I am casting the role of Vincentio STILL in Shrew and I was wondering if you might be interested and/or available to play the part?
This on a Tuesday morning after a long weekend. My reactions went something like this:
- I can’t say no to Carla.
- Damnit, Carla! I’m a writer, not an actor!
- But, but, but, SHAKESPEARE!
- Oh, shit! I can’t do Shakespeare! I’m a writer, not an actor!
- What conflicts do I have?
- Nothing that can’t be changed.
- Shit! Nothing that can’t be changed! I’m not an actor and it’s SHAKESPEARE!
- I can’t say no to Carla.
- I’m a writer, I want to write for the stage, and this will give me insight into the actor’s experience.
- I can’t say no to this.
A year and a half ago, I appeared as Chief Bromden in a stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but I still didn’t consider myself an actor. Sure, I’d mimicked a North American Indian accent I hoped sounded like guys I’d known who’d grown up on reservations, I thought about how Chief might move (or carry himself when he’s not moving), and I even managed to get myself to the point of real tears for that final scene during every one of nineteen performances, but really, I’m not an actor.
Which is silly, because, yeah, I am an actor. I’m just inexperienced. So, I tried to approach this role with humility: I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m learning from watching you, my cast mates. I made jokes about my role being “The Shakespeare Starter Kit for Newbie Actors,” and I believed those jokes. I was deeply grateful that very few of my lines scanned da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA, sparing me the temptation to deliver them like Ted “Theodore” Logan desperately trying to avoid military school.
Only once during the rehearsal process or the run did I ever feel like I knew what I was doing. After a rehearsal, our dramaturge gave me a note regarding Vincentio’s reaction to the discovery of his servant impersonating his son: It’s about the cost of dressing a servant in a gentleman’s finery.
Her note prompted me to dig deeper into Vincentio’s character, diving in to identify my character’s emotional arc. Several of the characters who have never met him say they know who he is. Vincentio is not merely wealthy, he’s famous for being wealthy. He’s rich enough that he probably doesn’t care about the cost of extravagant clothing. He’s upset about something far more valuable: his identity. When Vincentio arrives in Padua, someone claiming to be him answers the door at his son’s house, and his servant shows up claiming to be his son. If you’ve ever found something on your credit card bill that you couldn’t possibly have purchased, you know exactly why Vincentio is angry in that moment.
I wrote her back with my “discovery.”
As soon as I sent the e-mail, I stopped feeling like I knew what I was doing. I worried that I’d overstepped my bounds. Our dramaturge knows her Shakespeare, has directed Shakespeare. In New York. I sweated over the way I’d parsed my character. I lost sleep over it. When we talked about it, I asked her if I was out of line, and she just laughed and said, “Not at all. It makes sense, and you’ve clearly thought about it more than I have.”
I realized later that I’d arrived at my characterization of Vincentio via the obverse of what we should do as writers when we’re developing a character. I’d gone to the text, read what my character says and does, what other characters say about him, and arrived at an understanding of who he is. As writers, it’s incumbent on us to figure out who the character is and then write stuff that provides clues for the actors.
In her book, “A Challenge for the Actor”, Uta Hagen offers six steps toward understanding a character. Though he’s speaking to writers, Chuck Sambuchino’s article on character development for Writer’s Digest covers the same ground.
Put some hooks on your characters, bits of information in your dialogue that help the actors understand how to bring your characters to life.
If you’re a writer, I encourage you to become an actor, as well. Even if you never plan to write for the stage. And don’t sweat it if you don’t get any parts. Just as you don’t have to have a list of your published works to be called a writer, it isn’t necessary for you to actually land a role to become an actor. Take a class on acting for writers. Go out on a few auditions. Read aloud in your living room, and walk through the physicality of becoming a character. Take Uta Hagen’s challenge.
See if that doesn’t make your characters, and your writing, stronger.
It worked for Shakespeare.