When the Stage Directions Matter

Cinderella wedding

The inspiration for my play, Happily Ever After, came about because I started thinking about the fact that all fairy tales end with the wedding, and so kids who grow up reading them know how to aspire for a wedding, but have no real understanding of what happens next or how to navigate the next 50 years.  The emphasis on courtship over marriage has probably led many couples into a morass, pre-marital counseling notwithstanding.  I had no idea where I was going to go with it, but that was what put my seat in the chair.  What followed wound up being more layered and philosophical than I had anticipated, or even than I knew prior to attending the rehearsal of it.

While watching the rehearsal, I put on my director’s hat, contemplating how I would deal with the issues the director was facing if I was in his shoes.  As a result, I had to analyze my own play in a way that I hadn’t done, and so I learned some interesting things about it!

It was in analyzing the play that I finally figured out why I was uncomfortable with the changes made to the stage directions that end the play.  It turned out that the changes left the audience with two messages that were both in direct contradiction to what I had been trying to say over the course of the play.

Surprising that movement could have such a dramatic effect, huh?

Without reading the play, you may not fully understand why this is, but I’ll give it a stab anyway.

Here’s the original stage directions (remember, this is the continuation of the fairy tale — in this case, Cinderella).  I should say that the dialogue that precedes the stage directions makes it clear that, in the privacy of their bedchambers, the Prince invites her to dance.

(She brightens at this, and moves into his arms at a safe distance.  They start to waltz, and one of them — it doesn’t matter who — starts to hum.  Da-de-da.  It doesn’t matter whether the one humming can carry a tune.  It may even be better if they can’t.  Now they are both humming.  They may even laugh at how bad they are, which only emboldens them to sing louder.  As the song goes on, they gradually move closer together.  And eventually, they are kissing.  Not the chaste sort of kiss as at the beginning of the play, but the happily-ever-after sort of kiss.)

Now, here’s the changed version:

(She brightens at this, and moves into his arms at a safe distance as an orchestra begins to play.  They waltz a few steps.  She stumbles and nearly falls, but he catches her.  She looks up at him, and there is a spark.  She grabs his head and pulls him to her, planting a firm kiss on his mouth.  He sweeps her into his arms and carries her into the bedroom.)

Without knowing anything about the play, there are five distinct differences between these two descriptions:

  1. In the original, there is no orchestra, or else it is too faint to be heard, and that is why they start humming.  In the revision, we clearly hear the full orchestra.
  2. In the original, there is a shared experience which has nothing to do with kissing or sex (humming while they dance, in a silly sort of moment between two people who barely know each other but are going to be spending their lives together).  In the revision, this is replaced by her stumbling as they waltz.
  3. In the original, the kiss is a gradual melding as they begin to relax together.  In the revision, there is sudden switch that goes off in her head that provokes the kiss.
  4. In the original, the kiss is mutual.  In the revision, she clearly kisses him.
  5. In the original, there is a blackout on the kiss.  In the revision, he whisks her off of her feet and takes her into the bedroom.

Without having the entire play to view it in context, #1 can fairly easily be dismissed as not being critical.

The other four may be critical.  First off, the original seems to emphasize the romantic over the passionate.  Sexual desire is clearly at play in the revision.

Secondly, the original has the shared moment of non-romantic, non-sexual silliness, and the revision doesn’t have a comparable moment.

So what can we take away from this?

Before changing stage directions at the beginning or end of a scene or play, you need to carefully study them in the context of what the playwright was trying to accomplish or is trying to say.  Opening moments set a tone, and closing moments — especially at the end of a play — are the playwright’s final word on the subject.  You want to make sure that you are, up to the end, telling the playwright’s story, and not your own.  Also, when the stage directions are more than the minimal (he doffs his hat and exits), they are effectively substituting for dialogue and so probably deserve a similar fealty, at least in terms of intention.

Understanding the playwright’s intention is critical in changing stage directions that are more than simply practical (she sits down; he pours a drink; they turn out the lights and exit upstairs).  If the director had kept the sexual overtones out of it and found a comparable non-sexual moment to replace the humming and laughter, I might have been disappointed (or not, if he found a better way of accomplishing it than what I wrote), but I wouldn’t be uncomfortable with it.  He would clearly have gotten the point of what I was trying to say and simply found an alternative way to say the same thing.

