Molotov Theatre – Art Imitates Death

The Molotov Manifesto, or Acting Grand Guignol, Molotov Style

We’re often asked about the “style” of acting in Grand Guignol theatre. Most trained actors come to us with preconceived notions of “stripping away,” which means they’re taking a wrong turn right out of the gate. We strip away the stripping away.

The Molotov Grand Guignol style is stylized. As with the style of the original Theatre du Grand Guignol, it has a foot in both naturalism and melodrama. The Molotov Grand Guignol style is surreal in the purest sense of the word: a layer of something on top of reality, like the morning dew glistening on a cow pie (ah, poetry).

The most important things to keep in mind with the Molotov Grand Guignol style are to stay open-minded, and to put logic behind you. When it comes to acting this brand of theatre, it’s not how it feels onstage; it’s how it looks – and how it makes the audience feel. (Remember that phrase; it comes up a lot.)

The Molotov Grand Guignol style is divided into three aspects, each distinct but inter-related. We refer to these aspects as “Acting the Effect,” “Gore” and “Brawling.” (For a slack bunch, we’ve actually given this stuff a fair amount of thought. That’s why we’re great.)

Before we go into any more detail on these aspects, it’s important to keep in mind that actors in the Molotov Grand Guignol style are responsible for more than just delivering their lines. They must be able to handle the artistic demands of Acting the Effect and the technical demands of Gore and Brawling at the same time – otherwise the overall effect is diminished.

For that reason, the Molotov Theatre Group puts great value in developing an ensemble of players who, through their common understanding of these aspects of style, can become comfortable enough with one another to take more risks and go to more disturbing places in their performances.

With that as background, let’s look at the principle aspects of the Molotov Grand Guignol style:

Acting the Effect: The most brainy and least physical of the three aspects, “Acting the Effect” itself has three components: “The Moment of Horror,” “Fourth Wall Ambiguity,” and“Distortion of Time.” The director and the actors may not agree on The Moment of Horror at the outset. The strongest voice wins, and after that it’s a matter of tying it to the other components. Even if the director does not agree with The Moment of Horror, he or she usually is best at tying it all together. Why? Because it’s not how it feels onstage; it’s how it looks – and how it makes the audience feel (sound familiar?).

The Moment of Horror – As the saying goes, the difference between comedy and tragedy is tragedy happens to you. Whether it’s comedy or tragedy, there is ALWAYS a Moment of Horror. A businessman who spills coffee down the front of his pants right before an important presentation has just experienced The Moment of Horror, even though it’s comedy to everyone else. The Molotov Grand Guignol style identifies The Moment of Horror for each character, and puts a picture frame around it with techniques such as Fourth Wall Ambiguity and Distortion of Time.

Fourth Wall Ambiguity – This is not simply direct address to the audience. Fourth Wall Ambiguity means actually breaking down the illusion of a separate on-stage reality. An actor may even step out of character to take a line directly to an audience member (preferably one who is already affected by what’s happening on-stage). This can be used to foreshadow The Moment of Horror to come, or to underscore The Moment of Horror as it is happening. In creating that ambiguity, the separation between the audience and the actors dissolves. The audience is pulled into the action, creating a voyeuristic connection that heightens the effect.

Distortion of Time – Have you ever been in an accident and experienced “time standing still?” That’s the key to Distortion of Time. In the Molotov Grand Guignol style, time may slow down or speed up around The Moment of Horror. This is not just a matter of action and pacing, but even line delivery. The original Grand Guignol actors noted that at times they delivered their lines with difficulty, as if the act of speaking was itself physically demanding. Together with distortion in physical action, Distortion of Time heightens the tension around The Moment of Horror. No matter how slowly things are moving, there is still nothing you can do to stop it. That’s crucial. Remember: It’s not how it feels onstage; it’s how it looks – and how it makes the audience feel.

Gore: To say that the Molotov Grand Guignol style is dripping with gore is a gross understatement. Blood flows by the quart, liquid latex is involved in practically everything, and clean-up is definitely NOT a breeze. Excess is indulged, indulgence is excessive, and messiness is expected. Actors and make-up (or effects) people typically are involved together in refining the Gore effect – usually because the effect has never been done before on the stage with its limited resources (as compared to films).

