A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The best of Stanislavsky, or how to avoid generalised operatic intensity

We had our first Opera Works input weekend over a week ago now and I've deliberately put off writing this post. There was a lot to take in and I wanted to see what stuck with me the most, especially having now been to see a show armed with the experience of that weekend to see what struck me about what happens on stage from an audience perspective. I now think I know what I want to write about, so let's give it a go.

The weekend was an introduction to Stanislavsky led by Mike Alfreds and Polly Teale, who each took a day with us, working on excerpts of The Seagull and Kindertransport. There's a lot to Stanislavsky, and if someone asked me before this weekend what I thought the essence of that technique is, I'd have said 'actions' (where you assign a verb that you play to every line of text). I can confidently say I'm changing my answer now, it's 'objectives'.

Confused? Let's take a step back. To quote Mike Alfreds: As actors we are trying to recreate in the characters what we feel and do in real life. Simple enough, but how do you do it? What do you play? One of the problems with our intuitive approach to acting is our desire to play emotions, but the only way we can play is by pretending, which is led by our thinking. This is the problem: as people we don't think emotions, we have thoughts that provoke us to feel. Given the instruction 'play sad', most of us will slip into something that may indeed look like sadness, but will most often be generalised and simply not believable. Think am-dram or OTT opera acting. Or if you do tap in to something real, you put yourself at risk, because your body will seize up and you'll be in your own world, not the play's. You just can't really play emotions in any satisfying way.

Why do we feel? What can we tap into that will give us a better chance of conveying something real on stage? As human beings, we are driven throughout our lives by things we want (from the mundane, like a cup of coffee in the morning, to the profound, like a happy family life). We encounter obstacles on our way, which means we are at risk of not getting what we want. It is this that provokes feelings. Put all too simply, if we get what we want - we feel happy, if not - sad.

Mike Alfreds again: Before you go on stage, ask yourself: What do I want? Why am I going on? Why is my character entering the scene? It's so obvious, but watching a show lately and looking closely, I had the feeling hardly anyone on stage had thought about answering these questions. They were playing the lines, they were acting, it was all fine... but there were no stakes and it was just a bit dull. Once or twice someone really tried to play an extreme emotion and it was a bit cringe-worthy... and still dull.

From personal experience of doing exercises with Mike and Polly, if you want something, and play that want in a scene, more often than not you're going to run into another character who will stand in your way. Suddenly, there is an obstacle and you have to play this really involving game of trying to win and get what you came here for despite the interference of the other actor who wants something different. And this sense of competition actually does make you feel! You don't have to pretend.

What's more, your performance will be very much dependent on your partner(s) in the scene. You will constantly have to adapt what you do to how they react to you. The tiniest difference in how they say something can take you down a new road through the scene. Yes, the words will always be the same, as will the music and blocking (more or less). There will be cues to hit. But behind all that you'll be playing a different game, which will stop the whole thing feeling like just another run of the scene. If you're really playing your objective, all the rest of the Stanislavsky method happens quite organically and you don't even have to resort to 'actioning' until you get stuck.

There was a LOT more to the weekend, and the above is just the one thing I don't want myself to forget as I get back to my routine (though hopefully objectives will help me to stop thinking of it as such) of auditions, concerts and productions. For a different take on the weekend, more personal and comprehensive, and very well written, I recommend Lila Palmer's excellent post on the official ENO Opera Works blog: here.

To finish, a few quotes (paraphrased by me) from Mike that I scribbled down (Polly's day was more doing than talking, hence fewer notes):

It is your natural state as characters in operas to sing. It is your default means of communication. It should be completely natural. Not realistic, but natural.

You often find yourself so busy with the difficult bits, the problems, that you take for granted the fragments that are 'allright'. Look at everything!

Ideally you don't want to be thinking about actions, superobjectives, counterobjectives, beats, notes, singing technique, when you're performing. When you're playing a scene give all your focus to your partner. (Otherwise it gets self-indulgent)

If your partner doesn't engage with you, treat it as though it's their character that's doing it. This was in response to a question asked about those colleagues that give you nothing back. The moment they start singing they go misty-eyed and are so deep in 'singer-land' that you'll be lucky if they get the blocking right, let alone give you anything to play off of.

Be truthful to your character, even in small roles or chorus. Don't not play an objective, even if it's as simple as 'I want to deliver this message'.

Have a sense of your own presence. 'I am here'. A sense of you in the space. If you have that, you'll be seen and heard, even in a huge theatre. People these days (huddled over their smartphones) are rarely present, they're folded in on themselves.

Ideally rehearsals are to explore, not to fix things and set them in stone. If you know there won't be time to explore, do as much exploration as you can on your own beforehand.

Have a lot of craft, for use in emergencies.

Start to develop a critical eye when watching performances. Do I believe it? Why / why not? What gave me pleasure? Could it have been better? How? It will mean you'll stop enjoying shows so much, but it enhances your craft.

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