31 January, 2009

the barefoot baklesa's view from here [part one]: ACTING LESSONS FROM ROLANDO AND ELLA by Ricardo G. Abad

i shall begin a series of posts which i shall call "the view from here". i'm going to get a bit philosophical here for a bit in trying to explain it. not long ago, in my first philosophy class, i was introduced to michel foccault's theory of "the gaze" -in this, he used the panopticon for his philosophical analogy. the panopticon is actually composed of two components, a circular complex where all the jail cells are facing the very center to which a tower is placed where atop it, the guard stands sentinel. but as one can see, the very gaze of the guard is limited to whatever part of the cells in this round complex he choses the face and the rest is out of this "gaze".

being a new company, we are not bound by the limit of one particular "gaze" to which those that have come before us have decided to stand and face [while some seemed to have succeeded and some are miserably stuck and failing]. every so often we must chose to turn and look around the panopticon; thus is our view from here.

Rapunzel for one, had but one window in that tower and saw the world in a way that was distant and unreachable. indeed her gaze was limited and the world beyond her window would be one blow of reality once she had to face it.

and so, TDS, from it's tower {insular life?] looks out -particularly our company of actors- and this article by one of my mentors Dr. Ricardo Abad from my Ateneo and Tanghalang Ateneo days is the first of many ways of looking out there...read on, and you'll see where i'm looking at.

the niki de los reyes-torres


Ricardo G. Abad

Rolando S. Tinio and his spouse Ella Luansing were the pivotal figures of Teatro Pilipino, a theater company at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and later the Metropolitan Theater from 1975 to 1994. Both had directed almost all of the company’s productions, usually western classics in Filipino translation, and set standards for performance that theater artists in the country still hold in high esteem.

I joined the company in 1981, and learned acting from both Rolando and Ella in the years that followed. I acquired these lessons during summer workshops, but most of them came informally: during rehearsals and shows, or during conversations in the Cultural Center "buffeteria," in tea houses, or in car rides on the way home.

Rolando and Ella taught by word and example. They made their points with passion and authority. Always they had a sense of mission, a quest to leave something worthwhile for Philippine theater. And they conveyed these lessons that left me and my fellow actors – Angie Ferro, Ray Ventura, Pen Medina, Dido de la Paz, Divina Cavestany, and Rey Malte Cruz, among them – yearnings to do theater for the rest of our lives.

I remember five lessons of acting I now pass on to my students and actors. These acting lessons are simple but deep. They assume not a talent, but a desire to act. They also see acting not as a pastime but as a lifelong pursuit, not a technique of personal expression but a cultivation of the inner life.

Here are the lessons, distilled over the years, presented in no particular order of importance, and listed with the awareness that these lessons overlap one another:

Actors are generous.

I once asked Rolando what he looked for when casting an actor for a play. I thought he’d say talent. He instead, said generosity. Talent, he noted, can be learned over time. What is more difficult to acquire or to see in many actors is a generosity to the art. Generosity makes actors dedicate time for theater work -- in rehearsals or private study, for example. It moves actors to reach out to the audience: it places their voices so they can be heard in the last row, colors the lines so they can be well-understood, and uses their bodies and not simply their voices to communicate ideas better. More important, generosity enables actors to reveal as much of themselves in their characters.

This revelation of self is not easy. Self-exposure can be frightening for an actor. It takes introspection and courage to peel off the masks one uses to be acceptable to society. The process of revelation also needs the support of others who will accept the actor when the masks are down. Only when these hurdles are passed can the actor show generosity on stage. And that disposition to give and share, according to the gospel of Rolando and Ella, is more important for the aspiring actor to have -- or to cultivate -- than showing displaying a talent to sing, dance, or emote. “Don’t be afraid to be real, to be yourself” as Rolando told me on the way home from rehearsal minutes before he got off the car to take a cab home.

Actors are intelligent.

