Archives for posts with tag: play

As promised at the end of the last article, we’re going to tackle personality disorders. They reside in one of the outermost layers of a personality “onion.” We can see them in action and they can be infuriating to others as well as to the people who demonstrate them. There are a lot of these and professional publications and organizations have categorized them using a lot of different criteria. But since I’m not a professional and this is a series about the employment of simplified psychology in an actor’s character development, my aim is to keep things as straightforward as possible.

First of all, a personality disorder is a personality trait that is maladaptive to the culture in which it is employed. Behavior that is acceptable in one culture will not necessarily be acceptable in another. The disorders are patterns of behavior that are inflexible and well ingrained. They can be the source of considerable distress.

Passive aggressive personality disorder may be manifested by resentment, skepticism and deliberate underperformance. This personality unloads its anger indirectly. For example, if a passive aggressive individual is asked to take out the trash, but does not want to, he/she will eventually take out the trash but do so angrily and in a rush, managing to spill a lot of it all over the kitchen floor.

Someone who always seems helpless and weak and constantly seeks reassurance from others is said to have a dependent personality disorder. They don’t like taking on responsibilities because they’re immature. They have very low self esteem and see themselves as useless and incapable. Not a lot of fun at a party.

If someone has a narcissistic personality disorder they see themselves as being superior to others and deserving of special treatment. He/she may be preoccupied with fantasies of well-deserved, enormous success. Could be that person who sits to your left in the dressing room.

A borderline personality is commonly underpinned by a desperate fear of abandonment and isolation. Wide fluctuations in mood will include rapid shifts between loving and hating. One second a borderline personality will see another person as wonderful, the next second that same person is seen as despicable. They’re considered unpredictable and even unstable. Do not let them near sharp objects.

I love personality disorders! They’re like a smorgasbord of ready-made choices for actors. You can pick and choose among all these traits and express them in performance. You can express them physically, emotionally or stash them away into subtext. Your character can be predictable or unpredictable or just plain “nuts.” They come in really handy when the playwright hasn’t given you a lot to go on.

There are plenty more of these disorders and I‘ll touch on a few more next time.

We’ll finish up our cursory look at defense mechanisms with a brief examination of “mature” defense mechanisms.

For the person utilizing it, a mature defense mechanism is thought to be more helpful than a primitive one. For one thing, they can be  learned on a conscious level and with practice help an individual feel better about themselves and more comfortable in their environment. Here’s a sampler.

Sublimation is redirecting unacceptable thoughts or impulses. If you feel like beating the crap out of somebody, but instead choose to work out on a punching bag, you’re sublimating. Or, if one is capable of seeing humor in their own unacceptable impulse they can derail the impulse. Fantasy is another means of sublimation. If you’re angry about not getting any callbacks for six months and feel the impulse to fire your loyal, hard working agent, allowing yourself to imagine and focus on a successful career will take the edge off.  Are you working on a character whose behavior belies their thoughts or impulses? It can be a lot of fun to behave appropriately toward other characters while thinking very inappropriately about them. Don’t forget: you’re building a new personality with its own secrets. It’s amazing what you can do with those secrets.

Compensation provides escape from the pain of focusing on a perceived weakness by shifting focus to a strength. Maybe you don’t do great auditions but in performance you rock the house. It’s pretty obvious how the latter serves the ego’s long term needs better than the former. This works very nicely in comedy. Think about Felix Unger from The Odd Couple. He may be a neurotic mess but he sure knows how to make a great sandwich or bowl of spaghetti, I mean linguini (there’s an Odd Couple reference there; if you didn’t catch it you really need to read that play or see the movie).

Assertiveness is a comfortable zone between passivity and aggression. It’s refusing to be a welcome mat while recognizing that too much aggressive behavior will be counterproductive. You can get your needs across in a rational and acceptable way by asserting yourself without threatening or hurtful language or behavior. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Stella does that when she’s trying to straighten out Stanley. That’s a tough road, throwing mature assertiveness up against committed, primitive behavior. But in the long term, it better serves her needs to do so.

Well, that’s enough for defense mechanisms. Remember, they’re learned behaviors. Primitive ones only provide a short term defense but the mature ones better serve the long term and are less self-destructive. They are an important layer to any personality and exploring their usage for a particular role can help reveal sub textural ideas for your character.

Next up: Personality, or Behavior Disorders. They bring us closer to the “skin” of a character and offer a wealth of choices.

