LO-FI ACTING – Initial thoughts (the research continues)

LO-FI Acting and the Search for a Relevant Aesthetic

By Mike Czuba
For Dancing Monkey Laboratories

Lo-fi (adjectival form “low-fidelity”) describes a sound recording which contains technical flaws that make the recording sound different compared with the live sound being recorded, such as distortion, hum, background noise, or limited frequency
response.[1]

“So we come to the question of the Actor as artist. One can say that a true artist is always ready to make any number of sacrifices in order to reach a moment of creativity. The mediocre artist prefers not to take risks, which is why he/she is conventional. Everything that is conventional, everything that is mediocre is linked to this fear. The conventional Actor puts a seal on his work, and sealing is a defensive act.” Peter Brook. [2]

Almost half a century ago when Grotowski asked the question “How do you combine spontaneity with formal training?” I wonder if he thought we’d still be struggling with the same question. The theories I will discuss in this paper are not meant to be criticism directed at the Actor – but towards the larger mechanism of the director/producer and the institutions that ‘teach’. They are also only the preface of what will be a continued exploration into contemporary performance. I must also begin with a disclaimer[3], this is not an attack on new (not so new anymore) high-tech additions to our productions – projections, audio manipulation, new light sources, new spaces, new narrative structures – If anything I wish these concepts and technologies would be more prevalent in our modern theatre, so do not confuse LO-FI with LO-TECH. What I will be discussing is; what happens to the Actor in the midst of all this ‘progress’? We can project images onto steam or smoke or water, layer animation into a scene and play with multi-levels of sound and computer controlled lighting effects but our Actors are still being trained on texts and contexts from 50 to 100 to 400 to 2000 years ago. If we begin by stating that Shakespeare was and will always be a genius, can we now question whether he is necessary to train young Actors? Where is the line between an academic pursuit of theatre and a practical one? In the complicated terrain that is (T)heatre, we cannot forget about the Actor standing on a stage in the midst of all this technology and history. We can do this by going lo-fi and stripping away a lot of the ‘training’ and retuning to a body in space. I don’t want to see training on stage; I want to see a performance. I don’t want to see a character on stage; I want to see a person.

In live performance the most direct and powerful conduit of ideas is the Actor. There is very little we can do to change that. As long as we have humans in the audience, when we see another human walk on stage we pay attention. A human presence can make us all ADD. Keeping that attention is where the work (the (A)rt) begins. When I teach performance I talk about the complexity and simplicity of (A)rt. The simplicity of the final image – be it character or production – but the complexity of the work to create it. The process is complex so that the end result is simple, but the complex need not be difficult or painful, just committed to. This takes training, time, experience and dedication. It also takes a director to remain vigilant as to what ends up on stage. Yes, Actors need to take ownership of their own process and work ethic, but they cannot see themselves, they are not rehearsing or performing into a mirror. So it is the job of the director to not dictate what the Actors should do but mediate between the Actor’s inner-process and the external manifestation of the character in space. This is where lo-fi comes into the picture.

Directors and Actors must rehearse with size and elevated energy, finding the literal and absurd, not just in an intellectual ‘table-read’ understanding of the text, but more importantly a physical ‘in-the-space’ understanding. Body-breath-sound-words-images; intellect plays a part, but the body comes first. Once an overflowing energy exists, then a process of compression begins. With the Dancing Monkey Laboratories production of SATELLITES, we had the Actors only able to speak into microphones, not wireless face-mics, but multiple mics on stands, set in place. What we discovered was that the Actors, while frustrated with the lack of movement, took that frustration and connected it to their voices creating a stronger sense of imagery. The body was compressed; the voice became liberated and powerful. We didn’t begin this way. We began with a free-flow of ideas and impulses. Allowing the Actors to move and speak in anyway they felt in that moment. If they wanted to speak a line over and over, to the back wall of the studio or interrupt someone else’s part, it was all fair game and all stage directions were to be ignored. Very slowly we started to limit the freedom of the impulse and began setting up the containment of blocking, while keeping the energy of the explorations intact. The container can frustrate the Actor so instead of trying to intellectually remove that frustration; we let the Actors frustrations connect to the characters, because they were also not allowed to move.