I could have written the “la-di-da” into the dialogue, and probably will so that future directors will understand that it is a non-negotiable element of the play.

So here’s my argument for why the changes reversed the intended meaning of the play:

I associate the sexual desire and attraction between a new couple with the fairy tale story; while critical to beginning a happy ending, it is insufficient in and of itself.  Love and friendship are the more important elements.  By removing the humming, you remove the friendship; by dispensing with the gradual, mutual kiss, you remove the love; and in its stead, you’ve got passionate desire on both sides (her kiss, his carting her off to the bed).  A misplaced emphasis on sex has ruined many a marriage, and that was part of why I wrote the play.  When you end on that note, you are saying, “This is a fine way to go about it.”

The director said he chose to have her initiate the kiss because she had been avoiding it up until that point.  That’s fine, but if I wanted that 180 degree turn, I would have written it that way.  Making her the aggressor makes her a very different girl (and him a very different man).  Before you make a 180 degree change, you need to be sure the script supports it.

He also said, “she stumbles and he catches her before she falls, as he will for the rest of their lives”, and it’s a sweet, if traditional concept.  However, it plays into the old-fashioned myth of the fairy tale — the white knight who will come along and save the damsel in distress and make everything perfect forever — that I had spent ten minutes unraveling and arguing was not going to produce a healthy marriage.

So change the stage directions if you have a really good reason to (I’m still not sure why they decided to change mine), but if you must, please make sure that you are being fully faithful to supporting the playwright’s intention and theme.

More About Verbs

Tampa - Selecting Beats & Verbs

Real Table Work — Selecting the Beats and Choosing Verbs

I recently spent a day with a community theater outside of Tampa, a very rewarding day with twelve actors who were so open to what I was sharing with them.  It was a joy to work with them.  As often happens, I have stayed in touch via email with one of the actors.  One of the perqs of hiring me to give your group a workshop is that in addition to the low per-person cost, I’m happy to respond to questions via email at any time after the workshop is over.  The workshop is typically about planting seeds, not harvesting them, and so it can take a little time to really reap the harvest.  I’m happy to keep helping to nudge the process along from a distance!

When a student raises an issue that I think others will benefit from, I respond to them via this blog.  So I’d like to share some of what Linda and I have been talking about, because I think there is broad application in how she is working through the newness of choosing and playing verbs.

First, remember that while Big Verbs (which cover the play or an act) are often global, broad stroke needs/wants, the Little Verbs — those which govern your moment-to-moment work — are very simple, practical things.  They may be in service of that Big Verb/Goal in some small way, or they may be in reaction to what another character is “giving” you.  But they are very concrete in terms of action.

Beats can be as short as one word or as long as a page (more often, 3-8 lines).  That means that your verb for the beat is just what gets you through the next 20 – 40 seconds.  It’s not at all global/high-level.  It’s strictly about “what do I need to do right this very minute to get what I ultimately want to achieve in this scene?”  Sometimes it takes a lot of little actions to achieve our goals.  Pay attention to what is going on right this very minute, and you’ll find some interesting things you didn’t realize were there.  I’ll give some practical examples of this in the next post.

But Linda found helpful something that I haven’t precisely highlighted before.  Scenes are a give-and-take between actors.  You and I may have very different goals in the same scene.  I may want you to help me prepare dinner for company, and you may want me to finance your new business idea.  Sometimes we’ll talk about food, sometimes you’ll try to sell me on yet another hair-brained idea.  Remember the tug-of-war analogy I used to describe conflict?  We can also use it to talk about who is controlling the situation at any given moment.  This will impact which verbs you choose.

I may want to talk about cooking, but your agenda can derail my own.  I will sometimes respond to what I am getting from you and temporarily put aside my own concerns, but I’m going to bring up what I want to talk about as soon as I can do it easily.  My need to talk about my own stuff may contribute an urgency to how I bring it up, or I may or may not listen very well to what you’re saying.  A close reading of the text should make its influence on what I do and say relatively apparent.

In other words, not everything I do and say in a scene is necessarily directly connected to my Big Verb.  Sometimes I am just responding to your need.  Think of it as tossing a ball back and forth.  When you hold the ball, you are controlling the scene.  When you toss it back to me, I take control.

