Tag Archives: Nat Miller

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: 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

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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.