Friday, June 19, 2009

the moment before

In theatre, you can choose to direct with something in mind called The Moment Before. This was developed as a "guidepost" out of the experience of the Broadway casting director Michael Shurtleff.

His book Audition, first published in 1978, wherein he explains his theory of the guideposts, and for the purpose of this treatment his concept of The Moment Before:

In the audition situation most actors come onstage to read for a role with very little moment before. The result is that it takes them most of the reading to get warmed up. By the time they are, they've lost the attention of the auditors. Never before does an actor need the moment before more desperately than in the audition situation. But an actor needs a fully developed moment before every time he steps onstage to start a scene. You've seen many of these performances where we say, "He wasn't so good at first, but after he got going he was fine." A good actor doesn't wait to get going; he comes on with it because he already had it going in the wings.

Shurtleff wants to help an actor remember that before anything happens in a scene, something happens. Then the director with this in mind tells the actor: What was it ?- Go there, be that, do that, have those memories, play that action in your mind and/or physically - "crowd the guy" - or whatever it was that happened. Center yourself on what came before the scene for this particular character in this particular situation, and now you're ready for the scene.

In the previous drama of October, I got to employ this for one character's introduction - when the inventor comes out onto the stage to talk about his invention. Not written into the script itself, not obvious, but a creative choice made to enhance the show, I asked - what happens the moment before he comes out? He gets stage fright. So what does he think of? His wife, his home, his pets, the weather, simple things. Working with the script, translated these things into psychology and then into actions. And it went over well, also largely due to the innate comic abilities of the actor himself.

Let me back up to the GAP ads I posted from August for a moment, ignoring the first GAP ad for a second, and dwelling on the second one.

In advertising what we often recall as viewers, if we recall anything, is the label or brand of the product, and the essential function of the ad. We remember that its the GAP and that the function of the ad is to sell their pants and sweaters. If we're paying a little more attention, we can be impressed by the content of the ad, the cheery people -even if its a manufactured, "acted" cheeriness, or the choreography. And, we might even recall some college text we read about advertising, the medium is the message, and so on.

But, if we had any kind of liberal education whatsoever, we more likely remember something about corporate power. Maybe we read Chomsky or Adbusters, or we might have even done some research on our own and discovered enough ethical question marks in the legacy of corporate business entities to warrant suspicion of any product or service produced by such an entity. We could, for example, default to a kind of rump dismissal of any message sent to us by such an entity, as offensive to our aesthetic sensibilities in the least. Or, we may wish to be pragmatic about it all, and act as though there's no real distinction between a corporate power and an independent one, other than how much money is in their respective bank accounts.

This GAP ad campaign was difficult to view in the non-pragmatic way, however, because it did not lack aesthetics! Viewing them over and over, you have to admit there is an aesthetic quality to them. Now if I want to say something about the advertisement, I need to go to the signs and the symbols within it, and the elements of production that allow the ad to temporally exist. And what are those?

There is the subject within the ad - the model who dances. Ok, but if I go there my critical discourse may become locked in an issue of a body, and the beauty of that body. Does my listener/reader have that body, or do they not? Do they have some aspects of that body but not others? Is there a disagreement about the beauty of that body, statuesque v. rubenesque, too tall or too short, etc.?

There is the production: the ad as it happens. Diegetic chess can then occur, in a non-oppositional way, as in the engendering of discussions over what does the director mean by these angles and lighting choices? Wow nice editing, etc.

There is the product, then. In the ads themselves, we often never get to see the product too closely, it is usually just suggested to us. But this can be a trouble spot also, because we might ask, even if we can discern what the product is, well, where's it made? How are their labor conditions? What is it made out of - are those all-natural products? And how do I know I can really afford it unless I walk into the GAP itself?

There are the results of the ad that allow someone to look at it statistically, objectively. Did it increase business, or did people contact the company to say they liked it or didn't like it? Did sales of the displayed items, khakis or whatever it was, go up? Likely though we as consumers would not be privileged to that information, so we can only declare how the ads themselves make us feel. Out of this kind of small-scale market sample, however, we can't much evaluate the quality of the ad from hearing of my point of view versus yours, assuming those are even oppositional views.

We can imagine that postmodern extrapolations are an expression of a certain urban fantasy, not to say the fantasy is exactly false, there may be much that's true in it, but it appears as a kind of collective myth that assigns guilt or glory, or even neutrality, by association. (That is, if I understand the concept of postmodern fantasy correctly). Going to the first ad for a second, you can watch the skateboarders, hear the music, and imagine a technologically-sophisticated body moving the machinery and controls that's putting everything in motion, and that body may be someone you know, or it may be a stereotype.

