Archive for the ‘Practitioners’ Category

Today I write about a man I have admired for many years. He is one of those iconic people who need no introduction, for the mere mention of his name or a glimpse at one of his quirky photographs, will send happy chills down any filmlover’s spine.

Born Alfred Joseph Hitchcock in London, England, in 1899, this man had audiences at the edge of their seats since the 1920’s. He knew exactly how to capture your attention and keep it firmly in his grasp throughout an entire film.

“The length of the film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”

Fascinated with true life crime stories and the messiness of murder, this seemingly sombre genius transformed how people made movies. With his well-known classics like Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), Hitch rocked the film industry with his unorthodox directing style and cinematic techniques. One of the main reasons he succeeded was because he was hands-on in the making of each his films, from producing, writing the screenplay, carefully choosing the cattle, er, I mean actors, to directing the film in a manner only he can.

Hitch began filmmaking career in the era of silent films at Paramount’s Players-Lasky Studio in London in 1919, illustrating title cards. This clearly shows in how he used body language and expression to convey emotions. Having watched Rear Window (1954) last week, I understand how he did it. He filmed James Steward staring out his window looking at his neighbours, then filmed one of his neighbours doing something, then brought us, the audience, back to Steward, to see his reaction on what he saw. This use of action and re-action is how he made the viewer “feel” what the characters were feeling. You lived the story with them as it unfolded before their eyes and your own, without a word of dialogue.

His Expressionistic approach to film, however, came as a result of the directing experience he gained whilst in Germany. His breakthrough film, The Lodger (1926), had the typical Hitchcock plot we know and love: an innocent character is falsely accused of a crime and ends up in a web of intrigue. His films were known to be fast paced, witty, and engaging. His first sound film, Blackmail (1929), showed just how technically genius and creative this man was when it came to writing dialogue and using sound effects to infuse terror.

But this is only a small part of what made his movies so theatrically brilliant. Hitch is known for putting some very daring images on screen, many of which would have been completely taboo during that period of film-making history. He was one of the first to show the link between sexual passion and violence in film. Psycho (1960) is famed for its shower murder scene, which was startling for its (apparent) nudity and graphic violence. What I especially love about Psycho is how Hitch focussed on capturing the eye and emotions behind it. He filmed the murderer’s perverse eye, as he peers through a peep-hole at his victim. Scenes later he then also captures the open eye of the dying / dead victim. There is no doubt that his use of light and shadow effects, camera trickery, and actor direction in films like these were simply revolutionary.

To a woman who complained that the shower scene so frightened her daughter that the girl would no longer shower, Hitch said:

“Then Madam I suggest you have her dry cleaned.”

Hitchcock’s theory for a great thriller was that suspense is developed by providing the audience with information denied endangered characters, and that no harm should befall the innocent. In his own words:

“Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

For Hitchcock, evil manifests itself not only in acts of physical violence, but also in the form of psychological, institutionalised and systematic cruelty. In The Birds (1963), Hitch showed that evil was all around us, even in those we least expect. He wanted to show how messy and earth-shattering the act of killing really is, and the eternal symmetry between good and evil.

I love his films. I love how he cameos in them and how I can play my own version of Where’s Wally with my friends while looking out for that well-know balding figure, as he casually strolls out of a shop with dogs on a leash or boards a train with his cello. He even dressed up as an old woman in one of his films – not telling you which one, and don’t you dare Google it – and there are still so many of his masterpieces I have yet to see and experience.

The next one on my list is Notorious (1946), which I plan to view at 5 Ryneveld, in Stellenbosch tomorrow night. We recently discovered that Cinemuse Film Society is screening a different film there every Monday & Thursday evening and at several other locations within Stellenbosch, including a Drive-in Movie every Friday night at Bosman’s Crossing. I will be reviewing the drive-in movie experience next, so keep an eye out. For more information have a snoop at their website: www.cinemuse.co.za

Let’s face it folks, we enjoy being shocked, frightened, horrified. Audiences “like to put their toe in the cold water of fear”, as Hitch so eloquently put it. So, stay entertained.

                          “Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake.”

And, honestly, who doesn’t like cake? 😉

Woody Allen’s fictional Scandinavian playwright, Jorgen Lovborg, was no lady’s man, in fact, quite the opposite. The poor creature had terrible trouble with the fairer sex, yet was able to channel his genius (or rather Woody’s genius) into creating the most memorable of female characters in the history of imaginary dramatists.

Driven to create depressing, shocking plays of the realism / naturalism genre, as well as to bring about a safer means of weighing herring, Lovborg brought us the side-splitting Geese Aplenty, A Mother’s Gums, Those Who Squirm, I Prefer to Yodel, While We Three Hemorrhage, and Mellow Pears. He was led by his predecessors, Ibsen & Chekov, who carved the way for his exceptional ability to find the funny side within the stagnant framework of realism.

His works came alive once again in Cape Town’s Intimate Theatre last Tuesday, when the Mechanicals Theatre Company performed Lovborg’s Women. Here we considered and reconsidered some of these larger-than-life female characters with hilarious consequences.

The Intimate Theatre is exactly that, intimate. It’s snuggled in between two of UCT’s old campus buildings and the only thing indicating its whereabouts are some beautifully lit fairy lights. A true Pediophobiac, I was a little freaked out by the dolls they had displayed at the entrance of the theatre, but other than that, it was so quaint and lovely. The black box styled theatre itself is small and had me practically spilling onto the stage from the front row.

