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Leland Moss, director of Chekhov's The Three Sister, which opened last night at the Locb, is a last-term senior at Harvard. He and his company have been rehearsing the play for two months, in an attempt to discover new conceptions of theatre on a university level. Sarah Hyde, who was acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company for the past two years, attended many of these rehearsals and has interviewed the director in the hope that those who see the production will be more informed as to its basic aims.
Leland Moss's production of The Three Sisters Will be reviewed in tomorrow's CRIMSON.
SARAH HYDE: You have been directing plays at Harvard for four years. Looking back, can you detect any ways in which you have developed?
LELAND Moss: When I first came to Harvard, the standard of success generally depended upon a polished, finished production. There was great emphasis on everything being "set," that is, completely established by opening night- claborate costumes, lighting and all sorts of peripheral, so called theatrical effects were deemed essential for a show to succeed.
My first production of Toys In the Attic was indeed successful along these lines, and at that time I was flattered when people told me the show had Broadway finish. Rehearsals were built around improvisations which I had learned from Lee Grant, an Actors' Studio alumna whose classes I had attended in Los Angeles one summer.
With my second production, The Empire Builders, I made use of all the physical aids which were available at the Loeb, trying to incorporate as much of the technical aspects as possible to inject the highest degree of mod Americana into the production. Relevancy was to me then the most important criterion.
After that, I went to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London for a condensed course on eighteenth century English drama, then returned to Harvard to use this training for She Stoops to Conquer. The problem with this show was that our experience with style and manners was extremely limited-Americans have no manners, we have Emily Post instead-and I was faced with the problem of either aiming for the external style or working first on the internal lives of the characters.
At this stage in my development, I had very little sense of experiment within rehearsal and felt obliged to make conventional decisions in directions. During the run of the show. I changed the blocking of one of the scenes and to me this was a big move.
S.H: What made your whole conception of theatre and your way of working with actors change so radically with Three Sisters?
L.M: This summer I was acting with the Harvard Summer School Repertory Theatre, and the director of Death of a Salesman (William Kinsolving) brought in a copy of jerzy Grotowski's book, Towards a Poor Theatre. I read it and a whole new world opened up.
The ideas of theatre as a medium unto itself, theatre as a confrontation between actor and audience, props and costume being relatively unimportant-all these had never really occurred to me.
One of the most important ideas for me in the book was the dictum that every day the actor and director must ask himself why he is in the theatre; I examined my own motives (really for the first time) and began to see that the theatre ideally should be a place of giving to people (an audience) who can come to commune with each other in an emotionally active way, where the actor does something in place of, and yet for, the spectator.
S.H: What do you think were the problems facing your cast when you presented them with these ideas?
L.M: On the applications for auditions, I added a note demanding total commitment to the production for ten weeks. I also told the cast at the first meeting that they would have few props, no scenery as such, no make-up, generally implying that they themselves would have to create any and all effects they might want, using their own bodies and voices. I also said that I, probably as much as they, had no idea how the production would end up.
From this basic premise I tried not to enforce anything but hoped that the production would grow out of the actors; had I worked with a different cast, it would have been an entirely different production.
Working in this way, I found that the intuitive actor was more adaptable and artistically free with these techniques than some of the others who had had a lot of experience in the more traditional theatre. After all, to work under the impression that you turn yourself into another character when you're on stage for many years, and suddenly to be confronted with the simple notion that you are always you, on stage and off, is a frightening prospect.
S.H.: Of course such work requires a great deal of confidence and security for an actor to be stripped of props, make-up, costumes and pre-established moves. Grotowski suggests that the best actors are those who can mentally strip themselves naked in front of an audience, but that this goal needs years and years of training. How did you aim to achieve this in two months' time?
L.M.: I didn't expect to achieve anything near that. Nevertheless, before every rehearsal we spend nearly an hour doing various exercises in order to free ourselves and give ourselves to each other. After much experimentation, we evolved our own peculiar brand of "energy transference," which is a difficult concept to describe and even more difficult to participate in correctly. The goal of the exercise is for the actor to strip away blocks-physical, mental, emotional-which hamper his ability to respond on impulse.
Obviously, this sort of goal requires years of deep concentration, yet we felt it important enough to try.
S.H.: Did you participate in the exercises as well?
L.M.: Oh yes, and the stage management and technical crew, as well. The idea was to evolve everything connected with the show simultaneously, as opposed to the conventional manner of presenting the cast with a drawing of their set and costumes at the first meeting.
The whole process of rehearsal has been like interpreting a drama; this fluid state has only been possible, I think, because within the structure of Chekhov's play we were allowed to spend so much time in exercises and experimentation. This was one reason why I chose Chekhov and not a loosely constructed modern play which, though it might be more "relevant," would allow us too much freedom to rewrite and re-create. Chekhov is like God to us: nothing can be changed without the most careful examination of why he wrote it-and when we find out why, we realize its need to be retained.
S.H.: I notice from having watched some of the rehearsals that your techniques lead to some odd conclusions; for example, replacing a samovar with a gaudy pink pillow.
L.M: The actors control the lights, the sound, the props, the set, and the costumes; even these technicalities will vary from night to night as new ideas are formed. Now if you have a silver samovar on stage, the object is so clearly defined that it tends to dominate the actor, and he can only respond to it in a muted, basically cinematic fashion. However, an object chosen to have no meaning in its own sense can mirror the actors reactions toward it.
