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!


April 26, 2009

This is an edited version of a monologue written by a playwright at the BPP circa 2004. See my original backstory for this script.

Nobody knows I have Mama’s white gloves, but I do. I was thirteen when I first saw them. Before that, I’d only seen them in the pictures.

The week after Mama’s funeral, Daddy and the boys were packing up all of Mama’s things. Daddy said it was too hard to have them in the house. And there they were, lying right there, on top of that box.

I think Mama would’ve wanted me to have them.

Sometimes I sleep with Mama’s white gloves under my pillow. Those are the nights when I have my favorite dreams.

I am looking through a keyhole, and on the other side is a glorious ballroom filled with men and women waltzing, almost as if they’re floating. They are all so well-dressed and look so stunning. 

I see Mama. She is the most beautiful one there. She dances about and the music flows through her body and drifts through the keyhole and whispers into my ears. Mama smiles.

Tomorrow, I have to wear my own white gloves. Grandmother bought them for me. I don’t want to wear them, though—I’d rather wear Mama’s. I try my gloves on and my arms suffocate. It is horrible. When I wear Mama’s gloves, I am alive.

Tatiana’s story

April 26, 2009

This is a backstory I wrote for the monologue Tatiana, written by an unknown playwright at the BPP. The monologue is about 2/3 page long and only hints at the recent past. I wanted to place Tatiana into a more extensive context, so I wrote this. Some of Mama’s history is drawn from the story of Irina Skariatina.

It is 1963. Tatiana sits in a tearoom in her Mississippi hometown, across from her maternal aunt. It is the day before her wedding. Tatiana is about to disclose a secret she’s never told anyone. For her aunt, the secret has much more resonance than Tatiana will ever know.

Tatiana has been raised as a Southern belle: polite, charming, well-behaved, and controlled. She had a very close bond with her mother (“Mama”), who died when Tatiana was 13. All Tatiana knows about her mother’s past is that Mama came from Russia a long time ago with Aunt and Great-Aunt and that they were part of the aristocracy in some way.

What we know:

Mama was raised in a large, aristocratic family and was a minor princess. She was born in 1906, the fourth of six children. After the Revolution, her family moved from city to city, trying to find a safe place. First her grandfather disappeared into Bolshevik hands, then her father. At that point her remaining family determined to attempt emigration. Great-Aunt went first with Mama and Aunt. Mama was 14. It was 1920.

Great-Aunt and the girls settled in Paris among the large Russian emigré population. Unbeknownst to the girls, Great-Aunt was pulling every string she could to try to get the rest of the family out of the Soviet Union. They had agreed to try to meet in Paris before deciding on a permanent home. Much to Great-Aunt’s frustration and fear, she heard nothing whatsoever from the family; indeed, she never heard from them again.

Great-Aunt and the girls stayed in Paris for two years, during which time Great-Aunt insisted on the girls’ keeping up their education and grooming for “polite society.” After seeing how quickly her finances were being exhausted, Great-Aunt determined to move to America in the hopes that she and the girls could leave the chaos of Europe behind and live comfortably within their means.

The threesome traveled to the United States, where Great-Aunt was drawn to the South for its culture of gracious hospitality among the well-to-do. She was actively grooming Mama, who was now 16, for a good marriage to a (preferably) wealthy man. While each of the threesome held onto mementos (photos, jewelry, clothing) from their past, they never spoke of Russia or the Bolshevik terrors again.

Even though Great-Aunt worked very hard to erase the girls’ Russian accents and replace them with a more Southern drawl, her efforts were only moderately successful. It took some time to break into polite society but their impeccable manners and air of mystery aided them.

Great-Aunt’s dream was realized when Mama married Daddy in early 1929. Mama was 23 at the time. Daddy was a landowner-turned-industrialist. Most importantly, he was rich. Great-Aunt and Aunt lived nearby until Aunt made her own, less “successful” marriage two years later.

The stock market crash and Depression didn’t affect Mama and Daddy’s social set to the extent it did so much of the nation, but they did recognize that times were tough. Still, they continued their old traditions of balls and debuts.

Mama gave birth to two boys (much to Daddy’s pride) and then, later, Tatiana. What no one but Mama ever knew was that Tatiana was named for the beautiful second daughter of Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra.

Daddy was never much interested in Tatiana. Mama, though, bonded strongly with her. She would sometimes show Tatiana the photos she had smuggled out of Russia, naming each stiff, unsmiling, gorgeously arrayed relative until Tatiana could name them herself. It never occurred to Tatiana to ask where these people were. All she knew was that her mother was glamorous and beautiful, with a wonderful voice and impeccable manners that people still commented on.

Mama died unexpectedly after a brief illness when Tatiana was 13. Almost immediately, Daddy packed up everything of Mama’s, including the old photos, and took them away. It was during this process that Tatiana recognized a pair of white gloves from the photographs. She immediately stole them and hid them from her family.

What Tatiana does not know is that the gloves belonged originally to her maternal grandmother, then to Mama. Mama was to wear them at her formal presentation to court when she came of age, but the Revolution intervened. Her mother made sure that Mama took the gloves with her when she escaped the U.S.S.R. Tatiana has seen them on her maternal grandmother in those faded old photographs that Mama showed her, but is not conscious of it.

Tatiana’s Great-Aunt had a large, dominating personality which was matched only by Tatiana’s paternal Grandmother’s. When Great-Aunt died a few years after Mama, Grandmother filled whatever vacuum was left. Tatiana’s Aunt was more quiet, sympathetic, and sweet—a Russian-Southern angel. Aunt never talked about Mama but didn’t stop Tatiana from doing so.

