If you ever felt like being a composer was hard, well…it isn’t easy to be an actor either. This was one of the main points demonstrated by the most recent “Composers & the Voice” workshop, in which our trusty acting coach and guide-to-the-stage Pat Diamond led us on an intense exploration of the basics of bringing a character to life. We threw beanbags, created an imaginary Central Park Lake, and talked about mermaids – in my experience, not things you do in your typical new music workshop.
In the previous session, Pat assigned each participant one of three short plays. I was given one of two characters in John Patrick Shanley‘s “A Lonely Impulse of Delight” – the story of a fraught male friendship set in present day New York City. Pat told me to read through it and answer a few questions about my character. The evening began with a general discussion of these questions: who our characters are, where they are, and what they are doing in the scene. From there, things got more subtle – Pat began asking us what our characters most desired, what they were most afraid of, and other personal questions that, if I were my character, I would probably find both hard to answer and even a little forward! Over the course of the evening, however, it became clear just how essential addressing these questions were in order for an actor to create a believable character on stage.
Pat had the insight (playful instinct? dark impulse?) to pair me with my writing partner, Jason Kim. Jason and I are old friends from college, so portraying a psychologically complex situation in which two childhood friends reach a critical place in their adult relationship felt somewhat intense. Jason and I were brought to the stage and the remainder of the session was spent on our scene. We began by reading the scene sitting in two chairs, with the stricture that we had to deliver our lines while maintaining eye contact with each other. If eye contact was broken, we had to start again. The challenge with doing this is that I felt I was reading my lines in a stilted or deliberate way. I felt I had to “bring” more to the text emotionally than I could when I had to read and look up. This, it turned out, was exactly what Pat was hoping to address. He was trying to demonstrate that you don’t “bring” emotion to a set of lines when you read them; you use them as an exchange of emotional energy while keeping the backstory of the characters in mind. The backstory – who your character is, what their relationships are like – determines the particular inflection and type of response. Your job as an actor is to make that backstory a “real” part of how you exchange energy with another character. To further illustrate this point, Pat had us read our lines while throwing a beanbag back and forth at the moments when emotional energy would transfer from one character to another.
After throwing the beanbags, Pat had us “create” the setting in which our scene takes place. We didn’t have props or scenery so this was a mental realization. Still, like the backstory of the characters, it had to feel “real” for it to be convincing. Delineating the boundaries of a “real” Central Park Lake – complete with a swamp, sidewalk, rocky outcropping, and other landscape features – is difficult in a brightly lit, rectangular room filled with chairs and outfitted with wood paneling. Jason and I did our best, but eventually Pat helped us out by showing us print-outs of pictures he had found online that he felt evoked the particular “look” of our scene. After browsing through the pictures – showing Central Park at night, moonlight on water, and even pictures of the mermaid that Jason’s character is in love with in the play – the other teams were exhorted to go and find pictures to “build” their own scenes themselves. Based on what I picked up on from the other composers, there should be some pretty entertaining pictures next time we meet – I believe that one play has various Greek gods making mischief on the New York City subway.
– Joe Rubinstein