Christopher Aruffo, MFA, MBA, MSc, PhD
Acting Process 4: Curtain Up
Opening night has come and gone. Like the opening night of most productions here at the school, we blasted high energy to a sympathetic audience. Whether or not that will persist in the overall production remains to be seen, but I am both relieved and made confident by the fact that what I got tonight came from my preparation and not from opening night excitement. If I give myself the same amount of preparation, I should be able to deliver the same performance every night. During the day people would ask me "Are you excited for opening night?" and I'd dodge the question because I wasn't. I felt the same way about opening night as I have felt about the rehearsals-- as another opportunity to discover the role. If anything, I was curious to find out whether my choices and analysis would actually work, since I had only really fully exposed myself to them during that first dress rehearsal. I wasn't impatient for the show to finally have its audience; I wasn't eager to strut my stuff. After it was done, I didn't even feel as though I'd "performed".
I'd almost forgotten that that disconnection is the result of my process. By understanding the arc and analyzing the monologues, I create all the impulses and forces necessary to drive me through the show; then I slip into the character's body, topple the first domino, and simply live through the experience. Everything that follows that first breath happens as a natural sequence of consequences, and if I've structured my performance well I don't have to do anything except respond to what I've put there. And then, having lived through the sequence, I don't feel like I've done anything at all. I typically don't even feel like I was really a part of the show; rather, I'm as much of an observer as the audience. The "show" is something that happened to me, not something I did. This is one of the main reasons why I don't like interacting with the audience after a performance; although the most compelling reason is that I don't like having the audience see me out of character, I also feel terribly awkward trying to field congratulatory feedback (sincere or not). I'm glad they enjoyed the show... but I was "watching" it too, from a different perspective, and I may have even enjoyed it more than they did.
The implication, of course, is that preparation is everything. Tonight, my preparation was stronger than ever, and tonight, my performance found an intensity it had not previously reached. Because the success of my performance came exclusively from the preparation-- as opposed to energy that was nervous, forced, or drawn from a lively audience-- I am confident that I will be able to repeat it; however, after tonight I know what our director meant when he introduced the matinee cast by saying "If you do this right, you won't be able to do it twice in one day." Ironically, the Saturday matinee was pre-emptively cancelled because of Spring Break, so there will only be one performance on each day anyway, but the preparation is so intense that I almost wish I didn't have to do it twice in the same week.
When possible, I prefer to give myself about four hours of preparation time before each show. This usually breaks down into about two hours of warmups, half an hour of travel time, forty-five minutes of makeup and costume, and then the rest of the time to fill myself with the character. Starting maybe six hours before the show, I don't eat anything except fruit, because food of almost any type has a tendency to make me feel sluggish; starting three hours before I stop drinking anything because it takes about two hours for water to go through my system and I certainly don't want to find myself on stage having a strong desire to go to the restroom.
The two hours of warmups are almost entirely for relaxation. Any given day is full of minor excitements which gather and compound themselves-- like collecting burrs on your socks as you walk through the forest. Every time I begin my warmups I can feel my body tight and inaccessible because it's still occupied with the energies of everything that's happened during the day. Although I won't necessarily need two full hours to drain it all away, I try to allot myself that much time because sometimes I'll be so distracted by interesting thoughts that I won't be able to focus for more than a few minutes, and it'll take me an hour just to make myself able to concentrate on the warmup. Other times I'll make myself so relaxed that I'll inadvertently fall asleep, and I wouldn't want to sleep through the call time.
To fill myself with the character psychologically, I need to refresh the images and memories relevant to the upcoming performance. So in this case, I guide myself through a tour of my imaginary Gary's house. I'll start on the front porch, and take myself inside and explore all the rooms. The first thing I do is go upstairs and visit the bedroom, where I look out the window at the trailer where my mother worked and verify the positions of the furniture (clothes rack, bookshelf, bed). As I continue through the house, I attend to the various details that I enjoy finding again (the black-and-white checkerboard kitchen tile, or the carving on the book cabinet) and I make sure to spend some time in the study, where I find my strongest and fondest memories of my father as he sat and read and smoked his pipe. I also sit a while in the dining room where my mother serves us dinner; then I help her wash the dishes afterward in the kitchen, which helps me to feel closer to her. Then I'll walk out the back door (noticing along the way the rotary phone on which I called the paramedics) and look at my father's work shed and then my own workshop before walking back up the side of the house and into the front yard. I'll go over to the trailer but I can't quite bring myself to go in. I don't know exactly where and how my mother's body was found and honestly, I don't want to know.
To fill myself with the character physically, I need to remember how the character moves, gestures, and responds. For this I use a mental exercise that I learned in 1990. I picture myself in a completely white, featureless space, and I imagine seeing my character walking toward me. I observe how this figure walks, sits, gestures, runs, and jumps. After I watch for a while, I allow the character to step into my body and I feel how this affects my movements; I don't actually have to be standing or moving around, because I can feel the mental impulses which guide the movements and thus easily imagine myself moving. After a while, I breathe in deeply and exhale the character, watching him again as he walks away from me and out of my field of attention.
These three preparations of relaxation, psychology, and physical life are what I have with me when they call "places".
