28 April 2010

An Actor’s Homework, Part 4

[This installment of “An Actor’s Homework,” the second part of “Analysis,” concludes my description of Aaron Frankel’s system for preparing for the first rehearsal. Parts 1 and 2 (19 and 22 April; Part 3 was published on 25 April) covered Section I, “Free Association,” and I recommend that readers see the earlier posts to get a full view of the system.]

5. Class & Money (Status & Power): What “class position” means to the character; what “money problems” does the character have?

If money isn’t a driving force for the character, something else will be. (In classical plays, at least until the 19th century when the middle class became significant and a subject for drama, money is often not a consideration.) This is very important to know about both the play in general and your character in particular. In Earnest, for example, money is no problem but social status is very important to all the characters. In Picnic, Alan’s very conscious of both his class position and his wealth; both make him feel separated from Madge (who’s thus, in a way, unworthy of him) and superior and patronizing to Hal. Neither class nor money figure as a problem in After the Rain. Status isn’t really a question, though power is relative only to Arthur, who wields it, and Alan, who resists Arthur’s leadership. Captain Hunter is quite satisfied for Arthur to lead and for the rest to follow him. Challenges to Arthur’s authority are met with fear and distrust, but not with head-on defiance.

The circumstances in Devil are more complex, in part because it’s set in the 18th century but was composed in the 20th. Other influences are the fact that the play is based on actual events so there are historical, sociological, and cultural facts that bear on this question. Colonel Rall is very conscious of his class position. As a German, he’s accustomed to sharp distinctions between the social classes (which were many and complicated) and as a career soldier, he’s very conscious of his rank and position as regimental commander. This is particularly so since Rall was given the post over several more senior colonels. Money’s not a concern to Rall. As a soldier in Germany, his basic needs were taken care of and he was born into the military, so he’s accustomed to the Spartan life. Since plunder and “commandeering” are the custom of the day, he can take what he wants without the need for money. Power (in the military sense) and authority are natural to Rall. He expects, demands, and usually receives the abject deference and obedience due his rank and position. With life-and-death authority over everyone within his control (military and civilian), he’s instantly obeyed and served.

6. Situation: Use a personal metaphor to state the character’s problem, conflict, or obstacle.

This is a statement of what the character wants to do. Often it’s helpful if to put this in the form of a metaphor. In Picnic, for example, Alan loses control of the situation; his problem is that “He’s on a shaky ladder.” In Devil, Colonel Rall is “shackled to a stalled locomotive”; he wants to charge forward, full-steam ahead, but he can’t. In Rain, Captain Hunter is “lost in the desert without map or compass.” For Algernon in Earnest, his Bunburrying has run dry; he wants to find a new tack, a new direction, so he has to become Jack’s brother Ernest in order to meet Cecily.

7. Action: What you want to do; how the character overcomes the obstacle or solves the problem.

The “Action” in Aaron’s system is, as the device is called in some other acting techniques, the character’s superobjective, objective, or intention (or, if you know the system, what Bernard Beckerman called the project). Be careful: this isn’t the story or plot action! That’s what the playwright wrote; the character action is what you bring to the role that makes your performance different from anyone else’s. There will be many “immediate” actions, but only one main character action (or life action). You must know the outcome of the play before you determine the MCA. You should also understand that an action can fail: actions that fail are often the most dramatic. (In some analyses, one difference between comedies and tragedies is that the protagonists’ actions in comedies tend to succeed, and those in tragedies tend to fail. This, of course, is a generalization, but it’s a good way to remember that you may choose an action that doesn’t end successfully but may be a very dramatic.)

To determine the MCA, ask what your character’s action is in any moment or scene, then ask “why?” until you reach the basic “why” beyond which there’s no answer. (Answer each “why” with a verbal “action”—“to do something”—not a motivation. When you reach the ultimate level, the answer can’t be stated as a verb anymore—except a synonym for the last phrase; otherwise it will always come back as a noun or an adjective.) It’s often more effective to state the MCA as a metaphor. Your character’s MCA will help you relate to the other characters. (State a form of your MCA with respect to each character to whom you interact in the play.) Each “immediate” action for scenes and beats will also correlate to the MCA.

When expressing this action, you should always use an active, transitive verb (an action), preferably with a direct object (something or someone to act upon.) Don’t state the action as a negative phrase (“not to . . .”); it should always be couched in terms of something to do, not something to avoid doing. It’s also inadvisable to phrase the action as a state of being (“to be,” “to become,” “to seem,” and so on)—they aren’t active verbs. It’s important to state the action in the strongest form you can devise because a weak or ambiguous expression will lead you into weak choices on stage. Many of your other choices will correlate with your action; it permeates your entire character portrayal. It’s much more dramatic to make Oedipus want “to bring the murderer to justice” than it would be if all he wants is “to try to find the murderer.” (Verbs like ‘to try’ allow the actor to make tentative feints at doing something, then backing off. “Well, I tried . . .” is too easy an out.) In this, as in much of the rest of this technique, the actor should take note of an assertion of Pablo Picasso: "I do not seek; I find!" Seeking is merely a form of “trying to find”: all it takes is one feeble attempt, and you’ve fulfilled your goal.

(At that first rehearsal, play your MCA. Don’t worry about the smaller actions or the meaning of the play for the moment; there’ll be time for that. Test the choice you made for the MCA right from the start. This will both let you begin to see if the choice is correct and let you start to connect with the other actors and their characters. Be prepared, of course, the adjust the action as you learn what the other actors and, especially, the director are doing—remember Martha Graham’s admonition to come on stage to take.)

As an illustration, I decided that Colonel Rall’s MCA is “To gain glory”; “To jump-start my stalled locomotive” (it’s an excellent tactic to connect the “Action” to the “Situation”). This translated into individual actions that relate to other characters with whom Rall interacts:

with respect to the Hessian troops, the action becomes “To make them substitute for my dreams of glory”

with respect to Sherry (the camp-follower), “To impress her with my past glories”

with respect to the Brocks (the owners of the inn where Rall is quartered), “To show my superiority and control over ‘inconsequentials’”

with respect to Honeyman (the American spy), “To impress him with my military might, prowess, and confidence”

with respect to Washington (to whom Rall surrenders), “To manifest my superiority even in defeat” or “To appear undefeated”

with respect to General Howe (the British commander), “To prove myself the greatest soldier since Alexander”

with respect to Seeds (the American civilian), “To show my magnanimity and tolerance for insignificant annoyances.”

8. Time & Place

Though this is in many ways related to “Period,” it’s more specific and narrower. Like the play’s period, however, the actor should consider both the literal and the figurative or metaphorical time and place of the play. The literal time will include the period, era, date, season, day, and hour for the play and for each scene. Picnic, for instance, takes place in the late summer during the early 1950’s; Devil is set at Christmas 1776, mid-winter, a time of rebellion against a king and, thus, against God (since kings rules by divine right). The metaphorical time might include the character’s stage of life or career. In Earnest, Algernon is in the summertime of his life (and he sees Cecily and Gwendolyn as in the blossoming stage of their lives, their springtimes). Many of the scenes in Earnest take place at tea time, the high-point of the day and the beginning of the productive part of the day for Algernon and Ernest. At 51, Rall is in his late fall or early winter—but since he’s not likely to be made a general (he’s not an aristocrat), his own mid-winter is close by. In Picnic, the summer represents the end of playtime for Alan and time to get back to “serious business.”

The literal place incorporates the country, area, landscape, city, building, and specific room in which the play takes place. For Colonel Rall, the place is Trenton, New Jersey, in colonial America (that is, the personal property of a king); he’s far away from home, in a foreign land. Alan’s word is small-town Kansas—Midwestern, rural, agricultural, slow-paced, even-tempered. It’s a backwater, a stopping-off place, a way-station. The metaphorical place of the play should reflect what the literal places mean to your character, how they’re used or what happens there, and their appropriateness to the character and his behavior. In Earnest, Algernon’s house is the War Room where the plans are made and actions designed; there is a Caucus Room beyond Algernon’s “Morning Room” for small, private conferences. Cecily’s garden at Jack’s country home is a very appropriate venue for Cecily (a blossom) to meet Gwendolyn and Algernon. (Aaron spoke of Cecily and Gwedolyn as a country mouse and a city mouse. A garden is a good place for a country mouse to be at home, but a city mouse might be out of place.) In Picnic, that Midwestern town becomes the small pond for Alan’s big fish; Alan belongs to the town and it belongs to him. For Rall, Trenton is Nowheresville, a defensive position in a nothing town no one cares about, a small pond for a would-be big fish. Rall would rather be in Philadelphia enjoying the amenities of the great American capital and being toasted as the liberator of the colonies and the triumphant vanquisher of the rebels.


Let me remind you one last time: The responses I’ve provided here as illustrations of the process are mine from the time I prepared the roles. You don’t have to agree with any of them; your answers will be the ones that speak to you. That’s what makes one performance different from another. There’s no right or wrong; the responses that work best will be the ones that echo across the script and throughout the rehearsal. Remember, too, that this is all private work and you’re not obligated to make sense to anyone but you. This is a practical and pragmatic technique. Use what works, adjust it for your own practices, and keep the rest in mind for another time, another role. Refine and revise your responses as you move through the rehearsal process and discover things about your role, the play, and your fellow actors that informs what you think about your character. Don’t abandon any techniques you’ve used before that have worked successfully or new ones you learn along the way that inspire and provoke your creativity. Nothing is exclusive or proscribed. And I’ll provide one last piece of advice: Keep your notes handy during rehearsal so you have your responses available and so you can make changes as new ideas occur to you. Aaron concluded the course with suggestions for making an acting score in your script—an elaborate three-column chart with arrows and lines on the blank sides of the pages of a typescript or on paper taped to the pages of the published edition (like a fold-out) if that’s what your company’s using—but I found that cumbersome and impractical in actual rehearsals. You can find your own way to have your notes and answers at your fingertips. The point is that if you’re really doing this work to use in rehearsal, which is its purpose, you should be able to refer to the notes while you’re on stage working or back stage preparing.

Aaron also included recommendations for rehearsal behavior so that you are actually working from Day One even if the first rehearsal is no more than a sit-down reading around a table. I won’t repeat his suggestions, but I’ll sum them up: Do your work. Don’t let yourself be pressured to move the reading along just because that’s what everyone else is doing. Play your character’s action; look at and listen to the actors in your scenes; lift your eyes from the script page when you say your lines, even if you can only recite four or five words at a time. Don’t let yourself be forced into a “performance” when you’re still figuring out who you are. If you’re using this homework technique or some other preparation, give yourself permission to put the prep you’ve been doing into practice. These rehearsals are for you and the other actors, not for the playwright or even the director. Use them. It’ll pay off in spades.

[I don’t know if Aaron still teaches this technique or even if he’s still associated with HB Studios, where I took his class in How To Do Homework. As far as I know, he’s never published anything on the system and I’ve never contacted him to let him know I’ve been teaching it myself. I found the technique so useful and so thought-provoking that I’ve wanted to spread word of it as much as I could; this is my first attempt to put the process into writing—and I hope I’ve done Aaron proud in the attempt.]

25 April 2010

An Actor’s Homework, Part 3

[This installment of “An Actor’s Homework” begins my description of Section II of Aaron Frankel’s system for preparing for the first rehearsal; the final part will be available in a few days. Parts 1 and 2 (19 and 22 April) covered Section I, “Free Association,” and I recommend that readers see the earlier posts to get a full view of the system.]


The responses to the prompts in the second part of Aaron’s homework technique should be based on research, study, and academic or factual knowledge. This doesn’t mean that there’s not an element of subjectivity here, especially in the realm of selection. As in all the aspects of this work, you should be choosing answers and information that work for you in rehearsal and performance, to which you respond in a personal and immediate way. When factual correctness conflicts with artistic function, the latter should always prevail. Vincent van Gogh wrote: "I do not want the beauty to come from the material, but from within myself.” So just as the painter didn’t believe that artistic truth comes from the paints, pigments, and canvases he used to create his art, your creation isn’t a matter of facts and historical information; it’s in the subjectivity, the way you bring together the media you choose, the artistry with which you select and assemble the materials you use to create your performance. On the other hand, just as van Gogh needed paint and canvas, you’ll need objective data to complete your characterization.

There are many sources of useful research aside from the standard repositories I’ll mention below, namely libraries, museums, and art galleries, among others. Many years ago, I did a children's story-theater piece with a cast of all animal characters. The cast got together one day and made a trip to the Bronx zoo to observe the animals. Another time, when I was doing an animal exercise in an acting class, I selected a bear, specifically a polar bear. I used video tapes and an opportunely scheduled nature program on TV, but I also spent an afternoon at the Central Park Zoo to see how polar bears moved and manipulated objects. Just a few weeks ago, before the play Red opened on Broadway, the New York Times published an article that discussed the research actor Alfred Molina did on the art of Mark Rothko, the artist he plays on stage. He visited galleries in Liverpool, England, and Washington, D.C., to view some of Rothko’s important works and some specific canvases relevant to the play.

1. Title: What does it mean? Consider sub- or alternate titles.

Though this is the same question with which we started the Free Association section, the more analytical consideration you make may lead you in a different direction. Don’t be concerned, however, if it doesn’t—or if the two responses conflict. Here are the responses I came up with for the roles we’re discussing:

Colonel Rall: Devil Take the Hindmost – “The reward of indecision is hell.”

Alan: Picnic – My response to the title was the same here as for Free Association (“Family Outing”), but the alternative title (the revised play, Summer Brave) was that Alan learns bravery over the summer, that is, a “trial by fire.”

Captain Hunter: After the Rain – “New society; new responsibilities.”

I didn’t find any new meaning for the title of Earnest than I had for the Free Association prompt (Algernon must appear convincingly earnest and sincere), which, if you recall, I felt was fairly literal even back then. (Apparently, I also didn’t have a response to the subtitle, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, this time around, either. It has some bearing on the next prompt, however.)

2. Academic Label: Tells you the “style” of acting and helps make some choices. Also includes the author’s “point of view” and your own “point of view.”

Knowing the academic label, the genre, of the play helps you make some choices regarding style and approach. Obviously, if you’re doing a farce, your choices will be different from those for a tragedy. So would your approach to the execution of your choices. (By the way, just because I call this “Academic Label” doesn’t mean you have to come up with terms from a lit textbook. Use your own terms to describe the play. Once again, the response must mean something to you.) Here’s what I came up with:

Devil: Adventure/Romantic Drama. (I might also have added “melodrama,” but I didn’t. Perhaps that was because I didn’t play “melodrama,” which connotes an acting style to me that conflicted with the director’s—and my own—vision of the role.)

Earnest: Comedy of Manners/High Comedy. (This label will clearly affect the way I work on this role.)

Picnic: Sentimental or situation comedy; tender comedy.

Rain: “Science Fiction”; allegorical warning. (I put sci-fi in quotation marks to note that it’s not a classical example of the genre; it’s really a note for myself. The second description is one of my own devising.) The French’s catalogue labels it a morality play.

Aaron added for this prompt that it can also include an interpretation of the author’s and your character’s own points of view. The only play for which I made this note was After the Rain:

Author’s POV: If we are not careful of our rights, we can be easily lead in times of stress and lose our individual freedom.

Hunter’s POV: When a crisis occurs, follow the strongest leader without question.

3. Period: Don’t limit this to the “grand historical” era.

Every play has its own period, even modern and contemporary pieces. Consider the period for the locale of the play (the Renaissance in Italy was different from the Renaissance in England), including clothes, objects, hairdos, and so on. Especially check out the dances and popular music of the period; they tell a lot about “style.” (Consider, for example, what the jitterbug of the 1940s says about that era as compared with what the minuet says about the society of the 1770s and how men’s long hair of the 1960s contrasts with the long hair of the 1770s.)

This is the first category where research can be very helpful and you should find time to do this all through the rehearsal period. Libraries are useful for period biographies and autobiographies, social histories, plays from the time; museums yield portraits, clothing and jewelry, and other artifacts of the day. In New York City, the public library’s invaluable Picture Collection can be a magnificent resource for period and setting research. Depending on availability and access, historical sites and even reconstructions can be very revealing. I read, for instance, that actors in the 2009-10 Hartford and New York co-production of Horton Foote’s Orphans’ Home Cycle visited Wharton, Texas, Foote’s hometown and the place on which he based his fictional town of Harrison; they even met some of the descendents of the real-life models for characters in the plays. Years ago, when I was assigned the Watchman’s opening monologue from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, I realized that I had visited the ruins of the place where the man had stood, the city of Mycenae. I imagined him standing over the Lion Gate, which is restored, looking out over the plain of Argos down to the Aegean Sea. I had stood there myself only a year or two before this class. It wasn’t hard to imagine what the Watchman was seeing—I’d seen some of it recently enough to call up the view in my mind.

While it’s important to know the historical period, the dates as recorded in a history text, in which a play is set, it can also be useful to define the period in metaphorical terms that communicate to you. So while Picnic takes place in the 1950s, the mid-20th century, it was helpful for me to think of that as “the Eisenhower years.” (I grew up in that era; it has connections for me.) Earnest was written in 1895, the end of Victoria’s reign, but it was also useful for me to call it the Mauve Decade (which fell between the Victorian and Edwardian eras) because it evokes pictures of clothing, hair styles, street scenes, carriages, and many more visual stimuli, as well as behavioral possibilities. Devil Take the Hindmost is, of course, set against an actual historical event, so the time and date are specific: 25-26 December 1776. That’s Colonial America, the Age of Reason, the Revolution, and a period of wars in Europe and America. (For this role, I did a lot of research. Aside from books on history, especially military history, and journals, including Boswell’s, describing Germany in the 18th century—to help with Rall’s background—one text I found especially useful was Schiller’s play Kabale und Liebe, sometimes translated as Love and Intrigue. A place to visit, if you could manage it, would be Colonial Williamsburg, providing images of the architecture of the time, the street life, transportation, even food and drink. Devil is set in a tavern and there are several reconstructed inns in Williamsburg that probably resemble the Eagle near Trenton.)

