Tag Archives: Study

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.]

10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success

Studying lines for a production “The Servant of Two Masters”

I have a confession to make. I was a theatre major in college (yes, complete with the snooty but appropriate “re” spelling). I’ll wait for you to stop snickering. Judson University (it was Judson College when I attended), the small liberal arts college outside of Chicago labeled the major course of studies as “Communication Arts” which is what I tend to put on resumes and bios because I realize that “theatre major” tends to elicit thoughts such as “Do you want fries with that?”

When I chose my major, I had no pipe dreams about becoming a professional actor. I did it because more than one wise adult had advised me that my actual major in college would have less impact on my eventual job search than having the actual degree. “Study what you love” I was told, “not what you think will get you a job.” I listened for once and chose theatre because I’d done it all through my secondary education, I had relative success doing it, and because I simply loved being a part of it. Fortunately, my parents gave me absolutely no grief about my choice (unlike most of my fellow majors. Thanks mom & dad!)

"Arms and the Man"
“Arms and the Man”

Fast forward 25 years and, like many people, I am no where near the waypoint on life’s road I envisioned I’d be back in college. Almost 20 years as a business consultant and now a business owner with a modestly successful track record in my business and blogging, I realize how much being a theatre major set me on the road towards success.

Here are 10 ways being a theatre major helped me succeed:

  1. Improvisation. The great thing about the stage is that when it’s live and you’re up in front of that audience anything can, and does, happen. Dropped lines, missed entrances, or malfunctioning props require you to improvise while maintaining your cool. Theatre taught me how to focus, think quickly and make do while giving the impression that you’ve got it all under control. It’s served me well when clients, airlines, coworkers, or technology wreak unexpected havoc at the worst possible moment.
  2. Project Management. A stage production is basically a business project. You have teams of people making up one team working to successfully accomplish a task on time, on budget in such a way that you earn the applause and an occasional standing ovation. Being taught to stand at the helm of a theatrical production was a project management practicum.
  3. Working with a Limited Budget. Everybody who has worked on stage knows that it’s not the road to fortune. Most plays (especially small college shows) are produced on a shoestring budget. This forces you to be imaginative, do more with less and find creative ways to get the results you want without spending money. Ask any corporate manager and they’ll tell you that this pretty much describes their job. Mine too.
  4. Dealing with Very Different Human Beings. The theatrical community is a mash-up of interesting characters. It always has been. From fringe to freakish to frappucino sipping socialites and everything in between, you’re going to encounter the most amazing and stimulating cross-section of humanity when you work in theatre. In my business career I have the unique and challenging task of walking in the CEO’s office in the morning to present our findings in an executive summary presentation and to receive a high level grilling. I will then spend the afternoon presenting the same data to overworked, underpaid, cynical front-line employees and get a very different grilling. Theatre taught me how to appreciate, understand and effectively communicate with a widely diverse group of human beings.
  5. Understanding the Human Condition. Most people have the mistaken impression that acting is all about pretending and being “fake” in front of others. What I learned as a theatre major was that good actors learn the human condition intimately through observation and painfully detailed introspection. The better you understand that human being you are portraying from the inside out, the better and more authentic your performance is going to be. In my business I am constantly using the same general methods to understand my clients, their customers as well as myself and my co-workers. I believe that having a better understanding of myself and others has ultimately made me a better (though far from perfect) employee, consultant, employer, and ultimately friend. I didn’t learn methods of observing and understanding others in Macro Econ, I learned it in Acting I & Acting II.
  6. Doing Whatever Needs to Be Done. When you’re a theatre major at a small liberal arts college there is little room for specializing within your field. You have to learn to do it all. Light design, sound engineering, acting, directing, producing, marketing, PR, set design, set construction, ticket sales, budgeting, customer service, ushering, make-up, and costuming are all things I had to do as part of my college career. Within our merry band of theatre majors we all had to learn every piece of a production because at some point we would be required to do what needed to be done. I learned that I can capably do just about anything that I need to do. I may not love it and I may not be gifted or excellent at it, but give me a task and I’ll figure it out. I now work for a small consulting firm that requires me to do a wide range of tasks. The experience, can-do attitude and indomitable spirit I learned in the theatre have been essential to success.
  7. Hard work. I remember creating a tree for one of our college shows. We had no idea how we were going to do it, but we made an amazing life-like tree that emerged from the stage and looked as if it disappeared into the ceiling above the theatre. My team mates and I cut out each and every leaf and individually hot-glued them to the branches of the tree. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of them glued on while standing precariously on a rickety ladder high enough above the stage that it would make an OSHA inspector soil his boxers. Sleepless nights, burnt fingers and a few brushes with tragedy were needed to get that tree done. But, we got it done. It was fabulous. And a few days later we tore it down, threw it out, and got ready for the next production. C’est la vie. In business I have periods of time with unbelievable workloads in which there are sleepless nights, seemingly endless days and tireless work on projects that will be presented and then will be over. The report will be archived and I’m onto the next project. C’est la vie. I learned all about that as a theatre major.
  8. Making Difficult Choices. You’ve got four parts and twenty four schoolmates who auditioned. Some of them are your best friends and fellow theatre majors. Do you choose the unexperienced jock because he’s best for the part or the friend and fellow theatre major who you fear will never talk to you again if you don’t cast him? My senior project was supposed to be performed outside in the amphitheater but the weather was cold, windy and miserable. Do I choose to stick with the plan because it’s what my actors are comfortable with and it’s what we’ve rehearsed and it will only stress out the cast and crew to change the venue at the last-minute? Or, do I choose to think about the audience who will be more comfortable and might actually pay attention and appreciate the performance if they are inside away from the cold, the wind and possible rain? [I changed the venue]. Any business person will tell you that difficult decisions must sometimes be made. The higher the position the harder the decisions and the more people those decisions affect. Being a theatre major gave me a taste of what I would have to digest in my business career.
  9. Presentation Skills. Okay, it’s a no brainer but any corporate employee can tell you horror stories of having to endure long training sessions or corporate presentations by boring, unprepared, incompetent or just plain awful presenters. From what I’ve experienced, individuals who can stand up confidently in front of a group of people and capably, effectively communicate their message while even being motivating and a little entertaining are among the rarest individuals in the business world. Being a theatre major helped me be one of them.
  10. Doing the Best You Can With What You’ve Got. Over the years I’ve told countless front line service reps that this is rule #1 of customer service. You do the best you can with what you’ve got to work with. I remember an Acting I class in college in which a pair of students got up to present a scene they’d prepared. They presented the scene on a bare stage with no lighting, make-up, costumes, props or set pieces. It was just two students acting out the script. It was one of those magic moments that happen with live theatre. The rest of the class was transfixed and pulled into the moment, reacting with surprising emotion to what they witnessed. You don’t need Broadway theatrics to create a magical theatrical moment on stage. You don’t even need a stage. The same is true of customer service. You don’t always need the latest technology, the best system, or the greatest whiz-bang doo-dads. A capable CSR doing the best they can and serving a customer with courtesy, empathy, friendliness and a commitment to resolve can and does win customer satisfaction and loyalty.

