Actors from the Commedia dell’Arte | Jan Miel
Oxford dictionaries define “typology” as “a classification according to general type, especially in archeology, psychology, or the social sciences”, and “the study and interpretation of types and symbols, originally especially in the Bible.” One general “type” is that of the human being. Each human being has four levels of being or consciousness — Intuition, Intellect, Emotion, Instinct. These are the four primary psychological archetypes, corresponding to the four archetypal elements of Fire, Air, Water, Earth respectively.
Properly following through with the other variables and accurate formulations, a typological schematic emerges. I had long ago arrived at the vantage point that foursquare typologies (and foursquare systems at large as far as that goes) yielded the apt path — elegant, non-reductionistic, wholistic, and dynamically useful.
Below is a small portion of the 33 Gateway Lane Orientation Matrix, which includes in turquoise color the corresponding MBTI schematic. The Theatre of the Enterprising Spirit schematic is in red color.
O A I P
RED YELLOW BLUE GREEN
INSPIRATION CONCEPTION FORMULATION ACTUATION
DOROTHY SCARECROW TIN MAN LION
FIRE AIR WATER EARTH
WANDS SWORDS CUPS PENTACLES
IMPROVISATION LEGITIMATE VAUDEVILLE BURLESQUE
INTUITION INTELLECT EMOTION INSTINCT
REALM REALM REALM REALM
NT (“Intuition”) ST (“Thinking”) NF (“Feeling”) SF (“Sensing”)
Page of Wands Page of Swords Page of Cups Page of Pentacles
Intuition of Improv Intuition of Legit Intuition of Vaudeville Intuition of Burlesque
INTP ISTP INFP ISFP
Knight of Wands Knight of Swords Knight of Cups Knight of Pentacles
Intellect of Improv Intellect of Legit Intellect of Vaudeville Intellect of Burlesque
ENTP ESTP ENFP ESFP
Queen of Wands Queen of Swords Queen of Cups Queen of Pentacles
Emotion of Improv Emotion of Legit Emotion of Vaudeville Emotion of Burlesque
INTJ ISTJ INFJ ISFJ
King of Wands King of Swords King of Cups King of Pentacles
Instinct of Improv Instinct of Legit Instinct of Vaudeville Instinct of Burlesque
ENTJ ESTJ ENFJ ESFJ
And so went the conversations with Gregg in talking about correspondences, typology, and related concepts vis-a-vis the theatre of the enterprising spirit. We had touched on such matters piecemeal and in a fragmented superficial fashion through the years. Discussions were now much easier since the vantage point was “big picture” oriented rather than dinging reductively around the trees in the forest.
It helped that Gregg was no longer engaged in resisting typology due to the typical egotistic impulses of rejecting anything that supposedly seemed to suggest he wasn’t totally unique and one-of-a-kind. “HOW”, the human ego says, “could I be placed into a category with others as being so similar and identifiable. No ‘system’ can identify me!”
The point is that typology establishes a non-reductionistic blueprint. A BLUEPRINT. Like DNA. The more we understand and explore our unique blueprint, the more we can understand ourselves and can move forward in healthy empowering integration.
It also takes the spirited vantage point to recognize that we are, as Maya Angelou and other enterprising spirits have opined, more alike than different. But it is equally important to recognize that individuals are different in many ways due to factors such as circumstances and experience, and their resulting diverse ways as such merit respect and consideration. We are quick to egotistically fear and judge others who are not lock-stepping to our own unique pilgrimage of the spirit.
So after many conversations and debates and enough fascinating recollections by Gregg to fill a book or two, we had finally settled on our respective four picks for the positions in Improv. Gregg maintained his final selections were Carol Burnett, George Carlin, Phyllis Diller, and Lenny Bruce. My finalized selections were Wanda Sykes, Chris Rock, Phyllis Diller, and Joan Rivers.
Naturally the initial concept of simply choosing one “master practitioner” or archetypal example for each of the four types of theatre — Improv, Legit, Vaudeville, Burlesque — had fallen by the wayside along the way as we delved into the foursquare nature of typology. We still needed, in effect, to identify for Improvisation our equivalents of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.
Gregg’s friendship with the one-and-only Hermione Gingold actually dated back to the 1940s when they met at a big party out on the East Coast because the host paired them off for a ballroom rumba dance competition — which they won, much to their everlasting delight! Hermione Gingold was successfully at home on stage, big screen, radio, and television for many, many decades and certainly an adept in the wild, wild west territory of Improvisation.
“Oh for crying out loud!” I proclaimed.
“What’s the matter?” asked Gregg.
“I just realized that I must give my Master of Improv designation to Uta Hagen!”
“That’s an interesting choice, but I can’t imagine,” he responded. “She was one of our greatest actresses. I can easily see her as your choice for the Master of Legitimate theatre you were talking about — she might be my pick for that too. But Improvisation?”
“Yep!” I proclaimed with great finality. “I seem to remember your telling me that you saw her on stage on Broadway?”
“Oh, yes. Several times through the years. She took over for Jessica [Tandy] in A Streetcar Named Desire, and she was quite wonderful in that. I also saw her in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf — she originated the role of Martha, you know.”
“Yes, I knew that. Was she extraordinary in that?”
“No question,” he noted, thinking back. “I saw her in The Country Girl of course. There were others, the names will come to me. Yes, an extraordinary actress. Very special. But Improvisation? I don’t see it.”
He was clearly dubious.
“I’m sure I told you about my Uta Hagen experience at the time.”
