April 1

Creating a Character – Randle P. McMurphy, Part 1

Concurrent with my work on the “Unconditional Love” series, I was also cast as the lead in the Camille Playhouse’s last show of this season, the highly celebrated play One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. I will be filming two to three episodes of the mini-series, and performing the six-night run of Cuckoo’s Nest within the same 3 or 4 week period this May.

Even though it was originally played by Kirk Douglas in the Broadway production, this role made the career of Jack Nicholson in the film version in 1974, who won the Oscar for it (as did Louise Fletcher, who will forever be remembered as Nurse Ratched). Overall it won all 5 of the “big” Oscars, and although it had a stellar cast overall, it’s so iconic and so inextricably tied to Nicholson, that many actors who now play the role either try to somehow recapture “Jack” in their portrayals, or else try to deviate so far from him that it draws the comparison anyway (by means of contrast).

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To take on this role, however, I’m making myself one rule: I cannot watch any previous version of this production before I perform it. I don’t want to try to differ from Nicholson any more than I want to imitate him. Instead, I just want the character to speak to me as an actor, and use my own life experiences as the catalyst for McMurphy’s motivations and demeanor.

At first I wondered how I was going to keep the characters I am playing, literally one then the other, then back again, separated. To my surprise, McMurphy doesn’t contrast as much as he complements some of the other character work I’m doing. He isn’t actually too difficult to get my mind around.

In many ways, he is remarkably similar to Leroy Jenkins in Bad Seed, the last stage role I played. Both are pretending to be something they aren’t. Both are uneducated and prone to bully. Both can see their nemesis’ true colors clearly, though others cannot. Both enjoy tormenting the story’s “bad guy”, in what they think is a sort of game, only to find out they grossly underestimated their opponents; both times, with fatal consequences.

There is also amazing parallels between McMurphy and my other current character, Jesus of Nazareth. Both are willing to take on corruption and abusive leadership. Both have pity on those less fortunate, although McMurphy’s ideas of how to liberate his charges are certainly profane compared to Christ’s. Both are punished for their rebellion against the rules and the established order, and ultimately, both are sacrificed for it. Whereas my portrayal of Jesus tended to be stoic and reserved in the first episode we’ve filmed so far, I think that playing Jesus alongside with McMurphy may help me to give more passion to my portrayal of Jesus, and Jesus may bring more of a sense of compassion to McMurphy.

One of the things I’ve been made aware of in my first outing as Jesus was that I felt very emotionally inhibited. I kept telling myself it was the nature of the character – otherworldly, omniscient, all-powerful but also all-loving. I felt Jesus would be very calm and soft in his manner, and the director definitely wanted more warmth and light-heartedness than I expected to portray. So, I’ve realized that I need to work on being able to summon emotion more quickly and more authentically than I had been feeling it. Playing a rowdy, gregarious, defiant “leader” in Cuckoo’s Nest will require me to be able to really reach deep into my old emotional reserves, which can only help my portrayal of Jesus. In other words, these might seem like the most odd mix of characters to play concurrently, but they each may actually do much to enrich my performance of the other.

First order of business is memorization. We don’t rehearse as a cast until April 20. I will also work out my normal personal Q&A for McMurphy’s character development. One other issue that came up while reading the script is seeing that McMurphy has an almost-naked scene. I’m not in terrible shape, especially for a guy my age, but I now have the added task of getting in a little better shape to be seen standing on stage in bright light in nothing but my underwear.

Stay tuned as these two roles twist and mingle together.

 

March 8

Creating a character – Jesus of Nazareth, part 2

I thought I would have much more time before the shooting of the first of six episodes of the Christian mini-series, to flesh out a convincing and authentic portrayal of Jesus. We weren’t supposed to begin filming until late May. However, Episode 2 features a mostly-college-aged cast, and spring break is this coming week (March 9), so the producers asked if we could shoot that episode out of order, and very quickly.

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It always bothers me a great deal if a performance is approaching and I still don’t feel like I know the character well.   I don’t mean, as a believer, that I don’t know who Jesus is. I mean, as an actor, I don’t yet know how to feel like Jesus. It’s bothering me. The last thing I ever want to do is waste an acting opportunity by just “phoning it in”.

My wife said today, she could see the familiar distracted, serious, faraway look in my eyes while we were having lunch today. And I’ll admit – I put off much of my character preparation because I thought I’d have much more time.

This experience has spawned a new mantra for me as an actor – one that is so obvious, I’m embarrassed I didn’t fully appreciate it before now:

Get the work done. Right now.

I have known since January that I would be playing Jesus, and except for the beginnings of my beard and growing out what’s left of my hair, I had not done much in terms of line memorization or real characterization until last week. Acting is not (yet) my full-time job, and it’s been a very busy couple of months for me, away from this project.

So how do we find a character in really short order? How do we portray incredible strength and power (a pretty easy task for most actors), balanced with overwhelming love and grace? Do I just caricature this thing? I sincerely hope not, but I’m getting nervous to step into the life of a character I don’t feel I can ever properly understand. Of course, at the end of the day, an actor takes direction and delivers what is needed, but for me, the safety of a good performance comes from me, the actor, knowing and fully understanding the character mulling around inside of me.

Like I did in my preparation to play Leroy Jessup in Bad Seed, I’m going to answer my 6 fundamental questions briefly in this post, as they pertain to the character of Jesus Christ (played in the modern world).

1) What’s on the page?

Because Jesus is so widely known, no physical description or personality traits are given in the three scripts I have so far. I’ve been given a basic “look” and “feel” from the director, so I’ve had to go with that. So far, I know that the Jesus he wants portrayed is calm, smiles a lot, shows sadness and real emotion, and yet is still completely in control. That’s incredibly hard to pull off convincingly.

2) What does the action reveal?

Jesus himself does not undergo any change in personality or alteration by his experiences in these episodes. He is quintessentially a supporting part, because he is there to affect the leads in the most profound way imaginable. The action of the episodes reveals very little about who he is, and he is unchanged at the end.

Actually, on reflection, I think the action of the play does reveal a lot about Jesus. In each episode, a main character is undergoing a crisis that amounts to a pivotal point in their lives. At that precise moment, Jesus appears. He offers comfort, challenge, and finally, an invitation to accept or reject him. But even if the person is a drug addict, or a cynical doctor, or a kid about to commit suicide, they are all worthy of his personal love and attention. He agonizes for their pain. He wants to calm their torment. He wants nothing more than for each person who encounters him to embrace what he offers – an eternal life ultimately, but first, a chance for peace and clarity, and purpose in this life.

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So there is actually a lot to work with. This is a good example of why an actor must continually probe his character, looking for that one often hard-to-find opening to get inside the skin of the character and realize his or her motivations.

So what is Jesus’ motivation? Love. Unconditional love. And as I write this, I now understand the meaning of this series much more deeply. Heck, it’s even called “Unconditional Love”. And all this time, I had missed the meaning.

3. How does the character see the world?

In Christianity, Jesus is omniscient and omnipresent. He was part of the Godhead from the beginning; he “is, was and always will be”. Because he can see the world in an instant, and peer into the hearts of everyone, Jesus sees the world not as a good place, but rather, a lost place. And because man was created, in the Judeo-Christian worldview, in God’s image and likeness, a fallen, wicked man is a tragedy for Jesus to behold. So much potential, lost. So many souls forever separated from their Creator, solely because of sin. Jesus is saddened by the world he sees before him – there is no redemption for man, except by his own sacrifice.

I don’t mean to make this a theological discussion, or a call to say the sinner’s prayer (but if it leads you to do so, it’ll be the best thing you ever did). I just want to see and feel the world, in my own limited way, the way Jesus would see it.