Who is driving the scene at any given moment matters.  By driving, I mean, whose topic of conversation is being discussed?  Whose needs are we focusing on the most?  If we’re talking about the weather because you just came in the house complaining that you had to park halfway down the street because the snowplows have done a poor job of clearing and much of the on-street parking is unusable as a result, and I change the subject to talk about how I can’t find a dress for the office holiday party, then you were driving the first beat, and I am driving the second one.  I’m listening to you complain in Beat One, and you’re listening to me complain in Beat Two (alright, not the most scintillating dialogue or interesting plot.  But you get the idea.)

Understanding who is driving the beat helps you to connect with your scene partner, because you have a clearer sense of the fact that this moment in the scene isn’t really about you, it’s about you listening to and responding to someone else’s need.  In real life, we do this switching back and forth with ease and regularity.  So should it be on stage.

Of course, in a really well-written play, the best scenes will be where we are at odds over the same thing (that is, in conflict!)  When that happens, it is possible that no one character is really driving the scene — we are both fighting tooth and nail for what we want.  Identifying these moments can help us to focus more clearly on where and how the other character keeps throwing obstacles in our path.

But here’s the really wonderful thing that Linda wrote in her last email, which tells me that she is starting to understand the role verbs play and why they give such power to an actor:

“Your approach adds a more dynamic and complex layer to portraying a character.  Because what that character might be thinking or feeling is not in a vacuum; it’s in relation to another person or situation and it’s not static and, like much in life, it may be in conflict with ‘the other’.  It’s why verbs, not adjectives, tell the story.  So, yesterday when I was mulling over what you had written, I said to myself, ‘your emphasis is on how the character is thinking, wanting, doing, feeling, reacting, controlling, manipulating, etc (all verbs!), in relation to another person who is doing all those things as well.  [The emphasis is mine.]  It’s almost as though the actor is transmitting how that character’s mind operates and reacts in any given moment.  Which creates tension and excitement.  And even in glorious harmony with another person, it’s a result of working through all of the above.'”

The very fact that she is speaking the words I’ve boldfaced above indicates that she is starting to really understand how verbs work.  In her previous email, verbs showed themselves occasionally, but often in weak form, and sometimes not at all.  Of the seven verbs she’s used here, the last two are the kinds of verbs you want to choose.  They are actions you can play.  “I want to control my situation.”  “I want to control what you do with your life.”  “I want to manipulate you into doing what I want while thinking it is all your idea.”  Underscore your beat with those very powerful verbs and phrases, and you’re cooking with gas, as my mother used to say.

Once you can begin to use verbs on any level to describe what is going on with your character, you are on the path toward using verbs, and it is very difficult to turn around and go back to using adjectives.  Nor will you want to!

Playing Bad Characters: Doubt, Scene 4

doubt jamesScene 4 reveals a number of interesting things about Sister Aloysius:

First, she is tending to plants that need to be protected from the upcoming winter, and which the gardener neglected to do.  She could ask Mr. McGinn to do it, or berate him for not having done it (and perhaps she does, in a scene we never see), but instead, Shanley shows us her doing the caretaking herself.

Yes, it’s fabulous business from the actor’s point of view, but it’s more than that.  Playwrights don’t make arbitrary choices in these matters.  Sister Aloysius’ caring for things that really need caring for is something Shanley wants us to see.

Scene 4 also reveals that Sister Aloysius was once married.  She says little about her husband in the play, other than that he died in WW II.  We are left to surmise the details, but there seems to be a connection between his death and her decision to enter the convent.  It is up to you, as the actor, to decide what that connection is – and unlike the matter of whether or not Jorgy and Bea in Other People’s Money had an affair or didn’t or are living together or not – I think this connection is critical to knowing who Sister Aloysius is and why she acts as she does.  But given so few hints, you probably won’t know the answer until deep into rehearsals.

