Critical Questions: David Levine
Challenging everything you thought you knew about theater.
Director David Levine has his opinions about theater -- or “super theater,” as he calls it in some cases. His latest production, Habit, challenges the definition of theater in almost every way but the content itself. Audiences were invited in to view the performance through the windows of a four-walled ranch house built inside the Essex Street Market, as peeping toms on a cast of actors that did exactly as they pleased -- from cooking to showering -- so long as they delivered the prescribed lines. The free 90-minute performance ran on loop for eight hours a day for the last ten days of September.
CM: Why is it important for you to have the actors stage Habit as they go?
DL: What I’m interested in is how you acquire proficiency -- these invisble means with which you acquire proficiency. Like, they get better and better at it and more subtle at it as they do it but no one could ever say what it is they are acquiring or why. You just gain a feel. That’s kind of one of the things that I wanted to watch, A, and B, I sort of wanted to push this particular technique about as far as it can go. Sort of knowing your character so well that you can improvise action onto what they do. So staging it had nothing to do with what I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to talk about was what happens when you immerse yourself so deeply in a character that you can actual become them in some sense.
How relevant is the content of the script to the meaning of Habit?
Well, to the extent that Habit, the title, has to do with habits of realism, or what our habitual mode of realism is, or American theater’s habit of producing the same play over and over again – that was one thing. The other thing too was that this particular virtuosic acting style is linked to a certain level of realism in a certain kind of play, right? If the play was much tighter, if the play was really good, if the play was really locked down, there would be a lot less room for the actors to do what they are doing now. If it was really experimental, then you wouldn’t have a means of gauging what the actors are doing now so the play had to be this kind of play in order to tap into -– I mean, you could make the argument about whether we could have picked another genre or whether we wanted to pick what we considered kind of a flawed style, or whether we could have gone for something else and that’s come up a few times. But it kind of had to be this kind of play to tap into that because the characters have to be a little bit generic in order to work variations on them. In order to appreciate what the characters are doing, the characters need to be instantly recognizable to an audience. To get a sense of just what it is the actors are doing here, the middle has to feel like a middle, the end has to feel like an end and the beginning has to feel like a beginning, which means you have to work within a genre. Because you are going to walk in in the middle, usually, so you need to get a sense of where you are to really understand what’s going on and that again, demands that you use a fairly recognizable, if not exalted, genre of play.
Can you describe how your actors deal with remaining in character while attending to their real-life propensities and needs?
Well, the actors would have to account for that. The thing is that this is just a magnification of what usually happens. Actors aren’t in character for a whole hour and a half, let alone for a whole day. If you ask any actor, you have moments you lock in, then you drift out. A lot of the art is hiding the drift. That was sort of what Stanislavski was writing about – the impossibility of staying on point all the time. And these are means of limiting your distractions or hiding the fact or refocusing yourself because it’s assumed that you will drift. This just magnifies that. So basically, you can drift anywhere you want, so long as you figure out a way to work it into the dramature of the script. If you really want to watch Oprah, if you can figure out a way to do it under your lens you can do that. I’m not interested in them staying in character. I’m more interested in the job of being in character and the solutions you find to that.
What were some of the considerations you expressed to Marsha Ginsberg in the construction of the set?
Well, I had originally thought it was going to be in an apartment and Marsha was more interested in building a house. And then we talked to Jason Grote and he was like, “These kind of plays are generally set it ranch houses anyway,” and Marsha was down with the ranch house. So I thought I would do sort of apartment realism, but then I was like, ‘Actually, it’s trashy suburban ranch house realism,’ so it was sort of the three of us, sort of the same way the actors work in Habit. We just sort of pushed ourselves into a position or evolved into a certain position.
Do you consider the audience part of the cast?
No, no, no and again, no. This has come up a lot and to me, this is absolutely the opposite of participatory theater. Like, you may be ambulatory, but the whole point is to emphasize your distance from the action and their isolation from you. The point is not to make it feel as though you are in one room. The point is to really heighten the fact that it is two separate rooms. The people in the interior room are in a kind of causal pocket where they have absolutely no sense of what is going on in the exterior room, so no. So when the melodrama starts to kick in around the last third of the play, the actors tend to start moving more or becoming more physical. And that tends to drag the audience around the outside of the house more so in a way the audience’s movements are mimicking the actors’ movements, but I wouldn’t call them part of the cast. I mean, less than in most cases. If you are in a traditional proscenium, you kind of feel the audience and you get a rise off of them. You know – good house, bad house, live show, not so live show. This actually, in a way, accentuates your independence from that. I think they sense a good audience and they maybe get a lift from that, but it doesn’t really make a quantifiable difference the way it would in a proscenium so no, the audience is not part of the cast.
What has been one of your favorite (most compelling or most hilarious) products of Habit being scripted, improvised and easily accessible?
My two favorite moments –- I mean, they are kind of hard to describe unless you’ve seen them – but at some point the actor playing Mitch made lunch for himself because, you know, you get hungry. And he made a really beautiful bowl of ramen. He extra-steamed it after it came off and he had a lid over it and he was really tending to it. And the actor playing his bullying older brother just kind of shoved him out of the way and started eating his soup and there was really no way, just positionally, for Mitch to get it back. He just kind of had to give up. And then a couple minutes later, once you’d forgotten the whole thing, as a spectator, he went into the kitchen to get something and then, as he was passing by the dining room table, he very casually dropped an entire container of salt into the ramen. And it was kind of worked in perfectly into the lines and it was hilarious. I think that was probably one of my favorite moments. I think one of the other moments was when the actor playing Doug put on Take a Walk on the Wild Side and it lasted for about, you know, eight or nine minutes, under varying things that happened in the dialogue and it was actually really lovely and they played off it really well. He just thought the cast needed to get smoothed out a little bit. And it actually did, kind of…
Would you ever do a production in an actual apartment or scrap the script altogether? Where is it necessary to draw the line in order for a performance to be considered theater?
The basic question is if you take away all the ornaments around theater, right – if you take away the admissions fees, if you take away the set time, if you take away seats, if you take away all of that, is it still theater? I would never set theater in a real apartment because I think it’s bullshit. Because then the spectators are sitting around the apartment pretending that they are not there, which is stupid. You’re basically outsourcing the job of acting to the spectators so now they have to act as though they believe that they are not really there or they have to act as though they believe that they are really there, but they are invisible. So you leave with this weird, second order experience where you’re like, ‘Wow, I feel really as though it was really intimate,’ but you don’t actually feel like it was intimate. So, no, I’d never do a play in an apartment. I mean, that’s really theater. Doing a play with the audience sitting around, I mean, that’s super theater. Doing something with no blocking, no staging, or no dialogue --that’s fine. I mean, I guess I would do that. Sometimes when I do slightly more straight theater, I’ll leave parts blank that the actors are just supposed to make up. That’s fine, but I don’t think there’s anything particularly radical about staging theater in an apartment, at all. I think it would be more interesting if the audience was locked out of the apartment and could only watch it through the windows, but once the audience is in there then it’s just more theater.