from which he continually departs — creating surprise, emphasis, unrest — and to which he returns.
We spend some time analyzing the rhythm of this passage, including optional stresses, sensing what’s conveyed by the rhythm alone.

We each select an old puppet from our storage bins – from Inanna, Marvels, Shadow Queen, and Macbeth. They all get along with one another, and they’re glad to be out of their bins. All are large heads operated by a short rod under the costume, with the puppeteer’s hand emerging as the puppet’s hand.
The first stage: just breathing. We divide into two groups, one group watching the other for a while, then changing places. Breathe yourself, let the puppet’s breath match your breath, just moving very slightly. See him in the mirror, imagine it’s a living being.
Then the puppets are waiting for the bus. You don’t have to show us they’re waiting, just let them wait. Get a sense of the individuality of the puppet. Don’t do anything that grabs attention or demonstrates something, just let them be passive but alive.
Whether in large motions or small, the head and hand must always move in connection with one another. The adjustment of head to hand gesture or hand to head turn may be only slight, but it’s as if tendons connect them. Neither goes dead when the other part moves. Look too at where the puppet’s elbow lies in relation to the head. There’s a tendency to let the hand creep up toward the head, so we lose the character’s physical proportions. Moving the head while keeping the torso straight requires exploring different ways to grasp and turn the head rod.

We play a while with the puppets freely in the mirror. Focus on seeing how small a movement you can make that still reads. Then we explore walking with the puppet. To start with, try different walks in your own body and let the puppet match these. After a while, let your own body be neutral and channel the nature of the walk solely into the puppet’s body. Hold the head rod fairly loosely so you don’t freeze the head; you can tense it up a bit when necessary, but maintain flexibility.
The participants notice radical changes of expression in the puppet’s face, depending on the nature of the walk, posture, tilt of the head, etc. “This one smiled for the first time. She’s smiling again!” Some of that derives from the asymmetricality of most of these faces. Another key in the design is finding an expression that has transformative potential, that is, the sense that it’s just about to become something — incipient expression.
We focus on the dynamic of forgiveness. Sitting in a circle, the participants are asked to think of a personal experience in which they felt victimized. They’re asked to speak, not explaining the situation, but simply a word, a phrase, or a sentence that they said or would like to have said at that time, or would like to say now if they could. Allowing this to go on a while, then it shifts to lines we would like the other person to say to us, whatever we could imagine would heal the wound.

The point is simply to connect with the core of Prospero’s emotion at the outset of the play, also to Caliban’s. When we use personal experience, it’s not a therapy group, so it’s ok to withhold, to exaggerate, even to lie; the focus is on what it reveals about the characters. Here, actors are quite forthcoming with words, though very little of the specific circumstances is revealed.

I sense the degree to which a wound is very private, almost one’s “private parts,” sometimes covered, sometimes flaunted, but never a casual topic. It’s indicative of the depth of Prospero’s wounding that he’s kept his story private this many years and that it then comes gushing out.

At a later point, one actor is asked to coach two others to improvise his story and, through redirecting them as they progress, to make it turn out happily for him: what in effect Prospero seeks to do in the play, essentially controlling the “improvisation” and asserting his directorial control while facing his own demons. I don’t set up the improv well, so while it produces an interesting scene, it wanders from my intent. But what I learn from this, I think, is Prospero’s own difficulty in directing a play where he has absolute power but little directorial experience and very little patience.

We talk at some length about the nature of forgiveness and a slant that emerged from the improv: the admixture of the victim’s sense of guilt. What’s the effect of Prospero’s sense that his neglect of political duties is responsible for Antonio’s usurpation? What’s behind Caliban’s “Oh ho!” bravado when accused of trying to molest Miranda? Does Antonio feel he’s been himself victimized into being cast as villain? In the banquet scene, Alonso realizes that his guilt is responsible for the apparent death of his son — he’s both victim and criminal — but this admixture seems to echo through the play.
Now to comb through people’s available times and try to come up with a schedule.
–Conrad B.