Shanley also notes in his stage directions in this scene that “Sister Aloysius smiles for the first time.”  Now, I know I’m very fond of ignoring stage directions, but this is one I would have to think long and hard about before tossing it out.  It is very specific and speaks to Sister Aloysius’ general behavior and attitude.  More importantly, it serves the reason Shanley wrote the play to begin with:  to explore the nature of doubt.  In Scene 2, we meet a nun who isn’t particularly likable, who seems judgmental and unfeeling.  In Scene 4, we’re seeing her other side, and it puts us off-balance, which is precisely where Shanley wants us to be.

Still, she’s not yet a sympathetic character – until she starts talking about the relationship between the women and men religious in the Catholic Church as well as her understanding of the people in the parish and why Donald Muller will be hit by some classmate.  All right, she doesn’t suddenly become sympathetic, but she becomes a little more human.  When she explains to Sister James the difficulty of proving what is a hunch on both their parts, the audience starts to move into a place of uncertainty about the main plot line of the play, a move aided by the fact that Sister James has identified precisely what Sister Aloysius suspects, without clear direction from Sister Aloysius.

Has Sister Aloysius subtly manipulated Sister James into suspecting Father Flynn of child abuse?  Perhaps, but only perhaps.  There is inadequate proof in either direction, which is precisely what Shanley wants.  Doubt is, after all, doubt, not certainty.  That means giving the audience the ability to understand a little about what makes the characters tick and why they all perceive the same situation differently, without giving clear evidence as to what actually happened.

Kind of like life.

In my last post on this play, I’ll talk about Father Flynn and how to decide (as an actor) his innocence or guilt.

2015 Actor’s Renaissance Season: Top 5

From an actor at my favorite theater in the world. Given that we’ve been talking about script analysis lately, check out #3 for a good example of how lines in different parts of the script impact each other and how even good, trained actors don’t necessarily see the connections immediately.  This is also an example of Diamond Lines.  Isn’t it funny that you can have Diamond Lines that you somehow completely miss?  It’s a V-8 moment when the penny finally drops, and you are so grateful!  And oh, yes — read the rest of the post, too. Worth your time!

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The Actor’s Renaissance Season is an experience unlike any other in the American Theatre, both for the audience and the actors involved in creating it. Eleven actors. Five plays. Three months. Zero directors.

The 2015 Actor’s Renaissance Actors featured these plays:

  1. THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by William Shakespeare (1591)
  2. THE ROVER by Aphra Behn (1677)
  3. THE WHITE DEVIL by John Webster (1612)
  4. EVERY MAN IN HIS HUMOR by Ben Jonson (1598)
  5. MOTHER BOMBIE by John Lily (1594)

In the Actor’s Renaissance Season, there are two levels of “Staging Conditions” applied to the plays. The first level relates to performance:

  • We perform with the lights on, so you can see other patrons, and the performers can see you
  • We perform in a thrust at the beautiful Blackfriars Playhouse, so you can sit right on stage
  • We use cross-gender casting, and all actors plays multiple characters in the same play
  • We…

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Playing Bad Characters: Doubt, Scene 2 (again)

doubt sr aloysiusIn Scene 2, we have the contrast of the older, stern Sr. Aloysius and the younger, enthusiastic Sr. James.  It’s easy to like Sr. James and to frown upon Sr. Aloysius, who seems to be vetoing anything happy.  But let’s look again.

Sr. Aloysius is the principal of the school and has worked there for many years.  Sr. James is a new teacher.  We can fairly say, I think, that as a new teacher, she undoubtedly has things to learn.  Sr. Aloysius is taking the time, in this scene, to mentor her.  Her approach may seem a bit severe at times, but let’s assume that underneath the gruffness is a sincere desire to help Sr. James be a better teacher, so that the children may be better served.

If you disagree with Sr. Aloysius, what you are disagreeing with is what it means “to be a better teacher”, or “what will benefit the children”.  Those are things about which reasonable people can disagree.  But you need to understand how Sr. Aloysius defines these things and, more importantly, why.  What in her background has led her to believe these things?  Has she tried other ways and seen them fail?

What are the things that matter to Sr. Aloysius?  Let’s look at some of her lines:

“Much can be accomplished in sixty minutes.”

“Always the easy way out these days.  What does that teach?  An easy choice today can have its consequence tomorrow.”

“Penmanship is dying all across the country.”

“You favor History and risk swaying the children to value it over their other subjects.  I think this is a mistake.”

