Be Prepared

(Julia Dratel/University Theater)

“…that Proper Inner Creative State, is rare / It is so seldom that an actor dares / to be a human being in front of you / It’s often just by chance.” This is the explanation of the slippery task of acting provided by Stanislavski #5 in Mickle Maher’s adaptation of “An Actor Prepares,” which had its premiere last weekend at the Logan Center for the Arts. In the play eight, actors, four of whom are UofC students, dare to portray the author of the classic guide to acting.

Stanislavski wrote his book “An Actor Prepares” to explain his “system” for making acting a living, emotional craft–in other words, to make it honest. Maher’s play is written in rhymed verse, something that he finds brought the work closer to that honesty. He explains,  “It just felt wrong to have Stanislavski talk about truth and theater and artifice and belief in some ‘realistic’ biopic vernacular.”  In Maher’s play, the audience discovers early on that the work is no self-indulgent theatrical inside joke; it provides a place and a set of emotions to the stereotypical etching of Stanislavski imagined by his readers.

“Emotion memory,” Stanislavski cannot resist explaining to the audience, “is a bead inside a box… Our past / is precious and is, naturally, of vast / importance to the actor. But it’s passed.” Maher’s play calls up a past, a person, and a process that aren’t imagined at all. It brings to life the real world of 1935 Moscow, Stanislavski as more than a mythical figure, and the way to make acting into necessary truth.

Much of the cast remembers Maher’s decision to fit Stanislavski’s long written work into a 90-minute night. This is evident in the show’s urgent pacing, as Stanislavski forces himself to explain in words a system which he himself believed “must be studied in the work of practical execution.”

He has help in this task. Just as the original book used a Socratic dialogue of characters as its illustrative device, the eight Stanislavskis take part in exercises which put the theory into practice: imagining a madman at the door or the sensory recounting of a trip to a store–where, to the famously chainsmoking Stanislavski’s despair, the cigarettes purchased were merely imaginary–and so on. The shifts in scenes are marked by stark changes in lighting and dramatic surges of music involving violin, cello, and one particularly powerful use of a Russian chorus.

These dramatic exercises stand out as delightful challenges to the seasoned actor and remind the elder Stanislavski of what he loves about the craft. The practice, however, becomes horrific when Stanislavski’s own memories and fears begin to pervade the circumstances; he sees his nephew and his old pupil Meyerhold murdered–as they truly were–for unspecified crimes against Soviet Russia.

The horror of these deaths is sometimes shaking and sometimes diluted, often giving the impression of something underexplored. But the doubt that Stanislavski feels about his work and his politics enlivens what could have been a self-referential piece of theater with human emotion–with need, regret, and nostalgia. The play’s eight characters bring to the piece what Maher also says has been a benefit of working with students, as he has throughout the creation of this play–eagerness and newness: “they haven’t seen it all before.”

Maher, a founding member of Theater Oobleck in Chicago, finds that playwriting “remains a solitary experience.” But he has benefited greatly from the workshops, classes, and rehearsal process this play has seen. And the students who have been a part of this process since the fall–or earlier, for those who took the class attached to it–have learned a great deal in return. As actor Jason Shain, a fourth-year in the College, puts it, the play is “a very simple request for people to just commit to being a real person.”

The actors each have their own processes of preparing to “commit,” including a focus-building game of catch with a ball of duct tape (“Ductball,” introduced by other Oobleck veterans). For actor Alexandra Mathews, a first-year in the colege who plays Stanislavski: #4, prepartion entails a meditative period which she sees as a transformative “molting” of her usual self, helping her to more convincingly inhabit the role. The immensity of work done to make this play a real examination of both acting and the experience of “real” life in terrible circumstances, frustration over both writer’s block and the loss of friends and youth, has paid off.

Halfway through the play, the “real” Stanislavski slips irresistibly back from bed to tell the audience of “memories…eager always to fly on where we / cannot,” and a chill Russian wind heard in the theater seems to whisper the truth: that this line speaks, not only of the mind, but to the art of theater. This play stands in for the power of acting itself: the remarkable practice of showing life.

“An Actor Prepares” runs for one more weekend. Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St. April 26-28. Thursday-Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 3pm and 8pm. $6. (773)702-9315. taps.uchicago.edu