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!