Salutations from the Blackfriars stage! Allie Dawson again, live-blogging this twelfth colloquy session on the Blackfriars stage. Bill Gelber and Kelly Parker serve as the Chairs for this discussion, with Anne Gossage, Andrew Hartley, and Daniel Pollack-Pelsner as presenters.
Gelber and Parker begin by introducing a technique they have taught for the long time, which is, they say, a great shorthand for character creation. In a book by playwright Keith Johnston, he mentions that, when working with playwrights, they often asked why the dialogue didn’t sound real. Johnston realized there was a missing element, and when he added this back in, he realized people used it all the time, and once they noticed it, they couldn’t stop noticing it.
Gelber begins by portraying two different kinds of people, and Parker will ask the auditors to list the physical and vocal mannerisms that he, and Parker, affect. After they demonstrate, Gelber and Parker let the presenters try it for themselves, before applying it to early modern texts.
Gelber, as the first scholar, comes from backstage. Gelber, encumbered with a backpack, seems ill at ease, while Keeley intervenes officiously.
Now they ask the auditors to describe Gelber’s comportment. The auditors list a variety of traits: small steps, little eye contact, covering his mouth, furrowed brow, with no deliberate actions. Gelber and Parker than ask them to describe Parker. According to the auditors, he was leaning, walking behind Gelber with larger steps, questioning him, interrupting him, getting into his physical space, and looking directly at the audience. Also, Gelber points out his breathing was shallow, blinking a lot and peppering his speech with “ers” and “ums”.
They repeat the demonstration, this time with Parker stumbling over his words, while Gelber marches on stage and interrupts him brusquely, before telling the meek, apologetic Kelley to put his notes together.
What, they ask, is Gelber doing now that he wasn’t before? The auditors again offer a list of traits: looking at the audience, more stillness, his change of vocal patterns commanding and dismissing attention, larger strides, a deeper voice, and an underlying annoyance. Part of what you do, Gelber explains, whne are this sort of person, is to never lose your cool. Unlike before, he uses less gestures, employs more deliberate speech with less filler words, and exerts authority over the space. In contrast, Parker was cowering, making himself smaller, protecting himself from person higher on the food-chain. Johnston would say the first scholar was a “low” status scholar, while the second was a “high” status one. Johnson, though he used the terminology of high and low, also said you can mix these up, so as to survive in the world.
But, one auditor asks, is this really a proper way to speak of the distinction? Gelber and Parker explain that you need to make a distinction of some kind. Everyone has a status they are, as well as status they play, sometimes attempting to be a different status, with varying degrees of success. Now, they emphasize that the terms “high” and “low” are not pejorative, but describe a series of behaviors based on your place in the world, and not that you change your “status” depending on your company. All of these things, Gelber notes, are constantly shifting. In playing one of these, there’s a seesaw. If you want to play the higher status, you might actually the lower the other person, and vice versa. When Johnston wrote his book, what he really wanted to say “dominate” and “submit”. You find the leader and follower types, and variations within those. To try, have them mingle with each other, and try them out for themselves. Kelley gives on group instructions, and Gelber gives the other group another set of instructions.
To illustrate this, Gelber and Parker set up a scenario in which these behaviors are most clear. Dividing the auditors into two groups, they give each group different instructions, and then have them mingle as if it a cocktail party. What they are looking for, Gelber and Parker note, is whether this behavior feels comfortable, and how it changes as they meet. After some mingling, the auditors end up all in a circle, with some seeming more dominant, and others more subservient. Afterwards, when asked to describe, one declares he “feels like an asshole”. The group instructed to behave as of a lower status, one describes the experience as resembling “middle school”, via a posture that made him feel uncertain and insecure. Others say they felt like a strangers in their own room. One asks, though, is it you or the others producing that feeling? Parker answers that it is both. Relationships are dependent on others.
The “higher status” group worried about eye contact. One said he was trying to have eye contact, but the others refused to make eye contact. One auditor says she tried to draw the others in, pulling them up to put them at ease. Parker notes they are discovering a phenomenon that nothing you say as it is: will be a high or low thing. It’s not the words, but the content underneath. then they ask, did anyone get higher or lower depending on who they talk to? Generally avoiding being with another high status person, since there can only be one.
