Sunday, July 25, 2010

Begin...At The Beginning

As it turns out, I'm stepping into The Case of Humanity vs. Pontius Pilate as a replacement for an actor who was unable to continue in the project for work-related reasons.

I mention this because it adds a special twist to the role--not only do I have a compressed time period to do the role (3 weeks, which is plenty of time for the size of the role), but I have an additional dynamic of blending with a cast and director already quite used to working with each other by this time of the process.

Process? Which Process?

The thing is, every actor has their own process for developing a role. Rehearsals are kind of like the elementary school playground at lunchtime--it's where everyone in the cast learns how to play with each other. So by coming into rehearsals 4 weeks into a 7 week process--well, I'm like the new kid in school. I've got to figure out the social and creative dynamics real quickly, yet still adhere to my own artistic process.

By the time a cast is four weeks into rehearsal, a common artistic language has been established between the director and cast. Each actor knows how the others work and has adjusted so each gets what they need.

For example, some actors can't 'act' until they know their lines. Others are highly analytical and want to know every last detail about their character and events of the play. Some actors respond best thru movement or improvisation and use rehearsal to constantly try a variety of new things, while others might strive to speak every line and perform every movement with exact, consistent precision day-after-day.

Rehearsals are a place to figure all that out, and being the new kid in the cast means that THEY have to start the process all over again with ME. Which makes me feel a little awkward, self-concious, and just a little unsure of how to fit in.

In the Beginning...

I was reminded of the importance of process tonight by the director Marie, who was a cast mate of mine when we played in Squabbles together a little more than a year ago. We spent quite a bit of time talking art/theater/life during the run of that show, and we have a mutual respect for each others acting talents. I trust her as a director.

I've now had three rehearsals with the cast, and Marie has shown some surprise at the direction I've taken the character in. At our first rehearsal, she was treating me like all the other actors in the cast, giving me notes that were more appropriate for an actor 4 weeks into rehearsal than one who was just in days 1-5 of even having a script.

She was pushing me in a direction that I wasn't quite ready to go yet.

In the first week of rehearsal, a director might ask "what do you think the character is feeling here? Or "What's going on for him in this scene?"

In the fourth week of rehearsal, you might get the note like "I need a bigger emotional response from you here-- can you turn it up a notch?" And that's a problem when I'm not sure of which emotional response is right for the moment based on how the character is feeling and what I am actually getting from my scene partner.

Emotions need to be justified. Sometimes you take a leap of faith and dive into an emotional response and sometimes they need to build slowly.

For my own personal process--I start slowly. And that's a risk to take when joining a new want to impress everyone and prove to them why you were chosen for the part--but that's a path that leads to insincere acting.

The Actor As Rodin

The metaphor that I use for developing a character is that I am a sculptor. I must first envision who the character is and get a picture in my mind, and then the rehearsal process is like sculpting...I am the block of clay and I must remove things that don't belong until I am left with what is left--the bare, essential truth of the character.

Like a piece of sculpture, the character *emerges* from the clay--I might start with a vision, but the finished piece creates itself in the process. In fact, one of my great mentors described the art of the theater as "the process of coming into creativity." His conviction was that actors do not create a character--they open themselves up in such a way as the character comes into them.

It's a mysterious (and wonderful) process...that CAN be attained through rigorous and focused practice. But it takes time. A cake that is supposed to bake for 20 minutes will not taste as good if it is only baked for 15.

The Truth Shall Set You Free

For me...the first step I take when I get a role is to ask questions...what is the truth of this character? Why are they in the play? What drives the character to do what they do and...what are they trying to hide?"

That last question is often the most telling for me--if I know the characters darkest secrets that they don't want anyone to know, then I know what motivates them to do whatever it is that they do in the play.

I perceive my job as an actor is to bring Truth to light. To create a memorable character out of words on a paper who is a vital cog to the story being told. To bring life to a fictitious character and make him so real that an audience believes they know him beyond the script--that they can tell me things about the character that are never revealed in the script.

I look for the truth of the character and try to bring that out in myself.

I cannot even begin to 'act' until I know these truths. I can learn my lines, learn blocking, improvise and do all kinds of other groundwork during the early rehearsals, but I don't grasp the Truth so quickly.

So for me, the early rehearsals are usually pretty ugly. I'll make some choices on what the character wants, play them, and then see how they felt....truthful or not.

Next time thru, I'll make completely different choices, even if my first choice felt good, because I want to make sure I'm not missing something *better*. All choices in rehearsals are good--but some are better, and more interesting than others.

So tonight, I got a nice compliment from Marie (whose job as director is, after all, to compliment the actors into giving good performances). It wasn't just that it was nice--it was the look in her eye, the deep breath she took before saying it and the smile that came with it.

"Mark," she said, "I have to learn to trust you more. Some of the choices you make are not what I would make, and sometimes they are 180 degrees from what I was thinking. But they're always interesting choices. And I can see that you go a lot deeper into the character than just what's in the script and I believe what you're saying. Keep doing whatever it is that you're doing."

As compliments go, that ranks up there for me. I'm nowhere's near 'there' yet, but as an actor, the only thing I try to be is interesting, truthful and believable. I don't want to rush that process.

So I'm on the path for 2 out of 3, so far. Show date is August 7th. We'll see how far I get.

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