Still a fighter

May 14, 2014

Last Saturday I took an acting master class with Constance Macy at Cardinal Stage Company. In one of the exercises, two people took the stage with a set of keys. Person A was supposed to try to get the keys from Person B. Their only line was, “Give me the keys.” Person B could speak if they wanted, but they were not to give up the keys. It was an exercise in seeing how many interpretations could be brought to a single line. It was also an exercise in responding to what your partner gives you, similar to the “Yes, And” improv game.

There were two pairs who went before me and I saw them being clear, powerful, wheedling, seductive, and threatening. But nobody was doing what I felt in my gut. I jumped up at the next chance and took the keys. I would be the “no” character. My partner was a tall, middle-aged, talented man who is currently working on Les Mis at Cardinal. I felt a little intimidated because I’d seen him in a few things and he definitely knows his stuff.

Unlike the people before us, he’d come up with a reason for wanting the keys: I had had too much to drink and he didn’t want me driving home. This was a good reminder to me to give lines a context. But I was immediately belligerent. “No fucking way. You want the keys, come and get them!” He circled around me (everybody did that, it must have been the most obvious character choice) but I stayed hostile and kept my distance.

Then I followed my instincts and got right up in his face. He was yelling at me and I was giving it right back. I felt adrenaline coursing through me and I was on a kind of high as I prepared to fight him. I held the keys in my right hand up near his face, taunting him. He grabbed that arm really hard and stared me down, really angry, really wanting the keys, yet not willing to take it to the next level and hit me. I then did something quintessentially me: I tossed the keys from my right hand to my left hand right in front of his face. No words, just the motion that said, “Ha ha, I am in control here, I’m going to show you how puny you are.” I felt like I was a teenager. He squeezed my arm even harder (Method, anyone? I thought for sure I would bruise, it hurt all day) and we just continued staring each other down, right in each other’s faces, until the instructor called “Enough!”

I found it fascinating that it was so easy for me to go back into that part of myself. After I was raped repeatedly by a friend’s father when I was between 8 and 10, I started beating up boys. I had all this rage inside of me and I resented the societal order that gave all the privileges to men. I never beat up girls; rather, I was their protector. Especially as we got older and the boys started making unwanted sexual advances on the girls, I would call them out after school or at the football games (I eventually was banned from the games for fighting so much) and I would beat the crap out of them.

I was under a lot of pressure to stop fighting. My parents, the principal and vice-principal, the teachers—all the adults in my life wanted me to “stop acting like a boy.” They wanted me to be “ladylike.” My vice-principal said, “Carol can’t decide if she wants to be a boy or a girl.” The pressure just mounted and mounted. I still feel it as a physical weight, pressing me down.

And so I snapped. The same year I stopped fighting boys, I started cutting myself. That was acceptable. That was ladylike.

For most of my life, people have been uncomfortable around me. I have been a polarizing figure. The way I look, the way I talk, the way I move, the way I think, the values I hold dear, are all threatening to a lot of people. And they try to disappear me. Self-mutilation was a good thing for them because it could always be ignored. I could come to the dinner table swathed in bandages and not a word would be said, but if I punched a boy in the face there were his parents to contend with. Better that I should be docile.

When I was 17 I started fighting again, only this time it wasn’t physical. And it was against injustice in general, not just men. I protested with words and deeds but I had been converted to non-violence and civil disobedience. My family didn’t respond well to that. We were a classic alcoholic family and I was threatening to disrupt the lie that we were happy and normal. They turned against me in the end. It got physically violent. My therapist says that was their fault but I still feel responsible because I was so provocative.

There was one time where one of my brothers and I were in a room yelling at each other. He reached his limit and tried to flee. I dashed over to the door before he could get there and, just like on Saturday, got right in his face and taunted him. He grabbed me by the throat and threw me across the room. I got up in a flash and charged after him down the hallway, screaming, “You’re shit! You’re shit! You look down inside yourself and all you see is shit!” It was true and I was reveling in the freedom of finally yanking the rock up and exposing the sordid underbelly of our family dynamic. By “forcing” him to be violent towards me, I had exposed him. And I was on cloud nine.

There were other incidences, all following the same pattern. It was not pretty. But I actively wanted them to be violent towards me, to break the lie that said we were a happy family. I hated the deceit of the dysfunction we were living. There came a moment where my life was in danger and all I could think was, “Do it.” Not just because a part of me wanted to die. More than that, it was so that it would prove, once and for all, that we were not the controlled, polite family projected in Sears portraits on the wall. I would rather die than perpetuate the lie.

And apparently that impulse is still somewhere inside me. Don’t piss me off. 😉

What I learned from Richard Perez

June 21, 2009

Richard Perez will be leaving Bloomington 01 August, to the sorrow of everyone who’s worked with him. I have the privilege of calling him a friend, so I’ll leave a personal tribute to a later date (perhaps when I’m good and weepy). But I’ve had Rich as a teacher six times and have learned some fundamental principles that run throughout his excellent instruction. In many ways, they relate not just to acting but how to conduct one’s life.

