Altered States: sensory deprivation and manipulation in rehearsal.

The Iron Age Impov process is heavily influenced by techniques we learned while in Villanova’s grad school in the late 1980s. One of the most potent techniques has to do with sensory stimulation as part of the improv process. One day while working a speech from Lear, my instructor had me swing from the pipes in our acting classroom, pipes which were full of headed water running to radiators throughout the building and as such were quite hot in my hands, driving my work. (more Villanova examples to come in another blog.) This type of work has become part and parcel of Iron Age’s process.

2014-02-17 20.04.57A great example of this happened at one of last week’s Buried Child rehearsal.

We ran two improvs to build the physical reality for our actors. Our first exploration was with Luke Moyer, who plays Bradley in our production. We blindfolded Luke and bound his legs together. This is as much a case of creating a restriction and a sense of helplessness as it was to literally simulate the one leggedness of Bradley. 2014-02-17 20.06.33We put him on the sofa on set and then worked an improv with Dave, Dodge, and Chuck, Tilden, in which we dealt with the newly removed leg (by a chainsaw in the script) and with his attempts at recovery. We used hot water, poured on his knee, to simulate the feeling of the warm blood of the new cut. Eventually Luke was given his fake leg, a great antique we have located, and he worked a series of activities using it as a crutch. He could not see and so he was forced to use his other senses to interact with the environment and the new leg. The sensory deprivation helped to remove him from our reality into this specifically extreme situation.2014-02-17 20.05.08

The second piece worked with Dave, our Dodge. Dave was blindfolded and the lights were turned out in the room, save for a few house lights. Dave was instructed to remain on the sofa no matter what. He had a few other character directions as well. While he was blindfolded, we had Bradley and the rest of the cast there that night, poke and prod him including stealing his hat and messing with his hair. 2014-02-17 21.08.15As the piece progressed, we added noise by throwing a bucket, banging the sofa and the floor with a variety of objects. We then began to add dialogue. This whirlwind culminated in the lifting and moving of the sofa. The moments when Dave awaiting the next poke or push, the moments when he smelled the whiskey we were holding under his nose as he asked for a bottle, all created the anticipation, desire, and fear Dodge needs in the play.  Additionally when the sofa rose, the surprise Dave felt, in the space, in character, gave depth to the “in the moment” reality he will need during performance. Finally we overturned the sofa on top of Dave and he appeared to cower under it.  As we righted the sofa again, we found Dave attached to it like a crustation. In our conversations after the event, Dave said he had not cowered under the sofa but felt more like he was in a cocoon. This homeness of the sofa is invaluable to the play. The integration of the actual set into the organic development of the role is a potent way to being reality to the stage.  All this done with the augmentation and deprivation of sensory input allows the actor to disassociate from themselves and live in the action of the play. The improv becomes a tool for Dodge rather than Dave and lays deep in the characterization.

Sensory deprivation and manipulation is a core part of our work. Rather than some intellectual restriction on the improv, which we also use, we like to force physicality and create a muscle or body memory of the emotions for later use.

speedWhile doing Speed of Darkness, Randy and I reenacted a full battle from the Vietnam War with Bill Rahill, Ray Saraceni and Jered McLenigan. We raised the heat in the room using space heaters and humidifier to well above the comfort zone; we fired blank rounds from pistols and shotguns after blindfolding the actors and turning off the lights in the theater; we gave them a specific set of objectives and a scenario, which they played out as the physical reality of their improv was manipulated by Randy and I. We used hot wax and candles to add some measure of “pain” to the work. There was a soundtrack playing over our sound system of the violence of warfare. The three actors were totally immersed in their world.

28480043While working on the Diviners, Randy and the cast members dunked, and held, Jered McLenigan’s head underwater to give both a sense of the water aversion that his character had as well as a physical reality to the final stylized drowning scene. The audience at the “baptism” included the entire cast who began as participants but all held back in dunking Jerry, pushing Randy to actually push the dunking to its limits. During Diviner’s we also played our the prehistory of Steve Hatzai and his character’s loss of a wife. Using blindfolds, we were able to use an actress who Steve knew and who’s voice Steve might have recognize, but in the darkness of the theater with the blindfold the sense of privacy leading to intimacy and the sense of disorientation allowed for openness to the relationship bound only to the world of the character. Without seeing the improv actress, Steve was able to live in the moment and bring his minds image to overlay the events of the work. Steve had a strong personal memory for this part of the play and didn’t get as much as he might have from this improv and yet the cast present did access some important emotional ideas.

During Moon for the Misbegotten we used both a blindfold and a big bottle of whiskey to give our Jim a sense of the reality of his drunkenness and to relive, with auditory support, the train experience recounted in the play.

DSCN4692During Terra Nova, we took the cast to the Pine Barrens and had them pull our sledge through the wintry cold of NJ in a set of scenarios to give real sensory input into the arctic adventure on stage. This, without any sensory deprivation, used the real world’s sensory input to build physical and emotional memory.

The most powerful tool in the toolbox is the blindfold, cutting off the actor from the most easily accessed and reality forming sense, makes a difference in their submersion into the improv. The second tool can either be lighting or sound. These living mini plays become companions pieces, like webisodes for our actors to reference. I often wish we could simply stage them in rep with our productions.

DSCN4694These pieces can be wildly dangerous. We take great care to be with the actor, to manage these events and to debrief and support them after the fact.

These may seem like extreme events but they add the depth we like in our company. They are actor oriented and director controlled events that build ensemble while they are specifically creating stage reality. Their potency  comes from their organic nature. Although they are really quite artificial, they, because of the limited sensory capacity for the actor, create an reality unique to the rehearsal process. This reality is developed through the eyes of the director and molded not just from the actors preconceptions of the world but from a world we create.

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