Imagination and text

I’ve just started directing Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure with BA acting students. This coincides with the publication for Bloomsbury of my new books: Acting Stanislavski – A practical guide to Stanislavski’s approach and legacy, and, written with Christina Gutekunst, Voice into Acting – Integrating voice and the Stanislavski approach. One of the problems often encountered by actors is how to connect fully with text, circumstances, and action – not just intellectually, but in an integrated way with mind, body, imagination, senses, feelings and will – and we focus on this a lot in our books.

   What always strikes me whenever I start on a play, whether modern or classical, is that the vital key we need to unlock a text is not a degree in linguistics or a fascination with the technique of rhetorical devices but - imagination! Imagination opens the door to the imaginary world of the play created by the writer, and which he or she expresses through words and actions – words always being a responsive expression of experience. Only when we connect with that experience will the words come to life. From the raw material of the text we can imagine and intuitively understand all those elements of background, relationships, experiences and events that have given rise to and justify these words we’re speaking. As Stanislavski suggested, a main prompt for our imagination is ‘If’: If I’m in these circumstances, in this epoch, in these relationships, with this background and aspirations, what do I want and do to get it?  This is not to say ‘Hamlet is a guy just like me’, but I am human and I can imaginatively place myself in the historical, social, political and personal circumstances of Angelo and Isabella in the above play and allow myself to transform believably, and give an alive, as opposed to technically recited or monotonously mumbled, expression of the language. As we work through rehearsal, an awareness of rhythm and all the rhetorical colour in the language, particularly of imagery, will then enhance and enrich the imaginary life of the characters. So, we go from the text to the subtext and back to the text in a continuous process.

   Two rehearsal elements we’ve concentrated on recently have been research and improvisation. We’ve looked at, for example, crime and punishment, religion, the class structure and sexual morality in the early C16th; but rather than just gather facts, the actors created a script and characters from the period, such as prostitutes, puritans or royalty, placing themselves imaginatively within their field of research, and making an imaginative connection as actors to the world of the play. So now, when we encounter ‘gallows’, ‘bawd’ or ‘noble’ there is an imagined experience behind the words. Also, the actors put every line of the text into their own words so they understand not just the gist but the detailed meaning of their lines. We then improvise the script in short sections – creating the action and dynamic between the actor/characters - so that the actors can find an initial imaginative connection with the circumstances and reality of who they are enacting. We then go back to the text and examine what was done, what was missing, and how the nature of the language can lead to a fuller embodiment of the role – but from an imaginative rather than academic perspective. For example, when we understand the contradictions in Isabella’s nature and imagine the reasons why she wants to become a nun, we shall need to emphasise the antithesis between ‘live’ and ‘die’ in her line: ‘Then Isabel live chaste, and brother die’, rather than stress the words technically. Imagination will continue to be a key element all through rehearsal and into performance.