Recently an actor auditioned for my scene study class. In a monologue she berated her husband, paralyzed from the waist down, for not fulfilling her sexually. When she finished, I asked, “Why so strident and angry at your wheelchair-ridden husband?” She laughed, answering that the lines were written that way. I suggested she imagine her real husband in front of her. As she did the scene again, she worked to overcome her love in a wrenching effort to pull away, experiencing true emotions and the tension between obstacle and objective. Putting herself in the character’s circumstances opened her heart and the piece.
Another way to connect self to character is through discovering the character’s dominant traits and then calling up those traits. During rehearsals for “Balm in Gilead,” I asked the actor who played Babe to explore her own fears and self-loathing. Propelled to distract from those feelings as Babe does with drugs, she found solace in a blanket from childhood. Uncovering her personal desperation triggered a coping mechanism that illuminated her portrayal of Babe.
When an actor enters into a character’s circumstances and identifies with the character’s traits, personal judgment drops away. The wall between the actor and the role comes down, enabling the artist to be herself in service of the character.
Peter Jensen,co–artistic director of NYC’s T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre, is directing “Doubt,” opening Oct. 10.