May 26, 2014: Stepping Back to Forge Ahead

In Be(com)ing Nixon on May 26, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Tech week in community theatre is the week leading up to opening night. The set is completed, the costumes are finished, sound and lights and all the other parts of the production that do not involve actors learning lines and developing characters are finalized. Some actors, directors, designers and tech support people call it Hell Week; but for me it has always been the most exciting week of the production thus far. This is the week when it all comes together . . . or doesn’t. This is the week when all the energies of the cast and crew have to be put toward making the former happen. This is the time when trusting the process becomes especially important. And this is the time when actors begin to be on their own to polish the edges of their performances as the director’s focus shifts to the technical details of the show.

It has, for as long as can remember, been my feeling that tech week is the sprint at the end of the long race. The goal is to hit my stride so that the energy and the level of performance on opening night give me enough momentum to carry me through that first weekend. After that I need to settle into a sustainable rhythm for the remainder of the performances. In order to get there, I have to go back to the basics. I have to get as clear an understanding as possible of where I am right now and what I need to do to get ready for the first performance. I need to ask myself several key questions. What am I doing now that is working pretty well? Where do I still feel awkward or insincere or off-key? If I am repeatedly having trouble with certain lines, why are they giving me trouble; since the character is speaking them, why can’t I? What parts of my performance need to be adjusted to accommodate last minute changes to the set; the reality of costumes and make-up, and the need to make costume changes; to the addition of more specific lighting, specific props, and special effects; and to the continuing development of the other actors’ characters?

I was realizing the other night that parts of my performance were feeling stale to me, that I was losing some of the freshness of my character. Part of this was physical. In developing the character of Nixon as something that was neither caricature nor historically accurate representation, I had found a fairly natural, comfortable and respectful character. The Nixon characteristics of rhythm and speech patterns and small body movements had settled into a way of being that I could live within to find the fictional Nixon’s motivations and emotions, actions and responses. But I was finding it hard to call up that physicality quickly. Nixon is a complex character, not a stereotype or stock, and I felt I was taking too long to work into the character. I was having to start early to walk and talk Nixon so that he would be there when I came on stage for the first scene. Then I remembered that this is where I need to be at the start of tech week. I need to be willing to start, not really at the beginning, but back a few steps, and work one day at a time toward performance.

I’m getting excited all over again to explore this character, to focus on what makes him tick. I’m starting to feel the trickle of adrenalin that will build to a rush by Friday. Nixon is a great character. He is never really comfortable in his surroundings, but is always extremely aware of them. He needs to be in control of his environment, and that need for control is both  exhilarating and exhausting for him. When he feels that control slipping away he digs in and fights back. When feels that he has the control he needs then he becomes somewhat careless, but he can also be cutting, dismissive and vulgar. It can be hard to tell when something he says or does is deliberate and calculated and when it is unguarded and spontaneous. It’s important not to diffuse or ignore this complexity, these contradictions. A Nixon who is all calculation would be a cartoon, one who is all random would be a fool; neither would be honest or believable.

This week is also about figuring out the last nuances of my character’s relationship to the other characters he interacts with on stage. John Loux has the unenviable task, as do several other actors, of jumping from one character to another as he plays several different people, half of them representing actual persons. His portrayal of the agent Shifty Lazar requires him to be the successful but abrasive hustler. When he is dealing with Nixon he is more interested in the hustle than in the President. As Nixon, I need to decide whether I am fully aware of the hustle even as I cooperate with it for my own ends. I only interact briefly with Bill Corriveau’s Jim Reston, the impassionate journalist out to give Nixon the trial he never had. Bill’s energy, the power he brings to Reston, even as the character comes to recognize his own vulnerability to the prestige and status that comes with the Presidency is important in understanding what happens as the drama unfolds. In our brief exchange, Nixon is warm and respectful, disarming. It is always necessary to consider where the politician leaves off and the genuinely charming Nixon comes to the fore. Is Nixon really pleased to make the acquaintance of Reston, who represents the mass of liberal journalists he later dismisses as “sons of whores?” And how does this Nixon feel about characters such as his valet, Manolo, whom he seems to genuinely like and respect but also seems not to really notice all that much?

Two other characters require greater care. Tom Moody’s Brennan genuinely admires Nixon; and is very defensive of him. He is perhaps the only character in the play who sees both the public Nixon, with his real strengths; and the private Nixon with his all his demons. And he loves both of them. Their scenes together should be some of the most powerful and revealing of the play. When Nixon is with Brennan he feels safe enough to say who he really is. And Nixon’s scenes with David Frost are, of course, central to resolving the core conflict of the play. Ben Lawver’s Frost treads carefully the line between the shallow showman whom nobody takes seriously as he pursues the elusive Nixon and the driven personality who eventually confronts the former President about his accountability in the Watergate scandal. Nixon underestimates Frost at first; but without a growing sense of real warmth and empathy between the two men the play will seem contrived and dishonest.

And it is important this week to avoid getting too distracted. This is the time when I need to find the triggers that will help me focus on what’s important. Carl Mercier has given his actors great freedom to find their characters without only a nudge here and there to move them in the direction of a unified ensemble performance. As he puts the finishing touches on the technical aspects of the show, we need to go with the flow, staying true to our own characters as they inhabit the changing landscape of the production. I need to understand the larger picture so I can find my place in it.

So now it begins. The first phase of rehearsals is over. This is both an extension of that work and a something new. The energy is different, the tasks are different, and the goal is sight. We open on Friday. Now the fun really starts.

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