Performing self: oxymoron or unavoidable?
Actors are expected, nay required, to be acrobatic and agile with their emotions and ideas; having to jump from one extreme to another is not an unfamiliar hurdle for an actor.
by Iris Lapid
The process of an actor in The MAP Project is quite unique. To give a brief description: The MAP Project is producing a new monthly serial at Mainline Theatre on the first Friday of every month. MAP creates theatre performances using a collage of verbatim transcriptions from footage of the group during our Sunday night social lab, and mashes it together with references from pop culture. In other words, we bounce back and forth between speaking our own words onstage and speaking the words of pop culture icons--performing the entire sine curve from our most inward, comfortable selves, to the most performative and almost grotesque caricatures of television archetypes. This transition, though it can be difficult, is not the challenge I'd like to talk about. After all, actors are expected, nay required, to be acrobatic and agile with their emotions and ideas; having to jump from one extreme to another is not an unfamiliar hurdle for an actor.
...there was no playwright who sat down and truly gave thought to the characters and the words...
The real difficulty (and joy) of the MAP process is the first half of what I've described above: speaking your own words onstage, being yourself, and analysing the script that you composed in real-time on camera days or weeks before. As an actor, I am used to doing traditional script analysis--breaking a scene down into beats and units, determining intention, researching word choice, etc. In this case, however, there was no playwright who sat down and truly gave thought to the characters and the words. Our scripts are composed of lines transcribed as they were really said, complete with sentence fragments, 'like's' and 'um's,' and the realization that we are not eloquent script writers in our day to day vernacular. It can be a frustrating experience to sit down and pick apart dialogue that you yourself said, especially when it conflicts with the vision of the directors. Sometimes Dave says things like "Amy, when you repeat yourself in that line, it's because you want to justify what you said early on," when perhaps Amy was just repeating herself because she hadn't thought about the next thing she wanted to say yet, for example. As a MAP actor, I've had to learn how to allow myself to be open to hearing direction and criticism about myself and my words onstage, without distancing myself so much that I lose the original connection to my text; a very delicate balance.
Should I be emulating exactly the facial and vocal expressions from the original moment?
Another unique aspect to this work is that there is footage of every transcribed moment. If we aren't sure about a line, we can go back and watch it (and re-watch it). This, for me, is where it gets tricky. Should I be emulating exactly the facial and vocal expressions from the original moment? Or should I be treating it like a traditional script, digging into the text, and superimposing my own specific meaning onto it? A funny thing to contemplate considering I am both the actor and the playwright, so to speak. If so, isn't every choice right, in a sense? The answer, not surprisingly, is no. The goal of a piece of theatre should be to captivate, transport, challenge, and enlighten an audience. What if there is a stronger choice in changing the intention and action of a moment, even if it means betraying the authenticity of the original moment? Do we sacrifice the honesty to give a more fulfilling performance? Do we superimpose meaning to give an arc to our show? How do we negotiate our form with our content, especially considering there is no set formula to this relatively new performance style? These are all questions we are still grappling with, and will continue to explore throughout the series.
I believe that the thrilling and sustaining excitement in this project is watching actors bridge that gap in front of an audience in real time.
It has been a real challenge for me to both match the original footage and feel a true connection to the words I'm speaking when delivering my own words on stage. The best compromise I have found is to rehearse the scene over and over along with the video until I have re-embodied the physicality and vocal tones, and then turn off the video, and really listen to my partners and myself. Often, the timing and gestures come out very nearly to the way they were done originally when I trust myself and risk being in the moment instead of trying to recreate an old one. And I believe that the thrilling and sustaining excitement in this project is watching actors bridge that gap in front of an audience in real time.
After all, The MAP Project could easily have been a film project or a video installation, but it isn't. The theatre medium speaks volumes for a series that asks so many questions about voyeurism, editing, filming, and reality; and fundamentally what drives it is the relationship between actors and audience, and the electricity of a moment, which is unable to be captured on film. What brings audiences to theatres isn't necessarily the stories or the characters, but the experience of liveness--of sitting in a full house next to fellow breathing audience members and collectively letting their heartstrings be pulled by the immediacy of it all. The theatre is evolving, but it's not extinct!