Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category

Quote of the Day

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A technician, a craftsman, tries to distinguish the things that go into the creation of results, because that kind of analysis enables him to work with other craftsmen. Otherwise, he is able only to work with the audience, and if the audience doesn’t like what he does, he is stymied.

Lee Strasberg, Strasberg at the Actors Studio

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July 11, 2018 at 7:30 am

The same clump of flowers

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I really intend to set up most of my [opera] productions so that people have very different experiences on the same evening. Part of that is just technical—I make too many things happen at once so you have to decide what you’re going to look at, and whatever you’re looking at, you’re not looking at something else. Someone else may be looking at that, and I deliberately set up confusing situations sometimes so that the audience is making their own choices. I like that. It’s what separates live theater from TV or film. In television or film, your gaze is always channeled. You are not consulted; you’re told where we’re going to look next. What I love about opera is that your mind wanders, and my job is to set up an interesting landscape to wander in. No two people come out having smelled the same clump of flowers…

I don’t like to watch people think onstage. I like to watch people do things. I don’t want to know what I think Nixon’s thinking. If I can get Nixon to do the things that Nixon does, then it’s up to the audience to decide what he’s thinking. That’s where it gets interesting. If I say, “Nixon is thinking this,” and stage it accordingly, then it blots out any possibility of interpretation on the part of the audience. So I just say, “Here’s a person who’s done the following things. Now you tell me what he’s thinking.” Then it gets interesting, and the range of reaction becomes wonderful. In theater, psychology is overrated…My way of direction is extremely simple. If I say, “Go over here, pick up the glass of water and drink it,” that’s what I expect.

Peter Sellars, in an interview with Bruce Duffie

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July 9, 2018 at 7:30 am

The feathers and the smoke

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I read the comics. I got liberated from reading the New York Times and addicted to reading Newsday because it has comics, and the New York Times doesn’t. I get very cranky if I don’t have my comics every day…Theater is as much a part of trash culture as it is high art. It always is that. And it’s incredibly important for people who are working in theater to always remember that it’s show biz and it’s sort of sleazy, and a lot of the traditions that you’ve inherited and a lot of the ways that you have at your disposal for telling a story are ways that were developed by, incredibly, sort of lowbrow, popular entertainment. The theater always has to function as popular entertainment. Or at least the theater that I do, because I don’t have the talent for doing anything else…It has to have the jokes and it has to have the feathers and the mirrors and the smoke.

Tony Kushner, in an interview reprinted in Tony Kushner in Conversation

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July 8, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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The function of the magician has characteristics in common with those of the criminal, of the actor, and of the priest…and he enjoys certain special advantages impossible for those professions. Unlike the criminal, he has nothing to fear from the police; unlike the actor, he can always have the stage to himself; unlike the priest, he need not trouble about questions of faith in connection with the mysteries at which he presides. This is perhaps one of the reasons that magicians, though sometimes rather egotistic, usually appear to be happy in their work.

Edmund Wilson, Classics and Commercials

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July 6, 2018 at 7:30 am

The magic window

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Last week, the magazine Nautilus published a conversation on “the science and art of time” between the composer Philip Glass and the painter Fredericka Foster. The entire article is worth a look, but my favorite detail is one that Glass shares at the very beginning:

There are many strange things about music and time. When I’m on a tour with the dance company we work in a different-sized theater every night. The first thing the dance company does when we arrive is to measure the stage. They have to reset the dance to fit that stage. So you also have to reset the time of the music: in a larger theater, you must play slower. In a smaller theater, you have to play faster. The relation of time and space in music is dynamic. I have a range of speed in mind. If the players don’t pay attention to that, it will look really funny. You can see the stage fill up with dancers because they are playing at the wrong speed.

And a few lines afterward, in a more contemplative mood, Glass continues: “I was reflecting on the universe expanding. We know that it is and can measure it, by the way time is operating, or by the way we see a star exploding far away. For various reasons, when a physicist tells me that the universe is expanding, I say ‘Okay, let’s go back to the dance floor.’ The dance floor is getting bigger, what does that mean? It means that time has to slow down.”

The relationship between the pacing of a work of art and the physical space in which it occurs is an intriguing one, and it reminds me of a trick employed by one of my heroes, the film editor Walter Murch. In his excellent book Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman describes the “little people,” a pair of tiny paper silhouettes—one male, one female—that Murch attaches to the screening monitor in his editing room. Koppelman explains:

They are his way of dealing with the problem of scale…As an editor, Murch must remember that images in the edit room are only 1/240 the square footage of what the audience will eventually see on a thirty-foot-wide screen…It’s still easy to forget the size of a projected film, which can trick an editor into pacing a film too quickly, or using too many close-ups—styles more akin to television. The eye rapidly apprehends the relatively small, low-detail images on a TV. Large-scale faces help hold the attention of the audience sitting in a living room with lots of distractions or ambient light. But in movies, images are larger than life and more detailed, so the opposite is true. The eye needs time to peruse the movie screen and take it all in…The solution for Murch is to have these two human cutouts stand sentry on his monitor, reminding him of the film’s eventual huge proportions.

And Murch writes in his book In the Blink of an Eye: “Why don’t we just edit in large rooms with big screens? Well, with digital editing and video projection, we could, very easily, be editing with a thirty-foot screen. The real estate for the room would be expensive, however.”

