May 19, 2014 – Starting to Feel the Pulse

In Be(com)ing Nixon on May 19, 2014 at 7:11 pm

In every production cycle there is a point the actor needs to reach where he can begin to feel as though the role (and the whole production) is starting to come together. For me, this happens when I finally get about 90% of my lines solidly in my head. At that point I am, for all intents and purposes, “off book.” I can get through an entire rehearsal, a full run-through of the play, and only have to ask four or five times for a line.

Getting off book allows me to do a number of important things, the first of which is begin to integrate the more subtle physical characteristics of the character with what the character is saying. Without a book in my hands, I can gesture more naturally; I can relate to other characters and the stage environment without looking down at the book repeatedly, thus breaking the character’s natural focus; and I can sit down and stand up without worrying about where my book is at any particular moment. The fact of this may seem obvious, but the impact on my process always seems profound. I am always amazed at how much more of the set I am interacting with, at how much I discover about the character through the addition of subtle movement and gesture, after I begin work without the net that the script provides.

The character of Richard Nixon benefits from this greater freedom. Watching the historic Nixon on tape, I am often struck by his small non-verbal behaviors. People of my generation are familiar with the popular images of Nixon looking out from under his bushy eyebrows, the “shifty” eyes glaring defensively, the bulldog shake of his jowls, and the hunched shoulders. These are, of course, exaggerations; but the actions are, in fact, all there in subtler, more natural form. Nixon had a habit in thought or concentration of pressing his lips together and clenching his teeth, for example; an expression that is especially interesting when he is smiling at the same time, or seeming to, often at odd or inappropriate moments. I had started to think about where I might be able to use this expression, but was having some difficulty finding the right moments. In the rehearsal the other night, with the book out of my way, I suddenly realized that I was finding those places naturally.

Part of the reason for this discovery of character that comes so quickly once lines are learned, I think, is that the character is able to think in a more natural way about what he is saying. In the real world, there is a thought process involved in all our actions and expressions. Sometimes we may take more time with that process than at other times, but it’s always there. One of the actor’s most important tasks is to find that process in the character, so that words are being created, not just recited. To help maintain their suspension of disbelief (the “agreement” that what is happening on the stage is real), the audience needs to see that the characters are engaged with their own words and actions. We all know it’s just a play, but we don’t want to be reminded of the fact by an actor who seems to be saying the lines and running through the blocking, rather than a character who is speaking his own words and moving through his own space. Nixon is a character who is always thinking about what he is saying. He is constantly trying to assess the impact of his words on his audience; always considering the political, public aspects of what he is saying; and it is when he loses this control that he gets into trouble.

Getting off book and finding the more natural flow of a character and a scene can be especially important in moments of humor or of casual conversation. Too many actors feel the need to attack humor, to get a laugh at the expense of character; or to toss off casual moments at the expense of the character insights such moments can create. Those who were close to Richard Nixon often talked about his sense of humor. He was sometimes described as a very funny guy. The general public rarely saw this side of him. In public his humor was more often than not awkward, just missing the mark, even embarrassing. Getting comfortable with the character’s words helps me to find the casual and humorous nuances of his thoughts. The stage Nixon has to move quickly, sometimes within a single scene or in the transition from one short scene to the next, from controlled public figure to oddly charming host to uncomfortable raconteur to angry, defensive, wounded figure. Finding those shifts in the character requires me to be thinking and responding in the moment to my own words and actions and to everything going on around me. It is one of the scariest, most exhilarating parts of the acting process. I feel as though I have really found my character when I catch my character being natural and real, rather than forced or rehearsed.

For those of you who are following these journals, I invite you to watch for such moments for all the characters on stage. They will almost always be the most satisfying, most engaging, most moving moments of a play. I hope they happen so often that you can only later realize what has happened. I hope that when you leave the theatre, you have been so engaged in the characters and their words and actions that it never occurs to you to wonder how the actors remembered all those lines; because learning the lines is just the beginning; it’s after the lines are learned that things start to get really interesting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: