15 December 2009

Johann Rall: A Historical Portrait, Part 2

[This is Part 2 of my account my work on the role of Colonel Johann Rall in William Mastrosimone’s Devil Take the Hindmost.]


The Director’s Concept: Though I have no factual basis for this feeling, having been directed once previously by Jack Bettenbender, I’ve always felt that he knew what his productions would look like in the end as if he had a “running motion picture” of it in his head. In this case, with a multi-level “production-in-the-surround,” Bettenbender was very likely the only one who did know what the outcome would look like. Fortunately, my work with him the preceding spring taught me that he knew what he was doing, and I trusted him completely with Devil.

Certainly, spectacle was a central element in Jack’s concept for the production. Though the story dealt with the romance of two people surrounded by war, it was bigger than life. Around and above the audience in the variable-space theater would march three armies and the Battle of Trenton would be staged with the spectators in its midst. To compete with the sheer enormity of the set and the scope of the play, each character had to be larger than life as well.

But care had to be taken. In spite of the obvious fact that the play was inspired by the Bicentennial and that it treated the history surrounding the Battle of Trenton with a certain accuracy, the play was not about American history--or even so much the American spirit. It was a story of a young woman who falls in love in the middle of a war. The central figures were not historical and, in the long run, not even earth-shaking figures. In other words, all of the history--all of the battles, the soldiers, the great historical figures--all of that was background against which the real drama of Devil was to be played. The basic style of the production, according to Jack, was romantic melodrama.

With respect to Colonel Rall, this was significant in that my existence was, in a way, secondary to that of Virginia and Robin, the young lovers. Though the play dramatized the peak, fall and, finally, ruin of my career and life, the play was in no way concerned with “the tragedy of Colonel Rall.”

Having said that, I must add that, again because of the peculiar structure of the play, this factor was of little consequence to my own work. First of all, my scenes were almost independent of the action of the rest of the play, so I could play my scenes, in a sense, as if they were a separate play. This didn’t mean, of course, that I wasn’t cognizant of the progress and needs of the entire production, but as I came into direct contact with so few of the other principles, I had a certain independency in my work. Second, as all actors know, every play is about their characters: in life, we are all the leading characters in our own biographies! I had to approach my role as if Devil was “a play about this Hessian colonel who . . . .”

Early Rehearsals: Because of the nature of the production, the set (or at least the acting areas) was to be very important. Until the theater was taped out for the set dimensions, the earliest rehearsals were limited to reading around a table. Being generally an actor who needs to move, and because I had a physical picture of Rall in my mind as early as the first reading, I found these “chair-borne” rehearsals particularly frustrating. We’d been shown a model of the set and I was anxious to get on the real thing and try it out. (As the set was being built, I would often drop in during the day and climb on newly-assembled areas and play my scenes to try out the space and get a feel for the environment. (This put me in mind of an anecdote one of my earlier teachers had told about Jack Klugman when he was preparing to take over the role of Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple: the actor used to come to the theater during the day and “live” in the set to get comfortable with it and the world of Oscar and Felix.) When we finally got on our feet (really only a few days later, but it seemed like a week) and began staging the show, Jack began his habitually precise blocking. (I could sense the “film” running in his mind.)

Because of the grand scale of the production and the needs of the multi-level set, the blocking of Devil seemed to take forever. Perhaps from his own frustrations, Jack began demanding what appeared to me to be finished performances even before we learned the lines. (In what, for me, was unprecedented speed, Jack called for lines on the second rehearsal for any given scene.) Momentarily feeling that my artistic toes were being stepped on, I had a fleeting reaction of anger and frustration at being denied the time to develop my work organically. Fortunately, from my previous experience with Jack, I recalled that he’d done the same thing before, and I realized that this was again a function of his “running movie.” I believe he merely wanted to give hints as to where he expected us to be in the end. I also recalled that, despite his apparently precise demands and expectations, he was generally open to experimentation and adjustments--as long as they were valid and valuable, demonstrated work and forethought, and were not the result of laziness or a prima-donna mentality. As a result, I relaxed into the work with a feeling of confidence and cheerful anticipation. I began having fun with the part and I generally enjoyed rehearsals.

(Jack was habitually a strict and meticulous director, giving specific movements and even suggesting line readings; working with him took some getting-used-to. I can clearly remember finding one of my fellow cast members during an earlier production Jack was directing, sitting in the lobby of the theater early one day, sobbing. I asked her what the matter was and she told me she was being frustrated by Jack’s authoritarian direction. This was not a novice actress, by the way, but an experienced and mature adult artist and she was feeling severely artistically constrained and personally disrespected. I offered her advice based on what I gleaned from Jack’s work with actors, principally what I stated above. My friend quieted and took some comfort from what I told her about working with Jack; I don’t know if she ever became happy working with him--but she did go on to a successful career as an actress.)

