THE WHERE OF ACTING
by Rena Cook. DRAMATICS. January, 1995.
In life, everything that we do, feel, think and say is affected in some measure by our physical surroundings. So it is on stage. If we want our work as actors to be richer, deeper, more honest and believable, we must understand how the environment of the play impacts our performance, and how we as actors can learn to draw support and energy from it.
Environment, as we'll use the term here, encompasses the entire world of the play, everything that is part of, or influences, the physical world in which the character dwells. That includes the location of the play, the character's immediate surroundings, the time of year, the period in history, the specific details of the set, the hand props, and the costumes.
Virtually every characterization worksheet I've ever seen has included a section on environment. The actor is asked to describe in detail the physical surroundings of the play. Many of us take this part of our homework for granted; we jot down a quick response to the questions and that's the end of it. My challenge to the actor who truly embraces the acting process is to go beyond merely describing the play's environment, to form ad active, vital relationship with it.
There is power for the actor in this relationship. There is energy and support. The environment not only affects how you feel; it can empower you and propel you to action. It can ground you in a way that no single other aspect of the acting process can. The more you familiarize yourself with the environment, the more you dig into it, explore it, draw energy from it, the stronger your performance becomes.
The environment acts on us as human beings on several levels. The most basic and obvious is the sensory level. We smell, touch, see, hear and taste all that is around us. A smell may be pleasant, like sweet peas on a fresh spring morning, or it can be oppressive, like the odor of disinfectant in a nursing home. Relaxing in a comfortable reading chair feels good against the back and legs. Sitting up straight on the edge of a hard-backed chair while waiting to be called into the principal's office, on the other had, feels cold and stiff. Whether we are award of it or not, we experience a constant series of sensory responses to the world around us.
Beyond the relatively simple sensory relationship with the environment is the level of emotional response. First we see, smell, or touch; then we experience an emotional reaction to the sensory stimulus. Our environment constantly evokes honest feelings from us, with or without our conscious participation. That comfortable easy chair makes me feel warm secure, peaceful. The chair in the principal's office makes me feel guilty, embarrassed, frightened.
On another level, our environment can trigger images and associations. For example, every time I see morning glories I am transported to a moment when I was four years old, dressed only in training pants, standing by a rickety picket fence. I looked up and saw a bountiful spray of morning glories and in the moment they were the most beautiful things I had ever seen. It was the first time in my life that I recognized and was moved by beauty, and morning glories still move me in that same way. The sight of these flowers never fails to trigger that image.
Associations stimulated by aspects of the environment are less specific: "This table reminds me of my grandmother's old oak dinette." Or, "This bare light bulb takes me back to the stark empty apartment we moved to after my father's death."
These images and associations deepen our relationship with the environment. They open channels within us that allow us to be more receptive to the effects that our surroundings can have on us as performers.
Finally, environment can empower us to action. If I have a strong sensory response to a chair and it conjures warm images or associations, I am going to move to that chair with purpose. I am going to sit in it slowly and with relish. I may even wiggle in deeper to better appreciate how good the chair feels. That is different from merely walking over to a chair and taking a seat.
Similarly, if something in my environment is distasteful to me I may want to retreat from it. I may be compelled to take action to solve, cure or clean it. Say for example my room is a sacred place to me and I keep it neat and straightened. If one day I come home to find someone has been in my room and left it in disarray, I am going to be instantly propelled into action to restore the order that means so much to me.
At every moment of our lives, our environment is influencing the way we think and feel. It has the power to shape our thoughts and emotions. It stimulates us to action. As actors, we must ensure that the theatrical environment -- that is, the world of the play -- has the same powerful effect on the characters that we portray.
I have discovered, in my work with actors, that it is not enough to merely imagine and write about the character's surroundings. It is not enough to say, "It is winter, she is in a cold bare studio apartment in New York City." Thought this may be true, the act of writing it down does not put it where it belongs -- in the body of the character. Writing and discussing my reveal important information, but if that information remains in the mind of the performer rather than inhabiting the body of the character, then it is just so much useless busywork.
How, then, does an actor transform knowledge of the environment from a cerebral understanding to a physical, tactile, emotional place where it can truly inform the performance? One way is with the following series of exercises, which the actor can perform alone, with a scene partner, or with the entire cast.