So, we’re now looking at defense mechanisms. Last time around I got into some detail about denial because we’re all so familiar with it already. One more point about that mechanism: It’s sometimes referred to as “primitive” because it’s not very effective over the long term. Since this is not meant to be a series of articles on abnormal psychology, I won’t go into a lot of detail about other mechanisms. But here’s a summary of several more that you might find useful as you invent your new personality.

Regression is another primitive defense mechanism. It’s when someone seeks the shelter of an earlier stage of development. Someone who is regressing might start exhibiting behavior that is clearly out of the ordinary, like withdrawing from normal activity or becoming unusually reclusive.

Acting Out is primitive behavior, too. When someone has a difficult time facing their own anger, rather than express it verbally they will “act it out” nonverbally, like throwing an ashtray at you! A toddler whipping up a tantrum is a type of acting out many parents have to deal with.

Disassociation, also a primitive defense, is basically “unplugging” from reality until the hurtful, negative feelings are no longer a threat. An individual will even go so far as to separate from him/her self. Events and time slip on by without the individual’s awareness. Sometimes, people will disassociate themselves right into another personality or two, or three. Frequently incorrectly called “split personality” or “schizophrenia,” multiple personality disorder is a severe, deeply imbedded form of disassociation.

Compartmentalization is kind of like disassociation. Ever cheat on your taxes and sort of push that misbehavior aside, away from your other values and leave it to rot? Welcome to compartmentalization.

Projection is the misplacement of bad feelings onto someone or something that is really not the source of the feelings. Coming home after a bad day and taking it out on the dog is an example (Poor dog! Shame on you).

Reaction Formation is taking something negative or threatening and embracing it. That crazy cat lady with 150 felines crawling around her house might actually be deathly afraid of cats. If someone hates their boss they might behave like an insufferable suck up. Strange.

Those are examples of primitive ego defense mechanisms. They can be interesting pathways to the discovery of a character. They can be expressed in a character’s behavior. Think about some of the favorite theater characters you’ve portrayed in the past. Looking back, can you find scenes where he/she might have employed one of them? Or just read through any script, focusing on a character you would like to play and see what kind of ideas you can come up with; ideas that are kick started by looking for the use of primitive ego defense mechanisms.

Next time, we’ll take a look at mature, not so primitive, defense mechanisms.

(Let me take a moment to remind you I am not a psych professional. I spent three years working in a psychiatric clinic and received tons of training but that does not a psychiatrist or psychologist make. Everything I’m sharing in these articles is based on very superficial theories about human behavior that I have found really useful in my work as an actor.) 

We left off with a chapter concerning a character’s “fatal flaw.” If we put that flaw at the very center of our character’s personality, we can then start employing ego defense mechanisms to protect it. Remember, ego works to serve us in ways that benefit the long term. It doesn’t matter if those benefits are acceptable to society or not. The id wants what it wants and the ego decides how best to get it. The poor ego has to carry a lot of weight, doesn’t it? And it does not like being told it’s going about things in the wrong way, whether the criticism is coming from the personality’s superego or from someone else. Well, the ego has a quiver full of weapons it can use to offset any efforts to thwart it’s course.

Much of the time, ego defense mechanisms exist at one of the more inner layers of personality. People will employ them without even realizing it. But the other people around them might easily recognize defensive behavior. They’ll sense that “something just isn’t right” about what they’re hearing or seeing from the mechanism’s employer.

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite, denial. Good old denial. We know it when we see it and we all do it ourselves from time to time. This kind of denial isn’t about lying to others to cover up guilt. It’s about lying to oneself and totally buying into the lie. Let’s take another look at Shakespeare’s Richard III, this time the character of Lady Anne. In one of the play’s most well known scenes, Anne confronts Richard during a funeral procession. She knows he murdered her husband and father-in-law and she rips into him with a stream of invectives that could only come from a Shakespeare play. Yet, within just a few minutes, she is stopping Richard from committing suicide and fully agreeing to align herself with him. What the…? Why would she do that? What is her ego in search of that would drive her in such a counterintuitive way? In a historical context, to be a woman of royalty, widowed and essentially alone and powerless in the world, was a dangerous predicament. It’s understandable that Anne would search for effective protection under the circumstances. The task of that search falls to her ego. But Anne must know, on at least some level, that hooking up with Richard  cannot possibly be in her best, long term interests. He’s a murdering, sleazy liar and total creep. No good can come from such a relationship.