I think the ultimate thing Jesus would always feel and say with his eyes, smile, and attitude is simply: “I love you.” That will be the message I continually tell myself to feel as an actor in every scene. No matter who the other character, or what the circumstances, the bottom line is always: “I love you. So much I’d die for you. So much I did die for you.”

4. What are his circumstances?

Circumstances generally mean the character’s back story, but also where they were in the moments before the audience first sees them. In each episode, the circumstances for Jesus are similar. Jesus arrives just as the episode’s lead is reaching a crisis point in their life, and in two of the first three episodes, he vanishes as the scene concludes.  He’s still very much “magical” in the sense that he arrives from Heaven and returns to it. He doesn’t knock on a literal door – he’s just suddenly there. So from a technical perspective, it’s pretty simple- he’s not going to feel hot or cold, or tired, or hungry, or distracted by other events. He’s 100% there, in the present moment, to rescue a lost soul if they will let him.

As I reflect on it, it is amazingly daunting to find, in my own limitations, the scope and size to play someone like Jesus. Nothing surprises him; he sees all things. Nothing startles him. Nothing provokes fear, or hatred, or rage. He is first and foremost, loving. He grieves at the state of humanity. He wants nothing more than to be part of our lives. He acts always first out of love, even when he must shake up a character to get their attention. He is all-powerful, but uses it gently and with great care and sincerity.

5. What can I relate to?

The closest thing I can come to understanding a character like Jesus, who could do anything to anyone, but loves the world so much as to willingly die a horrific and excruciating death for all of us, is to remind myself of my own children. I love my children with as close to an unconditional love as I believe a human is capable of feeling, and I would willingly die in their place. As an actor, that is something I must draw upon in every situation in which Jesus intervenes. Love – unflinching, unending, unapologetic love. Who knew loving people could be such an intimidating thing to portray?

(Actually, Jesus did, when he said that the greatest of all commandments was to love God with all your heart and mind and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself. He said it was the greatest commandment, I believe, for two reasons. First, if you love God with all your heart, you won’t break the first five commandments, and second, if you sincerely love your fellow man, you won’t break the other five.)

I can also relate to a strong desire to help others in times of need. When you see someone else struggling with a difficult circumstance in life, it is natural to find empathy and want to help that person. As a believer, I believe that the desire to come to the aid of another is a remnant of our creator inside us. It’s evidence for the existence of God. That will be an easy emotional reservoir to draw upon.

6. Decide and (almost) set it in stone.

So, at least for Episode 2, about to begin filming in 4 days, here is what I must portray:

  • Jesus is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. There is simply no other way to portray him.
  • His purpose in each episode is to reach the heart of each lead character, and he does that a variety of ways – through intellectualism, through allowing them to vent anger, to boldly asserting his wish for them to embrace the life he wants them to have. He is unafraid of what he says. He doesn’t equivocate. He means what he says.
  • The purpose of this series is, of course, to reach “real” lost souls and introduce them to Jesus. This is not lost on me, either. If we do our jobs correctly, this series should be a way to reach troubled people and show them a way not only to eternal salvation in the Christian faith, but a better way to live in the here and now.

Even after this episode, there is a lot more to go, and I’m sure the character of Jesus will become richer and stronger with more time. Part 3 will be written upon completion of shooting of Episode 2 this week.

 

January 15

Creating a character – Jesus of Nazareth, part 1

How fast the acting career is starting to ramp back up!

I’ve accepted a role in an upcoming Christian mini-series, in which I will be playing Jesus Christ. I have to say, coming off of the role of Leroy Jenkins in Bad Seed, this was literally swinging from one side of the pendulum to the other in pretty short order.

Jesus2-600x450As a lifelong Christian, I guess I could say it’s the role of a lifetime, but it’s also one I’m very nervous to do. Not because I think I lack the ability to portray Jesus in some passable way, but because I want to do it with the utmost seriousness and gravity, and as much as I can infuse into such a titanic character, authentic humanity. It is no small matter to be asked to portray the founder of the Christian faith, the savior and messiah to literally millions of people, and the source of so much controversy.

Oh sure, it can be done in a stereotypical way, but that isn’t going to cut it here. For one thing, this series is set in the present, and Jesus is coming to people in each episode at a very dark moment in their lives. But he doesn’t arrive on a cloud or with angels blowing trumpets. In fact, at first, they don’t recognize him as Jesus, but come to see who he is during their encounter. So the Jesus I am asked to play has to be a mix of Godly and human; one of otherworldly power and majesty, but also just another face in the crowd. In many ways, just like he really was (and is), for those of us who believe.

I have to say I am surprised that I was cast in the role in the first place, because I’m not really the type to play Jesus. I’m 6’1″ and a pretty muscular 230 pounds right now. I’m 10 years older than Jesus was at the time of the crucifixion, and my hair is graying and thinning (not to mention how much white is in my beard already). Originally I auditioned for a smaller part, that of a pastor, but just like the role I tried out for in Bad Seed, the director had other things in mind. Now, instead of being in one episode in a minor role, I am the only cast member to appear in all six, and am basically the “lead” of the series.

(As a quick aside, the fact that I think I’m right for a certain role, only to have directors take me in entirely different directions than I expected, might need to be examined a little. I may have a wrong impression of my “type” of part, which could limit my success going forward, if I put myself up for the wrong roles.)

This will also be the first time in more than 20 years that I have acted for the camera, so I will likely post about the prep for that task, and about my experiences with movie making as compared to stage work.

Anyway, how does one play, authentically, the Son of God? How does one even go about getting started? I plan to use this space to write out my character study and my choices as an actor.

This role will force me to make some pretty drastic physical changes, too. The easy one, growing out my hair, has already started. (I’m still not sure it’ll work, though, but we’ll see.) The beard will start in two weeks for an anticipated first shoot in late April. But I also want to slim down before the project starts, so I’ll detail a little of that process, also.

In some ways, I’ll approach this character just like I would any other, but because I have so much history and literature upon which to draw, plus the obvious global view of how he looked and acted, creating a back story isn’t going to be my job this time. I also don’t intend to lean toward one denomination’s view of him over another. He won’t be necessarily the Catholic Jesus any more than he will be the Mormon one. There is no way to win that argument. Instead, I want to get, as much as is humanly possible, into the head of the real historical Jesus – the one who walked the streets in Jerusalem, labored along with Joseph as a carpenter, who saw the sick and poor and felt overwhelming compassion, and who saw and despised the religious hypocrites in his day. And as much as possible, I want to find it in me to play a man who loved the world’s people so much, he was willing to lay down his life in a truly horrific way to save us all.

In many ways, this character study will be a Bible study and a historical journey; a chance to deepen my own understanding of the carpenter from Nazareth, and perhaps, to grow my personal relationship with him along the way.

I look forward to the challenge.

In Part 2, I will detail my initial decisions, as well as the resources I’ve decided to use to help with my understanding of the man that Jesus was.

 

November 12

5 things I learned re-igniting my passion

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I was asked by a good friend to post on what it was like to return to a calling that I loved and was very good at, after a 20+ year hiatus. Specifically, she wanted to hear about the fear I might have felt, about overcoming self-confidence problems, and maybe even what it’s like to be “over the hill” while starting out on a new adventure in your life.

For me, acting and writing are not new adventures at all. Rather, they are like old friends I hadn’t seen in a very long time. And once I spent a little time getting reacquainted, it felt like I never stopped either of them.

I could write a great deal about why I abandoned my dreams and embraced a typical middle-class existence, and maybe I will, at some point, examine the reasons we give up and give in. But that’s not what my friend wanted to hear, and it’s not the subject of this post.

In short, I wanted to do it again because I knew, deep in my heart, I would arrive at the end of my days, and never be able to forgive myself if I hadn’t. The fear of regret was finally greater than the fear of failure for me. And so, I took a deep breath and stepped back into a world I thought I had long ago left behind.

