The Elastic Game

This time we were prisoners, in a long thin jail cell, one of us against each wall – with an elastic tying us back to the wall that would only let us go so far. He had us interact with each other as if – it was our choice – were we there as murderers? political prisoners? by accident? did we know each other, or just meet? Then he would say “Stop! You have now been in this jail cell together for 6 months!  When you’re ready, go again.” 6 months, a year, 4 years… The results – seeing what people did with this – was fascinating. But we also learned every round that there was always another elastic that we were missing.

Not only was there an elastic tying us to the wall: what was our elastic, our energy-relationship, to the prison? What was our elastic – our pull and push – with our cellmate,e did we know them, did we hate them, did we fear them, did we want something from them?  What was our relationship to the outside world, and the person we were before we were in prison? Every round, a new elastic would be pointed out to us, and we would all smack our foreheads and say “Ooooohhhhhh”

The most dynamic elastic was time. After 6 months in a tiny cell with only one other individual, one can barely begin to fathom how would that change your relationship with this person – let alone with the space around you, the cell itself, and that damned elastic that continues to hold you to your wall.   Have you and your cellmate grown close – or now hate each other? How would your feelings have changed towards your family outside, or whoever was waiting outside, or the cell itself?
In short, how do our circumstances, our lives, everything over time – change us?

This was the lesson from the game: becoming aware of everything that your character would have a relationship to, so that you can feel its’ push and pull. To the grass you are walking on, to the smell, the air, the character’s family and childhood  – every single emotion that you feel as your character is pulled, viscerally, up through your regular self by the elastics of the scene that draw it out of you.

The Crux

Note the distinction there – not ‘that your character feels,’ but rather ‘that you feel’ as your character.  This is the reason for working with the elastics: by becoming aware of them, distilling them, and internalising them, they become stimulus that You yourself are responding to, reacting to, carrying with you.   You are not thinking “what would my character feel? Oh this? Great, I will portray that feeling!” When someone is doing that, you can sometimes tell that the performance seems forced, or seems cerebrally correct but emotionally lacking.  The way to create a Real performance, says Mr. Jaibi – like a carpenter working on a table that puts his soul into it and creates a beautiful table – is to internalise the backstory, stimulus of the set, emotional relationships to other characters before you interact with them in the scene – and then react on a deeply emotional level to all of this.

We Stopped Getting It

We then started a new exercise.  Two of our actors were really getting the effects that Time would have on their various elastics, so we used them as the ‘prisoners’ (again and again, poor boys) and the rest of us were visiting the prison to Interview them.  But something was missing.  We were all (overall and in general) jumping in and asking questions over top of each other, or not letting the prisoners speak, or letting ourselves ask questions that weren’t making a difference, or not participating at all.
Mr. Jaibi tried pointing out the many things that we had missed:  “You walk in – does it smell? This is a place of death – how do you feel?”  He would try to point out elastics we were missing, with no avail.
Finally, he addressed me specifically and took me down a couple notches:
“Who is your interviewing character?  A Psychologist? Do you know about psychology?  Stop, stop – No, clearly you don’t. Than why do you want to be a psychologist? Ok you know what – Forget about trying to be this psychologist.  You in this situation As A Human.  You see these two Broken individuals – what are your emotions towards them as a basic human?”

Finally, this feedback – to stop trying to portray characters with our brains and just Feel – started to get some action.  Feedback about “what would your character do” (instead of just “why did you not do this”) helped too, and we started making steps in the right direction.  But it was still going slowly – so it was time for Mr. Jaibi to bring out the big guns: Specifically, the Glue guns.

Mr. Jaibi Bathes us in Glue

Finally, Mr. Jaibi set up a new excercise: we were no longer going to a prison to interview them: they were finally, Finally out, and we were a bunch of journalists there to hear their stories. We all wrote down the questions we had in advance, and figured out our characters…

But this time Fadhel stepped in. As the prisoners and their support worker came in, he told everyone not to talk yet. Then when they finally showed up… he told them to cry. To cry from a far away place.  To cry for the years of their lives they had lost, and for humanity itself.  To cry on the inside, and let it come out as tears only if neccessary: to cry from somewhere deep. And then to tell their stories, slowly.

The result was astounding: there we were, a bunch of fancy actors ready to be fancy journalists, ready with our questions – blasted in the face with so much emotion that it glued us to our seats, glued our mouths shut with shared emotion. Instead of saying the things we had to say because we had thought of them, we just sat there and felt – felt deeply.  All of our petty little questions withered and died in the face of their tragedy.  It was not realistic, there was no realism in it at all – only truth. Only the stark truth of what years of prison strips away from your humanity remained.  Finally, we had found something – not an elastic strong enough to make us talk (we had no lack of talking) but a glue enough to keep us still, to build the silence and make it pregnant with emotion, and to make us feel.  Some of us left the class frustrated – they had been in character, their character had wanted to say things, and those things were pulled back into their throats by the collective glue of the room. But for the majority of us, the consensus was that this had given us a deeply emotional acting experience. We approached the next coming session – a lazy Saturday – with mounting enthusiasm and resolve.