Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas
Going to the Roots

Frank sat in the booth opposite me and asked, "OK, I can see what you'd do for maybe six weeks.  But after seven weeks, what would you do?  Just keep running the play?"

Years later, Mandy (a directing student at the time) stood across from me in a hall and talked about her report of a famous director who didn't start the rehearsal period with a read-through of the play.  She asked, "How can you start rehearsals without reading through the play?  Why wouldn't you want to?"

In yet another time and another place Bobbi complains to me about the actors who just learn their lines and recite them.  Bobbi couldn't get the actors to break free from habituated line-readings.  Bobbi asked, "How can I shake them out of their rut?"

I'm sitting at a meeting of folks who train directors.  We need to teach them so much, they say.  I ask, "Has anyone presented on 'Active Analysis?'" No.  No one had heard of that.

In Stanislavski in Rehearsal Vasiliy Toporkov described a rehearsal process for a play.  The actors read through the play.  After the reading, actors went onstage with scripts in hand and work out the blocking.  Once the blocking was learned and the lines were memorized, the actors tried through generalized inspiration to find the right tone for the characters and the play. Once that seemed to be in place, they ran the show once or twice to taste.  Then they added costumes, make-up and the rest. They're done.

A few years ago I worked for a theatre not much different than Toporkov's description.  And when I speak to young directors, they've shown little indication to stray far from that general path.   

In one sense, it's not a bad way to produce a play.  With the right actors and the right director, a competent to excellence production may result.

As an actor, though, I always sink a little inside when that's all a production turns out to be.  The director may be fine, but what do their pretty pictures have to do with me?  And, as a director, I always suspect that any suggestion to the actor comes from howI would do it – which is perfectly senseless, since I won't be acting the part.  What gets my juices flowing may have nothing to do with what gets the actor's juices flowing.

Despite general un-ease from time to time with this fairly typical way of working, very few directors are given to work differently. Probably they're afraid.  As a director, you always have the approach of opening night in your sights.  You must deliver a play.  And, sadly, most directors don't have the opportunity to experiment with methods, even if they're aware of them.  Experimenting with different rehearsal strategies may spook the actors.  And, horrors, what if the experiment doesn't work?

So on we go. . . .

Stanislavsky noted a century ago the problems of asking actors to stuff their heads with empty words.  Words then memorized without reference to human impulse will be read either without any connection at all (words on "the muscles of the tongue" as Stanislavsky put it) or recited in cliché ways.

How to avoid this?  Stanislavsky developed a strategy that could be called "active analysis."  This is a process whereby the tools of theatre are used from the very beginning of a rehearsal period.  In simple terms it is a process where the actors read through a scene at the table and look to discover the action of the scene.  The actors then get up from the table without scripts and start to act the scene in their own words.  After this etude is complete, the actors sit with the director and sort through that experience, check the text, etc.  Then the process happens again.  Each time the scene is improvised with finer attention to details of physical movement, impulses, rhythm/tempo, etc.  Ultimately, the actors find they need the playwright's words to accomplish the characters' tasks.  Instead of being attached to thin air, the words now exist in the way speech exists in human life – as a means to accomplish something.

How to find the action?  Stanislavsky was reasonably straightforward in describing this process.  Examine the given circumstances.  This context will help the actor indentify the character's problem that is solvable through action.  The actor carries out that action in such a way as to turn the situation to the character's advantage.  Either the action will be successful or unsuccessful.  

My car is at the shop.  My problem is that I need to get to an interview.  You have a car present.  My problem is solvable through action – my getting your keys.  "May I have your keys?"  Either you will give them to me or you won't.  If you do, I continue to my next goal.  If you don't, I'll either have to try another means of getting your keys, or give up the idea of getting to the interview.

That's a simple example, of course.  But it applies to every play regardless of genre or style.

The challenge for the actor, then, is to find the surprising means of carrying out something human.  Something human is always more interesting than cliché.  And it's always harder to do.

As humans we often stick to the safety we know, rather than embrace the unknown – even as artists.  With the unknown, we might fail.  But if we won't glimpse the unknown, how can we move forward?  If you're not satisfied with your work or you think your work could be richer, why not explore other possibilities?

If you're a director, take a look at other rehearsal strategies.  It might be possible to change your game.

Postscript:  Noted scholar Sharon Carnicke reports that her next book will be about Maria Knebel, who (along with Toporkov and others) reported on Stanislavsky's work with active analysis.  We look forward to seeing it soon.


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©2010 Nathan Thomas
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine

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, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a senior writer and columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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March 2010

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March 2010

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