K.D is an actor and artistic associate with a South London Theatre Company. In 2006, they put on a production of ‘Three Sisters’ by Anton Chekov. As part of the rehearsal process they conceived of a dinner party, specifically designed to shed some light on the situations and characters of the play…
Q: So, whose idea was it to have a dinner party?
A: It was one of the cast members. She had trained at the drama school East 15 which is renowned for being very ‘Method’. As part of the programme at East 15 there was an exercise they called ‘The Project’. This was something they did every year and the students would all be given a scenario and a character and a huge resource of background information, who they were, their relationship with the other characters etc. They would enter whatever environment they belonged and live those characters for a week. In her year the scenario was an Amish village and they went to live in a camp for a week! I think East 15 don’t do it anymore because it made everyone go mad.
At the time she was dating someone in her year and in The Project they were given the character of husband and wife and so they were living together 24/7, sleeping in a tent. Her ‘husband’ was given the note that he was having an affair and so he spent the whole time sneaking off into the woods to snog one of the other characters. It all got very out of hand. There was a famous year in which they did Nazis and Jews. I think they stopped it after that! It’s a bit gimmicky for me; there is a point at which you stop learning.
Q: Did you pick the dinner party because you were having difficulties with that scene in the play?
A: No, we chose a dinner party because it was relevant to the show we were doing. I’m in a Harold Pinter play at the moment and the play starts with a couple having had an argument. The Director rehearsed the argument even though it wasn’t in the play because everyone wanted to know what had happened. One of the things in Three Sisters that is different from today is the idea of class and one of the main reasons the dinner party was useful was that it allowed the servant characters to feel what it was like, momentarily, to be in a position of waiting on someone. Equally, it was useful for the middle class characters to feel waited on in as natural way as possible. A lot of the shared conversations in Three Sisters are about being ‘at dinner’ so it felt like a logical thing to do.
Q: Was it in costume?
A: Yes…but only to an extent. We weren’t in full costume because we didn’t have it at that point. I wore my practice skirt but more importantly for the all the women we had something tied around our waist to replicate the corset because it would mean you sit differently. We weren’t in character when we arrived because we had arranged to bring some food with us and we gave instructions to the cooks as ourselves so catering wasn’t too unpleasant for the unfortunate actors playing servants, and I certainly helped set up the tables. The scenario was worked on in advance.
Q: Was there any discussion in advance as to what to look out for or were you left to your own process?
A: Well interestingly, the Director didn’t want to have anything to do with the dinner party! You can’t really decide in advance what you are going to learn and if you go into a situation like that thinking ‘I want to know this, that or the other’ you aren’t really being the character. The dinner party didn’t give me anything specific about the play it just gave me a much richer life to draw on. Now there are some plays where this wouldn’t be important but with Chekov there is so much material just under the surface.
Q: So rather like Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory that the writer may omit things he knows truly enough as, he said, the dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water?
A: Yes, that’s it.
Q: Was there a starting point? How did everyone know to begin?
A: I think it was signaled by everyone coming down to dinner. We all got changed upstairs and gradually descended. We weren’t staging the actual dinner party in the play. There is a specific scene in Three Sisters, the first time Natasha meets the family and if we had recreated that we would simply have ended up rehearsing the scene. We set our party slightly later on so we all knew Natasha but didn’t like her. We discussed the point we were in the play because it was important that the actors knew the point in time we were at.
Q: Did you remain in character for the duration of the evening?
A: Yes, because in a situation like that if someone breaks character it just becomes ridiculous. There is however, only so far you would go with that…
Q: I know, I spent some time living in silence in a French Monastery and we were specifically told that if you wanted something it would be better to whisper ‘pass the salt’ rather than engage in any contorted semaphore. That a whisper was more ‘silent’ than saying nothing…
A: Yes, but it was set up well so we didn’t really need to break character… well, until towards the end…
Q: Obviously in a scenario like that there are all sorts of behaviours you would indulge in that you wouldn’t in real life. You will be used to that as an actor with a script, but of course this wasn’t scripted and there must have been some characters who were treated disgracefully. I’m thinking of Kulygin…
A: … and Amphisa. She had a horrible time.