They repeated the exercise, with the high and low status groups switching statuses, in which there seemed to be little actual mingling. Once finished, Parker calls them back into the circle. How, he asks, did that feel for the lower status people? They express it feels more “normal”, though not necessarily comfortable, admitting a cocktail party is a place some do not like to be. Another pointed out there was a rising vocal intonation depending on the status. Another expresses he used to feel this way in middle school as well. One in the high status group mentioned it made him recognize his height, and how he can take charge of a classroom. Parker notices some interesting status exchanges, spotlighting the minutiae that establishes or relinquishes domination.
Returning to the first demonstration, Gelber says its point is that this technique has nothing necessarily to do with where you are on the economic scale. Parker notes much comedy is built on this clarification, by having an authority person who is a buffoon. Audiences like to see someone who is in a higher position, yet is lower in his social interaction. After mentioning figures like Dogberry, he notes the entire series of Frasier is built on this principle.
The next question, says Gelber and Parker, is where do you find this and discover this in text? how do find these clues?
Another thing they wish to discuss variation. There are things in between high and low. We mix these behaviors. If you give them numbers, they explain, you can differentiate them pretty well. In essence, it gives you ten different characters to play.
So, the next exercise is to try to identify some numbers. They call for three people, who will wait in the doctor’s office, each, secretly, getting a different number. They ask the auditors to put them in order and figure out the number. Each will come in from offstage, and Gelber will tell them what to do. The others are instructed to look for behavioral and vocal clues.
The first one comes out, and seems unexceptional, if a little wary. The second comes in, seeming trepidatious and timid. The third one comes in, walking slowly and deliberately, avoiding eye contact with the others. When they learn the doctor running behind, they all react differently. The third one leaves in a huff, while the first one wanders, and the second sits looking dejected. The second one asks to reschedule, and leaves as soon as he learns the doctor is not coming in. Second one leaves very sad, first one slams door. The first one slams the door on his way out, as the second one exits looking disappointing, but resigned.
Which order are they in, Gelber and Parker ask, from high to low? After ordering them Third, first, second (from highest to lowest) they ask, what are their numbers? The auditors offer a number of guesses, before learning the third was a nine, second a three, and first a five (but mentions he became more assertive once the third guy left). If you pick a certain number, Gelber and Parker ask, are you doing a mix of these things?
An auditor asks if, during a performance, can you go from six or four and average out to a five? Gelber answers that is absolutely possible, because your status changes depending on who your talking to. You really can’t codify these things with numbers (for example, Costard’s status in Love’s Labour’s Lost varies wildly depending on his scene partner). The status exercise, Gelber and Parker explain, is the basis of character we are trying to get at.
Now, they work on a scene from Henry V, with Henry, undercover, speaking with Michael Williams. The presenters begin with reading the scene. Afterwards, Gelber gives them each an undisclosed number. He says it’s an interesting scene since Henry is supposed to be undercover. So, while his real number is probably a ten, he’s playing a different number, thus forcing him, the King, to act deferential towards Williams, a common soldier.
They read the scene again, with Williams acting as the dominant one, while Henry is more deferential. Afterwards, they again discuss the scene with Gelber and Parker, noting it changed significantly. Williams, when left to himself ,is an eight or a nine, and Henry affects a seven till Williams raises his ire. One auditor points out that those pretending to be powerful often rant and rave, but those with real power are often more quiet and deliberate.
They do two more scenes, beginning with the second Lafew and Parolles scene from All’s Well that End’s Well, and, again, the auditors are not told the actors’ “numbers”. The auditors then try to guess the numbers. The scene raises the question, how low does Parolles get once proved as a traitor and a coward? To clarify context, Gelber and Parker have the presenters play the first scene Lafew and Parolles have together.
In this scene, Gelber mentions Parolles is pretending to be of the Count Rossillion’s rank, while Lafew never believes the act for a second. As Gelber puts it, Parolles comes to a gunfight with a knife. Lafew throughout the scene continually lowers Parolles in asserting his own status. Lafew’s actor finds, when he gets frustrated, he begins losing status. The calmer you are, Gelber explains, the better you can maintain status.
After further discussion, they try it again. Parker points out that you can see how powerful this technique is. It forces you to relate to the other characters, since your status is dependent on their status. We play status games all our lives, which is why Johnston included the status game in his book in the first place. After calling for questions one last time, the workshop concludes.