Once we were at places tonight, I began working myself into the state I wanted to be in as the show began. I agree with Meisner that a character doesn't begin his existence when he walks on stage. The character is coming from somewhere for some reason; wherever he just was has affected him in some way; he has a specific purpose in entering this space; he has a relationship to this space and an expectation of it as he enters. These factors could be grossly summed in the phrase "the moment before", because most of the time all you really need is some simple motivation to thrust you onto the stage, but for this show I wanted to give myself as much as possible to work against. So I started feeding myself messages like I don't want to be here; I don't want to tell them [the audience] any of this; I could just go home and be alone again. I can see some of the audience through the scrim, and I believe it's one-way so they can't see me, so I stole glances at them and compelled myself to feel stage fright-- normally, I never feel stage fright, but I figure that Gary would. I kept hammering at myself with real and imagined impulses so that by the time my "wife" was at my side I was practically incoherent with anxiety. When I say "practically" I mean that the emotion was fully engaging my body, but was also fully under control. I turned to my "wife" for support and courage before turning right back to the fearful impulses. I kept myself going back and forth this way between fear and comfort until it was time to take the stage; my first monologue, then, was mainly about keeping myself coherent, fighting against the desperate urge to run away. I didn't want to face the audience, or to revisit the murders, but I forced myself to do it so everyone could hear my story.
I created a "moment before" for four of my five monologues. For the second monologue (being railroaded), I remembered the images of the interrogation room and my interrogators from the imagination work with my partner, and I entered the stage with the knowledge that I had asked for the polygraph test thinking it would prove my innocence. For the third monologue (in the prison) I explored the prison cell and corridors that I had imagined with my partner and I entered with the fear of walking through those places. For my final monologue I didn't activate any images, but I entered the stage for the sole purpose of challenging the audience with my decision. I had decided to start the fourth monologue at neutral, because the two monologues directly preceding were somewhat overwrought and I wanted to give the audience a chance to relax and listen; although this was an effective choice for that purpose, not having a moment before made it impossible to add any weight or significance to the opening part of the monologue. I gathered energy as I went along-- I wouldn't let myself start at neutral if I wasn't confident the monologue would take me somewhere-- but with a line like "Man! That was like the cavalry coming" it doesn't seem quite right if that line hits only a step above neutral.
There is a great deal of time between each monologue. I have four monologues (the fifth is merely the final five sentences broken off of the fourth and moved to a different place) and they're none of them more than two minutes each. That is to say, I occupy four two-minute slivers of a ninety-minute show. That's a lot of down time, and plenty of opportunity to become unfocused. Becoming "unfocused" essentially means letting non-Gary thoughts intrude on my consciousness; if a performance is a function of the applicable circumstances, then I can't have Gary thinking about stage-combat choreography or any other aspects of Chris life which could easily come crowding in. So as soon as a monologue is done, I use one of the stage breezeways to lie down and breathe.
I do a simple breathing exercise to meditate, relax, and stay focused. Each breath is a complete inhalation or exhalation to maximum or minimum capacity, and I do this with an increasing count. First four sets of four, then six of six, eight of eight, ten of ten. Inhale 1-2-3-4, hold 1-2-3-4, exhale 1-2-3-4, hold 1-2-3-4, and so forth. I try to count slowly and consistently. This helps for breath support, of course, because part of the exercise is to control the breath so that the exhale or inhale finishes exactly with the count. This also helps with relaxation, because I can take in more breath and hold it for a longer time when I'm relaxed, and knowing that I'm going to hold fast to my counting is enough motivation to make sure I have as much air as possible through relaxation. This exercise keeps me very focused; not only are there the conscious tasks of breathing and counting to keep my mind and body from wandering, but once I get into the higher numbers, well, I think you'll find that when you've run out of air it's pretty much impossible to think of anything except your need to breathe.
This is how I found the arc. Keeping my focus made it possible for me to speak each monologue as though it had immediately followed the previous one, despite the huge time lag in between. The arc has clarified itself to be
1. Nervous and struggling
2. Bewildered and hurt
3. Indignant but then hopeful
4. Relieved but frustrated
5. Potent and confident
The turning point of the arc is when I teach myself embroidery. Although I might be allowing it to happen rather abruptly, that's when I stop being victimized and manage to find a way to help myself, albeit in a rather simple and irresolute manner. Then I can use the fourth monologue to actually mount an attack, and the fifth to take my stand.
In addition to the arc's journey, I try to use my posture to clarify its endpoints. I remembered from an acting class I took in 1991 that it's possible to think your body into a communicable attitude; in my initial pose I attempt to communicate the message "I am defying my fear of you," and at the end I want everyone to see "I have made it through, and I am at peace with myself." Because I have to stand motionless for such a long time, and because I am standing as Gary rather than in a neutral stance, I am constantly keeping my body informed of this message and simultaneously looking for points of tension and holding that I can release.
