As 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.]