Monday, January 5, 2009

Exercise for the Generation of Banal Tensions

Two individuals, one a clerk and one a customer. Crisp, dry dialogue: it's nothing more than a transaction. It could be, for example:

(A hands B some strips of paper)
(B takes and examines, hands back)
You can only take four at a time.
(A considers, adjusts, while B waits.)
(A decides, and hands the papers back.)
How long will this take?
Fifteen to twenty minutes. Your number is one.
Where's the screen?
Directly above.
Thank you.

(A goes back to A's seat, and sits.)

Now they might both speak as inconsequentially as the transaction. They might both be occupied dreaming of very different things. B might be close to tears, A could be remembering a recent joke. Or, they could be occupied in the very real difficulty unfolding before them - and this becomes both more interesting, and more realistic. For a performer to be occupied with the contents of their immediate space draws the spectator's focus more fully into their own present. The real illusion of the stage comes only from the absorption of the audience. How to draw and hold their attention? Light and movement - we are predators. But we are also prey. We turn our attention where our neighbor's is focused. Hence the intensity of a watching group, the intensity of theater. The action's power then increases thousandfold when their absorption augments the audience's absorption in the contents of the stage - one reason why I mistrust method acting.

How to generate a banal tension in this transaction as "compelling" as the artificially conjured grief or humor I suggested before? Paradox. A speaks all A's lines with a slight, pleasant smile in the voice. B bites back, again only slightly, but enough that we know the story: a patient customer, an aggravated, rude clerk. Reverse these, and there's variation two. Now, smooth A over into a neutral agent, give B the slight smile, and give the slight smile a thin, sardonic curl. B sees something in A that A cannot. Does A have a mustard seed in A's teeth? Or is B sleeping with A's spouse? The audience must charge themselves to wonder, because such unexplained paradox demands explanation. Reverse this. Who are they? Who are they to each other? What do they know?

The roles are almost irrelevant. With any lines sufficiently neutral, the rub of paradox between two active agents swells to fill the vacuum of story. In more interesting ways, I momentarily believe, than a finished story can.

UP NEXT: How to cook a dry idea until it's squishy and tender.

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