And while the problems presented by a live performance and a projected image on film might seem rather different, the underlying issue, in both cases, is the audience’s ability to receive and process information. On a purely practical level, a big stage may require the tempo of the choreography to subtly change, because the dancers are moving in a larger physical space, and the music has to be adjusted accordingly. But the viewer’s relationship to the work is also affected—the eye is more likely to take in the action in pieces, rather than as a whole, and the pacing may need to be modified. A similar phenomenon occurs in the movies, as Murch writes:

I have heard directors say that they were were disappointed when they finally saw their digitally edited films projected on a big screen. They felt that the editing now seemed “choppy,” though it had seemed fine on the television monitor…With a small screen, your eye can easily take in everything at once, whereas on a big screen it can only take in sections at a time. You tend to look at a small screen, but into a big screen. If you are looking at an image, taking it all in at once, your tendency will be to cut away to the next shot sooner. With a theatrical film, particularly one in which the audience is fully engaged, the screen is not a surface, it is a magic window, sort of a looking glass through which your whole body passes and becomes engaged in the action with the characters on the screen.

Murch notes that the lack of detail on a small screen—or a compressed video file—can mislead the editor as well: “There may be so little detail that the eye can absorb all of it very quickly, leading the careless editor to cut sooner than if he had been looking at the fully detailed film image…Image detail and pace are intimately related.

And the risk of editing on a smaller screen isn’t anything new. Over thirty years ago, the director and editor Edward Dmytryk wrote in On Film Editing:

Many editors shape their editing concepts on the Moviola, a technique I consider decidedly inferior. One does not see the same things on a small Moviola screen, or even on the somewhat larger, though fuzzier, flatbed screen, that one sees in a theater. The audience sees its films only on the “big screen,” and since every cut should be made with the audience in mind, the cutter must try to see each bit of film as the viewer in the theater will eventually see it. (Even a moderate-sized television screen offers far more scope than a Moviola; therefore, it too presents a somewhat different “picture” for the viewer’s inspection.)

Today, of course, viewers can experience stories on a range of screen sizes that Dmytryk might never have anticipated, and which no editor can possibly control. And it’s unclear how editors—who, unlike Philip Glass, don’t have the luxury of measuring the space in which the film will unfold—are supposed to deal with this problem. Taken as a whole, it seems likely that the trend of editorial pacing reflects the smallest screen on which the results can be viewed, which is part of the reason why the average number of cuts per minute has steadily increased for years. And it’s not unreasonable for editors to prioritize the format in which movies will be seen for most of their lifetimes. Yet we also give up something when we no longer consider the largest possible stage. After the editor Anne V. Coates passed away last month, many obituaries paid tribute to the moment in Lawrence of Arabia that has justifiably been called the greatest cut in movie history. But it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact if it weren’t for the fact that the next shot is held for an astonishing thirty-five seconds, which might never have occurred to someone who was cutting it for a smaller screen. Even viewed on YouTube, it’s unforgettable. But in a theater, it’s a magic window.

Acting with adverbs

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In some instances, you will be able to satisfy a director’s request for a result without changing your analysis [of a scene]. This can be done by performing an action with an adverb chosen to help supply the result the director is looking for. For example, you are playing a scene where the character is telling his wife he’s just won the lottery. The action you have chosen is convincing a loved one I’m on the level, and it is as if you’re telling your brother that your parents are giving you a trip around the world. The director tells you that he needs you to be more excited. Rather than changing an accurate and fun analysis, simply attach to the action the adverb quickly. This adverb tells you how you will go about doing the action. It is a physical, external adjustment…In choosing adverbs, you always want to look for ones that suggest a physical rather than an attitudinal adjustment. Adverbs such as slowly, loudly, ploddingly, haltingly, are fine. Ones such as jovially, lovingly, maternally, are not, because they require an emotional rather than a physical adjustment. Some adverbs fall between these two clearly defined groups—for example, sloppily, meticulously, exuberantly—and should be used only if the actor feels they do not put him in an emotional state.

A Practical Handbook for the Actor

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June 10, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Sword of Wotan

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The elaboration of existing props is a most fruitful means of stimulating one’s dramatic imagination. The first hint I had of this simple and effective method came from Richard Wagner, to whose extraordinary mind we owe so many basic musical and dramatic procedures…In the final scene of Das Rheingold, near the end of Wotan’s solemn greeting to Valhalla, a fortissimo trumpet intones the motif of the sword. Wagner’s printed direction for Wotan at this point says: “To be sung very decisively, as if moved by a mighty thought.” [Editor Felix] Mottl adds here the following remark made by Wagner to the singer [Franz] Betz, who was portraying Wotan: “Before Fafner leaves the stage, he contemptuously discards an insignificant-looking sword that belongs to the hoard of gold. Now Wotan sees it and, as a symbol of his ‘mighty thought,’ lifts it up toward the fortress.” Translating this into our terminology, we cay say that Wagner wanted to externalize Wotan’s concept of Valhalla as a defense against Alberich’s forces and thus hit upon the idea of reusing a prop in a manner not originally planned by him. This is precisely what we mean by the term elaboration…Dramatic ideas do not lend themselves particularly well to transposition, but when combined with props this method is surprisingly effective. I strongly recommend that young stage directors make complete lists of props and scan them systematically with the idea of locating useful transpositions.

Boris Goldovsky, Bringing Opera to Life

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June 9, 2018 at 7:30 am

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