Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Actor and the Text - and the Reader

Have you ever played a part on stage or on film that was completely unlike you? I have. I love it. In my opinion, playing against type is one of the most challenging aspects of acting - and one of the best. It's fun to do a full 180, to play a shy character when you're loud and outgoing in real life, or pretend you're from another place, another era, another walk of life.

But what about playing the opposite gender? How comfortable (or uncomfortable) would that be? How does the gender bending inform your voice, your speech pattern, your posture, your walk? What if you were portraying a historical figure attending the trials of Oscar Wilde? In 1895, Wilde, author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and many other well-regarded works, was brought to court, where his art and life were unfairly tried due to his sexual orientation.

As some of you know, I'm an actress. I've just been cast in a stage production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Written by Mois├ęs Kaufman, the play is based on real events and uses actual court transcripts from Wilde's (in)famous trials. Kaufman is famous in his own right, known for his original plays and projects as well as his work as one of the members of The Tectonic Theater Project, the group behind The Laramie Project. Thus, the writing has a unique structure, almost reading/sounding like a documentary, with quick interjections of thoughts and quotes, clarified and underscored by various narrators.

I've played boys (or roles that are typically given boys) before. When I was a kid, I was Tiny Tim in Scrooge, a musical based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Every night, after curtain call, I'd take off my newsboy cap and let my hair fall down. That was fun, especially when I heard the gasp of someone who had been in the audience moments before.

The year before that, I fought for the right to audition for the role of Charlie in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory. They told me I couldn't, because I was a girl. I told them I could, because Charlie could be short for Charlotte, because girls could do anything boys could do, because I should at least be able to at least try. (Does it surprise you at all to learn I was this headstrong since I was, well, born?) Not only did I win the right to audition, but I won the role.

Back to Gross Indecency. I initially wanted to talk about the legal and social injustice that Wilde endured and compare that to similar persecutions and assumptions made today - but then I got an idea and thought I'd change it up a bit by discussing the actual storytelling of the piece.

Our interests in and reactions to stories might vary based on the genders of the characters - and also, in the case of written work then reinterpreted for the stage or screen, the casting.

Every time a play is performed, it is different. Each production is different, even when the dialogue is the same. The actors, directors, and others involved in the show collaborate on an interpretation and presentation of words which were previously strung together by a playwright.

When Gross Indecency first ran off-Broadway in 1997, the cast was made up of nine male actors playing multiple roles. My cast has the same number of people, but while men are playing Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, and the lawyers, women have been cast as the four narrators - one of whom also plays the judge. (Note that, as of this writing, we've only just had the first read-through. Blocking will begin later this week.) Will the presence of females change the story? The interpretation of the words? The audience's perception? Do you think an audience would react differently to an all-male cast, or an all-female cast?

Now think about this on a broader scale, and consider your own subconscious assumptions: When you read a play - or any printed story - in which a character's gender is not specified, do you picture a man or a woman? If that character speaks, do you hear a man's voice, or a woman's voice? Why do you picture the person - the gender - that you do? Does it depend on the reason the character entered the scene? The occupation or other nouns surrounding it? If it's a friendly neighbor, knocking on the door and sharing freshly-baked cookies, do you picture a man or a woman? If a one-line character is simply described as "a lawyer" or "a cop" or "a teacher" or "a doctor," do you picture a woman or a man?

Do you trust a female narrator more or less than a male? If a man writes a story from the first-person viewpoint of a woman, is that character and that story less valid than it would have been if a woman had written the story, or vice-versa? Along these lines, I could write another post entirely dedicated to the narrator of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. If you haven't read that amazing novel, I won't spoil it for you here. I'll simply encourage you to pick up that book when you get up Gross Indecency, and read, read, read.

This discussion can go even further, asking what other character traits you envision, such as race or body type. When characters in books, scripts, and plays are "undescribed" or "under-described" (because those are two different things, mind you), do you mentally picture characters that resemble you or someone you know, or do you see John Does and Jane Does, purposely nondescript? It's much different than watching a film or television series, isn't it, if you can see and/or hear that character, when the pictures, sounds, and ideas are provided for you.

How much of what we take away from a story, any story, is based on our own experiences, perceptions, and interpretations? Don't we take away more than just the words of the writer? Don't we put a little piece of ourselves into that story, page by page?

Please feel free to discuss all of this in the comments below.

Oh - I failed to mention our director's gender. Did you notice this accidental omission, or are you only noticing now that I'm drawing your attention to it?


Anonymous said...
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Colleen said...

Love this - especially the bit about you as Charlie!

Little Willow said...

Thank you, Colleen.