An Actor Prepares – A Case Study (Part 1)
In a blog about how 9th Hour approaches theatre, I am writing this post with an assumption that readers have some interest in how actors prepare for roles. I cannot speak for all actors (or even many) but I believe there is some value in sharing my experience as an actor who has performed in 10+ shows for 9th Hour since 2010. In this two-part post, I will highlight what I see as the difference between surface and deep acting, both of which I consider essential for my preparation in performing a role. I will deal with surface acting in the first post.
"Acting is essentially a deception, a pretense of an ‘imaginary’ construct versus what is ‘real.’ My goal was to deceive an audience—to help them suspend disbelief—and see ‘Freud’ on stage, not me."
As a person who chooses to consciously act a role, I am required to meet the demands of an external control, in particular a script. For example, I played the role of Sigmund Freud in twenty performances over a period of six months in Freud’s Last Session (St. Germain, 2010), a 90-minute play about a fictional encounter between Freud and C.S. Lewis. In most cases, a director will also provide guidance on how to perform a role to align with their vision for a script. But, in this case, we did not employ a director, so I was free to use my imagination and my skills to make Freud appear ‘real’ to the audience. This is a process of submerging my personality for the sake of performing a different person.
This transition begins with a reading of the script to situate my performance in time and space. The play is set on the day that Hitler invades Poland in September 1939, which is the final month of Freud’s life when he suffered from cancer in his jaw and wore a prosthesis in his mouth. I read a biographical account of Freud’s last years (Edmundson, 2008) to better grasp the historical context of the play. I searched YouTube and found some short family videos that depicted Freud’s mannerisms during that time, particularly the way he walked and spoke English. I made notes about how to display the posture, gestures, and general physicality of an 83-year-old man. I grew my hair and a goatee, and reduced my weight, to better match pictures of what Freud looked like during those final months.
Acting is essentially a deception, a pretense of an ‘imaginary’ construct versus what is ‘real.’ My goal was to deceive an audience—to help them suspend disbelief—and see ‘Freud’ on stage, not me. In addition to acquiring the look of Freud, I wanted to incorporate the feel of Freud based on my research. The play is set in the drawing room of a house rented by Freud in London, England where he has taken refuge to escape Hitler’s persecution of Jews, and where he receives the renowned Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. They engage in a kind of intellectual chess match about the existence of God.
As actors without the benefit of a director, we discussed the results of our research and our intentions for acting our roles. During rehearsals, we then divided the script into scenes and scenes into units of internal or external action. As an actor, I try to find an emotional objective for each unit to play the scene convincingly, i.e., what do I want or need in this unit? And how does that affect my relationship with C.S. Lewis in this scene, e.g., do I raise my voice in anger or lower my voice with empathy? do I accept their argument or parry with a counterpoint? do I display stoic pride or expose my pain and loneliness?
"As an actor, I try to find an emotional objective... to play the scene convincingly... - what do I want or need...?"
To find objectives for certain units, I researched typical attitudinal norms of octogenarians with a terminal illness. I combined it with reports that Freud had a very disconcerting stare that he would use on people who challenged or disagreed with him, as Lewis often does in the play. I imagined Freud as an 83-year-old dying man who thought of himself as a good, righteous man, proud of his life’s work, and unrepentant of his disbelief in God or his disdain for religion.
But, during each of the twenty performances, I was conscious of myself playing my version of ‘Freud’. This submerging of personality into a role using theatre skills and techniques exists on a spectrum of performance. Sometimes, it is a very light submersion of personality, such as when an actor is typecast. When casting for a production, a director often looks for a certain type to fit the role, i.e., how “the look” of an actor aligns with a character in a play and whether the actor can be directed to make a few changes with their mannerisms and speech to fit the director’s vision for the performance. If that quality is appealing to audiences, then that actor might get typecast for the same kind of role repeatedly, e.g., the female vamp, the stiff-jawed hero, the funny sidekick, and so on.
"This submerging of personality into a role using theatre skills and techniques exists on a spectrum of performance."
In any case, surface acting can be a very effective tool for storytelling when it helps an audience suspend disbelief and accept the actor’s version of a character. In part 2 of this post, I explain how I used deep acting to lose my personality when playing the role of Freud as an old man dying from cancer to enhance an audience’s understanding of a story.
~ GEORGE DUTCH is 9th Hour Theatre Company's Associate Artistic Director and Dramaturge