Rolando observed that many were unable to enter or finish school, because they had to eke out a living as a stage actor as a replacement for schooling. But this notion of an “academic dropout” was not what Rolando really meant. To him, a dropout was an actor who lacked the kind of intelligence usually honed by formal schooling -- a person who was smart enough to portray, with authority and conviction, the wit of Molière, the angst of Chekhov, the arguments of Brecht, or the poetry of Shakespeare. Many Filipino performances, he thought, were ruled by feelings or intuition – and more prone to hysteria -- rather than by logic, reasoning, and insight.

To correct this limitation, Rolando and Ella coached actors to be thinking people. Many of the characters of Molière, Chekhov, Brecht, Shakespeare, and other great playwrights were intellectuals, members of royalty, clerics, and professionals. Even the tramps Estragon and Vladimir in Godot, or the kasama in Katuwiran, were philosophers of a sort. Brechtian characters were particularly difficult to create since Filipino actors could easily be emotional about social injustice. How quick we were to play victims of oppression! So coaching was more intense. “Show me your thoughts,” Rolando advised. “Model your character after your philosophy professor,” he once suggested to me during a rehearsal of Anouilh’s Antigone. In another instance, Ella asked me to repeat a short monologue 15 times (much to my growing irritation) until she saw a faint glimpse of my thoughts and my reactions. Whew! And I wasn’t a dropout, goodness gracious.

Actors possess a refined sensibility.

Rolando and Ella also wanted actors to acquire a refined sensibility, to have a fine sense of discrimination, the ability to distinguish between art and artifice, between the beautiful and the banal. In one workshop session, Ella assembled us to listen to Rachmaninoff. We must constantly listen to classical music, she reminded us, so that our acting would show elegance, taste, and sophistication, so we understand the period of the play; so we would use it as an aid to create characters. In a technical rehearsal of Wilde’s Earnest, Rolando and Ella asked us to listen to an energetic baroque piece and then to follow its rhythm as we speak our lines. Wilde’s comedy, he said, must move at a fast pace, and must also possess the playfulness of baroque music. “Listen!” We did. Then we spoke, initially, as if a hundred rabbits were chasing us all over the stage. Eventually, we found our pace, and I’ve been a Vivaldi fan ever since.

It’s not always high brow. One afternoon, I brought Tanghalang Ateneo actors to Rolando’s house to discuss his play, Ang Mga Kahon. We hardly talked about the play. Instead, Rolando had us watch a videotape of an international ice skating championship final. Rolando annotated as the tape rolled: admire the focus of the skaters, he pointed out, see how graceful and daring they are. We enjoyed the video, but had no idea why Rolando chose to show us a ballet on ice rather than to discuss the play. Years later, I read a book on method acting that urged actors to explore the other arts as a way of appreciating and enriching their inner life. There! That was Rolando’s point.

Actors search for the truth.

“Acting is like wearing a sweater,” Rolando reminded us. The sweater is the role that actors play, and its wearing of it is the actor’s version of the role. How that sweater will look on stage depends on the actor’s equipment – physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. No role can ever be acted in the same way; each actor unique. Each actor possesses her or his own truth. The Oedipus of actor A will be different from the Oedipus of actor B, and for actor C to assume that he can imitate A or B and do just as well playing Oedipus is operating on a lie. A plague on him for thinking so!

Rolando intones: we can’t judge someone’s acting as good or bad- only true or false. In more technical language, a truthful actor finds the justification of action from one’s inner life, while a false actor draws the action from conventional dictates – or from the audience’s likes and dislikes. The false actor “acts,” while the true actor, in the spirit of Eric Morris, as Rolando quoted, would say “No Acting Please.” Rolando illustrated further: does a person always shed tears when he is crying? Does a person always slap someone’s face when she is angry? Do persons always scream when they are mad? How would you, as a person, react in this scene? How would others you’ve seen react in this scene?

