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Friday, October 26, 2012

Creating a Character

I have been acting now for over 10 years.  I started off at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting here in Los Angeles right after my military service was completed and did their two year comprehensive program to established the foundation for becoming a professional actor.  Classes focused on developing the nascent creative nature in aspiring young actors through the taking of various classes including voice and speech, movement, technique, improvisation, dance, script analysis, Shakespeare, stage combat, fencing, audition skills, Chekhov, scene study, theater into film, and Alexander Technique.  All these classes sought to develop the full range of an actor to be able to utilize his instrument when performing, and his instrument is his body, his voice, and his soul.  Stella Adler's technique centers on the use of the imagination in the given circumstances of the play (or script).  The actor is taught how to use his imagination to create the world of his character and understand the world he lives in.  Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of being an actor is the process of creating a character, in finding their mannerisms and behaviors, the way they move, how they speak, and what moves them to do what it is they do.  The goal of every actor is to serve the play or script, as one of my favorite teachers put it "the play is the thing", and if what you are doing doesn't serve the play, then you've not fulfilled the responsibility of the actor, which is to communicate the story truthfully to the audience.  So, how does an actor go about creating a character?

Recently I was working on a character in scene study, (it's always important to keep attending class to keep doing the work and getting better at one's craft), and the scene I worked on was from the Tony Kushner play, "Angels in America".  I was challenged to play the role of Roy Cohn, made famous by the HBO special which starred Al Pacino as Roy, who was based on a real life person, Roy M. Cohn, a successful New York lawyer who, during the McCarthy Hearings of the 1950's had illegal conferences with the judge of the Ethel Rosenberg trial, which consequently, led to the conviction and execution of Ethel Rosenberg.  His influence in politics was substantial, he was not very well liked because of his overbearing attitude and demeanor, but his greatest claim to fame which made him infamous, was his virulent antipathy for the gay community.  Roy, in fact, was gay.  This overt hatred and discrimination towards his own community makes Roy one of the most complex and odious characters to portray in the modern theatre.  He is a monster, one who denies who he is, who hates this part of himself with such rage that he projects his hatred out onto those he sees as like himself and wants to punish and destroy them.  When he contracts AIDS, he denies this to everyone, and says he has "liver cancer."  The scene I performed is in Part Two of Angels in America, titled Perestroika.  Roy is dying in the hospital, all alone, with no one there to be there with him in his last days except for a former drag queen named Belize who is also a registered nurse.  Belize finds Roy reprehensible and disgusting, and yet, he finds love and compassion for a man who he can't stand, and Roy, who even in his unendurable pain viciously attacks and provokes Belize with derogatory gay slurs and insults, desperately needs for someone to be around, the fear of being alone and his impending death consume his every thought.

The joy of acting is in the process of discovery.  Where to begin?  As Stella Adler used to say, "The truth of your art is in the truth of your circumstances."  I like to begin by finding the physical life of the character, and I do this by delving into the place.  Where does my character live?  What does he do for a profession?  How does he walk?  How does he talk?  For Roy, it made it easy in the fact he was based on a real person, so I could look at his life through the historical lens and build the character from that.  I learned about his history, how he became a lawyer, his involvement in the Rosenburg trials, his lascivious lifestyle behind the facade of being a respectable citizen (Roy used to have gay sex orgies in planes that would fly back and forth across the country), and I watched him on tape to get a sense of his mannerisms and speech patterns.  I'd imitate the best I could until I got a sense of how he used his voice and speech, and then, with all this information, I'd let my imagination create the life of Roy in my mind.  I'd imagine all these episodes in his life and put myself in his shoes and live my characters' life.  This was how I was able to get inside this man, who he was and what made him tick.  Every character is different, and many times, you don't have the luxury of an actual person whom you can look up to base your interpretation on, so it's imperative to be creative in this initial stage.  Often you have to build the character from the ground up, and all you have to work with is what the playwright wrote in the play, and so your imagination needs to create this world.  If your character lives in 18th Century England, you have to understand the times he or she lived in - you have to know their profession, politics, religion, their relationships, the social and economic currents of the period, class and upbringing, intelligence of the person -is this person educated or does he have little or no education?-, their clothes, the passion and history of the people; the music, art, and architecture of the period; all this and more, is the work done by the actor to understand and begin to penetrate to the heart of his character.  For me, music is a powerful way to connect to my character because it grounds me in their world and excites my imagination.  The music of a period says a lot about the people who lived in those times and thus, I'm better able to imagine their world when I listen to their music, and place myself there in the given circumstances of the play.

