Tuesday, January 24, 2012

I honestly thought I’d never say this, but I think I’m turning into a verbatim theatre junkie.

In 2010 I read Anna Deavere Smith’s pioneering work of documentary theatre, Fires in the Mirror, and was so struck by this quote in her prologue that I wrote it down for safekeeping:

I had been trained in the tradition of acting called “psychological realism”. A basic tenet of psychological realism is that characters live inside of you and that you create a lifelike portrayal of the character through a process of realizing your own similarity to the character. When I later became a teacher of acting, I began to become more and more troubled by the self-oriented method. I began to look for ways to engage my students in putting themselves in other people’s shoes. This went against the grain of psychological realism tradition, which was to get the character to walk in the actor’s shoes. It became less and less interesting intellectually to bring the dramatic literature of the world into a classroom of people in their late teens and twenties, and to explore it within the framework of their real lives. Aesthetically it seemed limited, because most of the time the characters all sounded the same. Most characters spoke somewhere inside the rhythmic range of the students. More troubling was that this method left an important bridge out of acting. The spirit of acting is the travel from the self to the other. This “self-based” method seemed to come to a spiritual halt. It saw the self as the ultimate home of the character. To me, the search for character is constantly in motion. It is a quest that moves back and forth between the self and the other.

Now, two years later, I’m finally starting to glimpse the truth of Deavere Smith’s words in action. Meeting with the actors individually to go over the interviews we’ve collected, I’m finding that my greatest handicap here—my inability to understand Hebrew—is surprisingly proving to be an enormous asset when it comes to the performers and their process. Orna gets on stage to read the words of “Yossi” during our first rehearsal and inhabits the character of the hardened, charismatic older man with surprising grace and ease. But of course—she met Yossi, spent several hours recording his words, and then several more hours playing them back and typing them down in 3- or 4- second segments. This may technically be her first reading of the text, but it’s certainly not “cold.”

Yehuda, a young professional actor and—like many Israeli men—an ex-soldier who has seen his own fair share of danger and conflict, is in Orna’s kitchen transcribing our interview with “Shaul,” an ex-combatant who was blinded when he stepped on a landmine during the 6 days’ war in 1967. Yehuda hunkers down over his computer, listening again and again to the same 5-second clip from an interview, like a private investigator trying to deduce a kidnapper’s location from the background noise of a taped phone call. “He has a stop here, where he cannot remember what he was saying, and he is silent for a long time, half a minute. I want to know…why is there the block at this moment?”

I know what Yehuda is feeling. I remember being fascinated by a particularly compelling interview in Lebanon where an ex-fighter spoke of a time when, after retrieving the corpse of a comrade who had been horrifically mutilated, he had made the decision that he and a small group under his command would capture enemy fighters and pour cement over their bodies, burying them alive. The action was never followed through—an older and wiser commanding officer cottoned on to their plans and sent them all on a made-up mission, and then talked them down after they had released some steam. But the simple fact that he had dreamed up this torture and intended to follow through with it was enough to sit heavy on the ex-fighter’s conscience—it scared him how close he himself had been to losing his humanity and succumbing to the barbarity of war. What was amazing about the interview was that each time the decision to dig holes and prepare the cement was mentioned, it was accompanied by a barely perceptible verbal tic: in assigning responsibility for the decision, the word ‘we’ would first be used, followed by a short stutter, and then replaced quickly with ‘I’, like so: “…but I’m telling to you what we— what I decided…” Transcribing the interview, I was amazed at how much was revealed in the tiny self-corrections. These few short syllables contained over 20 years of internal struggle as to where the final responsibility for the cement idea would be placed—in the self, or in the hands of the collective.

I watch Yehuda furiously scribbling a string of the incomprehensible back-stroking Hebrew letters on his notepad. It takes us over 2 hours to transcribe and translate just under three minutes of text. But this isn’t time wasted; Yehuda holds more passion for each sentence than I have ever seen in any other actor on his first day with a script. In almost a decade of directing theater, this is quite possibly the best table-working session that I’ve ever had.