If you had been in the Tuesday afternoon scene study class last week, this is a small snapshot of what you might have seen…
I’m laughing so hard my stomach hurts. In front of me Annie is doubled over gasping for air. Cay is lifting her glasses to wipe away a tear.
On stage Max is staring at a smashed cake. He holds himself like a man defeated, frosting clinging to his normally perfectly-mussed hair. Shayna sits next to him, oblivious, wiping crumbs from her fist. The fist that just crushed the aforementioned dessert. Though she is picking with a napkin between her fingers there isn’t much to find; the majority was wiped off on Max’s head.
It should mentioned at this point that Shayna and Max are not ACTUALLY fighting. No one has been harmed, except perhaps for one cheesecake. They are on their 5th week of rehearsal for a scene from Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise, a play by Harry Kondoleon.
And why are we all laughing so hard?
Acting indeed, Patrick. Prior to his unfortunate death by AIDS at age 39 Kondoleon was compared stylistically to playwrights like Christopher Durang and John Guare. This scene involved Alvin (played by Max), a husband unable (or unwilling) to acknowledge his wife’s affair with his best friend, and the wife of said best friend, Adele (Shayna).
Extraordinary characters in ordinary circumstances. Allow me a brief but relevant segue here.
A few weeks ago I went to see the dark comedy How to Make Friends and then Kill Them at the Cherry Lane theatre. Friends featured two sisters of an alcoholic mother and their manipulation of themselves, one another, and a desperate girl from their school. I don’t want to ruin the ending for anyone who might get the opportunity to see this play staged, but I will say at the play’s most intense moments the actors had to deal with incest, manipulation, and murder.
Once again, extraordinary characters in ordinary circumstances.
I walked out of Cherry Lane that night, and indeed spent the next few days, wondering “How does an actor prepare for a role like that? How do you make it truthful?”
Well, over the last few weeks I got to see how Cay guided these two actors into a large, hilarious, outrageous, and perhaps most importantly, truthful rehearsal. I won’t try to describe their rehearsal because, as anyone who has seen terrific work knows, it would be impossible. But it was electric. And it all came back to listening (for real for real) and responding (for real…well, you know).
In the discussion afterwards they were asked by Cay why this week was different from prior weeks:
Shayna answered, “I was worried before that I might be pushing.”
“You’re not pushing. It’s in the going too far that you find the stimulus.”
Cay went on to talk about how the connection to your partner feeds the scene.
“It’s like an electric current. The circuit starts with yourself, then the moment, then the text, and your partner. You work inside to outside, not the opposite way around.”
Shayna and Max spent two weeks table reading this scene. They didn’t get up until they has found that connection with themselves and then the moment, or as Cay likes to say, the event of the scene. They were building the start of the circuit.
“It becomes different once you have the hook in you. You get the hook, and then the hook drags you through the circuit.”
Their third and fourth weeks were spent on their feet, trying different blocking, trying to get different things from each other, working with physicality, and making sure they were always connected even when the scene felt a little off. They had their “hook” in themselves and the moment, and they were playing with the text and partner connection.
And then in week five they brought the scene to life for us.
“The actor’s job is to live. Connect to one another and live it out onstage.”