The exercises are performed on the set, or a close approximation of what the finished set will look and feel like. Since this work is best done early in the rehearsal process, at a time when the production set is still under construction in the scene shop, you'll probably have to create a version of the set with rehearsal furniture. Include important props and perhaps some costume pieces.
Once you have created the environment as fully as possible, walk through the space, observing it in detail. Study it as though you had never seen it before. After you have walked through several times and tried different pathways, choose one piece of furniture or one prop that catches your eye. Go to it, touch it, hold it, explore it, move with it or in relation to it. Touch it with different parts of your body. Is it cold or warm, rough or smooth, soft or hard? Do you like it? Do any images or associations begin to form? Verbalize them out loud: "This reminds me of..." Let the object help you move through the space.
When you have fully explored the item, replace it and choose another. Repeat that process several times, holding your concentration as you move from one item to the next. The idea is to become as familiar and intimate with the setting as you can.
After you have familiarized yourself with the environment in this way, add dialogue. Use lines from the scene. Don't act them, don't try for interpretation. Just repeat the lines aloud as you continue your exploration of the space. If you are working by yourself, use a monologue or just speak your own lines in a sequence. If you are working with a partner, run through the dialogue of the scene, without interpretation, while you explore the environment.
You can take this exercise a step further by shifting your focus from the environment to your partner. Take a favorite item to the center of the space and use, hold it, draw support from it as you focus on your partner and continue the dialogue, still without deliberate interpretation. Be aware of your connection to the item you hold and your connection to your partner.
The next step is to try out your voice in the space. Begin bouncing vowel sounds or s single word or phrase off the floor, the furniture, the props. Move through the space as you explore how the voice affects the space and how the space affects the voice. Feel how the voice resonates against the different objects. Note how the objects affect the quality and volume of the sound.
Try the dialogue of the scene again. Remember that the focus here is not on acting or delivering interesting line readings. The focus is on bouncing the words off the set. You should find that the environment energizes the voice, making it richer and fuller.
After you have carefully worked through this series of exercises, share your responses with your partner. Were there areas of the environment that you liked better than others? Were there places where you didn't want to be? Did you have more fun exploring one prop or costume piece? Did your partner enhance your response? What images or associations did you experience? What happened to your voice as you bounced it off the set? Did the exploration energize you? Did you feel your body and voice grow more powerful as you explored? What discoveries did you make that could carry over into the scene work?
In order for this to work to have its maximum effect, it must be done slowly and in complete concentration. The more you give yourself over to this exercise, the more you will find the environment enacting on and empowering your body, voice and emotions. Your goal is to discover your character's relationship to the environment and to experience that relationship in the body.
The next set of exercises goes a step further, exploring the pursuit of objectives in the context of the environment.
Again arrange the set carefully, and warm up with a simplified version of the first series of exercises. When you're ready, lie on the floor of the space and sigh out several times to relax. Allow your muscles to give way and melt into the floor. Focus on a simple statement of your character's objective: "I want to own you," or "I want you to love me," or "I want my freedom." Choose an objective that is directed at your partner. Breathe that objective in and whisper it out as you exhale. Do this several times, each time letting the voice get stronger. When you are compelled to move, get up and explore the space, telling the furniture, walls, and props what it is that you want. Bounce your words against the objects, continuing to repeat the same objective phrase.
When you have fully explored the space using your objective phrase, turn your focus to your partner. Exchange objective phrases with your partner like dialogue as the two of you move through the environment. Chase through the space if you like. Crawl, creep, run. Use your words as darts to get at your partner. Hide from your partner's darts. Use the space to help you get what you want from your partner. Choose an item that can become a shield to protect you from your partner's darts. Alternate between attack and protection. Move in and around the space as you seek to get what you want.
Without breaking concentration, switch to the dialogue of the scene and continue to use your words as darts, while you use the space, the furniture, and the props to attack or hide.
As a result of this work you should discover ways to use the environment to help you get what you want. You should also fell your character's objective alive and resonating throughout your body. Another by-product of this exercise is the energized ease with which lines fly from your body. All of these discoveries should relate directly to your performance choices.
Now that you have explored your character's relationship to the environment, discovered how he or she feels in the environment, felt the power and support that you can draw from the surroundings, you are ready to go back into scene work and incorporate your findings into your acting. You may want to use various forms of these exercises as worm-ups each time you rehearse. They will put you solidly in your character's space and give you a grounded base from which you can then create your moment-to-moment work with your partner.