Posted by: Adrian D. Cameron | November 12, 2010

it’s the TECHNIQUE that got small!

although trained (like most every other undergraduate actor) in the tradition originating with russian acting guru Constantin Stanislavski’s SYSTEM – and it’s subsequent adherents/mutations: Harold Clurman, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, etc. / The Group Theatre, The Actors’ Studio, The Neighborhood Playhouse, etc., i.e. THE METHOD – i find the restrictions of this approach for 21st-century, post-dramatic theatre/performance art decidedly limiting.  in questing to find alternative approaches to the performer’s art, i have become delighted, even wonderfully fascinated, by the techniques on display in the era of the silent film.

the received wisdom is that these techniques were crude, melodramatic, immature and, at worst, little more than grandstanding histrionics.. simply put, “bad acting”.  the silent comedian seems the only artist to have escaped such dismissive censure.  for those brought up on the mid/late-20th-century’s notion that “realistic”/”naturalistic” acting is the apex of theatrical expression (and the concurrent swelling popularity of cinema.. for which the SYSTEM was particularly suited), there has been a qualitative consensus that its tenets are to be universally prescribed:  the “best” way to act.

but realism is as artificial and codified an approach as slapstick comedy, greek classicism, restoration-era mannerism, or any other well-developed “style”.  each discipline has the potential to engage an audience’s mind and heart in a range of unique ways.  that we have focused so narrowly on our psychologically specific approach seems, in our post-millennial, globalized world, insular and hermetic.  fortunately, once one begins the process of asking “what else?”, a dizzying array of possibilities are to found with some small effort.

and so it is we may discover the treasures of the early film pioneers.

i’ve been working to identify some characteristic techniques that recur in these old flicks.  on saturday, i’ll be presenting a short primer to an assembled group devoted to alternative performance practices.  i thought i might make a preliminary post here for the edification of theatre schools worldwide, eagerly anticipating my revitalizing curricula.

Emotion Cloud

Alfred Abel & Rudolf Klein-Rogge in "Metropolis" (1927), Dir: Fritz Lang

in contemporary practice, we are taught to be wary of our emotions.  they are suspect currents, not to be trusted.  should you wish to experience an elusive one (never to “play” one), you must circumnavigate the thing, sneaking around to surprise it, catching it unawares.  we are taught to play actions, not emotions.

but for silent film actors, the playing of an emotion was akin to a spasmodically brief operatic aria, and frequently just as intense.  silent films trafficked in saturated states of being, the subtle touch a thing virtually unknown.  an actor’s ability to powerfully express an intense emotional state was something highly prized and the greats did it with a graceful panache that could leave a viewer breathless, exhausted.

to perform an Emotion Cloud, the actor should warm-up her extensive capacities, her kinesthetic sphere.  Laban exercises can be useful here.  once a specific emotional state is decided on, the actor will use her expressive physicality to express/indulge/explore that emotional quality in all possible areas of her sphere with the whole anatomic arsenal.  as she works to specify the process, she can begin to shorten or condense the duration and scope of the exercise.  general examples include shaking clenched fists for fury, grasping one’s head for sorrow, shielding one’s face for terror or spreading one’s arms for joy.  however, the actor should attempt to work on, through and past these well-known and clichéd gestures.  with practice, this small solo piece can become an exciting, impressive spectacle.

Obsessive Attention

Uno Henning in "A Cottage On Dartmoor" (1929), Dir: Anthony Asquith

without the spoken dimension to clue the audience in to the character’s desires, the silent film actor needed to develop actions that would leave viewers with the sure impression of what it is he wanted.  the conflicting desires of man and women are the basic code with which drama has historically been realized.  strong desires (Stanislavski-speak = “objectives”) make for potent drama.  nothing communicates desire quite so directly as the covetous stare.

this technique is utilized by characters of all stripes, for all types of desire, ranging from the positive, loving attentions of the beloved to the hateful, venomous glare of the bitterest villain.  this exercise requires a desirer and a desired.  while the performer enacts the part of the desirer, the desired can be anything from a picture, a person, an object.. even a desired entity that is absent.  although this maneuver is predictably still, the actor practicing it must cultivate a primed, responsive, hair-trigger physicality.  as a variation, the actor might incorporate some small movement.  a running subtext, both compelling and enlivening, should be utilized.  discovering the appropriate breathing is essential.

Sudden Information

Maria Falconetti in "The Passion Of Joan Of Arc" (1928), Dir: Carl Theodor Dreyer

things happen in the course of a drama.  sometimes it’s quite apparent what’s happening (like an army swooping down on Richard III) but sometimes, without a visual or sonic cue, we must rely on the actor’s reaction to comprehend the action.  the introduction of new or startling information in a silent film can be a considerable high point.  on the stage, discoveries are (or should be) always so, but in the heightened world under examination here they have the potential to be practically gasp-inducing.  new information can come in the form of an  unseen sound or character or from an onscreen character or occurrence.  whatever the source, we key in to the performer’s taking in the information, how it affects her being + body.  the preyed-upon becoming suddenly aware of her predator;  a mother learning of her son’s death on the battlefield;  an inventor hitting upon his “great idea”;  the man on the street who is the victim of love-at-first-sight..  these are some notable examples.

the key to the Sudden Information moment lies in its dynamism.  the actor transcends the wide gulf between two extreme emotional or physical states with lightning speed.  he jumps from carefree gaiety to intense terror in a hair’s-breadth moment.  as well the reverse.  while the proud, confident business tycoon is reduced to pathetic misery on learning of his company’s downfall, the hungry striking worker becomes a jubilant success.  our contemporary training leads us to connect logical emotional dots but the silent film technique encourages breathtaking, irrational leaps.  a method of development could include thoroughly embodying the distant states individually (perhaps in different physical locations), then drilling the transition, first in deliberate slow-motion, then gradually increasing in pace.

