Since I was little, I’ve always been interested in playing the villain. Maybe it was because I’ve usually played the opposite in my real life. I was a good little girl eager to please my parents and not step out of line, and I strive to be a good woman and to do right by others. But appearances are not everything. I’m a volcano inside. I feel anger, and disappointment, and violent impulses. Luckily for the people around me, I overwhelmingly suppress these feelings (sorry if you’re one of the few who have received one of my infamous whiskey slaps… you are the exception). So how excited was I to be cast as Regan in our upcoming production of King Lear? And how disappointed was I to realize, upon a close reading of the script, that I don’t think Regan’s a villain at all?
Of course, that realization is actually a good thing, because an actor playing is villain is sure to deliver a pretty boring performance. An actor playing a person with a goal – a goal that she is desperate to achieve because failure is not an option – that’s an interesting performance.
But Regan is fiery. She vies for attention, competes for power, and of course, revenges any hint of disloyalty. So my delightful challenge is to find out how to play Regan as a violent, volcanic, sloppy, absolutely justified heroine.
My main resources for this are clear: Shakespeare’s text, my own experiences, my fellow actors and the direction I receive from JoAnn. I’ve also just finished reading a wonderful book called A Thousand Acresby Jane Smiley, a retelling of the Lear story on a Midwestern farm from the point of view of Goneril (called Ginny). So far these resources have served me well.
Shakespeare lays out plenty of reasons for Goneril and Regan to be angry, indignant and fed up by the end of Act 2 (when he goes out into the storm). In the very first scene, the king acts aggressively, spontaneously and unwisely, while everyone at the court repeatedly refers to Cordelia as the prettiest and most favored, while the two older sisters as “unkind” and scheming, although they have done nothing wrong. At all! The editor for the Arden edition of Lear suggests that by Elizabethan standards, these actions would have already characterized Lear as unstable, if not crazy.
Then, the old man gets really unreasonable. He acts ungenerously and irately towards Goneril while a guest in her house. He curses her and insults her vigorously, both to her face and to Regan’s, all the while demanding that the two daughters accept his extravagant lifestyle, and riotous and disorderly train of 100 men. And let’s not forget, Lear chooses to go out into the storm. Regan says “for his particular/I’ll receive him gladly.” And Lear says “No, you unnatural hags,/I will have such revenges on you both/That all the world shall–I will do such things–/What they are, yet I know not, but they shall be/The terrors of the earth!” Nice, Daddy. That’s really nice.
Just imagine if this was your father. Of course you’d get mad at him! He’s a total jerk!
Now, I’m not saying that things don’t get out of hand. The reality is that Regan does have a goal that she’s desperate to achieve by any means. I believe her goal is attention, achieved through power, wealth, titles, men, and dominance. But as the middle child, ever passed over for her more beautiful, more articulate, more appreciated sisters and her overbearing father, Regan wants desperately the only thing she has never had: attention focused solely on her. Her failures, her unfiltered anger, her clumsy attempts to lead in a world where women are not taught how to lead, cause her to do terrible things (most notably Gloucestor’s blinding, although he is actually, by definition, a traitor…)
The point for me, is not just to justify, but to endorse and understand her actions. I have a lot of questions remaining about how this performance will take shape, but I feel pretty confident that I can get behind Regan, the heroine.
I’ll leave you with this passage from A Thousand Acres (there are a couple strong words and adult concepts in this, so please be forewarned). In this version of the story, Lear is a downright creep who slept with the older sisters after the death of their mother throughout their teenage years. And the breast she refers to is a mastectomy she had due to cancer. Details of the reimagining aside, the strength of this sentiment of a desperate need for self-actualization is the same.
“I want what was Daddy’s. I want it. I feel like I’ve paid for it, don’t you? You think a breast weighs a pound? That’s my pound of flesh. You think a teenaged hooker costs fifty bucks a night? There’s ten thousand bucks. I wanted him to feel remorse and know what he did and what he is, but when you see him around town and they talk about him, he’s just senile. He’s safe from ever knowing. People pat him on the head and sympathize with him and say what bitches we are, and he believes them and that’s that, the end of history. I can’t stand that.”
I've just opened Richard III at Northwest Classical Theatre Company, playing Lady Anne. The production is directed by a prestigious director from England, Barry Kyle, Honorary Associate Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, first Artistic Director of the Swan Theatre in Stratford, and founder of Swine Palace theatre in Louisiana. It also stars Artistic Director of NWCTC, Grant Turner, in the title role, and he's absolutely amazing.
The show runs until October 13 with 7:30 performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 and matinees Sundays at 2:00 pm. I've written two entries for our company blog, and I'd like to share them here to give a sense of my process working on this play. See you at the theatre!