In the process of that journey, here’s what I learned about myself, and my dream. Take them for what they’re worth; merely one guy’s observations, but they are the most important realizations I’ve made on my way back to becoming the person I know I am destined to be.

1) You really can have the life you’ve imagined.

So many motivational speakers say so many things on this subject, but it’s completely true – almost. I’ll season this wholly positive message with a little more reality:

You really can have the life you’ve imagined, if you are willing to pay the price for it – in full and up front.

It’s that simple. And that hard.

Pick up nearly any biography of a person who has already achieved what you would like to achieve. Every single one of them – every person who dared to dream mighty things – paid a price to achieve it. It is an axiom that sacrifice is the pavement on the hard road to greatness.

So many people I know, including myself for a great many years, fell into the false belief that life was supposed to be easy, and suffering avoided. Then, when life is not easy and pain-free, we find it to be somehow fundamentally unfair. I see that mentality deeply enmeshed in the psyche of many of my clients (I’m a financial advisor) who come from middle-class experiences. Even though everyone can save a little money each week and eventually end up with a nest egg of some size, most people spend all they have (or more), living paycheck to paycheck, never putting anything away for later. Then they resent the people who have more than they do, because, well, life is unfair.

We’ve got it all wrong – the problem isn’t life itself, but our flawed expectations of it. It’s not that life is unfair; it’s that life is impartial. Life simply doesn’t care if you achieve great things or not. Life doesn’t give a moment’s thought to your finances, or health, or career choice. Life lets you save money or spend it. Life lets you better your health or wreck it. You can be a sinner or a saint, a great leader or a derelict; life doesn’t care. Life is indifferent. Life just is.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we can make more money than we do right now. We can have that promotion. We can be CEO, or Senator, or Doctor. Nothing is holding you back except you. In my own case, I had to accept the reality that other people are making a living in the theater and on film at this very moment, all over the world. Some are far less talented, yet they make it anyway.  So, why not me? Nothing is stopping me, except me.

Once you accept that basic truth – that life is in no way holding you back, nor is it going to thrust you forward – clarity comes. Responsibility becomes ours, and we welcome it. Each choice become ours, and we take it. Freedom becomes ours, and we enjoy it.

One great book I’d recommend to get you started in the correct way of thinking, is No Excuses! by Brian Tracy. If you work through this great book and actually do the exercises it requires, you will come to the revelation that your life is, was, and always will be, in your control.

2) You must let go of everything, and everyone, standing in your way.

As I mentioned above, sacrifice is an unavoidable part of “paying the price” for success. Nothing in life comes to us except at a price. The successful people you want to be like- the ones living their dreams every day- understood that part of the process and embraced it. They were willing to deny themselves some things they might have wanted in the short-term, for the long-term reward of having the life they imagined.

We all have the same 24 hours each day. Because of that fact, we must acknowledge that the difference between the life we have and the life we want, must be simply how we use those hours; how we prioritize the use of our time, energy, and talents wholly affects our outcomes in life. Donald Trump has the same number of hours a day as the guy doing maintenance in his office building. How they spend those hours is the only difference.

The problem is, many of us don’t see each day as the buffet table of choices it really is. Instead, we wake each day to a pre-determined list of chores, over which we have little or no control. We have to work at something to pay the bills, right? How else are we going to pay for college for the kids and the roof over our heads?

Now follow me on this: we have the bills we have because of the decisions we’ve made up to this point. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, I’m just saying it was our choice all along. We married who we chose to marry. The home we live in is the one we chose to buy. The car we drive, the clothes we wear, the luxuries we have, were all decisions we once made. We choose to spend our money on various things, and then we have to choose how to spend our time to acquire the money to pay for those decisions. Everything in your life came with a conscious decision to exchange a certain portion of your time and energy. You traded a certain percentage of our life on this Earth, for the computer you are using right now.

Once we realize how very precious our time is, compounded with the stark reality that none of us are guaranteed even a minute more of it, clarity can set in, to help us figure out what’s really worth that eight or ten, or even eighteen hours we spend working every day.

I’m not saying having luxuries is wrong, but for a person seeking to change their purpose or life’s direction, they may be wrong right now. Maybe that new car can wait a couple of years. Maybe you can downsize your life to free up more time. Maybe that television doesn’t need to be on 4 hours every night, and the video games can stay shut off,  and you can live without seeing every episode of “Breaking Bad” on Netflix.

I came to realize that the things we love don’t love us back. The couch doesn’t care who sits on it. The car doesn’t care who drives it. That $150 pair of jeans doesn’t care who wears it. The new IPhone really doesn’t care whose back pocket it’s stuck in.  The relentless pursuit of stuff is what traps most of us into a life of mediocrity.

If you study successful people, which I sincerely hope you do, you will see that their lives were filled with hard and difficult choices, not only about the sacrifices they needed to make to achieve their goals (and they all had to make sacrifices), but also about their willingness to surround themselves with like-minded people. One of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my own life was learn to let go of limiting mindsets, both in myself and in the people around me. It’s this part of the process of growth that many of us resist the most: having to let go of friendships and associations that stop us from reaching.

Yet, to become the artist you aspire to be, you need to be surrounded by other artists. To become the top salesperson in your company, you need to be in the company of great salespeople. To begin to live your dreams, you need the encouragement and energy of other dreamers.

We all know people in our lives who enable the worst in us – those who make excuses for their failures allow us to make excuses for ours. Those who are happy with their limited lot in life will make us question why we ache for more. Those who might be jealous of us if we achieve more than we do, who might be sabotaging our ambitions. You know there are some of these people are in your life right now. Some are well-meaning, others are not. To move forward, you have to be able to walk away from anything, and anyone, holding you back.

This was the hardest part for me. It still is. I suspect it will be the same for you. It’s normal to like people and want to bond with them. Forming social circles is never easy, so letting go of an established one to possibly face rejection by new ones, is something that we all find pretty scary. But it’s crucial. It’s unavoidable. It’s part of the sacrifice.

3) Fear is a liar.

This is surely an interesting quirk of my personality, but I would much rather perform in front of 1,000 people, than audition for 1.  I hate auditions. They terrify me. My only guess why, is that an audience is usually there to appreciate you, whereas the purpose of an audition is to judge you. The audience wants to be on your side; the casting director, not so much.

I finally realized what that dread really was over the past several years, while I built a financial advisor practice. It is a fear of rejection. I felt it while prospecting for new clients in a significant way. In many ways, it was another audition for me: I put myself out there as the product I’m selling, and take rejection. Over and over, day in and day out. I hated it. I avoided it. It took me out of acting once before, and nearly derailed my career as a financial advisor. I wanted to be liked, as we all do, but I placed far too much importance on the outcome of each prospect’s judgement of me. I was a people-pleaser. Any rejection took all the wind out of my sails.

Now, most salespeople, if they are honest, will tell you they loathe the process of prospecting. Very few people (and I’m not sure I’d like to know too many) find it perfectly natural to jump out of the bushes at total strangers and try to do business with them. Rejection hurts. Or rather, we think it hurts. It doesn’t actually, but we fear it nonetheless. It took many years before I realized that fear is our subconscious mind’s way to keep ourselves closed off and protected. It tells us not to make that leap, because we might get hurt. It makes us think hearing “no” causes real pain. It makes us think that we’re not good enough, not smart enough, or brave enough, when the reality is, we are probably all of those things. Good intentions or not, fear is a liar.

To reach for your dreams in life, you need to be able to fail. You need to be able to suffer setbacks, to make an ass of yourself, to be told you’re no good. You need to risk rejection to have any chance of hearing, “Yes.”  You must be able to do these things, because these things are part of the sacrifice.

