Archives for posts with tag: choices

It’s a drug, acting in theater is. An addictive one. It must be. Oh sure, it starts out innocently enough. The first few doses go down easy, seductively. We get them slipped to us in high school or college or community theater. We’re hanging out with people just like us. And, damn! It’s so fun! The crowd laughs when they’re supposed to. They applaud us. Our friends and family compliment us. Acting is the most awesome thing, ever!

Then we go for it in the real world. (By now, we’re left with no choice in the matter. The needle is in to stay.) We do without money while we pursue it. We give up our days and nights to stay involved. It can take a dozen auditions before getting a callback or even a nibble. When you’re working regularly, it’s tempting to feel as though you’ll never be without work again. When you’re not working at all, it’s tempting to feel as though you will never work again.

There have been many evenings when, after working the day job for eight hours, the last thing I’ve wanted to do was go to the theater and do a show. I’ve continued to feel that way while dragging on wardrobe and killing time in the green room wishing the night was over, already.

But then, I step out onto the stage and there’s no place on earth I’d rather be.

We all have our reasons for pushing through the hard parts so we can get in front of an audience. What are yours?

Personally, I get off on the communal experience. It’s me, the rest of the cast, the crew and the audience all sharing a different place and time together. Here’s deal we make with the audience:

“Okay, you give us a few bucks and we’ll get up here and transport you away from your particular daily grind. You might learn something or maybe you’ll laugh your ass off for a couple of hours. Whatever. We’re going to bust humps to make some magic. And what all of us on stage, everyone backstage and all of you out there experience together will be totally unique. The next audience will not see or hear the exact same things you see and hear. Because this ain’t the movies, folks. And you get another, really interesting benefit out of the deal. We’re working without a net up here. You just might see us really embarrass ourselves. Enjoy!”

I think I’ve just talked myself into seeking out another fix.

Leslie Nipkow is an amazing talent. Her stage presence and believability are seamless. Lucky me, she was one of my scene partners in Wynn Handman’s class. Her work elevates the work of anyone fortunate enough to share the stage with her. You know that feeling you get after a performance in which everything clicked for you? You spent the entire show in “the zone?” That was how I felt every time Leslie and I worked on a scene together. What a buzz that is!

I had an audition for the Actor’s Studio and Leslie generously agreed to partner up with me. We had decided on a scene from Dylan by Sidney Michaels. We had spent weeks on it for class and it worked very well for us. The scene is between Dylan Thomas and his wife, Caitlin. They had a tumultuous relationship on one level and a deep, mutual love on another. The scene we did shows both of those levels along with a significant emotional arc for both characters. It’s a great and challenging piece.

To get to the performance space at the Actor’s Studio we had to go up a set of narrow stairs and wait just outside a door for the call to go. While we were waiting I noticed Leslie had her arms extended and was pushing herself back and forth by pressing her open palms on the opposing walls of the stairwell. She was doing this at a pretty brisk pace and I was afraid she might fall down the stairs. But I knew Leslie well enough to keep my mouth shut.

After the audition, which went really well, I asked her why she had done that back and forth business on the stairs. “Because Caitlin is trapped,” she said. Simple enough, right? But the fact was, she had landed on a subtext for Caitlin and found a way to express it physically right on the spot. Waiting on those stairs she had discovered and, right up until the last second used, a focus mechanism that grounded her in Caitlin’s reality and exploited it.

What’s my point? Leslie could have skipped that step and still delivered a remarkable performance because that’s how talented she is. But she wasn’t about to give less than 100 percent of everything she knew and everything she had learned, no matter what. That’s what lifts her from ‘talented’ to ‘unbelievably amazing.’

Finding a way to “kick open the door” to a character’s mindset and world and using it consistently for every performance is one of those basics that we too often ignore. After working at our craft for a long time it’s easy to stop feeling the need for such things. I know I’m guilty of it, just hanging out in the green room until a few lines before the first entrance.

Sorry, Leslie. I’ve got to fix that.

This video speaks a lot of truth to everyone, especially actors and other artists. Take a moment and watch it.

