Mon 14 Feb 2011
Scott Lange as Master Ford and Peter Simple.
There are easy ways to tell the difference between a good performance and a bad performance. The actors forgot their lines, the set fell down, cues were missed, or the actors weren’t convincing in their portrayal. But it is more difficult to describe the difference between a good performance and a great performance.
Within the profession of acting there is a term that is often tossed around that supposedly describes why one actor is great, or why another actor is not as good. The term is “it.” As in: Lawrence Olivier has “it,” and that is one of the qualities that makes him a good actor. “It” is an ineffable quality that draws an audience to an actor. We can all probably agree on some actors that have “it.” Johnny Depp probably has “it,” Robert DeNiro has “it,” Robert Downey Jr.; we could go on and on. You can’t really describe it, and you might argue about it, but generally everybody knows it when they see it. I think “it” is also one of those qualities that is difficult to own. If you think you have ‘it,’ you probably don’t. If you don’t think you have ‘it,’ you probably don’t. It’s almost taboo to talk about in reference to yourself. It’s a quality you want, but don’t know how to achieve.
My goal here is not to argue whether or not I, as an actor, have the elusive “it,” but to talk about a quality that all of the people I consider to be “it” actors have: specificity.
Specificity is a fairly broad term that encompasses a number of aspects of theater. It can include vocal variety, physical timing, gestures, and facial expressions being just a few. It means being very pointed at when, how, and at what level of capacity each aspect needs to be performed.
For this play, I play two and a half different characters. I say the half because one character is himself sometimes, and is disguised the other. My goal with specificity for this production was to make each character extremely distinct. Obviously that should always be a goal, but this time I wanted to be even more extreme in my planning.
I consider Ford to be an anxious, jumpy person. One who can easily jump from one thought and emotion to another on the other side of the scale: happy to angry, fretting to joyful, and calm to manic. This is backed up by his language, where he jumps from thought to thought without much transition. I wanted to plot exactly where I would stand for every portion of his monologues. I wanted to set specific gestures on exact words, so that I could repeat them for every performance. I decided that his movements and vocal pattern should almost as a rule be clipped and sharp. After setting that, I can pick my moments where he becomes more fluid, but usually immediately switching back.
For my other character, Peter Simple, I chose the opposite qualities. Simple moves and speaks slowly, but still purposeful. Ford rants and raves, running around the stage, but Simple moves only when he has to. I tried to go through my script and set every line. Where would I be standing when I say this? What about this line? In rehearsal we’ve blocked my character to stand here, what can I be doing once I get there? The point of this is to not only make those characters different from each other, but to create staging that I have down so precisely that I can recreate it for every performance. Most actors do a good amount of this, and it has always been a goal of mine. By creating structure, you can then be more fluid and improvisational in the places that you haven’t set in stone. For this production though, I wanted to go even further with how much I set, and see what it feels like. I want to see if I feel like I give a better performance, and how the audience reacts to it.
We have had only one performance so far, and I feel like it went well, but I don’t feel as though I’ve really met my goal yet. I think there are more places that I can examine what I’m doing, and more places that still have some discoveries yet to be made. Fortunately I’ve got four more weeks of performance to get it right.
Personally I don’t feel that I’ve necessarily got “it.” I’m not sure if I know what that would feel like, or if I would ever want ‘it.’ I want to constantly be striving for the best performance that I can give. Being extremely specific with my choices is one tool that I can use to help bring out the best of what I can offer.