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.

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