Post-show discussion – Saturday, August 12

We passed the “seat of the pants” test, according to the first comment from an audience member after Saturday’s show (I think that’s what she called it, anyway – if someone else heard her differently please correct me): She told us that she never squirmed, never felt uncomfortable in her seat, and (although she may have put it more delicately) that her butt never fell asleep. It’s a pretty rigorous test, and a great compliment to hear that we passed.

The discussion Saturday night focused on the mechanics of Eclipse Theatre Company for the first few minutes – how we choose playwrights, how our ensemble works together, and how we work with outside artists (most of the wonderful cast of Spinning into Butter comes from outside the company, and we consistently work with actors from all over Chicago’s theatre community as well as from within our ensemble).

We were asked again about the meaning of Nuyorican, the ethnicity of Patrick Chibas, a student Sarah Daniels tries to help apply for a scholarship for outstanding minority students. Since this question has come up in each post-show discussion, Gerardo Cardenas (who plays Patrick) wrote a great post explaining the history of Nuyorican as a cultural identity – you can read Gerardo’s post here.

An audience member asked the actors to talk about their feelings as they play characters whose views are controversial and whose opinions sometimes conflict with their own. Several actors responded by talking about the need to commit to the characters the playwright has written – whether you’re playing a baby-killer or a nun, as Kerry Richlan (who plays Sarah Daniels) explained, you have a responsibility to find that character’s motivations and commit fully to them so the play as a whole works.

The conversation ended with a discussion of the space itself – we talked about Kevin Scott’s set design, which creates a very detailed Dean’s office at Belmont College in a very small space. Kevin started with a lot of research, visiting college campuses and looking for pictures of architectural styles at New England schools. The set doesn’t just need to be visually accurate, though, it also needs to serve the play – to allow the director to create the visual pictures that help tell the story – and we also talked about the process of creating a set design that does both. 

The studio theater upstairs at Victory Gardens is a small space – it seats about 60 in the audience, and when people in the first row stretch their legs, they find themselves on stage. This creates a sense of intimacy between the actors and the audience, and in a play like this it makes the audience feel like they’re a part of the action, a feeling that several people commented on. The cast described this as energizing – to be able to hear people shifting in their seats, oohing, or gasping in response to the story is a great experience for actors.

As long as we pass the seat of the pants test.

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4 Responses

  1. i think it would be interesting if we could hear more from the actors about how playing different characters (e.g. a baby killer) can affect them personally. i understand the commiting to the character but how do they keep the character in the theatre and themselves outside. furthermore can this sometimes seep into the actors actual personality or change their opinions on issues, which i suppose may be a little different in performing in a four week run or a year long run of a show.

  2. That’s a great question and I’m sure all of the actors in the show will have a different answer and personal experiences to draw from… Here are my (unintentionally long) thoughts!

    I have not felt that playing a role onstage has impacted my personal life. Whether I have played a nasty character or a more victimized character, I think it gets condensed down to having empathy for that character and learning why they do what they do, which inevitably separates the role from you. For example, if you are a character who kills, then you may need to do some research into the mind of a killer and what needs they are fulfilling; if you are playing a victim of domestic violence, you may need to do some research into what makes a person stay in that type of relationship; etc. Chances are that most character motivations boil down to some very relatable human experiences: the need to feel power or control, the need to feel loved, etc. So, potentially, the degree of understanding you develop for that character means it can stay very separate from your personal life. There is the new onstage persona you have learned about and created, and then your separate, more “normal” offstage life.

    Oddly enough, I actually feel that I need to be more aware of what’s going on in my personal life and how THAT will impact my stage life. There are definitely roles that can be very taxing emotionally and require you to be in a certain “space” to accomplish them truthfully. For example, I played a character whose husband committed suicide and the character spent a lot of the play mourning, having emotional breakdowns, and at one point, savagely fighting with her husband’s lover onstage. I took that role knowing I would need to do a lot of prep before each performance transitioning into the world of the play – imagining the circumstances and physically preparing my body to be depressed, unhinged, etc. to try to give a truthful portrayal of someone in those circumstances. I, and some of my actor friends, have talked about NOT wanting to do certain shows/roles because they didn’t have it in them “to go there” at that time in their life, night after night. When I have experienced difficult times in my personal life, I knew I did not have the energy to play characters that would require a lot of difficult stretches and avoided them altogether because I knew it would not be healthy for me.

    So, I have not felt that playing a character onstage has impacted my personal life and how I live it, but I do believe that my personal life has to be in a place that will allow me to do my best work onstage when the role is demanding. I imagine it’s possible that a longer run of a show might impact your personal life more, but I don’t know….? Maybe the others can speak to that… Thanks for writing!

  3. Hello Emily – thanks for writing! I concur with Kerry and her thoughts on this one. I don’t recall ever feeling that a character I was portraying was impacting MY LIFE in any real way, especially not in a negative fashion.
    The only thing that I’ve ever “taken home” with me is the physical and emotional exhaustion, if I’m having to play an intense scene/character.

    I suppose if an actor is portraying a character that is going through some heavy traumatic experience that they themselves experienced (abuse of some kind, rape, etc), then that might start messing with their head a bit.
    Who knows how often that actually occurs, but my sense is that it’s fairly rare.

    As for keeping one’s self out of the work, that’s something you simply have to try to do. Whatever role it is you are playing, your job as an actor is to play that role as honestly as you possibly can — whether you agree with that “person’s” ideology or not. I try not to judge a character (though that can be hard sometimes), just try to understand where they’re coming from and why — their motivations.

    As for changing your opinions on issues, I guess that’s possible. I’m always open to the possibility that I may learn new info or be enlightened on some topic so that I may be moved to alter my stance or even completely change it. But that is pretty rare too.

    Thanks again for such a great question!
    Peace

  4. I agree with Gerardo – I’m more likely to feel physical and emotional exhaustion than any psychological effects of playing a character. I was in Come Blow Your Horn a few years ago, and my back hurt for weeks after the run because my character was very nervous and carried a lot of tension in his shoulders (I didn’t feel it much during the run, but when you spend six weeks carrying your body in a way that’s different from your normal posture, it definitely takes its toll).

    I love playing characters, and directing characters, whose values and opinions are different than mine. It doesn’t change mine, but it does challenge me to reevaluate them and find some basic justification for theirs. Like Kerry said, it always comes down to some basic human need that the characters are trying to fulfill – love, power, safety, etc. – and I like to explore the motivations for the choices the make even if (maybe especially if) I disagree with those choices ultimately.

    Thanks for starting a good discussion, Emily.

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