Next, I like to do what my dear professor Eugene Lazarev schooled me to do, and that is called active analysis.  With all the information above, now its time to act out the scene or related scenes using my own words.  This type of improvisation allows for the freedom to create and live in the space as my character without being restricted by the words.  Words, by the way, should always be the last thing to layer on.  You want to understand what is the conflict, what is the play trying to communicate, and by actively doing it without limitation brings forth your own creative nature to the forefront.  There is an understanding that comes as a result which you do not have if you go directly to the words.  All the senses are involved, you're not just waiting for the other person's line, and thus, you fully connect to the scene in a way that opens you up to unexplored ways of bringing life to your character.  Your whole self is fully involved, and true connection happens during these improvisations, which pays dividends when you finally do get to the lines.  For whatever reason, the words the character speaks become your own and find expression in deeply profound and subtle ways.  It's one of the mysteries and joys of acting when you create this true connection on stage and breathe life into the life of your character.  The greatest acting is done when it doesn't look like acting.

The other thing I like to do when creating a character is identify what is my character's diagnosis.  This is a psychological as well as an emotional interpretation of what motivates my character.  I like to keep it simple.  Something that I mentally and emotionally connect to which animates my every move and thought as the character.  For instance, if my character seems to drain the energy of the people around him, I might diagnosis him as a vampire who sucks the life out of everyone.  My acting will be influenced by this understanding and how I relate to the other actors on stage.  Or he might be a gay homophobic person who despises gay people, like Roy Cohn, and this understanding will inspire my acting in a different way.  Or my character might be so afraid to love, he pushes away love whenever it comes close, so as never to face his fear.  I could go on, but I think you get the general idea.  It's another way to connect to your character and find your way to his heart.

One of the hardest things to do, and perhaps the most important, is an actor must set aside all judgement against his character and his flaws.  The moment you judge your character as being 'bad' or 'disgusting' or 'evil', you've lost the ability to connect and bring him to life.  In order to truly understand people, one must be able to look at them without judgement, and see the world through their eyes.  If I'm playing a murderer, or a guy like Roy Cohn, I can't hate him, if I do, I can't play him.  I have to find something to love about my character, maybe it's the deep pain he feels inside, maybe he feels he can't be who he wants to be because society or his parents looked down upon it, maybe he was abused, whatever it is, I have to find a way to meaningfully connect with the soul of my character and love him, love the part that is wounded or damaged.  It's about finding the humanity in all of us, even the most wretched and cruel among us, and allowing this to infuse my work with a sense of deep compassion for the whole of humankind.  This is the spiritual work of acting, to bring these large universal truths into the particular life of an individual, and through the course of a great play, communicate the universal from the lives of the particular.  When you understand the lives of your characters on deep levels like this, you can't help but change and see the world much differently.  All things have a soul. It's my job as an actor to navigate and find the soul of my character and bring this into my work.

The last major and important step is to connect to the theme.  This is the main idea, what drives the play, what it is the writer intended to communicate.  Once I understand the theme, I hold on to it, and never let it go.  Is this story about revenge?  The consequences of uncontrollable rage?  The destructive power of unrestrained carnal love?  The finding of love when all seems lost?  The discovery of the power of love to heal?  These are just a few examples of what the theme of the play or script might be, and when clearly understood by the actor, it elevates their performance to a whole new level.  One of the major theme of Angels in America was the devastating effect AIDS had upon the gay community during the 1980's.  No one was immune to the disease, not even a guy like Roy Cohn.  Understanding what a person suffering from AIDS goes through, the insufferable pain, the weakness, the wasting away, the hopelessness of it all at that time, gives the actor a chord, a rope, to hold onto throughout the entire performance.  With the theme in mind, the play is served.

Acting is a beautiful art form.  Great actors are like sculptors of marble except their material is of the spiritual dimension, they are sculptors of the soul.  One just has to look at the work of Daniel Day-Lewis, Gary Oldman, or Meryl Streep to see the power, brilliance, and sheer magnificence of the the great sculptors of this art form.  Their characters are works of art, on equal footing with the masters of other art forms, and our culture has been enriched by their performances and contributions.  All of the great ones have a process similar to the one I described above that is uniquely theirs.  Creating a character is the thing we all crave as an actor.  We lose our self by becoming this character, and in the process, we discover something new about ourselves.  Whenever you live in someone else's shoes, you can't help but explode your own consciousness, your awareness of the world expands, and your capacity to simply love and have compassion for all people grows exponentially.  Acting, as do all the art forms, has the capacity to remind us that we are much more connected and on a deeper level than the world of appearances would have us believe.