Bow, 2011, by Fred Hatt
Actor and writer Susan Merson invited me to make sketches at some of the sessions of New York Theatre Intensives, a six-week play development workshop and training program associated with New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre. Susan likes to get visual artists to respond in their own medium to the creative process of the actors, directors and writers. The work is shared with the participants and may be used on the organization’s website and/or public presentations.
I attended two sessions there. The first one was an acting workshop led by Janet Zarish. I sat at the side of the room and sketched in white crayon on a 9″ x 12″ black pad. The class began with warm-up exercises, including spine rolls, the game of tag, and slow-motion tag. Since I’ve done a lot of movement drawing, this part of the class was a natural for me.
Tag, 2011, by Fred Hatt
Following the movement exercises, the acting students stood listening to the instructor. Their postures show their energetic engagement.
Listen, 2011, by Fred Hatt
Next, various pairs of acting students performed their versions of little playlets. The acting duos had been given a page or two of bare dialog, and they had to invent a context and back story and work it up into a scene. They’d play the scene two or three times, with coaching and notes from the acting instructor. I tried to make simplified personality sketches, essentially caricatures, of the actors playing their parts. Fleeting expressions and attitudes are hard to catch in a drawing from life!
Copier, 2011, by Fred Hatt
In most of these, I tried to get more than one expression or position for at least one of the characters. Without knowing the content of the scenes, you can see these as multiple-figure compositions. Some kind of narrative content is implied in the drawings, but they’re highly ambiguous. I don’t think anyone could guess much about the actors’ scenes from these sketches, but maybe the sketches could be imagination stimuli. For instance, I could see the central figures in the one below as a couple’s public composure, while the faces on the edges represent hidden attitudes.
AA Meeting, 2011, by Fred Hatt
This exercise only increased my admiration for the great theatrical illustrator Al Hirschfeld, who spent eight decades at Broadway openings, sketching in a theater seat, and stylizing his impressions of the actors as elegant ink drawings that appeared alongside reviews in the New York Times. Drawing actors in action is not easy, and I feel my attempts were pretty rough.
Afterlife, 2011, by Fred Hatt
The three sketches above are based on three acting duos’ interpretations of the same playlet, an encounter between two characters with diverging views of their relationship. I’ve titled the sketches after context choices made by the actors.
The next three sketches are three different interpretations of a second playlet. This one centers around one character trying to collect a long-overdue debt from the other character. It was fascinating to observe how different choices and different actors’ personæ completely changed the feeling of the scene.
Hot Dog Park, 2011, by Fred Hatt
Naked Under Hoodie, 2011, by Fred Hatt
The actress below conveyed a particularly vivid sense of awkward nervousness toward her impassive debtor.
Wordvomit, 2011, by Fred Hatt
The acting class instructor, Janet Zarish, threw a lot of ideas at the actors, offering suggestions and modifications aimed at sharpening the characters and punching up the drama. I was struck by her many crisp, incisive gestures. I think they reflect her focus on performative clarity.
Instructor, 2011, by Fred Hatt
I sat in on another New York Theatre Intensives session, and will get to those sketches later in this post, but first, a sketch theater entr’acte. American Independence Day, the fourth of July, fell between the two NYTI classes I attended. Spring Studio, where I supervise one of the regular figure drawing sessions, hosted a July 4 special with models costumed as historical American characters, including a Revolutionary War era soldier, Buffalo Bill, Harriet Tubman, Pocahontas and Betsy Ross. These sketches are in marker or pencil on white paper, 18″ x 24″, and all are based on poses held between two minutes and ten minutes.
American History Figures, 2011, by Fred Hatt
Noble Faces, 2011, by Fred Hatt
The models for this session were all what I would describe as character models. Like character actors, they have distinctive faces, body types and ways of moving and looking that would stimulate the narrative imagination even without the costumes and props. It’s impossible to draw these models in a generic way, because all of them are so distinctive.
Caretaker, 2011, by Fred Hatt
Small and Tall, 2011, by Fred Hatt
Barricade, 2011, by Fred Hatt
Later that week I went to a “rep class” session, led by Rod Menzies, at New York Theatre Intensives. The actors did readings of new scenes by playwrights Crystal Skillman and Jason Holtham, with the playwrights present. I believe part of the function of the session was for the writers to see how their work in progress was understood by the actors, and how it worked in front of an audience. These drawings are 18″ x 24″ on white paper, in crayon and/or ink and brush. Here’s the scene in the studio, with the instructor and playwright sitting at the left.
Studio Reading, 2011, by Fred Hatt
Crystal Skillman’s scene was for two actors, and a little longer than the playlets from the acting class, which gave me a better opportunity to study the actors. The experience was a bit like what I imagine a courtroom artist does.
A Look, 2011, by Fred Hatt
Here’s my impression of the discussion, with the class instructor and the playwright at the left, and some of the students in discussion at the right. They really did overlap like that, from my viewing position. I chose to make them transparent.
Watching and Discussing, 2011, by Fred Hatt
Although the actors sitting to read stayed more still than they did in the acting class, where they had memorized their lines, it’s still hard to draw a reading, because the actors have their heads and eyes down at their scripts much of the time, and their facial expressions and energetic engagements with one another tend to be fleeting. This remained so even after instructor Rod Menzies urged the actors to engage with each other even at the cost of missing lines in the scripts.
Cold Reading, 2011, by Fred Hatt
Model U. N., 2011, by Fred Hatt
Jason Holtham’s scene was about high school students at a Model United Nations simulation conference. All the characters were named after the nations they were representing in the conference, which allowed the scene to be read on two levels.
Playwright, 2011, by Fred Hatt
I switched to ink and brush for a few sketches. The brushed ink line is more expressive than the crayon line, but also much more difficult to control.
Characters, 2011, by Fred Hatt
The directions of eyes and eyebrows, and the set of the mouth, are the most immediately readable indicators of emotion and relational role, at least among those that can be captured in a quick sketch that lacks the sound of the voice, the movement of the body, and the narrative developments of the script.
Reactions, 2011, by Fred Hatt
For me, the experience of sketching at these theater classes drew on my long-term practice of drawing from movement. I’m used to sketching from dance, with the attention given to large physical movement. The actors didn’t move so much – most of the interesting changes going on were subtle facial cues. In drawing faces, I’m accustomed to doing portraits, where I can take my time to study the structure and character of a face. Trying to apply the quick-response, gestural interpretation of movement to facial expressions was a challenge I definitely haven’t yet mastered, but I love to keep finding fresh challenges!
I’d be interested to hear from actors or other participants in the classes about what you see in my sketches, and whether they reveal anything to you that you might not get by looking at a still photo or video of the classes. Please feel free to comment here, and I’ll respond. (Comments from first-time commenters are held for moderation, so may take a day or so to appear on the blog.)