Sunday, July 21, 2013

The View from Backstage: Discovering the Character

I can't speak for anyone else, but when I'm in a children's show, I like to find new ways to reinterpret the play. If you listen hard enough, you can make a play tell you some amazing things.

I did this last Christmastime at Kelsey Theatre, when I played part of the ensemble in "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." It's supposed to be a charming little story about how Clement Moore learned about the real Santa Claus (hint: he has a neighbor named Kris Kringle), and was inspired to write his poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas." I took advantage of the large talking mouse, dancing sugar plums, and troupe of tapdancing reindeer whom only Moore could see; and sensibly concluded that the play was really about Clement Moore's tragic mental breakdown.

These things generally have no effect on the play, except to give me and the other actors something to laugh about backstage. In one or two cases, other actors have added perverse suggestions of their own, or asked me for more.

This time, though, I think I'm really on to something.

Middle Daughter and I are partway through a three-week run of "The Frog Prince," as adapted for the stage by playwright Max Bush. It's a fun little children's play, based on the story by the Brothers Grinn, though it also draws a bit on Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." The show is running at Somerset Valley Players in Hillsborough, through Aug. 4. (Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.)

The story centers on Prince Erik, whom a witch has turned into a frog. The only way to break the enchantment is for a princess to take him home with her, let him eat from her plate, drink from her cup, and sleep on her bed. You know how the story goes. My character is the king, who is naturally concerned that his daughter honor the promises she makes, even if she makes them to a frog. A promise is a promise, after all.

Now, in developing the story into a three-scene play, Bush has necessarily added detail. First, there's the backstory for Prince Erik and how he became a frog: He refused to help the witch when she asked for help, and what is more, he wounded a magic panther under the witch's protection while hunting it. His transformation, which seems to owe a little to Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," is meant to teach him a lesson. If he doesn't learn it, he'll stay a frog forever.

But what's interesting is the backstory Bush implies for the other characters. The princess' brother-in-law, Hans, talks repeatedly about having been a bear. And King Kiesel, when he walks on stage the first time, is hailed as "Kiesel the Hawk, son of Charles the Wolf." Hel-lo! We have an interesting backstory suggested here, that perhaps not only the king but his father as well, also were taught lessons by the witch.

These are minor things, admittedly; but unlike my games with Clement Moore and his mental breakdown, they serve actually to define my character. Having given these thoughts expression, I suddenly found the king viewing Prince Erik's story in a whole new light. It's no wonder he's not surprised to hear a talking frog, nor to see a prince appear where a frog had been. These things may not happen all the time, but they've happened with enough regularity that the king is prepared to accept them.

This is an important process in acting, one that can move an actor from merely reciting lines and trying to play the character, to actually becoming the character. There isn't always a lot to go on, but it's important to listen to the dialogue and explore the blocking, not to mention understanding the chemistry with the other actors on stage. Doing it right can make the characters spring to life in ways not immediately apparent in the script, nor even necessarily considered by the playwright.

Before I took the part of King Kiesel in "The Frog Prince," I had the part of Noah in "The Grapes of Wrath," a stage adaptation by Frank Galati of John Steinbeck's unforgettable novel. Noah has about a dozen lines in the play before he leaves his family at the Colorado River, and his only big scene is that one.

I read the lines over and over again. I rehearsed them with the actor playing Tom Joad, and slowly came to understand my character my way. Noah has dealt with a mental disability since his birth. He isn't stupid, but he takes longer to think things through, and has realized over the years that the rest of the family tolerates him and feels sorry for him because of his disability, but they don't really care for him.

Except Tom.

Noah, you see, is the oldest of the Joad children, and Tom is second. Tom is also the one whom Noah decides to confide in with his decision to leave the family. By the backstory the two of us worked out, Noah has always loved his little brother, and Tom (ever since he realized Noah's difficulty) has looked out for and protected him.

So when Noah decides to confide his decision to Tom, it's a gentle scene. He sits down, waves his brother in close, and tells him. And when Tom tries to talk him out of it, Noah becomes agitated and upset, and ultimately takes a swing at his brother. Tom is stunned, and Noah breaks down in tears. And then he leaves.

The first time we played that scene to an audience, I heard gasps.

When you listen to a play hard enough, you can hear it say some amazing things.

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