Writers are brave enough to formulate their inner most thoughts into cohesive ideas or themes. They take them to paper, laptop or even their cell phone these days, and put them into words. It’s how they communicate their version of the truth. An actor’s job is to tell the writer’s story. We are the physical representations of their transcribed memories, hopes, dreams and nightmares. It is our obligation to tell the writer’s truth.
Art is just that. Communication. A way to connect to one another. A poem on paper or a painting on the wall are presented directly from the artist, to the audience. A direct representation of a story. No filter. No middleman. When we start to deal with plays and screen plays, the game changes. They are designed to be on their feet and heard aloud. It is an art form designed for a community and is enriched with its many layers of participation. Writer, actor, audience. (Of course in a full production we have directors, stage hands, camera operators and the countless other members of the community who are vitally important. I’m just referring to the most stripped down form.) To glorify it a bit, the actor is a highly tuned satellite, relaying information from the writer to the listener.
Relaying that information is a great responsibility! As an actor, how can we without convolution tell the story? How can we not let our own truths influence what we relay? The beauty of it, is that it is unavoidable. No matter what we do, our own experiences will always influence how we interpret a script. No one is completely neutral. So in order to clearly get across a writer’s point, we need to align ourselves with the writer. The text is what connects us. Strip away preconceived notions and the emotional bullshit we lug around with us all day and connect to the words. Why did the writer choose this verb? How does this sentence sound aloud? Does just saying the words, with no particular emotional emphasis, create impulses? If you’re listening and being truthful with yourself, the answer most likely is yes.
Now that I have all of this esoteric mumbo jumbo out of the way, let me tell you about the moment this all became clear to me.
I graduated college as a theater major a little over 8 years ago, (yeeesh, time flies). I currently take classes to keep the chops up. I was assigned a scene from an excellent play called BURN THIS, written by Lanford Wilson. It’s a four character play that takes place in the 1980’s New York. My character was named Pale, a drunken, coked-out restaurant manager from New Jersey, who was dealing with the death of his younger, gay dancer brother. This character was quite far from my own experiences. Don’t get me wrong, Pale and I had some similarities for me to draw from. We were both in our early 30’s, had brothers and had done our fair share of time in a restaurant (as an aspiring actor, I’m a bartender in reality). However, I’ve never had a drug problem, no gay dancer brother and I’ve been on the east coast once in my life. So how do I tell Mr. Wilson’s story truthfully? I struggled with the text for a week, trying to imagine myself in Pale’s shoes. I pictured my brothers doing modern dance. (If you’re reading this Jeff and Dan, you guys were pretty graceful. I was impressed.)
I imagined myself at their funerals, I drank two bottles of wine and read through the scene (Pale is drunk in the scene), and other masochistic exercises actors do when they prepare for emotionally charged roles. It felt forced and fake. I wasn’t finding my way in. I was bringing my own truths to the scene, but rather than informing Mr. Wilson’s work, I was just being “actor-y.” It was gross.
Then I remembered a day in class from college. We had a guest teacher. She was a casting director for some large playhouse in Seattle and Shakespeare was her forte. I’m paraphrasing horribly, but in so many words she said, “If you’re lost in Shakespeare, just start punching those verbs. Hit those verbs hard, and the audience will have no idea you’re full of shit.” It’s like cheating on a test. A technique to draw on when you are not emotionally connected. Verbs are sexy. So I started doing just that. I aligned myself with Mr. Wilson’s text, and started to listen. And sure as shit, by just listening to how Pale talked, through the words he chose to use, I started to develop a character that I felt connected to.
Try it. Say these sentences aloud with emphasis on the italicized words.
I fought with my brother today.
I fought with my brother today
I fought with my brother today.
They all feel different. Just by “punching” a specific word you can infer different meanings to the same sentence. After listening to the text and words the writer chose, the actor gets to make choices based on impulses found from the text to further truthfully tell the story.
Words are powerful. They will do the heavy lifting if we get out of their way.