Orazio Costa, Hamlet and the mimetic method

In 1992-93, Orazio Costa taught approximately one hundred and sixty classes at the Accademia devoted entirely to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This extraordinary period in our studies followed a preceding cycle of classes the previous year on the so-called ‘mimetic method’, given by Pino Manzari and Costa himself. I treasure my notes from those days.

We worked on the complete text, from the first to the last verse. Comparing seven or eight translations, plus Costa’s, to be read – like some of Gadda’s novels – with a dictionary in hand. All roles were available to everyone. Both women and men could try their hand at Hamlet or Gertrude, Ophelia or Osric, Claudius or Polonius. Many times during the last fifteen years – whether working on a play or preparing a film role – I have happened to browse through those notes, almost superstitiously, looking for answers to sudden questions, as if consulting the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching.

“It is the hereafter that introduces the theater; it is ghosts that guide our story. Man is always in colloquy with these ideal characters, whose presence is certain…”
“The curtain may open on Hamlet when the Ghost appears. All in all, until its appearance, the scene taking place – albeit with its due events – is a ‘military playlet’.”
“The ability to repeat the same sound or noise is a matter of prodigious importance. Every actor must know his or her exact audiometric conditions. The current conditions of the ear must be kept under control and carefully exercised. And the Chorus is definitely one of the most effective ways to do that.” “St. Paul said, ‘What a war within me, where two different men live’. I say, lucky him, who only has two.” “It’s not enough to find your own voice; you have to find the voice of the character each and every time.” “You are in a privileged position. The theater is one of the few ways left to man for saving himself. Actors are poised on the edges of existence. Other people are already dead and cannot perceive, fortunately for them, how much they stink.” “You will not find many people who will correct you ‘honestly’; you are alone and you have to take on all the responsibility for being part of this living tissue that is the Italian language.”
“’Stage tricks and ‘dramatic turns’ are such that a phenomenon can be understood in its entirety; there is no need to know all the raindrops that make up a rainstorm in order to ‘be’ that rainstorm. The distinctive characteristics of a phenomenon (a leaf can be lance-shaped, oblong, cordate, trifoliate, etc.), should not turn us away from considering that, fortunately, natural phenomena are homogeneous and can be described with a few contextual ‘stage tricks’. A tree can be described with three such tricks.”
“Right now we are doing this kind of work on the character of Hamlet, but the advantage each of you will have in the future when you have to deal with other characters will be that you have gained ‘a fund of Hamlet’…”
“The timbre (or color or ‘metal’) is the most personal aspect of a voice, and it is a variable that the actor takes too little care about. In everyday life, we constantly engage in a process of spontaneous mimicry – also from a timbre point of view – of the person we are talking with, depending on their age, sex… Try to remember that.”
“There is a splendid phrase of Cicero’s that says: There is no better theater for man than what his own conscience offers.” (Etc., etc., etc.)

Paging through those notebooks, which have withstood several moves, I ask myself every time how many other men in Italy have devoted the same intensity throughout their lives to the work of the actor. I know with certainty that one of the thoughts that obsessed Costa until his last breath was how one could play the ghost of Hamlet’s father, onstage, without running the risk of being ridiculous.
Anyone who had the immense good fortune to attend those lessons in art knows that they definitely spent more hours listening to his distinctive voice, or acting all of Hamlet in a Chorus, than they spent rehearsing a scene or monologue for this or that role. Without noticing, however, that the state of incomprehensible expectancy that Costa often subjected us to for hours and hours was the best way to stoke our furnaces. That keeping the bit in the horse’s mouth until it frothed was the best way to train it for the race. A long and difficult race, in which it’s easy to get lost or to collapse in exhaustion. He trained us well, our teacher.
He trained us to listen, the main condition of any actor’s technique, whether for theater or film. And at the same time, through the ancient experience of the Chorus, he taught us that we are never ‘soloists’, even when we are alone onstage or doing a monologue. A precondition for any work on the text or the character was the reawakening of childhood and its infallible instinct for mimicry. Returning more and more to that innate ability to become ‘anything’ that children have in the earliest years of their lives. A backward journey in search of a golden age – the first stage of existence – when family, school and social conventions have not yet had time to close their hellish grip on our bodies, interrupting that unashamed, blissful stream of energy.
Which is pure mimicry. ‘To throw ourselves’ back into the game, rediscover the rules, lose track of time and surrender to it. Costa was concerned with the ‘original nucleus’ of expression, the re-ignition of expression. After that it was up to the actor to find his or her way, which could be the Phonè of Carmelo, the comedy of Panelli or the mimetic realism of Volontè. The greatness of his insight and the uniqueness of his teaching method lie in this: the mimetic method precedes any other technique, giving it lifeblood and soul. It cannot contradict any other pedagogy because, inevitably, it precedes it.

Fabrizio Gifuni