June 2, 2014 — The First Weekend and Beyond

In Be(com)ing Nixon on June 2, 2014 at 3:37 pm

One of the most important challenges facing any actor is the challenge of repetition. There is a concerted effort to build toward an opening night performance just as the cast has hit a peak of focus and energy. That energy can carry the show at least through the first weekend. But reaching that peak has been the result of week of nightly rehearsals, running the entire show every night, challenged by the working out of the technical aspects of the show, interrupted by glitches and errors, forced to find the last nuances of character while simultaneously remaining aware of all that is going on around you. It’s what I like about tech week: the sprint, the adrenalin.
But it comes with a price. At the end of the Sunday performance, everyone is tired, everyone needs a break. And community theater performers get one. We are left on our own until the next performance, next Friday night. Some groups will have a read-through at some point, and some actors will meet on their own to go over lines, especially for difficult scenes, but there will be no opportunity to run the play with all the costumes, the lights, the sound, all the special effects, between now and the next performance. So the challenge is to return on Friday with lines and actions and character all still in place; and the focus and energy again at performance peak.
The biggest emphasis is often put on going over lines, so that the memory doesn’t lag. And that can be a significant problem. But line review without character review is just empty re-memorization. Review of lines and character without some revitalization, some recharging of batteries can result in a second weekend of technically strong, but internally shallow performances.
For me, the solution to this dilemma is to step apart from the role long enough to take a good, hard, critical look at my work so far. I now have a record of where I am having the biggest problems. What scenes feel less real to me, what lines do I struggle with repeatedly, which character relationships need more attention, and when am I most aware of my own lines and least likely to be listening fully to what the other characters are saying? Interestingly, one of my strongest scenes is a virtual monologue, when Nixon has a fairly one-sided phone call with Frost. Here the character is self-focused, but I have to remain aware of the other actor’s responses and adjust so that I don’t get caught in any awkward sight lines and I don’t upstage Frost to the point that the audience loses the larger picture, the relationship between the characters. In contrast, the scenes which present pieces of the actual interviews require that the character of Nixon is clearly listening to Frost and reacting, but as an actor I have to be aware of shifts of emphasis and line readings that don’t always make intuitive sense. Because the dialogue is built by quoting actual transcripts, but rearranging specific lines for dramatic purposes and to conflate ideas that took hours to develop in real life into a few moments of stage time, the character needs to respond to rapidly changing internal responses as well as the immediate interactions.
Beyond the necessity for honest self-evaluation, there is a need to stay in touch with the character. If I remember that the character is in me, available, ready go then I can spend this week reconnecting. It’s tempting to run lines in my head, focusing on accuracy. But if I take some time to stand up, move about, and speak the lines as if the other actors are there, then I can continue to refresh and refine the character at the same time. If you’ve ever been grabbing props, talking about things that are happening, reviewing things with stage crew and other actors, and even occasionally having a brief laugh about something. Then they step back on stage and back into character. What allows them to jump back and forth from actor to is that neither is ever very far away. While off-stage, the character is tucked away so the actor can do what is necessary; onstage, the actor hovers in the background, so that the performance is deliberate and thoughtful, not just rote.
So that becomes my working plan for the week. I need to think through my “big” scenes, make sure lines are accurate, make sure the character isn’t slipping away. And I need to review the “minor” scenes, reinvigorate my awareness of other characters who are there for a fleeting moment, perhaps without even a line or two. How can I make sure that those scenes don’t get lost. And mostly I have to remind myself to look at each performance as unique. There are six more shows, but I can’t start looking at the last one until I have finished with the others; one show at a time, each one as important as every other; each new audience as entitled to every bit of the character, every ounce of energy, and every nuance and flavor of the play.
Now for the plug. If you have seen Frost/Nixon, spread the word. Tell others about it and encourage them to see it. If you haven’t seen it yet, but plan to, tell others that you’re going and invite them along; put together a group to see it together. Live theater is more exciting and enjoyable when it is shared with friends. And if you haven’t seen it and haven’t yet planned to, let me enjoin you now to take the plunge. This is a timely, well-written, powerful play, with a strong directorial vision, a great cast, and a talented crew. Don’t miss an opportunity for a great night of theater. And stick around until the actors come up from changing into street clothes and removing makeup; talk to them, ask questions, give a critique, extend the experience beyond the last bow. You are our audience. You are the last essential element of the live theater experience. I hope to see you there.

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