Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Mirror Room: Character and Self


Our dressing room at the Black Box in Las Cruces has one long mirror where the actors may put on makeup, and two smaller mirrors on different walls. It's not exactly the mirror room that exists in the wings of a Noh theatre, where actors wave goodbye to themselves as they assume the mask and posture of their character. It can serve a similar purpose, however. Ta ta, particular self. Hello, stage character self.

I'm not considered an "old" actor yet. Next week, I hit 40, which is not so old. Still young enough to play Hamlet. There is a shift, however. An actor has seasons that do not correspond to any particular number. At some point, we stop being a leading man, the young romantic lead, the wide-eyed boy. In this new season, our range is wider. We can play younger or older, credibly. Nowadays I get to be a character actor. Over the last several months, I've had four very distinct character assignments. A hit man with a philosophical bent and a bourgeois affect. A working class shmoe who grabs a gun when the world is ending and falls into psychosis. A motorcycle gangster from the 1970's. A 19th-century police detective with a gift for "reading people." Ten years ago, even 5 years ago, I would not have been considered for these parts.

These roles have drawn on everything I learned back in conservatory and everything I have learned about life and art since then. And even then, I might have no idea until I am in costume and makeup. One of the film projects I did in 2010 was like this. The page did not tell me much. I never got to rehearse and experiment before going on set. So I came early, got into full makeup and costume, and excused myself to the rest room so I could look in the mirror. Then I walked around the set for a good two hours, feeling the confines of the costume and the heat of the environment. Soon, it was the costume walking, and someone called to me and a voice came out of me and there was the character.

It isn't magic, as tempting as it is to present it that way. It's the imagination working at a level where the artist forgets himself temporarily. For writers, this is where the story or the characters take over and begin to write themselves. So it seems, at least.

Younger actors are often discouraged from concerning themselves with character work, the so-called "externals." American actors are steeped in the "internals," getting at a truthful personal experience using sense memory and emotional recall. Sometimes actors come away with the impression that adding characteristics is "artificial" and therefore untruthful, i.e. bad. The idea that maybe some of the internal truth is actually "artificial" as well -- or, we might say, conditioned behavior -- is not brought up. To thine own self be true! But never ask where this "self" comes from. That is taboo.

Waving goodbye to yourself in the mirror room is not really saying goodbye. How could an actor ever play a character truthfully without knowing something of herself? Without some insight into how ego works as a process? Learning how to connect to your own experience and to be vulnerable as yourself, with all your baggage, is key to playing honestly. Perhaps this is why character work comes easier a bit later in an actor's life and practice. You can look at your physical form. You can also look at the non-physical form, the shape of your mind, the personality you tend to enact. And even so, the eye with which we view ourselves is not really the eye of the audience. We can't really see ourselves as others see us.

I put on the powder, rouge my cheeks just a bit, apply some color to my lips, a thin line beneath my eyes, and then spend several minutes greying my hair. May inside and outside disappear into each other and, for two hours, may this character walk and speak through me, so we can get the story told. Svaha.


[Photo: Noh actor donning mask in front of the mirror]

3 comments:

Kelly said...

I think you're reaching the age when actors give their best performances.

I had to smile at the thought of spending several minutes greying your hair. That's come naturally for me for many years!
:)

Jomon said...

Happy birthday! My odometer will roll over to 40 this year too.

In my profession the grey seems to lend a certain air of credibility that I so craved in my early years as a therapist. It has been a long time since someone asked me, "How long you been doing this?" or, "Do YOU even HAVE kids?" Even so, I find that what newbie therapists lack in experience and technique, they more than make up for in empathy and heart. It seems this part of my career is returning to that heart focus, trusting the wisdom and experience will be there. Both wings.

Great post!

Algernon said...

Thanks, Kelly and Jomon.

Kelly, it would be very nice to think that I have more discoveries ahead of me than are behind me as an actor (if we think of time that way). Economically, it is very hard to sustain this work over decades unless one is successful in Hollywood or New York. Stage actors like me are a pretty much a dead breed, a 19th century thing. Just need to keep doing the work, somehow or another.