The Real Thing

Here are some tips for using the Vocal Sequence to work on a conventional scene, but the result doesn’t necessarily have to remain conventional. It’s up to you:

Vocal Sequence work can contribute to creating a realistic character in a realistic play. Here’s a series a steps you can use to put the Sequence to work in a conventional play.

You have to accept a simple idea. Every play in performance has a particular life and energy as an event, as a distinct physical activity which strives to communicate to an audience. We could call it performance style. Throughout history and across cultures, performing artists have cultivated a variety of methods for creating meaningful physical events, acts of communication which use the laws of physics to achieve success. A poet of the theatre or a playwright is expecting such basic physics to serve the message–to, in part, be the message, or he or she would choose another medium. An actor, prior to any considerations of character or motive or message, is someone who is going to connect with an audience by harnessing the laws of physics. Sound and motion must pre-exist any notion of “inner truth.” Sound and motion are your “inner-inner truth.” Physical decisions are creative decisions. Actors cannot lose touch with physics as they negotiate the metaphysics of “the method.”

Actors move physical realities from the meaning-less to the meaning-full, informed by a desire to send a message. The problem is the transition from one state to another. As human beings we try to get to meaning as quickly as possible; as actors we shouldn’t be afraid to take our time. You can use the Vocal Sequence to slow the transition process down. We are observing not only the world around us but also the raw, meaningless intensities within us; to develop a technique, a style, a mode of communicating our discoveries, will involve a coordination of both kinds of observation. Artists choose to dwell in non-meaning in an effort to formulate laws of creation. We continually run the risk with this kind of talk of getting too profound.

The Vocal Sequence is the same whether it’s a play, a warm up, or some other creative fit. What is particular is how you time its use in your preparation for a role. You can work alone or with others. Accept that you are going to encounter raw physical truths first, a reason why it is good to work with actual lines within an actual scene, with something you will play on stage eventually.

Begin Vocal Sequence work with the material. This is the Raw Encounter. What are the elements: text, body/voice, other bodies/voices (perhaps), watchers (maybe), a physical space, objects (if you so choose)? Fundamental human physics without meaningful dress is always the first expectation. In the back of your mind you may be searching for particular things: a sound or body for the character, a certain playing rhythm, a dance of encounter with words or fellow actors, the seeds of a style, the “unconscious truth” of an event. But don’t let your expectations close off the truth of the particular. Be prepared to be surprised and outraged.

Once a raw encounter is underway, a time for understanding begins. Remember that meaning tends to be phantasmagorical first before it gets grounded in laws and limits. Let it be extreme and phantasmagorical. Something about the body? A certain give and take? An unexpected welling up of emotion? A thought about the other? Your attitude at this point is uncertain: “I am not sure what is happening, but I have my suspicions…” You are testing the waters; assuming the worst. You may play out something which will never again see the light of day. Welcome discontinuities. Continuity is the dramatist’s job. You can always return to the sequence and do something completely different. Ordering of events may begin to follow a dream logic. A circular logic. A spasmodic logic. You may tap into a vein of psycho-acoustic power and hit a stream which floods your entire approach to playing the part or the scene. You may see something. You may acquire some private knowledge. Making memories. “Good times…yeah, good times…”

Time to conclude should involve all participants, watchers and performers. You are in the basement of the Museum of Natural History surrounded by the specimens and artifacts you have collected on your expedition. You need to label a find before you can decide whether to store or display. Use the “world of the play” to help label. You need to decide which items you want to make available to all involved and which you want to keep to yourself. And you will find that labeling sometimes reduces the power of the discovery, you may choose to keep that one to yourself with a special label which only makes sense to you. What discovery can be displayed as “style?” As “performance techniques?” As “action and objective?” As “sense memory?” As “character biography?” As “blocking?”, there’s nothing like using Vocal Sequence work to get rid of those annoying “performance edition” blocking notes in the script. What about under the category “what the scene is really about?” Try some straight rehearsing of the material in light of the new knowledge. Give it time. Not every discovery will inform the scene. You may be surprised by how discoveries become part of the physical reality of your performance…later.
Here is a bit of a scene written by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar:


Agi: The ballroom is empty. The guests are leaving. And now we are quite alone, princess. Perhaps only for a few minutes…and then all that was beautiful in my life…will be gone.Alex(andra): I have never before…been alone with a man.

