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You Have to Know How it Feels

By Robert Bethune
August 2005

Why isnít it very helpful, when all is said and done, to understand the play youíre working on? The theater schools all teach something called something like ďscript analysisĒ to directors, intending thereby to teach them how to understand the plays they direct. In the end, though, those courses tend to be ticket-punches on the way to something else; people who really do direct plays rarely find them to be very worthwhile. In the end, it doesnít really help all that much to understand a play intellectually. It is much more important to be able to launch a combined attack: cognitive, affective, and aesthetic.

When I talk about the cognitive attack on a play, I really donít mean the same thing as an intellectual analysis of it. What I mean is that you have to have a solid grasp of the realities of the play. To build a house requires a solid grasp of the realities of wood and brick and wiring and plumbing, not an intellectual grasp of the significance of domestic architecture in the cultural development of the community. To build a theater production requires a solid grasp of the fundamental realities of the story, of who does what to whom and why, of what the consequences of an action must be, of what deeds underlie the words. It is much closer to carpentry than to engineering, much closer to farming than to botany, much closer to natural history than to ecology. A good director of Strindbergís Miss Julie does not need to know the developmental psychodynamics that drive Jean and Julie into each otherís arms and drive each otherís razors into each otherís flesh; what must be known is that every action they take, each action embodied in words, tends remorselessly in that direction because that is the style of their love and hate. Lose that and you lose the play — and itís easy to do; people often make the mistake of treating the play as a chess match rather than a knife fight.

From there it is but a short step to realizing that you must also understand what the play is as a sensory experience. The theater is a way of communicating, and the means of communication it uses are all sensory. We hear the words; we see the bodies and objects move; we may even get a whiff of scent or odor from them, and we probably can grasp textures as well, at least visually. We respond to rhythm, timing, pace, loudness, softness, silence, harmony, dissonance, color, line, shape, texture — every kind of visual, auditory, sensory quality is what we respond to. Thatís why itís fairly rare to find people who really enjoy reading plays rather than seeing them; the experience is fundamentally different. It is even processed in a different part of our brains.

And from here we arrive at the heart of it. We must grasp how the play feels. What is it like to see real, live, in-the-flesh human beings enacting this play for us? How will we, the artists, evoke the responses that add up to a full experience of the story and the characters? What cognitive, aesthetic and emotional stimuli will we provide in the attempt?

To answer this when we produce a play, we have to use our whole selves, not just our intellectual faculties. We canít stop when we think we know what it means. We have to know how it works, what itís like, and above all how it feels. We canít get along with just our minds. Our hearts, skin, eyes, ears, and souls have to be there too.

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