Monday, October 24, 2011

Thoughts on Acting: Part I

It's a rare day when I can surprise myself.

I am a writer. It's what I do. I am always thinking about ways to say things, to communicate an idea, a feeling, or, as in my day job, a product. Most of the time, the words flow pretty well for me. It makes my day job as a technical writer working on the account for an oilfield services company somewhat easier. It can also make my fiction writing go a tad easier too, although that can be tougher, oddly enough.

At age 42, I'm relatively set in the things I know about myself. I know what kinds of TV shows I like to watch, what kinds of books give me the most pleasure, and how best to drive my car in Houston traffic. My daily routines are just that: routines. A friend of mine asked me once if I like structure. I said no right off the bat, thought about it for a few more seconds, then conceded the point. My wife thinks I'm high maintenance and she's right. But, unlike Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally...", I'm a high maintenance person who knows he's high maintenance, but occasionally does low maintenance things.

When it comes to things that surprise me, music and food provide the most variety nowadays as I'm always got my ear listening for something new and different, and my palate seeks out new, unexplored tastes. I know myself pretty well and, if I get off course, my wife's there to help me back on the right road. So it was with unexpected pleasure that I discovered something about myself this past week: I like acting.

Why Acting?

Looking back now, I can’t say for sure why it was that I wanted to read for a part in my church play. I had never done anything like it before. I play saxophone and the closest I’d ever been to participating in a play was as a member of the orchestra in my high school’s production of “The Music Man.” Frankly, I was content to be a musician and continue to enjoy my time in my church’s jazz band and orchestra.

Nonetheless, back in June, I went to the reading. The few of us that were there that day read through some sample scripts. This new production was a collection of vignettes about family life, church life, and the humor and sadness that comes in both. I had fun, and ended up reading a script with a lady I would eventually co-star with on stage. Now, “co-star” is a weird word, but it’s one I’m going with. There were over thirty actors involved in 28 scenes, and, for my first time doing this, was fortunate enough to act opposite two ladies, one in each of my two scenes. Other actors had monologues while some scripts had as many as five parts to them. Thankfully for me, I wound up on stage with someone else so, if I faltered, I’d have some much needed back up.

The Scripts

We got our scripts mailed to us in August. I was to play two different types of husbands. The first scene, “An Innocent Look,” was a humorous and poignant scene of a young couple. The wife and husband have returned from shopping at the mall and she’s furious with him for looking at another woman. He is wearing glasses and, yet, tells her the reason she “thought” she saw him looking at another woman was because his contact was out of place. The scene has funny moments, somber moments, and ends on a high. My second scene, “Circle of Love,” was of another married couple and their exploits driving in a car. Naturally, he thinks he knows where he’s going, she wants to stop for directions, and, well, the scene pretty much writes itself. It closes on a nice note as both of them realize that they’ve been focused not on each other, but on stuff that just doesn’t matter.

Practices and Rehearsals

Late in August, the rehearsals started. The show was schedule for 21 and 22 October and, from the vantage point of pre-Labor Day, October was a long, long time away. But, darn, you had to memorize the scripts. Well, duh! The first few rehearsals were easier, with scripts in hand, and in front of the director and her husband. Each of my two co-stars had monologues so my rehearsals with them were sandwiched in between their monologue rehearsals. Thus, at most, the audience was three. With the driving scene, my co-star and I sat in chairs, so it was quite easy to hold my script and treat it like the steering wheel. The “An Innocent Look” scene had me puppy-dogging my co-star as her character’s anger would not let her stand still. It was a little more difficult to hold the paper and look at her, but we managed. Our director kept saying the same thing: once you get out of your scripts, the character nuances will emerge and you’ll be much more free to, well, act (as opposed to read).

Boy, was she ever right—about this and everything else. I don’t know how others memorized their scripts, but I did a very 21st-Century thing: I recorded myself reading both parts of my two scripts. Then, I loaded them onto my iPod and was able to do anything—run, bike, weed the garden—and listen and learn my lines. Granted, more than a few people probably thought I was crazy as I walked to my boy’s school talking to myself, but, hey, we actors are weird, huh? But, it did the trick. Once I had the lines in my head—and knew the cue words from the ladies’ lines—I was ready to rehearse without scripts.

