Preparing for a Role: Digging Into the Character

scriptworkAs an actor, I want an audience to willingly suspend their disbelief for a couple of hours and really believe that I am the character I’m portraying. When I step on stage in Ah, Wilderness! I want those who know me to forget that they’re watching Tom Vander Well and get sucked into the life and times of Nat Miller. The better I understand the character of Nat Miller, the more likely I am to succeed, and understanding the character takes work. It means being researcher, detective, historian, psychologist, artist, and writer.

Character work is one of the most enjoyable parts of the acting process for me. Here is a brief description of some of the steps I go through as I’m digging into a character:

  • What does the playwright say about the character? Eugene O’Neill does a nice job of describing his characters. Nat Miller is described: “in his late fifties, a tall, dark, spare man, a little stoop-shouldered, more than a little bald. Nat’s face has large, irregular, undistinguished features, but he has fine, shrewd, humorous gray eyes.” I may not look exactly like O’Neill describes, but I get a sense of Nat from words like “spare,” “stoop shouldered,” “humorous,” and “shrewd.”
  • What do other characters in the play say about my character? In one scene my character is off stage, my wife and the other adults talk about the fact that Nat always talks about being allergic to a certain kind of fish even thought my wife has served it to me for years without me knowing it. So, I like to repeat myself and have certain strong beliefs that might not always be accurate. It hints at a playfulness between Nat and his wife. In another scene, a salesman and bartender speak about my characters ability to make life difficult for them, hinting at Nat’s prominence and clout in the community.
  • What do I learn about my character from his own words and actions? Nat uses “hm” a lot, which is very interesting. We all have vocal idiosyncrasies, and that’s one of his along with repeating phrases: “Couldn’t help it. Just couldn’t help it!” Nat puts on a strong, authoritative role when his children are around, but when it comes to actually having an intimate discussion with his son he’s reduced to babbling.
  • In what time and culture does my character live? How would that make him different than me? What was life like then in that place? 1906 was a more proper time. Proper in the way people dress, talk, and the manners they use around the house. The Millers have a servant and an automobile, hinting at the fact that they are well off in that time. How would that change the way I act and relate to others compared to being lower class at that time? How does that effect my expectations of the children in their lives, words, actions, and how they are viewed by the community?
  • What is my characters age and occupation? What was that like? Nat owns a newspaper. Some internet research about what the newspaper business was like in 1906, specifically in Connecticut yielded some interesting results. Yellow journalism was rampant in that day. Newspapers not only reported the news but helped rise and destroy people and their careers. Most newspapers were backed by political parties and were the vehicle of how a political party got their views out. What party was Nat Miller affiliated with? What were his political connections? How did he use his paper to get ahead or influence his community?
  • What is my characters life story? One of the exciting things about acting is the fact that you get some creative control. I will often take my character journal and spend some time doing free writing in a stream-of-consciousness style. I’ll invent an entire back story. What were Nat’s parents like? When did his family come to America? What was his childhood like? Where did he go to school? How did he meet his wife? What dreams did he have as a child? How did he come to own the newspaper? It can be challenging to take hints and clues you find in the script and fill in gaps. The more completely you flesh out the character, the easier it becomes to step into character when you’re on stage. Your lines and the relationships with other characters on stage take on new depth and layers of meaning.
  • What is my relationship with the other characters on stage? Nat has four children in the show and two who do not appear in the play. What does he think of each of his children? Does he have a favorite? His sister is visiting. What was their relationship like growing up? Again, a character journal and some free writing can yield interesting thoughts and discoveries that may turn into interesting choices for how to play a line or react to another character.

Of course, this is all work that takes place outside of rehearsal. It is the homework of an actor’s preparation. Just like school, the more work you do outside of class the more prepared you are when it comes to the discussion in class and the eventual test. It is no different when it comes to the stage. A little work outside of rehearsal can make a big difference in both the rehearsal and in the eventual performance.

[Ah, Wilderness! is being produced by the Theatre Department of Central College under the direction of Ann Wilkinson. It will be performed on the campus of Central College in Pella, Iowa Feb 27 through March 3, 2013.]

