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With over fifty years of directing experience, Mike Alfreds has developed a specific way of working in the rehearsal room. In this illuminating and inspiring book for actors and directors alike, Alfreds shares his methodology and process, based in rich experience and acute observation of actors at work (and play).
First and foremost, Alfreds believes in the primacy of actors, who are “the vital force of theatre”. Indeed, he founded Shared Experience in the 1970s under the guiding principle that you need nothing but actors to create good theatre. Theatre, at root, is bare storytelling, a communication between actor and audience.
Despite recent endeavours to modernise theatre with technical wizardry, Alfreds is frank about the deadliness of much contemporary theatre. A rigid rehearsal process, which blocks and fixes every action and line, squeezes the life out of a text and quickly dissolves into stale performances on stage. However, “theatre that embraces the spontaneity, immediacy, unexpectedness of life together with our ability to change, grow and develop, will create the truest and purest form of itself. This depends totally on the creativity – the humanity – of the actors”.
Theatre is the most human of the art forms, closest to our experience of life and “actors are our representatives of humanity”. Unlike every other art form, the actor’s instrument is him/herself. So, Alfreds encourages the actor to “find [characters] in yourself, rather than impose yourself on them.”
If the actor is the most essential element of theatre, the director’s relationship to the actor “has to be treated as the most critical in the creation of a production”. In Alfreds’ vast experience, “Directing is as much about dealing with people as texts.” Towards the end of his book, Alfreds offers endearingly honest but sensitive and totally pragmatic advice to directors about dealing with actors – and vice versa.
Alfreds sees the director’s role as that of a guide, rather than instructor, challenging actors and exploring with them the possibilities and “multi-dimensional richness” of text or devised work. Therefore, in rehearsal, “Ideally, the world of the play evolves.”
The rehearsal room is a laboratory of experiment and choice. The process involves both structure and freedom; in fact, the two are inter-dependent. “Creativity can only come through process, process that enables that creative imagination to evolve”. The director enforces the rigour of a method to release the actors’ creative freedom.
Alfreds guides the reader through his specific discipline, crafted and honed over years of directing experience, but based in the Stanislavskian system of objectives and actions. “Playing actions is the actor’s main task” because “we are what we do.” “An actor cannot play an emotion”; instead, emotional responses are automatically aroused when actors execute their actions truthfully. Thus, “character, mood, atmosphere and style will quite naturally be created if actors play their actions and objectives within the context of their given circumstances”.
Of particular use to aspiring directors, Alfreds sets out in detail his rehearsal structure. For him, the rehearsal process can be neatly divided into three strands – work on text, character and the world of the play – but within that, it explores: actions, scene objectives, beats, given circumstances, the world of the play, logic text (focusing on the language and structure of the text), character and Laban techniques. Everything stems from the content and form of the text itself. Alfreds’ exercises are also designed to unite the ensemble company of actors, so that the production is developed as an integrated whole.
The director provides the conditions for the actors to immerse themselves in the world of the play and their characters to the point at which the actors become inherently comfortable with them. This ease and familiarity will ensure that creative freedom extends beyond the rehearsal room and into production. “Each performance should be a disciplined improvisation in which the ‘what’ (text and, to a certain degree, actions and objectives) remains unchanged, but the ‘how’ (the execution of these) can vary.” Theatre should always be a discovery, “a unique event, open to permanent change” – different every night.
Like his approach to actors, Alfreds’ book is both supportive and challenging. What impresses most of all is his vital enthusiasm for theatre and actors, which shines through his rigorous rehearsal process and uncompromising demand for long rehearsal periods. His directorial techniques are described in such generous detail as to make them accessible and practical learning tools for all readers. Different Every Night is essential reading for actors and directors.
Rhona Foulis © 2007
Originally published n R&V 31-12-07
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