Tag Archives: Ah Wilderness!

Pondering the Power of a Father

Ah, WildernessJoseph had his chariot made ready and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel. As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time. Genesis 46:29 (NIV)

A week and a half ago the curtain fell on Ah, Wilderness! which will likely be my only chance in life to act in a show by the classic American playwright Eugene O’Neill. In my preparation for the role I learned a lot about the author and the play. Ah, Wilderness! was written in response to critics who said that he couldn’t write a comedy. The family comedy is set in the same town in the same year as his family tragedy Long Days Journey into Night. Scholars say that the two plays are bookends with the tragedy being an autobiographical look at his own broken family and the comedy being a picture of the family of an old girlfriend, the family he wished he’d had.

I also learned that the character I played became the prototype of the modern sit-com father. A bit of a hen-pecked bumbler, the family rolled their eyes at his penchant for repeating the same stories over and over again. He would wax hard about his will only to wane quickly with a quick glare from his wife. He comically couldn’t find the words to have “the talk” with his son, but nontheless won his son’s respect and affection in the attempt.

In my character work for the part I spent a lot of time thinking about being a father. I thought about my father and my grandfathers whom I love and admire. I thought about my own children and my experiences being a dad. Being the “old guy” in a college production, I thought a lot about my fellow young actors whom I came to love with paternal affection. It’s fascinating how God designed life. There is so much of our soul that is intertwined in our relationship, or lack thereof, with our father. I’ve observed that our relationship, or lack thereof, with our earthly father can have a profound affect on the way we see and relate to the Heavenly Father. Some never see it nor do they appear to get past it.

All of these thoughts came to roost in the wee hours this morning as I read of Joseph’s reunion with his father Jacob. What a powerful moment for these two men, father and son as they see one another for the first time in years and tearfully embrace. Jacob holding the son he thought was dead. Joseph longing for the father he’d missed. I thought of the Prodigal Son’s return and how the reunion of Joseph and Jacob were different and similar.

I’m struggling to neatly wrap this post up in a succinctly profound thought this morning. Some days I read the chapter and my heart and mind refuse to land in one place. They just sort of take off into scattered thoughts and ponderings. So, I think I’ll just let them wander aloft.

Have a good day.

Preparing for a Role: Ready for Performance!

The pre-battle speech is an icon of literature, stage and film. From Shakespeare’s Henry V admonishing his band of brothers on the field of Agincourt to William Wallace admonishing his Scottish army to Knute Rockne encouraging his boys to “win one for the Gipper.” Most of us have experienced the mental preparation and psyche up before we are to participate in a big event.

Performance on stage is no different. Weeks of preparation on Ah, Wilderness!, hours of tedious rehearsal, and the combined efforts of a small army of cast and crew culminate this week in just four performances. Every stage troupe has their own unique pre-curtain rituals. Some are very ritualistic and others are more loose. It’s been fun for me to enjoy being part of the pre-show ritual with the Theatre Central cast this week.

Each actor is given his or her “call” time by the Stage Manager(s). This is the time you are required to arrive and begin the make-up process. For Ah, Wilderness!, some of the ladies have more time consuming hair preparations for that 1906 coiffure, so their call is earlier than most of the cast. My call has been one hour before curtain, so I have arrived at the Kruidenier Theatre Center on the campus of Central College about 6:30 each night. Hair and make-up is the first order of business.

Me and Jake Anderson getting ready in make-up alley.
Me and Jake Anderson getting ready in make-up alley.

I start with wetting down and plastering my hair with goop to get that slicked back look. Then apply make-up. The harsh, bright stage lights tend to wash out natural complexion, so stage make-up helps to balance this out. Foundation, eye-liner, rouge, highlights and wrinkle lines are applied and then powdered. Yes, I do this myself. Most stage veterans learn the process and take responsibility for their own basic stage make-up. It’s generally only  when more complex make-up techniques are required that a make-up artist is brought in. The hair and make-up time is also a social time. Actors do this together, music is generally playing and there’s a lot of good natured joking and jovial conversation going on.

