While professional actors get paid for their work, amateurs don’t – well, at least not with money. This summer I experienced once again that there are other kinds of payment that are far more valuable than money for those of us willing to step onto the stage.
Excited to have been offered the role of Sorin in Entity Theatre’s fall production of The Seagull, I enthusiastically began my detailed study of the script by making detailed lists of what is referred to as the given circumstances: facts about my character, things he says about himself and others, and what others say about him. It seemed clear to me that my character was an elderly man who was terrified of dying, yet seemed equally fearful of taking any risks that would enable him to engage with life. He seems to be constantly complaining and making excuses for his unwillingness to take responsibility for his own life.
I have known many people like this and have always tried to avoid them as much as possible. I spent three weeks on my preparation, using my memories of such people to help me present my character in an authentic way. Finally, when I believed I could bring this weak and contemptable Sorin to life on the stage, I presented him to Bogdan, the director. His response was kind but clear: thank you for all your hard work but that isn’t my vision for Sorin. I want the audience to see him as a courageous and capable man, but one who has made some bad choices. Now, at the end of his life, he has regrets.
After all the time I had invested in my preparation, that was hard to hear, to say the least!
I wandered around for a couple of days, arguing in my head about how Bogdan was clearly wrong. I went through his detailed comments and the script again, collecting “evidence” that I was right and he was wrong. Then, a couple of evenings later, I suddenly recalled an interview I had listened to many years ago. The guest was the Oscar winning actor Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln, Men in Black). When asked about the relationship between the actor and the director, he said that the job of an actor is to be an instrument in the service of the director, and that an actor should make it more important than anything else to bring the director’s words to life on the stage to the best of his or her ability; to do less is simply being an imposter.
So which was I – an actor or an imposter? It was a sad moment for me when I opened the script of the play, selected all of my preparation notes and pressed the delete key. I then stared at the pages for a long time with absolutely no idea how to go about creating Bogdan’s vision of Sorin. It was a bit surreal that my vision of Sorin had become so present for me that I actually needed some time to “grieve” about his “death” before I was ready to move on.
I started doing a lot of research on Chekhov, Tsarist Russia, and the times in which the play took place. I also did a lot of research on depression, co-dependency and Echoism (the psychological opposite of Narcissism). I used everything I learned to create a detailed biography of Sorin that might possibly explain the behaviours and fears that he manifests in the play.
By the time I was finished, my contempt for Sorin had totally transformed into deep compassion and sorrow that this man could not accept the successes that he had had in life because they had been in pursuit of something he didn’t care about.
The new script preparation notes flowed easily from that point. I kept noticing, with a bit of embarrassment, that all the script lines that I thought surely justified my prior perspective were in fact equally valid for my new point of view. For someone who can tend toward arrogance from time to time, that embarrassment was extraordinarily valuable.
Probably the most confrontational aspect of this whole process, however, was the realization that I had previously judged such people in a negative way without really understanding what life experiences might have led them to behave in that way. And that led directly to the suspicion that there remain many other kinds of behaviour that annoy me because I am unwilling to invest the time to try and understand what might be going on for that person. Perhaps this awareness will help me to become a more kind, tolerant and compassionate person.
No amount of money could possibly pay for the personal value of these insights in finding joy and satisfaction in my everyday life.
Text: Roger Voight, Pictures: Katrin Fegert