Artists, Animals & ELO: Diary of a mad acting teacher

What an incredible session in the Actors Studio this weekend, working with talented ASA artist Alexia Broadbent, a very gifted, soulful actress, who is also represented by ASA Talent Management.

 

I’ve got to share our work with you for two reasons:

  1. I forgot to give Alexia her notes that we covered during the session!

  2. Newcomers to ASA will get a sense of the quality of work that an ASA actor can create.

THE OBJECTIVE: CREATE TWO STRIKINGLY DIFFERENT CHARACTERS

Alexia is creating two strikingly different characters in two scenes from the Arthur Miller classic, 'The Crucible' for her GCSE practical exams in May at Harrogate Ladies College. The characters are Abigail, the antagonist in the story who drives the action along to its tragic finale, and Mary, a good but lonely soul who gets swept up into Abigail's energy, thinking that she's found a friend in Abigail. Here are two extremely contrasting characters, and we needed to clearly define the differences between the two characters, and how she should play them.

 

This is the kind of laboratory experiment that gets my heart pounding. How to take a dramatic character that a brilliant playwright has given us and give it life - and not only one character but two polar opposites?

 

Here's the ASA method of creating a character in 3 steps.

 

STEP 1: LOOK FOR CLUES TO MOTIVATIONS

Alexia and I both adore the play, and we agreed that, in order to do justice to the story Arthur Miller was telling, we had to look at the functions of each of the characters. This is a different way of looking at a character than the actor normally takes - we typically say, "I can't wait to play this character, because here's what I'll do with it!"

 

But Alexia and I distilled the story down into the following "elevator speech": An irrational fear sweeps through a small community and it ends in tragedy. Knowing that, we could answer:

QUESTION: What is Abigail’s function?

ANSWER: To drive the irrational fear in the village forward so that she can gain power.

QUESTION: What is Mary’s function?

 ANSWER: To show that good people can be caught up in a horrible situation, because of their weakness to do the right thing.

 

With that in mind we can really start to dissect and contrast the characters:

But how are we going to make the two characters hugely different, with different mannerisms and ways of interacting with the world? Time allowed us only to develop one character (Alexia had already stunningly portrayed Abigail in the school production). If the actor needs to develop strikingly different characters, we can find the solution in the animal kingdom.

 

STEP 2: ANIMAL EXERCISE

This is a method acting exercise which is very useful in getting a unique character into the actor's body, so that the actor can then take that 'sense memory' into their performance.

 

Alexia and I started this off with a character development visualization exercise, in which the seated actor relaxes and visualizes the world of the story as seen through the eyes of their new character. We looked at Mary’s attitudes towards herself and her relationship to the world and the people around her. In the middle of this exercise I asked Alexia to silently consider what animal Mary would be. At the end of the exercise, her conclusion was a certain animal (I'm not going to tell you what animal it was, because, like a magician, an actor should never divulge their inner process to another person).

 

This is where we really live up to the adage from actor Al Pacino, who said, “We don't perform – we play." So Alexia and I became those animals in three stages: 

  1. physically taking on the attributes and characteristics of that animal

  2. repeating the exercise, but this time moving the animal onto two feet

  3. repeating the exercise, but this time taking the essence of the animal and giving the personality and the physical attributes to Mary.

By the end of the exercise, Alexia had internalized her chosen animal, and there before us, stood Mary. It's quite a magical transformation, and the key to it is to remember the sensations of the posture, the inner tempo, the mannerisms, so that when you have is a totally different human being.

 

STEP 3: TAKING IT TO THE TEXT

Next, we took what we had discovered and wove it into the text, using the ALBA method of creating emotions at the point that Mary needed to be moved to tears. And what can I say: Alexia rocked. But we realized that something Mary-ish was missing. Then we realized it was the self-doubt and the torment of knowing that she was manipulating her employers (especially Elizabeth Proctor) towards certain doom.

 

Here’s another mad trick the actor can play: after you get hooked into your relationship with your scene partner and your struggles with them, then begin the text of the scene, but while doing that, silently repeat in your mind a mantra that sums up where your character is in that moment, but is totally opposite to the words that you're saying. We found Mary’s mantra, which went to the deepest part of her soul, and gave her the inner obstacle that Mary was experiencing.

 

Mad? Not really, we humans do it all the time. We just don’t think about it. BUT THE ACTOR MUST.

 

A FINAL SUGGESTION

No character begins their life in a scene as if they're emerging from a vacuum, so what I always do is journal what happened in the moments before for my character. What just happened to me? How does it make me feel? And what specifically do I need from the other character in THIS scene so that I'm engaged with them from the very first moment?

 

I’m so proud of Alexia and all the other actors who already have a fantastic work ethic when it comes to their work. At the end of each Actors Studio session I have to put on some ecstatic ELO music in the car as a celebration of the work that these young artists are producing. And their art will only get deeper as they mature! Break a leg.

 

Bryan Bounds is the founder and head of education of The American School of Acting in Yorkshire, providing 21st century acting skills to young actors age 11-18. Applications are now open for the Autumn term. For more details click here.

 

 

 

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