As with “Acting the Effect,” “Gore” also has multiple components, which in Molotov Grand Guignol style are called “The Gimmick” and “The Reveal.” These components are important to understand, because ideally, Gore must be perceived to be happening in plain view of the audience. Gore also is integrated with the last element of Molotov Grand Guignol style, namely“Brawling” (more on that later).

The Gimmick – Taken from the vocabulary of street magicians, The Gimmick is the device or means by which Gore happens. (Gore in the Molotov Grand Guignol style means more than just blood. Any bodily fluid or semi-fluid is fair game.). Often The Gimmick is retrieved in nearly plain view of the audience, with misdirection drawing the audience’s attention long enough to set the effect.

Because some Gore effects require The Gimmick to be attached to the actor’s body before the show begins, the actor and the effects person often collaborate on placement of The Gimmick, its triggering, and comfortable wearing. Molotov has found that actors may have the best ideas on how to make The Gimmick the most comfortable to wear.

The Reveal – None of us really knows what it feels like to have acid thrown in his face, or his hand sliced open with a razor, or a toenail ripped out with pliers. We do know, however, that it is instinctive to protect the injured part of the anatomy, to draw yourself inward, to prevent further injury.

That’s pointless in the theatre of horror. What good does it do to conceal the effect? It’s like a joke with no punch line, or kissing your sister.

The Reveal happens when The Gimmick has been deployed and the actor is Acting the Effect – that is, using The Moment of Horror, Fourth Wall Ambiguity, and Distortion of Time to heighten the dramatic (or comedic) effect. This can be one of the most difficult things for an actor to remember, because it is a total departure from natural instinct. The actor has to find a way to revel in The Reveal, to put the violence on display, and not to prevent further injury. This is counter-intuitive but essential. Remember: It’s not how it feels onstage; it’s how it looks – and how it makes the audience feel.

Brawling: Maybe it’s gallows humor or whistling in the graveyard, but Molotov’s unofficial motto has evolved into “Safety Is Right Up There.” That’s why the Molotov Grand Guignol style refers to stage combat as “Brawling,” not “fight choreography.” There’s something a bit more real to the fight work of the Molotov Grand Guignol style. If it’s not real-looking, it’s stylized for deliberate effect.

Certainly, punches are pulled and “naps” are sounded in Brawling. Training in stage combat by accredited instructors of the Society of American Fight Directors is both desirable and encouraged. As an ideal, though, the Molotov Grand Guignol style would be more like professional wrestling than traditional stage combat. The director’s wet dream would be having trained actor/combatants willing to play rough, and to throw themselves into the action with a bit more abandon than your typical thespian. As long as all parties realize that they may occasionally get their bells rung, everyone should be OK with ramping up the intensity, right? Having said that, it’s worth repeating that Safety Is Right Up There – definitely in the top five things we consider important.

The aspects of Brawling in the Molotov Grand Guignol style are “Contact” and “Integrating ‘The Gimmick.’”

Contact: The victim is in control, but that doesn’t mean the victimizer uses no measured force. The victim establishes control in rehearsal, by dictating the amount of force he or she is willing to take – defining limits, which ideally are close enough to the real thing to make reactions as genuine as possible.

  • Pushing down is better than guiding down.
  • A solid slap to the face is better than a nap to the face.
  • A real punch is better than a fake punch.
  • We NEVER really punch the face. Ever.
  • Real spit is better than fake spit.
  • Real spit to the face is awesome.

Integrating ‘The Gimmick’: Because The Gimmick in Gore often is worn by the actor from the very opening of the show, Integrating ‘The Gimmick’ in Brawling is essential as early as possible in working the Brawling, to limit the possibility of accidentally triggering The Gimmick. There is some conceptual overlap in Integrating ‘The Gimmick’ in Brawling and The Reveal in Gore, because some moves that may not actually be truly “fight-worthy” must be done to prevent The Gimmick from being accidentally triggered by Contact while Brawling.

As with The Reveal in Gore, it is the actor’s responsibility to sell every Brawling move to the audience, and not to question the logic of the move, because every move happens for a reason. Remember: It’s not how it feels onstage; it’s how it looks – and how it makes the audience feel.

If you’re interested in learning more, contact us or just come to one of our shows. We also hold regular workshops, so make sure you visit us here often for details on the next training session.