Archive for the ‘Be(com)ing Nixon’ Category

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.

May 30, 2014 — Opening Night

In Be(com)ing Nixon on May 30, 2014 at 6:59 pm

I want to begin today with a short discussion of nerves. Wednesday night felt like a disaster for me. Looked at objectively, of course it was simply that I missed a couple of lines felt out of sorts and not quite in character for the whole rehearsal. But for me it was a meltdown.
It is my sincere belief that every actor who is at all conscious of what he is doing gets nervous at some point during the process. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. First of all, nervousness is an honest and natural response to stress and to risk. Every performance carries some risk, of course; some possibility of “failure,” however the individual might define that. And effective performances aren’t created without some stress. The actor needs to find that point of balance between the self and the character. The more challenging a character is to find; or where the character-self has significant differences from the actor-self; or when an actor is breaking new personal ground, trying a new kind of role, for instance, then the more stressful the process will be. The actor who claims to be unaffected by this stress is, I think, usually giving a less honest performance.
This is partly because of the second point about nervousness. When a person feels nervous, or afraid, the body responds in predictable ways to those feelings. This response is popularly known as the fight-or-flight response. In acting, I call it the technique-dependent/dynamic-engagement response. In either case, it can strengthen a performance by using the physical and emotional responses to the nervousness to generate power in the performance. In the first case, technique-dependent, the actor deals with the nervousness by focusing on proven techniques using the actor’s tools – body, voice, costume, makeup, stage presence – so that the anxiety is overcome. In the second case, dynamic-engagement, the actor channels the nervous energy into the character he has developed; live theater requires a certain largeness of effort to reach across the proscenium, out into the audience and all the way to the back of the hall, and pouring all that that adrenalin and breath and physical tension into the character can give a performance enormous energy and power. Most actors will do a little of both.
But not all actors experience nervousness at the same point in the process or with the same intensity. It’s important, therefore, that the actor should understand his own process and his own experience of anxiety. My usual pattern is to feel very confident and focused during nervous by dress rehearsal, then I start to worry that it will hit me during the run of the show, which really makes me anxious. In any case, my backstage behavior will usually signal a shift in my anxiety level. For instance, I very much enjoy a significant amount of joking around backstage during rehearsals; so if we get to tech week run-throughs and I stop making puns or my humor gets a little strained, and I seem to be pacing a lot more and checking my script every few minutes to be sure of my cues or my lines, then you can be pretty sure that I am reaching my point of greatest anxiety. If I have a night when I am telling everyone how terribly I am screwing things up (just in case they’ve not noticed) then I am probably reaching critical nervous mass and will be fine by the next evening.
That was Wednesday night. It started earlier in the week. Monday I kept going over the same lines backstage; the places where I was suddenly most concerned about making a mistake. By Tuesday night I was forgetting the same five or six lines repeatedly, so I focused especially hard on those and immediately messed up three others. Wednesday, performing completely without a net (no script, no asking for lines), I dropped all the lines I had been worried about and a half-dozen others. I think I shortened the show by at least five minutes simply by leaving out lines and skipping around and putting lines in the wrong places. Okay, it wasn’t actually that bad, but I felt that bad. Backstage, I was telling anyone who would listen, or not, all about exactly how I was screwing up ad how awful it was. It is a testament to the quality of this cast that nobody else was worried and they stepped in as necessary to keep things moving and help me out.
Last night was dress rehearsal. I met with Ben Lawver, who plays Frost, before the call time, and went over key scenes just to run the lines. We did what is called a speed reading, running through certain exchanges rapidly without strong characterization. It went fine. Dress rehearsal came, and the show ran very well. Everyone had their characters in place, lines flowed, the pace was excellent, and we set ourselves up for a strong opening night performance. This is how it’s supposed to happen.
Creating the character of Richard Nixon has been an exciting journey for me. The complexity of the character’s emotional and intellectual life, and his motivations; and the physical manifestation of all those things; have forced me to approach this role in ways that are different for me. My personal involvement with the historic reality on which the play is based gave me biases, for want of a better word, that I had to either overcome or reconcile with the character. Objectively, I think that it can be said that this play is almost more about Frost than about Nixon. But it is the personality of Nixon that gives the drama its center. He is, both historically and dramatically, oversized. That largeness of character is what made his fall from grace a tragedy in the classical sense, and what makes Frost’s quest to do what no other journalist or politician or courtroom had been able to do – get Richard Nixon to admit his guilt – such an uncertain and perilous task.
I think that I have created a character for Nixon that is both larger than life and all too human. I am fortunate to be working with a cast of this quality. Ben Lawver’s Frost seems the shallow showman at first, but finds the seriousness and dogged persistence he needs to expose the human being hiding inside the political façade. Bill Corriveau’s Jim Reston tells his side of the story with a passion that is ultimately tempered with new understanding and compassion. Tom Moody plays a Jack Brennan whose loyalty leads him to protect Nixon even from himself. He is a big man, with a big heart and a fierce devotion, telling Nixon’s side of the story with a passionate defensiveness, whose most difficult duty is to finally let go. David Smith’s portrayal of John Birt and Chris Ruta’s Bob Zelnick balance nicely as the cooler heads in the room as Frost’s team plots their strategy.
I also want to give a shout out to Emily John and Brandon Grant, who play multiple roles with grace and remarkable ease. Never neglect the importance of the characters who stand in the background, have only a few lines, and serve to move a scene or two so that the story happening between the major characters has depth and breadth. Also, a young woman named, whose last name I am ashamed to say I have not yet learned, has taken on the task of understudying a role so that she can fill in for one performance. And I especially want to say how much we all appreciate the hard work of John Loux, who developed strikingly different characterizations for the agent, Swifty Lazar, and the newsman, Mike Wallace, but will be unable to continue in the role. The rest of us worked off his energy in important scenes in the play, and the importance of his contribution cannot be understated.
Carl Mercier has assembled a strong cast and crew for this challenging and exciting drama; and the open, simple, dramatically stark set provides just the right backdrop and environment for the action of the play. I will write more entries as the show goes through the next three weekends. But for now, I invite all of you to get your tickets, gather some friends, and come to see Frost/Nixon.

