Choices: The Questions

Choices: The Questions

My teacher, Philip Meister, gave us a list of questions that we were to ask ourselves as we rehearsed each scene we studied. The questions were designed to spur investigation and force us to make choices about character, story, relationships, motivations, actions, reactions, and the journey from first entrance to last exit. Here are the questions as I remember them:

  • Who am I?
  • Where am I?
  • What do I want?
  • What am I doing?
  • Where am I coming from?
  • Where am I going?
  • What will I find when I get there?

The idea was that if you could answer these questions about your character in a scene then you had done enough foundational work to be able to rehearse. Rehearsal is  the crucible where the choices we make in response to these questions are purified and the dross and useless matter burned away.

They seem like simple questions at first. One might answer them simply, with a word or two. Yet, they are open ended and, most importantly, they are composed in the first person present tense. The exercise is to answer these questions from the subjective point of view. When one cleaves to this idea, then the answers actually change from scene to scene and sometimes from moment to moment within the scene as new information becomes known to the you as your character.  In class we were called upon to talk about our characters in the first person when discussing our work. Instead of saying something like, “My character enters from stage left and walks about the set,” we might say, after investigating a scene using our questions, something about the scene like, “I come into my sister Maria’s bedroom from the bathroom where I had been hiding, and begin searching for the keys that I must have in order to get into my mother’s safe deposit box at the bank tomorrow”.

I began studying back in 1981 and to this day I use the questions and the first person present tense perspective in all my work. Over the years I’ve learned how to shift my perspective from the subjective to the objective and back in a seamless way that makes communication with various directors much more easy and efficient. In the years that I’ve been a working actor I’ve made it my practice to hit the rehearsal stage with my own ideas about character, movement, and the nature of the moment, rather than waiting for a director. What often happens is that the director will allow me to keep most of what I have chosen and offer adjustments and alternatives that ease the bulk of my work into their vision of the play. And in those not infrequent cases when a director has no clear vision for a scene, then I’m safe in the work I’ve done and able to build upon it.

Working with Ruben Santiago-Hudson is an ideal experience in that, in his heart he is an actor. Ruben will allow an actor to do their job and will only step in when it is necessary to maintain the integrity of the moment, the scene, the play. Of course this way of working assumes that the actor’s in the company are going to use this freedom and exercise their creativity and intellects to craft the moments, movements, gestures and relationships. That is where casting becomes crucial.

Bottom line, the questions my teacher challenged us to answer have served me well as a tool for understanding a scene, a story and a character and for making me a useful collaborator for a special corps of directors who expect actors to do their work without asking permission.

Yesterday was our first “stumble-thru” of the play. It was long, too long, and it was full of silences that must be squeezed out. Most of all it was filled with truth, and honesty and humanity. That’s  what you get when you put together a company of professionals and set them to work on good piece of dramatic literature.

More to come.