Christopher Aruffo, MFA, MBA, MSc, PhD
Acting Process 1: Pre-rehearsal
I act like a toddler.
If the children in the airport are any indication, I must appear to my students to be only three years old. Of course, I flatter myself by comparing myself to the youngsters; as I watched the different children (themselves cautiously monitored by their parents) I admired their freedom, their daring, their curiosity, their downright shamelessness-- unlike the adults who sat dull and contained, barely raising an eyebrow to anything that happened near them, showing not the slightest interest in any part of their surroundings. As far as they were concerned, the only reason they were even at this airport was that they couldn’t be somewhere else, and clearly they felt nothing interesting would happen until they got to wherever that was; by contrast, the children refused to be bored, and were just as fascinated by the airport as they would be with any place. With every place.
One of the critical differences between myself and the children is that they are as interested in discovering people as they are the environment. I’m not. In an airport or anywhere, I keep a respectable distance, preferring to be left alone, and when I do interact with someone-- always for a specific transaction-- it is to exchange information, not to discover and explore. I see myself repeating this behavior constantly; I have so many blatant opportunities to learn something interesting about someone unique, and I deliberately decline to take advantage, knowing full well in the moment what I am choosing to lose.
One way to look at it, I suppose, is that objects are finite and static. Although they have properties and characteristics which are characteristically ignored, I can safely expect that the investigation will end when I have exhausted its features. People are, unfortunately, endlessly fascinating. They exhaust me.
We graduate students are allowed to choose which role we want as our thesis project, without auditioning. Ordinarily, of course, a student will choose the leading role in the most interesting play; it obviously provides the greatest amount of stage time, supposedly the greatest amount of work, and, presumably, the greatest amount of opportunity to show off. But I-- and two of my classmates-- did not make our choice based on the script we wanted to perform or the role we wanted to play. Instead, we chose our director.
This director is the person at this school from whom I have learned the most about acting. For 10 years he was the stage partner of Marcel Marceau, and it is astonishing that my students don’t recognize the significance of this. His performance skill is world-class. All of my classmates are in his show (except those who are interning out of town). The opportunity is just too good to miss.
The play is called The Exonerated. It is a story of five real people who were wrongly condemned to death. In addition to these five, there is a narrator and an ensemble of incidental characters (family, lawyers, judges, policemen, etc).
Initially, I proposed to play the entire male ensemble. I figured that the director’s mimetic experience would open new layers and levels of the process which I could not previously have imagined. But he wanted to see me as one of the principal characters, one of the story-tellers. His vision of the show was to recruit more than a dozen students as the full ensemble.
Among the remaining parts I had no preference. A process is a process, regardless of the role. Any part requires essentially the same effort; I believe that viewing one role as "better" than another is an unnecessary conceit. More stage time is nice on the ego, but doesn't affect the process. Characters which express a wider range of emotion don't require any more involved a process. In fact, a large part requires considerably less from the actor than does a small part; with a larger part you're given almost everything you need in the dialogue, so you can appear equally competent while doing far less work. In other words, the most compelling reason I can imagine for wanting to portray a "big" or "deep" role is for the joy of experiencing extreme emotions in a totally safe and excusable manner. Every role is equally challenging, if done thoroughly and well.
We didn't decide which character I'd be playing until after the auditions. Although I am able to transform myself for a character part, I am nonetheless a white male, and I was thus limited to either "Gary" or "Kerry". Gary is more like me in real life, but the director wondered if that meant I should tackle Kerry as "more of a challenge." I assured him that either would be worth doing. As Kerry, I would have to transform myself physically and also relate to events quite distant from my own life experience; as Gary, he [the director] would undoubtedly be able to show me ways to transcend my ordinary self. Because the director didn't know which other students would be available to him until after the auditions, he appreciated my flexibility.
The auditions gave me an unexpected opportunity. Grad students don't normally audition for their thesis, but the director wanted an extra look at me, so he asked me to read for both roles. My read for Gary, whom I had looked at more closely to begin with, was interesting and engaging but not really surprising. Kerry, though, I didn't know as well, and I was asked to read the passage where Kerry revealed the physical and mental scars from being raped repeatedly in prison. I had only skimmed the speech once, weeks before; I had only the vaguest idea of Kerry's story. I quickly realized I would be flying almost totally blind, so without a moment's delay I launched directly into the monologue.