“I do not say this to aggrandize myself, but to illustrate the importance of paying attention.”

“What good’s a gift if it’s left in the box?”

“The best teachers do not perform, they cause the students to perform.”

“Good teachers are never content.”

“It is a society which requires constant educational, spiritual, and human vigilance.”

“God gave you a brain and a heart.  The heart is warm, but your wits must be cold.”

“They’re children.  They can talk to each other.  It’s more important they have a fierce moral guardian.  You stand at the door, Sister.  You are the gatekeeper.  If you are vigilant, they will not need to be.”

“I’m sorry I’m not more forthright, but I must be careful not to create something by saying it.”

Take these lines out of the dialogue and forget that Sr. Aloysius is the one saying them.  These are all lines that you can probably either agree with or else understand the thinking behind them.  You may think that an adult ought to be more than a fierce moral guardian to a child, but you can probably get on board with Sr. Aloysius’ view that adults should protect children from anything immoral.

Despite all of the things Sr. Aloysius says that we don’t care for, the play is sprinkled with lines that we can agree with, that show her to be a bit more human than we thought when we first read the play.

The interesting question about Sr. Aloysius is that she is absolutely well-meaning and in some ways absolutely right.  Yet she takes it to an edge that we find unpalatable – she is an extremist in what she believes.  Why?  How has she arrived at this point?  What in her history has brought her to such a rigid, black and white position?

Well, that’s the journey you go on in rehearsal.  Just remember that she, too, has a heart, and that her heart is warm as well.  She knows William London is on a bad path and that she can’t do much to alter it, and it pains her.  She worries that someone will hit Donald Muller because he is black, and that Linda Conte will have sex before she turns 14.  And while she asks Sr. James to help Sr. Veronica because the school can’t afford to lose a teacher, I suspect that she is also worried about Sr. Veronica’s physical well-being as well as her happiness.  Who wants to be shunted away to the old nun’s home?

 

 

Playing Bad Characters: Doubt, Scene 2

doubt_1435912cSo let’s take the idea that Sr. Aloysius is not an unredeemable person, but someone who sees her mission as protecting the young children in her care from all harm.

When we first meet her, in Scene 2, it is clear that she is a woman of strong and firm opinions on matters like teaching methods.  You may not agree with those methods, but you need to give thought to why they matter to her.  Why should a teacher showing enthusiasm for a subject be a bad thing for kids to experience?  Why should knowledge be delivered as bitter medicine?  What benefit is derived by this approach?  Because in Sr. Aloysius’ eyes, there is a benefit.  It’s not an arbitrary choice on her part, and it’s not because she’s generally mean.  She sincerely thinks this is best for the kids.

Her advice to Sr. James sounds like severe criticism, but from Sr. Aloysius’ point of view, she is simply trying to help her to be a better teacher.  Sr. Aloysius is an ISTJ in Myers-Briggs’ terminology – she is businesslike and fond of order and tradition.  Part of the attraction of the Catholic Church is that if you want rules and black and white, you can find it there (you can also find the opposite there, even in the 1960s, but if you are attracted by rules, you can certainly find them.)

So for Sr. Aloysius, there is comfort and security in regulations.  If she fears uncertainty – doubt – then her desperate clinging to her set of rules helps quell her fears.

What’s the number one diamond line for Sr. Aloysius?  The final line of the play:  “I have doubts!  I have such doubts!”

So we have a nun who means well and wants to do the best job she can as principal (which means protecting her charges to the utmost), but is scared to death of the grey area and enforces the “Rule of Law” at her school both to protect her charges and to protect herself from the terrifying unknown.

Count both the adjectives and the verbs in that last paragraph.  Notice how I haven’t mentioned words like severe, heartless, unfeeling, mean-spirited, vindictive, vengeful, harsh, etc.?  Instead, I’ve given you motivations that you can use to drive what you do.

The playwright has written lines that have all the severity and mean-spiritedness necessary.  You don’t have to work to add any of that negative emotion to the performance.  The words will take care of that.  Your job, actually, is to do the opposite – to temper the strong language of the play with an emotional life that makes sense and creates a three-dimensional human being instead of a stereotype.