Don’t separate the Actor from the equation. The Actor doesn’t need to remove herself to become more connected to the character. I believe the opposite. The Actor, understanding that she is always present, can connect at a deeper level to the skin of the character. The characters as written are perfect for lack of a better word. They are rooted into the literature and in and of themselves are perfect for the purposes of the narrative. Perfect is High-fidelity, glistening and wondrous, also completely boring and leaves nothing for an audience to connect with[4]. I propose moving through perfection into lo-fi – a distortion, a purposeful white noize layered on top of the character. Imagine the character as a skin, what Declan Donnellan called ‘a lens’[5] that you look through.

“In fact, the more the performer is able to surrender to the persona (the character), the more the persona will adopt or even adapt the Actor. It is as if the persona itself has done the background research and lends its findings to the Actor.”

Imagine the character standing right in front of you facing in the same direction so you are in effect looking at the back of their heads, a hologram, a spirit, fully detailed, head to toe (a perfect image within the text). Imagine you, the Actor, taking a step forward into the character, true embodiment. The Actor moves towards the character and does not pull the character towards the Actor. Instead of the Actor straining to find a ‘new’ physicality, sometimes bordering on caricature, she can let the character inform her body, with her inner life, the weight of the circumstance, the pace and energy of the character will come from within the Actor as she is ‘wearing’ the characters skin. The Actor wears the character like a second skin, but the Actor remains fully present. Stepping into the character, seeing through her eyes (the lens), you allow the Actor to be influenced by what the character already sees (The target), so she does not need to fabricate a vision. The Actor takes perfection, moves through it, passed it (Actor and character together now) and what remains is distorted but more alive, more truthful. A distortion of the original character made present.

Lo-fi can occasionally be criticized in music circles as a cop-out. A bunch of kids who don’t know what they are doing and are simply making noize and calling it music – and sometimes succeeding. We can say similar things about performance art or many independent and professional theatrical productions. There are varying degrees of quality in everything, but my use of lo-fi is not a third generation VCR recording of hi-def. Lo-fi can still be slick and clean and look polished, but it is the inner workings and the energies being presented that are lo-fi; rough, immediate, with a few sharp edges and with a hint or a declaration of danger. When I talk about lo-fi, I’m talking about doing more work, not less. I’m talking about deeper connections, finding that extra level of meaning, finding perfect, then smashing it to pieces and putting it back together with the cracks and chipped paint fully visible. You can’t (de)construct something that is not fully constructed. You can’t distort something that wasn’t first crystal clear.

“Picasso could suggest a powerful and complex universe with a few slashes of the pen. A young man once asked the painter how long it took him to produce those few lines. Picasso answered: ‘Oh about forty years’. Those forty years are like the Actors invisible work. They are not explicit in a drawing that took forty seconds to complete, but those forty years breathe invisibly”[6]

This might sound like a contradiction of my previous complaint of our Actors being trained by old texts, but that is not the point. I’m talking about compression, and with all compression, a loss of detail occurs, a loss of sheen. Compression creates discomfort and distortion – lo-fi. A rehearsal process must work towards a perfection, a true absurdity, then compress it all down into a few slashes of the pen.

It works in a similar fashion with creation. Initial sparks/ideas/emotional responses are in and of themselves perfect. But for them to be useful, they need to be sullied in the real world, scuffed up in development and structuring and then presented as an ugly truth, beyond perfect. In the introduction to Zen and the Art of Archery, Daisetz T. Suzuki describes this process: “If one really wishes to be master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes a “Artless art” growing out of the unconscious”.  Moving past the perfect, the hi-fi, the technical, into a lo-fi, rougher, artless space. That is where a performance can come alive.

