Learning Lines. And Crossing Them.

“I want to deepen the work,” Evangeline says.

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Learning Lines. And Crossing Them.
Alexis Soloski
, New York Times

“I want to deepen the work,” Evangeline says.

Evangeline (Molly Parker) is a theater director and Josephine Decker’s film “Madeline’s Madeline,” which opens on Aug. 10, eavesdrops on her rehearsals for a theater piece starring Madeline (Helena Howard), a high school student and her troupe’s newest member. As the play develops, Evangeline draws more and more blatantly on Madeline’s own life, destabilizing a young woman who is already pretty unstable.

“This process is so intimate,” Evangeline murmurs.

Evangeline is not wrong. Not about that, anyway. Acting’s demands are personal as well as technical. Actors often have to perform a role badly, over and over and over again, before they can perform it well, which is embarrassing and exposing. This conspires to give a director or teacher or coach a lot of power and an actor — unless that actor is a star — very little.

How does a director fix reasonable boundaries? Where is the line between exploration and manipulation? “My God, I wish that I knew!” Decker said in a telephone interview. She devised the film with her actors, practicing “deep listening,” she said. Evangeline, who listens a lot more shallowly and doesn’t recognize her art-making as exploitative, is a skewed self-portrait. In characterizing the relationship between a director and her actors, Decker unconsciously echoed Evangeline’s own words. “It’s sticky,” she said. “It’s intimate and, you know, it’s sticky.”

“Madeline’s Madeline” is only the most recent work to color this relationship as fraught, even predatory. It is a trope that first found its light with “Trilby,” George du Maurier’s 1894 gothic melodrama, now best known in the 1931 film version, “Svengali,” in which John Barrymore’s ultracreepy vocal coach (the title role) makes crazy eyes at a naive soprano, Marian Marsh’s Trilby. His hypnosis frees her voice. Then it kills her.

In the last decade, there has been a flurry of plays, movies and television shows in which directors and coaches push performers to uncomfortable places. (Sometimes literally. There is a flying harness accident in “Hamlet 2.”) Once in a while, the performers push back. Here is a selection:

— ‘Hamlet 2’ (2008)

In this gleefully slapdash indie comedy, Steve Coogan plays Dana Marschz, a washed-up actor turned washed-up drama teacher. In a last-gasp effort to save the theater program at his Tucson school, he devises a show that’s part “Jesus Christ Superstar,” part “Back to the Future” and part “Hamlet” sequel, but so much worse. (Isn’t everyone dead at the end of “Hamlet”? Yes. Cue the time machine.) He forces the students to perform it, offending some, injuring others and nearly starting a race war. Dana casts himself as a sexed-up Jesus.

— ‘Venus in Fur’ (2010)

In David Ives’ thigh-high play, first seen at Classic Stage Company, then on Broadway and latterly as a Roman Polanski movie, a struggling actress, Vanda, auditions for a role in an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s steamy novel, “Venus in Fur.” When Ives’ drama begins, the director has all the clout, but Vanda, who may moonlight as a goddess incarnate, grinds her patent leather heels all over that dynamic. Still, this piece, written and typically directed by men, requires any woman playing Vanda to spend most of the performance stripped down to lingerie, so questions about dominance, agency and gaze linger.

— ‘We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915’ (2012)

In this tricksy, devastating play by Jackie Sibblies Drury (“Fairview”), which debuted at Soho Rep under Sarah Benson’s direction, a U.S. theater company has decided to create a piece about the genocide of the Herero people. As they rehearse, the audience encircles them, observing their conversations and experiments. Though the director of the fictional presentation (played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is African-American, she pushes the cast into improvisatory exercises that re-create both the carefully researched African material and the United States’ own fraught history of race, with potentially tragic consequences.

— ‘When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism’ (2013)

This elliptical 2013 movie from Corneliu Porumboiu (“Police, Adjective”) opens with an unhurried argument between a director and an actress. He wants her to film a nude scene. She wants to make sure the scene is necessary. These two are also lovers, so their later negotiations — about what she will be wearing and when and why and if it would not make more sense to head into the hallway for a lint brush — play out at dinner, at home, in bed. Subtly, the film explores the blurred boundaries between art and life and how fluidly power imbalances can shift.

“It could have been a true moment,” the director tells her.

“If you say so,” she answers.

— ‘Miss Stevens’ (2016)

In the director Julia Hart’s graceful, understated first film, Lily Rabe stars as Rachel Stevens, an English teacher supervising three high school students as they attend a weekend drama competition. Timothée Chalamet’s troubled Billy, who delivers a knockout version of Biff’s “Death of a Salesman” monologue, keeps trying to cross pedagogic lines. Stevens, unmoored by the death of her actress mother and shakily performing the role of competent chaperone, is troubled, too. But despite a delirious scene of jumping on the bed, she mostly holds firm.

— ‘Rise’ (2018)

Like an anhedonic “Hamlet 2,” this swiftly canceled NBC series centered on a teacher nudging his charges toward material they might not be ready for. In the midst of a midlife crisis, Mazzu (Josh Radnor), an English teacher at a Rust Belt high school, applies for the drama job and the principal gives it to him, leapfrogging a better-qualified teacher (Rosie Perez). Mazzu chooses “Spring Awakening” for his first musical, upsetting parents, the school board, the orchestra and a few of the cast members, too. “Rise” was on his side. Viewers were not.

— ‘Barry’ (2018)

A desert-dry sendup of the entertainment industry, this HBO series follows a hit man (Bill Hader) who stumbles into a Los Angeles acting class. The class is led by Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), the unacclaimed author of “Hit Your Mark and Say Your Lines.” Gene is a mediocre actor and a worse teacher. His chapter titles include “Loud, Fast and Keep Going” and “Commit ... to YOU.” When Barry is struggling, Gene prescribes, “10 ccs of pure Mamet.” The class makes Barry believe that he can transcend his hit man role, but the only time Barry earns Gene’s praise is when he channels his anguish over a recent hit into a line reading. That is a pretty precarious method.

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