I’m proud to be an alumnus of Judson University. I’m really saddened that the school’s theatre program waned for a while and am encouraged that it shows signs of life once more. What I have learned I’ve tried to pass on to my own children. Study what you love. Follow your passion. It will serve you well wherever life’s road takes you.

Judson's production of Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" 1984
Judson’s production of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” 1984

2012 05 OWN Pic LR

Tom Vander Well graduated from Judson University with a degree in Speech/Theatre in 1988. He is currently partner and Vice-President of c wenger group, a consulting firm specializing in customer satisfaction research and call quality assessment (e.g. “your call may be monitored to ensure quality service”) where Tom has worked for over 20 years. Tom has been “waiting for Guffman” for the over ten years and served as President of Union Street Players, the award-winning community theatre in Pella, Iowa for a decade. There he has been producer, director, actor and writer. He has also performed for Central College, the Pella Opera House, and the Pella Shakespeare Company. His play Ham Buns and Potato Salad was presented at the Missouri Playwrights Workshop at the University of Missouri and an April 2014 premiere in Pella has been followed with subsequent area productions.

Related Blog Posts by Tom Vander Well:

The “Sui Generis” Moment on Stage
Power of the Art of Acting
Preparing for a Role: Digging into the Past
Preparing for a Role: Digging into the Script
Preparing for a Role: The First Rehearsal
Preparing for a Role: Digging into the Character
Preparing for a Role: The Rehearsal Process
Preparing for a Role: How Do You Memorize All Those Lines?
Preparing for a Role: Bits and Moments in the Grind
Doing the Harlem Shake with Theatre Central
Preparing for a Role: Production Week
Preparing for a Role: Keeping Focus When Siri Joins You on Stage
Preparing for a Role: Ready for Performance
Theatre is Ultimate Fitness for Your Brain!

Chapter-a-Day Amos 8

Art Lab punch clock
Image by much ado about nothing via Flickr

[You] who give little and take much, and never do an honest day’s work. Amos 7:5b (MSG)

I ran into an old teacher and asked him how things were going back at my alma mater. He shook his head with incredulity. “It’s not like it was when you were in school,” he told me. “If students put as much work into studying as they did into cheating and trying to get out of work, they’d be fine. It’s just frustrating.”

I spoke to a friend who supervises a team of workers and asked how it was at work. He shook his head with incredulity. “If only people would simply show up on time and do what’s asked of them,” he said. “I have people who work harder at getting out of doing work, than actually just getting the job done. And then, they complain about their pay.”

One of the simplest ways we differentiate ourselves along the journey is in the simple willingness to contentedly put in a hard day’s study or a hard day’s work for an honest return.

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