(rehearsal note from April 18, 2018)

Hi Julian,

I hope you are enjoying your weekend so far. I had a few further thoughts on the discussion we began to have after rehearsal this week (as we were in the elevator) and so I’m sending you my notes on this:

You described to me that you have a tendency to begin a scene by making a “choice” of the subject matter or focus for the scene (the example you used was your feelings about your grandmother) and then constructing the scene by exploring different facets of your feelings about this chosen subject, and I said that this was quite definitely not the way I preferred you to work. Here is some elaboration of the reasons why, and what I’d prefer you to do instead:

Working the way you described, starting a scene by choosing a subject matter and then building the scene around this topic, is a natural and understandable reaction to the uncertainty of having to perform a scene without knowing in advance what the scene is going to be about, but it is not the solution that I want you to use. By “choosing” a subject matter at the top, and organizing the scene around this chosen topic, you are forcing the scene which follows to adhere to a fixed, pre-made choice. The scene which results will still have plenty of spontaneity and unpredictability, since you are allowing yourself to respond to the chosen subject freely and in the moment, but it will still be true that the overall form of the scene will be constrained to something like “a series of meditations on my grandmother” and the contents will be constrained to stay to this topic as well.

The problem with using pre-chosen subject matter (such as your grandmother), for me, is that it ultimately desensitizes you, and blocks you from intuitively feeling the direction that the scene wants to move, whenever the scene is trying to move somewhere which is outside of the subject of your grandmother. In my approach, the “source” of everything that is strong and successful in the scene is your directly felt, intuitive experience of what the energy of the scene feels like in each moment. Therefore, the more completely you can immerse yourself in your directly felt, intuitive experience of the moment, the better each part of the scene will be, and the more coherent and meaningful the overall form of the scene will be as well. I always say that my goal is to be “110% inside of the feeling of the scene,” which means always trying to be even more fully immersed in the feeling. This means that, at every moment, I have to trust my intuitively felt experience of the moment in order to discover “what the scene is about” or “what the scene is about now.”

In other words, yes, of course it is uncomfortable to begin a scene without knowing what the scene will be about, particularly if you are performing in front of a paying audience, but the more productive, fruitful way of dealing with this problem is not to artificially remove the discomfort by making a fixed choice of subject matter in advance, but to train yourself to become comfortable with not knowing. (I have a good general discussion of this idea in my blog post The Cloud of Unknowing.) You begin the scene, not by choosing a subject, but in a sense by asking yourself the question “what is this scene about?” and indeed discovering a tentative, first answer to the question, through your direct experience of the first moment. In the next moment, you are asking and answering the question “ok, but what is the scene about now?” The process of playing the scene becomes, in a sense, the process of asking this question and revising the answer over and over again, until the scene’s subject matter becomes gradually clearer and clearer, both to you and to the audience. This procedure allows you to stay fully immersed in your intuitive experience of the scene at every single moment, and thus to derive the maximum amount of information about what the scene is really trying to be about.

The results of working this way, in which your sense of the scene’s subject matter is constantly revised, updated, and clarified at every moment, is of course a scene in which the apparent, surface-level “subject matter” of the scene appears to drift and change throughout, in unpredictable ways. When working this way, you will not come up with a scene in which the whole thing is about your feelings about your grandmother (unless it just happens to come out this way.) If you look at most of my films, you will see that they often have this quality that, on the surface, they appear to be frequently “changing the subject.” But looked at on a deeper level, they have an absolute coherence, so that every single line of text in the film turns out to be about a single subject matter. Recording Device turned out to be entirely about the way we store our memories. The Linen Closet turned out to be about an older woman who experiences memory loss. Behind the apparently changing surface subject matter of these films lies an absolute coherence. In short, they have the same over-determined quality that dreams have. The experience of watching the hidden subject matter of the piece slowly becoming clearer and clearer is precisely what makes the piece dramatic.

The other way of working, choosing a fixed subject such as your grandmother and then sticking to it, obviously could produce a very moving (if conventional) scene about your grandmother, still genuinely an improv piece because of the many spontaneous discoveries within the scene, but it is not, to me, an interesting way to build a scene. As a viewer, when I watch scenes made in this way, which are clearly spontaneous meditations on one fixed idea, eventually they lose interest for me. Their insistence on sticking to an easily understood framework has a deadening effect, as if the performer is trying to take his feelings and stuff them into a familiar, comfortable framework. They lose the alive quality of continuous discovery.