Immediately, I found myself being swallowed up by the experience. The actors were close enough to touch – literally – yet completely engrossed in their characters. Their use of sound effects was perfectly executed and lighting was simple, yet effective to set the appropriate mood. Their clever use of uncomplicated props and stage furniture made each scene unique, flowing effortlessly into each other.

The wit was infectious and had us on the edge of our seats throughout the entire show. Not once did the actors drop the pace and momentum of the piece, even through rigorous costume changes, interpretive DV8-like dancing, and flamboyant Lady Gaga & Madonna impersonations. It had me, an old Performing Arts graduate, in stitches as they considered and reconsidered the naturalistic ideals of Lovborg and other realism playwrights before him, and their comical use of theatrical terminology made me snicker with delight. This being said, it would appeal to those who don’t necessarily understand all the drama mumbo-jumbo, as the performance is jam-packed with physical humour and general silliness.

As you can see on the poster above, the show continues until the 21st of May, and I strongly urge you to get yourselves down to Cape Town’s Intimate Theatre and treat yourself to this quirky and well-directed production. I assure you, you won’t be disappointed.

Theatre Practitioners I Love

Posted: June 17, 2010 in Practitioners

Joan Maud Littlewood & Her Unique Directing Style

I have chosen to write about Joan Littlewood, a renowned British Director, and her unique directing style. Over the course of this year, I have grown to admire her and what she has achieved in the world of theatre. She took Brecht’s ideas and started using his principles before Bertolt Brecht had been heard of in Britain, and in many ways succeeded in surpassing him. She understood that theatre could genuinely have something to offer people from all walks of life, that it had something to say about human experience, and that it could send a vital message and still be enormously entertaining.

A left-wing visionary, who knew the rules of the game well enough to break them, Joan’s ideas had their origins intertwined with that of the propagandist theatre – an openly revolutionary and protest form of theatre, concerned with the day to day issues of the class struggle. She had established the company, Theatre Workshop, in 1953, to create original, frequently political, plays, and to put a fresh, again frequently political, slants on many of the classics. A shortage of cash for sets wasn’t a problem for her as it just transformed into a new and visionary use of lighting, thus making the actor the centre focus of performance in her vision for “poor” theatre. Littlewood had said:

“I had always believed we should function best where the need was greatest.”

They experimented with physical approaches to characterisation adopting Rudolph Laban’s style of movement training, and his assistant in England would become and remain the company’s movement coach.

Though many actors’ experiences at the Theatre Workshop were influential and invigorating, they left exhausted, as Joan expected a great deal of dedication and hard work from them. Joan had a very hands-on approach to directing her actors and they continued to train on a daily basis to hone their skills to the greatest extent. She was determined to produce theatre with a company, that was to be completely equal and open to all classes, but it depended utterly on the ingenuity and moral fibre of this enormously gifted woman. She introduced her own innovative improvisational style to the training and the rehearsals at her company. She utilized ideas from European theatre practitioners, such as Stanislavski and Brecht, and fashioned them into her own theories of actor training, all of which are now used by most theatre establishments. There were always  rumours that Joan neglected to follow vital texts for improvisatory games or strange and rebellious techniques is nonsense, but her work then, and still, has been shrouded in myths. Throughout, Littlewood’s principle was,

“If we don’t get lost, we’ll never find a new route.”

Unsolicited scripts would land on her desk and she would put them into rehearsal, developing them through improvisation, e.g. Shelagh Delanney’s A Taste of Honey, and Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow and The Hostage. When the script was delivered to her, she saw it as part of the raw material that she could use. She would either work in collaboration with the playwright, or without, and implemented the script with actors to gain the production that she required. Joan always professed that

“… if you can get a few people with a sense of humour and brains together, you’ll get theatre”.

For all the problems, finally there emerged as Theatre Workshop’s most significant and enduring production – Oh, What a Lovely War! The production had its origins in a BBC radio programme of 1914-18 soldiers’ songs, but it was Littlewood’s idea to use the songs as links between sketches and to build them out of improvisation methods, incorporating the concept of a seaside Pierrot troupe. She had been quoted in saying “it was the right period and, after all, war is only for clowns”. All who saw it found it to be an unforgettable experience and some of its best moments will remain in the memory of many – from Avis Bunnage’s seductive delivery of I’ll Make a Man of You, to Myvanwy Jenn reading a letter from a soldier on the Front Line and smooth transition into comforting Keep the Home Fires Burning, or the absurd sermon, on the eve before the battle, intercut by the intense tenor of When This Lousy War Is Over, all of which happened against the iridescent electric sign showing the growing numbers of war-dead throughout the duration of the play.

She directed a strong company of actors and produced astonishingly inventive performances with that unrivalled balance of precision and anarchy, which only Joan Littlewood could perfect. She ended her own story with her beloved Raffles’s death in 1975. One of his letters, which she held especially dear, catches the essence of their art and the philosophy of their Theatre Workshop:

“You are right to tell us never to lose humanity. Audiences respond to a love of life. If there is none, I for one want no part in it. Our work has such a short life. A painting lasts until the canvas rots; ours fades the moment it is accomplished.”