As a writer, I’m accustomed to creating everything for all my characters: backstories, motivations, looks, traits, dialogue, etc. It’s one of the best things about writing. With these scripts, the motivations and the dialogue were already there. The only thing left was to inhabit the words, and here’s where the fun began. For both scenes, my co-stars and I could try different things: change the intonation of voices, build the anger, make one of my characters more cocky, and other things. I found it remarkable how much I enjoyed the process. When I’m writing, this is all in my own head. Being able to work with others in a collaborative project and get “it” out of my head is quite liberating. Above all, the experimentation was the key takeaway from this acting gig to my writing life. To date, I’ve become so set in how my written characters Must Behave that I don’t let them be themselves. After this acting experience, I’m going to give my written characters room to breathe and tell me exactly how they’d react given a certain situation and give myself the leeway to change something that I thought was set.

Stage and Microphone Rehearsals

A week ago, we had our first rehearsals on stage with microphones. My church has these small mics that go around your ear and have the pick-up just near your mouth. A lot like what you see Peter Gabriel or Lady Gaga wear on stage. Needless to say, it’s a strange thing to hear your voice booming out of the loudspeakers, and it caused me to adjust how I spoke.

Now, up until our first stage rehearsal, we’ve been rehearsing on the floor of another room. Getting up on stage, with the set in place, the tape marks on the floor, a whole new world opened. We actors now had to be aware that we could literally walk out of the light. We had to make sure our shoes didn’t clog around on the wooden stage. Out went my original idea of footwear for my eye-wandering husband, in came my Doc Martens. Those quiet shoes came in handy, too, since I and another actor also took our turns as stage hands, getting props on and off stage with precision.

As I’ve said, up until these stage rehearsals, the audiences have consisted of the same 2 to 4 people. With 28 scenes, no one other than the directors had watched all the vignettes. I was looking forward to seeing what my fellow actors had been doing since August. This troup—come on, since I’m waxing on about this acting thing, allow me an actor’s trope—is a diverse group, ranging in age from ten to the golden years. The level of talent for this production was fantastic. We had folks who have acted on and off their entire lives mixed in with folks like me who decided, on a lark, to give it a go and see what happens. We actors performed some over-the-top funny scenes in which I laughed each and every time I saw them, some scenes that made me nod with commiseration, and a few that were heart-wrenching. Heck, in one rehearsal, I shed a tear or two. All in all, I could not have asked for a better group of people with whom to share my first acting experience.

Then came dress rehearsal last Thursday. For me, I considered dress rehearsal to consist of two things: you dress in whatever clothes you’ve decided to wear and you perform in front of new people. I was looking forward to it as the final time to get everything correct—and, believe me, I needed the reps—until I learned two crucial facts. One, our senior minister was going to attend as he would be unavailable on Friday or Saturday. A jovial, warm man as friendly as can be, he’s still the senior minister. I always had expected him to be one among many in the audience of a hundred or more. Nope. He was one of ten. Lovely. The second problem I personally had to face was to perform without one of my co-stars. She had another commitment that she had to do and could not attend our dress rehearsal. Lovely, again. So, not only would we be rehearsing in front of a smaller-than-anticipated crowd that included the senior minister, I chose to read both parts to a scene (the eye-wandering husband one) in which I would have no one opposite me.


Come back tomorrow and I’ll tell you how it all turned out.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I'm waiting to hear. I loved acting in plays in high school but gave it up after that. The memorizing was the thing.

Scott D. Parker said...

Patti - Unfortunately for me, memorization isn't too hard for me. Back when there existed things like albums and cassettes, I memorized which cut of which side of the LP contained my fav songs. When it come to history, there again, the facts and dates just seem to store themselves in my head.

Here's a bit of irony based on what you wrote: now, looking back, I'd have loved to perform in high school...but I wasn't ready then. My life has been a series of moments that, had they happened earlier, the results would have been vastly different. Now, I've put my toe in the Acting Ocean, and I want to keep going.

Part II goes live at 12:06pm CST.

Sean Coleman said...

Hi there,

I'm in for this month's Forgotten Music Thursday



Kimery said...

My husband is amazed at how many song lyrics I've memorized. Memorizing for the play was one of the hardest things I've ever done!!!! Why are lyrics easier to memorize?

Scott D. Parker said...

Kimery - Probably because lyrics are attached to music and melody. If you can hum a song, the words come easily. BTW, I realized now why I messed up the "blessings/minutes" line: I recorded it wrong on my MP3! No wonder.