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Multiple Roles: Stanislavskian vs Brechtian Techniques in Acting


Frankenstein: Latest Show to Alternate Lead Actors - Derrick Tyson
Sometimes performers play many parts in a show or film; or a part is shared by several. Some even just swap roles. It’s all part of art’s rich diversity.

Professional musical performers are used to being ‘swingers’: they swing from role to role in the company according to need or illness of others. Often they don’t know till they arrive. These are not just understudies, because they play something every performance.

In ballet and opera, there’s frequently doubling-up of lead roles, or in a long run of any kind of show, the lead will occasionally be taken by somebody else. That is entirely different from multi-roling. An actor plays more than one role in a given production, as a deliberate device. John Cleese played six in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) for comedy.

The English playwright John Godber specified that three or four actors were needed for his plays, all playing many parts. In Bouncers, for instance, it’s night club staff, lads on a night out, girls the same. The script is written to facilitate changing roles.

To keep productions affordable, it makes sense. However, it’s done to achieve a number of other things: experience for actors, novelty for audience and to make people think about the relationship between the characters being swapped.

Frankenstein, the Latest

Britain’s National Theatre production of Frankenstein (Jan 2011) is an experiment in experiments. Mary Shelley’s original gothic horror tale was itself an exercise in trying out the untried, presenting an obsessive man’s attempts to create life from dead body parts. In this staged version, told from the perspective of the Creature, director Danny Boyle (taking a break from movies) alternates two actors in the central roles.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller spend a day each as the Creature and Frankenstein, then swap. Sarah Crompton wrote in The Sunday Telegraph that the man and his creation are tied together, ‘the man and his alter ego, the father and his horribly deformed child’.

Miller told David Gritten of The Daily Telegraph: ‘The story is infused with … prejudice, not fitting in, love, revenge, original sin and questions about nurture and nature’. Both actors and director enthused about the challenges, from the 90 minutes for makeup to play the Creature to watching each other rehearse when both men are ‘a study in contrasts’.

Crompton recalled other notable swaps. John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier alternated Mercutio and Romeo in 1935’s Romeo and Juliet, while 1973 saw Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco persuaded to alternate Richard III and Bolingbroke. In 1994, London’s Donmar Warehouse staged a revival of Sam Shepherd’s True West where Mark Rylance and Michael Rudko alternated in the ‘visceral, violent’ encounter between two brothers.

Building Character Identification

The high calibre of these actors means they could cope with just one daily role, because they would be heavily into one part. They wouldn’t be able to swap within a short time, because they spent a lot of time building themselves into the reality of the stage person.

Russian theatrical exponent, actor and director Stanislavski (1863-1938) created his ‘system’, where actors studied, observed for long periods before working into role to such an extent that they lived it, virtually literally. It takes such a performer a long time to come down, back to the reality of themselves after an emotional performance in another’s shoes.

His actors would break a script into differing ‘objectives, the final goal a character wants to achieve’. He would apply the ‘magic if…’ a character could achieve his/her super-objectives. He used ‘emotion memory’ to draw deep on the wells of a performer’s personal experience of misery, joy, pain, loss, hurt, disappointment, hope, trust, lies or betrayal, for instance.

His casts rehearsed for hours putting characters in different situations to find and communicate the absolute truth of desired motivation and emotion. He codified his ideas into a technique before questions and problems of psychological significance were widely understood or acknowledged.

Lee Strasberg in the Actors’ Studio among others interpreted many Stanislavski ideas to form The Method acting approach.They emphasised psychological realism, emotional authenticity and applied it to modern and older plays, particularly Shakespeare. Many, perhaps most, actors trace their development through at least a nodding acquaintanceship with these theories.

Breaking Character Identification

Stanislavski sought the unbreakable link between internal experiences and their outward physical expression. Brecht (1896-1956) took the opposite view. For him, theatre had to be the tool of social engineering, and actors quite literally ‘put on the coat and change role as easily as that’. His actors demonstrated what a character felt through acting (gestus); they did not live it.

All this was in the name of verfremsdungseffekt, alienation or ‘making strange’, to prevent the audience becoming emotionally involved with any character, the better to absorb the message of the play by maintaining critical detachment. That far overrode any affinity with character or personality. Having said that, the relationships in his plays, such as Mother Courage, Caucasian Chalk Circle, Galileo or The Threepenny Opera are studies of characters under stress, enduring change, suffering loss/ambition/loathing/self doubt worthy of any ‘more serious’ play.

According to Robert Lauer from Baltimore’s Goucher College in his 2009 round up of Brechtian commentators such as Willert and Esslin, his characters ‘are too complex to be merely admired or blamed’; his plays had ‘a greyness that is characteristically his’ and he was opposed to realism. He was not interested in his characters as individuals, but as ‘striking images and poses’ of people.

With Mother Courage, Lauer felt people shouldn’t confuse her as an individual character with moral conscience, but only admire her physical endurance in the face of horror upon horror. He argued Brecht’s best characters are mainly passive, morally inconsequential, inconsistent, living by lies, fraud, and, occasionally, by feats of thought.

Brecht thought theatre of illusion and identification as obscene, a fraud. He, a rationalist, demanded theatre of critical thoughtfulness. His theories continue to have a profound effect on stage and film actors and directors today. That a character should be played by several actors (as in the film I’m Not There where 7 actors including Cate Blanchett play Bob Dylan), or the set of a town is chalked out on the floor with token wall fragments (as in Dogville), fits Brechtian theory.

That actors should embrace a part so deeply that they make it real to the point of audience total suspension of disbelief (Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Daniel Day Lewis, Robert de Niro, Christian Bale, Forest Whitaker), that fulfills much of Stanislavski’s thinking.

That both come together in fusion of art, creativity and performance is entirely understandable and why there’ll be more shows with deep characters movingly portrayed by intense acting several times over in a show, speaking stage directions, without curtains or ‘magic’ lighting but audience participation on everything from life’s futilities to the glories of stage musicals. Either ways and both ways, it’s the beauty of performance art .

First published on Suite 101, 29 January 2011
Photo: Frankenstein: Latest Show to Alternate Lead Actors – Derrick Tyson

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