Twelfth Night Callback: How to Create Drama…

‘Twelfth Night Callback’ scenario:

Female actor is successful in her Twelfth Night audition and has been called back to meet with a senior member of the theatre company; but there’s a significant catch…

Questions to ask of any scene:

Broadly: Who are you? Where are you? What do you want?

More nuanced questions should include: What are the forces that are keeping the participants in the room? How is the dynamic sustained? In other words: is there mutual investment? If the scene lacks mutual investment, one of the characters (assuming a two-hander, as in the above) will merely be a wooden vehicle for the other. 

In ‘Twelfth Night Callback,’ we see that it is essential for both participants (high and low-status) to be absolutely present. Nothing wooden or constructed here.

What is the collision? The significant catch presented is effectively the devil’s bargain, in which the actor is given exactly what she wants (and more); but has something of great value taken from her (in this case, her dog). What will she do? What would you do?

The theory of three masks – a note on not playing subtext:

Mask one: ‘As the boss of the outfit and a fellow creative, I have to present a level of ease – to distinguish myself from my junior colleague and to convey the presence of experience, expertise and maturity. The growing hostility I feel towards my underling must be remedied with congenial authority because under no circumstances can I show my negativity for her in front of the client. My position is everything. Control is everything.’ Mantra: Smile.

Mask two: ‘I don’t understand this person at all; therefore, I’m going to play things very cool. I’ll withhold judgment; I may attempt to use my status over him to take charge; I’ll study him; my tone will be inquiring and one of equanimity (this is verdict unresolved) because under no circumstances can I reveal that I don’t get the joke.’ Mantra: Restraint appears professional.

Mask three: ‘This is massive for me; it’s my most important moment as an artist. I will wear the face of optimism, even under the direst inquisition – because I cannot countenance rejection. My enthusiasm will appear warm and engaging – a sure mark of a secure, trusting and balanced person. I must try to please.’ Mantra: Defensiveness is death.

In ‘Twelfth Night Callback,’ the actor is playing the third mask; while the high status member of the theatre company is playing the first mask.

The dramatic situation is best served when:

The most extraordinary optimism and goodwill collides with the most offensive behaviour; yet the offensive behaviour has to be navigated, examined, investigated, inspected, queried, interpreted, studied; even digested, consumed and processed – rather than challenged, judged or rebuffed due to the status relationship and the protocol setting. Judgment in acting performance is often a default or binary that encourages judgment in the audience / viewer. This, in turn, kills dramatic potential. In the above improvisation, the ‘successful’ actor never judges her insensitive counterpart. We watch, in large part, because we are wondering when such judgment will eventuate. ‘When will the actor break?’ The suspension or restraint of judgment in circumstances that might otherwise demand it – the crucial masking of criticism – is the foundation of a great many dramatic situations and comic scenes worldwide.

Click here to read John Cleese’s article: ‘How to write the perfect farce.’

When actors play their mask and not the subtext, they exacerbate the mask wearing in others. In so doing, they propel the objective dramatic situation, in which they cannot leave but find it difficult to remain. Their mask is indeed the tool that enables them to remain or endure.

When actors play the subtext, they kill the viewer’s access to the drama and become quite dull. The above scene, for example, wouldn’t work if the actor became immediately aggressive towards the senior member of the theatre company; a company to which the young actor aspires. At any rate, in the scenario presented (given the stakes), it would be unrealistic for the actor to respond in a manner other than with restrained shock. 

This may seem surprising to some, but is entirely the point: the effective dramatic situation suspends the participant (and audience) between hope and dread; between the desired and the despised, to the point where presence and absence are in conflict.

Twelfth Night Callback
A bit like ‘Twelfth Night Callback’

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Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2019