Thursday, 23 February 2017

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Michela Sisti

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Michela Sisti is training in artistic direction with Ross Manson at Volcano Theatre in Toronto

Week 1 of Infinity Rehearsals

(February 9, 2017) Winter is the perfect time of year to work on a play about love, death and time. Bright landscapes of glittering snow banks unfold for you on your way to rehearsal. Dark evenings greet you when you step outside at the end of the day. 

In one short week we’ve gone from initial table read of Hannah Moscovitch’s script to a full-out run of the play. On the other end of those five days it now feels as if we’ve already lived through several lives. 

Amy Rutherford (Carmen) and Paul Braunstein (Elliot), returning cast members who performed in the original production of Infinity in 2015, have had to wade back into the membranes of old ghosts. They’ve been joined by new cast member Vivien Endicott-Douglas (Sarah Jean), whose presence is incidentally throwing a pretty awesome ‘alternate-universe’ factor into the story-world of the Infinity rehearsal room.

Ross Manson is approaching Hannah’s play with some new thoughts this time round and Hannah herself has done some rewriting. She has created more of a presence for the character of Carmen and her music in the play. The epiphany Elliot has about his own life is now more closely linked with the way he perceives the role of time in the universe. Music and physics are, for each of these characters, different ways of expressing the universe, and so for our purposes these things also become expressions of the characters themselves.

Ross started off the week with two sessions devoted to physical character work.  He offered the idea that a performer knows more about their character after a first reading of a play than they think they know, but they can’t get at this knowledge through table work; the knowledge is in the body. The “corridor exercise”, which Ross and the cast began with, is durational work that is done in silence. Its purpose is to engage a performer’s intuitive knowledge. 

The actor is given a narrow corridor of space to explore in.  They begin with a limited vocabulary to work with: start, stop and change levels. As time goes on, the facilitator of the exercise layers on more vocabulary in the form of verbs. For example: reach, balance, carve, stumble, dance.  The actor’s task is simply to explore these movements, completely free from the pressure to perform or to assume a character. There is no need to manufacture anything. Some of these movements may naturally begin to inform character physicality or create a shorthand vocabulary for the upcoming scene work. 

Next, Ross guided the cast through the creation of three archetypal gestures for their respective characters. A gesture is a combination of a physical movement and something that is vocalized. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, and its final picture is a motionless sculpture.  Once first versions of these gestures are created they can continue to be shaped and honed until they work for that particular character. 

So, for instance, Ross asked Vivien to play with her gesture for Sarah Jean’s The Judge archetype (it involved pushing some invisible thing away and to the side, while speaking the word, ‘loser!’) by making the gesture larger, then by making it smaller and more naturalistic, then by taking away the text.  Kate Alton later integrated a version of Sarah Jean’s gesture into the choreographed dance that happens midway through Infinity.  This gesture was then changed almost entirely by Ross so that it became something that more closely resembled trying to resist a rising flood of water—the steady push quality of the movement remained intact but the meaning it suggested had transformed.

Good gestural movements, Ross explained, work best when they are just out of the audience’s reach, but not too far that the audience feels alienated.  A good gesture can give us a visceral insight into the psychological and emotional world of a character while also creating the space for poetry to happen and all that which eludes us about other people.

Gesture is also a very real part of human behavior. Ross had once watched a documentary about two Canadian WW2 veterans who returned to the beaches of Normandy for the first time since the end of the war. With utter composure and an unnervingly easy conversational tone, these men gave the film crew a tour of the events that had transpired on the beach at D-Day. So something like: We opened fire here. Tommy died over there. (Not a waver in the voice.) Then we lost Doug here. (No trace of any tear, not even that elusive glint in the eye that movies have trained us to look for, not a muscle twitch that could evoke a the voice of lone trumpet sounding somewhere in the distance.) If the filmmakers were looking for catharsis on this beach they wouldn’t find it here.

Later the doc picks up with the veterans continuing their interview on the road. The old site of carnage is miles and miles behind them and the conversation is as light and easy as ever.  Then in mid-sentence one of the men suddenly freezes, his breath caught in his throat, his mouth trembling like a baby bird’s, one frail hand flapping wildly at his throat. In one swift moment his body is overwhelmed by emotion, which has been released as if through a steam valve under immense pressure. This, said Ross, is real people dealing with emotion.

Infinity is a play in which love does not go well and death does not go well, either.  As such, Ross is taking care to resist creating moments of tidiness or sentimentality within the scenes he is staging. “Real people under emotional pressure react inappropriately,” has become something like a mantra by the end of our first week.  So, Sarah Jean, who is not an integrated human until the last beat of the play, minimizes and makes jokes out of moments of trauma in her life. The staging of the hospital scene, which we worked on this Friday, aims to tell a story of disconnect and—to use the vocabulary of the play—‘f--ked-up-ness’, rather than offering emotional catharsis and closure. Gesture is an important tool actors can use to suppress, channel, contain or divert emotion that would otherwise spill out onto the surface of a character.

At the end of this Friday’s run, Paul looked up from some kind of trance said to the room at large, “I understand why I goof off so much in these rehearsals. When you are actually in the ride it’s a lot.”

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The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is March 1, 2017.

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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