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.

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.

Making the Clothes Make the Man

In Be(com)ing Nixon on May 14, 2014 at 3:31 pm

May 14, 2014


The only four things you actually need to do theatre are an actor, some words and/or actions for the actor to perform, a place to conduct the performance, and an audience. All the rest of what theatre does are supposed to enhance the effect of these four things. Sound effects and enhancement, lighting, costuming, make-up, set, props are all adjunct to the four fundamental parts of the theatrical performance.

That said, theater is nearly impossible to do without at least some of those things. Unless the actor is naked, then what ever he is wearing is a costume (and even nudity is a kind of costume); and that costume affects everything else, including the actor’s sense of character, her relationship to and use of the performance space, and the audience’s response to the performance. The same is true of all the other aspects of theatre. In other words, live theatre is a system of interconnected parts. If you make a change in one part, then you create change in all the others.

Two weeks ago I cut off my ponytail, which had become fairly long over the past year, and one week ago I dyed my remaining hair (what there is of it) dark brown. I did these things to help me develop my stage character for Richard Nixon. One feels different with long gray hair than with shorter, darker hair. I have more often worn my hair fairly short than fairly long, so that wasn’t much of an adjustment; but I have been gray for more than ten years, so the brown hair was a bit of a shock. I still have to make a mental adjustment every time I look in a mirror. That also means, however, I am temporarily somewhat estranged from the person I see in the mirror, which allows me to connect that mirror person to the character rather than to my grayer self. It is Richard Nixon who is dark-haired.

It is important for me as an actor to begin this process of physical transformation, which includes adjustments to my way of speaking, my way of moving and my clothing on the stage as soon as possible in the process, so that I am comfortable with the character I have donned well before I first have to perform for an audience.

We still have a little more than two weeks before opening night, but last night I finally got a chance to do most of the show without my glasses. This required that I get as close as possible to “off-book” with my lines, because I can no longer read the small print in the script without magnification. Since the character I am playing does not wear glasses, the change was more than just cosmetic. My eyes and my facial expressions have always been two of my most important acting tools. Without glasses, my eye movements change, I orient my head to a conversation differently, and the audience can see more of my facial movements – eyebrows, forehead, nose, eyelids, even the expressive lines around and beneath the eyes. I also, perhaps surprisingly, found myself more conscious of other aspects of my face: my mouth, cheekbones, and the planes of my face. The historic Nixon has been broadly caricatured for his jowls, scowls and “beady” eyes. The more naturalistic portrayal and use of these features is enhanced when the glasses go away.

I also wore, for the first time, a jacket and tie during the rehearsal. Even though this wasn’t the costume I will ultimately wear for the performance, but an approximation, the effect was noticeable. I had to use my hands differently, stand differently, move with a little more formality and stiffness, and sit differently. I also became more conscious of the implications of costume changes and adjustments. There is, for instance, a very quick change necessary toward the end of the show from Nixon’s iconic blue suit into “golf attire” that I hadn’t really thought about before. The change signals more than just a change in scene and costume, it happens following a significant shift in the character himself. Changing clothes is a good way to help the actor shift into the character requirements for the new scene. An even smaller costume change earlier in the play allows for a more subtle shift in the character. Removing the jacket and tie for a short scene in which Nixon is slightly inebriated helps me to find the right nuance. One never wants to play inebriation too broadly outside of slapstick, but finding the right balance in a dramatic scene in which the character is not falling down drunk, but just somewhat loosened of his usual inhibitions can be tricky. Getting Nixon out of his coat and tie also gets him out of his more formal stiffness and reserve. He becomes more vulnerable and more open.

A lot of these kinds of changes can’t really happen until we get closer to performance. It’s simply not practical to do character make-up for every rehearsal or to start wearing performance costumes before tech week; but part of the process of developing a character for the stage is making choices about how the character looks both to himself and to the world.

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.

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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