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.

 

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