Scene4 Magazine: Nathan Thomas |
Nathan Thomas



September 2014

In Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka says, "You have to go forward to get back.  Better press on."  Time often plays out like Willy Wonka's funhouse of a factory.  History and the future intertwine into one thing. Certainly it can be useful to know where you've come from to figure out where you're going.


New acting.  A different conception of acting.  A different conception of how plays are put together. This month this column looks back at the work of someone who is often held in contrast with Stanislavsky – Meyerhold.


Stanislavsky and Meyerhold co-exist in Russian theatre history like two strong magnetic fields linked in a combination of attraction and repulsion.  Stanislavsky's influence through the several interpretations of his ideas remains strong. Because of strong historical factors, Meyerhold's ideas have never been as influential Stanislavsky's ideas and ideals. Meyerhold's work, though, shows one possible, non-clichéd way of looking at acting without some of Stanislavsky's biases.


Historically, some of the different ideas about acting between Stanislavsky and Meyerhold developed because of their very different backgrounds.  Stanislavsky was part of the very wealthy Alexiev clan.  The Alexiev home in Moscow was among the largest dwellings in Moscow not belonging to a member of the royalty.  The young Stanislavsky regularly traveled throughout Europe and saw the best entertainment – the best opera, the best musicians, the best actors. When he began to work in the theater, he tended to work largely in Moscow or Petersburg.  Sheepish about his lack of formal schooling, Stanislavsky spoke and wrote with self-deprecation about his love for "middlebrow" entertainment like operettas.  His attention regularly focused on "great" plays and great writers – Byron, Shakespeare, Moliere.


Meyerhold, on the other hand, was the youngest son of a very middle-class, provincial family.  He knew provincial theater.  He saw good actors on tour.  But he also saw "bread-and-butter" actors – the sort of actors Ostrovsky describes in The Forest and Chekhov describes in Seagull and Swan Song.  (Remember Nina in Seagull, "She died well . . ..")  Likewise, after leaving the Moscow Art Theater after a squabble, Meyerhold went to direct plays in the provinces.  He mounted dozens and dozens of plays each season – shows going up with few rehearsals to keep an audience buying tickets.  Meyerhold was very comfortable in being the "bright boy" and gave himself to new styles and young artists – Alexander Blok and Vladimir Mayakovsky serve as examples.  The young Dmitri Shostokovich boarded in Meyerhold's apartment for a brief time.


A common misconception about Meyerhold is that he treated actors like puppets to be manipulated.  The increasing number of available archived materials shows this is not the case.  In fact, Meyerhold's ideas relied upon intelligent actors who were trained exceptionally well. 


Much is made of "bio-mechanics" – a series of etudes and concepts used to train actors.  Bio-mechanical etudes, though, simply of themselves do not make up the sum of Meyerhold's concepts of acting any more than Stanislavsky's system can be described in a series of cookbook, recipe-like exercises.


Meyerhold studied theatre history in great depth and coupled that knowledge with the practical experience of a provincial producer who mounts plays on a deadline.  Therefore, Meyerhold regularly worked with actors in terms of their emploi.  An actor's emploi is something like "line of business" in American theatre history – a character is a romantic lead, a character is the "father," a character is an old braggart.  Plays have tended to include characters that fulfill certain functional types. 


Even with color-blind and gender-bending casting, there are certain expectations about certain character types.  A romantic lead is expected to be physically attractive.  The older braggart is expected to be physically imposing and butch.  There are certain expectations about Juliet's physicality and voice in contrast with the Nurse's physicality and voice.


Meyerhold did not limit himself to the emploi.  Indeed, at times he purposefully worked against the emploi.  However, he worked from a very clear understanding of the character's function and expected the same of his actors.  Rehearsal talk included discussion of the character's emploi and when it was useful to go with the emploi and when it was useful to work against the emploi.


