The Float Light Dostoyevski Kindled

This part of the blog is devoted to the presention of my discoveries in the realm of Acting as they were made and developed through the years. My career as a director and actor has repeatedly proven to me that getting a successful education in Acting means first and foremost comprehending, following and mastering the laws of real-life human behavior. Yet the deeper I got into teaching, the stronger became my frustration from my inability to connect these laws in a coherent way, using unified terminology. My explanations came out as descriptions of separate tools for acting, not as a sequence of interrelated naturally existing principles. I felt like teaching anatomy, without having a clue about physiology. I guess what I was instinctively looking for at the time, having the fundamentals, was the principal “material” with which one could start building the structure of any type of behavior. The science of psychology wouldn’t do any good; its terms were too abstract for our practical work…

My revelation came during the rehearsals of Dostoyevski’s “Notes from the Underground”. Certainly, I didn’t come out of this production equipped with the full knowledge on what I had been looking for. But that process gave me a basic term, which served as the tip of the thread in a tight tangle – once I had it, I could pull it until the whole ball came untwisted…

My involvement with “Notes from the Underground” was both an uphill challenge and a blessing. Being the main actor and the director at the same time (and staging Dostoyevski at that!) could have crushed me merely with the notion of the heavy task I had undertaken. On top of that, as always happens in such cases, the yet non-existing show was invited to a prestigious festival on the other side of the globe! The actual pressure was so big, that even if I let a pinch of it percolate through our process, I would be finished.… So I decided to completely forget for a while about the result, neglect the limited time we had, and focus instead on what initially got me into this project: the extremely weird character I was about to play. I had the feeling that this would open the gate to the secrets of the novel, since it’s his story, told by him at that.

In Dostoyevski the Underground is a metaphor, which works on several levels. Certainly, it speaks about the living conditions of the protagonist, and thus determines the social class he belongs to. It is also an artistic equivalent of mid-nineteenth century Russian society, where the progressive thinkers of the time were pushed into the social underground, from which their voices had little chance to be heard. But above all the Underground is the character’s mindset, which conditions his behavior and sets the pattern of his evaluation of the outer world. This mindset is like a labyrinth where mental and perceptive trends typical for his social status intertwine with personal passions, complexes and visions. It is so complicated, that you couldn’t define its dominant characteristics without simplifying the character and hurting the intellectual value of the text. Yet in order to translate the novel into theatre language I had to ground my combustion; I had to filter out what was of contemporary interest in this man here and now, and be able to explain it to myself and the other actors in an intelligible way. In other words, I needed a system! If I wanted to understand his human behavior, there was no way I could avoid it this time.

It is funny what actually got me closer to my goal. I remember sitting in the audience and contemplating the set with my set designer. We had gone through so many versions of materializing the Underground on stage that now, already exhausted, we sat quietly, staring dully at the empty stage in front of us. It was one of these silent moments which didn’t bear anything creative. The air rather smelled of desperation. Being still so far from building the medium of the action, how could we start building the action itself? Since any of my primary suggestions turned out to be either incomprehensible or too direct, I felt totally out of ideas, and grimly reflected on the excuses I had to give for the cancellation of tomorrow’s rehearsal. Suddenly the other Peter in our crew, my friend and the actor who played Apollo in the adaptation, jumped out of his seat from behind us, ran toward the wings and started nervously moving stuff around. The rest of us didn’t know what to expect, so we remained seated, feeling more and more sucked into the surreal vacuum of failure. What emerged next on the stage was a pile of metal which Peter hurriedly started putting together. It was a module of these tubular steel scaffoldings, which they assemble to build or paint a wall. The simplest brick-laying construction unit, four poles, connected by two crossed bars at the bottom, and two more at the top… Once finished, without saying a word, Peter went back to his seat and noisily threw himself down. A long pause followed. It took me some time to grasp, that, no, he wasn’t joking, and, no, he wasn’t trying to insult us for our artistic impotence. That was his suggestion for the set. Period. I didn’t know what to think, so I didn’t break the silence. But I felt that the absurdity of what I was looking at on the stage was so immense, that…

My thoughts were interrupted by the set designer, also named Peter, who, still sullen and silent, stood up and, without even a word, trailed to the space behind the stage. Ten seconds later he appeared with a black coffin, which he leaned on the x-shaped bars of the construction module so that it faced the audience… The only thing missing was… well, me as the man from the Underground, waking up in his bed-coffin, having said farewell to mundane vanity, but still vain enough to preach to the world from the unfinished (or maybe abandoned, or stolen and used for his everyday convenience) construction site. Simple! Everything clicked. Of course, I didn’t know at the moment what exactly I was going to make out of this lying-in-repose snap, but my gut feeling kept telling me that this is exactly what I needed…

A construction scaffolding… And a coffin. Now it was so obvious that of course we didn’t have to materialize the Labyrinth; what was important was the character’s attempt to GET OUT of it. It wasn’t the chaos in his head to be explored, but his ardent striving to put his thoughts in order, maybe even to restore their godlike arrangement from the years of his innocence. He desperately needed peace, being just a step or so from the nightmare of total failure.