For me, this is not a foolhardy action. My ability to cold-read is extraordinary. Before my first semester here at the school, I assumed that everyone perceived text and language as I do; now I know that my reading skills are highly unusual. My normal reading habits resemble those taught by speed-reading courses. Where most people must mindfully examine the words of a piece to deliberately assemble its meaning, I instinctively grasp a structural concept and subconsciously infer the words from that. (There is only one other person in the acting program whom I know of that is also capable of this kind of reading; our common factor is that we began reading at age 2.) So where most people must establish their relationship to the words before they can attempt an interpretation, I can dive right in and trust my structural comprehension. Sometimes I demonstrate this to people by asking them to give me a book I've never seen before, and I open it to a random page and immediately begin reading with full involvement. My first glance gives me the basic idea (or perhaps mood) plus the ability to instinctively recognize and emphasize the appropriate operative words; as I continue I gain more context and can express even greater meaning. In any case, because the relationship to what I am saying is effortless, I can focus my energies toward communicating with the audience and deliver a startlingly effective cold reading.
As I began reading Kerry's speech, I knew I wanted to try an experiment. In the book Impro, author Keith Johnstone claimed that, to achieve any emotion, nothing was necessary but to feel it. Experience the emotion without pretense, he said, and the reason why will take care of itself. This assertion amazed me, as it stood in direct opposition to practically everything I had been told about generating emotional response. Every master teacher I was aware of seemed to advocate the unequivocal need for inventing a specific external action (or image) to cause a desired emotional response-- whether an emotional memory, a psychological gesture, a forced breath pattern, or an imaginary object. Because I had generally found Johnstone's philosophies to be deeply truthful, I was disinclined to dismiss his model of emotional involvement, despite the apparent disagreements. And perhaps it wasn't a contradiction anyway; the example provided in his book was shown as an improvisational technique, not connected to any script, so maybe it didn't apply. But I wanted the chance to test the idea, and Kerry's monologue gave me that chance.
I already knew what I would do because of my work as a teacher. One of my simplest but most powerful demonstrations is to ask a person to preselect an emotional response and then use an impulse to generate that response. If they use an impulse, the response is always honest and real, and it surprises them by how easy it is to accomplish. This is easy for anyone to do when another person is providing impulses; as I began reading Kerry, I realized that it should be equally easy for me to provide my own impulses from the monologue. If I preselected my emotional response to be burning humiliation and shame, and amplified each new impulse into that response, then theoretically I would be able to create a powerful and totally natural emotional response which wasn't "based on" anything at all, just as Johnstone had said was possible.
And it worked. It wasn't too long before I found myself in the delightful position of seething with embarrassment and drowning in deep distress. While I as the character fought desperately to retain my dignity and composure, I as the actor sadistically pelted myself with impulse after impulse to let these terrible feelings grow. The monologue built to a delicious climax and poignant finish. The director and I began discussing the casting decision while I allowed my body to calm itself out of the strong emotions it had created.
A preselected response to an impulse is neither generic, inappropriate, nor unnatural. By responding to the impulse, instead of at the impulse, one's response becomes natural and relevant no matter what you've chosen. By using the impulses in Kerry's speech, I didn't work myself into an undifferentiated state of agitation which had no particular connection to the words I was saying; rather, I generated a series of responses which were specifically and directly related to Kerry's story and its message. It didn't matter that I didn't know in advance why I should feel this way. Emotional action precedes conscious awareness of cause. Henry James said that
We feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be.
Despite the success of the experiment, I'll be playing Gary. Even though Kerry's story provides thrilling flushes of emotion and Gary has no comparable extremes, I didn't insist on playing Kerry to hog those emotions for myself. As I see it, if any of the principal roles is going to be challenging it's Gary. All the other characters talk about knife fights, car chases, gun battles, and sex; Kerry's monologue specifically describes how an obscene word was permanently carved into his rear end by a malicious gang of inmates. And Gary... explains how he learned embroidery. If I can make Gary's part seem half as interesting as the others to a college audience, that will be quite a feat.
Whatever play I'm doing, I prefer to avoid exposing myself to any other interpretation of it. I have only ever found it useful to watch alternative interpretations when I was doing a class scene and not allowed to work through a process; watching videos gave me actions I could imitate as a shortcut. But if you try to imitate someone else on stage, It's more likely to make an audience compare you to the other actor instead of appreciating your work.
