Antony and Cleopatra were at odds, in the wrong way. A little bit of electricity would have added to their scenes, but the tension between them was becoming awkward, and their characters were getting stiffer and stiffer. Antony kept trying to persuade Cleopatra to hold hands with him in darkened rehearsal rooms in order to foster a spiritual connection onstage. Cleopatra wanted Antony to listen during their scenes. They spent much of their backstage time arguing over who had the upper hand in I.i, whether Charmian’s plan could ever be considered a good one, and if Antony’s slow shifting from foot to foot stole focus from Cleopatra’s big monologue. It was time for a peace conference.
So we all trooped to our rehearsal space, a grungy basement room from which I have personally evicted two squirrels with my bare hands, and where I have seen a half-dozen other twitching gray faces peer down at me from between the pipes. The floor is caked with old dirt and the windows don’t close all the way. There are gnaw marks on the ceiling tiles. I plugged in my laptop and scrolled through iTunes until I found an Arcade Fire mix.
Since Cleopatra gritted her teeth when Antony touched her, and since even a flutter of her eyelid could make him sulk, the next step was clear: It was time for Viewpoints. Viewpoints is a form of physical improvisation, created in the ’70s by a woman named Mary Overlie in order to help actors train their bodies more effectively. Performers communicate physically with each other by experimenting with their movements according to the six “viewpoints” of space, shape, time, emotion, movement and story. I have seen the technique work near-miracles. It sounds like bullshit — Move in space! Stop and start! Act and react! — but it works. If I knew why, I might be a much better director, or at least a less cautious one.
“Viewpoints will give you a wonderful physical vocabulary,” I told them as we stretched our hamstrings and touched our toes, careful not to let our clean hands touch the floor. “With the everyday people in your life, you already have this unconscious body-understanding. You know how they move, you know how your body responds to them. So this will give you the same thing for your characters, create muscle memory from scratch.” Like many of the things I tell my actors, I only half believe this.
But now, as the fluorescent lights purred overhead and Win Butler keened from somewhere deep inside my computer, it all seemed true. Wordlessly, experimentally, my two actors circled around one another. Sloe-eyed, they dragged their toes; they changed direction, they crashed and broke apart. He knelt, she draped across his back, her knuckles dragging on the floor. Their fingers intertwined, drifted away from one another, stubbed back together. The elbows moved in and out like gills, the chins rolled like eyes. And then a sudden, jackknifed flip and he was cradling her in his arms on the ground. They began to struggle, straddling each other, gripping each others’ wrists, now back-to-chest, now belly-to-belly. He pinned her hands above her head and she arched upward; she braced her feet against his chest and pushed off. There was more — orbits and duckings and piggyback rhythms. I felt almost intrusive. I gave up taking notes.
After an hour I turned off the reverberating bass and sat down with them in the center of the floor. We could hear the squirrels skittering in the ceiling, and I saw that actors’ soles and palms were black with grime. “What did you like best?” I asked them.
Without hesitation, both chose a five-minute section during which Cleopatra had repeatedly slapped Antony in the face. Hard.
“I felt like he was really reacting to me, you know?” She said.
“I just liked that she was so determined,” he said.
I remembered being extremely nervous during that portion, and silently congratulated myself for not stepping in prematurely out of some silly aversion to facial bruising.
They smiled at each other, and I smiled at both of them smugly, congratulating myself for the idea of a Viewpoints hour in the first place. My head was still full of pivoting muscles and sinuous joint-work — I felt the way I imagine sculptors must when they cut free a flexed foot or a bowed spine from a block of stone.
So it wasn’t the worst thing in the world that, although my actors’ onstage interactions improved enormously, the intensity of the performances was never quite as sharp as it had been in that basement. It didn’t matter, really, that during the run of the show Cleopatra rolled her eyes over Antony’s obsession with his costume pants, or that Antony fretted that Cleopatra was denting his self-esteem. And it didn’t matter that Cleopatra’s on-again boyfriend came back to town and tangled with her on clean sheets instead of an unswept floor, or that an old knee injury ballooned up and overtook the ache in Antony’s cheek, or that I can’t find the song I played that night. Muscle memory fades here and changes there. There is no video of a theater performance that captures what it really was, and no performance that completely reflects the rehearsals. To me, making theater feels so often like a slap in the face, and it stings meanly or aches nicely, and then it fades away and you wait for the next slap.