But let’s go back to the script of Scene 2.  Sr. Aloysius calls art class a waste of time.  Play the emotion (“she’s disparaging the arts”) and you play into the stereotype.  But if you stop and think about how someone could justifiably consider the arts a waste of time (what would you replace them with, and what benefit would the students derive from the replacement?), you take just a little bit of negative energy out of that line.

William London, the unruly child in Sr. James’ class, appears to be Sr. Aloysius’ favorite whipping boy, and she seems to be unreasonable, at least at first.  But read page 15 again.  What if Sr. Aloysius’ assessment of William’s life is absolutely spot on?  Forget how she says it, just look at the facts.  Does she become just a little bit more understandable?

More next time . . .

Liking Bad Characters: Doubt, Part 1

Doubt 2“You want me to like this terrible person I am playing?”

Actually, that’s precisely what I want you to do.  Impossible thought it may seem.

In order to get to “like”, you first have to understand her.  I’ve talked about this some in other places, but let’s look at it specifically in terms of people who do terrible things to others.

The director of Doubt (see When Your Character is Very, Very Bad) clearly thinks Sr. Aloysius does terrible things to others.  Let’s look at why she does so.

As always, it comes down to her verb.  At first blush, especially if you don’t like her, Sr. Aloysius’ verb seems to be “to get rid of Father Flynn” or “to expose him as a deviant”.  Of these two choices, the former has more validity to me.  While she certainly wants him to confess, repent, and reform, her bigger concern seems to get him out of the church (as a priest, anyway).

It’s not enough to say “to get rid of Father Flynn” – you have to follow it up with “why?”  She could want to get rid of him because she thinks he is a discredit to the priesthood, because she can’t stand to look at him (his long fingernails turn her stomach), or because she thinks he is taking the parish in a dangerous direction.  All three of those things do come into play in her feelings, I think, and are part of what helps to build a layered interpretation of Sr. Aloysius.

None of them get to the heart of the matter, however, which is this:  She wants to protect Donald Muller and every other boy in her charge from Father Flynn’s predation.

“To protect her charges from rape” is a more positive spin on the situation than “to get rid of Father Flynn” isn’t it?  It’s also more positive than “to get rid of an immoral priest” or “to stop a rapist”.

Why?  Because protecting someone is a positive act; getting rid of, or stopping, someone has a negative tone to it.

If we go with “get rid of Father Flynn”, then if he is guilty of her charges, we’re okay with her actions, even if we don’t necessarily innocent of like her way of going about it.  But if he is innocent of her charges, then her actions are vindictive.  It’s an either/or proposition.  We either approve of her (even if we don’t necessarily like her) or we hate her.

But if we go with “to protect her charges from rape”, we will find her at least somewhat likable (and not merely approve of her) whether Father Flynn is innocent or guilty, because she is motivated by something good – the desire to advocate for and protect all children in her care.

The fact that she is willing to “move away from God” (her words) in order to achieve her goal is, for a religious, a sacrifice of some consequence.  This reveals how high the stakes are for her.  She will do anything to protect innocent children from being defiled and abused.

Does this make her more likable and understandable to you?  I hope so.

Next time, I’ll take you a little deeper into how this choice of verb affects your portrayal of Sr. Aloysius, and how the script supports this perspective.

When Your Character is Very, Very Bad

08_Doubt_Streep.jpgA local theater is doing a production of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Doubt.  The audition notice described Sr. Aloysius, the older nun determined to rid her school of the priest she is convinced has molested a young boy (and played on Broadway by Cherry Jones and in the film by Meryl Streep) as an

Old School elementary principal, stern, suspicious and cynical.  She shows no weakness and discourages any and all signs of weakness.  Her nature is excessive. She is unsympathetic and rules with an iron fist, adults and students alike.  She strongly dislikes Father Flynn’s sense of compassion and his compassionate demeanor.  Think cold, heartless and 100% strong willed and mean spirited.  Her anger and guilt-inducing suspicious nature, drives her passion.

Pretty extreme description, no?  “No weakness”, “any and all signs”, “excessive”, “iron fist”, “cold” “heartless”, “100% strong willed and mean spirited”.  Not a lot of room in there for playing the opposites, which I hope you now understand, if you’ve read the rest of the blog, helps to create a nuanced, interesting, unpredictable, believable character.

