The blogosphere is lit up with the news that the intensely “private” (but not reclusive!) Don DeLillo has descended from Olympus to give an interview.
You may or may not be familiar with DeLillo, considered to be “a giant of the contemporary American literary landscape”, as the intro to the interview states. I was an enthusiast in college. Some of his books I have liked (a lot) more than others, and I have not kept up with him over the years. I was introduced to him by the Duke professor Frank Lentricchia as a student at Duke.
Some of the books are just too damned difficult, and this is coming from someone who gets into difficult stuff. But if you want some to start with, you can’t go wrong with White Noise, and Mao II is pretty good as well. Mao II is particularly celebrated for its prophetic vision of the ascent and influence of Islamic extremism.
Anyway, towards the end of the aforementioned interview, when the interviewer goes with DeLillo and Paul Auster to a traditional, boisterous New York deli, Auster and DeLillo get to lamenting the disappearance of the typewriter ribbon (neither writes on a computer) (yeah, I know, how quaint, especially in the deli and all). And this reminded me of the time I met Don DeLillo in person. Lentricchia and his then-wife Melissa were chaperoning a gaggle of young Duke students on a semester-long field trip to New York, and they would invite artists and critics of various kinds to come and talk to us. DeLillo was the headliner. Lentricchia introduced DeLillo to the academy, and so they knew each other. DeLillo described his writing habits, including the typewriter (yes, we had word processors in 1991), and he spoke about how he would write each paragraph on an individual sheet of paper, no matter how much of the rest of the paper remained unused. Presumably, this helped him to insure the integrity of each individual paragraph, and resist the temptation to see it only as a means of getting to the next one. And it shows in the writing, for sure: each paragraph, like it or not, is a carefully crafted microcosm of the larger work.
So this is where Stanislavsky comes in. The whole business of “breaking a scene down into beats” originates with Stanislavsky. In the “Units and Objectives” chapter of An Actor Prepares, Stanislavsky famously uses the example of a turkey cooked for dinner. He observes that it is impossible to eat the whole turkey at once, that it must be dismantled into smaller and smaller pieces until manageable, bite-sized portions have been arrived at. So it is with a role, and even with an individual scene: it cannot be effectively handled all at once. To give each phrase of it (to borrow a term from music) its due, it has to be worked at one piece at a time.
“Worked at” being the operative words. As Travis notes here, anyone who spends any amount of time in an acting class is taught to “break a script down into beats”. Because the actor is learning to draw lines through her script, she feels like she is actually learning something. However, the process is usually fraught with problems. First of all, where to draw the lines? When the “action” or “intention” changes, students are told. Sounds good, but usually, the terms “acting” or “intention” are not given very rigorous definition, and so trying to draw these lines in a meaningful way becomes a pretty meaningless exercise pretty quickly.
The second problem is that usually, this “breaking things down into beats” is presented as an analytical process that precedes the rehearsal process, but whatever breakdown is arrived at is typically abandoned once the rehearsing starts. The lines drawn in the script have little or no practical consequence. Students run through the scene, confer about how it felt, rinse and repeat, and believe that they have rehearsed. They have rehearsed everything and nothing, nothing being the operative word.
What is important about the process of breaking a scene down, as far as I am concerned, is not where to draw the lines, but that whatever lines are drawn are respected in the rehearsal process. I encourage students to draw lines where it seems like the scene turns a corner, or that something new is starting. Someone changes the subject, or reverses direction. The writer writes “Pause”. I tell them not to have debates with their partners about where to draw the lines, that they should just follow their noses. The important thing is that lines are drawn, and then the scene is rehearsed ONE UNIT OR BEAT AT A TIME. This challenges the actor to give each segment or phrase of the writing the focused attention it deserves BEFORE integrating it into the larger movement or trajectory of the scene. Then, AFTER the students have rehearsed the first two units individually, they can try combining them, and make sure how they understand how the first necessitates the second. I know that this is rare, because people who come to my class having taken other classes are usually familiar with the concept of breaking a scene down, but pretty much never have experience in using that breakdown as the organizational principle for their rehearsals. Yeah, I know, seems like it should be a no-brainer. But it most assuredly isn’t.
No matter how talented you are, you can’t put a whole turkey in your mouth at once. Break it down, my friends, break it down. And then live by your breakdown. The rewards will be considerable.