In Orphans, a cutting-edge acting technique comes to life at one of the area’s newest theaters | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

In Orphans, a cutting-edge acting technique comes to life at one of the area’s newest theaters

At an old social hall in Lawrenceville, three actors are testing an acting method that could turn American drama on its head

In Orphans, a cutting-edge acting technique comes to life at one of the area’s newest theaters
Photo courtesy of Max Pavel
Dylan Marquis Meyers, Ken Bolden and Max Pavel in Orphans

In a Lawrenceville theater thick with the scent of freshly cut lumber, Cotter Smith is teaching the actors of Orphans the exact opposite of what they learned in drama school.

Rather than standing with scripts in hand waiting for their line, the actors in this production rehearse with études, three unscripted variations of the same scene with different amounts of dialogue. 

The rule of the first étude is simple: no talking. Forced to rely on movement alone, actors Ken Bolden and Dylan Marquis Meyers float about the stage in a silent, beautiful dance. The only sounds are these two men’s shoes pounding the wooden floor as they move about a simple set, grasping each other and emoting through motion. When they finish, Bolden and Meyers stop and pant like sprinters at the end of a race.

The second and third études add dialogue gradually. In the second, the actors are permitted one phrase and a single line. In the third, the scene plays in full, but the dialogue must be of the actors’ own creation and not that of the script. This progression keeps the actors’ minds focused on their body language and facial expressions.

This methodology, referred to as “active analysis,” is a novel concept in Western theater. Created by Konstantin Stanislavski, the mastermind behind the standard American acting technique named for him, active analysis is being translated from Russian to English and brought out of the Soviet-era shadow where it had been hidden for decades. While Stanislavski’s eponymous system centers on actors’ search for character motivation via dialogue, active analysis forces them to create an identity through physical movement. 

At some point, Smith explains, the actors have to know the world of the play better than the director (in this case, experienced actress and professor Ingrid Sonnichsen). 

“It’s designed to free the creative process,” says Smith, a seasoned actor who moved to Pittsburgh after filming the first season of Netflix crime drama Mindhunter here. 

“It ain’t rocket science.”

Now, at the Aftershock Theatre, Bolden, Meyers and Max Pavel are using this ideology in Lyle Kessler’s Orphans, a dark comedy about two brothers, a kidnapped gangster and the true meaning of family.

The Aftershock Theatre is just as ahead of the curve as the acting in Orphans. A Slovenian social hall built in the early 1900s, the theater is transforming into a performing arts venue. The three-level building will eventually feature multiple stages, a bar, apartments for traveling actors and a basement music venue. For Orphans, its exposed brick and age-worn walls serve as the perfect backdrop for the play’s Philadelphia row house setting.

Someday soon, active analysis might become the dominant acting technique in Western theater. But for now, the actors of Orphans are at the forefront of drama.

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