Friday, April 17, 2009

Mary Stuart

In 1587, Mary Stuart (more popularly known as Mary, Queen of Scots) lost her head. In 1800, Friedrich Schiller dramatized the events leading up to her death focusing on her relationship with her jailor, Queen Elizabeth I who also happened to be her cousin. Over 200 years later, a London production of the aforementioned play crossed the Big Pond to appeal to American audiences on Broadway.

Now that I have the exposition firmly in hand we can get down to the nitty gritty.

This production opens with an awkward flurry of activity as men in three piece suits enter a barren room, pull out a wooden trunk and hack at it with an ax. Objects are pulled from the trunk to the verbose objections of Hanna, the title character's nurse. Sadly, this is the first of only three major physical activities employed during the course of this production. Mary Stuart is a chatty play, to which I have no specific objection except that there is a danger in letting actors simply talk. In most instances, an actor allowed to talk without some grounding physical activity can make for some boring, masturbatory theater. Luckily, Mary Stuart features some fine performers who can, and do, imbue their speeches with depth and meaning without being self-indulgent.

Janet McTeer's Mary is a fiery queen; passionate, dignified and commanding despite her low position as one imprisoned for suspected crimes against England and Queen Elizabeth I. Harriet Walker's stately Elizabeth is at once a contrast to Mary's fiery, engaging personality while also playing a mirror image of desperation as she struggles to hang on to the power of her crown. Both women give this text their all, highlighting the all too human insecurities of these two queens without wallowing in them. These two women navigate in masculine waters, using their sex to their advantage. The men in the play are then forced to respond with almost feminine machinations to achieve their personal aims. Most notably, the Earl of Leicester (played coquettishly by John Benjamin Hickey) who toys with both queens' emotions at first to save Mary and finally to save himself.

The play between male and female is of great modern interest in this play, which makes me curious to know what changes to the original Schiller text were made by Peter Oswald, the writer credited in the playbill for this "new version". Both the direction and the design seem fixated on making a statement about the balance of power between the sexes that strikes me as somewhat dated. It feels like a feminist piece of theater from 20-30 years ago- almost relevant to today, but not quite.

First I will address the costume design. At first, I found myself confused by the choice to dress the male characters in grey three piece suits while the queens were dressed in period attire. Queen Elizabeth sported a period hairstyle while Mary Stuart had short, modern locks- until her death scene, that is. I had assumed that these were choices made to accommodate a budget of some kind. My instincts were confirmed as I read about the choice in the playbill: "To have the men in suits reminds the audience that this is a modern phenomenon too, one in which the women are usually the weaker partners." This would satisfy me in a small, black box production. However, I was sitting in the Broadhurst Theatre on 44th Street and this holdover from a shoestring-budget, West End production rang a bit false. Especially after it rained in the second act. Literally rained with wet water and everything! In general, any style choice you have to explain in a playbill is not a good, clear choice.

While I will concede there is still sexism in the world, this production seems to be a response to sexism as it was- not as it is. What's worse is that the text seems to be saying something slightly different than the production. Once again, I wonder how much of the original Schiller text was altered to support the views of this production. Queen Elizabeth I was (according to this production) swayed by the counsel of her male court, but they still feared her. She still had ultimate power, whether they wore suits or not. To beat a dead horse, the suits are trying to make a statement about a "modern phenomenon" which is not supported by the text and the world of the play. Perhaps in relation to Mary, the suits work. However, she was not imprisoned for being a woman. She was imprisoned for allegedly plotting to kill Elizabeth. This has very little to do with either of them being female. Or maybe it does... now THAT would be modern!

Some other directorial choices confused and grated on me. Much of the first act was delivered straight to the audience with all the formality of the drama portion of a high school speech meet. It was jarring and impersonal. Once again, the lack of any grounding physical activity seemed to have the actors "warming up" on stage. In addition, the direction to obey certain laws of courtly respect detracted from the interpersonal interaction on stage. Also, I saw a lot of back which made the staging feel somewhat petulant and immature. It reminded me of the conceptual "statements" that were made in certain arts school directing classes- fine in class, but not suited to the Broadway stage.

In general, I found this play enjoyable. The acting is quite good and it is always a pleasure for me to be in the theatre. However, I must admit to walking away wondering... why? Why THIS play? Why now? Why Broadway? When we are in the midst of some fairly large international and financial crises, why is THIS play important? What does it tell us? What do we walk away with? As a pure history play, I am afraid it leaves something to be desired as the pivotal moment in the text never actually happened in real life. As entertainment it is fine, but it ends in a beheading so you can't really call it the "feel good sensation of the year". If it is about the death penalty, it hardly provides us with any new insight beyond "wow, beheading is a bad way to go!". If it is about religious/ sexual persecution, then its message was completely lost on me. The long and short of it is, I don't know what this play, what this production, is ABOUT. It is a good production with a solid cast but it just doesn't feel good enough.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Basics

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of scoring, we will need to talk about objectives and beats in general. I apologize if this is Acting 101 for some of you, but I have run across a stunning number of actors who have a surprisingly vague understanding of these terms. Since the words beat and objective get hurled around a lot I think it is important everyone is on the same page when discussing them.

Let us begin with beats. I like to think of beats as separate thoughts. Each line of text should have its own thought behind it. For example, the text I am using begins with these words: You're all flops. I am the Earth Mother and you are all flops. One could make the choice to have that contained in one beat- one thought. Of course, that would make for a fairly flat and lazy line reading. The stage directions indicate that Martha is saying this more or less to herself. This is a clue to her need and her thought process.You're all flops. One thought. I am the Earth Mother... I would say that this is one thought and the end of the sentence... and you are all flops... is yet another thought. The circumstance here of extreme drunkenness gives me the freedom to let thoughts clang around noisily in my mind. She isn't thinking too clearly. Here is how I would begin scoring this text- by separating it into beats like this:

You're all flops./ I am the Earth Mother/ and you are all flops./

Looking at that now, I question my need to separate that sentence into two beats. Let's leave it for now and see where the exploration takes us. We can always change it later. My own personal habit is to over-intellectualize this process. I must caution the academic actors out there against obsessing about scoring. If you spend too much time with the text and a pencil and not as much time putting it into your body, you will find yourself disconnected. Kinesthetic performers, however, will benefit from sitting down and understanding the text this way- it will help during those performances when you are not "feeling it". But, I get WAY ahead of myself.

Now that we understand beats, to a certain extent, let's look at objectives. I use the word "objective". Other directors or actors may use terms like "need" or "motivation" or "intention". For all intents and purposes these terms are interchangeable. They all refer to the same thing. I've grown fond of the word "objective", so that is what I use.

Objectives help the actor to understand the interior life of the character. There are two "types" of objectives I will explore in this post, the first is the Super Objective which I define as the driving need behind every action the character takes within the play. The second type is the Beat Objective which refers to the actions/thoughts that happen from moment to moment within the text. All Beat Objectives should be in line with/ reinforce the Super Objective and vice versa. If you find your Beat Objectives contradicting your Super Objective, that should be a red flag for you to explore changing one or both of them. You may just be barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. I can get into that in a bit more detail later. For now we should begin with the Super Objective.

As I said earlier, the Super Objective identifies your character's greatest need within the context of the play. Objectives are framed in the form of a statement of purpose, usually something like this:

I want/ need to...

For example, one could say their character wants to survive, to win, to destroy, to rescue...etc. Objectives should never, never, never be verbs of being. Verbs of being do not give the actor anything to PLAY. Tell me, how can you "be funny" or "be famous" or "be a great lover"? "Be" implies something one just "is" by accident of birth. Using a verb of being will lead to hollow indications and will not inspire you to fill your role. Action verbs (the more colorful the better) will help you to live in your character and will give you direction. Take those same "be" objectives I just cautioned about and turn them into more active verbs. "Be funny" could become "to entertain" or "to fling myself into my performance" or even "to abandon self-consciousness". "Be famous" could become "to claw my way to the top" or "to devour competition" or "to plead for validation/ love/ acceptance". "Be a great lover" could become "to seduce" or "to pleasure" or "to surround myself with love and comfort". See how each active verb gives a completely different picture of a character? Seeking objectives, both beat and super, gives the actor the opportunity to be a writer and the tools with which to practice specificity.

Here's how far we've gotten: One beat = 1 thought. Each beat has its own objective. Each beat objective must, in some way, lead toward the Super Objective which is the character's need throughout the entire play. In my next post I plan to tackle scoring my chosen monologue and discuss the benefits and dangers of scoring. (Okay, dangers is a bit dramatic, but what kind of language do you expect from an actor?) I'd love to write more on this topic, but I have a baby who desperately needs to eat blueberries.

To devour, to consume, to stuff his face with, to celebrate, to enjoy blueberries.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I've been avoiding Martha.

I was taught that reluctance to tackle a particular task/role can be very telling and that you should always challenge yourself to explore that which you would rather avoid. I've been timidly dipping my toes into a cold Lake Martha only to discover that I am frightened of empathizing with her too much. I've made judgments about her and am most reluctant to discover how those judgments might apply to me.

I find this somewhat curious since I've played murderers, whores, liars- a host of sinners- and had no trouble feeling for them. Martha sets me off. I want to shake her. She is like Godzilla, mindlessly stomping on other lives because she is unhappy in her own. As eager as I am to approach her from an intellectual standpoint, I am unwilling to admit to explore my own Godzilla tendencies. I've certainly done it. Repeatedly. Exploring Martha will give me the opportunity to forgive myself for past transgressions. Or not. It's the "or not" that frightens me.

This is how I know I am on the right track. Fear is my friend.

So, in wading into these waters I'd like to start at the shallow end- a way to bring Martha closer to me without scaring either of us off. Martha is an educated woman who is resigned to playing "wifey" to a college professor. I imagine some of her restlessness stems from this circumstance. With no concrete, consistent outlet for her intellect she engages in "pointless infidelities". But it isn't just restlessness. It's deeper. She clearly needs attention from her father and, being a woman and housewife, gets substantially less than required. She intended to bask in the reflected glory of her professor husband, but she is disappointed by what she perceives as his professional failings. George's failures are her failures. She pushes, pulls, cajoles, and nags to fight for her rightful place but all for naught. What she CAN do, however, is attract men. With each conquest she is simultaneously validated and destroyed. She is torn between her impulses and her deepest needs and unable to discern from moment to moment the actions necessary to reach a healthy, life affirming goal.

That is something I can reach within myself. I know about being an intelligent, capable woman trapped in the "wifey" role. I have certainly toyed with men in my life and then hated myself for it. I also know about pushing others to fulfill MY visions with out any regard to their own goals and definitions of success. What I need to do if discover my own threshold. What "as if" do I need to use to help me understand ACTING on these impulses? I've never cheated on anyone. My own sense of empathy forbids it. I need to understand how to make that decision... and make it repeatedly. I need to understand the depth of need in Martha that would cause her to lash out the way she does.

It is time for me to work on scoring text and making physical choices.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Feeling Sick

Not sick like flu sick, sick like "whoa... I did something BAD" sick.

I do a little blog editing for a friend of mine who is a restauranteur and just about the sweetest guy you'll ever meet. I can't imagine thinking ill of him. I might shake my head at him from time to time, but I'm so damn arrogant I do that with just about everyone. It really is best to ignore me. But I digress... In addition to this side-blogging I have also put the word out for an actor I've worked with before about his new foray into private classes. I've meant no one any harm and believe that both of these people want to be positive forces in the world. Whether they succeed in that endeavor... well, I have no control over that. Today I have just been bombarded with negative online comments about these people and some of these comments are from people who have preferred to remain anonymous. Now I feel like a kicked puppy.

In one of these cases (I won't get too specific) I happened to be privy to some information that these anonymous angry people clearly did not have. Jerk that I am, I attempted to explain what I felt I could divulge publicly and I got a smack down again. Now I remember why I disabled comments on a previously abandoned blog. People are jerks and they think they can bawl you out just because they have a keyboard, too. Even people that you know think they can jerk you around in a comment section. Holy bananas... all I did was pass along some information! Don't kill the messenger.

The horrible thing is, I feel bad. I feel personally responsible, although I didn't DO anything. However, I feel sick to my stomach about the whole mess. Maybe, if you feel you've been screwed by someone you should take it up with that person instead of taking out your anger on a blog's comment section. The truth is, spewing online is about getting revenge for a perceived wrong and it doesn't really give the "offending party" the opportunity to redeem themselves. It's a jackass thing to do.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Identifying the Circumstances

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

It is late, well after midnight, when George and Martha return to there home from a faculty party at the small New England college at which George is a history professor. They have been drinking heavily and are already slightly befuddled when Martha announces that she has invited a new couple over for a post-party get together. The new couple happens to be the new, young, hot shot biology teacher and his "slim-hipped" wife.

Martha is 52 "looking somewhat younger. Ample but not fleshy".

George is 46 "thin, hair going grey."

Honey is 26 "a petite blond girl, rather plain"

Nick is 30 "well put together, good looking"

Martha is the daughter of the college President. George was once the new stud on campus and Martha (and presumably her father?) intended to groom him for the presidency, but George (for one reason or another) was not up to snuff. George and Martha are a well educated couple. To them, words are a blood sport. They are witty, brash and highly literate. George speaks Latin and both George and Martha know at least enough French and Spanish to verbally assault one another.

George and Martha are steeped in the academic world. They read. They lead academic lives, although I suspect Martha is left rather unsatisfied by simply playing wifey to a college professor. She is intelligent in her own right, but seems to have little outlet for her energies beyond berating her all-too-patient husband, her many daliences with an odd assortment of men, and the fictional life that she and George seem to have written together. This is the central puzzle of the play. Why have they created a fictional son? Why reveal it now? Why do they expose themselves in this way to this particular couple? Why toy with Nick and Honey? What the hell is this play about, anyway?

Both couples are childless and this might be the 800 lb gorilla copulating with the proverbial elephant in the room. Martha seems to be unable to conceive (as an actor that will be my choice) and Honey seems unwilling. Nick is a reluctant husband. George suffers abuse from Martha. Nick's true feelings for Honey are questionable and Honey seems along for the ride. Martha and George are deeply devoted to one another, but Martha is obliged to punish him. In Act 3 she says:

...whom I will not forgive for having come to rest; for having seen me and having said; yes, this will do; who has made the hideous, the hurting , the insulting mistake of loving me and must be punished for it. George and Martha: sad, sad, sad... who tolerates, which is intolerable; who is kind, which is cruel; who understands, which is beyond comprehension...

Martha barrels through the text as a monstrous, destructive animal. She is willing to destroy herself, her husband, her reputation, her marriage, Nick and Honey's marriage... she has the air of a caged animal ready to go berserk. She uses sex as a tool of destruction. Meanwhile, George, though just as caustic and destructive, seems to be attempting to hold his world and his wife together. He berates Nick and seems disgusted by Honey but he attempts to share his wisdom and life experience with them. He warns them repeatedly, though it is difficult to heed the warnings couched in insults and condescension.

In the end, George seeks to destroy that which has previously held his life and his marriage together- his fictional son. It is as if total annihilation is the path to salvation. Perhaps it is? Albee leaves this for the audience to consider.

As with all good drama, there are dozens more circumstances to pull apart and piece back together again. Everyone's relationship to Martha's father, the college president, looms rather ominously throughout the text. George and Martha's rather sketchy relationship to "truth" is another. While these (and other) circumstances are integral to the play, this is a good place to start. Now is the time for me to begin to bring myself closer to the text by exploring what I know about these circumstances. By placing myself "inside" the text (as opposed to an academic analysis from the "outside") I will start to identify with Martha. After all, that is my job.

As I look at Martha, my first job is to relate to her- to empathize with her. I do not have a set "outside-in" or "inside-out" methodology. I like to let the role dictate which tools I should use. In this instance I feel I should work on Martha physically first. Martha is animalistic, she is comfortable with her body and she uses it to advance her objectives. not. Since this will be a huge hurdle for me (feeling rather terrible about my post-baby, post-tragic H&M shopping excursion body!) I think this will be a good place for me to begin. If I don't unlock the keys to Martha's physicality early, I will be lost when it comes to making those words come out of my mouth in a believable fashion. I will begin by memorizing a chunk of text and using it in a series of physical exercises which I will detail here as best I can.

Uh oh. Baby awake...

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Notes on Martha

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is destined to be one of those scripts I will need to wallow in.

Through my readings I have come to my usual position of Armchair Psychologist. My gut instinct is to "diagnose" Martha with Borderline Personality Disorder. Now, I would hesitate to make such a statement about a real, living person, but for the sake of pursuing a character I will make this judgement. Martha displays some classic characteristics of BPD. For the sake of expediency I will send you to this excellent post that validated my theory.

In addition to my multiple readings of the text, I have been searching for connections and others' ideas about this play. In the absence of a cast and table discussions I find reading others' opinions to be highly stimulating. Sometimes it is exciting to agree. In this particular case, I find myself in violent disagreement with some of the character studies I have found. Specifically, in regard to George. Most have found him to be weak-willed and spineless... in essence, the opinions I have read have validated Martha's worst opinions of George. On the contrary, I have found him to be principled (although not in the more traditional vein), calm and exceptionally compassionate. Granted, his compassion manifests itself in some fairly sick ways, but he does try to help everyone in the play. He tries to warn Nick, he feels true pity for Honey and he fights tooth and nail with Martha because he loves her. Love does not always have a healthy shine to it. In my various readings I keep thinking George is not unlike the Hollywood cliche of the boy who raises an orphaned animal and through an unfortunate set of circumstances finds himself deep in the forest chucking rocks at his beloved friend to force it to return to the wild- where it belongs. George lobs compassionate rocks at everyone in this tale. On the outside, this ineffectual cuckold is really a courageous lover.

Ah, but that is my tendency toward co-dependency speaking! Of course I relate to George! Of course I like him! Of course I skew toward seeing him as noble and kind! That's MY personal sickness speaking. As for Martha... she is going to be a huge challenge for me. I can get at the loud and vulgar part of her- that is well within my range. It is her extreme cruelty, her vindictiveness... see? It is the ultimate challenge for me to frame this behavior in the "actor positive", meaning that I need to put this behavior into non-judgmental language. If I am judging her behavior I will have difficulty justifying it for myself. After all, everything she does feels necessary to her survival. She needs to lash out, to bray, to punish, in order to save herself in some way.

A plan of attack is beginning to form and the specific text that I will use for my explorations is starting to rise to the surface.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Work Begins

I am in the process of reading Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf again and again and again. It is through these reads that I begin to form a plan of attack for the text. This is generally how the reads progress:

First Read: I get a general impression of elements within the text- themes, character, relationship, setting, etc. I try to tune in to the story and remain open to see what, if anything strikes me.

Second Read: This is a slightly more "conscious"- though still general- reading of the text. Through this reading I begin to identify what elements ring little bells of truth within me. What do I relate to? What is completely foreign to me? What do I resist? What gets me excited about the text?

Third Read: This is when I begin to read the text as an actor (or as a director, should that be my role in any particular production- but that is an entirely different process). I take careful note of things that are said by and about my character. Words stand out as clues to physical actions, habits, and/or personality traits. For example, in Virginia Woolf, Martha is said to bray... this one word will provide a valuable starting point for my use of body and voice. I make a note of this word (and other words and phrases) which I will return to when I am ready to begin my physical explorations.

Fourth Read: This is where I attempt to read through the eyes of my own character. I will often read things out loud in order to play with the language and begin to identify the thoughts that propel the words in the text.

Fifth Read: This is where I begin to part from any set formula. Some characters I get and I feel I am ready to get on my feet and play. With others I feel the need to steep myself in the play and let myself stew a little longer. Then there are plays that require a more academic approach- it is with these plays that I "score" the text. I will do some element of scoring with Virginia Woolf , partially for the exercise of scoring and partially because some of Martha's thought processes still elude me. I will do an entire post on scoring, when the time comes.

There is no set way to approach a text and every actor is different. Some actors prefer to feel their way through a text while still others need to sit down and analyze each word, each rhythm and syllable. I do a mixture of both. For this, particular project, I will not have the benefit of multiple table reads with other actors. So my process will be a little different than a process I would employ during rehearsals with a full cast- mostly because I will need to be more disciplined than if I had an ensemble around to keep me honest! I will need to use this blog to keep me accountable for my explorations. I am hoping to find a way to film some of my explorations and share them on this blog so that I may analyze my own process...warts and all. I will do my best to keep my vanity in check and illustrate my dismal failures as well as my successes!

My next posting will cover, specifically, the information I have gleaned from my readings of the text. Wish me luck!