Although there's no way that I can objectively confirm its effectiveness, I've been playing around with my theory of stage presence. When I'm simply standing there and meant to be "frozen", I'll open up my body to claim more of the theater space by creating relationships between my shoulders and the extreme points of the room, or if there's another character speaking I'll adjust my body to have a spatial relationship to that character. My theory is that, in the former posture, a person who looks at me will see me to be "big", and in the latter posture a person who looks at me will feel their eyes drawn away from me and to the speaking character instead. Also, in my third monologue, when I say "I had no gang protection", I try to subtly fold my body inward so that I appear small and isolated. Whether this works or not, visually, I'm not sure, but I definitely feel something from it so I'm going to keep doing it regardless.
While I was posed toward the end of the show, listening to the other monologues, I heard quite clearly what the director had meant about containing one's feelings. One of the other characters talks about how her husband was executed in a malfunctioning electric chair. She began by informing the audience of the facts, rather dispassionately ("They had to pull the switch three times-- and he didn't die"), and I could hear sympathetic murmurs; suddenly, though, she began wailing about how horrible she felt it was ("Three jolts of electricity... lasting fifty-five seconds... each!") and it was as though someone had taken a gigantic invisible scissors and totally severed her connection to the audience. They stopped actively thinking about how awful it was and, instead, started passively observing the emotion the actress was trying to express.
Seeing this made me re-interpret what my director had told me. He had said, if you show your emotion then the audience won't feel it, and I had taken that to mean "don't show your emotion." But, as I heard the audience's focus shift during this speech about the malfunctioning electric chair, I realized that an actor should be aware of when they want the audience to feel something versus when they want the audience to understand how they themselves feel (as the character, of course) and deliberately present their scenes and speeches in the appropriate manner. As I thought about my second monologue, I realized that I was already doing this. There were times when I allowed the emotion to affect me, and these were when I wanted the audience to know how I felt about the situation; there were other times when I covered my emotion and related the facts, and those were when I wanted the audience to reflect on how they felt about it. The fact that I was already doing this made me realize that this is what we do in real life anyway. If you think about it yourself, you'll probably remember some past incident where you were trying to make someone feel something; and you'll remember that you didn't do it by feeling out loud to them, but by giving them the facts of the matter and deliberately soliciting their response. The sympathy may occur without the solicitation-- in my first monologue, I don't intentionally challenge anyone to figure out how they'd feel about my situation-- and in every instance the important thing is to be mindfully deliberate about whether you want an audience to observe your feelings or if instead you want them to feel something for themselves.
Overall, tonight's performance was a success. The audience was lively and appreciative, our energy was high, and I felt good about what I'd accomplished. Now it remains to be seen: what happens tomorrow? It's inevitable that we'll get audiences who are not so responsive; as I've mentioned, opening-night audiences here at the university tend to be boisterous and giving. And, after today, we'll no longer have opening-night jitters working for us. So what's going to drive the show? Tonight, I didn't listen to very many of the other monologues because I was breathing and meditating, but those I did hear had more than their share of unmotivated pauses. They were short pauses, for the most part, and between the evening's energy and the audience's eagerness they were barely noticed-- but neither their length nor their prominence is as important as the fact that those pauses were unmotivated. When the energy is lower, those pauses get longer. When the audience is less eager, those pauses are when they have a moment to stop paying attention. As I've said, I'm confident that I'll be able to re-create my performance because my work is not dependent on the audience's response (if anything, an unresponsive audience should cause me to become more energetic as I work harder to earn their attention)... but that's another day. For tonight, everyone did well, and the show was enjoyed by all. That's what we wanted.
Tonight was the second night, the second performance, and unsurprisingly it was somewhat less than the first.
My own performance was lessened because I carelessly weakened my moments before. I can only describe it as overconfidence. Although I did all my usual pre-show preparations, I did less to ready myself in the moments before each monologue. In hindsight I can see myself succumbing each time to the idea of "okay, I've got it." For the first monologue, I remembered how much time it had seemed I'd had to maintain my faux stage fright, and I thought I could save myself some effort by starting later; so with less time to compound it, the feeling I brought to the stage was lessened. For the second, I thought that the images would be enough and thus completely overlooked the motivation that compels me to say my first line. In the third speech, I let my involvement come from my desire to overcome the heavy light and sound design rather than from my fear of the prison. In the fourth, I didn't do the counting-breathing exercise beforehand because I figured I would be starting from neutral and it wasn't as important to stay that focused. In the fifth, as short as it was, I thought I would be able to walk on the stage with confidence and find what I needed from that. All of these decisions were wrong; every one of them diminished the monologues they influenced. In tomorrow night's performance, I'll have to be sure not to allow myself such complacency.
I think the first monologue was successful, even though it was less intense. I definitely made two mistakes: in addition to the weaker moment before, I also realized that I placed the image of my father's body on the ground in front of me (where it had physically been in my imagined experience) instead of above the audience's heads, so those lines were delivered to the floor instead of to the audience; I suspect they may not have heard some of the words I said. Still, I maintained my need to talk to them as more important than feeling what I had to feel, and resultantly I kept a decent rein on the internal emotional furor; and after leaving the stage, the emotion was strong enough that I had to manage myself out of it.
