I is for Intensity

The I of SAVI stands for Intensity, something that we innately crave as humans. All the arts are capable of delivering an intense experience, a distillation of feeling and insight that is heightened, capable of leaving the spectator moved and exhilarated. We crave the intensity of climax in a performance just as we crave it in our intimate relationships; it’s not a linguistic coincidence that we speak of “climax” in both dramaturgy and sex.

In order to create intensity, the performer needs to be capable of bringing MORE, and since the SAVI singing actor knows his job is to create behavior that communicates the dramatic event phrase by phrase, he has the capacity for bringing MORE behavior, as much as he chooses or as much as is called for by the dramatic circumstances, the text, the musical score and the physical enactment of the moment. The capacity to create MORE – to sing louder, to sing higher, to be more furious or more tender, to reach farther, move faster, leap higher – is part of the olympic challenge of singing acting, one that the performer must train for like an athlete. In a way, this kind of training is most akin to the work of the athlete: if you can do 15 push-ups, then you must work yourself up to 16, or 17; if you can bench-press 100 pounds, then add another 10 pounds and try again. Intensity implies a kind of scale or measure of degrees of expression, and invites a kind of quantification, even though it may not be numerical. Sometimes the measurements or descriptors of intensity are linguistic: piano and pianissimo, angry and furious, happy and ecstatic.

Of course, it is paradoxically true that, in order to create the experience of MORE, one must also be able to create the experience of LESS. Our experience of intensity is based on contrast: it’s difficult to create the experience of loudness as a musical effect if you play everything loud. Thus, the “I” of Intensity also implies dynamic range, the ability to consciously vary how much of a certain ingredient or behavior you choose to bring to a particular moment in a performance. It’s not enough to build your strength and stamina to be a screamer instead of a singer; you need the ability to sing expressively at every dynamic, at every level of intensity.

One of the challenges of creating intensity in performance is that we often (unconsciously) associate intensity with tension. There’s good etymological reason for this – the two words share the same root, the Latin tendere, meaning “to strain or stretch tight.” In order to achieve extremes of expression, it is not unusual for the performer to strain or push. Of course you can picture a singer with the veins bulging out of his neck as he strains to reach that high note, like a bodybuilder trying to lift an excruciatingly heavy weight. While it is true that we crave intensity, tension is more often than not a liability, an unattractive side-effect that distracts us from the ecstatic delight that accompanies climactic expression. Thus the performer is advised, “Never let ’em see you sweat!” We must train ourselves so that we have the capability to express ourselves at the extremes of our behavioral dynamic range without resorting to tension that reads as apparent discomfort and, even worse, exposes us to injury and potential damage.

Because let’s face it, the screamers and adrenaline junkies face an inevitable burnout. Our bodies, our voices and our souls have a finite capacity for intensity, and we can exhaust that capacity with surprising rapidity.

Our culture has an ambivalent relationship with intensity, and that relationship can vary considerably depending on the region and environment you grew up in as well as your ethnic background. Our capacity for emotional expression is shaped substantially by the environment we grow up in. Down the block from my house in South Philly there’s a family that’s lived there forever, dyed-in-the-wool South Philly screamers who all express themselves at the top of their lungs, all the time. I can only imagine what it must have been like growing up in that household, where you probably had to scream just to be heard at all. Or perhaps silence was a useful defense in such an environment, since you knew that to raise your voice was to bring down the screaming wrath of your parents and siblings upon yourself. It’s easy to make generalizations about the taciturn, unemotional Yankees of New England and the flamboyant, hyper-emotional Italian Americans of South Philly, but there are indeed patterns of emotional expression that are cultural as well as environmental.

Actors tend to be vivid and loud because they have a natural affinity for intensity of expression. It’s fascinating to observe the students at my school on the elevator; the introvert art majors cringe in the corners when the noisy, extrovert musical theater types crowd onto the lift. That’s not to say that you have to be loud and flamboyant offstage in order to succeed onstage, but it is unarguable that the capacity for extreme expression is essential to the performer, and an affinity for extremes of expression sure doesn’t hurt either.

Intensity doesn’t just mean “loud,” either. Being able to create intensity onstage is the ability to create MORE, but “more” doesn’t always equate to “loud.” MORE can mean more subtle, more delicate, more tender. An actor needs to have MORE facial mobility so that his face can be more expressive even when silent. MORE can refer to a more dynamic use of breath, more ease in movement, more lightness and buoyancy. Any sort of MORE is a form of intensity, and the singing actor needs to be comfortable with them.

Rudolf Laban, a choreographer, dancer and movement analyst from the first half of the Twentieth Century, spent much of his career developing an innovative set of tools for describing, notating and characterizing movement. He identified three particular qualities of movement – weight, space (direction) and time (tempo) – that helped to characterize a particular movement, and invented dialectical pairs of descriptive adjectives associated with each of these qualities. So, for example:

Weight: Heavy Light
Space: Direct Indirect
Time: Quick Sustained

These three pairs can be combined eight different ways to produce a comprehensive set of what Laban referred to as “effort-actions.”

Press = Heavy + Direct + Sustained
Glide = Light + DIrect + Sustained
Punch = Heavy + Direct + Quick
Dab = Light + Direct + Quick
Wring = Heavy + Indirect + Sustained
Float = Light + Indirect + Sustained
Slash = Heavy + Indirect + Quick
Flick = Light + Indirect + Quick

Laban’s work has considerable training value for exploring and enriching the psycho-physical component of performance, but in this particular instance, I want to call attention to the way in which these eight effort-actions provides a different sort of framework for things about INTENSITY. It is useful, for instance, to conceive of choices regarding weight to be either “more heavy” (“more strong,” in Harvard’s table) or “more light.” Movement in time can be either “more sustained” or “more sudden/quick.” And similarly, movement in space can be either “more direct” or “more indirect.” Thus, the potential for intensification is inherent in either extreme of these three categories.

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