Andrew Wood, MFA, Yale School of Drama • Essentials Online starting soon. • Call for a Free Informational Session • (323) 836-2176

the circus of the given circumstances

To accomplish their fabulous feats, trapeze flyers must depend completely on an ensemble of objects, people and physical forces. Fly-bar and catch-bar must swing in sync. A catchman must spot and receive the flyer, and a guidesman tempers the tension and the give in the wires and pulleys while the act is in progress so the rigging responds correctly to the flyer’s velocity and weight. The astounding acrobatics are the outcome of a grand collusion between flyers and their given circumstances. Great aerialists know precisely how to use the support and energy of the special ecology that surrounds them.

A play provides different kinds of given circumstances, including other actors, particular arrangements of time and space, events, and a variety of costumes and objects. All of theser contribute to the world of a play just as the pulleys, bars, catchmen, and so on contribute to the world of the trapeze act. In the theatre, as in the circus, the given circumstances are nonnegotiable gifts–nonnegotiable because they are generally thought of as intergral parts of a play (…); and gifts because they operate as a readily available energy field that charges the work of those who know how to use them.
–Acting Through Exercises, John Gronbeck-Tedesco

This is an absolutely marvelous description of the simultaneous complexity and richness that the given circumstances of a play comprise. In my class, students initially encounter the given circumstances as a set of facts that they have to master to be ready to face what is affectionately known as the “grilling”, the period of question-and-answer after they do a scene when I check their depth of knowledge of these things. So they first come to know the given circumstances as a dragon that they need to slay.

But I would say it’s a sign of an actor’s maturity to have come to regard the given circumstances not as an obstacle to be overcome, but rather, as Gronbeck-Tedesco suggests, as gifts, opportunities, trapeze-bars that they can grab onto and be swung into a world of imagination. In that sense, the circumstances are no longer a beast that must be overcome, but rather one that needs to be tamed, with all of the patience, gentleness, warmth and dogged persistence that taming entails.

PS Happy birthday Yolanda!