Thus, if a pillow is said to be a samovar, what it does is to be a samovar for as long as the actors say so, and by their use of it, the actors can show the non-Russian audience more completely what a samovar means to Chekhov's characters.
Similarly, at other times the actors perform the sub-text of a scene as animals; if we show the sub-text of an object with something which is non-specific, we show the inner reality of a scene by playing against its superficial level. All scenes on stage are like icebergs, and when one prepares for them one discovers, hopefully, the 90 per cent that is submerged.
In theatre today that top 10 per cent is no longer very interesting because you can see it closer up in films. What we are trying to show is part of the other 90 per cent by these distortions and exaggerations.
S.H.: One of the most exciting theatrical experience of my life was watching Peter Brook's Grotowski-influenced experimental production of The Tempest in London, which he advertised as an "open rehearsal." I gather you did not want to use the words "opening night" or "production" in connection with Three Sisters?
L.M.: No, because this immediately suggests a "finished" performance. With our show, we have gone through a process of discovery, and each night we will present what we have discovered so far. Ideally, I would like to continue rehearsals for four more months, in order to condense Chekhov's play into something which is really the most intense essence of the thing, something which would only take an hour and a half at the most to perform. Much of what the audience will see is only a means to that end, but I hope that in a few places there are flashes of what we would like the final product to be.
S.H.: This surely is the luxury of a university theatre?
L.M.: Yes, because we do not have to succeed commercially, but also because I think it is more honest and certainly more exciting to experiment in a university than to attempt impossible and perhaps undesirable "Broadway" standards. I can go to the movies to see a production where the performance is meticulously the same every night.
S.H.: What do you understand Grotowski's term "the holiness of theatre" to mean? He does in fact perform in a church, doesn't he?
L.M.: Yes, and only in a church. Really, someone should invent a new word because both "religious" and "holy" are filled with so many old-fashioned and negative contexts today; to watch Grotowski's company is certainly a strenuous mystical and personal experience. It is a process of searching, and it demands an audience that is not a money clite nor a cultural clite, but an elite of people who are searching for ways to understand themselves and others.
You could say that this form of theatre is inherently involved with the Youth Movement and the "Aquarian Age." The total concentration of Grotowski's individual actors while becoming one with themselves and with their audiences is essentially a giving thing. The actors, by concentrating so completely on their own existence, end up by giving themselves to the observers.
S.H.: You have not tried to make Three Sisters so totally American as you did with the French play, The Empire Builders?
L.M.: Not consciously, no. But when you take a Russian (or, in fact, any) masterpiece out of its own background, it essentially loses 50 per cent of what, in this case, is Russian. Automatically, though, this is replaced by what is American, simply because the company is composed of Americans. And by this process, the audience and the actors can identify with the attitudes with which they are most familiar.
S.H.: You've mentioned cinema quite a lot; what relation does it have to your conception of theatre?
L.M.: Cinema has its own technical tricks which can be used to pick out for the audience what the director wishes them to see. In most theatres, if you can afford the twelve-dollar seats at the front, when watching any naturalistic play, you may be lucky enough to see the subtle changes in an actor's eyes, face, or body-but on the whole it will be more powerful in film or television where the close-up is available.
In film, an actor can do something without much physical projection and it can be compelling. On stage this is impossible, and a realization of this means going back to the original Greek idea of the actor's power, which in its turn is based on a certain dimension of ritual.
In fact, up till now every play I have done I would really have rather done as a film. It was therefore necessary for me to find out what the theatre's "tricks" were to compensate for thislack of close-up, distorted lens, etc.
S.H.: What have you discovered?
L.H.: To boil down the essence of each scene to its subtext acts as a close-up, a distortion, so that while you may lose the general reality you will gain a specific and different dimension.
I think that as long as the over-all intent is there, inconsistency of style does not matter. A Brillo pad stuck on the same canvas as oils acceptable in painting as long as the original intent is conscious and planned, but this idea is still new in theatre.
S.H.: Would you like to continue with the company you already have rather than beginning these processes all over again?
L.M.: Of course. I'd like to use many of the same actors in my next production, which is to be Ibsen's Peer Gyat. What we have developed will be quite useful, since the conception involves every actor in the company playing different aspects of Peer. while at the same time once more denying the usual trappings of the play.
From this I would like to continue with a company in Cambridge, but this unfortunately needs money, a theatre and the right audience. Attaining those three goals sometimes takes a lifetime.
S.H.: In England. almost all professional actors have at least a few years training before working for a living. How do you feel your group would gain or lose from this type of theatre training?
L.M.: The Loeb as it is now organized is basically run by students, which is good; however, the guidance that it offers, while quite helpful to beginning students, is not much in tune with "the new theatre." More importantly, the Loeb is too demanding as a theatre in that the expensive technical equipment which it houses cries out for use by the students. before they have begun to solve the more basic and fundamental questions of what theatre, acting, lighting, etc., really is.
By being under less glamorous conditions, the students would probably find our more about the basic elements of theatre, each for himself. Now, when you arrive as a freshman. it's like being handed a massive and complicated toy and being expected to accept it passively as a thing called Theatre.
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