Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Equality...Empathy

Equality cannot be explained. Through my observation, understanding it comes from taking the time to experience new lifestyles/thoughts/geographies. Then, if we listen closely and actively enagge with one another, we develop empathy.  Sometimes, one must question the lens through which one was raised, which is often very difficult to do. However, I believe that until engaging with our empathy becomes paramount, the inability to understand difference will continue to be a carrot dangling on a string in front of us.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Process: The Rover

In makeup and costume as Ned Blunt in The Rover.
Every now and then, I'm going to share notes on a process (sometimes in hindsight, other times during) of an artistic nature. Likely, they'll mostly be about roles I play, at least for the next several years.
* * *
In November 2012, I and 14 others of my 20-member BFA class opened our university's mainstage production of The Rover. Ned Blunt was a special, special role in what I believe will be fondly looked at as the best experience of my drama school training (and I know will likely be so for several others in my class). The production was an adaptation by guest artist Joel Sass (who also directed) of Aphra Behn's 1677 comedy/drama. The adaptation did not update the language, but was a cut/edit to rearrange and shift certain scene perspectives. Like other modern productions, the action was changed from the Carnival of Venice to one somewhere in Spain.

This play is very rarely produced, particularly on a large scale. A quick search through PlaybillVault.com indicates that no Broadway production has ever been mounted. If you are unfamiliar with the play, Wikipedia has a rather comprehensive overview of the story. Similar to how many in the industry/academia consider Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and The Taming of the Shrew "problem" plays,1 The Rover features women dealing with oppression and sometimes ambiguous motives for their actions, as well as the men's. There are attempted rapes, free-thinking women, including one who actively seeks out the love of the scoundrel title character (he tries to rape her sister). The play is mesh of action, comedy, female power, the male gaze, and characters' seeming ignorance.

The moment I received my script from the stage manager in early August (five or so weeks before the first rehearsal on September 12), I read through it twice. Then, I began to analyze Ned as best I could. The most important element of my process was to understand why my character is perceived as a fool/clown by the other characters. By finding answers through other characters' perceptive descriptions of Blunt, I then asked myself how I would be able to support their perceptions. Blunt does not think himself a fool, of course, but what could be his behaviors, social background, and physicality that would at least be perceived as foolish? From there, I could build those qualities up with truthfulness from Blunt's gestures and internal life. I have noticed that I seldom see clown characters in Shakespeare's plays played as true clowns/fools, especially when they are attacked, taken advantage of, and thus changed as a person because they start out as a clown/fool (i.e. Blunt, Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well, to name a few).  In my opinion, not playing the fool fully will result in a fuzzy presentation of their downfall... it will come off as confusing and unnecessary. In summation, what could I give my fellow actors to incite their perceptions of my Blunt, and thus truthfully move them to drag him down?

The givens of Mr. Blunt: He is wealthier than the other three English characters, naive with winning over women, and a "country bumpkin" from Essex. With these givens, I studied how the other three Englishmen were suaver, sexier, and more "action packed" in the script (and, eventually, staging). I had to contrast them in order to serve the text and story telling, in order to land the intention of the writer. They were punk-dressed and used Modern RP, I requested that I use a made-up English accent, crossing between Yorkshire (with its classic "u" sound, as in "cup") and Modern RP coloring in order to highlight his country "otherness." I figured I could get away with a creation of my own because the world within which our play existed was not realistic, and the idea of a mashed up accent is plausible, certainly (I have one in my own life, for example, since I've lived in RI and Minnesota for long periods). Plus, historically, accent has a great deal to due with perceptions of social acceptance in English culture.

To physically contrast the punk Brits who teased me, and the Spanish world my British character was visiting, I worked closely with the costume designer, Jonathan Singer. First of all, his design was so specific and clear with its aesthetic that it brought a wealth of inspiration. The feel of the pants around my waist, and the fit of the jacket, with the colors of the English flag and faded corduroy allowed me to sense who this young man was, and how he wanted to be perceived. He wanted attention, to be bold!
Most importantly, we discussed the makeup... I am of Mediterranean descent, and did not want to look as if I belonged in the Spanish world. We lightened my complexion, and added "rosacea" on my nose, cheeks, and forehead. The eyebrows were darkened and thickened to look as if they were in a state of lifted wonderment. Additionally, I had nearly no shading, rather opting to highlight most of my face, including near the eyes. This was to give the character a cherubic, naive look.

By having all this information ready, I gave myself much more room to play with my fellow actors from an informed, intelligent basis. I believe in spontaneity on stage, to live presently, but it must be crafted from a point of view and purpose. There are so many other options for entertainments out there. If I am to expect audiences to spend anywhere from $5 to $300 to see me perform, I better have more of a reason than just reciting lines and blocking. I expect the same as an audience member.

I don't want to delve too deeply into the implications of this role's purpose in the show at this time (that's a big debate, and another topic). But for now I am content to share a little snippet of how I approached this role, and certain aspects of how I engage with preliminary book work.

I believe that this and the Shakespeare plays listed above are considered "problematic" because of a fear of ambiguity in story telling. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the perpetuation of the "well-made play" came into accentuated acceptance. This is defined as a structure with thinly veiled exposition, with a specific rise and fall in action, leading to resolution. The Rover, arguably, has no neat resolution. Several characters, including mine, have stories which are not "wrapped up," as one might say. Actually, many consider these characters' actions offensive and unsympathetic.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Broad Lens/Specific Focus

Sometimes a photograph is so busy with stuff and ideas that one can't uncover its purpose. That may be a choice by the artist, but usually the viewer isn't trapped in a room with only that photograph. They can come to it on their own time. Sometimes they may even leave the photograph for a while and come back to it in order to gain a more fresh perspective.

Life, on the other hand, is always present, and thus relentless if it isn't handled with care. In the familiar spaces, one can be unwary of the possibilities for growth and thus, perhaps, empathy.

After spending the last four months of 2011 in London, with a 10-day sojourn through Eastern Europe, I had removed myself from the busy "photograph" of the United States for the first significant amount of time in my then 21.5 years of life. I was able to separate my own soul and mind from the social practices and beliefs of my native land. It is easy to be swept up into the hustle and bustle of a culture if it is the only thing one has ever known. To an outsider, it can be jarring. To an insider, that is just the way things are.

When I left for London, I was glued to my smart phone quite often, obsessed with checking my email, Facebook, and Twitter for some semblance of connection with friends and from others in the industry. Texting was nearly constant, even as I walked down the streets of Minneapolis or sat on a bus. I never took the time to face the world in front of me, no matter how comfortable or difficult it was being. I wonder how many stories I have missed out on because I had then (and admittedly still do now and again) spent time dealing with digital information in another space.

The fast pace of American life made everything a bit of a blur. According to Yale University's International Student Guide, one thing that may surprise students build is the individualism of our culture.
"In more collective cultures, accomplishments and successes may be viewed foremost as an honor to the group, for example, how it reflects upon one’s family or hometown community.  In the US, a person’s success is more likely to be attributed primarily to the hard work and perseverance of the individual."
The social constructs of the American dream drive the need to be competitive, to not lag behind. Look at Twitter. Hashtags appear during events with knee-jerk reactions being posted by twenties of people each few seconds.

Such a culture where the knee-jerk reaction is encouraged may sometimes get us to overlook the necessity to consider our words, actions, and internal monologues. Our jam-packed days, over-built cities, and countless sources of media leave very little space to meditate. As I write this, I miss the days where I woke up in the morning and listened to the sounds of my house, and the next action was stretching my arms as I stood. Now, I almost immediately check my email and social medias. I often try to let myself off the hook, Well, if I don't check it, I might miss out on a job opportunity and lag behind. The "classic" excuse of, if you can't beat them, join them.

I believe that I need to cultivate a sense of ownership and development with my creative, social, and spiritual self. It is easy for me to continue using social constructs that are very familiar as a crutch with which to stand. To coast through a day by "just getting by:" just passing the test, just finishing the paper, just memorizing the lines, just making an acting choice, just deciding to audition...in the nick of time.

The best actors I have seen are primely thorough. Through discipline, particularly in these distracting times, they spend hours preparing their roles. I can sense their specificity during their performances. In December 2012, I saw The Phantom of the Opera for the 16th time in London. That night, Marcus Lovett took the title of the 11th actor I had seen in the title role. Seeing this many actors in the same role has afforded me an example of the effects of thorough work. Lovett has stated that he arrives at the theatre quite early every day. He even has two white boards in his dressing room to give himself vocal/physical and acting ideas for each of his eight weekly performances. His research on the role is based on the Leroux novel of the same name (the inspiration for the show) and libretto, and he has asked himself practical and intuitive questions about the character. Thus, Lovett strives (and likely often succeeds!) in having a broad lens (all the research, information he has gathered for the character) with a specific focus (his character's dramaturgical purpose in the show, and his goals as an artist that day). [Check out his Twitter (linked above) and the backstage video with Time Out London here in order to find citations]

By reflecting on the work of Lovett and many others I have had the pleasure of seeing in other roles/shows, I have uncovered that I appreciate thoughtful thoroughness. I believe such a practice leads to accomplishment. It pushes individuals (not just artists) to have their content rule the context, rather than the other way around. Lovett's interpretation (content) of the Phantom fills in the blocking and music (context) with his uniqueness. I have seen other actors in the role rely too heavily on the context, and they are not remembered as readily in my mind, nor were they achievers of audience/actor reciprocity, via my observation.

So, how can I be more thoughtful and thorough, but live presently? Not just in my artistic work, but in my life. If I take a step back for a moment and truly look at the whole picture, I will see where I can navigate myself best, with my aspirations and philosophies guiding me.