When I was in high school, I wanted to be an actress. (I tend to make career choices in which you need an agent and a lot of luck, and, despite all your best efforts, you may never make any money or be recognized as having a “real job.”)
Anyway, my senior year, I was cast in my high school’s musical, Lake Texoma, which was (it’s amazing to think of now), entirely written — songs and all — by a fellow student named John Bryant. It was an upbeat comedy about a roadhouse in the sixties. My character had one crying scene in which she found out her fiancé had been killed in Vietnam, but mostly it was dancing and singing and rowdy fun.
Around the same time, my best friend and I heard about open auditions for a one-act showcase at Hollins University (alma mater of Annie Dillard). We went because we’d been told that you take every audition opportunity you can for practice. (I’ve also been told the same thing as a writer — every time you’re given an opportunity to read your work in public, do it because it’s good practice.) Anyway, we didn’t expect to get cast. After all, we were lowly high school students. But, to our surprise and delight, we both got parts.
I was cast as “Mama” in an abbreviated version of ‘night Mother by Marsha Norman. In case you don’t know the play (it was also a movie with Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft), it’s pretty intense. At the very beginning the daughter announces she’s going to kill herself, and Mama spends the entire play trying to convince her not to.
So I was rehearsing for two plays at the same time. On Lake Texoma I had songs to learn and dances to help choreograph. (At the time my friend Chris and I were taking swing dance lessons, so John wrote in a scene in which Chris’s character and my character did a swing dance. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense plot-wise, but nobody cared because we looked awesome.) Our rehearsals were totally disorganized and laid-back, and because the song and dance routines took so much time to block, we only got around to rehearsing my crying scene once or twice before opening night.
On the other hand, my rehearsals for ‘night Mother were seriously hardcore. The director, Jacy, was a twenty-two-year-old theater major with grand ideas, so she had us do a lot of “character exploration” and Method Acting exercises where we had to dig deep and totally expose the rawness of our emotions. Jacy was able to draw the emotions out of us, and I found myself so immersed in Mama’s character that I was crying actual tears in the rehearsals. (In contrast, for my Lake Texoma crying scene, during rehearsal I would just wave my hand and say, “ok, and then I’ll cry here.”)
So, I must admit, I worked harder on ‘night Mother. It was for a university performance instead of a dinky high school play. And I wanted so badly to impress my director (who later became my roommate when we both moved to Los Angeles.) I felt sure that if I dug deep and really, truly felt the emotions, it would translate on the stage, and everyone would be amazed at my brilliant and soulful acting skills.
But that’s not what happened.
On opening night, I was so freaking nervous that I couldn’t feel any of those emotions I’d worked so hard to cultivate during rehearsals. I flubbed my first line, and a jolt of panic scared away any other feelings that may have been inside me. Though I remembered the rest of my lines, I didn’t feel the emotions, and my eyes were as dry as cracked hands in the winter time, even during the final dramatic scene. I could tell that my performance had come across as flat and unbelievable.
The next weekend (at least that’s how it seems in my memory) was opening night for Lake Texoma. Soon it was time for my crying scene. Very logically I thought, ok, Eva, you’re supposed to be sad and shocked, so how can you physically show that?
I wobbled my voice as if I was on the edge of tears. I wasn’t, mind you, but I hit a high note on one of my lines and sniffed loudly, as if I was trying to hold myself back from tears. I let my bottom lip tremble and my shoulders slump. And, weirdly, my body picked up on the physical cues. Oh, Eva must be sad! Lo and behold, I started to cry. I wasn’t even thinking about my lines, really. I wasn’t even thinking about what it would mean to have your finance die in war. Later, a friend of mine in the audience told me that I made her cry, and I felt like such a charlatan!
Recently I was told by an editor that the main character in one of the novels I’m working on is somewhat flat and unbelievable. She recommended that I get to know the character better, and that I try to show the character’s thoughts and emotions instead of just telling them.
So I could try to climb inside my character’s skin — do some “character exploration” exercises to try to really feel what she’s feeling, ala ‘night Mother. I could hope that really understanding my character inside and out will translate into her becoming more fully-formed and believable on the page.
Or, I can try a more logical approach. Like in Lake Texoma, I can try to show through physical actions how my character is feeling without having to actually feel those emotions myself. I can show her lip trembling or her shoulders slumping and not have to say, “she was sad.”
As with everything, I think it’s a balance of the two. I need to get to know my character’s inner world a little bit more and I need to use more behavior descriptions (“showing instead of telling”) to explain her thoughts and emotions. In a way, I suppose, a writer is both a Method Actor and a charlatan.
So go out there, all you writers, and break a leg (or a finger?)!