Preparing for a Role: Digging Into the Past

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Speaking of being an artist, over the next seven weeks I’m going to be involved in a fun creative challenge. I’ve been asked by Director Ann Wilkinson and Theatre Central to be a guest artist and perform a role for their production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! which will be performed February 27th through March 3rd at Central College.

I thought I might chronicle my experiences in a series of posts here. I get the feeling that many people fail to understand the work and the process that goes into a role they see performed on stage. People go to a play and it looks like the actor simply memorized some lines, put on a costume and just sort of pretended.

Work on my part actually began over the past four weeks as I familiarized myself with the script. The first thing I want to do as an actor is to understand the background of the play, what the playwright was expressing, and what can be learned from past productions of the script. [Thank God for the internet. It makes the process so much easier.]

Eugene O’Neill is known for long, brooding plays like (the five hour long) The Iceman Cometh and A Long Day’s Journey into Night. O’Neill, who wrote from the beginning to middle of the 20th century, was known for plays that were dark, pessimistic and tragic. There was one comic exception: Ah, Wilderness! The comedy, in which O’Neill tapped into autobiographical elements of his childhood, is a coming of age play in a traditional family setting. It is set in 1906 Connecticut on the Fourth of July holiday. It is sweet and sentimental. It is a precursor to Leave It to Beaver, The Brady Bunch, and The Cosby Show.

I’ve been cast in the role of the family Patriarch, Nat Miller. Miller is a small town newspaper man. The role was once played by legendary American humorist Will Rogers. Like the television fathers we’ve come to know and love, Miller is loving and wise but also a bit bumbling and humorously flawed even as he holds the family together.

O’Neill had a lot of issues with his own family growing up. He was the son of an actor (a hard Irish Catholic disciplinarian) and grew up on the road. During his young adult years he spent summers in Connecticut. He had a girlfriend whose father made a huge impression on him. It is believed that O’Neill fashioned the character of Nat Miller based on this man whom he appreciated.

Understanding the background of the play and the larger picture of its history helps me as an actor as I approach the script. It’s not that I have to be limited to what everyone else has done with it in the past or how others have interpreted it, but knowing the context can help me embrace the spirit of the whole as I carve out my own interpretation of it. History isn’t a set of shackles. It is a springboard.

Having done a little bit of background I read through the script. Knowing that the show was first staged in 1933, my mind was sort of in a black and white Hollywood frame of mind. As I read Nat Miller’s lines and pictured the scenes in my head, the voices of different great actors of that era entered my head. I didn’t mean for this to happen. It just sort of did. There was Henry Ford, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart to name a few. My brain catalogued different visions of what these great actors might have brought to the role with different scenes and lines. I don’t want my portrayal to be an impersonation of Jimmy Stewart playing Nat Miller, but envisioning the humor that Stewart might bring to a particular moment fuels ideas of what I might want to try as I communicate as I enter the rehearsal process.

Next step…. digging into the script.

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