Amy McFadden as Douglas, Lady Percy, Lancaster et al.
What is the difference between men and women? I mean other than the usual bath towel inventory, matching sets of lingerie vs. boxers or briefs and how excited we get when a baby who does not share our DNA is born. I am generalizing, maybe even sex-role stereotyping, but when you have a group of females telling a male-dominated history riddled with political alliances and vicious battles, differences must be considered. And overcome.
Physicalization is one of the primary jobs of actors playing any role. Many of us have been taught to “strip” ourselves of all habit, stance, stride and facial expressions that are “ours”-our “real life” physicalization. That is NOT an easy job, as these things are subconscious and deeply embedded. One leg up women have over men in this process is that we have to learn to walk in different heights of shoes and lengths of skirts, so we tend to have some experience in consciously changing our posture, gait and strategy for sitting with decorum.
When the casting for Henry IV, Part I was announced, I was relieved to be playing Lady Percy and four male roles including the Scot, Archibald Douglas. I figured I’d be wearing a skirt for at least two of my five characters! As for the rest of the work, I got some fundamental advice from one of our well-trained actresses : “Just figure out right now how big each of your male character’s penis is and everything else will fall into place.” Sound advice. Especially when I discovered in my research that The Douglas lost a testicle in battle against the English. His stance now shifts lighter on the left.
Fast forward six weeks. Opening night I was standing backstage, ready to enter as Lady Percy (the only female character I play) and realized that after a month and a half of preparing to play mostly male characters, I actually felt uncomfortable in my skirt. Ha! I shot a quick “thank you” to the theatre gods that The Douglas ended up in pants instead of a kilt, opened the curtain and entered, hoping I didn’t have visible panty-lines.
Hello! This is Amy McFadden and I am playing Ophelia. My personal mantra-on stage and off- is “All for one, and one for all!” Being a part of the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company fits it perfectly. The entire company is supportive, everyone has some skill or talent to offer, and we all accept multiple responsibilities. I have happily accepted my roles as actor, event manager and costume crew member. I will not elaborate here on organizing an event or doing my castmates’ laundry, but I will share some of my acting process.
The first step is the text work. It’s like finding all of the pieces of a puzzle before you start putting it together, and it’s a blast. This process began the second I got cast, accelerated after the read-thru and initial cast discussions about character, and continues now (our third week). Armed with the clues, truths and tools gleaned from this work, we entered the next phase of the work: ACT-ing. Moving. Talking. Hurling myself into interaction with my scenemates. I held the intellectual detail work in my head, and began the struggle to pull myself out of my brain and into my BODY.
This is the work of communication, PLAY-ing for the audience. It can feel like a betrayal-when the words resonate as something so lovely and true in my head, but my body isn’t sufficiently marinated in Ophelia yet to properly bring her scenes to the stage. Fortunately, our director, Katherine Mayberry, started our first working rehearsal with a perfect exercise to snap me out of my head. She sent Scott Lange (Hamlet) and me to improvise a non-verbal exploration of what happened when he came to Ophelia on the night he talks with is father’s ghost. (This scene is not in the play, but Ophelia recounts it to her father, Polonius, in II, i.) Directly after the improvisation, we rehearsed II,i, and then the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene (III,i). The 10-minute improvised exchange infused my body with Ophelia. It gave me an emotional starting point, visual- and muscle-memory, and a visceral anchor for Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet. It made this early work in the scenes more productive, and gave me my next goals for homework and future rehearsals.
In transition from brain to stage also comes speech. We all know that speech expresses thought, and comes from breath and energy. I do not always know where that breath and energy should originate, or sit, or how to connect it to Ophelia’s thoughts. Enter Katherine, again with a tool for me! The exercise is “Head, Heart, Gut, Groin,” and it helped me to decide where my energy is centered, where to speak from, and how, within a speech or scene, those things transition between the four places. Some of the choices seem pretty instinctive, but being aware of them for each line is helping me connect my body and my voice. Work on connecting my thoughts comes next…I can’t wait to see where the next few weeks of rehearsal take us, and what I will learn next about Ophelia!