As it turns out, the director attended parochial school during the 60s and 70s until graduating from high school, and the description he provided reflects his own experience with at least some of the nuns he encountered.  Which is Lesson Number One:

Be careful about bringing your own baggage to the role.  Be sure it is applicable.

I’ve heard actors say things like, “Well, I would never do that, so I don’t find it believable!”  (Yes, but your character does, so you need to wrap your head around that.)  About La Marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses:  “I just can’t like her, she’s evil.”  (If you’re going to play her, you better understand her pain and what drives her to do terrible things, and not just see “evil”.)

The play isn’t about you; it’s about your character.  Separate your personal beliefs and experiences from what is happening to your character.  Use your own experiences if they are aligned with the character, but be careful to not assume that some correlation implies complete correlation.

If you perceive your character in the way this director sees Sr. Aloysius – if you can step back and recognize that you are using some weighty, definitive, and extreme language to describe her – it’s a very big indication that you’ve got some personal issues that are clouding your judgment about the character.  You need to sort out what those are and open yourself to the possibility that your character isn’t a mirror image of whomever it was who harmed you in the past.  (Similarly, if you paint your character with rose-colored glasses, you need to look for some flaws and accept that they do exist.)

But let’s say you’ve never met a nun in your life nor had any cruel teachers, and yet your reaction to Sr. Aloysius is not unlike the director’s response.  What do you do?  How do you go about playing characters with no redeeming qualities?

Stay tuned . . .

Playing the Verbs: Personalizing What You Find

IndividualityLet’s go back to Part 5 of Script Analysis:  Other People’s Money.

In it, I found a verb for Bea:  To save the jobs of men who work at the plant and have no other viable means of employment.  This is a powerful choice, and factors into not just the scene with Garfinkle, but into everything Bea does once she becomes aware of the nature of Garfinkle’s interest in the company.

But it’s still just words, just an intellectual choice.  Choosing the verbs is one thing; playing them is another.

So how do you play them?

First, be religiously sticking to Getting What You Want and ignoring the emotional nature of the scene.  Try to save the jobs, and the emotions will take care of themselves.

Second, try to Save the Jobs as if your life depends upon it, because in a play, it always does.

Third, find a way to personalize it.  Earnestly trying to save jobs will get you half the way there, but it won’t dig into your heart, and that is where we want the work to be.

In this case, I created sob stories for three of the men at the plant.  It’s not enough to say “1200 men will lose their jobs if something isn’t done.”  Generalizations don’t touch your heart.  Specifics do.  I also had ideas of what they each looked like, sounded like, how they behaved at the plant.  Who was the jovial guy who was always getting attention, and who was the quiet man who observed everything and would give you the shirt off his back if he thought you needed it.  I imagined the annual company picnic in July and all that Bea did to plan it each year, and the pleasure she took in watching the kids play and the families enjoy each other.

I thought about how it is a small enough community and the plant large enough that Bea is apt to run into the men and their wives outside of business hours at the gas station, the supermarket, church.  How she sends get-well, happy birthday, and sympathy cards when appropriate.  How she marveled at how much little Sammy has grown since she saw him last.  How involved she is in the lives of everyone at the plant.

This is the kind of backstory that helps my performance, but I didn’t start constructing it at the start of rehearsals.  I didn’t work on it until I realized, somewhat deeper into rehearsals than I should have realized, that Bea’s verb didn’t have to do with Jorgy.  Yes, she doesn’t want him to lose his job, either, but she knows he is financially secure.  It’s the machinist and the foreman she is really worried about.

MachinistsThere was a workbench at the very back center of the stage, behind the flats, and it had a blue light on it, to allow actors to safely move from one wing to the other.  As I sat in the wing waiting for the scene that begins on page 66, I’d look over to the workbench and imagine that I could see my three guys – Frank, Joe, and Mitch – working out a problem together, laughing and enjoying each other’s company, unaware that there is a fight underway to take their jobs from them.

That minute of imagining got me in touch with the heart of what Bea is feeling and allowed me to bring an emotional level out on stage that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.  (Because I forgot to do it one night, and it showed in my performance!)  It’s all an act of imagination – I usually favor the Stella Adler/Sanford Meisner “What if” approach to the Lee Strasberg “emotional memory” approach – but imagine well and imagine specifically, and the results can be powerful.