Q: Afterwards she said she didn’t enjoy it?
A: (Firmly) She had a horrible time.
Q: Not even in a vicarious “I’m an Actor, I’m playing a Maid” way?
A: No. It was pretty horrible. There were genuine difficulties. I was playing Masha who during the course of the dinner party does her best to avoid Kulygin, her husband , for the whole night. A week or so earlier the Director had asked me to take a walk with Vershinen, the Battery Commander and the object of Masha’s affections. We were recreating the moment when Vershinen tells Masha that he has to leave. In the meantime she sent Kulygin off to write a love letter to me and finally she called us all back and made us demonstrate what we had come up with. Vershinen and Masha played out this passionate, intense scene and then I had to watch Kulygin read this beautiful, terribly heart-rending love letter. I cried a lot and felt really awful.
Q: That’s interesting because that might be the reaction you might have as Kas but not as Masha.
A: Well if Kulygin had been that honest with her, she might. But then of course, he never is. The point is she that she despises him because he glosses over it and tells her he doesn’t mind, which only makes her despise him even more because he is so weak.
Q: Did you feel at any point that your reaction was different from that of the character’s?
A: Well that’s part of being an actor, dealing with that. Luckily, in this case I had a similar set of reactions… maybe it was the casting that was clever and manipulative! At the dinner party I remember desperately trying not to sit next to Kulygin and then periodically sneaking off to snog Vershinen in the toilet.
Q: That might be a difficult situation for an actor but at least you didn’t have to be a Maid.
A: Yes, being so utterly at someone’s beck and call is so foreign that it really is hard not to find it irritating or frustrating. When we did Homer’s Odyssey one of the things we had to learn was that being a slave wasn’t irritating. It was just what was.
Q: In terms of the structure of the evening, how was it set up? Did you have someone doing the serving?
A: The Maids did the serving. We had a couple of members of the production team to help out, to play the roles of maids as well. Dinner was useful because it is so self-contained. There is so much ritual to it and it is, in a way, a perfect vehicle for exploring something because of its inherent structure.
Q: Did you actually sit down and have a proper dinner, with wine?
A: Three courses, I think.
Q: A three course meal?
Q: Did you get drunk?
Q: So there was a lot of wine?
A: No, not much wine but there was a lot of Vodka.
Q: Vodka? And that was deliberate? How did you drink it?
Q: Vodka shots. Excellent stuff. So someone had done their research and that was typical of the period?
A: Yes, everyone drank Vodka. Even the women. Down in one. (Mimes the necking of Spirits and slams imaginary glass down.)
Q: As you became drunker to what extent did the process become more or less useful?
A: There was a point of drunkenness that I think was very useful for me. Having made the decision that my character was drowning her sorrows, even though there was no massive evidence that this was what she did (there was no evidence to the contrary either) the evening became about how she covered it up. When Kulygin left the party he tried to make me leave with him. This happened a few times in the play. But… then the night got a bit hazy for me and I woke up in the middle of the night on the sofa still wearing my corset.
Q: In character?
A: (Laughs) Don’t be stupid.
Q: So you might say that the evening degenerated?
A: Yes, but I do think that we stopped at some point, but as I say, my memory of that part of the evening is a little unreliable.
Q: Did you have a debrief a few days later? Did you talk about the dinner party again?
A: Not really. To be honest, it was, in many respects, a personal exercise for a lot of the actors. There might be some actors who might find this kind of method off-putting for them but it isn’t the type of actor I would want to work with. There is a definite strand of the profession who would sneer at this sort of thing. I remember Colin Cook, my old Head of Acting at LAMDA would have called them ‘technicians’ – people who don’t go any deeper than that. I also think that as people get older they become more scared of playing.