Agi: Are you afraid of me?

Alex: I don’t know. But if it’s fear…then I want always to be afraid.

Agi: The last time…perhaps the last moment I shall see you. Do you love me?

Alex: If it’s love…then…it’s just the same as…when I was a little girl…and the Emperor came. Yes…I had seen many portraits of the Emperor…with a golden crown on his head…in all his glitter and glory…and then once, when he visited us, in civilian clothes, I didn’t recognize him.

Agi: My beautiful princess!

Alexandra: Don’t come too near, Hans.

Agi: Are you so afraid of me?

Alex: I don’t like…you to touch me…How cold your hand is!

Agi: No. It’s yours that’s hot. What are you thinking that makes your hand tremble in mine?

Alex: Of something reckless, and,

Agi: And of what?

Alex: And of my rank, Hans…Won’t you have something to eat?

Agi: No.

Alex: Why won’t you eat?

Agi: I am not hungry. I’m thirsty.

Alex: Will you drink something?

Agi: No. I am thirsty for you, for your mouth and your eyes…and your voice…

Alex: You musn’t look at me like that!


Don’t be too quick to dismiss this as a corny love scene in a stiff English translation. Molnar’s art is to show people trying to get bearings and steer a course on a ship being blown and tossed by love, all the while maintaining a certain sense of pretense and decorum. The “corny-ness” of it in the reading points us towards acknowledging it as requiring a certain elevation, a heightening, in the playing. The stakes are high, the feelings are real, the words demand a theatricalized lift to achieve an impact. Use the Vocal Sequence to make playing decisions for this scene, for characterization, for background, actions, sub-text, music and rhythm, and the physicalization of a style. No need to know more about the play. The sub-texts are still shifting and elusive even if you know what is going on. Use your exploration to fill in what appears to be missing. Here’s another Molnar scene, a bit lighter, with real stakes but more whimsical in tone (though the previous scene could take that turn):


Ann: Do you want children?Thomas: Lots of them.

Ann: I’m to be their mother, I presume?

Thomas: Why, certainly.

Ann: That reassures me. There’s only one thing I don’t want.

Thomas: What’s that?

Ann: Twins.(Pause.)Not that, I beg of you.

(Pause.)

Promise me.

Thomas: I promise…

Ann: Can you see that I’m trembling?

Thomas: Yes.

Ann: I tremble more and more, every time you look at me.

Thomas: Thank you…

Ann: I’m so awkward.

Thomas: Oh…

Ann: This is the first love-scene in my life.

Thomas: Is it painful?

Ann: Yes and no. It’s a strange blending of pain with joy.

Thomas: How true…

(Pause.)

Ann: And now…something about your past. When you were a student in Paris…did you have a girl friend?

Thomas: Yes.

Ann: That hurts. But I want to know everything.

Thomas: It’s a short story. I was a penniless student. One evening I dance with a girl. I lived with her a year after that.

Ann: In the same apartment?

Thomas: Yes.

Ann: How many rooms?

Thomas: One.

Ann: Two beds?

Thomas: One.

Ann: A whole year?

Thomas: Yes.

Ann: Now tell me the truth. Swear you’ll tell the truth!

Thomas: I swear.

Ann: Did you have an affair with her?

Thomas: Yes.

Ann: Then she was a prostitute. In that case I can forget about the whole thing. I’ve already forgotten it., What was her name?

Thomas: It doesn’t matter.

Ann: What was her name?

(Pause.)

Thomas: Ann.

Ann: That hurts.


Let the Vocal Sequence lead you to making decisions about where the people are and what they might be doing as they speak. Don’t necessarily gravitate toward the familiar and comfortable and try to make an outfit, i.e. a characterization, which you might wear in your daily life. Press yourself towards some theatricalization of life using the Sequence. Don’t be afraid to dress yourself in unusual or exotic robes. Truth can be served by artifice, and many theatre-goers expect that to be a dimension of their experience. Move the scene toward that kind of complex expression. Our Performance Group Potlatch welcomes your comments.

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