  • Read the whole play. I would much rather zero in on the scene I’m given and just make something up for the character’s development because I’m fundamentally lazy. 😉 However! Rich’s starting point is always to read the whole play, preferably more than once, even if it’s just for an audition scene. Everything we need to know about the characters is within the script. While plot is also derived from the script, Rich is focused like a laser beam on character, character, character.
  • What are the given circumstances? When developing any character, we often start by affecting mannerisms or accents to define it. But Rich instead leads us to examine the circumstances of that particular moment within the context of the whole play (which, in turn, is the character’s whole life). If the line given is relatively neutral, such as “What did I do?”, the given circumstances tell us whether we should be uttering it in horror or indignation or shame.
  • Make strong choices. This is one of Rich’s favorite things to harp on and it’s one of my favorite pieces of advice. As an actor, you have virtually endless options for interpretation. Many of us opt for easy or mediocre choices that keep things passable. But when we make strong choices, we get heat! That’s where the action is. For instance, when we were working on the monologue Tatiana, Rich asked me for the given circumstances. I decided that it was the afternoon before an important ball. Rich upped the stakes and asked, “What if it’s the day before your wedding?” Yowza! Paydirt! Suddenly the stakes were much higher and my character instantly had more to draw on. In my wimpy choice, Tatiana merely has to endure another uncomfortable ball. In Rich’s scenario, Tatiana is going through a major life change that she is resisting like crazy. It also means all the other characters in the play have much stronger feelings about what’s going on. By amping up the stakes, the text and its interpretation become much richer (no pun intended).
  • Go after what you want. Within the context of the play and the strong choices you’ve made, you still have the option of choosing what your character wants in any scene. Just like in real life, go for it. Choose what you want and go after it. I was in a scene with another actor in Rich’s Intro to Method class and decided (given the circumstances yadda yadda) that my character wanted to be held. She was always the strong one in the marriage, always the dominant one, and usually steered the ship when it came to emotional crises. (No, this can’t possibly be typecasting.) But in this particular case (she’s just learned that her best friends are splitting up over an affair), she doesn’t want to be strong. She feels like her world has just been turned upside down and the last thing she wants to have to do is lead the emotional processing for herself and her husband. But since she has so little experience in being vulnerable, she tries to express her desires in coded messages, hoping that her husband will pick up on her distress signals and simply hold her while she cries. All her actions—all of them—are directed towards this end.
  • Find your trigger. But let’s up the ante, shall we? (Rich loves intensity possibly as much as I do.) Method acting has a bad name because so many people took it way too far, focusing more on “method” than on “acting.”* But the basic principle is useful: In developing character, relate your character’s triggers to circumstances in your own life. For instance, in Tatiana, the line “I see Mama” refers to the point where Tatiana sees her beloved dead mother in a dream. Rather than just stay on the surface and be sort of wistful, Rich had me find a trigger from my own life. I got in touch with my feelings about one of my dead grandfathers and immediately burst into tears. The whole rest of the scene was transformed. Previously coy or wistful lines were suddenly drenched in poignancy and longing—much more dramatically compelling. In another example, in the scene I alluded to in the point above, I decided to change my focus from going after I want to finding my trigger. I sought a memory from a time when my entire world turned upside down in a short period of time. I chose the moment after I shut the door for the last time after my fiancé finally left me. (See, even now I get weepy—insta-trigger!) As soon as I went there, our scene was transformed into a funereal theme. This was perfect, since the last line was, “It’s like a funeral, isn’t it?” It was emotionally difficult to go there, but it definitely created higher drama.
  • No one has to know. The freedom that Rich’s direction gives opens up a number of doors for creative exploration. He emphasizes in all his teaching that no one has to know all this background stuff. What you need as an actor is a way to re-connect with that character in endlessly fresh ways so you can give a powerful performance eight times a week. No one has to know how you do it. Maybe they just think you can cry on cue—who cares? The bottom line is that if you use these basics to develop your craft, you’ll be delivering far more powerful and compelling performances, both for yourself and your audiences.

[*One of my favorite acting stories: Sir Laurence Olivier (Shakespearian trained) and Dustin Hoffman (Method) were in Marathon Man together. One morning, Hoffman showed up on set with bloodshot eyes, scruffy beard, and exhausted demeanor. When Olivier inquired, Hoffman said, “My character’s been up for 3 days so I’ve been prepping for the role.” Olivier waited a beat and then said icily, “Next time, try acting.” I have no idea if this story is true but it’s such a perfect snapshot that it might as well be!]

I will miss Rich terribly as a friend though I’m very excited about the creative opportunities he’ll be pursuing in Chicago. I’ll also miss him as coach and teacher. He’s been phenomenal to work with. Rather than tell you what to do, he asks you questions based on the concepts above. You’re left to draw your own conclusions and try it out. He keeps pushing until you crack the code of character and take your performance to the next level. Many thanks, Rich!