Script Analysis: Diamond Lines, Part 2

Archeological DigDiamond lines are lines that come with baggage.  They reveal a character’s history, something that has shaped who they are.  They ask you to go on an archeological dig.

The fact that the playwright throws them into the script tells you that they are critical to understanding the character and what she does in this play.  If she was the homecoming queen and the playwright doesn’t mention it, then being the queen wasn’t a defining moment for her or, at least, its ramifications (how she felt about it, how others reacted to it) don’t impact what happens to her in this play.

However, if the playwright does let this fact drop, it means it matters.  Was it a defining moment for her?  Is it is past glory that she clings to or one she wants to shed?  Has it affected how the men in her life view her, and is that a good thing or a problem for her?  How strong is her sense of self?  Does she need public approbation to feel good about herself?

Diamond lines usually jump out at me, but I also comb through the script to look for them.  Sometimes they are subtle, and you may not realize until halfway through rehearsals that there is really more buried in that line than you gave it credit for.  This is normal, but think what an advantage you have if you recognize what the line has to offer earlier in rehearsals!  Objectively looking at lines to see what they might mean is a way of finding them early.

So once you find your diamonds, what do you do with them?

Let’s start with what you SHOULDN’T do:  “Decide” they mean X, and then play X.

For example, let’s take Bea’s line about apologizing to no one.  You could take that to mean that she doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks about anything she does and play that, but it’s a bit simplistic.  For instance, it assumes that she behaves that way in all situations, and that’s unlikely.  She’s too likable a character for that to be true.

That approach also may assume she’s a little “in your face” about what she does:  “Take me as I am or don’t take me, I’m not changing for anyone”.  This, too, might have some validity, but it’s an extreme position, and while I believe in amping up your stakes by going as far as you can with something, that’s a very different thing than defining your characters by taking their personality traits to extremes.  People are very complicated beings, full of contradictions.

So one place to start is by taking what it seems to say about Bea – that she doesn’t apologize – and imagine circumstances under which she would.  What makes her feel bad?  How does she feel about other people (because we apologize to people we care about and not often to those who drive us nuts)?

Then, let’s put the line in context.  She is speaking very specifically about her relationship with Jorgy.  This line tells me that she knows it’s an unorthodox relationship, she knows what a stir it caused in town, and she has lived with that stir for most of her life without once responding to questions or misconceptions or insults that sprang up as a result.

That’s a very difficult thing to do.  It tells me that Bea is made of steel.  (But again – where are the weak points in her steely frame?)  It also tells me something about how she feels about Jorgy.  You only can keep silent in the face of personal attack if you know, with every fiber of your being, that you are doing the absolutely right thing.  Bea loves Jorgy so deeply that she is willing to sacrifice everything for it.

Did she make the right choice in doing this?  Not for you, as the actor, to say.  Only for you to examine the reason for the choice and the impact of that choice.  What did she sacrifice in order to be with Jorgy on such unusual terms?  How did it impact her marriage?  Her relationship with her daughter?  With friends?  Co-workers?

Mostly what I do with diamond lines is try to internalize what they really mean, and not necessarily in a way that I can communicate verbally to you.  It’s a matter of understanding how they make me feel.  If Bea’s choice would not have been mine, they I have to spend considerable time getting to a real place of understanding why she made that choice.

What would I be willing to stand for over time without budging an inch?  How much of a conscious choice was this and how much was simply who Bea is?  Were there moments when she almost responded to someone and didn’t, held back at the last minute?  What did that feel like?  If Bea had chosen to respond, what would she have said?  Would what she would have said changed over the years, as she matured?  After Jorgy’s wife died?  After her own husband died?

You need to simply sit with diamond lines and let them work their magic on you.  They always have layers to them.  How much of what drives them is genetic, and how much environmental?

Revisit diamond lines over and over again.  In the shower.  While driving.  Waiting in the checkout line.  Keep pushing deeper into them, both intellectually and emotionally.  Sift through your character’s history and heart, brushing away the dirt that covers your diamond.  Discover all of the diamond’s facets, not just what first meets the eye.

To read Script Analysis:  Diamond Lines, Part 1, go here.