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.
Brenan Dwyer's Blog
Looking for happiness in art daily.