The Elaborate Gesture

Douglas Fairbanks in "The Thief Of Bagdad" (1924), Dir: Raoul Walsh

a number of early silent screen directors eschewed the use of intertitles whenever they could, believing that they unnecessarily broke up the action, interrupting the flow detrimentally.  and although most of them would ultimately concede the occasional use for complex plot developments, if an actor could connote as much with a specific, grand gesture, it was to be considered especially favorable. 

the use of pantomime was frequent, reasonably necessary, and often tiresome.  the dull literalness in trying to communicate “there is an impressive man at the door with a telegram for you from your mother” could end up looking little better than a thoroughly untheatrical game of charades.  but a talented performer, flush with the bravado of a matinee idol could well convey a powerful essence with one Elaborate Gesture. 

the trick of the Elaborate Gesture is that success comes with expression, not description.  rather than painstakingly literalizing the complex information, the skilled performer creatively unleashes her individual inner connection with her outer circumstances by means of the nexus that is her body.  more directly put, she encapsulates her moment of presence with a gesture.  this gesture may be a recognizably social one (a wave, a blown kiss) or something more abstract (a leap, a twirl), but it must be shaped by the character’s own inimitable physicality.  if a character is a pompous soldier then a soft, yielding flutter will never do.  a useful analogy can made to the various struts, postures, threats and dances of the animal kingdom.  the territorial stance of many a creature is utterly clear, whatever your particular species.

a strong sense of character and physicality is a must to the elaboration of this action.  there is no generalized, “character-neutral” Elaborate Gesture.  once the information to be shared is determined, the actor will then proceed to exercise as many different versions of the proposed gesture that he can create.  in exploring the spectrum of possibilities, it will then be important to identify which characteristics are recurring and which are extraneous to the task.  as the Gesture begins to form, the actor shall explore its specifics along dynamic ranges:  he should explore the distance between its vertical aspect + horizontal;  from fortississimo to pianississimo; its rigid expression to its pliable;  sped-up to slowed-down, etc.  as he makes these discoveries, he will then begin to understand (both physically and intellectually) the precise determination of the final creation.

The Collapse 

Max Schreck in "Nosferatu" (1922), Dir: F.W. Murnau

what the death scene was for Shakespeare, the mad scene for opera, the pratfall for vaudeville, so The Collapse was for silent film.  the strongest hero and the steeliest dame were no match for powerful vertigo in those days.  the ultimate expression of despair, sorrow or abjection was summarily personified in sinking to the ground, gravity’s captive.

any number of tragic circumstances might cause one to lose equilibrium:  sickness/frailty, terrible news, shock/fright, extreme loss, fatal wounding..  these were all common occurrences in early film.  whatever the stimulus, when a character is so moved that she cannot remain upright, she will collapse..  but with the aplomb and grace of a skilled star, not that of your garden-variety sack of potatoes.  deceptively viewed as a single action, The Collapse can be better understood by breaking it down into three main sections (with an optional coda).  Step 1)  the character receives the information or stimuli that precipitates the collapse.  Step 2)  the character makes an attempt to remain in control of his faculties.  Step 3)  the character fails, and falls.  the coda might consist of a revival, or one last attempt to regain control.  just as, rather than out-and-out crying, it can be considerably more powerful to watch a character try to keep from crying, so too is the resistance to the fall the main attraction here.  the greater the resistance, the more resounding the collapse.  this struggle might be intensely internalized or busily external.  regardless, the quality of the striving will inform the quality of the failure.

herein, the steps must be exercised is seclusion.  when they are specific and alive, they may then be linked.  special attention should be paid to the final collapsed position of the actor.  this is at once a safety and aesthetic concern.  the actor should not attempt to fling herself into an unknown, uncontrolled spiral.  likewise, in keeping with the quasi-baroque aesthetic of the medium, the prostrate form must have its own, character-specific essence.

the handful of techniques presented here are the first i’ve identified and most characteristically exceptional moments of what was seems to me so captivating in these striking films.  no doubt more can be divined (and divine more i may) but i believe these sufficient to offer one approach of fresh alternatives to a formulaic, outdated and limiting approach, grounded in mid-20th-century psychologism.  so while i am eager to further investigate this mode of performance (especially in a rehearsal room with a committed group of performers), aside from this weekend’s introduction i have yet to formulate a project wherein these techniques might be put to exciting use.  as i can concoct something, i will share it here.  but for now, let’s consider this the jumping-off (into a swarming mass of Keystone Kops).

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  1. Appreciative swoon!

  2. Whew! Interesting stuff though. Silent movies will never be the same to this viewer.

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