One way to overcome fear, that worked for me, was to exaggerate the risk of a fear to ridiculous proportions, and then ask myself if I could still live through that experience. For example, what was the worst possible audition I could go to? Well, I could trip going up onto the stage, rip my pants wide open, and end up standing in front of a room full of people with my private bits exposed. Humiliating? Sure. Would I live through it? Without a doubt. No matter what kind of audition I had after that, it surely couldn’t go as badly as my worst nightmare, and I had realized that I could live through the worst nightmare. It helps to put the real risks into perspective.

Another way is to do what I call a “Count to three”. If I find myself hesitating to do anything now out of fear, I count to three, and then force myself to do exactly that. Over-thinking our fears creates monsters out of them. Now, instead of retreating at the feeling of fear, I use it as the very reason to act. It’s amazing what you find out when you just jump headlong at something you are dreading. It loses its ability to paralyze you, and the next time you feel the same fear, it’s smaller. Weaker. The tiger loses his teeth.

You can find a million books on overcoming fears, but a couple I found really helpful were Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, by Susan Jeffers, and, for salespeople, The Game of Numbers, by Nick Murray.

4) Dreams aren’t achievable. Goals are.

I know a fellow financial advisor who has had very limited success, despite over a dozen years in the business. For the past six months, he asked me for an hour a week every Friday, to go over his business plans and ideas, and get new input from someone in the business but not in his business. He wanted to bounce ideas off of me, and get his business looked at by a fresh set of eyes. Eager to pick his brain as a more experienced advisor, I accepted his invitation.

What I found out about him during that process, however, was very enlightening. I knew almost immediately why he has never found the success he so desires, and it is this: despite the fact that he presents himself as more professional, likable, and positive than I do, he isn’t going to go as far. He’s a great guy, with big dreams of a successful practice, but I don’t expect to see him grow like he imagines, because he won’t take action on any of the big ideas he’s told me about. He doesn’t follow through on his own To-Do list. He tells me of amazing marketing strategies he’s going to implement, without ever implementing them. He creates amazing logos, but then never actually gets it in front of a prospect. He talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk.

I’ve built three businesses in my career – two were restaurants, and then this financial practice. Anyone who has ever owned a business will understand what I mean when I say that walking that path changes you, immeasurably and forever. You are never the same once you step out from the imagined safety of being an employee, and decide to live solely on the success or failure of your own efforts.

One of the things you learn quickly is that the world is full of talkers and nearly devoid of doers. The doers, however, are priceless commodities you must hang on to at any cost. That’s why doers end up making more money and going farther in a company than talkers. Doers matter to the bottom line in a positive way.

To have the life you want to have, you must DO something, every day, to take you closer to that life. You must have a step-by-step plan of attack, written down with deadlines and micro-goals, and then work toward it each and every day.

This has not always been easy for me, or I would be farther along in my life than I am right now. But I can change, and so can you.

Having a big dream is the first step. Translating that dream into a specific plan of action is the crucial next step. The dream is the destination. The goals are the GPS directions to get there.

You can find lots of resources on SMART goal setting. I encourage you to set these kinds of goals, and work them, in every area of your life.

5) You’ve lost much less than you imagine.

One of my biggest fears of returning to the theater was, “What if I’ve lost my touch? What if I’m no good at this anymore?”

Whether your dream is to rekindle an old passion, like mine, or to embark in an entirely new direction, this lack of self confidence will inevitably find its way into your thinking before you begin. It’s part of the fear of failure I talked about earlier.

I hadn’t been on a stage as an actor in over 20 years, but something amazing happened when I did. I found out that though I really had gotten “rusty” in a few areas (like using dialects or memorizing lines as quickly), my life experiences in those 20 years only added to my previous skill set. I was immediately comfortable on the stage in a way I never was when I was younger. I had greater wisdom to draw from when making my choices for my character. I had a calmer, more assured confidence about my place and purpose in the company. I needed less praise from the director to know I was doing good work. My emotional range was deeper and broader because of my life experiences, and I was more confident about showing real emotion, and pushing through emotional blockages, than I would have been before. I took risks with ease. And, perhaps best of all, I just enjoyed it more.

It was a complete surprise when I found out that I was actually a far better actor now. My time away didn’t seem to detract from my abilities in any way. In fact, the old technical skills and lexicon came back at the very first rehearsal, as if they were just waiting eagerly in a file in my brain, ready to be retrieved. The other parts of the craft, such as scoring the script, and finding emotional anchors, was much easier, because I am far more of a complete person than I was at 16 or 20.

That’s not to say everyone can go back to their passion 20 years later with the same amount of ease. If, for example, playing football had been my passion, I would have quickly found that my body would never be able to perform the same as it did at 20.  In fact, I’m sure I’d have body parts flying off of me if I played tackle football at 43. But that’s not even to say that fitness is beyond your reach at 40, or 50, or even 70. Any skill you once had comes back with amazing speed. Your body seems to have a memory for certain movements and skills that, with just a few minutes’ reorientation, come roaring back.

Another “return” for me this year was tennis. I hadn’t played since high school. That is, until a good friend of mine invited me to come play with him this past summer. I had to go out and buy a racquet and some balls before I could even go the first time. And yes, I was nervous about my skill, because he is a pretty decent player, and I hadn’t stepped foot on a tennis court in 25 years.

But even then, after a few crappy serves, and embarrassingly missing the ball on a couple of returns, the skill came back with a vengeance. By the end of the two hours, I was maintaining good volleys and even beating him at times. (I was sore as hell for two days afterward, as my muscles hadn’t been worked like that in a long time, but even that goes away.)

The point is, don’t let a fear that you’ve “lost it” keep you from doing it. That fear is yet another way your mind is trying to benevolently protect you from failure. The odds are great that you haven’t lost anything, but rather, that you simply “stowed it”. It’s in the back of your mind, and deep in your muscle memory. And while you may not have the same stamina, and your knees may creak a little, just below the surface, that old skill is just begging for you to use it again.

November 10

Creating a Character, Part 6 – Leroy Jessup

Two weeks ago, we wrapped production of Bad Seed, and I wanted to share a brief post about the character, now that I’m looking back at the work in retrospect.

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Feedback from cast and audience members gave me the following few insights:

1) My Leroy was very different than the character portrayed by Henry Jones in the film. He was also very different than what the director had originally envisioned. But he worked – really well.

My take on Leroy was that he was not an idiot, nor was he a very angry man. Leroy was, for lack of any better descriptive, a loser.

It’s true I had to remove some of his fiercest anger in his first scene in order to properly attenuate his role to the audience; that was an immediate decision after the first night’s performance. Leroy came across as a little too dark – too much of a “heavy”- instead of an antihero, which is what I believe he ultimately is. Leroy identified the true evil in Rhoda, engaged it, and did battle with it. His outrage was our outrage; his confrontations with Rhoda were the closest the audience gets to telling her what we think of her. The audience never gets another chance to push back against the evil Rhoda represents, except through Leroy.

And yet, there is still a pall of unease around him. He’s a creepy guy. He’s a bully. He’s a bastard. But in the end, he’s our bully. He’s our bastard. As the main protagonist and the building’s janitor, he has to do the dirty work, both literally and figuratively, throughout the course of the play. He has to confront Rhoda, and does so, not because he sees himself as morally above her, but because he sees in her a lot of what he sees in himself. He badgers and bullies her until he realizes too late that she is capable of worse, much worse, than even his dark soul can handle. And, once he realizes he’s woken a monster and stands exposed, he’s our own shock and indignation. Like us, Leroy is a sinner. Rhoda, though, is a demon.

2) My Leroy was certifiably creepy, and some of that transferred on to what the audience thought of me as an actor.

