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.]

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