9/9/13 On working with Trust
One of the elements of rehearsal that has struck me so far is the feeling of trust and respect that is inherent in our process. Richard III is different from the sort of general “trust” that many casts have – which resembles something more like charging ahead blindly despite fear of judgment than it does true support. Much of group came into rehearsals straight from working together on our Bend Shakespeare in the Park show, Much Ado About Nothing. While a rather loosey-goosey rehearsal process, Much Adowas a great bonding experience for the company because we have a lot of fun, and because we are very much left to our own devices to ensure that our text, voice and movement work was where it needed to be (due to time constraints in rehearsals). We had to trust and embrace that what others were bringing to the table was their best work. While others in the cast of Richard III did not participate in Much Ado, many of them have worked previously with Northwest Classical, and have good friendships and working relationships established. For the few newcomers, we hope they’re feeling welcomed too.
The other major component that makes Richard III such a trust-filled environment is our director, Barry Kyle. He treats the acting company with more respect than any other director I have ever worked with. After a scene is over, Barry says, “Thank you,” with such sincere gratitude for the work and risks that have just been performed, that it makes you immediately want to do it again, and better. Barry was with us in Bend, and witnessed how strong a company bond we have. He has commented on this frequently, and has used our work as an ensemble to drive our way of approaching the play, developing work with masks and choral movement that will help us portray battles and large crowds in the limited space of the Shoebox. Essentially, our ensemble work enables us to strongly delve into the use of metaphor because our personal relationships are strong enough to touch something deeper than a working relationship.
Barry asks our opinions and welcomes our frank answers. I was recently describing to someone outside the theater how our production is taking shape, and describing the mix of modern and classical costumes, props, and styles. We were specifically talking about if we should use crowns in a modern production, set in contemporary America. My conversation partner seemed appalled that these things hadn’t been sorted out by the director ahead of time. But I wasn’t scared at all. I was honored that Barry had waited to work with us to draw conclusions about what elements were appropriate to our production. In other words, because he trusted us to bring something to the table, we in turn, trust his thoughtfulness, and must honor his final decisions after considering all the options.
This amount of mutual respect has built space for the performers to take risks on stage; to become emotional, to turn their bodies into ferocious animals; to learn to become killers or to face death. I hope the results will be a play filled with true reactions and experiences, since the performers feel safe to “go there.” Barry is certainly challenging me to let loose, to let my emotional and mental state derail to a point that I am scared to go. I have faith that with his support and that of my ensemble, that I’ll be there by opening night.
9/20/13 On Opening Night
I’ve been thinking it’s time to take ownership.
Barry’s sort of a big deal. We’ve all been in a little bit of awe.
He throws out hundreds of bold, spectacular ideas a day. Many of them have found their way into our this large production in a small space.
The rehearsal process has been short, packed with ideas, discussions, music, movement, mask, videos, images, paint, chalk, swordplay, and a sort of scramble through text and scenes that has left us feeling both raw and itching to go on stage with this play.
As a part of scheduled rehearsal, we have not spent lots of time investigating our character’s inner thoughts. We have not broken down each line and chewed on each word. We have not done beat work. We have not dwelled on telling everyone our deepest character intentions. We have not done any character journaling, or free associations, or archetypal character exploration. This has been atypical for a Shakespeare show in the tradition of NWCTC.
It’s new, it’s exciting, it’s nothing like a show that’s ever been done in the Shoebox before.
This play has a definite stamp of Barry Kyle.
Not because I don’t trust Barry. I do. (See my previous blog post).
I haven’t yet trusted myself.
This play is like a roller coaster running through a haunted house without safety harnesses.
I go through this play both horrified and turned on.
I feel like I’m about to fall down or faint at any moment.
I feel like someone might actually die.
I stand in awe of the work of my fellow actors (especially Grant Turner… holy s*** he’s good in this) …but I have no idea how I stack up.
I feel like my acting training both holds me up and totally fails me.
I feel like I’m throwing everything I know about myself onto the stage and trying to mold it into some beautifully deformed lump of a woman, and giving her life.
In the last week, I’ve been very anxious about the lack of stability that I gain from a more traditional process. After a particularly tumultuous day thinking about Anne, I decided that I can’t do anything about it. That instability is part of the ground that has grown this play. I’ve got to embrace instability because it’s going to be there no matter what, and if I don’t embrace it, that is the one thing that will truly make my performance fall short.
So, I’ve decided to take ownership of the work I’ve done, and who I am, and what I bring onstage.
It doesn’t mean the performance is perfect, and it doesn’t mean that my terror is erased.
It strikes me how much courage one has to have, not only to go on stage, but to continually choose to rehearse and perform these plays that force us to press on our bruises again and again. We must be brave to go show someone how we react, and also brave to show the audience that we as actors sometimes fail to share our depths because we, too, are flawed. We’re working on it. Failure is inherent in the risk.
I wrote a blog years ago as in intern at Shakespeare Santa Cruz (RIP) and came to a revelation that I will revisit now: Acting is not about being fearless. It is about doing what you must do, with fear as your companion.
Break a leg.
-Brenan Dwyer, Lady Anne
How do you pass two years in 20 minutes? Two years in whic you lose everything - love, a child, friendship, parents, money, social standing, health, career, ambition, personality. As an actor, how does one just drop into such a place?