It was during these early rehearsals that I began to develop the basic outer aspects of the character. While the inner life of the character was still undergoing development throughout rehearsals, I found the physical and vocal facets of the man forming very quickly. Most of what I found in these early days stayed with me with only slight adjustments until the show closed. From Bill’s dialogue, I realized that I was a man of precise speech and vocabulary, not given to uncontrolled outbursts (even my seeming furies were the result of well-rehearsed rages). To suggest Germanic and military speech patterns without using an accent (Jack didn’t want the Hessians to use an accent), I had to use a clipped and over-articulated pronunciation that rang both foreign and arrogant. I began using an adjustment on the “Standard English” pronunciation often used for non-English playwrights (the Greeks, Ibsen, Chekhov). It added just the strangeness I felt was needed and lent itself to the clipped speech pattern I’d been using and to Bill’s words.

Vocally, too, changes occurred as the character developed. In the early stages I had relied heavily on volume. I soon realized (often with Jack’s help) that this was not always effective and overshadowed the big yelling scene: the battle in the middle of the second act. I began experimenting with other vocal qualities and gradually found myself at the opposite end of the register: lowering the volume. Keeping up the energy of whatever inner sources I was using, but lowering the volume made the character more threatening and more intense. Where the bluster had been all show and gave the feeling of a caricature, the growl made Rall more frightening, as if I might explode at any moment. (The actor who played Washington, a professional from New York, once told me that when I entered, he knew that I was “the meanest son of a bitch in the valley.”)

Physically, I began to evolve the posture, bearing, and mannerisms of my Colonel Rall. As a man who grew up in the military (my father had been an officer, too), I decided I must maintain a military mien at all times: my posture became ramrod-straight (unusual for me) and my walk became almost a goosestep with square-corner turns. Mannerisms suggested themselves to me and I began trying them. Though subtleties of bearing were added later, most of what I found in these early days remained intact throughout the production.

Small physical adjustments development as the character grew. At the suggestion of Carol, my acting teacher, I began sitting cross-legged as a rule. This gave me a chance to physicalize my state of mind when seated by crossing or uncrossing my legs: the cross-legged position became my formal pose from which adjustments were made. I also added a tic or twitch in my hand when agitated. I found this was most appropriate when gripping the hilt of my saber. It was also at this point that I added the near goosestep as a period adjustment. (That actor playing Washington, whom I got to know a little because I chauffeured him and some other New York City company members and because he lived near me in the city, asked me one day after the production ended how tall I am. “You’re about six, six-one aren’t you,” he offered. “Not even close,” I smiled at him. “I’m five-eight on my best day!” Without ever intending to, I apparently gave the impression of being a much bigger man than I am. Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly how I did that, except that it was an unintended result of the physical character I built.)

Because of the constant changing of the script in the working process, these early rehearsals were very important because it became necessary to get a fast hold on the character early in order to accommodate changes in the play quickly and securely. Experimentation had to be kept to a minimum for rehearsal time was at a premium. Fortunately, unlike that previous role I’ve mentioned, Colonel Rall fell into proper place almost instantaneously. One might say, we understood one another.

Performance: By the time Devil opened, I had finished all my research and the character was in its final form. We hadn’t really had an audience outside of a few interested outsiders, so no one knew how one would react. We knew the show was long and that the set-in-the-surround could be troublesome to viewers, but we had confidence in the production and we hoped that the energy of the show would keep the audience attentive. The show was indeed immense--in length, spectacle, and scope--but it flowed around the set in a compelling fashion, and we hoped it would pull the audience with it.

Small cuts and inserts were made throughout the script nearly every night before performance in an effort to tighten the running time of the show. As disconcerting as these last-minute changes were, they didn’t appreciably alter the nature of my work.

Though everyone made small mistakes at one time or another, the audiences were generally extremely receptive and responsive. Though I believe we all expected the overall reaction to varying degrees, my own biggest surprise was the reception of Colonel Rall. I was astounded to find that I had become an empathetic figure. Without realizing it myself, I had built into my portrayal a warmth and humanity that made this arrogant, self-centered, contemptuous man a character with whom people identified--and even sympathized. Though I hadn’t intentionally worked for this result, I was gratified, if somewhat flabbergasted. It was, of course, correct that Rall should be so received by the audience. It wasn’t Bill’s intent that he be hated or even disliked; he was simply the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Technical difficulties notwithstanding, the eight original performances of Devil went extremely well. As reviews began appearing, it was obvious that the play and the production were successes. In most cases the reviews were very generous to me and I was pleased that my work had been successful.


In mid-December, word arrived that Devil had been selected for the Northeast Regional Competition of the American College Theatre Festival in mid-February. Jack, Bill, and the production staff began to make plans to revive Devil and make the necessary changes for the move to the ACTF. Between closing night on 21 November and this early talk of reviving the show, I hadn’t really thought much about Colonel Rall.

Rehearsal: The re-rehearsal period began in earnest in late January. The script had been substantially changed to tighten it and to cut the cast to the 25-actor limit stipulated by the competition rules. The show was to be restaged for a proscenium production from the environmental concept Jack had created.

At the first reading of the new script, it became obvious that the part of Colonel Rall was not much altered. In fact, my scenes remained essentially intact with line adjustments necessitated by the loss of two of my soldiers. The only problems having to do with the move were the restaging for a proscenium theater of the battle scene and the surrender scene.