The Actors who played Mark and Vanessa in SATELLITES didn’t transform themselves to play the characters – they connected with them. As director, I was paying close attention to the external shapes this connection took; gestures, hands, movement, grounding, breath and the rise and fall of their voices over the text. This could be considered micro-directing or obsessive, but I still consider it lo-fi. I also don’t think this falls into the realm of mistrust of the Actor’s ability, but actually shows a greater concern and respect for the Actor. I’ve witnessed too many directors ignore the Actors, not with the internal “what’s my motivation” business, but with what that motivation might actually look like. Many times it can just end up looking stilted and ‘performed’. All we – the audience – end up seeing is training. Actors can’t see themselves, so I believe directors need to pay closer attention to the bodies in space. Young and old Actors alike, have physical ‘tells’; a gesture or positioning of the body that is neither conscious or character. This is mostly a problem caused by their teachers and their directors who have not pointed this out and these tells become visible when the Actor is not fully embodying the character. Some physicalities can be used and integrated into character, but some just don’t fit. How an Actor holds their arms or feet, talking with their hands, the shift of a hip, the hand slap onto the thighs, the hands to the face in exasperation, the playing with hair or how an Actor reaches with their necks, bends at the waist or holds their shoulders – But if you flip the script, there is also the problem of over-grounding. Those dead arms hanging off the body and feet that just won’t move. I’ve seen too many young Actors in University who end up simply being talking heads, completely cut off from their bodies. This all affects voice, this all affects energy, affects connections and images and it is all being sent out to the audience. As a director, consider these ‘body-readings’ as apposed to ‘line-readings’.

Part of what I teach is concerned with the ‘familiar vs. natural/neutral’. For an Actor to understand how they stand and move and then what a blank canvas might feel like. Most students feel uncomfortable for long periods (sometimes short periods) of time in natural/neutral. This should happen, because it should not be comfortable, it should be relaxed, but never comfortable. Comfort kills energy. Comfort can sometimes be confused with ‘natural’. Robert Lewis in Advice to the Players gives an example:

“I, as a director, wanted to have that Actor arrange his feet and torso in a particular way that would make an arrow out of his body pointing up toward the speaker. The audience’s eye would then go right to the main action even though the stage was filled with thirty or so Actors. It is what Meyerhold would call “centering” the action. I asked the Actor to position himself that way and he said he couldn’t. I asked why not. He said, “It feels unnatural for me.” “Who cares?” I answered. I told him nobody was paying for him to feel natural”[7]

The Actor said it felt (un)natural for him, but said nothing of the character; this is where the disconnect happens. This is where a seemingly modern aesthetic becomes a museum piece. A layer of ‘(un)natural’ in the Actor creates a nervous energy, this energy can then be layered onto the character and now the audience has something interesting to watch. Theatre at its very core is (un)natural! There’s a designated playing space, lights and costumes and words that aren’t yours and a room full of people watching you. Completely (un)natural. So why should an Actor want to feel natural (comfortable) in that situation? In SATELLITES, asking the Actors to stand at the mic stands, forbidding them from leaving those locked in areas around the stage when they were speaking, even when they were frustrated and even when the characters wanted to move, gave their voices a layer of immediacy and was not fake-natural, but real dis-comfort creating a true energy for the audience to connect to. Why this is important is that the true target of performance – The Audience – should never be removed from anyone’s process.