The odd man out in this section is After the Rain. How do you research the late 22nd century, when the play is set? Well, of course, you can’t. But the play was written in 1967, so you can read about the fears and premonitions of that era about the potential future for humankind. The play refers to a “past,” the year of “The Rain” that devastated the Earth, that the script puts at “two years after the play is performed” and there’s a play-within-the-play that’s set in that year. (In the original New York production, the flood occurred in 1969, for example. Today, the play’s backstory would be placed in 2012.) So there’s reading and other research that you can do on the prevailing vision today for a post-Apocalyptic Earth—how some people today see our future. An important source for this view will clearly be contemporary science fiction. (It wouldn’t have been known in 1967 or 1975, the year of the production I prepared, but there’s a little of Jim Jones of the People’s Temple in Arthur, the self-proclaimed leader of the new society in the play. Perhaps also David Koresh of the Branch Davidians. Those are areas for possible research.)

You should note, by the way, that plays written in one period but set in another, such as history plays, have two periods that might require research. It’s obvious, I think, that the time in which a play takes place is an important subject for actors to know about, but the time in which the playwright worked affects the play, too. Schiller’s 16th-century England in Maria Stuart (1801), for instance, is different from Maxwell Anderson’s in Elizabeth, the Queen and Mary of Scotland (1930 and ’33). When I did a production of Shaw’s Man of Destiny, I found that researching Napoleon was of little practical use because Shaw’s young General Bonaparte more closely reflected Shaw, the late 19th century, and England than he did France, Italy (where the play is set), and the late 18th century. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible has as much to do with the circumstances in the America of the 1950s (specifically, the McCarthy era) as it does with the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the 17th century.

4. Language (as action): What we say, do, think, and feel may all be different; our feelings govern all others.

There are three types of language supplied by the playwright which you need to examine:

Spoken: verbal; oral, or written language (that is, words). This is usually “head” language (with respect to the realms of the body; see “Leading Center,” Part 2)
Non-Spoken: silent; emotional; what isn’t said; usually “heart”
Body: non-verbal, but not always silent; non-verbal gestures and noises; usually “gut”; most difficult to control: it seldom “lies”

This is one of the acting tasks that depends on a close reading of the script, finding and analyzing the kinds of language the playwright has created for your character. You should make judgments about the character based on what you learn from this evaluation. In preparing the role of Captain Hunter, I decided that the spoken language in the text indicates that he rarely speaks unless spoken to, and then only to follow prescribed procedure. Hunter occasionally gives vent to his desires which are simple—the creature comforts. Both Hunter’s non-spoken and body language coincide with his spoken language. Since he’s generally open-faced, he doesn’t guard what he says, does, or thinks.

In Picnic, Alan’s a heart person trying to be a head person; he’s primarily a thinker by his own efforts. His spoken language is carefully chosen and “masking”; he uses language as a smokescreen. Alan’s silent language is saying, “Let me go!” or “Let me out!” but also, “What do I do now?” His body language is connected to his spoken language; it shows apparent composure; very studied.

In Devil, when Colonel Rall is in control, he’s a “head” person and makes witty remarks and jokes (spoken language), but when his control breaks down, he’s a “gut” person, nervous, edgy, afraid, impulsive, insecure (non-spoken and body languages).

Incorporated in the language analysis are two textual areas the actor must examine.

A. Interior Monologue (Reaction).

The “Interior Monologue” is a familiar aspect of many acting techniques, including Stanislavsky. It’s language the actor supplies, part of the character’s unspoken language. It comprises the character’s thoughts put into words (but not necessarily in the character’s “language”). This is feedback to what other characters are doing or saying. (Some of this will relate to the character’s “Secret” as devised earlier; see Part 1.) The IM must not be memorized; the basic thoughts will be the same each time, but the precise words will be different. When the IM is right, the written lines will juxtapose with it; the IM will lead into the dialogue and proceed from it logically. If it doesn’t, the IM is following a wrong action.

It’s hard to predict the IM; it may even change from rehearsal to rehearsal and performance to performance. Even studying the lines of your scene partners can be misleading until you hear what they do with them as well as what the director provides. A general wash of the character’s IM can be determined, however, at least for the first rehearsal, giving you a place to start working. Captain Hunter’s IM, for instance, basically centers on his duty and obedience to Arthur (the leader of the survivors who believes he’s divine), survival, and distrust of Alan (who’s construed to be Arthur’s rival).

B. Hearsay.

“Hearsay” is what the other characters say about your character. Read only the other characters’ lines and make judgments about whether the statements are right or wrong, or true or false, always considering the sources of the comments. You must also consider what the character says about her- or himself or writes in diaries and letters. Here are a few examples from my notes on two of the roles:

Captain Hunter:

The LECTURER notes that I kept the Ship’s Log (“The Book of Arthur”) irregularly before Arthur arrived and entered “a number of asterisks that may have referred . . . to some solitary sexual practices.” Probably correct.

ARTHUR refers to me as one of the “less intelligent” carried along to do the “rough work.” He notes that I don’t refuse to do it. Correct.

MYSELF: Retired by the army for lack of intelligence; failed at bar-keeping for low IQ; can’t handle the technological world; selected to sail the raft by default (the rest were “nut cases or Norwegians”). Lax in personal discipline. I realize I’m “not bright”; I wonder what’s going to happen to people like me; I expect them to be “automated.” All correct.

Colonel Rall:

WORTHINGTON [British captain]: “I’ve known them as professional soldiers, and men of honor.” Half true. We are professional soldiers, fighting for pay and plunder as was our custom in European warfare. As for “men of honor,” Worthington is seeing us through rose-colored glasses. Our “honor” does not much extend beyond our own kind and we have little respect for the Americans, Tory or Whig, and do not distinguish between loyalist and rebel. A conquered enemy is fair game for pillaging and robbing, regardless of rank or position.

HONEYMAN [American spy]: “. . . Col. Rall . . . Fierce soldier, but weak for a pretty face and brandy.” True. Except when engaged in direct military offensives, I am a heavy drinker, carouser, card player, and womanizer. I have no stomach for defense and take no time to prepare. When in garrison, I am usually drinking heavily and “partying” with friends and other officers.

HOMBURG [Hessian soldier]: “You remember when Rall had Kraig shot for sleeping at his post?” True. I am an unbending disciplinarian with my soldiers. In small matters, I am adamant: parades, inspections, spit-and-polish, deference to rank, etc.—and I demand the maximum penalty for even the smallest infractions of the rules.

[Part 4 will cover thew second half of “Analysis,” the second section of Aaron Frankel’s homework technique. Return to ROT in a few days for the concluding parts of the process.]

22 April 2010

An Actor’s Homework, Part 2

[The second part of “An Actor’s Homework” continues the description of Section I, “Free Association,” of Aaron Frankel’s system for preparing for the first rehearsal of a production. Please refer to Part 1 (19 April) for a general explanation of the technique.]

5. Rhythm: Use a musical notation or metaphor.

To designate the character’s “rhythm,” actors who are musically trained can use actual musical notation; for the rest of us, a musical metaphor will work as well. If you find a rhythm that clicks and work with it in rehearsal, it can affect your physical movement and speech patterns. As with several of the responses in this score, characters can have two rhythms, an inner and an outer one. For Alan, I found that he had an outer rhythm of a waltz and the inner rhythm of a jitterbug. Algernon’s was the rhythm of a carousel played in 2/4 time. Both Captain Hunter and Colonel Rall had military march rhythms—4/4 time.

As we shall see, several of the prompts have sub-categories (and even sub-sub-categories) that are related; rhythm is the first of these. Here are some of my responses for Picnic’s Alan:

A. Sound: Inner: primal scream; Outer: “silence”
a. Song: “We Can Work It Out”
b. Instrument: Oboe
c. Natural: Wind howling in distance
d. Man-made: Purr of a well-tuned engine

B. Gesture: Inner: twisting something with both hands (with “primal scream”); Outer: “everything’s copacetic”
a. Animal: cat [I wasn’t certain about this response]
b. Mineral: fool’s gold
c. Vegetable: eggplant
d. Leading Center: forehead/groin [I had two responses to this prompt; they roughly compare to an inner and outer “center,” though usually there’s only one for a character. (I will explain this device in a moment.)]

Among the terms above are two that need some definition because they’re not self-explanatory: “Gesture” and “Leading Center.” They are, in fact, Aaron’s takes on devices of Michael Chekhov and François Delsarte, respectively. Actors who’ve studied the Chekhov technique or read his books on acting theory will know his “Psychological Gesture,” commonly known as the PG. Chekhov’s own description of the PG states:

Imagine that you are going to play a character which . . . has a strong and unbending will, is possessed by dominating, despotic desires, and is filled with hatred and disgust.

You look for a suitable over-all gesture which can express all this in the character, and perhaps after a few attempts you find it . . . .

It is strong and well shaped. When repeated several times it will tend to strengthen your will. The direction of each limb, the final position of the whole body as well as the inclination of the head are such that they are bound to call up a definite desire for dominating and despotic conduct. The qualities which fill and permeate each muscle of the entire body, will provoke within you feelings of hatred and disgust. Thus, through the gesture, you penetrate and stimulate the depths of your own psychology.

The gesture’s seldom performed on stage, though it may be. It’s merely an archetypal physicalization that serves as a metaphor for your character. It is, like other devices in this system, a secret for the actor; neither your fellow actors, the director, nor the audience should be aware of it, but they, like the audience, can sense that something’s working within the character that’s not on the surface. (That is, you’re “up to something.”)

The “Leading Center” is based on the “Zones of the Body” and the “Realms of Space” which Delsarte defines. Delsarte divides the body into three general areas or centers: head, heart, and gut. These correspond to the regions of the body above the shoulders (“head”), from the stomach to the neck (“heart”), and the belly and groin area (“gut”), and are, respectively, the centers of intellectuality, sentimentality, and viscerality/appetites. One of these centers guides, or “leads,” each of us, and theoretically all our gestures and movements emanate from that center. The center, however, can be shifted—dancers learn to move theirs permanently through training and practice; injuries cause us to move our centers; and changes in body shape such as weight-gain or -loss can affect the placement of our centers. A way for you to create an instant physical characterization is to give your character an LC different from your own real one. (Delsarte went on to subdivide the major centers into head-heart-gut, too. For instance, the hand is generally in the “heart” area, and the palm, which is soft and can be used to caress, is a “heart” region. The index finger, however, is a “head” part because it’s used for pointing; the fist is a “gut” part because it’s a weapon used in anger. All the centers can be subdivided this way: the cheek, for example, is the “heart” part of the head.)

On rare occasions, both in life and in fiction, an LC can be placed within the body, and there’s also a fourth “center,” seldom seen in real life though possible in fiction: above the “head,” like a halo—a kind of “spiritual” center for saintly and other-worldly characters.

This device can be allied with the PG. Delsarte maintained that gestures get meaning not only from the zone in which they originate, but also the one in which they end. So a gesture that begins or ends in a “head” area will help establish an intellectual character, say a Hamlet or a Portia; a “gut” PG might help create an Othello or a Kate; a “heart” PG might generate a Romeo or a Juliet. If you employ the subdivisions Delsarte defines, there are almost unlimited combinations of LC and PG that can help you find meaningful and effective gestures for rehearsal.

The LC is one of the most practical applications in the system because it can immediately transform your physicality. You don’t have to subscribe to Delsarte’s pseudoscience to make valuable use of this technique. You can find your own center by noting which part of your body seems to be the generation point of your walk and other large movements such as sitting, bending, and so on. Use trial and error to move the center around until the one that most closely resembles your natural movements is determined. Once you know your real center, choosing one that’s different will instantly change all your physical movements and gestures. My own LC, for instance, was the back of my knees. If I shifted it to my arm pits, I became Stanley Kowalski. You can imagine, say, an Inspector Hound with an LC on the tip of his nose: he’d almost literally sniff out the truth. In some instances, choosing an LC that contradicts the character’s obvious traits can create a dramatic performance: Ophelia, for instance, can be seen as a “gut” person (her wantonness during her madness reveals her “gut”-ness) trying to behave as a “heart” person and is eventually destroyed because of the conflict. (I published a column on these two acting devices, “Psychological Gesture & Leading Center,” 27 October 2009.)

In Aaron’s outline of the process, “Rhythm” also includes some other physical images that can be provocative for an actor in the early stages of creativity:

C. Colors: You should find a color image not only for your own character, but for others to whom you relate in the play—including ones who don’t appear on stage with you: Algernon in Earnest – Red and gold embroidered on beige; Lady Bracknell – Battleship gray; Ernest – Funereal black; Cecily – Pink, yellow and, white; Gwendolyn – Pale green and white.

D. Objects: These symbolic items may or may not be props in the show; like the responses in other categories, these are images to assist the actor’s imagination: Alan in Picnic – car keys, neatly-wrapped picnic basket.

6. Images.

This is a sort of catch-all category which can include anything that occurs to you that doesn’t fit anywhere else. You may add or subtract to this list of images as work progresses (as you may for any category). For Alan, I conjured images of a “two-way” mirror and a fun-house distorting mirror because Alan is the two-way mirror, but he sees his reflection in the distorting mirror. I also envisioned a clean, white handkerchief. The images I evoked for Captain Hunter were a wooden post, a large punching bag, and an old hunting dog; for Colonel Rall I saw a black stallion, a roaring lion (he was known as the Hessian Lion), rocky cliffs, starched uniforms, shiny leather, a charging bull, and sharp angles (no curves!). That last image helped affect how I walked as Rall; in fact, I never really walked—I always marched (though not quite literally).

“Images,” too, has subdivisions:

A. Senses:

Just as Delsarte posits that we each have a spot on our bodies from which all our movements emanate, our Leading Center, we also have a sense which dominates the other four and which is our primary source for experiencing the world. Some people—and therefore some characters—are visually oriented, some tactilely, some aurally, and so on. Once again, you should determine your own primary sense and choose one for your character that’s different. Often there’s also a secondary sense—the fall-back, so to speak. For Colonel Rall, for example, I decided that his primary sense is touch and his secondary is smell. (Once again, it’s fun to imagine an Inspector Hound whose sense of smell is the principal means by which he discovers the world.)

B. Response: If the character saw the play, how would she like it? Would he recognize himself? Would she like her portrayal?

Colonel Rall, I decided, would recognize himself and find the portrayal complimentary—except the defeat at the Battle of Trenton: he wouldn’t recognize his own mistakes, and would probably do the same thing again. In contrast, I felt that Captain Hunter in After the Rain wouldn’t recognize himself and wouldn’t even understand the play.

7. Mask or Face.

Most of us are generally familiar with the distinction of “mask” and “face”—the latter our true and honest selves revealed without pretense or disguise, the former a role we choose to play for the outside world to protect our vulnerabilities or conceal our motives. Some people are more “mask” than “face”; some the reverse. Most of us have several “masks.” You must determine which your character shows to whom and under what circumstances. I saw that Alan constantly “masks,” but that no one realizes it; everyone thinks he’s “face.” Madge may suspect Alan’s masking, but more likely she also thinks he’s face and just finds it dull and shallow. Captain Hunter’s mostly face, being too stupid to invent a real mask, though he’s worn his “military officer” mask for so long, it has become his face. Colonel Rall’s always mask, but he wears different masks with each character: with his soldiers, he’s the hard-as-nails military man, merciless, taciturn, unbending; with the American colonists, he’s the superior master, the conqueror, condescending, self-important; with Sherry, a camp follower, he’s the man-of-the-world, sensitive, responsive, warm, generous, gregarious, sensual; with General Washington, his adversary, he’s the military “superior,” culturally more respectable, loyal to king and God; with Honeyman, a Colonial spy, he’s the military commander, in-charge, authoritative, in-control, all-knowing, manipulative.

There are two prompts that are very closely allied to “Face or Mask” and which can be very evocative for an actor just beginning to develop ideas about the character:

A. Ego or Biology: “Ego” is what you want; “biology” is what you need. Which is dominant in the character?

In the perfectly balanced person, one balances the other; if not, one must compensate for the other. Another way to look at this concept is to see that our self-love feeds our needs—which in turn feed our self-love. Our self-love is our wants (i.e., “Ego”); our needs are our drives, hungers, fears, hopes, gifts, pleasures, and pains—our psychic metabolism (i.e., “Biology”). Rall, I decided, is more Ego than Biology. Even his biological needs spring from his ego. His military “genius” is actually a driving desire to be first in everything, for glory, recognition, and praise. He does what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the circumstances—or consequences. Captain Hunter, by contrast, is almost entirely governed by his biology; his “wants” are those he’s told he should have. His greatest need is to survive.

B. Role-Playing vs. Game-Playing: What’s the character’s favorite role? Game? When and with whom does she play which role and game?

In a “role,” the stakes may be very high: life and death; in a “game,” the stakes are lower and are obvious: the immediate objectives. Role-playing also involves manipulation beyond merely winning the game. Alan role-plays with everyone—the role of the solid, competent, successful guy. He game-plays with Millie (fixing her up with Hal) and Hal (getting him out of “fixes”).

8. “As If.”

Also called the “Magic If,” this is the only technique Stanislavsky kept at the end of his career. It makes theatrical reality immediate and urgent, the character’s stage life real and dramatic. For those trained in a Stanislavsky technique, you’ll know that this helps the actor respond completely to the imaginary circumstances of the play so that the character lives fully in those circumstances. The “As If” is related to substitutions or personalizations.

According to Aaron, an actor’s job is to reveal something about the nature of the character. He called it “making a comment or a point” about the character. (Be careful: This isn’t the actor commenting on the character. It’s the actor making a point about human nature through the character. Aaron called it “bringing a gift to the audience.”) This is what you bring to the role that makes it different from another actor’s portrayal, and why we go to see a specific actor do a particular part: to see what you say about the character as a part of human nature. When choosing a point to make, however, try all that occur to you and choose the one that works best for you as the actor, not the one that seems “right” for the play. (Alive and “wrong” is better acting than “right” and dead.) Remember: no one knows what you’re using.

I decided that my revelation about Alan was that his wealth and prescribed future is not the answer to all life’s problems. I chose to play Colonel Rall as if he were always passed over for promotion; for Captain Hunter, it was as if he didn’t speak English very well and could only understand simple things.

9. “Friend”: Would you and your character be friends if you met? Why or why not?

Captain Hunter, I decided, wouldn’t be my friend, nor I his; but Alan and I would have been friends before the events of the play, perhaps before Alan began to be serious about Madge. (To a degree, I decided, I’d outgrown Alan, hence I’d have to regress somewhat to play him.) I’d like to have Algernon as a friend, but I doubt I’d be a close friend of his; I wouldn’t amuse him enough. In contrast, Colonel Rall and I wouldn’t likely be friends. I wouldn’t appreciate his stiffness and hard-line approach to everything (and everyone) and he wouldn’t be likely to tolerate my tendency to see all sides of an issue or my preference for an underdog. (I actually did have problems with soldiers like this when I was in the army.) I’m too much of a democrat for Rall to accept.

10. Sense of Humor/Comedy: “Sense of humor” means you can see yourself as funny; “sense of comedy” means you can make others laugh. Which (or how much of both) does your character possess?

You should apply some of your own sense of humor to the role. Aaron always quoted Laurence Olivier here: “Humor makes more human.”

Colonel Rall has a very particular and peculiar sense of humor. It’s sardonic, sarcastic, and sadistic but stops short of true cruelty (no one really gets hurt). He’s not much interested in other people’s fun, but his own is very important. His sense of comedy is similar. (My own sense of humor is similarly sarcastic, but not sadistic.) Alan has little sense of humor, but he has a slight sense of comedy, I determined. Algernon, by contrast, has a marvelous sense of humor; his sense of comedy is involuntary: he makes others laugh, but not on purpose. (Other people’s pleasure isn’t his concern.) Finally, Captain Hunter has no sense of humor at all, or any real sense of comedy. His attempts at humor are funny only to himself.

11. Main Transitions: What are they? Where do they occur? What do they tell about the character?

There should be no more than three main transitions, points in the play at which the character’s direction changes fundamentally. (Think of Hamlet seeing his father’s ghost, Juliet after she meets Romeo, or Othello after Iago has planted the seed of jealousy). There may be none, or some may occur off stage, even before or after the play takes place.

The MT’s give direction or destination to the character. Determining them gives you the pattern or the graph of the role so you can score the script not unlike a musician does with a piece of music. If you play each transition as if you didn’t know it was coming (the actor knows, of course; the character doesn’t), it allows you to “discover” the experiences of the character new each time. Discovery creates the “Illusion of the First Time,” admonished Aaron.

Alan, I decided, has two main transitions: when Hal arrives and when Madge and Hal go off together. The second MT happens off-stage; Alan acts differently after the picnic. Algernon’s MT’s are when he discovers Jack’s ruse as Ernest and learns of Cecily’s existence (which gives Algernon a direction for his Bunburrying) and when he meets Cecily and falls in love with her (which gives him purpose). Captain Hunter’s MT’s occur when Arthur takes over the raft (before the play) and at Arthur’s death (after the play); during the play he’s between transitions. There are three MT’s for Colonel Rall: between the occupation of Trenton and his meeting the camp follower Sherry; the battle; and his surrender to Washington.

[Part 2 concludes the description of the “Free Association” prompts of Aaron Frankel’s homework technique for actors. I’ll post the third part of “An Actor’s Homework” shortly and the last installment a few days later; they will cover the second section of the system, “Analysis.” Please return to ROT to see the culmination of the technique.]

19 April 2010

An Actor’s Homework, Part 1

When I first came to New York in the 1970s and enrolled at the HB Studios, I took a course called How To Do Homework taught by Aaron Frankel. It’s a comprehensive system for script analysis designed for actors that I found so useful I took the course twice. I’ve since used it in production and taught it to advanced undergraduate acting students. It includes various approaches to understanding the characters and situations in a script ranging from “Free Association” (subjective responses) to formal research (objective data). Some prominent performance theorists’ ideas are incorporated in the system, including those of Michael Chekhov, François Delsarte, Konstantin Stanislavsky, and Uta Hagen. Others who get passing mention are Bernard Beckerman, dancer Martha Graham, Laurence Olivier, Jerzy Grotowski, and painters Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso.

The technique is to respond to a series of specially-conceived questions, or prompts; the answers, based on your own interpretation and understanding of the role, will constitute your score for the role. The actor keeps a notebook; though in a class, the process unfolds in stages over several weeks, in practice, you should proceed fluidly before the first rehearsal and then adjust and refine your responses as the rehearsal work progresses. Your responses should remain private during the rehearsal and performance. Since the work, especially in the first section, is very subjective, there are no right or wrong responses: it’s an on-going exploration and, as Jerzy Grotowski told his students, "It is after the production is completed and not before that I am wiser.”

The best way to describe this homework system is to go through the questions. They’re presented here in the order which Aaron used in the classes, but there’s no reason they need to be arranged this way—you’ll find your own approach based on usefulness. In fact, though all the prompts are discussed with equal weight here, you may find that some are of no value for a given role. Indeed, in Free Association, the first section, as the name implies, you shouldn’t dwell on a question and devise an answer out of some obligation to complete the list (as a student might do for class). If an answer doesn’t leap out at you when you first ask a question, you can come back to it later when more work on the role has inspired new associations, or you can leave it out. Further, even when answers are developed and seem apt and inspiring, they may very well end up not working. Remember that this homework is begun very early—before you meet the other actors in rehearsal and receive guidance from the director—and things will inevitably change. While in class the teacher will insist on some answer to each question, in production there’s no point in that level of completeness. If a prompt doesn’t evoke a response organically, forcing one will be of little practical use. This homework is intended to be a place to start, to make use of the time between casting and the first rehearsal so that you’ll have something on which to work right away. It’s one way of igniting inspiration and imagination. As any actor knows, many early decisions and choices are abandoned or refined as you start to work with castmates instead of alone, inside your own head.

In addition, when you start to work with the director and, especially, your castmates, new impulses will be generated and new approaches will be suggested. This homework is intended to give you a start before the first rehearsal, not cut you off from your fellow artists. Consider what dancer and choreographer Martha Graham told her students: "Don't come on stage to give; come on stage to take!" At first blush, this may seem selfish and even narcissistic, but I believe that what Graham meant is that performers—dancers, singers, and, above all, actors—must be receptive to everything that’s going on around them, particularly what the other performers are sending their way. Pay attention to what you get from the set, props, lighting, and costumes as well—they’re part of the environment in which your character exists and they, too, have things to tell you. All of this will unquestionably inform your homework on the role.

In presenting Aaron’s questions, I’ll cite examples from several roles I prepared over the years. Two are from well-known plays: Algernon Moncrieff from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Alan Seymour in William Inge’s Picnic; one’s from a less well-known script: Captain Hunter in John Bowen’s After the Rain; and one’s from an original play: Colonel Johann Rall, the commander of the Hessian garrison at Trenton in William Mastrosimone’s Revolutionary War epic, Devil Take the Hindmost. Everyone should remember, however, that my answers aren’t the answers and are offered here only as illustrations to help clarify the process. (I’ve also inserted some explanatory remarks for this description which don’t appear in my actual score.)

[After the Rain, for those unfamiliar with it, takes place in the distant future, 200 years after a global flood has wiped out civilization. A small group of survivors, afloat on a raft , gradually rediscovers the need for society. The leader is Arthur, who becomes convinced he’s divine. The 1976 production of Devil Take the Hindmost was Mastrosimone’s MFA thesis play at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts; Rall, a historical character, was my acting thesis. Mastrosimone, a Trentonian, was inspired by the Bicentennial Year and local history to compose an epic play about the Battle of Trenton on Christmas Eve and Day 1776. I’ve posted a description of the preparation for this role in “Johann Rall: A Historical Portrait” (ROT, 10 & 15 December 2009).]


As I’ve suggested, your responses to these prompts should be immediate gut reactions. Contradictory answers are certainly possible, even likely, and there’s no need to reconcile one response with any other. (Since your answers are private, there’s no need for a show of consistency.) Responses couched in metaphorical or figurative terms are often more provocative than more literal expressions—however, you should always remember that all the answers are subjective and personal, and if one approach works for one actor, it’s not necessarily the proper approach for any other. Or for the same actor in other circumstances.

1. Title: What does it mean to your character? Consider sub- or alternate titles as well.

For Alan, scion of the established and prominent Seymour family in Picnic, the title means “Family Outing,” evoking the solidity and propriety that flows from tradition. I also considered the title of Inge’s revision of the play, Summer Brave, which I felt reflects Alan’s sense that he’s “Big Chief Hot-Shit home for the summer.” For Algernon in Earnest, I found my approach more literal, feeling that the title indicates how he must appear earnest and sincere in order to successfully play his “game” (which relates to a later prompt, “Secret,” below). He must successfully be “Ernest Worthing” to meet, then win Cecily Cardew. (Wilde’s subtitle for Earnest is A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, to which I found no useful response beyond the obvious and literal—that the characters are all very serious about their trivialities. As you’ll see, however, this subtitle does come into play in other contexts.) In After the Rain, the title means “a second chance” for Captain Hunter, a chance to “wash the slate clean.” For Colonel Rall, the military commander known for brash action on the field, Devil Take the Hindmost means “Whoever is last or least gets the dregs of life. I must never come in second in anything!”