I had no intention of watching the television version of The Exonerated, but I inadvertently discovered that Gary was played by Brian Dennehy. Unfortunately, it's easy to imagine how he would have performed Gary-- but that shouldn't change anything I do. It's just as destructive to define your performance by actively avoiding what you know has been done, because the choices that result will also not be a natural result of your process. Some would argue that not seeing other versions means losing out on some of the great discoveries that have been made by the other actors; I simply prefer to make my own choices without having to compare. Maybe I will eventually change my mind about this, but this is my opinion for now.
Before the rehearsal process begins, the only preparation I insist upon is having the lines memorized. Although line memorization is not the only part of the pre-rehearsal process, it is the only part I consider crucial. Until the lines are learned you can rehearse nothing. All you can do is speculate about choices you should be able to rehearse after you have learned the lines. You can begin exploring effective choices only when you know the lines. While the script is in your hand you aren't acting, but you will certainly be able to demonstrate a facsimile of any intellectual, analytical choice. Only when the script has been put down can you discover if and how that choice actually works. I learn my lines as soon as possible so I will be able to fully exploit the rehearsal process.
For The Exonerated, my director has said that he wants the actors to learn their lines as late into the process as possible. I’m not going against his wishes because we both want the same result: to focus our acting on the real human life behind the words. We want to create the reality and the circumstances which will cause these particular words to be spoken, and allow our speeches to flow from that internal existence. In this respect, lines that are partly-memorized are worse than those which have not been learned at all, because the mindfulness required to recall the proper words interferes with an actor’s imagination and natural communication. Where my director intends to solve this problem by discouraging memorization, I intend to solve it by making sure my lines are fully memorized.
I have two criteria for assessing whether my lines are "fully" memorized. I must be able to say them mindlessly, and to recite without any pauses whatsoever. I often test mindlessness by speaking the words while doing a random task that requires mental and physical attention-- such as sorting coins by denomination and date-- because I want to make sure my mind and body are both equally free. I recite without pauses because a memorized pause destroys the natural flow of thought. When we speak naturally, the only time we come to a full mental stop is when we relinquish our turn to speak; a memorized pause forces an actor into an unnatural full mental stop, which makes the audience think the actor has finished (and they stop paying attention). Memorizing without pauses means that the only pauses that do appear will be those naturally motivated by character choice and interpretation, and when they appear they will be purposeful, not empty.
The most important pre-rehearsal analysis I may do is objectives. My objectives will very probably change as the rehearsal proceeds-- but until I decide on objectives, even provisionally, I literally won’t know what I’m doing. Or what I’m talking about. Or why.
The objectives define the purpose of the role. A role is structured like an essay. Where an essay has
1. a thesis,
2. topic sentences, and
3. supporting text,
a role has its parallel in
1. a superobjective,
2. beat objectives, and
The superobjective is a character’s overall goal. From a character's first entrance to his final exit, he is actively pursuing one and only one specific goal; when this action is resolved, either in success or failure, his function in the story is completed. As an essay is defined by its thesis, a role is defined by its superobjective; where every passage in an essay must contribute directly to its thesis, every aspect of a role must support its superobjective.
The beat objectives are the "steps" of the superobjective. Like topic sentences, they follow each other in logical consequence, each one prefacing and also prompting the next, each advancing the superobjective one step further. A beat begins because I begin pursuing my objective, and ends because I have clearly succeeded or failed-- so identifying beats is flexible but critical. Ideally, I believe the beginning and ending of each beat is identified by the director, who is best able to recognize logical points where characters’ objectives may dovetail; each actor may then support the director’s analysis by creating an objective which fills those boundaries. However, no matter what the director provides, as a performer I have a responsibility to know what I am doing on stage.
I don't pre-plan any tactics, though. Tactics are like an essay's body text: implicit. While a topic sentence expands and advances its thesis, body text relates back to its topic. Once you know your topic, the shape and structure of the paragraph follows as a matter of consequence; likewise, any beat objective implies its tactics. Tactics are a consequence, not a cause, and are best discovered naturally in rehearsal because they depend on the interaction between your objective and the other characters'. I only start deliberately looking for tactics when a scene doesn't seem as interesting as I feel it should be.
The only other component to performance which I believe is indispensible is the character arc. The character arc is how you change from the beginning to the end of the story. One of the most obvious arcs I can think of is Charly in Flowers for Algernon; at the beginning of the story he is retarded, and gradually he becomes a super genius before slowly but certainly sliding back to his former mental state.