We need to train our Actors to be more connected to their bodies and develop a deeper body awareness. Regardless of body type or shape, a physicality must be attained. The audience is looking at bodies in space and not only listening to the memorized lines. Why do we still teach Ibsen and not Bio-mechanics? Why can we find a script analysis class within most university Actor’s training, but not make it mandatory for them to take dance classes or Laban. Not ‘movement’ classes, but actual dance classes; where the body is all that matters. A modern aesthetic will embrace the strength and physicality of dance and the lyricism of music. A stronger sense of the body gives an Actor a wider range of character and a much greater confidence in stillness. The confident Actor needs to do very little on stage, because the discoveries were made in rehearsal. The director has watched and acted as the Actor’s mirror; compressing the movements into a tight, powerful punch.  An Actor is (un)confident when she has not been armed with an understanding of the text, a bold design to perform in and a compressed energy to connect fully with the audience. When she feels she must do more than she needs to, more than the work requires because it has not moved past perfection or mediocrity into lo-fi.

I’ve mentioned the audience a number of times because I feel it is the element in live performance that gets the short end of the stick. Everything I have discussed relating to acting can and should be layered onto playwriting, direction and design. Modern audiences are not stupid and have seen a lot more (pure visual/audio stimulation) then audiences of the past – those audiences who actually saw and wrote about the theatre we train our Actors and designer and writers on. At this point I want to re-visit a footnote I wrote in a previous paper:

“Contemporary (T)heatre can learn a lot from Hip Hop as it is a ‘new’ art form, it speaks to the ‘Now.’ Just as Hip Hop ‘samples’ from the past to create itself, it is not reliant upon it. Hip Hop uses samples as a base, then re-interprets them into something unique and original. It does not ‘cover’ the past but (re)constructs it into its own vision and message. Because it is not trying to (re)create something from ‘Before,’ Hip Hop – as modern (T)heatre must – roots itself in a constantly changing present, adapting itself with every new generation. (T)heatre needs to learn how to sample and not cover.”[8]

Hip-hop is the best example of lo-fi. From it’s inception, when DJ’s like Kool Herc stole power from lampposts in New York city parks to fire up their sound systems to rock the crowd not only with the latest funk and soul tracks but they went further and searched for any track where they could find a break-beat to extend so the b-boys and b-girls could do their thing. They used everything at their disposal and then went looking for more to create the sounds they needed. From Grandmaster Flash using The Incredible Bongo Band’s Apache to African Bambaataa using Kraftworks’s Trans Europe Express to Jam Master Jay and Rick Rubin giving us Rock Box. These weren’t the obvious choices, but they managed to propel the art form. Suzanne McElfresh wrote in the VIBE History of Hip Hop: “With the sampler, hip-hop groups were able to make modern music out of classics sounds…allowing even those with little or no formal training to create their own music.”[9] She goes on to write that Dr.Dre moved past traditional sampling to record his own versions of a song and then sampled the ‘new’ version, which he called “Interpolation”[10] – I call it lo-fi.

Theatre needs to search for its own Break-Beats. Something for us to sample so we can connect more directly to our audiences. A relevant aesthetic pays reverence to the audience not the past.  As Bradley and Dubois write in The Anthology of Rap:

“No art is likely to survive without assimilating, critiquing, and transforming its past. It advances itself in time and in its range of aesthetic strategies with constant reference to what has come before. Rap has a particular genius for handling its own history. Even so, aging hip-hop heads sometimes decry just how little younger listeners know about the music’s foundations. But since the current incarnation of rap music always contains those foundations, however submerged, it would be more accurate to say that rap’s youngest listeners often don’t know that they already know a lot about the old school”[11]

Now the same can’t be said truthfully about young theatre students who have seen very little theatre and even less avant-guard theatre, but they do have a wealth of unconscious narrative knowledge from television and film. So in training theatre students we need to embrace the now as much as the academic past to make the relevant connections for the student. Where we seek these beats also needs to be expanded away from history to include the present; architecture, music, dance, visual art, computer art, film – even nature.

Now, don’t assume I mean to give the audience exactly what they want, artists still need to drive the conversation, but I believe its our delivery system that is faulty. Whether that is by shoe-horning a design into a space that won’t accept it, or by believing that just mounting a show, any show, you deserve to be recognized. Wrong.  In dramaturgy, the first question asked in ‘Why this play now?” Well producers should ask the same question. I tell my performance students that being on stage is a privilege; producers should also understand that having an audience is a privilege. Producers, directors and designers should also work in a lo-fi frame of mind. Find the perfect – then destroy it and find out what that looks like.

