WHAT JUST HAPPENED TO ME?
by Shawn Lovely. DRAMATICS. March, 1994.
You've been there. You're standing in the wings getting ready for an entrance. You're running through what's about to happen on stage, and trying to suppress your nerves. You're thinking about all kinds of thing -- the lines for the scene, the person you'll be working with, the accent or walk you worked so hard to perfect, and (let's be honest) the audience.
Before we can play any scene, though, way back during our personal exploration of the character and in the rehearsal process, there are some questions we need to answer: What has happened to our character in the past? What about right before the scene? How do these factors influence the character we're playing and help shape what he or she does and says? These are important considerations, and if we pay attention to them, they will help us understand how we can play our characters more truthfully and make our performance stronger.
The process of character exploration behind what I call the "what (just) happened to me" question is simple. In your preparation, you need to first ask yourself, "What has happened to my character?" with an eye to the long-term past -- his or her experiences over a lifetime. Then, before each scene, you must ask yourself about your character's immediate past: "What has just happened?"
Start with your character's relationships with family members and friends. How do they influence what you think and how you behave? What about events and individuals that have shaped who your character is? How has everything combined to influence the way your character walks, stands, talks, or relates with others?
Then think about the immediate past. What has just happened to your character, and how does it affect his or her attitude and actions in a given scene and again how she walks, talks, or stands?
Here are three contemporary plays that provide good examples of this part of the acting process.
SHOOTING STARS, a play by Molly Newman, is about a women's basketball team touring the country, entertaining audience with tricks and clowning, and usually beating teams of local male all-stars. The Stars are a 1960s female version of the Harlem Globetrotters.
In the first scene of the play, the Stars enter a locker room in "a rundown high school gymnasium in a small midwestern town." The characters have specific feelings about this place that will influence the behaviour chosen by the actors who play them. But the good actor also considers what the team and her character have been through in both the long-term and immediate past.
Remember that the audience doesn't know who the characters are or what they've experienced in their lives. The audience also doesn't know the Stars' relationships with each other, and how they have been influences by past events. The actors who play the characters have to imagine those events and relationships, and share them with viewers through the characters' walks, voices, and overall attitudes toward life.
The actors also need to know the characters' immediate pasts and communicate the information to the audience through their speech, movement, and body language. For example, at the opening of the play, audience members don't know how long the Stars have been in the station wagon that serves as the team bus on its trips, but they should at least have a good idea of the sense of claustrophobia this causes the players. Similarly, the play takes place in Christmas week of 1962. The audience will want to know how the individual Stars fee about being cut off from their families at such an important time.
Another excellent example is SEASCAPE WITH SHARDS AND DANCER, a funny and touching play by Don Nigro. Ben, a writer in his late twenties, lives in a small house on a Cape Cod beach. Tracy, a free-spirited young woman of about twenty, originally from New York City, tries to down herself in the surf of the Cape before the beginning of the play, and is saved by Ben. He takes her into his beach house, and despite Tracy's efforts to avoid getting attached to the orderly, mild-mannered Ben, she takes up residence in his house and they fall in love.
In the final scene, as the darkness of evening falls several months later, Tracy enters and tells Ben she has just aborted his baby. She feels terrible about it, but tries to keep a tough-guy exterior while asking for Ben's love and support.
The audience learns a lot about Tracy's past during the play, and how she walks and talks, even the language she uses. But in this final scene, immediate events also influence Tracy's behaviour, and the actress has to incorporate them into her performance. At the start of the scene, Tracy uses her trademark humour and anger in an attempt to drive Ben away, saying, "You hate me!" But the abortion has cause Tracy great emotional pain and the actress playing the role must take that into account and allow it to influence the way Tracy behaves. She is frightened and uncertain, and she needs Ben's reassurance that he loves and supports her, no matter what she's done. The way she delivers her lines, and reaches out for Ben's assurance, all have to be influenced by her immediate past.
If you'd like an example from a more familiar play, consider the interaction between brothers Happy and Biff near the opening of Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Miller's play is about the efforts of a very normal salesman, Willy Loman, to remember having anything but a normal life. He feels frustrated, however, because he can't seem to get ahead at work and his home life is a shambles. His son Happy, although he's thirty-two, lives with Willy and his wife Linda. Happy's older brother Biff, now thirty-four, also has returned home after leaving another job.
In a late-night scene in the bedroom which Biff and Happy share, the brothers talk about everything from their concerns about their aging father's deteriorating mental and physical health to their dealings with women. The relationship between Biff and Happy is just one aspect of an extremely complex play, but their conversation suggests just how important a character's long-term past can be.
Both characters express their fond memories of days gone by, and in talking about their history, they provide lots of information about their own and the family's past. At one point, Happy says to his brother: "Funny, Biff, y'know? Us sleeping in here again? The old beds. All the talk that went across these two beds, huh? Our whole lives." The characters share a perspective shaped by their brotherhood, and as a result, have developed a similar outlook on certain issues. This will emerge repeatedly throughout the play.
But immediate events have affected Biff and Happy's behaviour as well. Biff tells Happy that he's confused about what to do with his life, and Happy confesses that despite an apparently good job, he's at a loss, too: "All I can do now is wait for the merchandise manager to die." They also discuss the evening's experiences, and this, in turn, influences their tone of voice, diction, and dozens of other things.
After you've been cast in a role, or before you go up on stage to read for a part, ask yourself about the character's immediate and long-term past. It will influence the choices you make in everything your character does. In his book, THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, Edward Gibbon says that history is really "little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind." But to an actor, a character's past, both long-term and immediate, can mean a whole lot more and provide a gold mine of important information.