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.”]

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