2. Texture: What is the character’s world made of? How does it feel (to the touch)?

Alternative prompts that might evoke a response are images, quality, energy level, style, or climate, though I’ve always preferred the notion of texture—evoking a tactile, sensory image that seems somehow analogous to the character for me. For example, Alan’s world feels like a car’s “wood-grain dashboard and leather upholstery” while Algernon’s is “satin-smooth and entirely unruffled.” Captain Hunter’s world is all “heavy tweed or olive-drab serge” and Colonel Rall’s is simply “brass”—military, shiny, and hard. (Note that my response for Colonel Rall is something of an anachronism. Brass wasn’t a prominent element in 18th-century uniforms—my costume had none on it, as it turned out—but the connection I made when I asked myself this question was to my own military experience—and modern American army uniforms, especially for officers, have a large amount of polished brass from belt buckles, buttons, and cap emblems to branch and rank insignia. Since these responses are private and the objects won’t appear on stage, anachronisms and other incongruities can be immensely useful.)

At the risk of over-emphasizing this point, let me elaborate. Give yourself permission to “mix and match” in many of the categories in this section. You’re creating an imaginary world for your character, and it must be evocative and provocative for you as a creative artist. Aaron liked to say at this point: "Imagination is new combinations of things known." In order to dream up new things, new images, we reassemble elements of things we know in other contexts. The scariest monster or the most fantastic alien landscape is nothing more than bits and pieces of what we’ve experienced, but rearranged. Allow yourself to go down that road creatively if it helps you.

3. Juices: What makes the role “juicy” for you as an actor? Why do you want to play it?

This is a particularly important—and practical—question for an actor: Why do I want to play this role? You have to find something that makes it “juicy” for you, something beyond the mere fact that it’s a job or a résumé credit. The answer may not be anything loftier than that it’s a lead role, or the type of character you don’t often get to play. (So, the role can be juicy for you because it’s a fantastic job or a wonderful résumé credit.) For Alan, though, I found that I envy him because “he is always so calm and outwardly well-adjusted”—something that I’m not. In the case of Algernon, I like the way he “enjoys playing the game of life fully which is something I would like to do. By playing the role, I can be ‘serious about trivia and trivial about serious matters’ for a while.” (It helps that Earnest is one of my all-time favorite plays.) For Captain Hunter, “Everything is so simple; all I have to do is what I’m told; no one expects anything else of me” in contrast to Colonel Rall, who’s “a master in complete control over those around him.” In all these cases, I could be something different from my everyday self with impunity. (I didn’t do this homework when I played Don John in a showcase of Much Ado About Nothing, but I recall feeling that I was having a great deal of fun in that role because I could be evil and mean and not pay the penalty. It remains one of my favorite roles. I always wanted to play Iago because I could be a villain without suffering the consequences!)

Stanislavsky warned his students, "Do not love yourself in the art. Love the art in yourself”—but this is an instance where the self-indulgence of “yourself in the art” is useful. You can feel impelled to take a role because you get to play the big part—the Hamlet, the Lear, the Curly, the Liza, the Hedda. I once had a dream just to stand on a stage with Olivier. I never got to, of course—but that would have “juiced” the part for me more than enough.)

Then you can go back to being a committed artist.

4. Secret: Something the character knows about him- or herself that’s not in the script.

Of all the responses in this technique, this is the one that’s least useful if the actor shares it. It should never be revealed or used openly in rehearsal or become the subject of improvised scenes or dialogue as it will lose its effectiveness if anyone else knows what you’re doing. What Aaron used to say to us about this particular bit of preparation is that while the audience will never know what you’re doing, they’ll sense that you’re “up to something.” Used effectively—that is, if you find a really evocative secret for your character—it alone can make the difference between a good performance and a really special one. Like most of the other responses in this system, the best secret’s one that effects in some way how your character relates to each other character on the stage. (If you define a secret that doesn’t have much effect in rehearsal—or whose effect is inapt—then you should search for a new one, trying several until one unleashes repercussions in every scene.) When I was preparing Alan, I decided that he “is a virgin and loves Hal silently,” which clearly has an impact on my scenes with Hal, Millie, and Madge. Algernon’s secret was that he “is really an imposter, playing an amusing game for all it’s worth while it lasts”: life is play-acting. Captain Hunter’s secret was that he “cheated on my examinations at Sandhurst,” the British military academy; and Colonel Rall’s was that he “is really a coward: if I don’t charge up the hill first, I’m afraid I’ll run.” Doing Rall with that truth in the back of my mind caused me to bluster and strut before my soldiers, my British paymasters, and especially the American colonists. I’m not a big man—most of the actors playing the Hessian troops were taller than I—but after one rehearsal, the actor playing George Washington, whom I knew only slightly at this stage of the work (and who is relatively tall), came to me and asked, in all seriousness, “You’re what? About six foot?” When I chuckled and said, “I’m five feet, nine inches on a good day,” he just shook his head and added, “When you come on stage like that, you just know you’re the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the valley.” I was sure my secret was working right.

[In Part 2 of “An Actor’s Homework,” coming a few days, I’ll complete the description of the first section of the system, “Free Association.” Parts 3 and 4 will cover Section II, “Analysis.”]

14 April 2010

'Camino Real,' The Musical

In 1997, when I was doing a great deal of research on Tennessee Williams’s connected plays Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, I learned a fact that surprised me. As part of the research, I looked into the 1976 Broadway production of Eccentricities, which had started at a regional repertory company in Buffalo, the Studio Arena Theatre. I wrote to the SAT and asked them to send me all their papers on the production, which included, along with local reviews and press coverage, the company’s press releases.

As most theaters are, SAT was very generous with its records and the theater copied its entire file on the show and sent me a packet of documents that was invaluable in my work. (I was writing the chapter on the two plays for Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance, ed. Philip C. Kolin [Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998].) The production of Eccentricities which went to Broadway in November 1976 opened in Buffalo in October that year. Previously, it had been a summer stock tour and SAT announced its appearance on their stage in August. But among the papers the theater sent me were three clippings and a news release from July which didn’t look like they were about Eccentricities at all. In fact, they were about another Tennessee Williams play altogether, Camino Real, the playwright’s Absurdist script from the early 1950s. At first, I just thought the papers had slipped into the collection on Eccentricities by mistake—until I looked at them more closely. That’s when I learned the surprising little fact—which not only was news to me, a theater generalist and no authority on Williams, but, I found out later, was news to some of the real experts on the playwright I got to know from working on projects like this one.

The newspapers articles and Studio Arena press release were the announcement of a project to turn Camino Real into a musical with the cooperation of Tennessee Williams himself. The project foundered, and the reason the papers were part of the packet concerning Eccentricities SAT sent me was that Eccentricities had been brought in to take the spot in the Studio Arena schedule that Camino Real, the musical, had been expected to occupy; the Camino papers were part of the Eccentricities file (or, perhaps more accurately, the Eccentricities production took over the Camino file). Despite that little factoid, the existence of the Camino Real project was not pertinent to my work on the two other Williams plays, so I put the papers aside and didn’t really look at them until I’d finished the TW Guide chapter in ‘98. As Camino Real wasn’t part of my assignment, I didn’t do any research on the abortive production, but I glanced through the reference works I had used for my work on S&S and Eccentricities and I found that there was no mention anywhere, including the CR chapter in the new TW Guide, of this plan to set the play to music. (Since that time, Philip Kolin also published The Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia, and its Camino entry doesn’t mention the musical version, either.) I haven’t gone looking far and wide to see if there’s any record of this effort, which was, after all, reported in the press, including the New York Times. Like the world première of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (see my report on ROT, 20 March 2010), Williams’s failed collaboration to create a new version of his 24-year-old play has passed under everybody’s radar. Had it succeeded, however, it would have been only the second full-length play of Williams’s that had been set to music in his lifetime (the opera of Summer and Smoke composed by Lee Hoiby in 1971 was the first) and the only one on which Tennessee Williams himself would have collaborated. (André Previn’s 1995 opera of Streetcar débuted 12 years after Williams’s death.) In any case, there’s not very much information available on the short-lived project, so here’s what I learned.

First, a little background for the source material. Williams first wrote a non-realistic play about Kilroy, the all-American boy, as a one-act in 1946 called Ten Blocks on the Camino Real. The short experimental play, part dream part carnival, was published in American Blues in 1948 and Elia Kazan, who’d already directed the stage version of Streetcar (1947) which had won Williams a Pulitzer and provided him with his second great Broadway success (after The Glass Menagerie in 1945), directed a scene from the one-act at the Actors Studio. Kazan encouraged Williams, whom he’d known since 1938 when the young playwright had submitted a series of one-acts to the Group Theatre where Kazan had been a member, to expand the play into a full-length treatment. Comprising now 16 “blocks” (as the scenes were called), Camino Real was born in 1952 and staged on Broadway the next year. Kazan directed it. It met with cool reception from both critics and audiences, neither of whom understood what Williams was up to. (The great Absurdist play, which had its own receptivity difficulties, Waiting for Godot, didn’t come along in the U.S. for another three years. Non-realistic, experimental plays like CR and Godot weren’t even yet a presence Off-Broadway as early as 1953, whose major success at this point in theater history was another Tennessee Williams play, one that had previously failed on Broadway: Summer and Smoke. Its 1952 revival at Circle in the Square downtown made OB an important venue for serious theater, but S&S is hardly an avant-garde play.)

Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real, which has been compared to the work of Beckett and Ionesco, is a fantasy—sometimes Existential, sometimes Surreal, sometimes Absurdist, sometimes Symbolist, sometimes Expressionistic—about romantics who find it hard to survive in a world devoid of human feeling and taken over by cynical self-interest and political oppression. William Hawkins, reviewer for the old New York World-Telegram, described the plot as having “no limits of time or space. The set is a walled community, from which the characters ceaselessly try to escape, without success. Only Don Quixote, who calls himself ‘an unashamed victim of romantic folly,’ has access to the outside, and finally Kilroy goes with him. Kilroy is a central figure, an ex-boxer, always the patsy, the fall guy, who asks so little and always gets short-changed, but he never quits hoping . . . . The other principal story is a romance between the aging, hunting Camille, and the fading Casanova, who yearns now only for tenderness and faithfulness . . . . The play has subdued sequences of tenderness and pathos. It also has scenes of cataclysmic violence. The near escape of Kilroy, the battle to ride the escape plane are hair-raising, as is the wild fiestas crown the ‘tired old peacock,’ Casanova.”

The original play premièred at the Martin Beck Theatre on 19 March 1953 and ran only 60 performances (until 9 May). Designed by Lemuel Ayers, the cast included Eli Wallach as the boxer, Kilroy, and included Martin Balsam, Barbara Baxley, Michael V. Gazzo, Hurd Hatfield, Salem Ludwig, Nehemiah Persoff, Henry Silva, Frank Silvera, and Jo Van Fleet. It was met with bad reviews almost across the board, starting with Walter Kerr’s New York Herald Tribune notice, which averred Camino Real was “the worst play yet written by the best playwright of his generation” and Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, who called the play “a strange and disturbing dream” and “a kind of cosmic fantasy.” A few reviewers demurred, but Camino Real accumulated a history of critical negativity that stretched beyond 1976. An Off-Broadway production staged by Jose Quintero at Circle in the Square (the same director and theater that had done the Summer and Smoke to immense success in ’52) played in 1960, receiving further negative reviews; British and Continental productions met with similar receptions. Martin Sheen appeared on NET Playhouse (PBS’s predecessor) in the one-act version in 1966 and Al Pacino starred in a Lincoln Center revival in 1970. Little by little, however, the play began to see a reevaluation of its dramatic worth and impact as audiences, especially in the United States, became more used to such experimental stage fare. Actors and directors seemed to gravitate to the script, but in 1976, Camino Real was still regarded with confusion and apathy by both critics and audiences.

On 22 July 1976, the Studio Arena Theatre announced that its 100th production would be the new musical based on Williams’s Camino Real. It was to première on 1 October, the opening of SAT’s 1976-77 season, the theater’s twelfth. The title of the new play had not been decided at the time of the first announcement; however, it later acquired a “working title” of El Camino (which is what I’ll call the musical to keep it differentiated from the non-musical script). The book for El Camino was to be by Tennessee Williams himself in collaboration with Larry Arrick, who was at the time the Artistic Director of the National Theatre Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center and who’d previously adapted the Broadway script for Unlikely Heroes: 3 Philip Roth Stories (1971). Arrick was to direct the cast of 20 as well; he’d directed on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and at Yale Rep previously. The musical’s lyrics were to be by Williams and Barbara Damashek (Quilters, 1984), who’d also have composed the music and overseen the musical direction. (Damashek, who’d known Arrick at Yale and was music director at the O’Neill under him, researched and edited the music selections for his Unlikely Heroes, which Arrick had also directed.) Though both Williams’s potential partners, particularly Arrick, would accumulate several credits in TV and regional theater, in 1976, neither the writer-director nor the composer-lyricist had what I’d call a substantial record of accomplishment and success in the theater. The producers of El Camino, which was characterized as a future Broadway transfer “sometime later this year at a theatre still to be announced,” were to have been Charles Bowden and Isobel Robins, co-producers of David Storey’s The Changing Room (1973) on Broadway. (Bowden had also previously produced many other Broadway shows, including three Williams premières: Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton, 1955—part of All in One; The Night of the Iguana, 1961; and Slapstick Tragedy, 1966—The Gnädiges Fräulein and The Mutilated. He’d also produced a national tour of Streetcar.) Williams was expected to be in residence in Buffalo during the development of El Camino and to oversee the production.

I don’t know how far along the work on the adaptation had gotten before the collaboration collapsed. One report stated that Williams had already rewritten some of Camino Real “to some extent” by the time SAT made the announcement. There are at least two versions of the script, one labeled "An Untitled Musical" and dated “May 1976” and another called "El Camino," but without a date, on reposit among the Charles Bowden papers at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin. Other papers in that file are casting notes and even some design notes, so some consideration of these aspects of the planned production were already underway when the work was abandoned. The reasons for the dissolution of the collaboration aren’t clear and when Eccentricities was announced in August for the 100th-production slot in the SAT schedule, only “creative differences” was cited as the cause. Williams was apparently displeased at some aspect of how El Camino was developing, but I have no idea what that might have meant, even if it was true. (I imagine that Tennessee Williams wouldn’t have been an easy collaborator. He might just have stalked out.) The Bowden collection at HRC lists correspondence, but specifies only “director correspondence” and “Correspondence re Larry Arrick and Barbara Damashek arbitration” (whatever that means). One other file is called “Production materials, clippings, correspondence”; if there’s any communication with Williams among the producer’s papers, it’s not specified—which I think it would be—but somewhere among those papers in Austin might be the explanation of what happened to El Camino.

As far as I can tell, the HRC archive is the only one to hold any papers acknowledged to concern El Camino, though papers elsewhere might contain documents if someone wanted to do a collection-by-collection, file-by-file search. But Williams’s own papers are scattered in disparate archives all across the country, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Austin, Texas, and from Newark, Delaware, to Sewanee, Tennessee—just to name a few. Williams-related documents in the collections of his correspondents, collaborators, and friends could come to hundreds of locations. (Just here in New York City, I myself have searched in four archives—two universities and two NYPL divisions—in easily a score of separate holdings for various Tennessee Williams documents, plus a few incidental folders in repositories around the city.) The Studio Arena Theatre, unhappily, is in Chapter 7 bankruptcy status now, and I doubt there’d be anyone around with access to records, if any remain from 36 years ago. Charles Bowden, the co-producer, died in 1996. That leaves only lyricist Barbara Damashek, book-writer Larry Arrick and Isobel Robins, Bowden’s partner, from the original creative and production team still around to tell the tale.

Coincidentally, the New York Times announced late last year that Williams and Kazan would be the main characters in a new play from 17 April to 8 May. The Really Big Once is set during the years from 1948 to 1953 when the playwright and the director worked on Camino Real. Based on letters, notebooks, and research, The Really Big Once is being produced (and created) by the Target Margin Theatre in association with Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Incubator at St. Mark’s.

09 April 2010


I don’t remember ever having been taught anything about writing when I was in school. We learned grammar in elementary and middle school in those days, of course, but composition courses weren’t part of the curriculum. In high school and college lit classes we studied writers, but not writing. If someone did, in fact, teach me to write, I certainly didn’t learn very well, and I set about (re)learning.

It wasn’t until I was in grad school the first time, for a Master of Fine Arts in Acting at Rutgers’ School of Creative and Performing Arts (the predecessor to the Mason Gross School of the Arts), that I began to look at my writing with any kind of critical eye and to take an interest in improving my prose. The process of learning to write has essentially been a matter of teaching myself. The path of this self-teaching hasn’t been direct, and there were several influences on the way I examine and reexamine what I think about writing.

My awareness of writing with a purpose began to solidify when I started to work on my master’s thesis 34 years ago. Other than personal letters, the only writing I did after college was in the army. God knows, its literary demands were not very great—except, perhaps, in a negative sense because of the formulaic style of military documents. My MFA courses demanded very little writing of any consequence; actors and directors aren’t expected to write very much, and we weren’t often asked to. For the thesis, however, I had to write about the performance of my thesis role in a way that would both document it and explain the process by which I arrived at it, and I had to do it not for myself, but for a committee of faculty members who would cross-question me on what I said. Furthermore, the thesis would be put in the university library for posterity. I would be “on record” for anyone to read. (The paper is, indeed, in the Rutgers University library. I also published an edited version of the thesis on ROT: “Johann Rall: A Historical Portrait,” 10 and 15 December 2009.)

Even though the written thesis wasn’t the important part of the thesis work—the performance itself was, and the written thesis was not intended to stand alone without it—I was constrained to write a readable document, if not by departmental or scholarly pressure, then by my own desire to do the best damn thesis the department had seen. The problem was, I didn’t have any idea how to go about doing that. I didn’t know how to write the way I thought I wanted to. I had to learn for myself how to do it.