What might mark the difference between a lead actor and a character actor, is the level of willingness each has to being seen as ugly and unlovable. Generally, lead characters are noble and have events transpire upon them, that affects them (and our view of them) in various ways.  In fact, watching a lead character undergo changes from the conflict of the play is the entire purpose of theater. The main character gets to learn and grow from the experience.

In contrast, supporting characters typically do not get transformed by the experience. They often provoke the changes in the main character, and are seldom different at the end than they were when we first meet them.

Not every actor is willing to let him or herself be presented in an unflattering way. That’s both the curse and calling of a huge number of actors out there – the driving needs of their vanity. The rush of applause. The silent reverence of an enthralled audience. The deep appreciation our society has for those in the arts (too much appreciation, but that’s a story for later).

In order to play a character like Leroy, an actor has to be willing to dig up and present ugly parts of himself. He must be willing to let an audience grow to dislike his character. He must be willing to stand in the shadows while the lead in the play be given the moments to shine, both in the script and by the director’s decisions. Not every actor is willing to be ugly or small or petty in front of an audience.

Yet, to play a character like Leroy successfully, that’s exactly what you have to do. He’s not pretty; far from it. To let him live authentically, I had to lay aside my own actor’s ego, and allow him to be ugly and nasty and scheming, and more. Where most of the cast applied makeup, donned beautiful costumes, and put their best faces forward (as their characters would in the south of the 1950’s), Leroy had to be far less appealing than that. I had days of beard growth and overalls, and at one point, just a plain white Fruit of the Loom undershirt. But that was it. I decided to let my now very thin hair stand on its own without trying to cover or hide it. I decided to let Leroy be the most “real” and human character on the stage, both in appearance and in temperament.

This was basically a first for me, because in my previous roles, I was usually cast as the lead. When given the role of Leroy, I immediately understood that my place was not to try to stand out, but to allow the other characters to do so. Leroy was functionally the “help”; and that’s the attitude I went in with as an actor. If I did Leroy correctly, then Rhoda would be the true villain, Monica would be the funny one, and Tasker would be the engaging one.

3) My decision after the first night’s performance, to mute some of Leroy’s darkest thoughts, was the right one.

From the second night to the end, Leroy’s delivery of certain lines resonated far better with the audience after I made the decision to modify my delivery of one of his lines (see the previous post on this character).  Every night after the first, Leroy got an appropriate level of uneasy laughter at the right places (mentioning that they have a pink electric chair for little girls), etc.

This was a decision I’m glad to have had, and be able to document.

4) Unexpected lessons are always waiting to be learned, and as an actor, discipline matters.

The final two performances were of particular challenge for me, not so much from a technical or skill perspective, but as an exercise in personal discipline.

For a couple of months prior to the show, my daughter, who is 16, had been experiencing progressively worsening headaches. My wife believed they were hormonal, as she had also experienced headaches as a teenage girl. But only a couple of hours before the final Saturday night performance, we received shocking news. During a routine eye exam for glasses, the doctor told us she saw that my daughter had swollen optical disks and was hemorrhaging in both eyes. The most likely cause of this was a brain tumor, but even if it was not cancer, left untreated, the doctor said, the odds were good it would result in blindness. Not wanting to waste any time, my wife and I decided she needed to be seen immediately.

This is one of those moments when the trite words, “the show must go on,” really meant something. As I stood there, trying to absorb this devastating news, it occurred to me that the next performance was in two hours, and I had no choice but to go to the theater. I had no understudy. They could not do the show without Leroy. So, I left for the play, while my wife took my daughter to an emergency room at a nearby hospital.

It was one of the hardest few hours of my life. My wife and I texted back and forth while I was backstage, her keeping me informed about events, but I can tell you, it took everything in my power to stay in the moment, and deliver the performance I was expected to. I felt like I had been punched in the face and walked around in a daze, but, like they say, “the show must go on.”

Before the performance started that night, my wife texted that my daughter was being taken for a CT scan, and I didn’t get any update until intermission. Thankfully, the news was as good as we could hope for – the CT scan showed nothing abnormal in the brain. I was able to perform the second act with a sigh of relief and quick prayer of thanks to God, that my little girl wasn’t facing brain cancer. Her condition remained, but the nightmare every parent fears was not to be.

I write this as an aside to young professionals in any field, not just actors: Shit happens. Deal with it. The show must go on. Acting is a profession like any other. And like any profession, it is easy to find reasons to take us out of the moment, to not perform our best, or to quit long before we should. Yet at the end of the day, all we’ve done is hurt ourselves and those around us. I haven’t had a long career as an actor today because I let life circumstances derail my dreams. This time, 20 years later, as I try again, I decided to push through. Learn that lesson as early in life as you can.

Yes, we were scared of what news may come, but I was powerless to do anything but wait. I needed to pull myself back and get busy with the task at hand. It wasn’t easy, but it was my job.

As for my daughter, her tests and diagnosis continues, even as I write this today. We spent my birthday (Friday) and most of Saturday in the hospital while my daughter endured two lumbar punctures. An MRI and MRV are still pending as they determine what is causing her spinal fluid pressure to be so high. Your kind thoughts and prayers are appreciated as my girl battles back from a very rare and dangerous condition.

Anyway, to close, I have written thousands more words on this character than he ever had written for him in the play, so I’ll likely close my writing on Leroy. Only let me conclude with this: playing Leroy was a marvelous way to rekindle my love affair with the theater, and I’m so grateful to the cast and crew for the opportunity to do good work with talented people. My love and thanks!

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The cast of Bad Seed, Camille Playhouse, October 2014

The cast of Bad Seed, Camille Playhouse, October 2014.

 

October 20

Creating a Character, Part 5 – Leroy Jessup

One sentence can change everything.

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Yesterday, we concluded the first three performances of Bad Seed. We have three more to go.

As I mentioned in Part 4 about creating this character, I realized only after witnessing an audience’s reaction to Leroy, that he was a little too dark. His sinister and brooding attitude had surpassed our real villain, Rhoda, and he had become unsympathetic. While an actor can give that kind of performance when called for (I can’t imagine someone trying to make Jeffrey Dahmer pitiable, for instance), in this case, I had overplayed his dark side a little too much. It was important for me to correct this, because Leroy isn’t evil; he’s a creep, but he isn’t a killer. Rhoda is.

For Leroy to be successful as a character, he needs to be villainy but human at some level. He’s more than a simple plot device. He has to be the audience’s moral outrage once the truth is discovered, and as he pays a horrific price for crossing Rhoda later on, he has to be in some way someone the audience can feel something for.

Luckily, if you are attuned to the audience, you can tell when something plays differently than you intended it. My epiphany came during the very first scene, in which Leroy is alone on stage, giving a brief monologue to himself about the two women and Rhoda. His first lines are:

“That know-it-all, Monica Breedlove. She don’t think nobody knows anything but her. I’ll show that bitch plenty.”

When I read this initially, and again in rehearsal, it was as a man smoldering with resentment because he had, once again, been scolded and lectured by her earlier in the scene. So I read it with seething bitterness. All was well, I thought.

But when I said that last sentence as a fuming, angry man, I actually heard the audience gasp slightly, and then immediately chill toward him.

At no other time in the play was the audience on Leroy’s side, after that line. Leroy’s funnier lines were met with almost no reaction. His death didn’t evoke any pity. And my reception as the actor was definitely muted at the curtain call.

The following morning, the almost hostile reaction to Leroy really bothered me. I could pinpoint the moment where they turned against him, but I couldn’t figure out how to correct it. At least not at first.

My wife knew I was distracted all morning, and asked what was up. We’ve been married so long, I couldn’t lie to her anyway, so I told her I was working out a character problem from the previous night’s performance. She hadn’t seen the play yet (she and my kids were going that night), so I gave her a quick synopsis of the first scene and told her I knew that there was something I was doing that turned the audience against Leroy.

