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April 30

In Be(com)ing Nixon on April 30, 2014 at 2:45 pm

It has been too long since my previous entry. I am finding it more difficult than I thought it would be.
One reason seems to be that the process itself is pretty redundant at this stage. I have been focusing on listening to tapes of the interviews and learning lines. The tapes are helping me to get a sense of the real Nixon’s rhythms, his voice, and his personality, which I am adapting to the character Nixon through rehearsal. This process is difficult to describe because it is somewhat more intuitive than deliberate, especially since I am not trying to create a caricature, but a character.
The learning of lines is a more deliberate process. Notice that I am learning lines, not memorizing them. People often ask actors how they could remember all those lines. I sometimes reply, “How do you know I did?” And once a play is done, I tend to forget most of the lines pretty quickly. This is because learning lines for me is a part of discovering the character and manifesting him on the stage. Once the show is done I can leave the character behind, so I can also leave the lines behind. Not all actors work this way, of course. My process is to begin with my first lines and read through a small section. Then I try to say the lines. When I can’t remember what’s next, I go back to the beginning of the scene (or at least several exchanges in the dialogue) and start again. Before I start, though, I review the lines before and after my starting point to look for possible errors and to anticipate where the lines are going next.
I should note that during this process I always try to speak the lines aloud and to try to say them as the character will say them on stage. That allows me to develop the character while learning the lines rather than treating them as separate things to be learned. As blocking becomes clearer, I also try to practice my lines standing up and at least approximating the stage movements. Words, actions and character need to complement and inform each other in the character as they do in real life.
Another issue is what I might describe as commitment to some aspect of the character. At its best, the process of developing a character for the stage should be a process of growth that reaches its peak as close to actual performance as possible. Fixing on some details of the character too soon can limit the actor. There needs to be some flexibility in the approach to the character so that it doesn’t become simply repetitive and stale, rather than fresh and alive on opening night. The same is true about repeat performances. We will be doing nine performances over three weekends. The actor has to be consistent throughout, but not rigid. And audiences need to understand that if they go to more than one performance of a show that they are going to see slightly different performances. Writing things down can have the effect of solidifying them.
To illustrate how this process works, I’ll give an example from early in the play.
In his resignation speech, the real Nixon says, at one point, “I have never been a quitter;” and that line is included in the script. Now think about this sentence. Where should the emphasis be: on the “I,” emphasizing the idea that speaker is not a quitter; on the “never,” emphasizing the absoluteness of the statement; on “been,” which would suggest that what is being claimed is true so far, but making no commitment to the future; or on “quitter,” emphasizing what it is that we are to know the speaker has never been. My first instinct when I read the script was to emphasize “quitter.” I thought that it was important that the audience hear clearly that leaving office wasn’t quitting, but something else, specifically (as the lines show later) something that was being done for the good of the country. Nixon chose to emphasize “never.”
What useful quality does that suggest about the character? Nixon wants to emphasize the absoluteness of things. The action of the play surrounds Frosts attempts to get Nixon, ultimately, to admit wrongdoing. One important barrier to that is Nixon’s absoluteness about his actions and motivations: resigning wasn’t quitting, ending the Vietnam conflict wasn’t “bugging out,” his decisions were always the “harder” path of righteousness rather than the easier political path. The character’s emphasis on Never is a subtle clue to that absoluteness. Also, there is a physical clue in how Nixon said the words. “Never” isn’t simply said more loudly or more forcefully. Nixon slides into the word, stretching out the “N.” He says, “I have ‘n-n-n-n-EV-er’ been a quitter.” This turns out to be a common verbal strategy for Nixon. He emphasizes the absoluteness of his positions, his statements, his observations, his judgments, and his choices.
Rather than simply lock this characteristic in and mimic the speech, I need to listen to how Nixon used this in other places, particularly during the interviews, so that I can fit it into the development of the stage character. These kinds of details help the actor to create a consistent character whose words and actions advance the themes of the drama, in this case a struggle that is partly between one character’s search for a defining moment of vulnerability and truth, and the other’s absoluteness and control over his own history.
Another example comes later in the play. Nixon is seen discussing with his aide, Jack Brennan, the possibilities for what might be discussed in the interviews. I don’t have any audiotapes of this conversation (if it actually happened), so I don’t know how Nixon actually said the words. I have to, therefore, find a way to put the words in the mouth of the character Nixon. The character says, after a list of possible question assumptions, “Spare me.” I had been working on this as a throw-away line. My Nixon was showing annoyance at the possible questions, then dismissing them summarily with a quick “Spare me.” Carl (the director) suggested, however, that the line was being lost, and that it was an opportunity to put a stronger final emphasis on the annoyance and anger the character is feeling. So he asked me to make it bigger. This new nuance to the line puts an exclamation point to Nixon’s sense of being under attack, misunderstood, even belittled; an idea that comes out at other places in the script as well. The character is looking for an opportunity, through the interviews, for validation and redemption. Any focus on things which distract from that goal are threatening and need to be forcefully rejected.

