Friday, July 15, 2011

#352: First Comes the Word...

It's a quiet end to a quiet day. The first of either in a while. Time to reflect on my first love.

Some things, you just don't talk about
There are rules in the theatre. You don't whistle back stage or sing in the dressing room. You don't quote the Scottish Play unless you're producing it. You don't criticize your leading lady in public. You don't make your dresser mad. And you don't gossip about what goes on in rehearsals.

It isn't easy to write about preparing a play. At least not publicly. There is a special kind of trust that you have to have in a rehearsal hall. You need to know that you can try something that fails miserably, and not have a bunch of strangers read about it on the internet the next morning. I've often thought about blogging about the process, but this unwritten code always stops me. For the next couple weeks, I'm going to try to open up this part of my life with the gentle respect I feel it deserves. No griping about the director. No gossip about my fellow actors. But I've shared so much of my life here. I don't want to leave my art out of the mix.

I spent most of the day doing character analysis for my next role. I'm playing Arthur, a husband and dad whose heart and mind have been broken by the events of 9/11. As I fall apart, my family falls apart around me until one day when an unlikely teen-aged deliverer walks through the door dressed as Elvis. It's a beautiful, insane, very funny, and I hope very moving story. Nice to spend a few hours doing the kind of work I love, busting a script down into little pieces, scattering them on the floor, and looking for the patterns. I love this part of building a character. It's all about the words.

If a script is a body, the verbs are the muscles. A few nights ago, while sitting backstage at the Arboretum waiting for Richard III to go up, I was pouring over my script when I felt one of the younger actors peeking over my shoulder. "You've underlined some words. Why?" The first thing I do when I start a new script is to get a pencil and a highliter. I highlight my lines so I can find them through my ever dimming eyes during early rehearsals when we're still "on book," walking around carrying our scripts. Then I take my pencil and I underline all the verbs. All of them. They are the action in the language of the play. The verbs keep the story driving forward and the characters moving toward their individual climaxes. Ideally, I have this done before the first table read-through. I never want to read the script without the lens of action before me.

I once worked for a director who was obsessed with "The Three Lists." He had played with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He taught me so much about acting that when I direct, I often find myself repeating his catch-phrases and affecting his accent. He was a maniac about the three lists. After the first read-through, we were expected to have them written and be ready to read them, line by line, out loud.

1.) Everything I say about myself;
2.) Everything others say about me.
3.) Everything I say about others.

I'll bet I haven't played five roles as a professional without doing this work. It is a tedious, hand cramping chore, and it reveals more about a character than any other technique I know. Today, I dug into Arthur's words about himself and learned quite a few things. He says he's sorry a lot. He talks only about himself for quite a while. He makes promises. He makes excuses. He is tired all the time, especially when asked to do something. He says "I don't know" over and over. He hasn't eaten or slept or changed out of his pajamas for a long time. He wonders about what things mean. You start to see patterns when you look at a character this way. Why does he always ask, "What time is it," when he wakes up? What makes him say that he's hungry for the first time? What changed that enabled him to say, "She hates me," or "Take me back," or "I love you so much. Both of you." These are the questions that you use to start filling in the heart and soul of a character, and they all come out of the words that the playwright chose.

Acting is a lot more than just literary analysis. Playing a role is more than just learning the words. But the words come first. Knowing what they mean. Knowing how they're put together. Knowing what the playwright tried to tell you about this person by choosing the vocabulary, phrasing, and thought patterns that are on the page in front of you. A good actor needs a good mind, but you can't just think about a role. You have to have a voice. You have to have a flexible, well conditioned body. You have to have emotional tools and a sense of timing, talent, and taste. You can't really be an actor without all of that.

But first, comes the word...


1 comment:

  1. This is a good one!
    If you don't mind, I will share this with my acting students.
    They sometimes like to think that they can skip that book work.


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