It is, perhaps, harder being in a devised piece than in any other kind of show. There are so many different things to fail at – can you improvise, can you write? Can you look at the subject, characters and story and make instinctive choices about what passages from the book will work well in the theatre? Can you play within the group, knowing when it’s your turn to lead, and when to follow?
And on top of all of this, plain and simple: can you act?
It is really hard at the moment. Stuck as I am playing a poet who people believe to be mad I feel no meaning. No nuance. I know Simon would like a degree of physical engagement, but it’s just not coming.
Ivan’s journey is an interesting one. From party-line poet, through trauma, mistaken madness, incarceration and finally transcendence. Ivan’s passion seems very important to me – he does everything to the extreme.
One of the tools we use in rehearsals is known as ‘The Seven Levels of Tension’, and it’s a useful shorthand for degrees of physical engagement. For example, with no tension in the body, you are catatonic, perhaps, or asleep. That’s Level One. With the body completely overcome by tension you become rigid, petrified. That’s Level Seven – the level of great tragedy. In between one and seven are the points on the way. Lot’s of people give the levels different names: ‘Californian/relaxed’, or ‘alert/is there a bomb in the room?’.
Instinct would have me nudge Ivan’s tension all the way to Level Seven. The tragic.
When these tools work for you they free up your brain because you don’t need to make any clever decisions. You simply play the level you’ve chosen, meaning intellectual explanations can be explored later on. My problem at the moment is that in the higher states (Ivan spends quite a lot of time up in what we call ‘the passionate’) it can be quite hard to remain open and flexible in improvisations. Great performers are able to play at this level of intensity without it becoming heavy. Even in great tragic moments it’s as if they can still remember it’s a game, they can still play. They’re still reactive and proactive, reaching these levels of physical extremity and engagement while maintaining a sense of ease. This, for me, is essential. Children do this so instinctively. They can engage a level of play that is at once serious and playful. They’re always willing to take the game to the next level.
- Richard Katz