All parties were determined to raise Tatiana as a proper Southern belle. Daddy didn’t bat an eye as Great-Aunt and Grandmother took Tatiana in hand after Mama died. Tatiana wanted to please them all. More than anything, she wanted to capture the elegance and grace of Mama. She idolized her memory and tried to do everything as she imagined Mama would have done. This sometimes brought her into conflict with Grandmother, who inevitably won. Tatiana confined her acts of rebellion to dancing with Mama’s gloves or sleeping with them under her pillow.

When it came time for Tatiana to think of marriage, she was oddly reluctant. She did not self-examine too closely. She just said that all the boys she knew were “boring.” The pressure from Daddy and especially Grandmother continued to mount until both said they would cut her off without a cent if she didn’t marry within the year.

By then, Tatiana was 26 and running out of options. She’d had a decent education but she was primarily trained to be a decorative ornament for her husband. After reviewing the few candidates remaining to her, she chose Frank, a middle-aged widower with plenty of money. Frank placidly accepted a year-long engagement but the day of the wedding is finally come.

Tatiana and Aunt are having tea in an establishment patronized by the wealthy of their town. About 15 years from now, Tatiana will rebel against the strictures of her society and her family and lead her own life, but today she is shocking herself giddy with a mad confession long held silent. She knows that she will squeeze her arms into her own white gloves tomorrow and be a beautiful and dutiful wife, but she is comfortably numb about exactly what that will entail.

Aunt is safe to confess to. She’s never been completely accepted by the family, partly because of her more gentle personality. Tatiana knows that her secrets will be safe with her. She is also subconsciously trying to reach out to Mama on this day before her wedding and reclaim some of that old wistful magic. To Tatiana, it feels like tomorrow is the end of her life.

Read the monologue

First audition in 23 years

April 26, 2009

Today I auditioned for Cardinal Stage Company. It’s a general audition for the season rather than for a particular show. I’ve been rehearsing non-stop for 6 weeks in preparation. 

I did the last 25 bars or so of Gethsemane from Jesus Christ Superstar for my song. For my monologue, I used a short piece entitled Tatiana that was written back in about 2004 by a playwright at the BPP—a playwright who neglected to put her name on the manuscript.

I worked with the lovely and talented Mr Richard Perez to go in with the best possible delivery I could within the time constraints I had. Rich is a great director—he hints at broader ideas or asks questions that lead you to a deeper understanding of the character. Many directors just focus on blocking and line delivery.

We had a breakthrough on Wednesday when I made a new connection with my character’s motivation and ended up sobbing for an hour afterwards. 🙂 I just worked on the song and the monologue lightly after that, knowing I wanted to keep that emotional connection raw.

So of course I went in there and couldn’t establish a connection at all. If I could have paused for about seven or 89 minutes mid-monologue, it would’ve been fine! But alas, alack, and Alaska, the show must go on.

Beforehand, I kept sliding back and forth between terrible nerves and a kind of steely calm. By the time I got in I was trembling all over. Fortunately both my audition pieces are intense, so the trembling worked in my favor!

The audition panel consisted of Mike Price (in whose talent I stand in awe), Randy White (in whose artistic abilities I stand in awe) and two other Cardinal Stage official-types that I’ve seen before but could not place. There was about 5 feet between me and them. I’d been expecting just Randy and maybe one other volunteer hanging out in the audience, with me 25 feet away on stage (this was at the MCPL auditorium). Let’s amp up that tension, shall we?? 🙂 

I did fine on the vocal side of Gethsemane but didn’t communicate the message as deeply as I wanted to. The monologue was the real heartbreaker, though, since I’d been able to play through the sobbing with Rich but had nary a tear in the audition. So while my mouth and body keep going, my brain is spinning at a zillion miles an hour, saying, “Remember, Rich said to just try to re-connect with that trigger” and “Should I fake the crying?” and so forth. Not conducive to calm delivery, but this sort of thing happens all the time in live performance. I thank all the people who taught me “the show must go on” in all its forms!

Talking with BryBry today, I realized it’s been about 23 years since my first “real” audition. Previous to that I auditioned all the time for school and community theatre, but my last high-pressure audition was at the IU music school. I had made the cut to get in, but this audition was with Robert Porco, head of the choral department.

I often think of that audition because he took the time to work with me. My audition piece was Care Selve, a gorgeous Italian aria. He had me go back and sing it again, this time singing the second half “as if you are singing to your beloved.” I knew immediately what he meant—my delivery had been technically flawless but emotionally void. I fell into the song and he nodded yes, yes. 

When we finished, he leaned hard on me to join The Singing Hoosiers (IU’s premiere choral group) but I had a class conflict that couldn’t be avoided. He kept at me again and again. I suppose it’s a sign of my idiocy that I couldn’t find a way to get where he thought I should go. The first of many “bad career moves” in the music school.

As I walked home today, my mind was racing with a deconstruction of every single note, word, and gesture from the audition. I just kept telling myself, “I did the best I could.” That was true. I wish I could’ve done better. But, as I told myself, the only way to get better is to do a lot more auditions! I had no idea until tonight that it had been as long as it had. No wonder I was a wreck!

All I want is to be good enough to make it into the chorus or to get a bit part. I know if I’m given a chance, I’ll get better from there. Each audition was one at a time so I have no idea how others did or how I stacked up. Since it was a general audition, I won’t even hear anything back from them regarding callbacks or rejections for some time. How’s that for I-Hate-Ambiguity Lass?? 🙂

I thank Brighid and Grandpa for sustaining me, and especially Rich for opening up whole new creative vistas! I pray for more opportunities—successful ones!