She said, “Well, he’s a bad guy, right?” To which I replied, “No, Rhoda’s the “bad guy”. Leroy’s creepy, but he’s not the villain.” We talked briefly about other characters who were bad, but you liked them anyway: Darth Vader, Scar, Hannibal Lecter.

I explained that what was missing was some glimmer that I as the actor was having fun playing Leroy. I was missing that very subtle “wink” at the audience, that I’m just playing a role; that I’m just a tad self-aware of how he comes across.

She asked me to deliver the line I knew caused the audience’s hostility, and when I did, she also recoiled, just as they had. She told me the line, “I’ll show that bitch plenty,” said the way I was performing it, was a direct, serious, and imminent threat against a character that was already well-liked by the audience. She said Leroy sounded like a rapist, or worse.

So I knew now what my problem was: a single sentence, said in a way that made this guy a really nasty person. Said differently, it might change the entire character in a way that would not only put Leroy back in the right place in terms of the plot, but also add just a touch of humanity to him.

Could it be that easy? I decided to try it out on the Saturday night performance. When the time came for that line, I decided instead of being ominous, I would have Leroy say it in a boastful way, like he was gloating a little. Immediately I felt a difference from the audience. They didn’t laugh at the line (nor should they), but the air didn’t chill and the gazes didn’t become glares. The rest of the monologue got a little laughter, actually, and the applause at blackout was much warmer.

In later scenes, Leroy is having his fun tormenting Rhoda, and this time, the audience was enjoying it, too. They liked seeing these characters sparring, and Leroy’s death was much more serious and scary to them this time.

After the show, the cast formed a reception line to thank the attendees as they exited the theater. This time, it was completely different. Lots of people stopped to say they thoroughly enjoyed the performance.

I decided to finish refining that monologue one more time during the Sunday matinee. This time, I had Leroy start out angry at Monica Breedlove, but then begin to snicker a little at his naughty thoughts about the two women, and brag a bit more. The audience laughed with him this time. I knew I had won them over to Leroy’s side, and that was confirmed by the much warmer reaction throughout the play, laughter at the right places, and louder applause. In the reception line, there was significant interaction with the attendees this time, with many heaping praise on the character and the work. It was an entirely different experience from the first night, and it was a single sentence, spoken differently, that turned Leroy back into a character you love to hate.

I’ll post one final entry on this character once the show’s run is concluded. Stay tuned!

October 18

Creating A Character, Part 4 – Leroy Jessup

 

 

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Opening night for Bad Seed was last night, to an audience of about 150. I hadn’t posted an update into creating this character until now, because I wanted to see how my choices played to an audience, and see what changes I would make (if any) for the remaining five shows.

Before I give the insights from audience reaction last night, let me first answer questions 5 and 6 from my original post on this character.

Question 5 is, what can I bring from my personal experiences to ground the character in real-life emotion and thinking, and in so doing, make his reactions and responses more believable? This took some work. Certainly, I am an acceptable age to play Leroy (I’m almost 43), and with that age comes a wide range of life experiences, both good and bad. I grew up very poor, spending several years in project housing, and did at times feel that people born into better economic conditions were either better, more blessed, or somehow superior to me. I sometimes heard the all-too-common populist nonsense in my home, that people who were better off than we were, were somehow crooked or devious. The assumption was always that the rich get rich by somehow screwing over the poor. It’s a mindset I’ve since overcome, and it’s one of the primary reasons I’m a financial advisor today, but sadly we see this same mentality so often in the protest movements of our own time.

So I drew upon that sense of lack, and the underlying resentment of it, as a definite cornerstone on which to build Leroy. He likely came from not much of anything, is isn’t likely going anywhere. He doesn’t really see himself as able to advance socially or economically, but he is definitely not contented with his lot in life. There is simmering resentment and anger in him.

That was actually easy for me to summon. Surprisingly so.

Also, like Leroy in many ways, I come from a largely blue-collar and hard-working ancestry. Although both sets of my grandparents owned their own businesses, they were not Fortune 500-type endeavors. My paternal grandparents labored for years running a string of service stations, a towing company, and an auto repair shop. I hardly remember my grandpa wearing anything but one of his company work uniforms, and he was up and out before dawn and came home, exhausted, just in time for supper. My other grandparents worked similarly difficult hours owning a bakery. My grandfather would get up at midnight to go in and make all the food for the day’s business, and then at 5 travel to his full-time job as a forklift operator for Coors. My grandmother would come in and run the bakery all day.

So, seeing myself for the first time in costume, in blue denim overalls with rolled-up shirt sleeves, I instantly remembered seeing (and now feeling) the hard work of my grandfathers coming through.

 

Question 6 is what I needed some time with the rest of my cast to figure out: how do my choices of character development actually work when you match this character up with the other people in his world? Does Leroy ring true in all situations?

I’ll be honest, I don’t know if he “works” at every moment. There is an early scene in which Leroy is first seen by the audience, that he becomes annoyed with Rhoda and purposely wets her shoes as he walks by. He’s caught by Rhoda’s mother and his employer, Mrs. Breedlove, and faces a dressing down by all three characters before being sent back to work. The end of that scene, he is seen alone on stage, seething with resentment at his treatment, commenting about each one, and showing only the slightest bit of respect for Rhoda. He sees Rhoda as “almost as smart as me”, but only because he and Rhoda can see through each other’s false fronts.

The remainder of his time on stage, Leroy interacts almost exclusively alone with Rhoda. In these scenes, he is finally alone with both his foil and his prey. Rhoda is the one person in Leroy’s world that he has some power over. I will add that in our production, that power and dominance was exaggerated in the physical sense, because I am 6’1″ and weight about 225, and our Rhoda is played by a very petite young girl. I tower over her in every sense of the word. I worried that I would be seen as too much of a bully, or too predatory, and that it wouldn’t ring true that he could actually grow to fear this little tempest in a teapot.

But luckily, our Rhoda actress (an extremely talented young lady), was up to the task of meeting Leroy head-on. Eventually. At first I think she was actually intimidated by me because I played Leroy as so strong and with such a creepy, bitter edge. But with some coaching and with the relaxation that comes with working together, she summoned her inner strength and met Leroy’s blather head-on.

I knew my job was to be almost as bad as Rhoda, but not quite. He could be smart, but not quite as smart as Rhoda; thuggish, but actually fearful of genuine evil when he saw it. The director and I agreed that Leroy should be someone the audience was supposed to not like, but would grow to root for over the course of the play.

That leads me to finish this post with a quick discussion of how this all played out to our first real audience.

The first thing that struck me was that the audience found the play far more humorous than any of us expected. Mrs. Breedlove started getting laughs just walking on stage. Her long-winded tirade at Leroy had the audience laughing. In my first monologue at the end of scene 1, I could actually feel the audience darken their attitudes toward him. He’s just coming across as such a bastard. And during the “battle” scenes between Leroy and Rhoda, even though she is showing so much evil, they loved seeing her put Leroy in his place.

So there was my first surprise – Leroy was someone the audience wanted to see lose. They actually wanted to see him get his in the end. I had created a character that was largely unsympathetic.

A final thought came during the curtain call and reception afterwards. The director decided to have me bow right before Rhoda’s mother and Rhoda did (basically making me the third “star” of the show), but the applause was polite but subdued. During the reception, I had several people come up and tell me the performance was “very good”, but very few wanted to stick around and talk to me. One young boy came up, very sheepishly (I was still in costume), and remarked about how nasty and evil Leroy was, and wanted to know a little about acting, but that was it. I didn’t take from anyone that they didn’t like the performance – it was more that how could I be a nice guy to talk to, after what they had just seen.