There is no such thing as a character without an arc. Only inanimate objects do not change. I've heard actors tell me that their character doesn't change; what they are really saying is that the script does not provide them with any obvious circumstantial changes (like Charly's), and what I say in return is that they'd better figure out how their character does change. If a character is unaffected by the events of the story, then he is not part of the story. If he's not part of the story, he doesn't belong on stage. Every character has an arc because they are part of the story. While objectives provide an actor with a reason to enact behavior on stage, an arc gives the audience a reason to keep watching.
A character arc is internal. External changes are endemic to the story and are therefore out of the actor's control. An actor can examine the external circumstances provided by a story and use them to map out his internal path. An actor playing Charly could easily portray nothing but the loss and resumption of retardation; but the character arc they should be playing is how they react and respond to those circumstances.
If there don't seem to be any obvious external changes, an actor can invent them. I invented an effective arc in the first role I portrayed at this school. The show was an original play written by a former student, and my character was a coward and a drunk. Eventually, I had one moment in which I stood up for myself-- but until that moment I had almost no lines at all. Fortunately, I was on stage the entire time; as the rehearsals progressed I made careful note of any dialogue or actions I could respond to which would coerce me into the mental state necessary to credibly achieve the climactic moment. The moments I found were rarely directed to me, and very few of them were explicitly about me, but I found reasons to make them relevant so that they would affect me.
Developing a character arc is like playing connect-the-dots. An arc could look something like this
1. Total confidence -> 2. mild concern -> 3. dismay -> 4. panic -> 5. distress -> 6. hope -> 7. determination -> 8. relief
where those arrows represent the specific moments in the story where my internal state changes decisively from one to the next. The boundaries of the sub-arcs are defined by these moments; the explicit choice that I make for each sub-arc (such as "dismay") represents how I respond, not how things affect me. Within each sub-arc I should be gathering clues and cues as moments which drive me toward the next sub-arc. That is, in this example, whatever happens to me in section #3 are moments and impulses which drive me toward a feeling of panic (#4) but until the critical boundary occurs I will respond with dismay. Once I am in section #4, I will give a panicky response to the things that will bring me to a state of distress.
Between objectives and arc, nothing remains static. Everything keeps moving forward. My objective allows me to proactively push toward the climax, and the arc is constantly pulling me into its next psychological segment.
Rehearsals begin on January 16.
I re-read the script from front to back and it's easy to see why Kerry would have made an obvious thesis role. If you're going for raw emotional power, Kerry is it... and Gary isn't. Where Kerry is besieged, Gary is bemused; where Kerry is attacked, Gary is ignored; where Kerry is ruined, Gary is reflective. Kerry is obvious and extreme; Gary is subtle and sober. The notes to the mass-market version of the play caution the performers not to overplay it-- with Kerry, they're clearly warning the actor not to go way overboard as the script would certainly allow; with Gary, I'm sure they're warning the actor not to grasp desperately at the few emotional spikes that can be found. Although I'm sure all of us in the cast will want to develop sincere feelings about what we have to say to the audience, this show is about our stories, not about our emotions.
The first time I read the script, it seemed unpleasantly simple. Every character appeared to have exactly the same story. The play at first glance was nothing but monologues, where the monologues had been cut and pasted and rearranged to make a play out of the following chunks:
1. The wrongful accusation
2. Railroaded by the system
3. Life in prison
4. How they got freed
5. Life today
With five characters (six including the narrator) saying the same part of their respective story in each block, it seemed to me that the audience would hear the same thing five times over, five times in a row, and by the end of it be gnawing their limbs bloody just to stave off the boredom.
After some discussion, though, I came to understand that this sameness is very probably the point. The authors may want the audience to know that this happens all the time, it keeps happening, it happens essentially the same way, and it happens to many different kinds of people. As I started to re-read the script, I began noticing how Kerry and Gary seemed to represent the emotional extremes; as I continued reading it seemed that everyone's story was constantly charged with some kind of intense emotional response (fear, rage, pain, etc)... except mine. I keep an even keel, I talk impassively about my observations, I relate the facts, and at the end I shrug and ask neither for vengeance nor restitution. I lose my parents (the murder I'm accused of) and my time in prison; everyone else loses considerably more. I talk solely about what happened to me; everyone else talks about family, society, implications and ramifications. My story and my relationship to that story seemed to contrast so strongly against the other characters that I suspect it must somehow be the point of Gary's role.
So now I'll set myself to learning the lines, and perhaps in the next twelve days I'll have a stab at the objectives and arc.