Enter denial, stage right. Her ego cloaks itself in denial and sends Anne a message: “Well, those murders were simply out of necessity. That’s just the way of the world. And besides, just look at him. It must be awful to live with those deformities. The poor man. Nobody to love him. Come on, Anne. Are you made of stone?” For a modern day woman that kind of inner monologue would be impossible. But for Anne, in her time and circumstances, Richard is better than no one. There you go. Denial overrides common sense but Anne’s ego is feeling all warm and fuzzy because, by using denial without even being aware of it, she has convinced herself that Richard is really an okay guy.

This is all about looking at a specific behavior, then understanding it because you have some sense of how and why people behave the way they do. The actor’s personality must give way to the character’s personality completely. For an actor playing Anne, knowing and internalizing the circumstances in their historical context will make Anne’s choice more believable for the actor. Then, her subtext can be that Anne is in denial. Once the actor believes the whole inner package enough, it will find it’s way into her performance, she will project it, the audience will read the denial and buy the choice.

This is the second article in a series about some psychological aspects of character development. In the first article I defined acting as the invention of a new, human personality. Personalities are multi-layered, like an onion. And in this article we start peeling.

WYSIWYG is an acronym used by web designers and it stands for ‘What you see is what you get.’ It’s used to describe certain web designing applications. In describing the outer layer of a personality I would amend that to the unpronounceable  WYSMBWYGBIASPOTWS or, ‘What you see may be what you get but it’s a small part of the whole story.’ Okay, I suck at acronyms. Marlon Brando put it nicely when he said that everyone is an actor. That’s true and it’s important to remember. All of us, with rare exception, adapt our personalities to current circumstances. Your director knows a certain ‘you’ but the ‘you’ your parents, spouse or partner knows is quite different. As I said in the first article, we all move through society in ways that we believe are most appropriate. It’s this layer of your character that the audience sees. To use the onion metaphor, the outer layer also happens to be the thinnest layer and it can easily fall away given the right circumstances.

Shakespeare’s Richard III, by all outward appearances, is a sardonic, sociopathic beast. But in his first speech we see a bit of that outer layer flake away when he says of himself,

“…I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton, ambling nymph;

I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature…”

(As an aside, it’s interesting that he blames nature, not God for his deformities. In a time when God was universally accepted as the Creator, what does that tell us about Gloucester?)

We’ve all heard the expression, “I can see right through him.” Seeing through that first layer is pretty easy for most people. And in Richard’s case, under that tough, Machiavellian façade is a man who feels totally inadequate. Shakespeare has given us early insight into Richard to make him a somewhat more sympathetic character.  But, on the other hand, one look at the guy and you have a pretty good idea of why he’s so bitter. Shakespeare has just made it easier for us.

So that’s the outer layer. The easiest one. What does your audience see and what do your character’s words tell us about your freshly minted personality? Are you guarding against something? Is there something about the things you say that reveal an important aspect of your character’s nature? You shouldn’t have much trouble discerning that sort of thing. It’s going to get a little more complicated and challenging as we go deeper. Every layer has something interesting teach us.

I’ve been playing with some character development ideas over the years. They’re based upon three years of working in a psychiatric outpatient clinic. I had some 400 hours in the classroom and 40 hours a week in the clinic. I learned so much about human behavior that has since been a real help in my acting work.

When you’re shaping a character, just how deep do you go? Is it possible to go too deep? According to Jack Lemmon it’s possible. When he did The Days of Wine and Roses he went too deep during a scene that takes place in a mental institution. At least, that’s what he said in an interview some years back. He said he lost control and that’s something an actor should never do. But you can go plenty deep without losing control and find whole new levels and ideas that will enrich your character. For the next few entries I write, I’m going to share some theory with you. I hope it turns out to be useful.

What do we actors do, exactly? Actors invent new human beings. That’s a pretty simple definition that carries a lot of weight. After all, humans are very complex critters. Especially when it comes to personalities. A human personality is layered like an onion. So, we’re going to start peeling.

Personalities are, of course, invisible. How well can we really know anyone? I promise you, each of us has certain thoughts and we all do certain things that we don’t share with anyone else. (There are people that will say whatever is on their mind or behave however they choose, regardless of the consequences. They’re called “annoying” at best, “psychopathic” at worst.) We have to get along in society. And we want that to be as simple as possible. So there are things we keep to ourselves. That’s good. Some realities are yours and yours alone. Without them, you wouldn’t be human. Knowing the difference between what is appropriate behavior and what is inappropriate behavior is something we expect everyone to know.

When working on a character wouldn’t it be cool to get to know his/her secret realities? They’re right at the core of who that person is. There are outer layers we have to peel back, first. Next time we’ll get started.

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!