I’ll post again after the remaining five performances, just to update on any changes that were made, or on different audience reactions.

 

September 29

Creating a Character, Part 3 – Leroy Jessup

badseed24We had a couple of good rehearsals since the last post, finally getting to one of two major “Leroy vs. Rhoda” scenes. In the first, you finally get to see just how creepy Leroy really is, but also how perceptive and “on target” he is regarding Rhoda’s involvement in the death of the boy at their school picnic.

This scene helped me to make a lot of decisions as an actor, and see if those decisions would “play” against the performance of Rhoda. I think we’re on track to a couple of really intense scenes, in large part due to the amazing talents of the little girl who is playing Rhoda. There is a lot of stigma in the theater about working with child actors; they are either very difficult to work with- especially the very young ones – or they just aren’t yet able to make certain character motivations ring with enough truth. When you find a good one, they stand out quickly – think of Haley Joel Osment or Dakota Fanning. Whenever you forget you are watching an actor in a role, that’s a good performance. But whenever you forget you are watching a child actor in a role, that’s simply amazing.

Anyway, this young lady will be a lot of fun to watch grow as an actor.

In this scene, Leroy, who is already suspicious because of Rhoda’s obvious lack of empathy for the death of a classmate, decides to put out a little bit of theory that Rhoda in fact, killed the boy. But he does it in a taunting way that smacks of immaturity and a bit of a dark side himself. He enjoys immensely that he has this very smart girl figured out, and sets about to provoke her until she gives something away.

The next scene, one we are finally blocking and rehearsing tonight, is where Leroy’s theory is fully confirmed, and gives the audience a full dose of how nasty little Rhoda really is, but this scene is an obvious tension-builder and moves the Rhoda storyline along more than anything that’s happened so far.

Many of my decisions about Leroy came after I finally read him in the theater, against our Rhoda actress. It played well to see him leering, relishing his taunts, invading her space. The delivery was slower and more calculating and far more menacing than I expected at first. It’s in far contrast to the original portrayal by Henry Jones. (Hey, at least I won’t be accused of imitating.)

In my first post on this character, I listed 6 questions I always ask myself in preparation for a role. I answered the first two in detail in the second post. Here’s a quick review so far:

1) What’s in the script – very little other than he’s definitely southern, uneducated, lazy, has a family. Is not very likable and is kept on as an employee mostly because the landlady pities him. One character says he has the mind of an 8 year-old, but she’s 100% wrong about Rhoda, and mis-diagnoses everyone around her to such a degree, that I chose to just let her underestimate Leroy, like she does everyone else.

2) What the play reveals – he’s far more cunning than he lets on. He sees Rhoda’s dark side because, he reveals, he also has a dark side. He later underestimates her and becomes afraid of her after “poking the bear” one time too many.

The remaining answers to the questions in my character study are really a combination of decisions I make as an actor, and how the character finally interacts with the other characters in this specific production. For example, I could choose to make Leroy an actual low-functioning individual, but it wouldn’t provide (my opinion) enough motivation for his constant needling of our Rhoda, who herself is still playing Rhoda as more girlish than serial killer. Someone like Forrest Gump wouldn’t relish tormenting a little girl, but a creepy bastard would.

So let’s tackle questions 3 and 4 today:

3) How does he see the world? What is his life story?

I decided Leroy is either separated or divorced from his wife and lives apart from his family. He has to support them still, which is probably why he works at all. But he hates his job and the people around him. He’s very much a loner. There is almost certainly an emotional immaturity to him, for him to relate best of all to the youngest person around him. Leroy is looked down upon, with pity as well as scorn (mostly due to his surliness), and the adults in the room never speak to him except to either scold him or give him orders. Even Rhoda sees this man as beneath her attention, until he picks up on the right “hot buttons”. Then he pounds on them over and over with a bit of sadistic glee.

A rough-and-tumble boy, Leroy likely peaked in some endeavor way back in grade school, and since then his life has been one bitter disappointment after another. I decided that he’s tried his hand at a variety of jobs and failed out of most because he felt they were beneath him. It’s the same reason his marriage failed – he felt it should just come easy without any effort on his part. Leroy feels important and believes he’s smarter than most people, and shouldn’t have to prove himself to get ahead in life. Think of a college educated person who remains in a $10.00 call center job, huffing constantly that they never get promoted out of some kind of prejudice on the part of the employer, taking no responsibility for their own life or initiative to better their situation. Why can’t people just see how smart he is?

Because I’m pretty physically built and stand 6’1″, I tower over most of the rest of the cast, especially little Rhoda. To stay in shape at age 42, I have to work out and weight train 4 to 5 days a week, which I have done for years. There is no way Leroy would have that kind of discipline, so my decision is that Leroy WAS once in much better physical shape, likely from football in school (it’s the south, after all), and a long stint in the army during WW2. This would put my character’s age at roughly 35, based on the play’s setting in the mid 1950’s.

The military decision was key: Because he’s seen combat as a foot soldier, that’s where he got a lot of his anger and exposure to evil. He’s seen bad soldiers, war crimes, and Nazi atrocities up close. He came home a very dark, bitter, depressed man. I believe he married his high school sweetie after the war, but it didn’t last even five years. He was too changed, too unambitious, too detached from the world around him. Now, he just exists.

(That is a lot of exposition, but it gives me something to “anchor” my portrayal to. Now instead of just a dim-witted janitor who happens to be surly and stumbles upon the real story behind the little boy’s death, Leroy is a much deeper character who has seen so much in his past that he immediately recognizes those traits in Rhoda. It also helps me answer question 5, which I will in the next post.)

4) What are the character’s current circumstances? 

He lives day-to-day in a meager, soul-less existence. Most of his pay goes toward supporting his estranged family. He lives in a squalid apartment off-site from the building he works at. He’s already given up on ever really finding a woman again, though he definitely thinks about it. His own wife has since remarried.

He’s attracted to Christine Penmark, Rhoda’s mother, but thinks about sex with her in demeaning ways – he thinks she’s uptight, too “uppity” and needs a little more dirty action. He’s not romantically attracted – he doesn’t like her. He would just like to, for lack of a better phrase, “hit that”. The fact that he’s thinking about violating an army Colonel’s wife is all that much more fun for him after his years in the service.

His work is boring to him and he does it poorly. He is sarcastic and disrespectful to his employers (as he was in the army, to the degree he could get away with it). He thinks the world is out to hold him down, and so he constantly has a chip on his shoulder.

I am making the decision that Leroy knows the grounds and building really well, enough to know its hiding places and how he can get away without working (but make it look like he is). I think he’d pocket anything valuable he found if he could get away with it. He certainly feels no loyalty to his employers.

I also decided that he will be entering scenes after coming from other apartments, in his own little world, lost in thought, going through the motions. That will give my entrances a low-key, almost insignificant feel.

The one thing that suddenly gives him a spark in his otherwise dull existence is discovering that Rhoda is not what she appears to be. So he thinks on that a lot, watching her at play, fixating on her. Peeling back the onion. He loves to invade her space and poke at her. I think if the play was written in 2014, the writer could hint that Leroy is likely a pedophile, or at least has thought about it. I don’t want to take it to that level of creepy, so I made the decision that he has no interest in Rhoda beyond tormenting her. Finally, someone he can bully. He most definitely enjoys the power position in his relationship with Rhoda. It’s the only one he has in life.

Tonight, we rehearse the final scene between Leroy and Rhoda. This is one where he reveals he knows how she killed the little boy, and we get to see Rhoda go full-on evil once she realizes her secret is out. I’ll also be refining my previous thoughts, and answering the last two questions. Stay tuned!

