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40 Questions of One Role
A method for the actor’s self-preparation
Translated by Michael SmithEdited by Christine Schmalor
ars incognitaBerlin 2005
The freedom to ask questions
The working technique you are about to discover could also be referred to as “Socrates’ Questions of a Role”. What is a Socratic question? Plato called this skill of his teacher Socrates “maieutike”, which translates from ancient Greek as “obstetric art”. A Socratic question is a crossroads of several flows of thought impelling us towards truth. I was driven to adopting this method of working in theatre by my love of Plato’s dialogues and the study of the art of Socrates – a man skilled in posing questions. Questioning as a means of independent analysis of a role, as a method for rehearsing and teaching, is unique and, as it seems to me, very forward-looking today, although many thinkers of the past were always aware of how important the role of the question is. The great potentiality that lies in the ability to pose a question was always valued more than the answer itself. Everyone is familiar with the principals of dialectics – the art of recognising the truth by means of posing a question skilfully and getting an answer to it. Solving a scientific problem in any sphere often starts, first and foremost, with a question being posed, and the process of research is always primarily interrogative. It’s the same in theatre. After all, analysing a role is nothing other than a process of cognition, and so actors, too, have to learn the art of questioning.
It’s not easy to ask the right question. It’s not enough just not to know. You can’t ask about just anything. You have to know what you are asking about. In a question there is no demarcation between knowing and not knowing; the borders are hazy and, moreover, they overlap. Or, as the ancients said, knowing that we do not know is in itself knowledge about what we do not know. Knowledge, in a question, is already the basis for moving forward. Behind the question and the very ability to pose it there should be a special logic – the logic of a question-answer relationship. As a director and a teacher I have become convinced that there is much more sense in asking specific questions for the professional analysis of a role than an informational analysis that frequently purely provides results. It’s no secret that many directors and teachers offer hundreds of answers straight away, pointing out not only what, how, when and why events have happened but how to perceive things as well. A director will advise an actor how to perform this or that role, not thinking that as yet the latter doesn’t even have any questions for the role. Such pre-prepared answers fall on unprepared ground and so the results are barren. Based on my own experience I can say for certain that this is a path with a very low coefficient of actor participation in analysing the role. If we change the tactics of rehearsals, where the director always asks questions and the actor looks for answers, the quality of the analysis improves immediately. This is already an analysis in dialogue, not in monologue. A true dialogue is not just “question-answer” – it is, first and foremost, a combined movement towards cognition. With such a Socrates-type analysis of a role the director feels like some generalised being and asks questions not so much to discover his own opinion as to steer the actor as best he can in the direction of a collective search. Here the actor is drawn into the search, he refines the director’s question with questions of his own and at the same time pays sharp attention – does the sought-for answer lie within them? If the director’s question is asked correctly then the actor, in trying to find the answer, is already striving not towards a single answer, rather he is widening the range of the question, turning his answer into a theme. That is why the director’s task in this method of working lies in not trying to close the issue as quickly as possible. He has to support the kindled flame of inquisitiveness and pose new questions, in an effort to discover the path to the living energy of cognition. Thus the actor and director approach the realm of answers in dialogue. Together they seek out not one answer, but a sum of answers.
However, in recent years I have modified this method in the belief that the quality of the work will be greater when the actor himself poses the questions and himself finds the answers. I began to strive towards the aim of the actor asking his own questions of the role. Only then should he start looking for the answers. This is also an analysis in dialogue, but an internal one requiring the actor to make free choices. What you discover yourself always belongs to you! That is important.
I will try to explain other reasons why I changed my technique. We have the expression that “freedom is the right to ask questions”. From my point of view any method for working on a role should, first and foremost, preserve the actor’s freedom. Generally it is accepted to speak of the actor’s freedom and his ability to express himself on stage, but in contemporary theatre practice it is precisely the problem of freedom of the actor’s perception that is all-important. What does this mean? First it is the ability and possibility of the actor, freely and without external emotional, intellectual or other influence, to see, hear and feel the role’s material and, like the aforementioned manifestation of freedom, to open up to its world. But are an actor’s senses guaranteed by this freedom? Actually, no. Perception is the labour of the actor’s soul, not of his senses. And the soul opens up only when freedom appears. That’s why it is so important. When working with a director, however interesting it might be, the actor’s direct perception fades quickly and becomes a mediated, conditional perception, i.e. dependent and captive. Passive perception, from my point of view, is the greatest affliction of actors today. That’s why in recent years, first and foremost, I have focussed much attention on the actor working independently, believing that only thus can he return to a living, active position.
