where to start?
A play for the first time in 3 years. The longest stretch I’ve gone without acting in a play since I was 15. upended / rusty / flummoxed / giddy / terrified.
Where to start? My brain rebels against memorizing lines. I feel like I can’t find a clue in the text as to who I’m supposed to be. In the most congenial of rooms with a bunch of smart & talented people I feel like I don’t understand at all how to mutually collude to tell a story – that is, to tell the same story.
What exactly is or ever was my “process?” What exactly is process, anyway? Must it be reinvented every time? How, exactly, remind me, do you fully invest yourself in a fictional being, become her, love her, understand her & want, for a while, to live in her world more than your own?
Click on the image above to see my character's Pinterest Board.
3 weeks in: just coming onto tech & still slogging thru mud. My trusty acting tool kit, um, where did I put it? What theater / rehearsal room / film set did I leave it in, unattended? Where went all my acting school / life experience stuff?
& I'm doing a new play for the first time in 7 years. A make-her-up-from-scratch character named Elizabeth Sheridan. She lives in Ken Labeznik's ON THE SPECTRUM (opening March 16 at The Fountain Theatre & running through April 28) Other characters in the play: my son, Mac, 23 years old, who has Aspergers & Iris, a young austistic woman.
The play’s been done once before in Minnesota at the Mixed Blood Theater, where it was commissioned. From an article then: [the play] "depicts a young man with Asperger's Syndrome passing as 'typical' after years of mainstreaming & therapy. He connects with a woman who proudly champions her autism as a difference, not a disorder. Their love story reveals the contradictions between the desire for acceptance & for achievement. Among the choices: live in a fantastic world of the mind or join the more mundane society that typecasts you as your illness."
Very cool, thought provoking & timely, no? I haven’t heard of another play out there that takes on this particular kind of romance. Dan Shaked & Virginia Newcomb who play Mac & Iris have all the heavy lifting in terms of acting challenges; I play Mac’s neurotypical mom -- My job, which doesn't include stimming, mostly consists of doing a very good imitation of myself. So, what's so difficult?
Okay, yes, I went to acting school, so first the obvious: where do I intersect with my character?
She: Elizabeth Sheridan, From Elk City, Oklahoma. Mother of a young man with a disability. Photo editor for a news magazine that is probably going under. Went to Nepal in college. Brought home a lot of yak bells, with which she decorates her West Village apartment (these mean something to her.) Husband left her 16 years ago. Will do anything for her son.
Me: Jeanie, From Wyomissing, PA. No children. Little to no experience with disability. Actress & other things. Went to Greece. Have no attachment to like yak bells or their symbolic equivalent. Lived in the West Village for 13 years. Know something about losing a job. My (potential) husbands either a. died / b. left / c. now live with me (not all at the same time.)
Sure, my body remembers how to walk & talk at the same time, so I can ride the bike but feel like I don’t know how to think about where I’m going. Our fearless & passionate leader, director Jacqueline Schultz, wants from me more emotional volatility, more at stake, less logic. I feel like I know what she wants, but can't find it. Or justify it. At the moment I’m painfully aware that I’m nowhere near who Elizabeth is at the core of her being.
My friends who act all the time don't seem to struggle so much with losing the hang of it. Can one only be good at this thing if one works constantly? In the last decade I've opened myself up to trying my hand at other creative things -- acting is no longer the constant habit it used to be. Has my lacked of consistency dulled my skills?
I remember directing Kate Burton in a play for L.A. Theater Works, & being astonished at the number of notes she could take in from me in a short time & even more quickly dispatch with, or incorporate into her performance. I remember thinking it would take me several days to do what Kate did in a matter of an hour or two. Kate Burton is at it all the time, it’s like she has freakishly long, super-intelligent acting muscles that work like a sophisticated machine. Her talent is so, so fast.
Another of my favorite, constantly working actors, Harry Groener, has a routine that begins months before rehearsals start: he gets up every morning & learns lines for two hours. Harry: “If it’s one page for two hours, it’s one page. If it’s 5 pages it’s five pages. I do two hours a day, every day & then put it down for the rest of the day.” He arrives at the first rehearsal completely memorized. “I hate to waste time in rehearsal stumbling over lines. And I know a lot of actors aren’t like that, they say ‘it’s not my process.’ And sometimes that’s true. But a lot of times actors are just lazy.”
