The Courage to ActMay 1st, 2023 | By Daniel Elihu Kramer, Chair and Professor of Theatre at Smith College
This February, I had the privilege of teaching an acting workshop in Mumbai with fourteen women from MarketPlace India. (My wife, Adele Mattern, leads design for MarketPlace, but this was my first time in India.) I had many new experiences on this trip, but nothing I did was more exciting than leading this workshop.
Nothing I did made me more nervous, either-at least in anticipation. What would the women make of this experience? Would they be interested? Would they get anything out of it? Would they feel I'd wasted their time? By the end of our two sessions together, I learned how much the experience had meant to them, and to me.
We met twice for two hours at a time, in a small community room off a courtyard area near the MarketPlace India offices. I began by introducing the idea of an objective: in every scene, an actor is working on an objective--something they want another character to do. Imagine a scene between a father and a daughter. The father wants the daughter to agree to marry the man he's chosen. The daughter wants the father to let her choose. (This example seemed to resonate.)
As an actor, you make all your choices to affect the other actor, to get them to do the thing you hope they will do. Actors don't write the script, but they make choices about how to play, how to say, the lines they've been given. The situation is fictional, but actors try truly to affect each other, and to be open to being affected by each other.
Then we started an exercise: one actor sits in a chair, and the other actor wants her to get out of the chair. First, one of the women sat, and I played the other role, with only a single line which I could repeat as often as necessary: "Please get out of the chair." The first few times I said the line, I asked as nicely as I could. Then I switched to a tone that was perhaps quietly threatening. (I did this carefully, as I wanted to be particularly conscious of my role in the room as male, as an outsider, etc.)
Then a few pairs of women tried the exercise in front of us, one pair at a time. They had fun playing with how to try to get their partner to rise from the chair, or enjoying the power of refusing to get up.
We moved next to "open scenes": short scenes that can be about almost anything, and can be played many different ways. We played with the first scene one pair at a time, thinking about possible objectives for each of the two characters, then exploring different choices they could make to accomplish those objectives. Then the women worked in pairs all at the same time exploring a second scene in preparation for sharing it. At the end of our first session, we agreed to pick up with that scene the following week.
We worked across three languages: English, Hindi, and Marathi! I was fortunate to have two translators: Gunjan-the assistant designer at MarketPlace, and Pratibha-the social worker. In week one, they scrambled to translate scenes on the spot. For week two, I sent scenes in advance so we could begin with them already translated.
When we got back together, a few pairs worked with the scene we had left off with, then we went on to play with new scenes. We explored how a scene might change-focusing especially on a scene that begins "You finally got here"-if we tried out different identities for the pair of characters: two friends, a daughter and mother, a wife and husband.
In week two, the feeling in the room was especially positive. The first week, some of the women were feeling brave and ready to take risks while others hung back. Now a lot of them were feeling bolder. I loved watching as they rehearsed in pairs, seeing how they might play a scene before sharing with the group. Everyone was having a great time, enjoying the chance to play and explore. As a result, we got to watch a wonderful range of possibilities when they shared their scenes.
Finally, we sat and talked together. I asked what they thought about what we'd done. Three reactions stood out. One woman shared her takeaway-not directly about acting but still fascinating: that you always have a choice about how you say something. Even if you don't change what you're saying, you can say something in a way that is negative or positive, in a way that hurts someone or a way that doesn't.
Two other responses came up in the group. The women talked about never having thought before about what actors actually do. One shared how she watches tv and just changes the channel if she doesn't like something, but never thought before about the work of the actors. Some talked about realizing how much courage acting takes. I loved this response most of all, because I felt they were also talking about themselves. They were seeing the courage they had brought to our work together.
Finally, one of the women said I should come back and make a movie with them. I keep thinking about this, and I've begun to formulate some ideas about how we might make a short narrative film that we could plan, write, and shoot collaboratively. I don't know whether we'll get to do it, but even the opportunity to imagine such a thing felt like a gift our work together had given all of us.
I came into the first workshop wondering what-if anything-the women might get out of it. I came away feeling they had found our time together worthwhile and enjoyable. I'm grateful to them for their openness to such an unusual experience, and to all the folks at MarketPlace for helping to make it happen.
-Daniel Elihu Kramer is Chair and Professor of Theatre at Smith College, and the former Producing Artistic Director of Chester Theatre Company.