Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Perils of Preparation in Acting Classic Plays

Contributed by Alyssa Simon

Stella Adler was known for telling her students that their talent lay in their choices. But what function do they serve in performing classical plays? How do you act a choice you made the first week of rehearsal and expect it to be alive on the stage?

Alyssa Simon in The Storm at the
August Strindberg Repertory Theatre
For the purpose of this post, I mainly mean physical choices: how we think a character may have carried him or herself during the War Of The Roses, in a Russian dacha or a middle class home in Norway near the turn of the century.

There are choices the actor must make to illuminate a character’s psychological motives. But in order to put them across to an audience, they too have to be physicalized, either vocally or with gesture.

How many classics have we watched where we see that everyone learned in rehearsal how one held their teacup or broadsword back in the day, but it doesn’t inform us about anything else?

Although it seems counter-intuitive, the trick may be to practice the fan signals, hat doffing, curtsying, etc. so many times that the audience doesn’t even really notice it. It’s just that world. The tension lies in what is at stake if someone breaks form.

What would happen if one slurped their tea or slouched in their corset?

It’s not quite the equivalent of falling in love with the daughter of your family’s oldest enemies or slamming the door on your traditional marriage and children, but it’s knowing that doing so could be considered such a break with society, that the dramatic tension lies in the fear of doing it wrong, rather than executing a snuff dip perfectly.

In some modern adaptations of classic plays, directors do have queens lounge around on thrones and courtiers manspread to update what may seem dated and cliché. But I don’t think getting rid of mannerisms or ignoring them illuminates a text any more than a devotion to style.

The way people behaved in public and private, with their family and other people in the household, the way men and women acted with each other and how they treated children, all of that speaks to class, one’s place in society and how, by deliberately abiding the conventions of the day or being the one person who dares flout them, one is making active dramatic decisions all the time: in other words, a choice. 


Alyssa Simon is an award-winning theatre and film actor, who has performed modern works, classics, cabarets and musicals in the U.S., Argentina and the Caribbean. She was selected as A Person Of The Year by Martin Denton of nytheatre.com for her acting work and she is also a Master Mason at the Caffe Cino award-winning Brick Theatre. www.alyssasimon.com 

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