Purists will scoff at performances that are too ‘cinematic’ or ‘sit-com-ish’. They argue that if you want to make cinema, then go ahead and make cinema, theatre is a special, magical place all its own. Yes, I agree, to a point. It is a special place, one that is losing its audience and doing very little, much too slowly, to reach out to a new one. Those who brush off anything resembling cinema or television are wrongheaded. A lo-fi aesthetic looks for the break-beats and the samples to build upon no matter where they come from. ‘Realism’ is very rarely real and needs to constantly be questioned and ‘Abstract’ has become more of a label then an actual philosophy. I believe a ‘realist’ set design only serves to push the audience further away from the stage, as you are offering an initial image that is a lie. Abstract sets are mostly guilty of cutting corners, thematically and aesthetically. Audiences know what they are seeing, so we wish to reduce the amount of lies by going past realism, past abstraction, past perfection into lo-fi.

I spoke recently to a choreologist and he wondered what is the base-line training for a contemporary dancer – if it is not ballet; and is there even a base-line? Does there need to be one? Natural ability exists, so where is the line between that ability and the containment of training to possibly sculpt and polish that ability? And is this base-line training simply a need to help others understand the language? So I ask, just as you can have too much dramaturgy within text work that can smooth out the jagged edges of a unique voice creating something mediocre and safe, can an Actor/designer/director have too much training? Where is the line that indicates, on this side is everything you know, everything you’ve learned and the other side is (A)rt? Where is the line between training technicians and creating artists?


[1] Taken from Wikipedia… Yes, Wikipedia, deal with it. While completely anathema to use as a source, it is done on purpose. In the creation of new work, or the re-creation of old work, all tools must be on the table. Everything. Pointe-finale.

[2] Peter Brook: The Open Door – p.27.

[3] All papers on the arts need disclaimers so that the ‘argument’ can be finished before eyes are rolled, voices are raised and all new ideas are dismissed for purely subjective and personal reasons. (A)rt by its very nature is subjective so any singular view is impossible and not helpful…

[4] See Brook quote at the top. Perfection is in fact mediocre. There is no risk in perfection – only safety.

[5] Declan Donnellan, The Actor and The Target. This is an important book that takes the focus away from the Uta Hagen “What do I want” thinking for the Actor and brings the focus to a ‘target’, which can be a scene partner or an object or the audience. He also talks about the visible and invisible work, that which is done in rehearsal and that which is left for the stage. “The Actor must forget the invisible during the visible work and trust that the invisible will remember itself” Bringing back the idea of seeing training on stage or seeing a performance. Moving past the perfect into the truth. Picture an iceberg. There is also a brilliant Uta Hagen quote which connects beautifully to the Brook quote: “We must overcome the notion that we must be regular… it robs you of the chance to be extraordinary and leads you to the mediocre”

[6] Declan Donnellan The Actor and The Target. p.109.  This lesson is not only for the Actor, but for all creators. Time allows you to learn new artistic languages. Time is not an enemy.

[7] Robert Lewis Advice to the Players. p.37/38.

[8] ‘What is SATELLITES’ (https://dancingmonkeylab.wordpress.com/academic-papers/) – Yes, I quoted myself.

[9] The VIBE History of Hip-Hop – Edited by Alan Light. p. 171-172.

[10] Interpolate: to alter or corrupt (as a text) by inserting new or foreign matter – Merriam-Webster. The Actor inserts herself into the character. The director insert herself into the text. The production insert itself into the space – moving beyond – corrupting it – creating lo-fi.

[11] The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois is an in-depth look at ‘rap’ as a poetic art form, chronicling the lyrics of hip-hop as pure text.

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