“Mrs. Klein,” was his response. “That’s the name of one of the plays I saw that I couldn’t recall — Mrs. Klein. Yes, I do have a vague memory of you telling me something about Uta Hagen. I want to hear about this.”
My favorite experience of Improv was attending a solo stage performance by that legendary stage actress and acting teacher Uta Hagen. Billed as “An Evening With Uta Hagen”, the theatrical fundraising event for an acting school was actually a master acting class in disguise. Life-changing experiences like that teach you what Reality is NOT. So many people spend a lifetime ostensibly chasing Reality, but actually it’s well advised and much more efficient to discern what Reality is NOT. Similarly, many people spend an inordinate amount of time and energy chasing down affirmations and validations for what they already know or think they know or want to believe is true. Such seems like a vicious chasing of one’s tail in an effort to fill the black hole of Ego — which emerges as an exercise in futility because the Ego is insatiable. The real journey is in learning what is it that one does NOT know. THAT constitutes the high adventure of the enterprising spirit learning to live by living to learn.
I must say there have been moments when I had temporarily tossed that banner of My Enduring Favorite in Improv to Uta Hagen — full stop, all hands down — due actually to one single opportune improvisational moment I had heard about. It took place many decades ago during one particular theatrical performance on the Legitimate stage.
Note well that Uta Hagen was undisputedly in all four of its dimensions a master of the Legitimate stage. Certainly in her role as an acting coach or conducting a master class, she cultivated her mastery of the Improv stage and that would have naturally influenced her greatly on the Legit stage. But she considered Legit theatre her “home base” — her beloved stage of action — and she loved that stage with great intensity and devotion for a long, illustrious career.
So why periodically toss that banner at Uta Hagen for temporary custody? It’s a legendary theatre story that still makes me hoot with laughter every time I think about it. The anecdote originated with actor Anthony Quinn, and he related the episode with great relish, wit, and gusto for several decades.
The sublime improvisational moment happened when Quinn was a young actor, new to stage acting, he hadn’t really done anything in theatre. In the decades of relating the anecdote he always freely stated he didn’t know what the hell he was doing on stage at that time. Back in the day of his stage actor beginnings, Uta Hagen was already an established, respected Legitimate stage actress.
Taking over in 1947 for stellar players Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy of the original Broadway cast of Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire”, Quinn scored the coveted role of Stanley with Uta Hagen starring in the role of Blanche.
Anthony Quinn as Stanley and Uta Hagen as Blanche
on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ classic play “A Streetcar Named Desire”
A scene ends where Stanley is about to rape Blanche on the bed. End of scene, stage lights off. Hardcore heavy-duty drama stuff.
In one particular performance, the bright and harsh stage lighting did NOT shut off. This left Stanley exposed to the audience properly positioned as being about to rape Blanche. Quinn was frozen in position on the bed with Blanche, waiting — praying! — for the lights to PLEASE, GOD! go off. He froze mentally as well, unable to wonder what the hell to do, paralyzed with stage fright in this absurd and unexpected situation.
But apparently not awkward for Uta Hagen.
Raising her head up toward Quinn, she impatiently yet with crisp diction whispered her directive: “Rape me, you idiot!”
I still roar with laughter when thinking about the young, inexperienced Anthony Quinn in that situation. He related that he only became more confused and was caught between wanting to break out in laughter and wondering how the hell he would go about acting in response to her order.
Mercifully the lights eventually went off, putting him out of his misery. But Ms. Hagen was severely critical with Quinn for quite some time for not improvising through the situation.
“Overcome the notion that you must be regular.
It robs you of the chance to be extraordinary.”
Uta Hagen (1919 – 2004)
I had determined before going to “An Evening With Uta Hagen” that if I had the opportunity, I was going to ask Ms. Hagen to corroborate Quinn’s story. I did have the privilege to meet and have a bit of private time with her after the “show”. But we spoke of important issues about playwriting; she shared a couple secrets about that, and frankly I utterly forgot to ask about the anecdote.
But I had experienced seeing Uta Hagen in action on stage during one of her excursions on the Improv stage – instantaneously becoming a 16-year-old girl one minute, brilliantly answering audience questions, and acting the part of a legendary “prima donna” actress the next minute. She ranged from tirades about acting and actors to demonstrating how to effectively use props, to sharing life experiences and anecdotes.
The theatre was filled to overflowing with an audience of the public along with actors and playwrights. Note well that through the course of the “show”, a few of us in the audience knew Uta Hagen was actually laser-beamed on the audience response to her and calibrating her “act” accordingly. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a master of Improvisation in performance.
Despite my intention of specifically watching how Uta Hagen worked, such was her overwhelming power of enchantment that when she became the 16-year-old girl, right along with the rest of the audience I saw and heard a 16-year-old girl. Or when she vigorously declared that Marlon Brando — still alive at the time and fodder for the gossip rags — should get the hell out of acting because you shouldn’t be in a profession that you belittle and degrade. Right there along with the rest of the audience I was declaring in my head “Damn right! He should get the hell out of acting!”
Well. After experiencing Uta Hagen’s “show” and directly interacting with her? I surely had the answer to my forgotten query. If I didn’t, then I must be vying for a role as Village Idiot.
“So that’s that,” I stated to Gregg, concluding my excursion into recollection. “Uta Hagen is my pick for Master of Improvisation and I’m delighted!”
“I don’t blame you!” grinned Gregg, now comprehending my choice.
I was about to be way dubious about his choice for Master of Improv, but our unique perspectives were all part of the fun. And what the hell — there are no “wrong” choices in this little adventure.
Have you made your picks for Improv?
Actors from the Commedia dell’Arte on a Wagon in a Town Square | Jan Miel