The persistence of an emotion is part of my self-assessment for whether or not the emotion is genuine. In real life, when we feel something, it doesn't just vanish in the blink of an eye; I have seen many scene rehearsals (at this school and elsewhere) where the actor is shouting up a storm and, suddenly forgetting their line, instantly drops into complete neutrality as though the emotion had never existed. Which, indeed, it hadn't-- only the pretense of that emotion had existed. True emotions stay in your body and take some time to dissipate; they may also be driven out by an equally strong emotion, especially in comedy, but they never simply disappear. Leaving the stage tonight after my first monologue, I had to breathe and relax and focus in front of a mirror because if I didn't, my body would quite obligingly have burst into tears.
My biggest surprise came when I began my fourth monologue. I had decided to start from neutral, but since I hadn't given myself the time to breathe and focus I was startled to discover that I had also become physically neutral. I was gesturing, moving, and speaking as myself, not as the character. This surprised me mainly because I had thought that, with or without deliberate focus, I was maintaining the physical character between scenes; however, in reflection I realized that I had never actually imagined myself gesturing as the character while standing. As the character, I would gesture while sitting, and I would stand without gesturing, but I had not taken the time to discover what it meant to stand and gesture as the character. I will have to include that as part of my moment-before preparation for that fourth monologue. Amusingly, my two classmates and castmates were watching this monologue from the wings, and both of them noticed immediately that I was moving as myself.
The audience was far less responsive than before. I was initially surprised to see that about a third of the house was empty, because there are only about 100 seats-- but most of our audience are going to be the students who are required to see it, and naturally they're going to wait until the last minute to discover that the final performances are already sold out. Sometimes they'll even buy their ticket and not go because all they need for their class is a proof of purchase, and so the show becomes "sold out" with plenty of empty seats. Still, whatever the cause, that many empty seats must have affected the audience's lower energy. What I couldn't be certain of, because I couldn't observe the audience directly, is how much our performance itself lowered the audience's involvement.
The entire show was recognizably less energetic than last night. I didn't listen to too much of it, but what I heard was exactly what I'd expect to hear from a show that had started to unravel-- the unmotivated pauses became longer, making the motivated pauses proportionally longer, and some of the dialogues had started to fray as the actors consistently missed the impulses. On the other hand, some of the speeches sounded more relaxed and natural, so I can't be certain that what happened tonight wasn't just a reactionary antithesis to last night (as mine was) and that tomorrow we'll find the middle ground. One of my castmates felt that she preferred this second night; to her, the appearance of the audience was such an overwhelming factor that she'd needed the opening night to adjust to it. She felt that on opening night she was trying to tell the story, but tonight she was actually telling it.
Even so, an uncomfortable sign of what might be coming is that, toward the end, a woman in the front row actually fell asleep. I thought perhaps she might just have her eyes closed while she listened-- sometimes I do that when there's no meaningful movement to watch-- but then I saw her start and catch herself when a particularly loud word woke her up. This happened during the final long monologue by the same actor who'd worried about "peaking". That actor puts a freight-train pause between just about every sentence so that an audience really has to work hard to listen, both to stay focused on him during those long silences and to mentally construct the relationships between the different ideas. His harangues don't feel like they're "going somewhere"; rather, they feel like a collection of individual points that don't connect, all restarting back to the exact same level as the beginning-- although occasionally he'll shout a line just to rouse them and get their attention back.
If this show does unravel, I don't have to listen to all of it to hear; these final monologues will be the acid test. During rehearsals, I got the impression that everyone present (those I could see in the audience, and myself, and the other actors on stage whom I asked about it) were wondering why it wasn't already over as the two final speakers went on and on and on; in the dress rehearsal I noticed a girl in the audience check her watch three times at this part of the show. I mentioned this to the director, and he said that he believed it was an important contrast to the rest of the show; where most of the show is intense and engaging, these speeches give the audience a Brechtian moment to relax, detach, and consider. I would definitely agree that this is what occurred on opening night-- but I'll be watching the audience in the shows to come, to see if they're still involved or if they're waiting for it to end. Obviously, I'd hope for the former.
I'm pleased to report that tonight's performance fulfilled my hope, not my fear. Instead of continuing to unravel, tonight proved to be the synthesis of the previous two performances. It might've helped that, during the group warmup, our director cautioned us that last night had dragged and we should keep the pacing up, but whatever the cause the result was dynamite. From what I could hear (of what I did hear) the audience remained completely engaged from beginning to end. Where I heard laughter, for example, its source was evidently the audience's need to release the energy they had been raptly absorbing, rather than their being prodded out of a detached lethargy. I did see some restless motions during the final monologues, but not many, and I suspect that that movement was what our director had expected, anyway, rather than a symptom of impatience. There are still three performances to go, and I'll remain concerned that the actors could have a "bad day" and blame the audience for it, but fortunately that's not my concern-- I will stay focused on my own work.
Tonight, I walked away from my second monologue knowing that something was very wrong. As I saw it, my first monologue had been weak and the second a disaster. I could feel that my body had been completely ready, perhaps even more relaxed and alive than it had been for the previous two nights, so the problem had to be with the psychological preparation. I had tried to enable my moments before, yet I found only the most superficial connection to each monologue, and I finished each one in a thoroughly neutral place. I was deeply worried-- how could I be going downhill? Why wasn't I able to walk on stage with the same agitation as before? Why hadn't the monologues affected me at all? Were the images, despite their vividness, somehow less potent with each iteration? But even as I started to ask myself these questions, the answer came to me as bluntly as a brick to the head. I had been so enthralled by the emotions I had found that I was trying to play the arc!
