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.]

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