The art of asking questions is a rare but vital quality for actors today, demanding a reworking of many of their traditional working principles. From a questioning position the actor not only performs his role, experiencing or presenting it to the audience – he asks questions of it. In this way he analyses the role. In asking a question the actor himself opens up before an unknown role, he prepares to meet and collaborate with it. Now they are together. I am sure that just as an actor moves towards the role, the role moves towards him. They are equals, equals like “asking” and “answering”. The role, too, analyses the actor, his cultural position and thinking because with his question the actor determines where and at what point of unawareness he is located. For the same reason the audience always appreciates a thinking actor more, one who asks interesting questions on stage, not just repeating the same pre-prepared answers over and over. It is always clear if the question holds powerful energy demonstrating the personal interest and desire of the actor to explain the unknown or if it is just a formal intercourse. If the actor begins to have questions of the role then he will not be able to think of it distantly, impersonally. The role appears before the actor as a huge unknown world that requires him to take an active position. The problems of the role, like his own personal problems, allow the actor to relate his world with that of the role, to gauge various kinds of logic, to make a choice between one life and another. Only this position makes an actor equal to the role and as a result of this the actor, in asking questions of the role and becoming familiar with it, will above all else get to know himself.
When an actor feels that he is engendering questions the job immediately becomes easy and interesting. The most important thing in asking questions is to feel movement forwards. To a great extent this is achieved because of the freestyle montage of the questions. It should be noted that as soon as an actor begins to feel that the energy of the question is diminishing he has to ask the next and not stick to one and the same thing. Each new meeting point of questions draws forth a flash of the truth. And it is especially because of the order in which the questions are posed that the inner, hidden essence of the role can emerge. The montage of questions can differ – sharp, contrasting, gentle, continuing the previous question or engendering the next. Try and you will see how engaging and creative it is.
40 questions are not enough. There can, in fact, be an unlimited amount. I have tried to show just the basic principle of analysis. All the questions in this methodology serve as examples. They should steer the actor towards his own questions. Of course, not any old questions but those that are “eternal”, “of the world” and “unresolved” will help him discover something new inside himself – the explorer, a belief in himself and his own wisdom. That is important. Remember that Socrates was proclaimed by the Oracle of Delphi to be “the wisest of men” (Plato writes of this in Socrates’ Apologia). But he himself was convinced that “he knew nothing”, and to justify the honourable title he began to ask questions of others who were considered wise. Thus Socrates came to the conclusion that this conviction of his own lack of knowledge made him wise in as much as other people were unaware of it. Try for yourself! Take a risk and I am sure that you will discover the wonderful world of the role, full of diverse secrets and riddles. You will also discover your own world, boiling with thousands of questions, and there are always thousands of answers. Sometimes they come to you at once and sometimes years later.
In the beginning there was chaos
All of my lessons are based on a love of order. I would go so far as to say a passion for order. That is how I was made, how I was raised. But nonetheless I adore chaos. I have to start from chaos to feel the wonders of order. For there to be nothing that makes sense in the beginning, then for one instant everything becomes clear and lucid, as if you have opened your eyes. Then everything fades away again and you can’t see anything any more. Like a child’s game.
Analysis is also a game, not a boring job as actors often think and therefore dislike. I know this for a fact. Maybe they think of it as too hard, and only intellectual directors are up to the task. But in actual fact the rules are simple – in the midst of utter chaos you have to find Beauty. That and nothing more.
They say chaos is for brilliant people, with normal people you have to bring order and show them so that they see; fools have to be shown and have it explained; and idiots have to be shown and have it explained and then repeated. All of this is just playful chitchat. In actual fact, it is not so easy to separate one from the other, brilliance from stupidity, order from chaos. It all exists together and not only is it hard to separate them, in a way they complement one another. It seems to me that that is how analysing a role should be approached – you can’t take it all apart and put it back together and sometimes you don’t have to. You just have to play with it. You have to ask questions.
Many actors believe that analysing a role means explaining for themselves the behaviour of the personnage* in a given situation, discovering the motives behind their actions, understanding the logic of people’s relationships, finding the organic chemistry of their feelings and the like. In brief, such an analysis results in a study of the principles of life and nothing more. It is clearly insufficient. I would even go so far as to say it is dangerous. Dangerous because the psychological analysis of a role is becoming a rabid disease amongst actors all over the world. Today, even in Greek tragedies, actors try to play out the psychological sufferings of the heroes. As if they see nothing in the role other than the psychology of humankind. I remember August Strindberg’s Dreamplay being performed by a company of actors from Mozambique under a Swedish director in the style of psychological theatre. I have never seen anything funnier, and they thought that they were employing the Stanislavsky system. Poor Konstantin Sergeyevich, if only he had seen it! It was he who warned in his final lessons that the use of just one psychological analysis severely reduces an actor’s ability to cognise the role. But, towards the end of his life, who listened to him? The bacteria of “psychologism” had already begun to spread in theatres. And soon it took on epidemic proportions. That is why I say it is dangerous. It seems to me that it is very important to dwell on this problem in some detail before coming to the proposed questions for conducting an analysis.
