codeswitching on the fly

I wrote this in 2 parts over Monday and Tuesday; I aspire to shorter and more frequent posts, but so far it hasn’t worked out that way.  My apologies. 

Monday: Today’s headache is of the tension variety, starting at my temples, residing primarily along my jaw, and loitering around my shoulders.  I was not called Sunday, and only for two hours today, so I’m not overworked, but I get these 3-5 day periods I call “Headache Season” bimonthly or so where I can’t get my mind to stop running and relax.  Two nights ago I dreamt very vividly I was vigorously cleaning the bathroom, and was disappointed to awake and not find it spotless upon stumbling in.

So what gives? Rehearsals have entered the next phase and I’m feeling a bit out of my depth, that’s the main thing I’ll talk about.  I’ve also got a Chicago Shakes audition Wednesday that I’m doing two new monologues for, under-rehearsed.  Next week I’ll go to Milwaukee School of Languages and do two days of Romeo and Juliet workshops that I’ve been prepping.  For the first time in my Milwaukee tenure, my boss will be present.  And looking for a little escapism by turning to sports, my Cleveland Cavaliers blew up their roster with a blockbuster trade that could be fantastic or fantastically disastrous.

 Well, you all want to know about Cymbeline I suppose.  First off, I shouldn’t grouse for a millisecond, because at least I didn’t break my ankle, like Todd Denning, our Iachimo did.  Don’t freak out, it’s gonna be fine; he’ll be in a walking cast by opening, which could add an extra level of menace to what in read-throughs was an already creepy performance.  A Shakespearean Anton Chigurh, perhaps.   Anyway, updates to come. (Feeling a little jinxie here because in my preview piece I cheekily said I’d keep you informed of injuries, and then one happened.  Sorry Todd.)

But rehearsals.  Staging has begun, with most of the first two Acts having been put on their feet.  I was present for the very first staging Saturday morning, Act I, Scene II, as a Lord attending Cymbeline.  It was here I got my first glimpse of Jeffrey’s methods of getting his actors to physicalize the text.  How to describe?  To ensure that there is no flailing, wasted movement on stage, Jeffrey had the actors imbue their words with large physical representations of their meaning.  Not like charades.  Not like kabuki.  Maybe like Michael Chekhov, but not really.  Like organic, personally-felt gestures that simultaneously explained the story and action to an audience as if this was a silent movie, but also helped the actor communicate with visceral immediacy to their playing partner.  I’ve done exercises like this in my MFA training, but never as part of a real show process. 

Deborah Clifton as the Queen, who was inspiringly adept at finding bold and clear gestures to accompany her words as she led off the language of that scene, inquired where the technique derived from, and Jeffrey told her that they were his own methods, attached to no specific guru or school of thought.  That’s great–to be working with a highly creative, idiosyncratic artist is a privilege, but coming into that rehearsal knowing what I was in for would have been comforting.  Acting: be ready for anything, kids!  Comfort is the enemy of creativity!

As the scene went on, I watched Wayne Carr as Posthumus and Sarah Sokolovic as Imogen craft a sweet and affecting farewell through language and the flowing quasi-choreography Jeffrey was encouraging them to discover.  As Wayne’s understudy, I wondered how precisely I would have to replicate his movements–right elbow to ground, left hand to Imogen’s face, etc. 

All this examining of the process and uncertainty about how to freely and truthfully operate inside of it left me a bit daunted by the time we moved on to the next scene.  In it, I appear alongside T. Stacy Hicks as Lords attending the Queen’s son Cloten, played with mammoth exuberance by Joe Foust.  Because of Cloten’s oddball role in the world of the play and Foust’s energy, he works outside of the physical vocabulary of sustained and rooted gesture that the rest of us are using.  My lines in the scene are primarily asides, as I secretly comment to the audience what an idiot I think Cloten is.  These secrets have to be communicated in that big interpretive physical style, which is a bit paradoxical.  Long story short (too late!), I wasn’t happy with my work.  I was uncertain of my ability to “do” this style, and therefore did not make bold and clear choices, which of course is the death knell of decent acting.  There I was like a timid novice, hoping moreso to please the director than to live truthfully in the circumstances of the scene, given a specific mode of communication.

Tuesday: Writing it out, it doesn’t sound all that easy I suppose.  As people, we don’t normally move like this, and of course, we don’t normally talk like this.  But the next night, I found myself in conversation with a friend who was struggling with her classical audition piece, Imogen coincidentally.  She had been working with a technically-demanding coach on her piece, and was concerned that her authentic personal voice (the “real her”) was getting lost amongst all the need for a specific style of pronunciation, a specific powerful vocal resonance, etc.  She felt phony.

I definitely knew where she was coming from, but was able to offer her the reassurance of practice and experience, i.e. that the more Shakespeare she did, the more she worked her piece, the closer to Her it would get.  She could feel again, like she was having a real, albeit heightened, conversation like she does in her contemporary work.  When I speak Shakespeare’s verse, there are some things I do automatically that I don’t do in everyday speech: The word “to” sounds like “TOO” not “tah”.  I take bigger breaths in order to speak more words through longer thoughts.  Etc.  Stuff that initially made me feel phony, but eventually became unconscious and natural-feeling after X amount of rehearsals, plays, and hours in training. 

And it ocurred to me as I told her this, that this is the same thing I tell my students who are apprehensive about even approaching Shakespeare because of all the “thee”s “thou”s and “wherefore”s.  I tell them that speaking and performing Shakespeare is another form of code-switching, a concept we’re all familiar with as we navigate multiple disparate communities in our daily lives.  We act and speak differently around our parents than our peers, pick up colloquialisms and slang based on where we are and who we’re with.  This doesn’t makes us phony chameleon people, merely highly-evolved humans who are learning how to communicate effectively no matter what our surroundings.  We simply have to tough out periods of feeling fakey by reminding ourselves that in this environment, this style of speech is “normal,” and not too altogether different than the one(s) we’re accustomed to.  I tell students:  get over how weird “thee” sounds coming out of your mouth; that’s just You saying “you.”

So by now I had realized that even as I was ostensibly reassuring my friend by reminding her of one of the great features of being an expressive actor/human, I was reassuring myself about my abilities to speak and perform the new-to-me physical language of Jeffrey Sichel’s Cymbeline.  The mode may be alien at first, but like the basketball player getting the free throw-shooting motion into their muscle memory, the method of delivery can become part of me.  I am adaptable. But I can’t wait around to start really trying to find this language in me.  Difficult as it is, not having been in a show since August, I’ve got to dive right in to the effort.  We’ve got a show to deliver, and I don’t want Second Lord to stick out as this kid who clearly doesn’t know/doesn’t believe in what he’s doing.

I’m not freaked out by this crisis of confidence.  I usually have at least one per production.  So much the better that it’s come early in the rehearsal process, and so thrilling that it’s a crisis based on being challenged rather than being bored.  Perhaps having this blog makes it harder for me to get over myself and my fears and get down to work, since there’s the need for reflection and reporting, but I’ll appropriate that as an authentic part of Me as well while I’m at it.  Code-switching, code-adapting, reading the defense, stickin’ n’ movin’.  All in a life’s work.



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