And that’s how it goes.The search for Nixon the character is a continual cycle of experimentation and adjustment, rather than a locking in of choices. Live theatre is always more process than product.

Entry One: April 11- 15

In Be(com)ing Nixon on April 16, 2014 at 2:29 pm

April 12-15, 2014

There are two fundamental approaches to the development of a character for the stage. Stating them requires a bit of over-simplification, of course. The “traditional” approach, as exemplified by the British theater, tends to work from the outside in. The actor develops external characteristics—a way of walking, a voice, physical characteristics of gesture and movement – that help him to establish the character’s physical presence. That physicality then provides a body for the internal character to inhabit. The “method” approach, adapted from Stanislavsky and the Russian theater, and exemplified by the American theater, begins by trying to understand the motivations, the underlying psychology and emotional life of the character. There is often extensive research involved. Sometimes the actor will “live” as the character for a while. The goal is to understand and inhabit the character first, then let that internal life lead to the external manifestations that are natural to the character. These approaches are relevant to both acting and directing. I have always employed an eclectic style that works with the external and the internal as simultaneous and complementary aspects.
There are two major considerations in developing the character of Richard Nixon: the director’s style and the fact that Nixon was a real person and the play is about real events.
The director, Carl Mercier, has already made it clear that he intends to establish general blocking as quickly as possible, but to leave the subtleties of that blocking for the refinements of individual characters and their interactions. This suggests a somewhat traditional approach. The blocking will create spatial realities into which the characters will need to fit themselves, just as they need to fit themselves into the environment created by the set or the lighting or their costumes; or even, at times, the script..
Richard Nixon was a real person, and the events depicted in the play happened during my own adult lifetime. I was twenty-six years old when Nixon resigned the office of the Presidency. Anyone born before 1964 may recognize the person and the events; may have very specific memories that include the physicality of the man and the nature of the events. There is a need to develop the character of Nixon in a way which has some reference to those memories, those images; so that the audience can recognize that the play is about real people and real events.
I have, therefor, begun my approach to the character by reviewing the historic Nixon and the historic events surrounding the resignation of the President and the Frost/Nixon interviews. I have been listening to audio recordings and viewing video of the resignation speech and the actual interview broadcasts. I have looked back at dramatistic analysis of the interviews that served as my master’s thesis. I have begun to understand the challenges for me in this role.
It’s difficult, even 40 years later, to listen to Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, or to listen to the Frost/Nixon interviews from three years later, without feeling some anger. I can hear the dissembling, I cringe at his saccharin and self-serving reminiscences which distort and distract from the truth, that evade rather than address the issues.
But I also know that my job here is not to judge, but to understand. The playwright, Peter Morgan, seems to want to say that Nixon was wrong, that he broke the law, that Frost “won” the conflict between the two men. But Morgan also gives us plenty of opportunity to develop some sympathy for Nixon. He says outrageous things, he is awkward and somewhat paranoid, he admits to being uncomfortable with people, he makes bad jokes, he doesn’t understand his own suffering as a consequence of his actions. The Nixon of the drama is not evil, but troubled; he’s human, with all that implies of human flaws and frailties. That is the Nixon I need to inhabit.
It is often useful in approaching a drama to understand who the principle characters are and to assign roles of antagonist and protagonist. This play has two clear principles: Frost and Nixon. Frost is, I think, clearly the protagonist, the one who principally moves the action forward; and Nixon is the antagonist, the one who responds to and challenges the protagonist. But Frost is also flawed, and Nixon is not just responding to Frost, he is moving independently of him as well. The story is not just about the interviews, it is also about the back-story; who are these men and how did they end up in this place?
Nixon is something of a pedant. He lectures, rather than discusses. He wishes to be, but is not a very good, raconteur. On the other hand, his stories are filled with fine detail, most of it irrelevant unless one is writing a very long novel. The Nixon of this play feels robbed of the credit he deserves for his accomplishments; unfairly vilified for relatively small, honest mistakes: “mistakes of the heart and not of the head.” He has been cheated, isolated, disenfranchised. What he seeks isn’t redemption, it’s vindication.
This is now my starting point. As the weeks go on, this may all change significantly. It will certainly become refined, modified, re-imagined through the rehearsal process.

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