That video is brilliant and everyone should see it. Better yet, everyone should live it.

It brought back a very fond memory. I was in Wynn Handman’s class in the mid-nineties. (If you’ve never heard of Wynn, Google his name. He’s one of the great gifts to American theatre.) In Wynn’s class you worked on whatever you wanted to work on. A monologue, one-person show, whatever. Or, if you had nothing specific in mind, Wynn would pair you off with another student and give you a scene to work on. He assigned a scene from Beyond the Horizon to a male/female pair of students.

Beyond the Horizon was Eugene O’Niell’s first full-length play. Written in 1920, it’s a story about two men in love with the same woman and the personal compromises each is willing to make to win her over.

The actors did their first read through in front of class. After the read through, Wynn got up and made his comments and gave his notes. He started by telling us that O’Niell’s play was a uniquely American tragedy. He then explained what constituted an American tragedy. One of the most profound facets of American life is the freedom to choose the life we want to live. In 1920 that choice was not and, in some cases, is still not available in many of the world’s other cultures. In those places, from the time one is born their life is mapped out for them: where they will live, how they will earn a living and even whom they will marry. But as Americans we have the freedom to make our own, individual life choices and follow dreams no matter how crazy they may seem to others. We can choose the path we want for our lives and even change paths if we want to. An American tragedy results when someone makes the wrong choice. Wynn closed those remarks by saying to the class, “And here’s to all of you talented people for choosing the right path!”

What’s your first step when it comes to building a character, especially for a role you’ve never played before? What’s the first thing you do when you pick up a script for the first time? Do you read through the entire play from cover to cover or do you flip through to find your scenes before reading anything else? I would guess most of us zero in on our scenes out of curiosity if nothing else. When you’ve finished looking over your scenes, then what? Is that when you read through the entire script?

I doubt very much if I’m the only one who does this but here’s what I do. I go to my scenes, first and immediately start making choices and jotting down notes. Once I’ve done that with all of my scenes, I go back and do it again. And again. I’ll even start learning my lines before I read the whole script. Crazy, I know. There’s a whole lot of information in the rest of the play that is bound to inform my character choices so I really should work within the context of the story. But frequently I’ve found I make my strongest choices that way. I never allow myself to become totally committed to these early impulses because I know they’re going to be shaded or changed during rehearsals. It’s surprising, though, how often I’ve ended up returning to those first ideas and using them in performance. Here’s my reasoning behind the idea:

In real life, by the time we’ve reached adolescence, our personalities are pretty well set. The basic wiring in our brains isn’t going to fundamentally change all that much. We’ll learn new things, become wiser and our interests will change and mature but we’ll still perceive the world around us and interact with it in basically the same ways. If one is shy at the age of sixteen, odds are that he/she will still be shy at the age of thirty. How he/she deals with shyness will evolve over time but the fact of foundational shyness will stay (I learned all that stuff working in a psychiatric outpatient clinic for three years). Since as actors we’re in the business of inventing new people and personalities, can’t we come closer to the character’s truth by shaping the personality outside of the circumstances of the play?

I’m not the type of guy who produces profound revelations so others must work this way, too.

What about you? Please share your thoughts. Thanks!

I’m not sure why this is, but I can’t seem to nail down a character until I get him vocally. I don’t mean I can’t complete a character without the vocal aspect. I need some vocal ideas to get jumpstarted on character development from scratch. Even if I change my mind about vocal choices later, or finally end up using my natural voice, I have a tough time getting off the starting line until I’ve done some experimenting with different voices. There’s something about hearing myself reading the lines with a different voice that makes it easier to become someone different. The first time I pick up a script I start reading my lines out loud, shifting from one vocal idea to another. I know I’ve hit the right voice when it starts to generate new ideas about other character choices. Sometimes at an early rehearsal, the director will ask me to drop my chosen voice and go with something else. But that’s okay. Unless I feel very strongly about the vocal choice, changing it is no big deal because it has already done its job by introducing me to other facets of my character I might have otherwise missed. It’s a little unconventional I know but it works for me.