Once I realized that, everything clicked into place. You don't make the arc happen; you let it happen to you while you're pursuing your objectives. If you try to play the arc, then your performance necessarily becomes indicative and shallow because you're abandoning the very actions which give rise to the arc's emotions. I immediately saw how this reversal had interfered with each of the monologues, and I simultaneously realized that trying to play the arc had caused me to focus on my emotional life instead of on communicating with the audience. As I reflected on both speeches I realized that I had been speaking at the audience, not to them. I'd violated my own cardinal rule by "acting" the monologues instead of speaking them honestly. So I regretted having lost the first two monologues, but resolved to apply this understanding to the remaining three; consequently, each of those three came out more meaningfully than they had on either of the previous two nights.
For the first monologue, my moment before was even weaker than last night. I think this is because on opening night, I was intent on my objective (tell them my story) and was feeding myself obstacles to that objective, so that conflict worked me into a terrific agitation; last night, although my moment before was weaker, I still let the emotion occur solely as a direct consequence of telling the story. Tonight, I was trying to achieve that agitation just by itself. On opening night, I never expected to attain such a potent inner life, so my relaxed body accepted the circumstances; tonight, expecting to achieve that state, I tried to create and hold agitating impulses with the ironic consequence that my body became too preoccupied with that task to believe in the given circumstances and thus be honestly and deeply affected by those circumstances. Now, if I'm correct in this assessment, then my images have not lost their potency, and in our next evening performance I should be able to restore the involvement I had on opening night. Tonight, unfortunately, I spent so much energy trying to induce emotion that I ended up without any emotion to fight against.
Unfortunately, that failure poisoned the second monologue. My objective in that second monologue became to fight against the interrogation; I strode purposefully onto the stage-- thereby violating the arc, because here I am to be more of a bewildered victim than a confident retailator-- and I lashed out repeatedly at my imaginary foes instead of directing that energy toward helping the audience understand what I had experienced. I was completely disconnected from them.
I have to acknowledge that both this and the previous speech had been performed with purpose and intensity, so nobody except myself complained afterward that I had performed these two monologues poorly. I had to interact with some of the audience afterward because my father had brought some of his friends to see the show, and I discovered yet another reason why I try to avoid the audience after a performance-- sometimes they will praise something I decry, and I may inadvertently make them feel foolish for liking something that I label a failure. Fortunately, I was able to keep my opinion to myself, because what I believed had ruined the two monologues was not "bad acting" but my structural failure to play the objectives, fulfill the arc, and keep a connection to the audience.
Fortunately, this understanding saved the second half of my performance. In the third monologue (about the prison), I created my moment before and then concentrated exclusively on communicating to the audience, and I was delighted that the whole speech worked better than ever, right up to that last line which was, finally, the laugh line I'd intended. In the fourth monologue (about the lawyer) I still started from an emotional neutrality to contrast with the other actor immediately preceding me-- but for the first time it was an energetic neutrality, where it became important to expose the facts of the matter. The few sentences of the fifth monologue, then, sprang directly out of the moment before ("I've done it") and the objective (challenge them to reject my decision) and simply worked. It's proof positive of the big secret; no audience member really wants to see "acting", good or bad. They just want you to honestly talk to them.
I'm forced to have an opinion of the other actors' ending monologues just because I'm standing there the whole time, and the longer those monologues are the longer I have to stand there. I keep myself involved by mentally searching for areas of muscular tension and holding in my body (and releasing them) or by subtly adjusting my body to reflect my attitude toward what's being said, but it always feels like it goes on forever. The director has accepted the interpretations for his own reasons, but I confess I would prefer it if each of them felt like they were striving to make an important point-- that way, I could listen to them and follow with interest rather than struggle to endure.
Next is the matinee performance. I'm looking forward to seeing my partner perform Gary. I'm not too enthusiastic about playing his part, mainly because I find him so entertaining in those roles that I would rather see him do it than me-- but I'll still give it a good shot.
I checked in with three people about my performance last night: the director, my classmate, and an undergrad. Each of their responses agreed with my assessment (I didn't prompt them); each of them said it a different way. The undergrad said that as he watched the first two he thought, "strange-- that's not what Chris usually does," and on the third he thought "ah, he fixed it." My classmate said that the third monologue was where she "heard [me] for the first time," but the director assured me that even if I was absent the emotional part of the work, I had still delivered the words of the first two monologues with power, energy, and purpose. As I reflected on what the director had told me, I remembered his frequent encouragements in our classes to find our expression in the language sounds instead of trying to feel anything. As I considered it further, I realized that Brecht and Olivier weren't completely out of their tree; for an effective performance, a rich inner life may be helpful, but ultimately it is optional.