The Lost Art of Hospitality

Welcome mat
(Photo credit: Lynn Kelley Author)

Chapter-a-Day Genesis 19

Then [Lot] welcomed them and bowed with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “come to my home to wash your feet, and be my guests for the night. You may then get up early in the morning and be on your way again.” Genesis  19:1b-2a (NLT)

As I started reading the chapter this morning I was struck by Lot’s hospitality, which parallel’s Abraham’s hospitality from the previous chapter:

My lord,” [Abraham] said, “if it pleases you, stop here for a while. Rest in the shade of this tree while water is brought to wash your feet. And since you’ve honored your servant with this visit, let me prepare some food to refresh you before you continue on your journey.”

About ten years ago I spent a short period of time in Israel and was struck by the tradition of hospitality that is shown by the cultures there. When I read about the way Abraham and Lot welcomed and honored their guests, it feels very much the same as the way I was treated by complete strangers in some of my travels. Taylor and Clayton reported similar experiences from their travels in Morocco and Uganda. Hospitality towards strangers and guests is a time-honored tradition.

As I look back over my lifetime and observe some of the drastic changes I’ve witnessed in our own culture, the loss of hospitality is one of them. I’m still proud of “midwest nice” that you’ll still find in our small town here in Iowa, yet when I remember the way my grandparents regularly welcomed visitors into their home I am struck at how different it was. The coffee pot was always on in the morning and the tea kettle in the afternoon. There were always treats ready for guests, and there were always guests.

Even in my childhood and youth the welcome sign was always out at our home. My parents used to say to us “your friends are always welcome here,” and they were. Friends would stop by for a visit even if we kids weren’t home. They knew my mom would feed them and they would be treated like honored guests.

Perhaps what I experienced was the exception not the rule, but I don’t think so. I tend to think that we shut ourselves in our warm homes in the winter and our air conditioned homes in the summer. We lock the door and socialize with others in front of a computer screen. Meanwhile, the art and tradition of hospitality – of welcoming one into your home and caring for them with honor and grace – has been slowly lost despite the fact that God’s Message hearkens to the previous two chapters we’ve read and calls us to perpetuate the very practice:

Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it! Hebrews 13:2 (NLT)

I have tried to perpetuate the spirit of hospitality in our own home, though when I think back to the experiences of my childhood I realize that I haven’t always been as fine a host as the examples I was given. It’s a good reminder for me today.

If you’re in the area, stop on by. I’ll start a pot of coffee and the tea kettle will be boiling.

Tic, Tic, Tic, Tic, Tic, Tic, Tic…

Chapter-a-Day Genesis 18

So she laughed silently to herself and said, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master—my husband—is also so old?” Genesis 18:12 (NLT)

In our culture we talk of a woman’s “biological clock” in reference to the natural desire our Creator designed within women to conceive and bear children. Of course, there are exceptions as with almost any physiological generality, but the biological clock is very real. Since I’m starting with a generality, let me continue with another as I submit that most guys remain largely ignorant of the works of the female biological clock in same way they’d glance at the hands of a watch to check the time but have no desire to pry the back off the watch and understand what all those cogs, wheels and little spinning things do. Which means most of the males completely miss a layer of understanding in the story of Sarah.

I’ve come to learn along the journey that a woman’s biological clock is like those vintage Timex commercials with John Cameron Swayze. It keeps on ticking and ticking and ticking. If you see a gaggle of females gathered around a newborn baby the crescendo of combined biological clocks working in overdrive makes the ticking nearly audible to the human ear. Some women still feel the ticking after they’ve had their tubes tied, after they have a  hysterectomy, and after they can physically have children.

How interesting that Sarah, childless into her nineties, hears the suggestion that she will get pregnant and bear a son and considers that she would “enjoy such pleasure.” The idea that you would consider the sheer physical trauma of pregnancy a “pleasure” when you’re ninety years old is almost insane. Such is the power of the biological clock. When you add to it the fact that we as humans tend to desire most greatly the very thing we do not or cannot have, it makes Sarah’s story even more fascinating and compelling.

 

Strong Through the Home Stretch

English: 2007 Dublin City Marathon (Ireland) 中...
English: 2007 Dublin City Marathon (Ireland) 中文: 2007年爱尔兰都柏林城马拉松 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chapter-a-Day Genesis 17

Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” Genesis 17:17 (NIV)

When I was a young man, I memorized and clung to this line from Paul’s letter to his young protege Timothy:

Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity.