What was of greater consequence was the need to bring my Colonel Rall back to life. Never having revived a show before, I wasn’t accustomed to reworking a part after having put it aside.

The first thing that I discovered was that I still remembered all the lines and the original blocking. But I also fell back into old line readings automatically. I thought that I should be working from the inside out to recreate my character anew, but I didn’t know how to do that. I began relying more and more on what I’d done successfully in the original production. I was desperately trying not to copy my previous portrayal, but to let it happen again; however, I knew that I’d lost a vital part of the character: his warmth and humanity. Now my Colonel Rall was flat and one-dimensional, relying entirely on sneers and jutting jaws to indicate character. I’d lost the real humor of the man and captured only the external appearance of it. I was at a loss as to what to do.

Only rarely, in the “contract” scene with Sherry and the debriefing scene with Honeyman, did I catch a glimmer of something new to work on. In both of those cases, I felt much “realler,” as if I were actually hearing those words for the first time. In all other cases, I was unable to take advantage of the fact that I already knew the part and concentrate on making new discoveries about Rall and the characters with whom I came into contact. I’d inadvertently closed myself off.

Time was certainly an element in this: the two-week rehearsal period turned out to be only eight rehearsals. But I should have been able to work on my part on my own and I didn’t. Overconfidence, too, may have played a part, albeit an unconscious one. Because of my success and satisfaction with the original production, I may have felt I knew Rall so well I didn’t need to do any more work. If this was the case, I certainly wasn’t aware of it.

Whatever was at fault, without intending to do so (indeed, I was desperately trying not to) I was just going through the motions of reviving Devil.

Performance: After a pressure-filled four-hour set-up and a brief, tense run-through, we performed Devil in a small proscenium house. Again, due to the somewhat isolated nature of my part, I didn’t know how the production was faring in general. The audience was small and we were all tired and tense, but I felt as though at worst we were a little slow. For myself, the only thing of which I was acutely aware was my own lack of completeness resulting from my inadequate reworking. I was personally neither more nor less unhappy with my work that afternoon than I had been up to then in rehearsal.

It was only after the performance that I began hearing reports and evaluations that we had done badly. The communal feeling was one of exhausted embarrassment. Not knowing any differently, I could only agree with the consensus. Apparently none of us had held up under the pressure of a hostile atmosphere and a technically disastrous production.


Conclusions: From the response I got from audiences, friends, and critics, and from my own feeling of satisfaction with the final product, I look on the original production of Devil and my creation of Colonel Rall as successes. Though a number of things didn’t work as well as they might have (for one, I never was entirely happy with the reaction to the “contract” scene; for another, the battle scene peaked during a dress rehearsal and I never found that quality again), my overall judgment of the work was satisfaction and pride. It’ll be work I’ll always recall with delight.

As for the revival: though it was deemed a failure, my personal failure was not one of performance, but of preparation. I didn’t join the general condemnation of the ACTF performance--though it may, indeed, have been bad. I maintain that my performance that day was as good as my preparation could have allowed. The fault of my personal failure was in my reworking the part. I was, perhaps, overconfident that I knew Colonel Rall so well I could put him back on like the costume.

Lessons Learned: I learned two major lessons as a result of my participation in Devil, both having to do with my approach to a role. The first is that there’s no real separation of “technique” and “intuition” in preparing a role. Previously, I’d believed that while intuition was of great importance to an actor, it was technique--the external decisions and adjustments made to particularize the role--that made the preparation valid and ultimately led to a successful performance. Because so much of my Colonel Rall was based on instinctive and intuitive choices which occurred to me in the earliest stages of the work and remained substantially unchanged through performance, I came to realize that what I was in fact doing was unconsciously making those decisions and adjustments I had previously assumed must be conscious and external. Only when my intuition failed or misled me did I have to make premeditated choices in terms of actions, substitutions, endowments, inner objects, and so on. At no time during the preparation of Devil did I feel I was cheating by not carefully working out my choices beforehand as I’d often felt in earlier work. On examining my work, I realized that not only are “technique” and “intuition” inseparable, but eventually they become indistinguishable as well.

Furthermore, in a more personal vein, I discovered, through discussions of my work with Carol Rosenfeld, that I’d reached that point in my artistic development where I no longer needed to make conscious decisions regarding this “technique.” My personal working method now included technique as an integral aspect. I’d become more relaxed and comfortable with my work, making choices, whether physical or emotional, organically and naturally. What used to be affectation was now habitual behavior. There’s no doubt that this new-found ease had come directly from a conscientious study of acting technique and several years of conscious practice in performance; but it was now part of me and operated automatically as I prepared a role. I’d noticed small instances of this, specific moments in other performances, but it was the performance of Colonel Rall that was the turning point for me in this regard. Not only was it the first role I prepared this way, but my own monitoring and reviewing of that preparation (to document it for the thesis) caused me to recognize this new accomplishment in myself.

No comments:

Post a Comment