I'd say this explains why two of the actors in our production, although "shallow" in their performance, are nonetheless appreciated by the audience. One of them seems to have done so little work on his character's reality that in last night's performance he repeatedly referred to his older brother-- the single most important relationship in his character's life-- as his little brother instead. Another actor (the one I keep mentioning as worrying about "peaking") delivers his lines exactly the same way every night. I mean exactly the same. It's as though someone wound up an Animatronic figure and set it loose on our stage with its prerecorded program. Since I wasn't performing Gary today, I was able to sit in the green room and precisely mimic his every word, pause, chuckle, pitch variation, and rhythmic inflection right in tandem with his voice on the monitor. But although these two actors may seem to have very little inner life, they use their voices in ways that are rich, expressive, and detailed. When I see a show, do I want more than this? Certainly. But does a general audience need more? Certainly not.
Even so, I think it's wise to cultivate a process which includes the development of an inner life. A naturalized performance that only interprets the surface of the text is necessarily limited to only what the text itself can convey, and is susceptible to serious psychological errors when the words are fumbled (such as the big/little brother flub). Alternatively, a robot cannot adjust when something goes awry (and it may stop functioning altogether). It was Grotowski who asserted that theater exists as a communication between audience and performer, and that it exists without any of the trappings of theater-- costumes, lights, set, and even text. If you were to take away the text, what would these two performers have to "say" to the audience?
My partner and I went through the same process as Gary, and consequently each of us had the same richness of inner life to draw upon. I was intrigued to see him perform the role today and connect to that life in a completely different way. I think it's precisely because of our partnership that we were able to present such different interpretations; where the other understudies were clearly finding value in each other's surface choices (one of them to the point of exactly imitating the other's gestures and intonations), my partner and I built a psychoanalytical foundation from which each of us could explore the character in our own way. My partner's take on the character was far less emotionally affected than mine, but was no less true; I enjoyed the fact that I didn't have to evaluate his work as "better" or "worse" than my own, but I was instead able to see the aspects of our work together which he had discovered and implemented for his performance.
Today I portrayed his ensemble roles, and to them I brought my understanding of our work. They went essentially as I expected; I kept in mind the purpose of each, and fulfilled that purpose, and that was that. What makes the sheriff character notable was the way in which I memorized his monologue... or, rather, the way I didn't memorize it. The monologue is the story of what happened in "Luke's Grocery" during a robbery. My partner and I did a mind excursion in which I visited that grocery store and went through a detailed exploration of its layout. Later on, when I was supposed to perform the monologue off-book, I suddenly realized that I hadn't spent any time memorizing it; however, after looking at the speech, I was pleased to discover that all I needed to do was re-visit my imaginary store and the words came to me of their own accord. I reviewed that monologue all of three times before I had it perfectly memorized. That was pretty cool. As I've mentioned, I'm still not as appropriate a physical type for the sheriff as is my partner, but I enjoyed playing that part all the same.
My body was in a terrible state today. I think it's because I've been participating so enthusiastically in Stage Combat lately, pushing the limits of what my muscles are accustomed to; how I feel is similar to how I've felt before the day after a strenuous workout. Not only were my muscles tight, but also stiff and painful to move. As I began my warmups, I wasn't sure whether the relaxation exercises would be able to overcome the fact that even walking up a small staircase was difficult. Fortunately, they did-- although I wasn't able to meditate the painfulness away, the stiffness abated somewhat, so that I became loose and relaxed enough for performance. However, the less I had to worry about my physical availability, the more I had to worry about my psychological availability, because I found it almost impossible to stay focused.
I had so many intrusive thoughts that I wasn't able to concentrate. I would begin the breathing-counting exercise and suddenly realize that I was analyzing a research article instead. I'd try to reflect on the images of Gary's house and instead I would rework the blocking of my students' shows. I would attempt to create a featureless mental environment but it stubbornly transformed itself into the layout of a video game I had recently played (complete with catchy theme music). With repeated efforts and a lot of breathing, I managed to refresh the images I needed, but my connection to it seemed weaker than usual and I still kept thinking about this morning, last week, next week, next month, and various problems I hadn't solved yet.
As I waited for places, I still couldn't focus. There was a moment where I thought I had succeeded, but then I overheard someone talking about their students in the audience which reminded me again of my class which again drew me completely out of the world of the play. The time ticked inexorably toward curtain, and since I couldn't keep my attention on any kind of imagery I knew there was no chance of creating the intense moment-before state I still wanted. I couldn't give up, though, because it would be an even greater problem if intrusive thoughts followed me onto the stage; it would not do to be talking to the audience as Gary and thinking about the strawberries waiting in my car ready for me to eat when I was done. I had to do something.
So I started thinking about my objective. If I could make my objective as important as possible, I reasoned, then that would guarantee my focus on stage. David Mamet pointed out that if your objective is strong enough, you can't lose focus, because you'll be too busy pursuing your objective. I began, mantra-like, to repeat my objective and why it was important: I want to make the audience understand that I had been doing the right thing [on the day I found my dead parents], I told myself; and if I succeed, I will prove that it should have been obvious that I didn't kill them. I ran through the lines to remind myself of how each line helped me pursue the objective. Additionally, because I wasn't able to activate any emotional life with my pre-show images, I instead turned what attention I could toward relaxing. If anything was going to affect me, I figured, it would happen during the monologue itself, in pursuit of my objective, so I'd better make myself as neutral and available to it as possible. This was the best I could do-- and it turned out to have been the best thing I could have done.
I didn't get what I needed until the moment I got on stage. That moment is when I step out from behind a scrim and am in full view of the audience for the first time; before tonight, I had been using the impulse of seeing the audience to intensify the moment-before feeling I'd generated. Tonight, I was surprised to discover that not bringing a feeling with me allowed that same impulse to have a drastically heightened effect. I was seized by the need to flee. Where on other nights I had hesitated to step in, now I stepped back as far as possible, pinning myself against the wall, fully ready to dash to safety-- but here was my wife and I was able to use her as a protective barrier to move myself forward. For the rest of this monologue, I channeled my efforts entirely toward the objective and, as I had expected, that allowed the images to sneak up and get into me without my having to force myself into them. Also, as I had anticipated, concentrating on the objective completely banished any intrusive thoughts; I hadn't even noticed they were gone until I'd exited into the hallway and some of them came percolating back.
The same thing then happened with the second monologue-- I remembered my objective, mentally replayed the lines, and while I spoke I allowed the images to affect me as they would; and, despite omitting a phrase I delivered what the assistant director assured me was the most effective delivery of that piece so far. Considering that I've always felt this monologue to be the strongest of the five anyway, that's saying something.
I've abstracted a lesson for myself from tonight's performance. The strength of the feeling you bring with you from your moment-before should be directly proportional to how much you want to be aware of what happened before-- unless it's important to be stuck in the past, it's the feelings and reactions of the scene at hand which are the most essential. Although a moment before exists to provide an influence, that influence should not overpower the energies inherent in the scene. That's got to be why, on opening night, I was uncertain that the first monologue, despite its intensity, was the most effective interpretation; I had sensed that I was forcibly injecting my emotional life into the speech instead of drawing life from it. Get what you need from the stage, find what you need in the scene. The scene should charge you with energy, not the other way around.
My third monologue tonight (life in prison) was the wrong way around. The director and assistant director kept asking me during rehearsal to say "X house" as one idea, because I persisted in making it two ideas by drawing out the "sss" of the "X" sound. Tonight I remembered at the last instant to clip those sounds together and did so mechanically, but that apparently minor stumble jolted the rest of the monologue into being completely mechanical. Every aspect of it-- volume, inflection, rhythm, gesture, and timing-- was completely indicative, arising not from my immediate experience but from my intellectual knowledge that these inflections combined with these gestures would produce this apparent result. I could feel myself doing it particularly at a moment when I know the audience will perceive me as small and vulnerable; instead of living in the imagined circumstances of the prison and allowing myself to be so, I adjusted my body and voice so that it would create the desired impression. I could tell I was only skimming the surface when I described my embroidery by saying "I had three colors of cloth" instead of thread. This is an error similar to that other actor's big/little brother mixup; I was interpreting words on the surface, not speaking ideas from my inner life. If I had truly been thinking about my embroidery projects, I couldn't have said cloth. You can't stick cloth through a needle. Only thread.
Because I delivered that third monologue unnaturally, the pauses were of course unnatural. The pauses didn't happen because something prevented me from continuing; they were there to "be dramatic" and consequently became danger zones. I realized this just before I said "I had no gang protection." I usually end up pausing there, but tonight it was completely unmotivated, and I could tell right then that I had dropped the audience; sure enough, a few sentences later when I reached what has normally been the release line ("I made myself a tote bag") there wasn't even a hint of laughter, because I'd already released them in that pause.
At curtain call, the audience was not nearly as enthusiastic as the previous three performances (or even the matinee). Three or four people stood up appreciatively, but nobody joined them, and they sat back down again. In the dressing room, I heard some of the actors start blathering the usual excuses: they were just students; it's a Tuesday night; that was a weird audience; blah blah blah. I don't listen to very much of the show because I'm doing my breathing-counting exercise, but I heard enough of it tonight to know that, as usual, the audience responded to the presentation they were given. It has always seemed odd to me that actors who don't achieve the results they expect will so readily blame circumstances beyond their control. Yes, I understand the psychological human need to avoid failure and blame, but if you want to achieve a different result in any endeavor, wouldn't it seem obvious and logical to analyze mainly the factors that you can actually do something about? Having to perform in rehearsals to those laptop-heads reminded me of how fortunate we are to be playing to audiences who are there because they want to care about us, and because they're ready and willing to have a transformative experience; their failing to react must be due to our failing to deliver.
From what I heard, it seemed that tonight people were trying very hard. The show was five minutes shorter than usual; of what I listened to, it seemed that two performers had found some speed in heightened involvement, but two others seemed to be following instinctive responses to the pre-show warning not to let the pacing drag. At the different times I heard these two-- who, between them, have the bulk of the stage time-- I kept thinking to myself slow down, calm down, I don't believe what you're saying, you're acting too hard. The audience remained appreciative, to be sure, because it wasn't bad, and it's definitely preferable to unraveling; still, I wonder how that peculiar energy may affect the next two evenings.
And that, as they say, is that. Amusingly, the review came out just this morning, days after the show was already completely sold out. It seems a shame that the last performance was cancelled with so many people still wanting to see it; apparently, all those empty seats on our second night were a mistake, because the box office turned people away ("sold out") without indicating that there was a waiting list. That was the only evening where we were not filled to capacity, and on this final night the waiting list could itself have nearly filled another performance. But cancelled it was, and I have to admit I'm glad of it. This is a very demanding show and regardless of my appreciation for the work I'm literally relieved to be released from its demands.
Another reason I'm glad that we had so few performances (only six; as I recall, a production will usually have ten or more) is because the show had, like every other university production, definitely started to unravel. I don't know what the actual timed length of each show was, but after that peculiar burst of speed on our return evening, the show started to come apart again last night and fell further apart tonight. It's possible that I was the only one who noticed this, because I have made myself hyper-aware of the telltale signs. Some of the most obvious are when dialogue begins to fray from missed impulses; short pauses become long pauses and long pauses become huge pauses; actors are clearly working harder to achieve the same energy levels; speeches and inflections become more indicative; in sum, people generally stop listening and responding. Now, normally, when a show unravels and becomes riddled with unmotivated pauses, the audience will drop right through the pauses into thoughts about their own lives-- however, because our script is so thought-provoking, our audiences dropped through these pauses but only into thoughts about the show in front of them. So the audience didn't get bored or impatient or distracted or sleepy; they stayed involved, and the sole effect was that they were less verbally responsive. I'm pleased we didn't have to find out if our show would have unraveled past a tipping point where we did lose them.
The only reason I would have wanted to continue one more night would have been for the sake of the fourth monologue. I was satisfied with each of the other four monologues, in each of which I played the objective, used the arc, connected to the audience, leveraged the character analysis, and eliminated stumbles and breaks and drops. In the fourth monologue about how I was exonerated, I realized last night that I had cut the monologue into two pieces. My purpose in that speech, I knew, was to illustrate how the system tried to keep me in even though they knew I was innocent; however, right up through last night I was placing inordinate weight on my relief that someone else had definitely done it, with the result that I wound myself down to a total stop and had to drag myself forcibly into the latter part of the monologue. Specifically, I'd say "In 1995, the ATF got a videotaped confession... from an Outlaw guy... saying he... killed my parents." I created importance pauses with each of those ellipses, and I completely finished the idea of "I didn't do it, after all!" before restarting my monologue with the new idea "I wasn't released until 1996." I finally realized today that I could eliminate all those pauses and keep the monologue from stopping and starting by letting the sentence play into the objective like this: "In 1995, the ATF got a videotaped confession from an Outlaw guy saying he killed my parents-- [but] I wasn't released until 1996," where I write [but] to indicate how I played the meaning of the phrase. That's how I said it tonight, but completely at the expense of how I felt about finding that proof; if I'd had one more day I would have found a way to reincorporate my personal relationship to the videotaped confession.
Tonight I noticed that some of the other performers would stand in the hallway and practice their monologues before they went on to perform those monologues. Seeing them made me consider why I might do that myself. It wouldn't be just to refresh the lines; barring a substantial time lapse, lines I've learned don't fade or fray. I found the answer as I discovered myself running the fourth monologue tonight prior to my entrance. I was doing something new with it tonight, and I wanted to impress upon myself the feeling of what it meant to say these words for that new reason, so that when I actually presented the words I would be familiar with their new meaning and communicate that instead of what I had been. This would be the main reason I'd practice a monologue; the other reason would be if I enjoyed the monologue so much I wanted to experience it more than once.
I've bundled yesterday's and tonight's performance together because my preparation and performance in each was essentially the same. Tonight's preparation was more effective because I trusted it more, but it was nonetheless the same process. Basically, both nights, I resolved that I was going to find almost everything I needed from each scene as I performed it. I'd remind myself of my objective and arc just as I waited in the wings, and I would bring with me only as much preparatory emotion as was appropriate and necessary to propel me onto the stage, and otherwise I would relax myself as completely as possible to make myself open to the analysis that I'd already done. At the very beginning, for example, I didn't try to generate any kind of emotional state before I entered the stage space; rather, I kept reminding myself of the idea ("I tried to do the right thing"), the objective ("I need to get through this") and the arc position ("I don't want to do this; I could be at home right now). Then, at the moment when I stepped into full view of the audience, I could trust myself to use that impulse to generate the fearful response which would be the first domino. And it worked, for each monologue, making tonight's performance the most effective of the six. If we'd continued the run, it would have continued to work, and my now-consistent performance would have continued to improve as I found further meaning, depth, and purpose in each of my speeches.
However, it is done. I'm relieved, here at its conclusion, to know that the reasons I gave myself for playing Gary instead of Kerry turned out to be entirely correct. My family members said they probably would have appreciated seeing me more frequently (my part was only about 8 minutes of this 90-minute production); a couple actors seconded that, saying that the production would probably have been enhanced if my level of effort had been applied to a greater proportion of it. But the show didn't suffer because of what I didn't do, and the final analysis boils down to the simplest two statements: I competently fulfilled the role, and my work was appreciated.
I feel differently than I normally do about the conclusion of this show. Usually, I'll either feel a sense of relief or a sense of loss; in either case, I always think to myself after each "well, that's the last time I'll have to do that." This time, though, only in the dressing room after the curtain call did it occur to me that this was its terminal iteration, and once that thought did penetrate all I felt was a simple sense of accomplishment. We did it. Well done. That's enough.