All of a sudden the Man from the Underground became so close to me. Don’t we all end up with a bare, rusty scaffolding left abandoned near our graves? My Man just wanted to avoid the verdict of time… by pretending to know it in advance… But to be able to peacefully draw the coffin lid over his head, he had not only to pretend. He had to go over his life story, this time with the cruel indifference of a stranger… which leaves him devastated…

Generally speaking, the whole novel is a deep, mistrustful examination of the relevance of human existence. It evaluates humans through the degree to which each and every one of us understands how totally irrelevant to the world around us our values are. The winner is always the one who in due time realizes that in the life game we are all doomed, no matter what our value system is. He might even take actions to accelerate our destruction just for the sake of proving that. He might even commit a crime. Since there is no one to grant him forgiveness, there isn’t anyone to judge him either. God, indeed, exists. But He is too far to get involved on a personal level.

The reason I accepted the idea for the set was because it suggested the struggle between the two basic fears we have: to enrage God by betraying His principles, and to become a victim by embracing them. God’s principles translate into a personal system of values, which stands behind our every creative endeavor. But our failures and weaknesses are backed by another part of our value system, justifying them. Our entire lives we are being shoved between these poles. The problem is that they are within us, they are part of our very essence, and no matter if and how we solve this conflict at a certain stage of our lives, the temptation or compulsion to turn our priorities upside down is always around the corner.

Gradually my line of discoveries led me to a territory beyond my character and beyond the novel. The way my intuition and the other two Peters made me accept the set design without knowing initially what I should do with it was exactly the way I embraced the notion of the two contradicting drives which determine the way we act, and their translation into two opposing value systems. Back then I still wasn’t aware how fertile the soil I found myself on was; at the time it was just my gut feeling telling me that this seemed an extremely accurate starting point for delving further into the secrets of human behavior.


The Grid Makes Its Stage Appearance

Now imagine a shooting booth at a fair. Remember what an impressive variety of targets it has? How diverse the responses of each hit target are? Sometimes the slug hits the tin rabbit, which simply disappears without further negotiations; sometimes it dents the nose of the painted clown, who starts laughing and doesn’t stop until you shoot him again; sometimes it’s just a stupid balloon being burst. The whole sight is noisy, picturesque and exciting.

This describes exactly the way we humans interact with our environment! The slugs shot out of the rifle are the bits of information which the outside world attacks us with, and the entertaining responses of the targets are our reactions to those bits of information. As for the colorful back wall of the shooting booth, well, this is actually our personal, unique, one and only value system, which makes each of us react differently to identical bits of information. On the spot where the laughing clown in my value system is, my brother has a tiny delicate flower; where the running ducks pass in the second level to the right within Jim’s value system, there sit three thick bottles in John’s system. Needless to say, the ducks, when shot, would turn upside down, while John’s bottles might not break at all and just honor the shooter with a dull clang. A kiss on the neck, a ruffling of the hair or a slap in the face coming from a lover would definitely call forth different reactions from different people, and these could range from shunning to repelling to arousal. In class some students pee in their pants when the teacher raises his voice, while others can’t help but laugh in their sleeves. The 30-day sailing into the unknown could have cost Columbus his life had all his sailors been overwhelmed by the hopelessness of the ones who started the mutiny. The same events caused different responses. Is this all due to human character? And what exactly does “character” mean? Can we view it as a conglomerate of different elements, or it is just a compact solid structure, which (depending on your beliefs) has been either individually given to us by God or passed along by the genes from our ancestors?

At the time of my work on Dostoyevski I was very excited to use this or that character’s value system as a starting point of my exploration of him or her. It gave me a direct path to the essence of the novel, since its author was one of the great moralists of his time. But the real reason for my excitement didn’t lie in raising the importance of one’s values in my active analysis. As a matter of fact, hardly anybody knowledgeable enough in the art of Acting would deny the existence of a system of personal values determining who we are by the way we apply them in everyday life. What enthused me – especially once the rehearsals were over and I began working on another show, was my realization of the enormous worth of the notion that values, as well as perceptions, concepts, convictions – all of which constitute our view on life – are arranged in a hierarchy of importance, which is always strictly applied to the individual. The extreme dynamics of our human nature is due to the fact that these values and perceptions switch their places perpetually due to continuous changes in our life situations. Further on, in their interaction all these elements form a grid (the back wall of the shooting booth), which determines the significance we grant to every single bit of information, and then defines the direction of the action we undertake. In brief, the whole notion about the hierarchical structure of the human receptive system seemed to be a new angle of approach to the crucial issue of Acting – the connection between who we are, and how we operate.

At the rehearsals and classes that followed I put my findings under intense scrutiny. With the goal of establishing their relevance, I tested them over and over through the analysis of a whole range of dramatic characters, or by building up improvisations on different behavioral patterns.

Even at their embryonic stage at the time, the abstractions I had come up with proved to be applicable to nearly everything we did. And when they weren’t, a new supplementary term, meant to support the theoretical structure, would almost immediately spring to life. The coherence with which this structure was taking shape made clear the scope of its reach fairly soon:

1. It allowed the deconstruction of human behavior into simple “modules”.

2. It comprised the opportunity to explain the dynamic, ever-changing nature of human character.

3. It opened a path to explore the origin of our subconscious impulses.

For me as a performer these three particular conclusions of our creative investigation were especially valuable because they were providing me with an approach to analyze the scenic characters in depth, through simple terms and with a strong relevance to their inner and outer life, to their action and its unfolding. It was exactly this utmost tangibility and practicability of this research that made me so kindled about it, to the point where I sat down to describe and systematize it for this website.

Certainly, this is just the beginning of a long journey which is far from being over. The circle would hardly be completed soon. One should rather look at my contribution to the theory of Acting as a spiral evolving through the continuous inclusion of new elements. If, through this process, it sustains its integrity, then it will have been worth starting.

© 2008 Peter Budevski

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