Many of you have wanted to know a bit more about this term “low-friction” I have been using to describe our production work. Probably the idea is most connected to the “projects” we developed and performed at the NTC for many years. We would rehearse a play or “project” over a 6 week period with all the actors from a particular class and then perform the piece in what we called “open rehearsals”. The purpose of the work was primarily educational. We would work on a particular writer or style in class and then rehearse and perform a play out of the class work. I always thought these projects were also important as performance pieces in their own right. Actors essentially designed their own clothes, the lighting was whatever dimmers were on the wall of the studio, music and sound was live or on a boom box. There was usually no “set”, just essential furniture and “stuff”. Whatever the actor needed to create the character behavior and tell the story of the piece. Often I would cut plays down to fit the smaller cast of a class and to allow the hours of rehearsal to be more effective. Some plays were played in their entirety but we did many plays in only a bit over an hour.
When I put together the “My Two Sisters” piece a man named John Boak, from the Colorado Yale Association, an important sculptor and painter in Denver, coined the phrase “low-friction theatre” when he saw our performance. And this is how I interpret what he meant: We are emphasizing the actor and the text first and foremost. All production values come directly out of this essential relationship. Everything that is physically represented, the clothes, objects, sound, lighting must be necessary for the actors to create the behavior and story of the characters and action of the play or piece. So first it is an aesthetic choice. Then it is extremely practical. These production choices enable the work to be performed in a wide variety of venues and situations not all typical of most theatre. As an aesthetic the focus is on transformation. We also look at this principle in the study of acting and character. Our job is to imagine the world of the writer and character and then inhabit and represent that world for an audience. We do that most effectively when we stimulate the imagination of the audience. As Dan Koetting says ” We do not want to make movies on stage”. But rather we want you to experience all of the images, story and character in the work primarily in your imagination. In design we might talk about “connotative” choices as opposed to “denotative” choices. In “My Two Sisters” we were able to tell Irina’s whole story and the story of the play itself with two chairs, a glass of water, a book, some luggage, and some music. Solyony and Tusenbach were performed by the same actor using glasses for Tusenbach, sleeves rolled down for Solyony. A simple change in vocal pitch and rhythm also created two completely different characters. Irina as an 80 year old woman then at times becoming herself at ages 20-25, also was told with subtle changes in posture and vocal pitch. This approach to character and story is simple and yet specific. The audience connects to the story in a deeply personal way as the world is suggested rather than denoted. Lee Breuer ( Mabou Mines) used to say ” a journey of many miles can be 2 steps to the left in a play”.
So we will continue to work in this way. Actors in the empty space. Articulating the text. Telling the writer’s story through behavior and an imaginative response to the language. I have directed “Equus” in the past and I remember the designer John Napier who designed the first production talked to my directing and design class at Yale Drama School many years ago. He described the process by which he designed the performance modality for the horses played by actors. He distilled horses to the essential aspect of the hooves. He attached cans found in the rehearsal space to the actors feet. The sound and the movement became the style for the whole production. He spoke about essential objects and minimalism. He spoke about the importance of not decorating space but creating essential space in which the actor could live and behave. I am calling this “low friction” theatre. Othello will be our next “low friction” project. jenn