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.]

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