Much of the work I’ve done as an actor has been bringing new works to life. This process is always a bit of a whirlwind, but it can be really invigorating from a creative standpoint because you, the director, and often the writer are building what the story is from the ground up. The scripts are printed pages, not a bound and published book. Rewrites are happening, sometimes right up until opening night. Everyone is hustling
Sometimes, in this setting, a playwright will help you out by breaking up long speeches into separate paragraphs. (Often, when you’re working on a script that has been previously published, the text for those longer speeches just appears in one big, long block.) This formatting helps quickly determine where the character’s thoughts change. After all, Grammar 101 would indicate that you should start a new paragraph whenever you switch topic, and, at minimum, you have to know the points that make up your argument. However, once you understand what that shape is, I think it’s important to be willing to separate the emotional ebb and flow of the character from the arguments within the text. I’m NOT saying ignore the text. You still have to communicate the information. What I am saying is the emotional state of the text may not align exactly with the information. The words about anger might not actually be angry when you say them. It probably makes sense for the emotion of anger to be somewhere in the neighborhood of those words – showing up maybe a sentence or two before or after – but for the words and emotion to line up exactly may actually end up feeling a bit flat. Sometimes there’s more mileage to be had (and more truth) if we’re able to let things get a bit messy.
I was fortunate enough to train with Fiasco Theater at one point (If you don’t know them, you should. They are fantastic.) and one of the principles that they really encourage is that you try to remain as open minded about your character’s emotional state as you can. Know your given circumstances and pursue your objective, but don’t pre-determine how your character feels about it. Be open to the text and see where it takes you. And if you don’t find anything interesting, try out an emotion that seems completely inappropriate and allow that to be your starting point. Rehearsal is the time to try these things out.
When we’re overtaken by emotion in real life, we don’t transition gracefully from one argument to another in a logical manner. Especially if we’re making a perspective changing discovery about ourselves or the world around us, as the characters we play often are. We’re just much sloppier than that in real life. Our mouths often say things we didn’t know we felt until after we’ve said them. We say them and THEN we process what we’ve said. Or sometimes, something happens in our lives where we thought we would react one way and when the moment actually comes we don’t. We thought we would be able to keep it together, and instead we’re a total blubbering mess. We thought we’d be nervous, but instead we’re totally calm. We thought we’d be laughing, where instead we’re crying.
Emotions are messy. Especially, in situations where we’re saying these words aloud for the very first time – which is the effect we’re trying to recreate in theater. The fun in watching theater is when we get to see someone discover how they feel about something When we get to see them at the point when they don’t know what their next move is going to be. When we see them come unhinged. That’s a riveting moment. That when we’re on the edge of our seat, holding our breath. And I think that complexity comes when we allow ourselves to color outside the lines a bit.
Experiment with where you can skew the alignment with the text and your emotional state. Your audience is smarter than you think they are. You don’t have to hold their hand for every step of the way. And your characters can be more complex if you let them.
Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more the merrier!