Meyerhold and his actors gained a balanced objectivity by taking into account the universality of the typical functionality of dramatic characters.  Looking at a character not only as a simple individual, but also as a member of a larger group within the context of the history of all plays; this evidently enabled the actors to cope with playing characters like The Unclean in Mystery Bouffe or The Mayor in The Magnanimous Cuckold or the Phosphorescent Woman in The Bathhouse.  Meyerhold's rehearsal talk included long discourses about what we would call the "given circumstances" of the character. Meyerhold then immediately turned on a dime and discussed the functional context of the character. 


A famous example of this combination comes from Meyerhold's discussion of a never-executed production of Hamlet.  Meyerhold presents clear ideas about the scene where the character Hamlet meets his father:


    Hamlet paces along this shore, alert and gloomy, and suddenly the white foam of the sea approaches in the mist, and he sees the outline of the sea and the shadow of an old man, who is awfully cold, too.  He sees a bent old man whose feet drown in the sand and who resembles a heron.  His whole face is covered by hoar-frost and he keeps walking.  He is miserable and somewhat funny. . . . . So when the Shadow of Hamlet's father comes out [from the sea] and they meet, Hamlet's first gesture is to take his cloak off and wrap the old man in it. [. . . .]  The Ghost mumbles through his speech.  Perhaps he wants to pee, like a dog who, when it's too cold, leaves many puddles on the floor.  Then the son will want to warm him up, give him some tea with rum, bring him a potty for his natural needs . . . the Ghost's functions are not of a mystical quality: they are the function of the emploi.


Beyond the combination of the functional necessities emploi and the acting capacities of an individual actor, Meyerhold also gave recognition to his belief that an actor's physicality showed the whole of the character.  He equated gesture with personality on the stage. Or as he told the actor playing an old servant, "If you peep into [the character's] right pocket, you'll discover the following mixture: crumbs of dry bread, snuff wrapped in paper, and, for no reason at all, a thimble.  All this determines his gestures, his personality.  The sum of all [such features] is what we call character.  For the most part, actors do not consider such things."  The combination of gestures and personality in one sentence expressed this foundational concept.


In the end, Meyerhold suggested the actor's task was like "a servant who is carrying a tray of glasses that are full to the brim."  The actor has to balance concentration on inner and outer impulses, balance between objective awareness of surroundings and terrain with subjective judgement of moving forward, balance involvement and detachment, balance ease and self-control. Balance.


For Meyerhold, the best way to teach that balance was physically – in the body. 


Imagine standing at home plate, a bat poised in your hands.  Half the crowd holds their breath waiting for the wind-up, the other half yells at the pitcher.  The pitcher leans 'way back.  The whole world turns.  The pitcher lets the ball soar towards home and your bat.  In an instant before wood meets ball, you hitch the bat back before you swing.  In that instant of preparation – hitching back the bat -- baseball intersects with music and with theatre.


An important element in each of Meyerhold's productions was rhythm.  Meyerhold trained his actors in rhythm.  The bio-mechanical etudes of Meyerhold's training regimen were executed to musical accompaniment to help the actors find the appropriate means and 'tone' of performance.  Meyerhold's productions had elaborate sound/music designs in which scenes would move from one piece of music to another – underscoring action, contrasting with the action, providing an almost film-music background for the actors.


Meyerhold played the violin very well.   He studied music as a young man and considered becoming a professional at one point.  Many of Meyerhold's ideas about rhythm in theatre grew out of his experience with music. Indeed, during rehearsals for Gogol's Revisor (The Inspector General),  Meyerhold referred to his style of production as "musical realism." Also, Meyerhold regularly used the word that is variably translated as 'reject' or 'refuse.'  In this usage of the word, 'reject' indicates an "anti"- motion or movement in the opposite direction – like hitching back on the bat before swinging at the ball. 