Q: So you felt it was playing?
A: (Firmly) It is playing.
Q: I think you’re right.
A: It’s not just actors. All adults love being given permission to play. Ian Mckellan once talked about how babies are born with the ability to put themselves in imaginary worlds and as adults we forget to do that. Actors are people who haven’t forgotten.
Q: I know. One of the things I’ve noticed is that if one’s life goes according to plan, the last opportunity within the education system to come up with a piece of creative writing is the age of 13. The vast majority of adults out there haven’t written a story for 20 or 30 years or more.
A: Yes. You are conditioned to think it is childish to imagine. Perhaps that’s why some people think actors are juvenile.
Q: Does this approach feel different from a more orthodox rehearsal with a script?
A: I think the best rehearsals are a combination, in that, any rehearsal period that doesn’t include any playing is so limited. One of the reasons I hated working on another play I did recently, ‘Extremities’ by William Mastrosimone, was that literally all we did was read the play, read the play, read the play, then block the play, run the play, block the play, run the play and we never looked at anything outside of that. When I tried to suggest that we tried something different, I was bashed down as ‘wanky’. For me, in Teatro Vivo even when we are working with scripts we always play because that it what actors do. They play. If you want to find anything unusual, anything exciting, I think you have to allow a certain amount of play. It gives you freedom, and it gives you the ability to take risks and it doesn’t matter if it cocks up. It puts you in the frame of mind where you’re not thinking, you’re just doing.
Q: Are you talking Stanislavski here?
A: I think both Stan and Lee Strasberg would say that this is a bastardization of their ideas. However, my old teacher at LAMDA used to say ‘we’re just giving you a toolbox, a lot of different techniques to try and when you leave here you’ll pick the ones you like best. There’ll be ones you never touch again but one day you’ll be really stuck and you’ll remember it and it’ll come in very handy.’
Q: We’ve talked about technique but it strikes me that there were no rules to what you were doing at the dinner party. Would you say that there were rules at work that evening?
A: I think there are a certain number of rules that come from being a professional actor.
Q: For example?
A: The biggest rule is that you don’t break character.
Q: Were there any others?
A: Mmm… (long pause)
Q: How about going too far? What would have been going too far?
A: It’s really hard to answer that because it would entirely depend on the situation and there have been times when I have felt that things have gone too far because what was happening just wasn’t warranted by the situation…
Q: …but if person feels something is warranted because their character is behaving in a certain way and the other person has a real sense that this isn’tnecessary I suppose it is the prerogative of the person who feels things have gone too far to say ‘Stop!’
A: Yes. There are also obvious rules – don’t do anything illegal, don’t assault someone. Just don’t be stupid about it. I think on the whole actors are pretty good about not going too far.
Q: If this was a useful procedure why haven’t Teatro Vivo gone to those lengths since?
A: We do, but within the confines of the rehearsal studio. It is quite a difficult thing to set up and some plays merit it more than others. Chekov is so rich and dense, it is so layered, that the deeper you delve into it the more you find out about your character and the ‘forms’ of the play. So, the second and third time you do it you think ‘ah, that refers to this, and this to that. There are so many different ways to say something that it is sometimes only after months that you appreciate the layers. You wouldn’t take this approach for something like Alice in Wonderland because it wasn’t a rich enough script.
Q: Is it easy to replicate the type of dialogue found in the play when you are improvising off-script? To what extent are you mimicking the style of the playwright?
A: Well with Shakespeare you don’t even try. You’d never get it right and it would just end up tying you in knots. The danger with someone like Harold Pinter, whose style is so recognizable, is that the result is cod-Pinter. Truthfully, replicating writing style is not at all how an actor would see it. You would have a simple approach, if your character swore all the time you’d keep that or if they spoke in short or slow sentences or paused a lot in thought, you would work that in. You certainly wouldn’t talk in the style of the play or of the dialogue in general because that would not be your character. That’s the playwright’s style.