Preparing for a Role: Digging Into the Script

2013 01 11 Wilderness Journal_Snapseed

[This is part of a series of posts in which I’m documenting the steps I go through when I’m preparing for a role on stage. I thought it might be interesting to someone, somewhere, at some point. For what it’s worth.]

Having done a little background into the playwright and the play. My next step in preparing for a role is to dig into the script itself. I find that a cheap notebook or journal is generally handy to keep throughout the process. I typically grab one of those marbled composition notebooks you can get at any discount store for a buck. With pen and notebook handy, I start reading through the script and get ready to jot down notes, questions that come to mind, and references I want to look up.

Since a lot of classic plays were written decades or centuries ago and many of them refer to a specific period of history, scripts regularly contain references that are lost on an actor living in 2010. If I’m going to give an authentic portrayal of a small town newspaper man in 1906, then I better know exactly who/what I mean when I make references on stage – even if they will be largely lost on the audience. The believability in an actors portrayal hinges on that actor internalizing and knowing what his or her line is talking about.

As I read through the script the first time, I make notes about things that I need to investigate or references I don’t understand. I’m not too concerned with my character yet, though I will jot down thoughts and questions about my character as they come to me. I’m mostly concerned with the setting and references to persons, places, or things with which I’m not intimately familiar. This is particularly true of a period piece like Ah, Wilderness! which is set on a specific date in a specific year (July 4, 1906). O’Neill filled the script with a ton of literary and period references. I’m kind of a nerd when it comes to trivial knowledge, but there were a ton of things I needed to look up and investigate.

Here’s are some examples:

  • 1906: The year the play was set. What was happening in the world at that time? What were the big political issues? Nat Miller is a newspaper man. What stories were big and what stories had he been following and writing about?
  • July 4: What day of the week was it? What were typical celebrations like in 1906?
  • Newspaper Editor: What were the issues for editors in that day? What was the business like? How much could  you make?
  • Sachem Club: Reference to senior members of Tammany Hall – an Irish social/political club dedicated to the political advancement and power of the Irish in America. Nat is a member. How did this influence his past/position? How do his Irish roots affect who he is and his world-view?
  • Buick: Nat owns a Buick. Considering automobiles were relatively new, this is really interesting. What would it have looked like? How much did it cost? How did he afford it? See previous reference of Sachem Club…does he have connections?
  • W.C.T.U.: Women’s Christian Temperance Union (they led the fight for prohibition)
  • Waterwagon: abstaining from alcohol
  • Emma Goldman: Russian born anarchist, political activist and speech writer
  • Carlyle’s French Revolution: Popular victorian history of the Revolution by a Scottish Calvinist who lost his faith but retained his Calvinist values.
  • Tumbril: an open cart used to carry condemned victims to the guillotine.
  • “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” – poem by Oscar Wilde written from his experience in prison.
  • Play by Bernard Shaw banned from Broadway: “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” was initially not allowed to be produced on Broadway because Mrs. Warren ran a brothel.
  • Old Cap Collier & Nick Carter: serial Detective stories popular with young readers and sold for a nickel/dime.
  • “Poems and Ballads of Swinburne”: British poet. Contemporary of Oscar Wilde.
  • The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – a series of quatrain poems by Persian mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. The title of the play comes from one of his famous quatrains. “Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough, A flask of wine, a book of verse – and thou; Beside me singing in the wilderness; And Wilderness is paradise enough.”

As I dig into references, read the poetry, and learn more about the period in which the piece is set, I’m building an understanding of the broader context in which my character lives, thinks, moves, and relates. I  begin to gain a deeper appreciation for what O’Neill was trying to say through the characters and the things that the characters thought about, read, and how they viewed the world.

I’m not even thinking too much about the actual lines yet, but doing this background work will an invaluable help to me as I begin to internalize and interpret them.

Next step: Digging into the Character

[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.]

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