Monday, March 25, 2013

Non-Consensual Improvisation

Yesterday's post (Sex and Avidya) provoked a few thoughtful comments on my Facebook page, and I began thinking that a follow-up post on consent and non-consent in erotic fantasy would be of interest.  My next thought was, a woman's perspective might be more compelling than mine.  And I'm excited to tease you, dear reader, with the prospect of a guest blog this week by a female blogger I have followed for several years.  Her perspective on this matter will be far more interesting than mine, I promise.  She has at least tentatively agreed to write on the subject, in response to the post and comments.  I am very grateful, for she is a busy lady and doesn't know me from Adam.

In the meantime, the subject of fantasy involving transgression, dominance, or non-consensual interaction -- consenting, as it were, to a fantasy of non-consensual activity -- reminded me of an anecdote an actor friend shared with me. It was an incident that very nearly got him thrown out of drama school back in the day.  (And no, I'm not telling you who the actor is.)  His is an interesting story.

First, a little background for those who are not steeped in theatre practice.

Actors and directors often turn to improvisation while rehearsing a scripted scene.  The actors role-play the scripted situation, or something related to it, in order to have an unscripted experience.  This can yield spontaneous insight into the characters' relationship; or give the actors a chance to observe their emotions in fictitious situations; generate dialogue that is useful to the scene; even resolve questions about character motivation and plot.  This is not of interest to all actors and directors, and might not be suitable for every play or film, but improvisation is frequently a valued tool.  Particularly in theatre school.

In my own opinion, I think the value of improvisation is sometimes overstated -- in some cases, it is even a bit self-indulgent -- but in some cases it can be useful. 

And so my friend found himself working on an assigned scene that involved some scary emotional territory. My friend told me it involved a woman being confined against her will by a man.  The female actor in the scene wanted to improvise that situation so she had an opportunity to observe her own emotional reactions to being in that situation, without a script.  My friend agreed.

So they set up rehearsals where he would actually tie up the actress and menace her.  For safety, they established a "safe word," just as lovers who enjoy rough play, maybe a bit of bondage and pain, will establish a signal in case anyone feels concerned for their safety.  In other words, there is still some lever of control.

The conundrum, they found, is that they were trying to explore the sensation of NOT being safe, in a process that conscientiously preserved their safety.  They were still pretending to be unsafe, as opposed to actually experiencing the loss of control.  My friend's scene partner was not satisfied.  She insisted that they somehow contrive an improv situation in which she could really experience not being in control. My friend, a very creative actor, obliged.

Their improvisation went like this.  He picked her up and started driving her out of town.  She asked where they were going.  He told her to shut up.  He drove to a very remote, wooded area.  He led her on a walk.  Tied her up.   Once her arms were bound, with her consent, he surprised her by gagging her.  Once she had the gag in her mouth he sat close to her and said:  "Now that I've gagged you, you can't even say the safe word to stop me.  I can do whatever the fuck I want to you."

He then sat still and looked directly at her for several minutes.  Then he released her.

As you can imagine, his scene partner was terrified and he came very close to being thrown out of theatre school altogether once the story got around.  He was saved because the woman intervened on his behalf, arguing without irony that she had consented to this non-consensual experience.

My friend found a way to break the boundaries of personal safety and launch his scene partner into uncertain territory, so they could both experience not knowing what would happen next.  Still, their friendship was over.

I doubt this helped their scene much.  You don't need to do this sort of thing to play that scene truthfully.  If you are old enough to attend theatre school, you are old enough to have experienced terror and a loss of control, even if the situation was different than the scripted scene.  If you have enough imagination to improvise a scene, you have ample imagination to play the scripted scene. 

[Image:  I couldn't find a non-copyrighted image that really illustrated this post.  The best I could manage is a picture of me with a female student in a voice class in 2011.]


Go Democrats said...

Stories like this one are one the reasons why I have such grave doubts about method acting. Anyone placed into a scary situation can BE terrified; but it takes much more craft to act terrified. I'm sure you are familiar with the Hoffman-Olivier anecdote, probably apocryphal, that ends with "Try acting, dear boy."

Algernon said...

I heartily recommend Robert Lewis's book Method or Madness?, in which the author (in 1957) teases out Stanislavsky's method from the method practiced by his early American students and the "method" that was a fantastic notion of what actors do. A more recent book, Richard Hornby's The End of Acting, adds more of a historical critique of American theories about acting.

The Hoffman-Olivier interaction is like a zen mondo for American theatre, a sort of classic case that presents a dichotomy, but the point is to heal the dichotomy. If you feel like staying up for three days helps prepare you to act well, I guess I'd say try it, but if you fall on your face, don't be surprised.

If you really put yourself in the situation and care about the imaginary circumstances, a feeling of terror will likely arise. But we get lost thinking too much about emotions and not enough about putting ourselves in the imaginary circumstances, CARING about the situation, and fully embody a dramatic action appropriate to the writer's intention.