I’ve been challenged with this as I’ve taken on the role of Nina in The Seagull. I don’t have the same life experiences as Nina. I’ve never lost a child; I’ve never even been pregnant or even desired to have a child. I’ve never run away from home, or had my parents lock me out, or had an affair with a famous, older man. But, I have had my heart broken. I have been bad at acting, and felt embarrassed at my work. I have desired fame and recognition as an actor, and had these desires crushed (daily). So, in my 20 minutes backstage to prepare for my final scene, I use these as my points of entry into where Nina is. I use free association, meditation, my breath, to remember what moments of my life have felt like. Loss, fear, love, desire, ambition. They say you can’t remember pain? Bullshit. We just don’t let ourselves. I have built a huge wall inside myself to avoid thinking about loss, and emptiness, loneliness and rejection. It’s a huge personal challenge to tear down this wall to inhabit this sort of total devastation. But I know it’s essential. I feel like one of Michaelangelo’s sculptures, being freed from the rock as the artist chips away. And as I delve further into the feeling tones of my own life experiences, Nina’s memories just start drifting in, unasked for. I start to focus on those, breathe into those, and hope that they take a strong hold.
Then, I hear Ben, who plays Konstantine, starting the speech that cues my entrance. I’m afraid. I freeze. I just start to panic. I am so afraid that people will see that I’m just a little girl after all, that I’m no actor, that I have no grace or artifice, that I’m just suffering. I try to breathe into this, understand that this must be what Nina also feels, even though it is really just my own fear that the audience will see my tears and judge me as weak; that other actors will see how I work myself up and judge me for not just imagining Nina’s life, but for bringing my own baggage into it, that I won’t be able to carry off the scene, that I won’t affect Ben as much as I need to… and on and on and on. I guess if I were an expert I’d just waive some magic wand and turn off my thoughts. I’m working on that one. But this is where I am now. And then I have to walk on stage and do the
damn thing. And that part is really fun.
So, call it cheating, call it necessary, call it whatever you’d like; I’m preparing for Nina by mining my own life.
I’ve been told my whole life as an actor that this is wrong. That even by using the Stanislavski technique of memory recall and sublimation or whatever the heck the technical terms are, you should disassociate your personal life from the character eventually. I throw my hands up at this. How do other actors do this? You are who you are, and nothing can be stronger than your real memories, feelings, sensations and experiences. Why not use them, so long as they are directed through the text of your character? In college I had a teacher who went even further, saying all you needed was the truth of the situation of your character, leave yourself out of it from the start. I followed this religiously until recently, when I started hitting hard barriers in getting where I needed to go as an actress onstage. I started looking for what I needed to do, as an individual. And I kept ending up at using myself.
Then I realize. “If you should ever need my life, come and take it.” That’s Nina’s request to Trigorin, the offer that ultimately causes her downfall, her sorrow, her devastation. Nina, too, is willing to mine her life for art. But she asks for it; chooses it. She wants to become the subject for Trigorin’s tragic short story. She wants to be poor and live in a garret. She wants to feel the loss of her child. Even once she understands the reality of it, she still wants it. She runs from a life of safety to make a life that is fodder for art, sacrificing herself. She is the murdered seagull because she wants to be, not because something happened to her. And so am I. Sacrificing my life, my barriers, my comfort, for this play. Why? That’s the subject of a memoir. But this process has just led me to believe again and again: this is where I’m meant to be. This is what I’m meant to be doing. I asked for this. I am the seagull.
The Seagull runs May 10- June 16 at the Northwest Classical Theatre Company, 2110 SE 10th Ave, Portland, OR. Tickets and more info at www.nwctc.org.
A week from today I'll be opening Pericles, a joint production of the Northwest Classical Theatre Company and Willamette Shakespeare, directed by Daniel Somerfield. We're following the fairy tale aspects of the story by making incredible leaps of imagination through our production elements. There are just 6 actors playing over 30 characters, we play music and generate live sound effects, and in the 38-seat Shoebox theatre we travel to foreign lands on the deck of a very shipwreck-prone ship.
I am playing Marina, as well as 7 other more minor characters. It has been a challenge and a delight to make each into a strong, dynamic character. Marina has been especially challenging, since she seems to resist both archetypes of the damsel in distress, and the warrior princess. Many things happen TO her, and it's been uniquely challenging to find in her text where she is trying to enact change upon others to change her circumstance, and how much she submits to the will of the gods. She lives in a unique world defined by intense suffering, optimism, and Fate. I find myself using my imagination to fill in many gaps of her history, which fits nicely, of course, with the larger concept of the play.
I'm looking forward to opening this show, as I believe it is one that will change and evolve greatly during the run.
Pericles runs at the Shoebox Theater (2110 SE 10th between Lincoln and Grant) from Nov. 16-Dec. 9. Visit www.nwctc.org for tickets and information
Brenan Dwyer's Blog
Looking for happiness in art daily.