I figured that if God had given me spiritual gifts like everyone else, then I was totally going to use those gifts and be of service. I wanted to make a difference. I tried to instill that same spirit in my daughters in their youth, and continue to get jazzed when I see young people with a passion for God actively living out their faith.

Today, I’m at a different place in the journey. If averages and genetics hold sway, you could say that I’m still in mid-life. Nevertheless, I can’t deny the fact that I’m likely on the downhill side. Instead of not letting others think less of me because I’m young, I sometimes feel the need not to let others think less of me because I’m old. As technology advances at breakneck speeds, I wonder if the gulf between generations is expanding and making it easier for in the back stretch and making the final turn to feel irrelevant and lost.

I think that it’s awesome that God made such a huge play in Abram’s life right when Abram was turning 100 and Sarai was in her nineties. God willing, I want the last half of my life to be more productive than the first. I want to live with purpose and witness God doing big things in and through my life when I’m old. I don’t want to stagger and limp to the finish. God grant that I finish strong. I want to be kicking it in to a full sprint when I hit the home stretch and find myself heading for the tape.

You go, Abe.

I Get it Now

pregnancy test - negative
pregnancy test – negative (Photo credit: Konstantin Lazorkin)

Chapter-a-Day Genesis 16

So Sarai said to Abram, “The Lord  has prevented me from having children. Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her.” And Abram agreed with Sarai’s proposal. Genesis 16:2 (NLT)

My sojourn through God’s Message does not end. God’s Book is not a one-and-done proposition. I go back to it again and again and it has something new for me. This is not because the Message has changed, but because I have changed and am at a different place on life’s road.

I have read the story of Abram and Sarai countless times in the past 30 years. I have heard it shared, I’ve listened to any number of sermons and lectures on this chapter. I’m sure I’ve even given a few messages of my own from this text along the way. This time, however, the story is different. After several long years of Wendy and me trying and failing to bring a child into the world,  I’m reading it, seeing it, feeling it as if for the first time. The waiting. The questioning. The endless monthly roller coaster of expectation and despair. The alone-ness and isolation. The desperation. The grief. The depression. The hopelessness. The grasping with futility for something, anything to hasten the realization of some kind of positive resolution.

Sarai shouldn’t have…. Abram should have…. Why on earth didn’t they just…?

They did what they did. It doesn’t make it right, but I get it now.

Why is the answer always “no?”

And still, God is good.

Word to Canvas

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I’ve never had one of my messages translated into a work of art before. Very cool.

This from the artist, my daughter Taylor:

I never showed you this. I did this painting based off your sermon from Westview and used Robert Motherwell’s theory of abstraction. So lust of the flesh became the fruit/female figure shapes. Lust of the eyes and pride of life are tied into the kingdom/building/root-esque black shapes. It’s not my favorite, but the point was to use a well known artists abstraction theory so that’s what I did. I like how they’re all kind of awkwardly connected and in these bright, happy colors because we love to mask how dark those things are.

A Very Different Economy

paycheck
paycheck (Photo credit: owaief89)

Chapter-a-Day Genesis 15

And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith. Genesis 15:6 (NLT)

We live in a world where credit is earned. We work. We put in our time. We show up. We do the job. We are then credited for what we’ve earned. There is usually a direct line connecting our effort to our paycheck. If we do this job we earn this much money. Most of us are even given credit to receive an advance of money we haven’t earned if we want to purchase something for which we don’t have the money right now. If we handle that advance correctly, we earn a higher credit score and the ability to borrow even more money. It is a simple concept. You work to earn an income. You are merited for what you do.

No wonder it is so hard for us to grasp the very different economic system of God’s Kingdom. The verse above is one of the cornerstones of Kingdom Economics. Righteousness in God’s economy is not earned by what we do, but credited for our faith and trust in the Provider [read the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans for more explanation]. It’s called grace. It is being given favor that is unearned or unmerited in any way. Our lives and good works are not to be motivated in an effort to earn God’s favor. In Kingdom Economics, our motivation to do good things is out of a sense of gratitude for God’s favor which we have already received and didn’t do anything to earn.

Today, I’m thinking about my life. I don’t want to just understand the concept of grace, but embrace it and live it out in my daily thoughts, words, and actions.