[the lead actor], the jungle of Ms. Bogart’s Chicago is less a savage industrial wasteland out of Upton Sinclair than a benign absurdist cartoon, a rather sexless
retread of R. Crumb.
Ms. Bogart does not dream big. She is so cautious that she minimizes the seedy Chinatown fantasized by Brecht, perhaps out of fear that a contemporary audience might be offended by the author’s tongue-in-cheek use of old Charlie Chan ethnic stereotypes. (Even Shlink’s Malayan identity is all but obliterated.) As bold esthetic sensuousness is missing from this “Jungle,” so is most of Brecht’s raw pain at discovering man’s “infinite isolation.” Far more care is devoted to the busy deployment of two moving men whose endless shifting of a few sticks of furniture typifies the evening’s pedantic illustration of Brechtian stagecraft.
I was in a lot of those rehearsals, I was friends with the backstage interns who handed off and received that furniture from the actors on stage, and I can say that Frank Rich is absolutely right. Bogart did spend hours in those rehearsals painstakingly choreographing the movement of the furniture movers. But it gets worse. She had an assistant director for the production who was the development director (grantwriter) for Mabou Mines, an aspiring director himself, with whom, to my knowledge, she had not worked previously. When one of the actors would have a question about the scene involving, you know, their relationship to other characters in the scene, their needs or desires, or the outcomes they were seeking, she would motion the assistant director to run down and chat with them.
Now, getting to the essence of any scene is a challenge. Brecht’s play is especially enigmatic, and it really takes someone with an overarching vision to help actors connect the dots. Someone like a director. Regardless of how helpful this assistant director’s insights were, it’s a terrible signal to send to the actors that their concerns, their legitimate concerns about how to act their roles well, are to be relegated to an assistant. They must NOT, under any circumstances, be allowed to interfere with the machinations of the director as the string-puller of the uber-marionettes.
Bogart reaped what she sowed. The production flopped. But worse than that, she left the lead members of Mabou Mines with a profound sense of betrayal. “We got taken” Ruth Maleczech said in the office on Ninth St, months later. She then proceeded to perform a spontaneous, derisive parody of “kinesthetic response”, one of Bogart’s most hallowed viewpoints.
This anecdote perfectly illustrates both the appeal and the danger of viewpoints. People who are studying acting want desperately to be initiated, to be shown the true secrets of doing compelling, memorable work. However, finding someone who can really help them with that is never easy. They may encounter a gifted teacher at school, college, or grad school, but eventually, they leave that institution, and are faced with finding someone who can help them continue to develop. The teaching of acting can be maddeningly insubstantial, ethereal even, and so often aspiring actors despair of finding someone who can help them make sense of it all: what to do with their minds, their bodies, their feelings, the text. It can seem to be impossible to find an approach that works with all of these elements together.
Viewpoints makes a false promise: put your money on the “physical”. Anything that deals with the inner life or intention or yearning or longing smacks of dated, naive aberrations from Lee Strasberg’s 1950’s New York. Use viewpoints and focus on the physical, the acolytes are told, and let the rest take care of itself. And so the actor is introduced to this series of relatively simple “viewpoints” that are concerned with an actor’s physical relationships with others in a space: how far away or close they are to each other, the shapes of their bodies, the mimicing of what others in the space are doing, the contours of the space itself, and potential responses to the gestural exhibitions of others. Follow these simple steps, and you, too, can be a “physical” actor.
The appeal is in the concreteness of what viewpoints is pushing, and in its relative simplicity. Through my years of training at the Yale School of Drama and at Duke before that, I watched it happen again and again: actors would be presented with a concrete skill to master, whether it was the “ask” list of words, in which the pronounciation of the short “a” sound varies across British and American dialects, or fencing, or scansion, or stage combat, or, yes, viewpoints, and they leaped at the promise that mastering this very concrete set of more or less mechanical rules, a set of rules that was divorced from things like judgment, intuition, and imagination, would somehow accredit them as actors. I can empathize with the impulse: learning to act well is not easy, even with the help of a caring and insightful teacher. But the promise, my friends, is a false one.
Any good acting teacher, like any good yoga teacher, or any good Alexander teacher, or any good Zen teacher, wil tell you, in one way or another, that it is all about body-mind integration. Viewpoints promises to make accessible something that DEPENDS on this integration of body and mind, i.e. acting, by focusing on the merely physical, and in a totally superficial way. I had a great piano teacher growing up, Linda Calligaro, and she insisted that you do NOT develop independence of the right hand and the left hand by practicing one hand at a time. Learning the part of a piece of music one hand at a time could be useful as a preliminary, but no gains would be made in achieving the INDEPENDENCE of the two hands by practicing one hand at a time. For that, you had to try to do the much more difficult challenge of playing with both hands at once. It’s all about coordination. As so is acting. It’s about learning to simultaneously direct your attention to people or things, sometimes ones that are present, sometimes not, use your voice, use your body, remember your lines, and an whole lot more. It’s what Barack Obama has referred to as walking and chewing gum at the same time. It’s rubbing your tummy and patting your head, jumping on one foot, naked, while speaking a bit of text that means everything to you in a way that honors both the punctuation and the need to preserve the integrity of the whole thought. Viewpoints, sadly, makes things just way too easy, and tries to make a virtue of that.
Viewpointa can have a value as part of an actor’s training. It is definitely valuable for an actor to have a dynamic understanding of space and his or her relationships to others in that space, and the way she can use his body in relationship with the space and the others with whom she shares it. Too much of this awaremess, though, is NOT a good thing. These concerns are essentially the purvey of the director (viewpoints evolved out of dance composition principles), as they involve the “big picture”. And being too aware of the “big picture” can be a major stumbling block for the actor: when he is thinking about that, he is thinking about what he, and everyone else, looks like, and is therefore the very definition of self-conscious. Viewpoints also tacitly encourages cleverness (or “smart-aleckeyness” as Frank Rich put it), and seeming clever has nothing to do with being vulnerable. So a LITTLE bit of viewpoints goes a long way. Some viewpoints proponents will no doubt say that their technique is not intended to replace “inner” work, but my experience with Anne Bogart, and Frank Rich’s etimation of her work, shows that that is not the case.
The only way I can imagine viewpoints being valuable is as a kind of basic awareness of space and its possibilites. Though I have heard tell of scene study classes that attempt to incorporate viewpoints as part of the working process, I am very, very skeptical. Getting the attention of the actor on to the right things is difficult enough, and viewpoints is an invitation to focus on many of the wrong ones.
But whatever merits viewpoints may have, it is NOT a substitute for a real approach to the difficult terrain that belongs to the actor: the domain of dreams, fears, needs, outcomes, interventions, confrontations, and intuition, as well as the body and the voice. And like Mrs. Calliagaro said, the real work begins when you are practicing using all of these things at one time. Is it difficult to work with these thing all together? Yes. Is there only one way of doing it? No. Is finding an approach to dealing with these things necessary for any actor who wants to sustain a creative life in acting in film or theater? Absolutely. The only way out, a wise man once said, is through. That’s a viewpoint you can believe in.