I recall one aspiring actor who volunteered to do a scene from Arbuzov’s Kawawang Marat. The scene required him to enter the room, remove his scarf, hang it on the rack, and then sit down on a chair. Easy, we thought. The actor took three steps onstage when Rolando stopped him to say that his walk did not reveal a man who was weary from work and love. “Repeat the scene,” Rolando told him. The actor did so, and for three more times before Rolando asked him to continue. The actor then removed his scarf, and started to hang it on the rack, Rolando stopped him again to say that the way he removed the scarf did not show the frustration of someone whose best friend was winning the heart of the woman he loved. The actor, frustrated but fortunately patient, undid his scarf in several ways before he sat down. Again Rolando interrupted to say that the actor’s way of sitting lacked a certain gravitas or weight. Repeat the scene, the actor was told, and so on and so forth. What took five seconds on stage took thirty minutes of workshop time.

The point: each moment on stage must express the truth of the character, and that this truth must be sought in the actor’s self. Develop the self, expand the mind and heart, and one will have a richer field to mine the truth of the character. And since the cultivation of the self takes time, acting, like rum or wine, should improve with age.

Actors act with an edge.

Rolando told us once that Ella’s acting was distinctive because it had an “edge.” “What is edge?” he asked. Several of us took turns defining the term, none of which satisfied our guru. Neither did Rolando define the term, leaving us to ponder the question on our own. Years have passed, and I’m not sure I now have the answer Rolando had in mind that evening. But I’ve watched many performances since then, paralleled them with Ella’s work, read books, listened to theater people talk about actors, and I’ve come to think that acting with an “edge” means acting on “the brink of danger” because the actor is acting “completely for the moment.” The performance does not look planned, but is taking shape from the actor’s inner life right then and there and before the audience’s very eyes. This kind of acting has “edge” because it is moving in unpredictable ways. The reading of the line, the gesture, or the bit of stage business looks fresh, spontaneous, and unique–not similar to performances previously seen – and illuminating the character in unexpected and believable ways.

It’s a rare moment to catch on stage, and a joy to be swept by this magical moment. Two of these moments came when I saw Ella Luansing in two productions of Hamlet, first as Ophelia, and years later, as Gertrude. She stunned me with an emotionally ice cold and seemingly sane Ophelia in the madness scene (no stereotyped Sisa-type screaming for her). She also won my pity when she, as Gertrude, bellowed out the line “O Hamlet, thou has cleft my heart my heart in twain!” with a desperation so real I felt she was about to have a nervous breakdown. That’s being edgy in my books, and a state of performance that can only be achieved when intelligence, sensibility, sensitivity, and truth come together in a generous moment of pure acting. Ella showed me what great acting is like, and that’s why she’s worthy of saint-like reverence in the annals of Philippine theater. She is truly, in Peter Brook’s words, a golden fish.

Rolando and Ella taught us other lessons. But all of these, including the five above, boil down to one core principle: the formation of the self in the service of the stage. That is why Rolando also said, with typical irreverence, that the best academic preparation for acting is not to take a degree in theater arts, which tends to be craft oriented, but to work for a degree in literature, or some other course, where intelligence and imagination are stretched, pulled, sharpened, and articulated. The addition of technical skills and stage experience will help, of course, as will the effort to stay fit and strong. But none of these supplements will bear much fruit if the actor suffers from a poverty of spirit, one lacking in the virtues of intelligence, sensibility, sensitivity, truth, and generosity.

It will take time to master these virtues. One must also be humble in the process of mastery. For this reason, Rolando and Ella did not believe in complimenting actors profusely after a show; or in putting their names or pictures on posters; or making them vehicles for publicity strategies. These ego trips, he felt, gave actors a false sense of accomplishment. They also fostered vanity, the bane of popular entertainment. It was enough to know, Rolando said, that one had been chosen for the next play to realize that one was doing well as an actor. Then back to work, to moments of study reflection, to the appreciation of literature and the other arts, alone, or in the company of fellow artists.

There’s something Zen in all of this. So be it. Acting, after all, entails a many moments of contemplation so that onstage, in action so to speak, actors can quickly respond to an inner voice that translates into a way of speaking and doing unique to the character they are portraying. It is the only way actors can enlighten audiences and make them believe in the characters on stage. Rolando and Ella led lives that made wondrous sense of this exchange between thought and action. We try, in our own modest ways, to do the same.

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