Or, I can hear the voice of the recording artist and see the dancers and recall a certain drumming session I witnessed, seen outdoors, elsewhere, and now -maybe- I have a different physical image, do I not? I could say - well, so what? Its harmony! But is that a true harmony, or does this harmony only "exist" because of the "magnanimous" overlooking of the corporate entity known as the GAP, and their desire to offer their products as a racial or social solvent? Once again, arguments about the body, the city, and positions of subjects within certain fantasies that are set in motion by a powerful force can appear. (The point about "false social solvents" has been made before in studies on advertising) Fie on this approach.

We can then observe an eschatological choice offered in the overall "message" of the ad, at least by the first ad. In the second one, the choice is clear - if you want to have a merry Christmas, you'll shop at the GAP, won't you? But in the first ad you can present yourself with the problem of how do I launch myself into space, and outfit my dominion with designer wear at the same time? We know its an advertisement, because no one wears pants like those when they're on a ramp. But the question presents itself not so much in 97 or 98, or whenever the ad came out, but in hindsight, since we know so often that the two goals are becoming mutually exclusive. Its like - how can I eat whatever I want, and never gain weight? Well, you can for thirty seconds if you're part of a GAP ad. The ad ends, we go back to our regularly scheduled programming, and its like you never ate anything! Or did you? Is there an uncomfortable narration about sacrifice that can walk through the back door of this approach -? yes it can.

When it comes to any media analysis, I'd like to simply shelve these rationalizations and consider The Moment Before, by itself. The Moment Before the ad is produced is where the energy is, creatively and otherwise. Once the ad is made, we can only look at it through one of these filters I mentioned above, see if it checks the boxes on our list of political correctness items, or dismiss it with a neo-marxist wave of the hand. "Bah! Corporate conformity!"

In the moment before, there is a vast territory. We don't have to worry about being right, we only have to see what actually happens, from our own point of view. We have to be there in order to know the moment before, we can't download it. We may see conversations about what's for lunch (was it lamb?), we may see the mind at work of the producer or the dancer or the casting director, we may just see the set and that's enough to tell us what's going on, if we seek reportage, or to inspire us, if we seek an aesthetic reception and/or transmission.

It may not be literally necessary to be there, or even physically possible. Maybe we can merely remember what someone tells us in conversation, but to be believed we should try to be there at the moment before the ad, or whatever it is that's moving our art, happens. There is so much more information, more tension, more romance, more possibility, in the moment before than in the detached, cerebral analysis of the moment after. All that narration - who cares? I want to hear about a day in the life of a dancer. I want to see the sweat on their brow, their humiliation when a higher-up dismisses them, or when they look across the aisle at someone in an equally noncreative blue sweater and think i love this so much, i would do it even if not paid etc? Everything that happens the moment before someone tells them to take their places and says "standby - lights ready, lights up."

The rote commands that get an actor to turn left or right on ice skates, pirouette etc, the directives of the production itself, those are necessary for choreography, but they are not as interesting for writers, at least not for me. By choosing to see a creative opening in the process of the production and not the product, the moment before the product itself is made, we not only give ourselves more freedom creatively, but we may even notice a pivot or statement expressed wherein something in the process itself is apparent to our critical boxes, and then so checked in our minds as such.

If my creative work is relayed through thoughts and thoughts on thoughts after the fact of whatever moved me to write initially, I'm much stricter about what I write, because I understand this then to be an effort of journalism first -reportage on my experience- and expression second, in which case I ought to have something really groundswelling or distinct to say.

All of this is written not as a totality of what I myself mean to say creatively, but as what can be derived from theatrical production before the product is itself made. More alchemical, and less photojournalistic. Good theatre is when someone is immersed in the role and the emotions of the character, bad theatre is when someone is interested in being photographed being in the role. If photography must appear, let it appear for something where there is a genuine alchemical difficulty in expressing it directly, or even indirectly. For this reason, I created the character of the Singer in my other play, The Boy Who Liked Me. While the other characters are fluid in the play, the Singer stays put (for a while) and merely sings the words "the boy who liked me." This is because the boy who liked "me" in the play, a woman who exor-cises her thoughts on the boy throughout, is an alchemical difficulty for her character. The Singer works as a photograph of a thought that is stuck until the humor appears in the story to unstick it.

This may seem very elementary or even common-sensical for theatre, but I've seen plenty of productions where there seems to be very little thought given to it. When it is, though, sometimes you can see a difference. You can see where the actor has done work, that can appear in the pauses before or between the action(s). These moments before decisions are made to surrender, or command, or give, or sometimes a combination of all three, can reveal human weakness and vulnerability, and it may be for that alone that choices to "go there" are not always popular, substituted instead for results-oriented, ultra-confident me who appears to Judge the World through Stage.

But The Moment Before can assist then both in analysis, and in creativity, in addition to what it can also provide on the stage. I'll go ahead and recommend Audition by Michael Shurtleff here, because each of the guideposts for actors that he relays throughout this very small book can initiate thoughts on creative work similar to those above, or better. I've had it for ten years and always enjoyed it.

No comments: