I like creating theatre that fits.
Today’s the day! Over the next two months, I will be co-directing a play with a seasoned director, and the auditions are tonight and tomorrow night. I have done my homework by reading and re-reading the script many times. I’ve studied the characters and their motivations and come up with a list of verbs describing each one. The theatre’s designer has come up with a beautifully simplistic set that will give the actors a space in which to explore their various roles and actions and emotions.
The play is The Spoon River Project, which is made up of poems excerpted from Edgar Lee Masters’ early twentieth century American classic Spoon River Anthology. Citizens of the fictional town Spoon River speak from their graves, remembering, inspiring, preaching, ruing, accusing, and confessing. There have been numerous adaptations of the anthology for the stage over the past hundred years. This one is by Tom Andolora. He chose a representative sampling of the graveyard’s characters, and importantly, he researched and included some period songs that the actors will perform.
Mr. Andolora also uses one of my favorite theatre techniques. Each actor plays multiple roles. They do three or four, in fact. By careful use of small costume pieces and physical changes, the actors will have to differentiate each character, and they will have to make it believable.
The space will be bare, befitting a graveyard, with a few movable benches, and room is even being made on the stage for audience seating. There will be a small ensemble of musicians to accompany the cast in the songs. The only props will represent what the individuals have taken with them to the grave. They will make use of shawls, vests, and other small items of clothing.
The process of directing is not absolutely new to me, but I am a novice. I have directed before, and in that play, the actors were also called on to delve into different characters. I revel in seeing a good craftsman make the necessary adjustments in a second to change from one role to another. When it’s done well, it makes me squirm in my seat.
I have already mentioned reading the play multiple times to really feel it. I searched and found what I believe may be a through line or what’s also called a plot line. The great twentieth century American director Harold Clurman dubbed it the spine. It’s a simple word or phrase or very short sentence describing the central theme of the piece. I like to pick words from the actual script for this note when possible. The through line does not have to be communicated to the actors, but it informs all the director’s choices.
This script is full of wonder. The poems are alive with active verbs that make imagining staging it a joy. The anthology is a pleasure to read for its own sake. Mr. Andolora did not choose my favorite poem, so I will include it here.
I WOULD I had thrust my hands of flesh
Into the disk—flowers bee-infested,
Into the mirror-like core of fire
Of the light of life, the sun of delight.
For what are anthers worth or petals
Or halo-rays? Mockeries, shadows
Of the heart of the flower, the central flame
All is yours, young passer-by;
Enter the banquet room with the thought;
Don’t sidle in as if you were doubtful
Whether you’re welcome—the feast is yours!
Nor take but a little, refusing more
With a bashful “Thank you”, when you’re hungry.
Is your soul alive? Then let it feed!
Leave no balconies where you can climb;
Nor milk-white bosoms where you can rest;
Nor golden heads with pillows to share;
Nor wine cups while the wine is sweet;
Nor ecstasies of body or soul,
You will die, no doubt, but die while living
In depths of azure, rapt and mated,
Kissing the queen-bee, Life!
The speaker, Edmund Pollard, wishes he had dived into all that living had to offer, and he implores the hearers to do so. He speaks of flesh, alluding to bees’ stings, and fire and light. To those of us above the graves, he commands we attend the banquets and feasts that lie before us. Let us feed! Love and intimacy take their places, too. Finally, he returns to bees and their kissing sting of life.
I am living today. I am excited at my new adventure in theatre starting tonight. Life moves me, and I take joy in it.
To bring an audience the revelation of the failings and aspirations, the dreams and desires, the negative and the positive aspects of human beings—this is what we should set as our goal as committed theater artists. Then we will be respected and have respect for ourselves and respect for acting! —
Uta Hagen, Respect for Acting
I have read both of Uta Hagen’s books about acting and admire each one. Besides the one quoted above, there is Challenge for the Actor, which I prefer.
Revelation. That word is miraculous. I go about my days meeting various people in many different walks of life, and it’s always astonishing to me to think about their lives. I wonder what the home is like for the cashier at the grocery store. What story has the doctor just been a part of before he comes in to take a look at my sore throat? What’s going on with the friend who isn’t returning calls? The individuals I meet on a daily basis are full of failings and aspirations. They have inner lives that I can imagine and gather occasional glimpses of.
The study of people around me assists me in building a character. My role in a play assumes that I know much more about my character’s thoughts and actions than simply when he’s speaking. I have to know what he’s thinking between the lines. More acting happens when I’m not speaking than when I am. I’ve been in long scenes on stage with only 5 lines of my own, but my character must exist the whole time I’m in front of the audience. While it might not be written down, I have to know what my character would say if suddenly called upon to speak.
To get to that level of character, I have to work. I relate that work to my own life as well. What are my motives for pursuing a certain goal? What are the dreams and desires behind it? Finally, what are my negative and positive aspects that I present to the world every day? Playing me takes full time. I never get to lay it down, take off the costume, or wash off the makeup. I’m aware that I perform everywhere I go.
There’s more to reading a play than meets the eye. When an actor reads one, he constantly looks for hints for building character. I look for little pictures in the words, for scenic interpretations to pop off the page.
Two friends came over the other day to read ‘ART’ by Yasmina Reza, and one picture presented itself in a humorous and dramatic way. The play is about three friends and a white painting that one has purchased for a small fortune. It’s a totally white painting. The words used to describe the piece by one of the friends are “resonance” and “system.” Another simply pronounces it “shit.” The playwright allows the characters the full range of reactions to what is essentially empty.
In any event, the whole situation is comical, and the way each character confronts this expensive void is telling. Their treatment of each other is what fills the picture. It’s what the artist really intended us to see. The culmination of which is a bit of physical confrontation resulting in one man’s ear being hit. He collapses in agony and holds a compress to his injury when what should appear but a rat.
A rat dashes through the room.
And isn’t that just like life? Just when we are brought to the utmost end of our tolerance, just when we strike out against our lack, just at the edge of our control, something small invades us. Here sits a man in pain inflicted on him by accident since the blow was meant for another, here are three friends driven to the extreme by an expanse of white canvas, and we are treated to a sideshow.
The three men are not so much in control as they imagine.
An actor reading a play molds the written words into mental images of stage action. He starts with emptiness and fills it with entrances, exits, walking, gesturing, shouting, whispering, and any other expression that comes to mind to fill the expansive theatre, to bring life to the void.