Playing off one another moment by moment is, along with strong objectives, perhaps the most important aspect of good acting. I recently saw an excellent production of David Hare's The Blue Room (still running at the Theatre on San Pedro Square in San José), and I thought, Here is a play that requires actor-to-actor relating in the deepest level. I wondered how the two players, Stephanie Gularte and Jonathan Rhys Williams, had achieved such a profound connection in a typically short rehearsal period.
Based on Arthur Schnitzler's sexy, turn-of-the-century comedy La Ronde, The Blue Room is intensely demanding: The two actors play five characters each in 10 different, intimate scenes. With great poignancy, Hare examines the vagaries of love, lust, and the yearning for connection by way of a string of vignettes, starting with a hooker and a cabbie and ending with the same hooker and an aristocrat. So each character has a sexual encounter with two other characters in succession until the one-act play comes full circle. In each vignette, the duration of the sex act itself (not shown) is noted, amusingly, by a supertitle (e.g., "45 seconds," or "an hour and a half").
Gularte and Williams did not initially know each other. Sacramento actor Gularte was already cast when Bay Area actor Williams auditioned. So she read with him and was in the privileged position of giving feedback to director Michael Butler. Her initial reaction to Williams was that he was very kind and she could tell they were of similar minds in wanting the experience to be positive. For his part, Williams said Butler made the situation comfortable by framing it as a relaxed, half-hour-long read-through rather than a high-pressure callback.
After casting, the three of them went into a relatively long (week and a half) period of table work, six to seven hours a day. "That was an important foundation for everything that followed in terms of establishing trust," said Gularte, who was well aware of being the only woman on the team and knew there would be at least some nudity (which is in fact very subtle). "The three of us agreed to take a gingerly approach rather than immediately jumping into a kiss or embrace," explained Williams. Butler never pushed them into things they weren't ready for but kept the process moving forward with gentle nudges when necessary. If Butler had walked in one day and said, "OK, this is the day we get naked," it would have been uncomfortable for both actors. By the time they did get around to the intimate physicality, they were so far into their characters, said Gularte, that they were ready for it. Trusting the process was all.
Very early on, there was a photo shoot that proved a turning point for the actors. "The male heterosexual photographer was not the most sensitive of guys," said Williams, "and he was especially pushing Stephanie. We were looking for somewhat risqué poses, but Stephanie wasn't comfortable going topless in front of people she didn't know. We were only a week and a half into the rehearsal process and didn't know each other very well. For the photos we had to embrace each other and we hadn't crossed that line in rehearsal yet. I kept checking in with Stephanie: 'Are you OK with this?' I definitely felt that was the first time she began to trust me. That's the main issue in a male/female dynamic. I think the woman is going to feel more vulnerable, more apt to be exploited. We needed to get to the point where she could trust that I wasn't lecherous."
He was right. Said Gularte, "He was very protective of me, a gentleman."
Williams elaborated: "You walk into a rehearsal with a bit of a mask on. At some point you have to get past that mask and really see and connect with the other person. I felt the mask fell after that experience. That allowed me to feel much more free to make that emotional commitment, to take [my acting] to the next level."
There were other challenges to overcome, though. They spoke the same acting language; both have similar academic and advanced training backgrounds. But they had to invent a new language, said Williams, to talk about sex. "It's not something we as Americans especially do," he observed. Yet they needed to dissect, very specifically, the sexual activities that took place (during blackouts) in the 10 scenes. "You have to say, 'What happens when these people have sex. Why was it only 45 seconds? Did he ejaculate, did he not ejaculate?' It was very uncomfortable at first. But you have a level of security in the fact that you're not talking about you, you're talking about other people. I couldn't imagine talking to Stephanie about who I really am."
Gularte said, "Wanting to be true to the relationship and to the script sometimes meant having ideas that you felt vulnerable about introducing. It took time to get to the point of saying things like, 'Look, in this scene I think I should kiss you like this.' You don't come in on Day One and throw things like that on the table, but they're very important, they make the difference between the relationship being real and not real."
Of course both actors needed to bring a lot of private personalization to their various roles, but, as Williams said, "It's for me in my own mind and her in her mind to bring our own personal stuff. There are things that I relate to, sense memory things, but I don't verbalize that in the rehearsal process. It manifests itself in the performance."
Room to Play
Both Gularte and Williams relied heavily upon in-the-moment listening and reacting. I asked Williams if he ever used substitution as a technique. "I don't believe in emotional substitution," he said. "As a rehearsal technique it can be valuable but actually onstage it can slip away from you. So I try not to do that." His techniques varied for his different characters. "The politician is about pontificating, not really listening. Listening works better for the cabdriver, who's very in the moment. His subtext is paper thin. The aristocrat's agenda is much more complex, more difficult to grasp." On the whole, though, he said that Gularte is such a giving actor that he was able to lock onto her, and the relationships fell into place.
Gularte, who is the artistic director of the Delta King Theatre in Sacramento, is used to working with familiar colleagues. Did she have any hesitation about going into a play of this nature with a complete stranger? She agreed that with the wrong type of guy, The Blue Room could have been a lot more difficult. What would the wrong type be? "An actor who puts his process before the relationship: 'I need this.'" Of course there were times when each said to the other, "Why are you doing this here? I won't understand." But it was always about finding a way to make it work for both of them.
As the play continues its run, the relationships have deepened, and each finds little ways to surprise the other one. "I changed the au pair's dance a little bit the other night and perked him up," reported Gularte. A tip of her head, a flip of her hair, sends special in-character signals to Williams. Now, when they do their between-scenes silhouetted costume changes behind a scrim, they're relaxed enough to exchange a comment or two to keep the connection going.
For others about to start work on a project that requires this kind of intense relationship-building, Williams warned, "You have to be brave and incredibly sensitive. Early on in the process I had things I wanted to ask Stephanie, but in the long run I decided not to. It's a tricky line. You want to be able to open up to a person and embrace the characters and relationships as quickly as possible. But if you do it too quickly, you can ruin a lot of things."
"Don't underestimate your initial instincts about the people you're going to be working with," advised Gularte. "Our director was very sensitive about the material and was committed not only to a great show but a great process also. Relationships matter in the work we do. We have to be good to each other in a way that's different than other professionals do." BSW