It’s during this period that Stage Managers also remind actors to “check props.”  It is ultimately the actors responsibility to make sure the items you need on stage are where they are supposed to be. Once in make-up, I put on the iPod ear buds. Since college my requisite pre-show psych up has begun with the Talking Head’s Psycho Killer followed by Burning Down the House a ritual I picked up from my roommate and senior theatre classmate, Kirk Anderson and one that I’ve never altered. Even thespians have their superstitious rituals. With music cranked and adrenaline beginning to pump through my veins, I check to make sure that cigars, handkerchiefs, newspapers, reading glasses, and hat are all where they need to be on stage and back stage.


It’s now about 30-40 minutes before curtain. I head to the studio theatre next to make-up alley where I begin to stretch and continue to let the Talking Head’s pump me up. Pretty soon the rest of the cast wander in along with Stage Manager(s) and Director, Ann Wilkinson. The cast forms a circle and we go through a series of physical and vocal warm ups. Soft stretches and tongue twisters are primary as we get our bodies loose and our mouths ready for reciting our lines. Here are a few we’ve done this week (try saying each 4-5 times in rapid succession):

  • Unique New York
  • Irish Wristwatch
  • Aluminum Linoleum
  • Geranium Chrysanthemum
  • Bears eat beets on Battlestar Galactica
  • A box of biscuits. A box of mixed biscuits. A biscuit mixer.

As I mentioned earlier, each stage troupe has their own unique rituals. Ann Wilkinson enjoys an exercise of “singing the theatre alive” which is based on a tribe in Africa who each year gather to “sing the forest alive” by chanting/singing the same phrase over and over and over for an entire week. We divide into groups and perform the chant (phonetically: Ah-mah-ee-boo-oh-ee-ay) in a round with each group choosing a different physical action to complement their vocals.

We then will get our pre-show speech in a quick word of encouragement from the Director and/or Stage Managers along with the occasional instructions or reminders before being dismissed to get into costume. I go into the Costume Room and pull my costume from its place on the rack and head to the locker room to change with the other actors. By the time the costume is on the Stage Managers are generally calling for “places” and it’s time to head through the back stage entrance to take our places for the start of the show.

Cast photo taken after Dress Rehearsal.
Cast photo taken after Dress Rehearsal.

It’s been an enjoyable run. We’ve had good audiences and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with the exceptional young people and profs at Central. Thanks to everyone at Central for their cooperation and support. Thanks to family and friends who have come out to see the show. Tonight is the final performance and the curtain will close another production. There is always a bittersweet feeling with closing night. While I’m ready to have my evenings and weekends back, there is a sense of loss as I think of the fun and camaraderie I’ve enjoyed in the past weeks.

Next up for Wendy and me is another production of The Dominie’s Wife for the Pella Opera House during Pella’s Tulip Time. It will be Wendy’s third production of the show and my second. We’ll begin production meetings next week. Stay tuned!

Preparing for a Role: Keeping Focus When Siri Joins You on Stage

One of the things that I love about live theatre is the fact that it is, in fact, “live.” Movies and television spend countless hours honing and perfecting exactly what they want you to see how they want you to see it. Actors get to deliver their line over and over and over again for a camera. The cinematographer gets to make them look good, the sound editor makes them sound good, and the editor gets to choose the perfect take or use computer wizardry to alter it so that it’s the perfect performance for the audience in the movie theater to see. Stage actors, on the other hand, are out there on their own live and in person. While the lighting and costume crew have done an admirable job to make the actors look good, the truth is that the actor is out there on their own in front of a live audience. Despite weeks of rehearsal to ensure that everything goes as planned, the possibility exists that almost anything can go horribly wrong in the moment.

Talk to stage veterans and they will have plenty of stories about the crazy, unexpected things that happen on stage for which you have no control and must find a way to improvise and carry on as best you can. In my post 10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success, the number one thing on my list was the way that being an actor and a theatre major taught me to keep focus and improvise in any number of difficult and unexpected situations:

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.

The other night in dress rehearsal for Ah, Wilderness! I had one of my most humbling and unnerving experiences on stage in 35 years. First of all, I must start with a confession that I committed a cardinal sin of the stage by having my iPhone in my suit coat pocket. If you’ve followed my blog or Facebook feed you’ll know that I love to capture pictures of the hidden world of the theatre backstage and moments that the audience never sees. So, during the rehearsal process I’ve kept my iPhone close so as to snap a few of these pictures back stage.

