If Magic

Many years ago a friend and I ran a small theater company.  Together we staged a dozen or so productions in various halls and church basements.  We had little money, crap equipment and only the talents of high school kids, bored homemakers and the usual assorted misfits who make up amateur theater.   My friend Ray and I were young, arrogant and completely enamored by the ideas of Constantine Stanislavsky.

I think back and often wince at our youthful pretension, but there were also some fascinating moments.  One project I recall with particular fondness.  We had decided to offer an "imagination workshop" using Stanislavsky's ideas.    We advertised it in the newspaper and charged an absurdly low amount in the hopes of attracting new talent to our troupe.  It worked, too.  Nearly a dozen people signed up.

Each week my friend Ray and I would work with the participants to build entire scenes from the simplest of stage directions.  For example, we might start with something as basic as "what would you do if you were cold?"  The actor would take the stage and act it out: stamping his foot, rubbing his arms, saying "brr."   Then we would start to build the scene using the actor's imagination:

Why are you cold?

The heat went off.

Are you in a building of some kind?


Tell me about it.

And on we would go.  Essentially, we were using two aspects of Stanislavsky's theory: the Magic If and Given Circumstances.  Stanislavsky saw the imagination as a problem solving instrument.  We don't just close our eyes and go on flights of fancy.  Rather, our imaginations respond to the question what if and then feed off more facts and information.  Unfortunately, playwrights often supply very minimal information about characters and settings  (e.g., "Harry, young man, smokes a lot.").   Consequently, actors have to create a lot of information for themselves.  The trick is to make these given circumstances interesting enough to arouse the imagination's interest in answering the question "what would you do if you were this person and this were so?"

I recall one evening in particular.  Ray began with that simple question: what would you do if you were cold.  Then he kept asking more and more questions to get the actor--in this case a middle-aged woman--to supply ever more detail.  He had her touch every object in the room, feel the texture of the bedspread, describe what was outside each window.  The key was to get her to select details that were interesting to her.  In the course of an hour and a half, Ray and the woman had created an amazing scene.

She imagined she was a widow who had come back to a her family's lake cabin for the first time since her husband died.  Her children were grown now, but the family had spent many summers together at the cabin.  Now it was late fall and the place needed to be made ready for winter.  It was two-thirty in morning and the woman had awoken only to find that the fire had gone out. The scene involved her rising from bed to gather wood and restart the fire.  Then she sat watching the flames grow, wrapped in her husband's old coat, his scent still on it. 

All of this Ray teased out of the woman's imagination by asking what would make this interesting to you and how would you feel if...  The final scene lasted only five minutes (it seemed longer as I recall), but it was riveting.  The actor was completely focused and convincing.  You saw each memory and emotion pass through her expressions.  There was an entire life displayed on that empty stage, and the scene really resonated with metaphors of life and death, warmth and cold, memory and loss.   Indeed, something beautiful, almost poetic, had been created from the simplest of questions: what would you do if you were cold. 

The thing I most recall about these Thursday night classes was the almost electric sense of creativity in the room.  People often remarked that they left the class more energized and pumped up than when they had arrived.   I did a lot of pretentious things as a young man, but I don't think this was one of them. 

We had really hit upon something interesting.


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