COLUMN SIX: Madness in the Method all too real

Leonardo DiCaprio and "The Revenant" director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, at the 88th Annual Academy Awards - Press Room held at the Loews Hollywood Hotel on February 28, 2016. STARFRENZY PHOTO


Special to the VOICE

Stage and screen actors alike are known to undergo bizarre and often harrowing routines to achieve realism in their art.

Leonardo DiCaprio ate wild bison liver, waded in freezing rivers, and slept inside an animal’s carcass, so he could better understand the character of Hugh Glass in The Revenant. For this, and a lot of grunting, he won his Oscar. The movie won Best Picture. I won nothing for staying to the bitter end, despite a preference for movies with dialogue.

I never saw Suicide Squad, but read that Jared Leto did all kinds of weird things to get into the character of the Joker. He spent time in an asylum, gifted the cast a dead pig and Margot Robbie a live rat, sent bullets to Will Smith, slept in a prison, and totally isolated himself from the rest of the company, which likely made them happy.

Anne Hathaway dropped 25 pounds so she could play Fantine in Les Miserables more convincingly.

Rumours of Dustin Hoffman depriving himself of sleep so he could more realistically portray his character in Marathon Man prompted Sir Laurence Olivier to remark, “My dear man, have you tried acting?”

Hoffman and the others are disciples of “The Method,” whose objective is to eliminate acting. Remembering James Dean, another devotee, I have to say they were onto something.

“Method for Idiots” will tell you it works by emotional recall—actors dredge up from personal experience a sense of how their character would feel in a situation, so they can “be” that person, and not have to “act” it at all.

In rehearsal they engage in improvised games and exercises to call up their creatures from the Black Lagoon, so they can make it real.

Olivier wasn’t a fan. Nor are the likes of Maggie Smith and Benedict Cumberbatch. The Method was always more an American thing that a British one.

National Theatre Director Nicholas Hytner remarks in his recent memoir, Balancing Acts: “On the tiny handful of occasions at the National when a company of actors came close to mutiny, it was always because the director refused to move on to the business of doing the play. Why are we improvising? Why are we playing games? When will somebody tell us where to come on, when to sit down, and how to say lines?”

Most actors buy into rehearsal games up to a point, he says.

“Secretly, they like to be told what to do, if only to be able to resist it.”

There are as many variations on Constantin Stanislavski’s original “method” as there are famous directors to interpret and apply it. Uta Hagen, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan— all were somehow committed to the “inside out” school of acting. Sorry—of not acting.

Sanford Meisner was more an “outside in” kind of guy, and instructed his non-actors to focus on externals like clothes, gestures and accents to ignite the character. It unknown if he recommended sleeping inside an animal carcass, or going without sleep altogether.

In rehearsal the Method can reduce actors to tears as they are made to journey to dark places in their personal lives and draw on past traumas to give credibility to a performance. As one observer put it, it can be tantamount to picking psychological scabs.

In a class where a female student protested she couldn’t handle a rape scene because she had actually been raped, she was told by her acting coach, also female, to “Use it!”

Some directors regard The Method as a perverse kind of therapy—play a fictional role as your personal catharsis, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, in Macbeth’s words. Perilous stuff.

All of which leads to a pertinent question. Could theatre ever again offer a “safe space” after directors decided that getting actors to turn their personal lives inside out was a good way to achieve realism?

I once asked a former student what his experience at theatre school was like. He was one of a small minority who had made it through the programme at York University.

“They break you down from the get go,” I remember him saying, “so you forget everything you were ever taught.” He talked about becoming reduced, “unselfed,” so he could be built up again by his instructors.

He spoke of his love-hate relationship with the teachers who dismantled and empowered him at the same time. In the end, he felt good about his experience, he said. It made him what he is.

I wondered back then about the dynamic between a controlling guru figure and initiates who get broken down, then put back together, so they can act real.

That’s some high-octane chemistry between teacher and student. And I wonder now where else, apart from an abusive marriage, does one person exercise that kind of control over another.

Is it all that surprising that a line gets crossed? And where do you draw it in the first place? It can’t be a very fine one. More like very a wide and often blurred one, I suspect.

Take a young female actor who’s been broken down and reconfigured and now seeks guidance from her director, a person of some reputation with his string of successful productions and protégés, who responds by urging her to dig deeper, find more, expose more, be sexier, cry for real—in front of cast and crew. In his all-consuming devotion to his art he might jump in and show how it’s done. It’s been known to happen.

Do this anywhere else and you end up in court, ever more so now.

Which is exactly where the now-resigned director of Soulpepper Theatre Company is likely heading after four young women came forward to say that he crossed a line. Repeatedly, with all of them.

There’s no question, if the allegations are all true, or even if just one of them is true, that he has abused his position. I can only admire the courage of these women in blowing the whistle, because this is theatre, remember, where pain and trauma and unsafe memories are the very stuff of becoming more real, and the director is there to make it happen.

The Method seems to have torqued over the years, so now the most extreme directors feel empowered to conduct rehearsals like an assault course, having little idea of the psychological and emotional damage they might be inflicting. And many actors feel they must acquiesce for the sake of their careers.

It’s not for me to say how spilling one’s guts during rehearsal makes one a better actor. Maybe it does, though I’ve watched many actors perform convincingly by playing off a script, their imagination, other actors, and their own talent.

While “draining its swamp” of abusive personnel, theatre maybe needs to recognize that its actual modus operandi, its “method,” is increasingly at odds with a safe environment and an actor’s right to prepare and perform their art without indignity and abuse.

The Canada Council for the Arts pulled $375,000 in grant money last week from the theatre company.

“It’s very important to the Canada Council, as a public arts funder, that the organizations we fund provide a work environment that’s free of harassment, sexual misconduct or abuse of power,” the Council said in a statement provided to the Toronto Star on Friday night.

If art ever needed a theatre of cruelty, it can’t afford one any longer. 

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