On Tuesday night my iPhone was in my breast coat pocket, but I had also slipped my reading glasses in that pocket without giving it a thought. As we got into the first scene of Act II the reading glasses, which must have been resting against the phone in just the right way, pushed the button on my iPhone kicking in the familiar tone for Siri, the iPhone’s talking digital assistant.


I will not print the words which entered my brain at the moment I heard those tones coming from my coat. Panic struck, but I realized that I had to ignore the sounds coming from my suit jacket as I calmly played out this family scene set in 1906 as if nothing happened out of the ordinary.


I fumbled my line as my brain raced, trying to figure out a way to inconspicuously get my phone out of my pocket and off stage or turned off or anything that might keep Siri from making her unwanted stage debut in the Eugene O’Neill classic.


#$&@! It kept happening! I told myself to ignore the phone and to try to keep from moving in such a way that it would go off again. “Just focus!” I told myself, “and play out the scene as if nothing happened.”


At this point in the scene my character was trying to convince his son, Arthur, to sing a song for the family. Continuing to muster all the concentration I could, I calmly delivered my line center stage:

…Why not give us a song or two now? You can play for him, can’t you, Mildred?


It was right about that time I heard Siri’s robotic female voice answering from my breast pocket:

I’m very sorry, Tom. I can’t play any music for you right now.

Fortunately, the exceptional young actors from Central College admirably maintained their composure and carried on as if nothing happened. Humiliated, I got through the scene and put my iPhone in my backpack where it should have been all along. Leave it to the old veteran to get caught making a rookie mistake. Mea culpa. Mea culpa.

Once again, however, it illustrates the exciting nature of live theatre. When you’re watching  fallible human beings playing out a story on stage live and in the moment, you never know what what you might happen to witness.

Preparing for a Role: Bits & Moments in the Grind

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It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted about my preparations for a role in the Central College Theatre Department’s production of Ah, Wilderness!. The last time I posted we had the show blocked and had begun the process of really digging into our characters and working the scenes in rehearsal.

One of the things that you learn in the rehearsal process is that, in most productions, there is a natural flow to it. The initial excitement and fun of launching into the work together eventually gives way to a rehearsal grind. You work the same scenes over and over and over again. You get tired of being there. You stop looking forward to rehearsal and feel a sort of “here we go again” groan as you head to the theatre. It’s natural. It will eventually lead to a second wind of excitement and adrenaline before performance. The rehearsal grind is necessary and profitable for finding deeper layers of understanding, relationship and authentic moments on stage.

“Bits” and “Moments”

It’s in the grind of working scenes over and over again that you begin to find “bits.” “Bits” are small actions on stage, typically physical in nature, that generally provide a little humor. For example, in one scene my character is coming home just in time for family dinner after having gotten a little tipsy at a Fourth of July picnic. The script calls for me to greet our housemaid, Nora, with a simple “Hello, Nora” while giving her a courtly bow. As we worked the scene I realized that I’m greeting Norah just as she’s coming out of the swinging kitchen door with a serving bowl full of hot soup. I suddenly thought it would be a funny to hide behind the door so she doesn’t see me as it swings open, then jump out from behind and scare the daylights out of her. The first time I did it I think I actually did give actor Abbi Hartman, who plays Nora, a small heart attack (sorry, Abbi!).  The bit got a good laugh, however, and Director Ann Wilkinson let me keep it in the show.

Compared to a physical bit, a “moment” is more of a relational connection that is made between two characters. It might not be verbal or physical. A moment could be a look or a silent connection. These moments begin to emerge only as you grind out the scene over and over again and delve deeper into the character and the circumstances that are happening within the scene. For an actor, there can be a feeling of magic when moments happen. In that moment the lines, blocking, and character work all combine to create a very real, very emotional moment between you and a fellow actor within the scene. This is when you know you’ve begun to press beyond just “going through the motions” and are creating a reality on stage which will cause audiences to suspend their disbelief and get lost in the world of the play.

