This is the second in an occasional series following the FSU/Asolo Conservatory class of 2013 from their first year through graduation. You can read the first story here, and see a photo gallery of the students in action here.
They call them "études," but there is no music playing. In fact, the first-year students in the FSU/Asolo Conservatory sound more like robots talking in some futuristic science fiction movie.
They're not preparing to blast off to another galaxy (at least not yet), but rather learning new techniques that are designed to better enable them to tackle a wide variety of roles once they get past their first year of graduate acting studies.
Études are best known as musical pieces for technical exercise. Remove the music, add some dialogue, and you have a different kind of exercise for acting students.
On a recent afternoon, two students at a time share a small space in a rehearsal/classroom, tackling a variety of six- or seven-line scripts that are essentially written on the spot by fellow students.
The writer reads the piece, then repeats the individual lines for the actors to start committing to memory.
That's where the robotic repetition comes in. The performers say their lines in that style "so they don't inadvertently predetermine how they're going to say a line," said Andrei Malaev-Babel, the first-year acting teacher who leads the class. "This way, it doesn't hold them to anything."
One of the goals of the conservatory program is to prepare the students to be able to adapt to any character or situation and to respond to others around them in as open and realistic a way as possible.
The ideal in any acting situation is for two (or more) actors to be speaking pre-written and well-rehearsed lines as if they have just been thought up and are spoken extemporaneously. At any performance, a line might be spoken with a slightly different tone, which should trigger a different reaction from the others on stage. It's a kind of rehearsed spontaneity.
In their first year at the conservatory, Malaev-Babel is trying to get his students to free themselves to be able to learn these brief scenes quickly and then respond naturally with their scene partner.
The more times they do it, the more variations an observer might detect. The words remain the same, but an inflection can change, which likely would alter the tone or demeanor of the other actor.
In effect the scenes are expanded and more detailed variations of standard acting class repetition exercises, in which two actors say the same word back and forth to one another. Each time, there is usually a subtle shift in the voice, attitude or emotion.
In the études, the performers are given little in the way of character, though the writer may offer a thought of where they are or who is who, or Malaev-Babel may give some instructions on actions or movements, like "approach her and touch her hair" on a certain line.
At one point, Lindsay Tornquist and Francisco Rodriguez prepare for a scene about a couple facing some challenges. It can be amazing how much can be expressed in just a few lines. After repeating their lines a few times, they're asked some questions by Malaev-Babel and the other students.
"How long have they been together?" "Has she had a revelation in the middle of the piece?" She talks about changing. "Has she or is she just coming to some conclusions?"
The answers to each question could color the performance, and are the kinds of things actors would generally ask themselves and a director of any line they have to speak. But this time, they're on their own, making quick decisions that may or may not fit either an overall vision or a writer's intention.
I can attest to that because at one point, Malaev-Babel asked me what scene I had to contribute. I quickly wrote something, which I intended to be performed by a man and woman. It was done by two of the male students, Brandan Ragan and Zach Wilson. That immediatley changed the tenor of what I had written, which became something of a love triangle involving a woman outside. It also revealed how many different ways a performer can express a collection of words.
These études are designed to be open-ended to allow the actors to more freely make quick choices.
"We don't give them any circumstances. They pull it all out of the air," Malaev-Babel said. "They have to make it something that concerns us and that they make their own."
The other students respond in different ways to the scenes. Some watch intently, looking for ideas or details that may serve them in the future. One student lounges sleepily on a sofa, possibly listening, while others take turns stretching on the floor after a strenuous morning.
The acting class caps a long day that begins at 9 a.m. with the students in an active movement class, followed by voice classes. Some days include text analysis in addition to the acting classes. Besides homework from the day's classes, they have backstage assignments for the second-year student productions in the Cook Theatre, or box office or other front-of-house jobs.
They go through long days, but that doesn't keep them from taking on even more work. During a brief break, several students sat reciting lines in that same robotic fashion from Jason Wells' "Men of Tortuga," a play about corporate espionage where motives are never clearly expressed.
About half of the first-year students were preparing a production that would put their étude work to practical use in the same classroom modified into a small theater with room for about 25 to 30 audience members in the conservatory's occasional Late Night Series.
Ragan described the production as "a long étude. We had no specific blocking, no specific line readings or intentions given to us by a director and don't have any kind of stage business recorded."
In the play, they tried to keep themselves open to all possibilities while still bringing characters through set situations and to emotional high and low points and interactions.
The students put the show together by themselves without an overriding director, and Ragan said afterward that each of the performances was different in the way some roles were played and lines were spoken.
Ragan, who performed with Rodriguez, Joe McGranaghan, Brittany Proia and Zak Wilson, said the style of the études allows "the truth to come to you. Oftentimes, people in class scenes have different interpretations of who they were or where. We didn't have that. We spent some time mediating about their exact situations and given circumstances."
He said it's all part of the technique that Malaev-Babel is working on.
"You work out acting technique with spontaneity and organic blocking," Ragan said. "When that's married with the proper research on your given circumstances, it will result in a play like 'Men of Tortuga' working even without a lot of direction. It's not quite a free for all. It is somewhat thought out, but we had no idea how the words would be said from one moment to the next."
In addition to the études, which take up weeks of work during their first year, Maelev-Babel's students also are assigned to observe or develop a professional skill to demonstrate in class, as a way of picking up ideas that can be used in creating future characters.
On this day, dark-haired Kelly Campbell is making bread — or at least prepping the dough since there is no oven in the room.
Wearing an apron, she spreads flour on the table, cuts up a pile of dough she made earlier, which then twisted or turned into small balls for rolls. Some was left for a larger loaf.
During the process, she is aware of others who may be fellow bread-makers observing her process, or maybe she's making bread in front of a window into a bakery.
Flour was flying, dough was being flipped and rolled, and Campbell looked a bit frustrated.
"It's just not there yet. There's something not there," she said, after explaining that she observed a seventh-generation baker in a south Sarasota bakery.
"It will come," Malaev-Babel offered with a comforting tone.