(*) What is generally referred to as “character” is divided by Jurij Alschitz into persona and personnage. Persona is to be understood as a real individual, with a biography, and comprises his/her personal history with facts, and emotions, with a beginning and an end. The personnage is a legend, a myth, a dynamic substance beyond the confines of time and space. Compare Jurij Alschitz, The Vertical of the Role, Berlin 2003, p. 32. (Editor’s note)
Throughout history the development of theatre has generally taken two directions. The first involved researching the spiritual world and the second the material world, where the practical side of life comes under scrutiny. It was this form of Theatre that gradually became predominant. By developing in this direction it perfected its ability to depict a person’s behaviour in different circumstances. But the situations, albeit in a thousand different guises, repeated themselves and ultimately came down, as they say, to twenty main plots. There were repetitions, remakes of age-old subjects and certain situational frameworks emerged. At that time, with the onslaught of the naturalism of the 19th century, people’s inner psychology was Theatre’s focal point. Motivated by the fact that each person’s behaviour in the same situation will be different and that each of us has different feelings and emotions, Theatre started studying human psychology, the various motives for a person’s behaviour and the richness of the human persona.
Actors’ consciousnesses have long played host to the idea of human individuality, inspiring them to create on stage numerous personas and the relationships they share. Theatre had made a distinct step in its development and it was accompanied by significant success. Truth be told, the suspicion sometimes arose that by and large people are different from one another in mere trifles. But in accepting this disparaging conclusion it was necessary also to accept that on stage we are engaged in a study of these very trifles. Not wishing to concur with this we continued, as we thought, to immerse ourselves deeper and deeper in the mysteries of human psychology, while in fact we were creating more and yet more acting clichés. It was as if actors had forgotten the theatre of Euripides or Shakespeare, as if they had forgotten that there is something higher than human nature, something which maps out the destinies of individuals and their spiritual aspirations, things that bear no relation to their character but rather to the mission allotted to them in life or which they themselves have chosen.
The truth of individuals’ psychology, as well as of their interrelations, became the sole criterion in theatre art. Everybody sought out one thing – “the truth of life”. But in hiding behind this “truth” theatre only created the illusion of truth, nothing more. Enthralled, actors would show audiences “… people in the act of eating, drinking, loving, walking and wearing their coats; when they attempt to extract a moral from jaded scenes and their insipid talk, when playwrights try to create a moral, a small one, comprehensive and useful for the everyday and give us under a thousand different guises the same, same, same old stuff…”** These words of Konstantin Treplev first voiced fears of theatre’s principles of “usefulness”, its intelligibility, its mimicking of life so dominant on stage, and thus ultimately its dependence on everyday life. The study of the inner psychology of life was substituted for its outer shell, and it was done with a fair amount of “vitality”. Over one hundred years ago the author of The Seagull was struck with concern that Theatre, with its unilateral thought processes, was gradually losing its ability to move upwards. It repeats itself, stands still or at best turns on the spot. The young and still untainted actress Nina Zarechnaya refuses to act without a psychological foundation for her character and demands a “living character”. Using Dorn’s words from the same play, Anton Chekhov proposed another way – “express only deep and eternal truths”; art should aim for the kingdom of dreams and higher ideals. There, in the realm of the spirit, people and human relations are truly ordered. But few have adhered to this advice.
(**) Anton Chekhov, The Seagull, Act I. All original quotes translated by Michael Smith.
A century has since passed. Konstantin shot himself. Chekhov is gone. What has changed in our views of theatre? As before, most actors create a role on the basis of the personnage’s psychological state, purely on the basis of psychological conflict and the plot. I don’t want to say this is wrong but it is insufficient both for the role of the Actor and that of Theatre. What we take on board and sort out as our own personal baggage in life is perfect only for life itself and not at all for Theatre.
This unilateral way of analysing the role brings the actor to a low, base way of thinking, to a stage study, to put it bluntly, of coarseness. It limits his artistic potential, narrows the artistic scope, makes a cliché of the acting and results in inadequate proficiency. Let me explain why…