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Caught in the Stare: Teaching Drama with Perseus

Our scene is a high school acting class in late November. Twenty-nine students sit at their desks, all watching a thirtieth who walks up to the front of the room to rehearse a monologue. She is to recite a two-minute passage from Wuthering Heights. The part has been well researched: the actress has a good grasp on the plot of the book and the monologue’s place within the story. She understands the action of the scene and she sympathizes with her character emotionally. Everyone in the room is excited, as the actress has some talent and has been fun to watch in previous scenes. I am sitting off to the side of the room taking notes.

She moves to her place, lets her arms and hands hang limply, and she lowers her head. It is a sign to us that she is summoning the soul of her character, beginning the process of focusing on the action of her scene. We are silent and waiting. As she raises her head, she locks eyes with a friend in the audience, and immediately loses her concentration. She is suddenly aware of the audience; her thoughts are not on the action of the scene, but are on the twenty-nine other eyes of one great monster who is looking at her. It is as if she has been put under a spell, or turned to stone. It is a major flaw in her technique, followed by a minor case of stage fright.

After a terrifying moment, the spell is broken and her once stone-like muscles melt into flesh again as our actress laughs, and the rest of the class laughs nervously too. Once the laughter dies down, she turns helplessly to face me and asks if she can try again. She assumes that it was an error of memory. But it is really a symptom of poor technique and a lack of concentration.

“No,” I tell her. “We need to fix what went wrong first. What was the problem?”

She doesn’t know. Fortunately, her problem is an old one. Turn of the century Polish-American actor Richard Boleslavsky might say that her problem could be solved by practice in concentration. In the first chapter of his Acting: The First Six Lessons, Boleslavsky writes a dialogue between a young actress and her teacher. In that dialogue, the teacher asks the actress if she had ever watched a great actor. She recounts that she had seen John Barrymore. The teacher then asks what she noticed about him. “He was marvelous!” she says at first. “I know that,” the teacher says dismissively, “but what else?” The actress then says, thoughtfully, “He paid no attention to me.” At this her teacher launches into a grand speech about the power of concentration: of an artist who directs all his “spiritual and intellectual forces towards one definite object.” In doing this, the actor is able to keep up the action “indefinitely” and protect himself from getting caught in the stare of the audience.

The Greeks had a myth regarding this sort of thing: a man who was given a task which required incredible concentration, putting his very life on the line as he did so. That myth is about the hero, Perseus. Though his great grandson Heracles (Romans called him Hercules) accomplished mighty tasks, Perseus is considered to have done the most impossible of all deeds—the slaying of Medusa. Medusa was a great Gorgon (just a more ancient pre-Olympian god-monster) who had been cursed by Athena with the form of a snake and woman, a nest of snakes for hair, and great red sightless eyes. If any mortal should lock eyes with her, they would be turned to stone. This power was her source of fame; many heroes tried to slay her, but they all failed and remained as stone statues in an ever-growing tragic collection of the finest specimens of men who had walked upon the earth.

Though the origin of the reason for Perseus’ attempt is long, suffice it to say that the main difference between his attempt and previous ones is that he did not go without help and preparation. Indeed, Perseus was helped by several gods who gave him gifts, or tools, to help him to beat this impossible foe. From Athena he was given a shield which had been perfectly polished to a mirror’s capability of reflection. From Hermes he was given a kibisis (knapsack) which was made of indissolvable threads (Gorgon blood is, apparently, corrosive). With these as his primary tools, Perseus made his way to Medusa’s lair. He found her deep within a cave, surrounded by stone statues of past unsuccessful heroes. To slay her, Perseus hid behind another statue, and looked at Medusa using her reflection in the inside curve of his shield. As she could not see him, she wandered about the chamber, until she came close to him and Perseus decapitated her without looking into her sightless eyes. He placed the head immediately into the kibisis and used it at various later points to turn all of his enemies into stone.

This myth is a helpful reminder for what we ask our students to do when they make action happen upon the stage. They must enter the dark and cave-like theater in which the hundred-eyed, yet singular audience dwells, avoiding eye contact always, lest they become filled with stage fright, forget their lines, and become rigid as stone upon the stage. This myth is real to the students. They have heard stories of former students who froze or missed a line or cue, and they know that it is a task that requires delicacy and concentration. They are being asked to tread in the cave with Medusa and to not be caught in the stare but to play the part so well that they catch her by surprise. And unless they have the skill or practice of Boleslavsky’s John Barrymore, they more than likely find themselves without the capacity to concentrate the audience away.

Let’s return to the actress in the acting class. I ask her again, “What was the problem?” She says in response, “Well, it’s awkward because you tell us to say our monologues to the audience; but they’re not in the scene with me, so, it’s not like I’m acting with someone else.”

This is what I am looking for. She has perfectly expressed the problem of the monologue, creating an opportunity for my lesson on a technique which I call “choosing a spot on the wall.” I tell her that she must create the object of her monologue out of thin air, that the object should be made out of a physical inanimate object which is not an audience member but rather an object which is over the heads of the audience, and that she must concentrate very, very hard on making this object a real person to her (sort of like the way Perseus indirectly looks at Medusa by gazing at her reflection which he makes in his shield). I demonstrate for her, using a light-switch on the side wall as my target. I concentrate, and treat the light switch like a real person in an off-the-cuff dialogue that I have with it. It only takes a moment for her to get it (she is a bright student), and she decides to turn the thermostat into her opposite character. Her next rehearsal is noticeably much better, though she can’t help but express afterward how hard it is for her to not look at the audience—which puts a whole new spin on the problem. She now is being tempted to give up her concentration.

New students of acting are particularly prone to do this, especially to give up their concentration to look at teachers. In their lack of confidence, they try to gauge their progress in a scene by looking at the faces of their audience. If their teacher or classmates are smiling or seem to have a pleasant look on their faces, that is taken to be a positive indicator for a young actor. In reality, it is another bad habit and compensating cheat to make up for their poor technique.

In his poem “On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote about how the Medusa was paradoxically beautiful and horrifying:

Its horror and its beauty are divine
Upon its lips and eyelids seem to lie
Loveliness like a shadow, from which shine,
Fiery and lurid, struggling underneath,
The agonies of anguish and of death.

Perhaps it was this wild, strange, and so seemingly contradictory nature that caused so many heroes to fall beneath her gaze. Milton also plays with this idea (of the paradoxical) with his once beautiful, now fallen antihero: Satan in Paradise Lost.

Actors are just as prone to temptation (in Hollywood, perhaps more so) as the Greek heroes or as Adam and Eve were. With our November actress it manifested more innocently. She has a lot of classes, and this is an elective. She would like an “A” to help keep up her GPA. And while I am sympathetic to these needs and desires, I also understand that she will naturally score better on these scenes if she places her concentration where it is proper to do so. To concentrate on the audience, even ever so slightly, puts in terrifying hazard the whole integrity of the scene. Far better to keep out of danger and to concentrate entirely on the task at hand, only after the scene is done thinking about what went wrong and what can improve next time.

I give her a few additional notes and warn her against looking at me or the audience to guess how well she is doing in the scene. “Your applause is your measurement of success,” I tell her. “That is why we applaud an actor after their scene. If you look at me in a scene, I know you don’t believe in it. And if you don’t believe in it, how can you expect your audience to?” She takes it gracefully, and I can tell that she believes it.

She sits and makes the twenty-nine students thirty again for a quick second, until another actress stands and makes her way to the front of the room to give us her rendition of one of Shakespeare’s monologues for Queen Margaret. She bows her head, looks up, and we do it all again.

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