In an uncharacteristic burst of good timing, I just managed to finish a school season of the play Fracture before we were plunged into the latest lockdown, and I’ve been reflecting a little on some of the language I instinctively fall back on when directing a cast for performance. One term that becomes utterly indispensable is energy, which like time or art makes complete intuitive sense up until the point that you try to explain what it is: you know it when you see it, or in the case of theatre, feel it.
Characters bring a certain energy with them onto the stage, and ensembles magnify, stretch, combine, pause, direct and twist that energy. The actors’ bodies and voices are merely the instruments by which the show comes to life, the energy they create is its music. Audiences understand energy. It is this which brings to them to the edge of their seats, knots their insides or releases a bellyful of laughter. The energy they absorb wells up as sadness, rises as ambition, falls as regret. And actors feel energy as they carry it. It fizzes through them. It is the director’s job to bring that energy out, harness it and, well, direct it. That, more than anything, is our job.
So what then is this mysterious force called energy? It’s not volume, for an actor can be both silent and full of energy, or loud and lacking it. Nor is it movement, for energy compounds in moments of stillness on stage, when the stillness is real and meaningful. One could, undoubtedly, break this energy down to component parts, seek out the smallest changes in gaze, breath patterns, posture and so forth which speak to the internal state of the actors, and the audience, when they have committed to the act of believing in the characters and unfolding story before them, might read these subtle cues and react accordingly, feeling fear, hope or delighted surprise. It is entirely possible that there is nothing more to energy than these small biological facts in space and time. And, for a great many of my years, I would have left it at that. Stage energy is a simple metaphor used to convey efficiently a far more complex reality. It would have allowed me to work effectively in the theatre space without yielding to belief in these fantastical confections of the mind. I mean, what would be next, reading auras? But in this stubborn determination to leave the imagination unengaged, I failed to take that simplest of intellectual steps, comparing this particular logical move to all the others I so happily make every day. I failed to interrogate my consistency.
You see, we might well say this kind of human energy isn’t a real thing, but rather a handy proxy for the true complexities of perception taking place, but how would this be any different in kind than saying people don’t really exist, and that the metaphor of a person is just a handy way of dealing with the complexity of the myriad chemical reactions taking place in this loose conglomeration of the ‘body’? Really it’s just molecules (and hey, molecules don’t really exist, they’re actually just abstractions, describing interactions between forces which themselves…)
The, ‘yes but it’s really just…’ move is an instinctive one, particularly for those who possess a readily recognisable personality type, and is grounded in a strange assumption, based on nothing more than raw belief, that if we dig deep enough we get to this thing called reality. And it misses something both obvious and crucial. As soon as we move down a level of analysis, we change the thing we are talking about. Molecules do not have histories, desires, fears or ambitions. Molecules do not make plans, tell jokes or dream of a world in which they are more impressive at parties. Humans do. The reason we do not think of humans as just a collection of molecules is that the very definition of being human involves a great deal of qualities that molecules simply do not possess. No amount of analysing of molecules will ever get you to ‘Cassandra is upset because she was hoping for more likes on her Instagram post.’ Hence, humans are not just molecules. Humans possess qualities that can be understood and appreciated only by speaking of them as humans. The only level at which we can meaningfully speak of humans is at the level of their humanity. Break it down further and we end up speaking of something else entirely. So, to say humans don’t really exist is, well, insane.
And yet, this argument applies not just to humans. The same argument can be applied to stage energy, because it is only through speaking in terms of energy that the actor and director can access the experience of that energy. This type of energy is real, or at least is as real as humanity, sunshine or sudoku. (And yes, they are all in some sense just metaphors, but so’s an electron. That’s the point).
Gloriously, let in energy, and human, and there’s no earthly reason why you shouldn’t let in spirit, or soul, or any other metaphor that unlocks for you an experience of the world that is otherwise inaccessible. This is the great gift of pragmatism. Reality and usefulness become interchangeable. Those concepts that allow us to be in and of our world, to live fully, on terms of our own choosing, are those with the force of ‘reality.’ This usefulness is constrained, of course, by the way we experience the world; our conception of stage energy is no more malleable than our conception of gravity. Both must answer to the experiences that face us, and yield to the patterns we there discover. And yes, it’s not the sense of reality we intuitively carry with us. Indeed, it’s a radical departure. But it does unlock a particular kind of consistency, and a particular kind of joy. For my part, at least, it energises me.