Director’s Diary: Ice Glen


Ice Glen rehearsals are at what is for me (and, I hope, the actors) the most exciting point right now: the exploration and development of subtext—a word that entered the English language around 1950 as a concept articulated by the great Russian actor, director, and theatre theorist Constantin Stanislavsky, whose work laid the foundation for the “method” school of modern acting that flourished in the U.S. through the work of disciples such as Sanford Meisner, Lee Strasburg, and Stella Adler.

Stanlislavsky urged actors to prepare their roles with great consideration for the characters’ inner life, the emotions and experiences that inform and drive but are not expressed in the characters’ words: “At the moment of performance the text is supplied by the playwright, and the subtext by the actor….If this were not the case, people would not go to the theatre but sit at home and read the play. [T]he printed play is not a finished piece of work until it is played on the stage by actors and brought to life by genuine human emotions….Words are…part of the external embodiment of an inner essence of a role….” (For a quick presentation of the Method, go to http://method.vtheatre.net/subtext.html.)

The actors have been thinking about their characters for awhile already, of course; but “subtext” also refers to the relationships between characters and to the progress of a scene. Imaginative and emotional exploration, then, goes beyond an individual actor working on an individual character and actually underlies the work as a whole.

And Ice Glen is a play that is particularly dependent on the effective presence of subtext. The title implies as much: Ice Glen is an actual place, near Stockbridge, Massachusetts. According to http://www.outdoors.org/,  “At the northern end of the [Beartown Hills] is the gorge called Ice Glen. Nathaniel Hawthorne called it ‘the most curious fissure in all Berkshire’..…the ravine runs less than a quarter-mile. Yet each turn reveals another cave or more stacked boulders or ancient trees. The hemlocks…provide a blanket of shadow even on the brightest day.” In the deepest part of the crevice the ice never melts. Named for this place, the play is set in 1919, and the characters are people of social position. Among such people at that time, emotional lives were lived behind a façade of propriety, good manners, verbal restraint. Without attention to subtext, in places the dialogue seems disjointed, the actions unmotivated, the intentions cryptic. In its characters and situation, the play is somewhat reminiscent of Checkhov. The ideas of a theorist of the Russian stage, then, seem especially apt.

So our rehearsals at this point are about one-third “practicing” scenes, and two-thirds discussion of, and experimentation with, who the characters are and what they feel and want as line follows line and scene follows scene. In the blocking stage, the mapping of the physical movement in the scene, I began to set up patterns of relating and moments of energy; now we’re refining those ideas to produce more nuanced gesture and a complex emotional life under the action.

The byproduct of these discussions has to do with the company itself: a deeper confidence in one another; a clearer sense of purpose; a sharper focus on the process and on the play.

If we do this part of our job well, the audience won’t even think about it: they’ll just find the play engrossing, human, and true. And that’s what theatre is all about.

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