POSTED ON APRIL 2, 2008:
Flashback to 1984
The Actors' Gang brings George Orwell's dystopian novel to stage
Revelation. Director Tim Robbins said he "was floored by [the novel's] relevance, its insight, its warnings, and unfortunately realized that [it] was more vibrant and necessary than it had even been."
Tim Robbins, Academy-Award winner and co-founder of the San Francisco-based Actors' Gang, presents a new stage adaptation of 1984 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St., April 8-10.
Director Robbins said he "was floored by [the novel's] relevance, its insight, its warnings, and unfortunately realized that [it] was more vibrant and necessary than it had ever been."
The novel 1984, by George Orwell, envisions a world of three nations at perpetual war with one another. Winston Smith, a minor bureaucrat in the original Orwellean dystopia, discovers an underground movement that appeals to his discontent with Big Brother. The movement, founded by a mysterious man named Emmanuel Goldstein, must operate in shadow and secrecy or else be eradicated. The final, cruel truth is that Goldstein's revolution is itself an invention of Big Brother to catch and "re-educate" rebellious minds. Winston falls into this trap, and Big Brother breaks him once and for all.
Orwell once said the novel was "written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism." Orwell spent several years writing 1984, which was first published in 1948, after his formative experiences reporting on the 1936 Spanish Civil War. In that war, a class struggle resulted in overthrow of the government, but the people who rose to power resembled the very politicians who stirred rebellion.
His dystopia also resonates with Stalin's Soviet Union, which reared its head during this period as well.
This production of 1984 premiered in San Francisco in 2006. It embarked upon its national tour last year.
Michael Gene Sullivan, author of the new adaptation and member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, said that 1984 has as much relevance today as it had at the time of its original publication more than 50 years ago.
"There is a need to distract the citizens from corruption at the top," said Sullivan. "Our country has been attacked before, but never have we been so blinded by fear."
In this adaptation, Winston has already been arrested by the Party. The action of the entire play takes place inside his cell, where several Party members interrogate Winston about the contents of his personal diary, which narrates his gradual attraction to Emmanuel Goldstein's philosophy and revolution.
The nameless Party members act out scenes from his diary in order to mock Winston, to tease the truth from him, and to break his spirit.
In case that doesn't work, they're willing to resort to torture.
Process Makes Perfect
Despite the play's oppressive tone, Steven M. Porter has shared many happy memories with his castmates, on and off the stage; he has known V.J. Foster, a fellow Party member in 1984, for 25 years.
The camaraderie these actors enjoy has been established long before the rehearsal process even begins. The Actors' Gang comprises a pool of theatrical artists who collaborate together on productions. Once a play has been chosen, it passes through the hands of each actor in the Gang, and they engage each other in a pre-rehearsal process.
This process lasts two to three weeks, during which the actors select 10 pages a night and read through them.
"Then you grab another group and work on the same 10 pages," said Porter.
"If you see someone doing something you think is pretty good," he added, the actors are encouraged to steal it and run with it during their own turn.
In this way, the actors do not compete for roles but instead engage in mutual discovery together. They work with one another to make the play as powerful as possible.
This process also leads each actor to discover with which role he has the deepest connection.
In 1984, the Party members play several different roles as they reenact the episodes described in Winston's diary. Porter said that this complication made things more interesting for the actors. He himself discovered that he connected with several of the mini-characters who one of the Party members (Party Member #4, to be exact) took on.
After the two or three weeks of casting, the newly formed cast rehearsed for hours at a time.
The discoveries these actors made during casting, however, gave them a head start in rehearsal, which itself lasted only a few weeks before the play's premiere.
The Actors' Gang employs an approach to acting that Robbins calls, according to Porter, "the style."
In the year 1984, Robbins attended a workshop hosted by actors from Theatre de Soleil, a French acting troupe.
From these actors, Robbins learned "the style," which Porter described as being known for "its honesty, its high-energy, [and] its in-your-face" attitude.
Also key in this style is the formation of a "triangle of information and energy" amongst the actors and the audience, who together compose a kind of theatrical circuit.
Emotions expressed in "the style" are larger-than-life versions of basic emotions.
"Instead of 'sad,'" said Porter, "they would go for 'devastated.'"
Porter also said Robbins chose not to employ "the style" for 1984 in full force. The Actors' Gang usually produces satirical pieces, much more comedic than the super-somber 1984.
However, their previous experience with "the style" granted the actors "a common language" that facilitated the rehearsal process.
Since the play opened, the actors have continued to hone their performances. Even though they have been performing 1984 since 2006, the text hasn't grown stale for them.
Participating in a production with a long run is a process of "continual discovery," said Porter.
When 1984 comes to town, Tulsans will have an opportunity to participate in this continual discovery of both artistic experimentation and dystopian terror.
1984 plays April 8-10 in the John H. Williams Theatre of the Tulsa PAC. For ticket information, call 596-7122 or visit www.tulsapac.com.
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