For example, there is a subtle “moment” that happens when my character confronts his young son, capably played by Jacob Anderson, about whether he’s been trying to take advantage of his girlfriend. In his defense the 16 year-old son spills that he and the neighbor girl are engaged. As we worked the lines in the scene the reality of the moment sunk in that my 16 year-old son is surprising me with news that he’s engaged. That reality caused me to reel back with a look of paternal astonishment. That look, in turn, caused Jacob to respond with a defensive pull back and the way he played his next line changed. It’s a small moment, but it allowed me to feel that this is a very real moment between father and son.

Some of my other favorite moments happen in the final scene of the play in which my character and his wife, Essie, are sitting together in the quiet of a summer evening having a marital conversation about their children, the days events, and engaging in that subtle non-verbal dance of flirtation between husband and wife that eventually leads to bed (don’t worry – only the flirtatious non-verbal part is in the script). First of all, I have to compliment my fellow actor Tiki Steen who has had to face the challenging task of being a young female college student thrown into an on-stage marriage with a strange man old enough to be her father. Acting can put you in weird situations and Tiki has handled it with cheerful humor and a generous amount of maturity for an actor her age. I bring years of marital experience to the scene which helps tremendously. I can totally relate to late evening conversations about children and worries and subtextual flirtations that happen between husband and wife. Tiki has had to do the yeoman’s work of learning, exploring and discovering. The reward for both actor and audience is some very genuine moments that happen in the scene.

As I rolled out of bed this morning about 2 hours later than normal, Wendy commented on how much of a toll “the grind” of rehearsal has taken on me. When you work a part hard and rehearse well, it can tax you physically and mentally. I tend to come home from rehearsal tired, but buzzing from the experience. I have to take some time to wind down, debrief with Wendy about the rehearsal, have a small bite of something and a nightcap, and let my brain and body relax. That usually means getting to bed a little later than normal and being a little more worn out than usual.

The grind is over. Tomorrow is a long technical cue-to-cue rehearsal. Then it’s three dress rehearsals before opening night.

Ticket and Production Information for Ah, Wilderness!

Preparing for a Role: Rehearsal Process

Ah Wilderness Rehearsal

Time is flying and between work, sleep, and rehearsal I’ve not had much time to write. I’m finding that the rehearsal process for college is shorter and more intense than I’d remembered. In community theatre you tend to rehearse a show for 8-12 weeks and have about three rehearsals a week. With Ah, Wilderness! we’ve been rehearsing five times a week and only have 5-6 weeks.

For those who’ve never been in a show, the rehearsal period can basically be broken into:

  • Blocking: In which you go through the scene, script in hand, and the director decides where she/he wants you to move as you say your lines. You do a lot of jotting down where you are on stage and where you’re supposed to move.
  • Working: The scenes are “blocked,” but now you start running through them top to bottom to get a feel for how it flows. You dig in to what your characters are doing and thinking. Eventually, you put down the script and run it “off-book.” The stage manager is generally sitting there with the script. If you forget your line you yell “Line” and she/he feeds it to you.
  • Run & Polish: With everyone off book and things starting to come together, you begin running scenes, acts, and the show from top to bottom. Costumes, props, and set pieces are incorporated. The director begins targeting scenes that need to be polished. Eventually, the director tells you you’re “off-book” and if you drop your line you’re on your own.
  • Tech Rehearsal/Cue-to-Cue: These rehearsals (typically in the later stages of the process) are all about incorporating sound effects and lighting changes. Actors typically do a lot of standing around and running scene changes over and over again as the tech crew get their cues set.
  • Run/Dress Rehearsal: With all the elements in place, you begin running the show as you will in performance. The director waits until the end of the night to “give notes” in which she/he will tell you what you need to work on or change before the next rehearsal.

I’ve really been enjoying rehearsals at Central College. We’ve finished blocking the show and are beginning to work the scenes and acts. It’s been fun working with the students and we’re getting to know one another. Chatting in the dressing room with Jacob Anderson who plays my son Richard in the play, I came to find out that Jacob and his family used to be members of Westview Church where I was a member before moving to Pella. I knew Jacob when he was a baby and now he’s a freshman in college and I’m in a show with him [cue: weary groan] Dang, I’m old.