So, Kate & Harry: what would they do? Yes, hard work & constant work. That alone.
Grappling with it on the phone this morning with my BFF & amazing actress/coach Mimi Lieber. This idea: as we mature as actors, we all tend to use our technique less consciously. We jump into the work & with good directorial guidance the connections just…drop in, we no longer have to consciously forge them, make them literal, write them down. I guess…I’ve been waiting for the anchor to drop. It hasn’t yet. & now time is at my heels.
So, what? Must I go I back to acting 101? As I've often heard myself say in The Workroom when I’m coaching or teaching, possessing a sophisticated & nuanced technique is not for the times when all cylinders are firing, but for when they aren’t. You may never need the life boat…except of course for when your life is on the line.
Acting 101 means plodding through with consciousness all those things that experience takes for granted: finding the objective / obstacle in every scene. Naming it. Writing a detailed, fully-fleshed out backstory. Bloody hell, acting exercises, even! How humbling, dear reader! Last week with another BFF for coaching. From her living room Jane Kaczmarek immediately spots at least 5 "duh" beats I've been missing. In the first scene alone. Lots to think about. (Like, how astonishing Jane would be in the role.)
In frustration one night driving home from rehearsal, this: Why am I doing this? Why do I want to play this part? Yes, right. That’s where it starts. Yes, sure: answer that & you’ve got the whole pie. & it’s always a question that can be answered two ways.
One answer has to do with acting in general, not specific to the role / script. “I want to do this because I need to keep doing it in order to be good at it. / I want to do this to continually build my craft. / To keep my hat in the ring. To make my agents happy. / To have an answer to that pesky dinner party question... "So what are you working on now?” Yeah, sometimes just that will get you to work everyday. But in my experience it won’t last you all day long.
I remember years ago, getting on the subway in New York & seeing the poster of my first Broadway show -- with my name on it! Seeing that felt...like being high! Amazing! OMG, this poster must be in every subway line in NYC! It felt so validating staring at my name & so pleasurable. A part of me felt like I could do it forever. & I could imagine every single person I knew seeing it too, & their impressed / proud / envious (!) reaction. I played those various scenarios over & over in my mind as I went uptown.
But…eventually, my mind wandered. Replaying those moments just...couldn’t occupy me endlessly. Too little to think about. Just the poster & my name & the fact that I was working on Broadway. Whereas -- so many things to think about in terms of my role! On this side of the scale: thoughts that could keep me endlessly engaged, completely preoccupied for hours & days & weeks & months.
So: the real WHY question: why do I want to playthis particular role, now? What do I need to say with this? What does this role give to my life that life has denied me? That I can find here. & what can I give to this role that no one else can? Just because of who I am & what I’ve known & loved & lost. How does the role fall in love with me & visa versa?
Yes. That's something that never doesn't work. The answer doesn't matter. Just remembering to ask that question, over & over gets you somewhere. It's perhaps the most formidable piece of "technique" I can think of.
Oh! Another thing (which I learned the hard way): the no blame rule. It works like this: Invariably as you go you come up against a problem. Something’s not right. Something at some point or another is actually wrong. It wasn’t always this way, but sometime a while back I began to adhere to this tenant: NO BLAME. It’s not the play’s fault. It’s not the director’s fault. It’s not the other actors’ fault. And most important, it’s not my fault. Something is wrong…& it’s nobody’s fault. Imagine.
But if nothing & nobody is at fault, how do you fix what’s wrong? You just keep working. & trust that deepening your investigation & commitment & need & understanding & collaboration will come to address whatever the problem is. You just decide to … refuse to blame. Because blame is defeat. Whatever is to blame is what you can’t fix. & when blame is in the mix, sooner or later it wants to come home to roost.
Okay, alright. Deep breath. Hard work + “WHY” + going back to acting 101 + no blame. I’ll pick up there.
QUESTION: Help! How do you start? Where? Just give me one thing to steal or remember...
& Dear Creatives, we now have social media to help us get started! Check out my Pinterest board: ELIZABETH'S SPECTRUM