The word 'anacrusis' describes this rhythmic concept in music.  An anacrusis rhythmically leads to a down beat.  For example, an anacrusis begins "The Star Spangled Banner."  ("Oh, say can you see . . . .")  The "Oh" leads to a down beat on "say."  Or, the opening of "Yellow Submarine" provides another example. ("In the town where I was born. . . .") "In the" rhythmically prepares for a down beat on "town."  Another famous tune that includes many examples of how an anacrusis prepares for a down beat is the song "Danny Boy" or "Londonderry Aire."  Removal of each anacrusis from "Danny Boy" makes the song nearly impossible to sing!  Or take the anacrusis out of each phrase of "Happy Birthday," and it's just a birthday without the "happy."


This concept of rhythmic preparation for an accented moment in a piece of theatre can have numerous consequences in terms of language emphasis, in terms of character choice in moving from objective to objective, and in terms of how episodes and scenes progress from one to the next.


More obvious examples of how this works can be seen in comedy where we're trained to look for the idea of a "set-up" and a "punch." In Barefoot in the Park Corrie (explaining why she likes the flights of stairs on the building) says, "Mothers, friends, relatives, mothers." The first 'mothers' serves as a linguistic anacrusis to the second.  Another example in looking at how anacrusis works in making character choices from objective to objective can also be shown in that same opening scene from Barefoot in the Park.  The Telephone Repair Man's first objective is to get into the apartment, but that is anacrusic to his objective of hooking up the phone. 


One teacher I know has said that the concept of anacrusis has continually worked to his benefit in his work.  If an actor asks him why scene x isn't working appropriately, this teacher will advise the actor to look at what's happening in the pages prior to scene x. Inevitably, this teacher reports, the actor's preparation in those preceding pages will "miraculously" solve the problem of scene x. 


Of course, an anacrusis prepares for a crusis – the down beat, or the moment when the bat meets the ball.  Close readers will realize that not all tunes have an anacrusis before a crusis.  The Christmas song "Joy to the World," for example, begins with a crusis on "joy." But the energy is different between hitting a down beat after an anacrusis than when it stands alone. Listen to all of the variations of where "Hallelujah" starts in terms of accents in Handel's "Hallelujah" Chorus. Handel cleverly utilizes this shifting of energies to his benefit, and to engaging our interest as listeners.


The follow-through of the bat or the remaining part of the tune in music or the follow-through for the actor is the "metacrusis." 


The combination of these concepts can help an actor, as well as a musician find the rhythmic shape to a line, a speech, a moment, or an episode or scene.  These simple ideas, of course, do not exhaust the possibilities of rhythmic work in theatre. Nevertheless, these concepts do provide a basic starting place for working with rhythm in theatre in a practical manner.


The discovery of appropriate rhythms and tempi (tempo being the physical execution of a rhythm at some rate or speed – whatever gradation of slowness or quickness there may be) can provide actors and directors another means of expressing character and giving physical manifestations of behavior outside the realm of personalized psychology.  Rhythm, by its nature, suggests patterning of some sort or kind.  The "drive" of an "inner" rhythm of a character can provide an "inner" impetus for public manifestations of physicalization in movement and speech. This attention to rhythm, then, can be the start of working with characters outside the realm of the everyday life (playing an Angel, playing the Bank Teller, playing the Stout Man) with an "inner" life without relying on personalized psychology.  Likewise, its public execution can be manifested without resort to cliché.


"You have to go forward to get back.  Better press on."  History led the theatre to focus on Stanislavsky's gargantuan contribution to performance.  But now we have the opportunity to look at other artists, like Meyerhold. The theatre might be able to find new perspectives in looking at the continuing problems of making theatrical art.  We daily have to answer the question -- how do we today find a way to make a piece of theatre that is exciting and alive to us and connects with our audience tonight?  Looking back in different ways may show us other paths toward the future.



— Note:  Anna Muza's article "Meyerhold at Rehearsal" in Theatre Topics [6.1 (1996) 15-30] provided the quotations used in this column.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column in Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
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