It’s probably dumb luck that I succeeded at all. I don’t know exactly what I did while I was writing the paper, but I do remember two things. The first was that I was terribly blocked at first—I didn’t know how to start. I finally convinced myself that I had to get started somehow, and I decided I would just begin. I would just start putting words on paper (no word processors yet) as swiftly as I could and worry later about whether they made sense and were grammatical. I didn’t know it then, but what I was doing was free-writing about the role and my performance, a strategy I later learned is called focused free-writing. Very soon, it all just began to gush out. I’m sure, once the dam was broken, the flood of words was mostly due to the subject, which was necessarily very close to me emotionally, and the intensity of the work that led to the performance. But the words did come, and they were surprisingly lucid. I was actually writing a master’s thesis, and, finally having started, I found I couldn’t stop. (In fact, the finished thesis was 44 pages—not long by academic standards, but three to four times as long as the usual written acting thesis, as the department chairman remarked at my defense session.)

The second thing that I remember noticing about my writing was a concern for style: I wanted to write “trippingly on the tongue.” I’d never considered such a thing before, and I have no idea why the idea popped into my head then. My college writing, between seven and eleven years before, had always sounded pompous and pretentious. I used to describe my own writing style, when I thought about it, as “pedantic”; I had what I now call The William F. Buckley Syndrome—deliberately choosing a $50 word when a $5 one was available, just to show off. No one ever told me to write more conversationally; I just began to want to. I can only guess that I’d been subtly and insidiously influenced by whatever I’d been reading. I have no idea what that might have been: most of my reading for school at the time—and virtually all I had time for—was play scripts. I don’t think I took my cue from them because the styles were too varied to have made me so aware of conversational prose as a desirable style for my writing. The subliminal influence “to acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness” might have come from such periodicals as Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times Magazine, which I did read then. Some of the writers I admired at that time were Times columnists Russell Baker and Anna Quindlen and essayists E. B. White and James Thurber, who all wrote in conversational prose. (I also liked the breeziness and surprising diction of Mark Twain and the clarity and specificity of Bernard Shaw, but their 19th-century floweriness made them unlikely models for my needs.) I certainly didn’t imitate the style of those publications or writers, but they were less formal than the kind of academic reading a student usually encounters, and they were easy to read. In any case, something put the idea in my head, and it wasn’t a teacher or any other acknowledgeable human being.

I finished the thesis and defended it and went off in pursuit of an acting career. I didn’t consider myself a writer of any kind—it wasn’t a thought that even entered my head. I don’t think I did any appreciable writing between finishing the MFA thesis in 1976 and the next stage in this attenuated process.

The next thing that happened, when I decided the acting career was unlikely to be successful, was returning to school about seven years later, ending up in NYU's Department of Performance Studies. One of the main emphases at DPS when I was there was a clear, readable writing style. All the faculty specifically stressed it in their classes—my instructors Michael Kirby, Brooks McNamara, and Richard Schechner in particular. These men all were editors or former editors of The Drama Review and presumably the staffs of both TDR and Women in Performance, journals published by the department, focused on it, too. All our written work was expected to be of publishable quality whether or not we intended to submit it to a journal and though I never received written remarks on my papers concerning this, I saw it clearly criticized on classmates' work from time to time. A required course at DPS, Resources and Methods for the Study of Performance, was essentially a graduate-level writing course and our Qualifying Exams (the DPS equivalent of “comps”) were three ten-page essays of publishable quality which we had to write in ten days. (I have, in fact, had two of them published: "Dramaturgy: The Conscience of the Theatre," TheatreInsight 1.2 [Spring 1989]: 34-37 and "Konstantin Stanislavsky and Michael Chekhov: Realism and Un-Realism," The Players’ Journal 2.1 [2008]: 15-22.) The constant emphasis on our writing by the faculty couldn’t help but make us conscious of our prose.

At the same time that I started at Performance Studies, I also began teaching writing to undergrads. NYU required all undergraduates who hadn’t had an equivalent course in a previous school to take a two-semester Writing Workshop and pass a proficiency exam at the end. One of the country’s largest private universities, NYU had far too few regular faculty to teach a required, university-wide course to all the students mandated to take it, so grad students were hired to teach most of the WW classes. Shortly after I matriculated, I was offered a position as a preceptor (what the program called its TA’s) in the Expository Writing Program, teaching two sections of the twice-weekly course. (I learned later that Performance Studies grad students were considered a prime pool for prospective EWP preceptors because of the department’s emphasis on writing.) Having the responsibility to guide and train students in a field in which I never before considered myself even a practitioner, much less an expert, made me examine and question my own writing even more critically.

(As an adjunct to teaching in the EWP, preceptors were required to take a class in the ed school [SEHNAP] on teaching writing. Because of scheduling, I didn’t take the course until my third semester. One assignment in the course was to write about our “writing process.” For this class, in the Resources and Methods course, and from my awakened interest in the craft of composition, I began to read “words on words”—writers who wrote about writing: William Zinsser, Peter Elbow, and William Safire—who wrote not so much about writing as language—and the old standbys Fowler and Strunk and White. That was the first time I had actually analyzed how I wrote and how I learned—or was learning—to write.)

In my first semester at Performance Studies, I took the late Michael Kirby’s class in Theatrical Structure, my first course with Michael. After I turned in my final paper for the course, the structural analysis of a play (I used Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a favorite of mine), Michael said something to me that I remember to this day as having been a huge compliment at the time. He singled my paper out as unique in the class—which is pretty great in itself—because I had been the only student who didn’t hand in a list of structural devices but an actual essay discussing and describing the appearances and uses of the devices which had been the subject of the course. What really got me, though, is that it had never occurred to me to do the paper any other way—or even that there was any other way it could be done. I mean, I hadn't struggled with the idea of taking a tack that I suspected was clever or unusual—in my mind, I just did the assignment. As well as I could, of course—given the department’s insistence that our writing should be of publishable quality all the time. I had spent some effort polishing the prose as I always did (or was learning to do—this was still new to me), but I never stopped to think, ‘I've got to come up with a way to do this that's different and special.’ That Michael thought it was anyway was an immense ego-boost.

In the spring term, I took Michael’s 20th-Century Mise-en-Scène, an examination of the staging techniques of modern Western theater. At the start of the term, Michael, then the editor of TDR, announced in all his classes (I began auditing his other classes, so I was in two each term sometimes—though I didn't do the assignments for both) that he was planning an issue on the Group Theatre. If any student wished to do the course paper on a Group Theatre topic, it could be considered for publication in TDR. I simply dismissed the offer because I figured I'd have enough work just to make my paper acceptable for classwork, let alone publication; I didn't want to take on the extra burden—real or psychological. There was a meeting for anyone who was considering submitting a Group Theatre paper, but I hadn't planned to attend. That's when I got a surprise phone call. It was Michael and he asked if I was thinking of doing my paper for TDR; I said I wasn't. He asked me why not, and I explained that I thought it would be more work than I was able to handle. He tried to persuade me that it wouldn't be more work and asked me to think it over and come to the meeting on spec, just in case I changed my mind. I asked Michael why he’d called me and why he wanted me to consider this. I figured he must either be desperate or was trying to round up as many prospects as he could in order to have a larger selection in the end. His answer, which I will never forget, has in a way affected the rest of my life. "I think you can write," he said. I was flabbergasted at the compliment, and the fact that he had reached out to me specifically that way! Believe me, no one had ever said anything like that to me in my life. It wasn't even anything I had ever thought about myself.

I actually hadn't even chosen a topic yet, so I didn't know if I would do a Group Theatre paper or not. In fact, I didn't know much about the Group except in very general terms. On the other hand, I had nothing else in mind so I went to that meeting and Michael had some suggestions for those of us who hadn't selected a topic—things he would like to have as part of the issue. My term paper for the mise-en-scène course ended up being a reconstruction of the Group Theatre's Johnny Johnson. I didn't know anything about the play before I started the research—I'd never even heard of it—but JJ was the Group's only musical, so it was on Michael’s list; that uniqueness was what attracted me to it. The reconstruction part was the focus of the course—this was still a term paper for class, after all. I think, though, that I did it more because Michael had said what he said to me, and because he’d sought me out to say it, than for any other reason. "The Group Theatre's Johnny Johnson” did, in the end, appear in TDR (28.4 [T104: Winter 1984]: 49-60)—my first published essay.

The whole process was a revelation to me—from the actual research I did on JJ (I even turned up a little historical coup and got to interview a few surviving Group members and associates) through the writing and editing of the paper (a great deal of what I learned from that class and that paper has turned up in later work) to publication (it's a narcotic—as addictive as heroin).

From then on, I’ve thought of myself as a writer. (Well, that’s what I put on my tax returns and other forms where there’s a space for “occupation.” Sometimes it’s “writer-teacher,” sometimes “writer-researcher,” and sometimes “freelance writer,” but writer’s always in there now.) I make no claim regarding quality or significance, but words are what I pay attention to—both when I craft them and when I read some crafted by others. All because Michael Kirby called me at home one evening.

[I admired and respected Michael Kirby a great deal. Aside from what he did for me with that phone call, he had a unique and unpredictable view of performance and theater which always revealed something new and surprising to me. Michael was a sculptor and I always figured that his distinctive view of theater was the result of this background in a three-dimensional visual art. Michael died of leukemia on 24 February 1997 at the age of 66.]