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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