“They’re photographs,” Cay whispered to me on Sunday as we watched the workshop participants tape an alarming amount of printer paper on the usually blank studio walls. “Yesterday we were looking at pictures of old Russian homes and one of the things we noticed was that they were filled with photographs, paintings, and drawings, so we asked them to bring in pictures that they connected to.”
Stage right Sawyer hung a drawing that someone had done of him when he was a teenager. Pam had brought in pictures of both Russia and Paris and was liberally distributing them along the back wall. “Does anyone have an icon?” someone asked. “I’ve got one here,” came the reply “I’m going to hang it on this wall.” “Let’s put it here,” said Maggie before walking over and hanging it high on the pillar in the upstage left corner, “icons always sit in the corner.”
The room was far different from when I had last been here on Thursday. A long table sat in the middle covered with a white cloth and surrounded by chairs. Both couches were being used against the walls, along with all of the shelving units, which were littered with what a charming former Israeli girlfriend of mine would have affectionately referred to as tchotchkes. The overall effect of was tangibly similar to one of the opulent sitting rooms from Downton Abby (long live Mr. Bates).
But it wasn’t just the furniture or the photos creating the effect. The actors themselves seemed more connected to the space. I felt it as soon as I walked into the room, an ownership of the set they were in. I would have been willing to bet a fair amount of money that they had built it together as one of their exercises while I was gone.
“I am a Russian!” declared Paul half an hour later during his Trigorin monologue, “I want to write about their suffering!” Paul and I have been in class together before. I’ve also observed his class a few times for this blog. That is to say I know his work pretty well at this point, but as I watched him on Sunday I couldn’t help but think something had shifted in him. His connection to the material was rich. “I’m a fraud,” he muttered, and words resonated inside of me. For a moment I didn’t know if it was Paul talking or if it was Trigorin.
When he finished, Melissa leaned forward in her chair. “Let’s try it again, but this time I want you to say it to Maggie.”
Life is messy. People are at once heroic and weak, generous and selfish. Melissa said that during our conversation before this class, and as I watch Paul go through the second time around I hear those words again. Because this time Paul still has all of the introspection and disappointment from the first time, but layered on top of that is flirtation and a sense of pride in his ability to be so disappointed in himself. This time when he yells “I am Russian” he stands in triumph, but sits quickly when he sees he has startled Maggie. “I’m a fraud” is as much a boast as it is an admission of failure.
One after another the monologues were said, in no particular order. Whoever was affected by what came before their own jumped into theirs once the previous monologue was finished, working on the impulses they felt from the actors around them. Occasionally Melissa or Cay offer them guidance from their seats. Once actress has something boiling under the surface of her entire piece.
“Let it change if it wants to,” says Melissa, and then Cay jumps in. “Make a noise!” The actress lets out a groan that turns into a quiet sob.
When the exercise is finished Melissa asks the class how they felt with their fellow actors around them, both trying to deliver their speeches and listening and letting the speeches of the others affect them. Paul speaks up.
“There was one point where I couldn’t help but look at Pam. I didn’t always feel that way, but when she really started digging into it I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.”
Sawyer also mentioned Pam. “At one point I just wanted to walk over and give her a big hug!”
“Well why didn’t you?!” asked Cay.
“I don’t know, I didn’t want to get in the way of what she was doing.”
“What you had was a valid impulse. If you had followed it then it might have fueled something in your character, and in Pam’s. Now we will never know what might have happened.”
Pam had been worked with the most in this exercise. Melissa and Cay had asked her to do her monologue three separate times, each time guiding her a little deeper into the personalization. She started with sitting on Paul’s lap.
“You found something earlier during the personalization,” said Melissa after the first time through, “what just happened there felt like we were back at day one.”
Pam agreed. “Yeah, I felt that…go with what I found earlier…I felt best when using the cigarette case as a mirror.”
“Then do that! Go back to that.”
Cay also chimed in, “Yeah, but this time really own it!”
The second time through was weighted with anger. Rather than sit on Paul, she stood apart from him with the table in between them. She finished her monologue and slammed her fists on the table.
Melissa shouted from the audience, “Tell him what you really feel!”
Pam fired away. “I think you’re a shit! Major. If you weren’t so good in bed and I didn’t need someone to escort me to Moscow then I’d kick you out! You’re a bore!”
She finished laying into Paul and turned to look at Melissa. Cay jumped in first.
“You say you’re addicted to him, but you’re leaving out the substance of the addiction. If you’re addicted to something then nothing can satisfy you like that thing can. If you’re addicted to heroin then nothing else will do! Have you ever been addicted to a man?”
“Yes I have,” she replied quickly.
“Then go there. Don’t judge it, don’t change it, don’t fix it, express it.”
Her third time through suddenly took on a new layer of truth in its desperation. She wasn’t just flirting, or yelling, she was begging a man she loved to love her back. I felt an ache in myself because I understood that desperation, the addiction to a person. On some level we all do.
When Pam finished this time the room was heavy with silence. Melissa broke it for us. “You know, there is always something underneath fury or anger. But that’s your way in.”
Pam sagged into the couch, “I feel spent.”
“That’s why actors get paid!” said Cay, and we all laughed.
“I thought this morning about personalization, and how it’s about the ‘person’ that you are.” Said Melissa.
“Of course! And that’s the thing you always say about our actors, how personally they work. In our culture, our aesthetic, we want to see you through the character!” Cay mused.