Thursday, February 07, 2013
Balance Between Structure and Chaos
Part of the beautiful but deadly balance in Commedia is the balance between disciplined precision and chaotic improvisation. You have to live in the form a little bit before you can see it as freeing rather than constricting. Once you can rely on the structure, then you can play, and anything is possible
(from Matthew R. Wilson interviewed by Cate Brewer). So too is the balance of all acting.
Today I shall muse a little on structure and chaos. The script can give a structure, in which actors breathe life into characters. The words can be a structure. Even in improv, the suggestion from the audience can guide a scene or game, a spring board toward being one thing and not another.
In fact, your instrument itself, your height, weight, flexibility, vocal range and facility, give structure that you can work within, and work to expand. Certain options are not open to a given actor, and that can guide what is open, what is ripe for cultivation.
Without delving into here everything that can make an actor know who they are as an actor, everything that gives you a guide to what you play and your point of view can be structure. Let's stipulate we each have limits, bounds. We flourish within them. Even as they are ever expanding. For example, most of the people reading this, and the person writing it, will not be playing a photo realistic new born baby on camera tomorrow. Or at least probably not without some heavy cgi, which may make it more motion-capture and voice work than an on camera role.
Structure is a gift, something to recognize, and use. You can flail, play off-the-cuff, even plan to fail and the structure can be a camera move, a line of dialog, or even blocking that says take 2 steps left, and will be something you can push against. Something to respond to and interact with. If you didn't have the structure of gravity, were floating without anything in contact with you, all the movement in the world would only be moving in place, nothing to press against. Viewpoints might refer to this sort of structure as architecture, or topography.
On film, structure can be purely visual. When filming 'Hell's Angels' (1930 airplane action film), the legend goes that producers noticed that with just clear sky and no clouds, the speed of the planes looked like zero. There was no frame of reference in the background. Today turning your head slightly might take your eye out of view of the camera for a moment, so you can dramatically reveal a glare or something a moment later. Whatever works. On stage, the bounds in which the story and characters live can help define who they are and why they do what they do.
In life, structure can be a sort of step sibling of stability. Being relatively stable, emotionally and financially, can give you the more options of choosing what changes in your life. Eviction can mess up the best laid plans. As can un-managed depression.
Our own expectations, habits and more might be the structure we operate within, whether were are aware or it or not. It may be simply saying 'no' if asked to take off your shirt without warning in a callback. That request may be outside the structure (expectations and plans) you have for yourself and your career. For our characters it may be spending 5 acts avoiding taking vengeance on an uncle for killing their father (Hamlet), because such quick action is outside the bounds the character has for themselves. Or your character is plagued by guilt for coaxing their husband to kill the king (the Scottish play) and now realizes, too late, that such a crime is beyond the self-image the character has for themselves.
Whatever the context, the interplay between structure and chaos can infuse performances beyond Commedia. I'd even suggest understanding Commedia may help reveal the structure of numerous descendants of it. Many of Shakespeare's comedic mechanical characters, and more than a few sitcom types (like the wacky neighbor) come to mind. A suspect and detective in an interrogation scene suggests structure. But that structure need not constrain the scene. There are many crime process dramas and movies that play very differently within the standard structure of those scenes. Or against it. And even when the script doesn't press against a form, or try to innovate at all, our job as actors is partly to make it new and somehow ours. Actors are the 'squishy' and are supposed to unpredictable between action and cut, or curtain up and curtain down, a structure themselves.
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