The students have been great to work with. I have the advantage of having seen many of them in multiple shows at Central, and I’ve gained respect for their abilities even though I’ve never truly met them. They’ve never seen me on stage, however, and don’t have a clue who I am. So, we’re getting to know one another.

So, what am I learning?

  • Life makes you a better actor: Wendy and I were watching Derek Jacobi on PBS’ Shakespeare Uncovered yesterday. Sir Derek was watching himself play Richard II when he was 30 years younger. “I wish I could do it again,” he said. “I could do it better.” Wendy and I said in unison, “Of course you could.” The truth is that actors draw from life experience in developing their characters. The more you experience in the life, the more you have to bring to your character. The other night I had a conversation with Tiki Steen, a fine young actor, who plays my wife Essie in the show. There’s some subtext in one particular scene in which husband and wife are doing the subtle, unspoken flirtations that husbands and wives weave into everyday situations as they toy with the idea of making love that night. Obviously, Tiki has never experienced these flirtations so I was able to shed some light on what Nat and Essie are really communicating with one another.
  • Productions have different motivations: Actors talk about their character’s motivation all the time, but the entire production has a motivation, as well. Wendy and I were having a conversation with Ann Wilkinson who is directing Ah, Wilderness! the other night after rehearsal. She spoke about the transition she’s had to make from being a professional casting director to small college professor. A hollywood film is about motivated to make money, but a college production is motivated to educate students. The atmosphere in a Central production is different than a USP production because college and community theatre have slightly (though not completely) different motivations. Sometimes you have to alter your personal expectations and lean into the production’s motivation.
  • I love the process as much as the performance: I can’t say I’m learning it for the first time, but I’m rediscovering it again, as I do every time I get the opportunity to dig my teeth into a role. While there is no rush like making your entrance with a packed house watching, there is a subtle and somewhat more satisfying rush from the process of discovery, work, and collaboration in rehearsals.

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.]

Preparing for a Role: The First Rehearsal

Monte_Cristo_Cottage_11_12_10 (Photo credit: Chris | ChristopherHarrison.net)

So last night was the first rehearsal for Ah, Wilderness! at Central College. It was a lot of fun to be on campus. It was a great mix of young people. I’ve seen many of Central’s actors on stage in past Central productions and I’ve gained a lot of respect for them. I’m looking forward to working with them. Nevertheless, I will admit to feeling a bit of awkwardness of being the stranger in the crowd. Make that the old stranger in the crowd. As one member of the cast announced, “I know everyone here but him,” pointing at me. Yep, the old guy in the room. The one with the gray hair. In introducing myself I should have said, “You probably know my daughter and son-in-law.”

For those who’ve never been in a production, the first rehearsal is all about housekeeping. Announcements, schedules, rules, expectations, contact lists, etc. and etc. We also received a nice overview from the designer, Greg Gillette, regarding what the set will look like and some of the costumes. Director, Ann Wilkinson, provided some background to the play including some fun tidbits about New London Connecticut and the Monte Cristo cottage where the playwright lived (see picture) and provided the setting of the play. It was a great visual. Then comes the first read through in which you sit around tables and read straight through the script. Here I had the advantage of having known that I was cast and having read through the script a couple of times. Most, if not all, of the students were reading it cold for the first time.

After rehearsal I received a quick tour from Alex Wei, one of the students on the production staff. I’ve known Alex for several years since I directed his mom in a production of Morning’s at Seven. I even got my own locker assigned to me (cue the nightmares of going back to school and forgetting your locker combination).

Impressions from the first rehearsal:

  • I really enjoyed the excitement and atmosphere. It’s going to be fun to work with a great group of young actors.
  • Only 25 rehearsals before the show has to be ready for cue-to-cue (yikes!).
  • I have A LOT of lines to memorize in a short period of time.
  • It’s strange to be in a show without Wendy involved in some way – we’re such a team.
  • I was reminded last night that in the student lounge in the theatre department hangs a  charter membership certificate for Central’s inclusion in the Alpha Psi Omega theatrical fraternity. My Grandpa Vander Well’s signature is on it from when he attended Central in the late 1920s. Kind of a cool legacy thing I’m quietly enjoying.

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.]

Preparing for a Role: Digging Into the Past

Poster for presentation of "" at the...
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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.