Friday, January 18, 2013

Imagining Iago: The Transforming Power of Metaphor

How an Actor Turned Performance Anxiety into a Brilliant Performance through the Use of Metaphor

The actor Liev Schreiber received wonderful reviews for his portrayal of the evil trickster Iago in the NY Public Theatre’s 2001 production of Othello.

"...audiences couldn't ask for a more captivating creator of chaos than the Iago of Liev Schreiber…."

"...awful and fascinating...thanks to the lucid complexity of Schreiber's performance, disturbingly real."

"...the ability to animate or embody an idea, as opposed to emblemizing it…"

"I found myself thinking, 'This guy would fool me, too.'"

The following year, Schreiber described how he created his Iago in a PBS "Great Performances" documentary. At first he found it nearly impossible to fully engage with the other actors. No matter how much direction he received, he kept finding himself circling the scene rather than dominating it from center stage, as the role is usually played. The root of this problem, Schreiber discovered, was his anxiety that he wouldn’t be able to remember all of his lines. (Iago has more lines than any other character in all of Shakespeare’s plays.)

Rather than work to “fix” or remove his anxiety, he and the director Keith David began to play with it – especially its physical manifestation of circling the scene. Together, they looked for metaphors that would combine Schreiber’s circling behavior with that of a character intent on destruction.

They came up with the image of a shark, a predator by nature that circles a group of prey until it senses vulnerability, and then strikes. Schreiber worked to embody the gliding, purposeful, predatory nature of a shark into his Iago. In the process, he lost his fear and was able to not only remember the lines, but to endow Iago with a depth and complexity uniquely his own.

He changed the story.

How to Harness the Power of Metaphor for Yourself

“Every dragon is a prince or princess yearning to be kissed,” wrote Rilke. Is there a quality, emotion, habit in you that appears to be sabotaging your best efforts? Instead of fighting it and getting caught up in a losing battle to control, defeat, or fix it, do the opposite: work with it. Externalize it by turning it into a metaphor. Let it tell you its story through non-rational expression.

Ask yourself: What animal, god, demon, landscape, or weather expresses this quality? What would it feel like to let it inhabit your body, your voice, your words and intent?

Fully and safely express it through having an imaginary dialogue with it, movement, or visual art. Release its unique energy into whatever it's blocking. Watch it transform into something brilliant.

Change your story by fully encompassing, exploring, and embodying its depths.

A Personal Experience with the Power of Metaphor

It never fails. Story is my medicine. Depressed recently about how powerless I'd been feeling over the pain of shingles, I decided to write a dialogue with this horrible malady. What emerged was a spokesperson for the enraged army of Parisian citizens who brought about the French Revolution. (I've never seen Les Miz.) I had been asking, as I always do in rough times, which I believe are birthing grounds, "What wants to come forth from this?" What I heard from the citizens is that they are my shadow gifts that I've been silencing and oppressing with worry. And they went on to tell me what they need. I swear it: the pain decreased. It's gone, at least for the moment -- and I haven't taken pain medication for hours. I know I'm getting the upper hand now.

I then went to the web looking for an image of my present emotional state, which I always seem to do, and found this Delacroix painting, "Liberty Leading the People." It was accompanied with a fascinating essay on the feminine liberator as a stand-in for a masculine liberator rather than as healer, that is the real province of feminine power. Here, the woman warrior is in the same archetypal pose as a male revolutionary at the head of an army of downtrodden; she's essentially a male figure with female qualities. New winners, new losers. Same patriarchal dynamic. When what's needed is winners and winners: the coming forth of the feminine power of healing and integration.

As always happens when I go to story -- misfortune, illness, and dis-ease turn out to be voices of a higher intelligence, and metaphors for something unstoppable within that is not being given voice in any other way.


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