Last week I closed a four week run of Doug Wright’s Quills with Austin’s Different Stages and I wanted to jot down a few things I learned that will be helpful to me going forward. Please bear with me if this makes no damn sense or is insufferably precious about acting.
Doctor Royer-Collard is the sort of apoplectic asshole I’ve been playing since I was 16. He’s Horace Vandergelder with a bad childhood. He wants happiness and love… he just sucks at them and so clings to the rigidity of the framework The Rules supplies to force others into the same misery. The Doctor is what the free range nerd would call Lawful Evil.
I had a surprising amount of trouble with the Doctor for a character I’ve been playing for 20 years. Partly because of the setting the Doctor found himself in (sort of Grand Guinol farce), my own stubbornness in terms of what I wanted versus what the director wanted, and because, well, I’m in a very different acting shape than the last time I tried this sort of character on. I am a much more focused actor than I was 5 years ago – than I was 1 year ago. Regular work means that the acting muscles are a lot leaner and stronger than they were. It means that the sort of broad choices this character would have engendered of old didn’t fit any more. I sort of rattled around in them.
Eventually I settled out to an acceptable answer or two but it took much longer than it should have.
- I forgot that I change.
I’ve been playing this character (of a kind) since I was 16 and 70 pounds lighter. I was adding ‘age’ characteristics out of habit when they were necessary to the character or my portrayal at all. I was doing it because that’s what I do with these characters. Question all of your choices.
- Quiet isn’t always best
I’m a big believer in ‘make your choices and show them’ rather than talking them all to death. I will talk a show into the ground and it stops being about doing. However… I would advocate actually saying your choices out loud. It doesn’t need to be in rehearsal… I described the Doctor to my wife in a post-rehearsal frustration fugue and simply hearing myself describe him allowed me to fix the problematic choices. There were things that I hadn’t realized I had accidentally chosen…
- Mind your words
Look, this is awfully actor froofy, but mind how you describe a character. This is how I got into (and eventually out of trouble). All of the adjectives I was using for the Doctor were ultra-passive. “Waiting” “Cautious” “Plotting” “Scheming” they are so passive as to leave him flaccid. (It was Quills bear with me). Swapping out those words to something more active and playable makes a huge difference. “Coiled” “Prowling” – they create a very different tension in a scene and honestly it made the Doctor a LOT less frenetic.. which was to the better.
- Overcome obstacles
I failed at this… I didn’t realize I was doing it until closing weekend. My shows were a little tight, and the deck at the City Theatre is bouncy and uneven. It made me take very small steps.
Get up and take 10 steps with your stride foot landing inches in front of your plant foot.
Now just STRIDE the 8 feet.
That difference in control is huge, the difference in power is huge and the difference in perceived power is huge. I blew it.
Mostly Quills was a win. I stripped away the unnecessary age, mostly won the never ending battle against Britification in period speech, I fixed the rampant passivity and by the end of the run was actively pushing the Abbe towards his well-earned end rather than waiting for him to get there. Baby steps.