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September 25

Creating a Character, Part 2 – Leroy Jessup

Sometimes finding a character is an almost immediate occurrence – the playwright either gives you so much detail that it is impossible to not see a character the way it was written (Stephen King comes to mind). Other times, there have been so many performances of the character by others that you have a wide range of ideas from which to draw.

I’ve always liked to see other performances of my character if I can. Our play’s director advised the cast against it, for the most important reason so many actors and directors avoid seeing other performances, as well: whether you mean to or not, you run the risk of simply imitating the other performance.

That’s not been my issue. Instead, I tend to want to just see this person living and breathing via another performance, to get my mind around him, and to see what kinds of decisions the other actors made.

In the case of Leroy, the role’s originator was noted stage actor Henry Jones. Jones, like most of the film’s cast, first played Leroy on Broadway, and was asked to play him again in the film. As such, Jones’ film performance shows strong stage presence, but looks a little overdone for cinema. But it’s a great place to start.

So for the first part of my character development process, I want to take what I know about the character from the script, and also from the work Jones did.

Here’s what I know so far, from the script and this one other performance:

1) Leroy is described as having the mind of an 8-year-old, but that’s only by a character who spends the first half of the play thinking she’s an expert psychoanalyst (Monica Breedlove). In fact, Breedlove launches into an excessive and bizarre tirade about Leroy in the first scene, in which she calls him nearly everything in the medical dictionary. So the IQ issue is really only one character’s opinion. Sure, he is written to be either lower class or lower intellect, as his lines are full of slang and outdated imagery, but he’s not specifically mentioned to be an idiot, and Henry Jones’ performance seems to concur with me. Leroy is no Forrest Gump.

2) Leroy is a bully. He’s surly and acts petulantly, in some ways like a child. He’s most likely emotionally stunted more than he is intellectually stunted, since he is the only character to see little Rhoda for what she is. She’s also the only one he can relate to. The other characters (all adults) ignore or demean Leroy, and he tries hard to avoid serious conversation with any of them. Yet he seeks out opportunities to engage Rhoda. He bullies Rhoda; it’s likely his only real sense of power or authority at all.

3) The script mentions that he has “somehow made a family” in spite of his other shortcomings, so we know Leroy is married and has at least one child.

4) Leroy is unambitious and often lazy.He does his job, but not to the best of his ability, and not more than what is expected. He sleeps in a bed he made from excelsior (old packing material) in the garage of the building where he works, while he is supposed to be working. (This is ultimately the source of his demise.) Lazy people generally don’t worry about posture or putting on appearances, so I would assume he’s also sloppy in his dress, manners, and carriage. He wouldn’t likely worry if he showered every day.

5) Leroy speaks of a few of the relationships he has with other characters, that I as the actor have to keep in mind. For Monica Breedlove, his haughty employer, he has utter contempt. He loathes her. He has an odd line about Christine Penmark, Rhoda’s mother, in Act I, Scene 1, where he calls her “trough-fed” and says she “doesn’t get enough of what she needs”, and then tells himself boastfully that he could be the one to “give it to her”. (This leads me to believe he sees Christine as a bit spoiled, uppity, and sexually frustrated, as Colonel Penmark is mentioned as always being away for weeks or months at a time.)

And then there is Rhoda, whom Leroy immediately senses is “damn smart”, but also says that they “see through” each other. He keeps drawing parallels between himself and Rhoda in terms of both their smarts and their meanness, and how they both “get away with things”.

The rest of the characters he doesn’t interact with.

6) Leroy seems to have some anger issues and doesn’t like repetitive noises. In the first scene, he purposely wets Rhoda’s tap shoes and then drops a wet sponge onto Christine. He later mentions to Rhoda that he wet the shoes because they were always tap-tap-tapping and he didn’t like it. In a later scene, Leroy enters a room alone where a phone is ringing, and because it wasn’t picked up, he goes over to it, picks it up, and slams the receiver back down to stop the ringing.

Quick aside: Leroy also has the most unusual characteristic of announcing himself every time he enters the room. My assumption is that the “help” was expected to announce himself before he entered, most likely a rule laid down by the very proper, aristocratic, southern Monica Breedlove. Because Leroy hates Mrs. Breedlove, he follows the rule but would do so in a very half-assed way.

Night three of rehearsals is tonight. I’ll be updating before the weekend on the decisions I’ve made as an actor on his background story, appearance, and motivations.

September 24

Creating a Character, Part I – Leroy Jessup

It’s been 24 years since I was last on stage. Recently I decided that was far too long, and auditioned for a small part in my local community theater, the much celebrated Camille Playhouse in Brownsville, TX. There were a couple of small parts I thought wouldn’t require much effort or time on my part (in my “day job” I’m a financial advisor).

The play is Bad Seed, the mid-1950’s Broadway hit about a little girl who is much more than she appears to be. In fact, little Rhoda Penmark is a serial killer and one very nasty little creature. The play discusses the role of nature vs. nurture in the construct of a person’s character: can someone “inherit” evil?

I thought I’d audition for the part of Rhoda’s father, Colonel Penmark, described only as straight-laced, good looking, and very loving. Easy enough a part, I thought, being so naturally all three. Plus, he’s only in two scenes. So even though it had been a long time since I stepped out in front of an audience, it’d be a cake walk.

I auditioned for the very fun director at Camille, Eric Vera, and then we discussed a few of the other roles in the play, including the one male role that certainly has the most impact on the plot, a janitor named Leroy Jessup.

Leroy, I told Eric, would be a challenge for me to figure out. He’s described as having the mind of an eight year old child, and that’s about it. Yet throughout the play, Leroy serves as little Rhoda’s nemesis; he’s almost as dark and conniving as she is. There’s a definite “ick” factor to Leroy, who is lazy and acts impulsively and spends a little too much time thinking about the females in the play, including little eight-year-old Rhoda. And even though Leroy is supposed to be basically an imbecile, he’s the only one who clearly and immediately see Rhoda for what she really is, and is slick enough to trick her into revealing her evil deeds.

In short, I went in to audition for the simplest character I could find, as the easy way to resurrect my acting career. I walked out with the task of portraying one of the most complicated characters I’ve ever played.

What will follow in this post is part internal monologue, and part character study. It is how I go through the process of bringing a character to life; how I make him “real” to me. I believe that if I as the actor don’t utterly believe in this person who inhabits my body for the duration of a play, you as the audience will never believe he’s real. It starts and ends with how much I believe in him. If I believe in him, then you have no choice.

I always found it helpful to write about the characters I play, as if I am his therapist as well as his creator. But I also have to be a bit of a detective – who is this guy? What makes him tick? What is his motivation for taking every action the audience will observe? What is it about this man’s life that I have to discover first, so that the moment he steps in front of the audience, his “life” seems perfectly natural?

Certainly the character whispers many of his secrets to you from the pages, and a good playwright can make an actor’s job incredibly easy if the character is vividly described and written with great care. And although the “Bad Seed” script is excellent, Leroy was left very blank.

My process looks like this:

1) What’s on the page: what does the playwright tell me? What’s been gifted to me by this character’s creator?

2) What the play reveals: what is the character going to discover about himself? How does the action of the play change him?

3) How he sees his world: what does his interaction with the other characters tell me? Where does he live?

4) What are his circumstances: what kind of a background would lead the character to that moment in his life that we will see on stage? What’s his life story?

5) What can I relate to? What can I bring from my own life experience to add “meat’ to this person? How can I find synergy between us? How can I care about him enough to play him as a real human being?

6) Decide and set it (almost) in stone. Although I make my final decisions about a character’s life and circumstances before the action of the play, the interactions within the chemistry of the ensemble often changes my characters subtly during performance. They are occasionally different each night of a production if the cast chemistry changes.

I’ll create this character in a series of posts throughout the rehearsal process. Stay tuned!