I have sat in the audience for a number of plays in which Deirdre Hickok Bridge has inevitably caught my eye. Her glowing reputation is characterized not only by a repertoire of dialects and characters, but also by a penchant for appearing in original works by local and regional playwrights.
Her credentials for original works include (but are not limited to) Hotel LaPutts by Wallace J. Pineault, Ye Merry Gentlemen by G. Matthew Gaskell, Sputnik: A Love Story by Lowell Williams, The Warmth of the Cold by Lowell Williams, Candid Candidate and Scene Changes by Don Tongue, Kong’s Night Out by Jack Neary, and Possession by Patrick Cleary.
There is much of Deirdre’s expertise I’d like to discuss with her, and maybe we will at a later time, but for now, I’m particularly fascinated by what sorts of challenges and perks an actor can expect when rehearsing an original piece. Deirdre generously agreed to chat with me so I could learn more.
Mike: So, Deirdre, how is preparing for your role in an original play different than working with a traditional script?
Deirdre: In many ways, it’s similar–figuring out what drives the character in a given scene and in their imagined life outside the play, looking at what their relationship is with the other characters, that sort of thing. There is always a responsibility to the playwright, to honor the words, and find the bits of the story that aren’t visible on a two-dimensional page. In an established play, however, there is also a responsibility to the audience’s expectations. This is not to say that one should copy another’s performance of an established role, however, iconic roles–say Amanda in Glass Menagerie, or Prospero in The Tempest–carry with with them a history that the actor must respect in her choices. It is very freeing to create a character without this history.
When I work in an established play, the relationships between characters are usually the last piece of the puzzle I add in, after objective, action, backstory, etc.
In an original play, I like to begin by examining these relationships… by looking at shifts in status, and how these relationships change and how the character wants them to change vs. how the relationships actually shift through the course of the story on the page.
My character’s relationships to the other characters is so important to me. In focusing on this aspect, some unwritten truths about what drives them appear by default.
I also like to write a pretty detailed backstory of the character to help learn more about them and what makes them tick, as well as their mannerisms and speech patterns. Sometimes these begin as a narrative in my subconscious as I’m reading a piece, like during my audition for Hotel LaPutts… “They obviously met at Marquette when she was an undergrad and she thought it would be an adventure to go back east with him.” Oh! She never errs on the side of caution and has a Wisconsin accent. Boom!
It’s the difference between doctoring up a cake mix to make it your own vs. inventing an entirely new recipe.
M: You mentioned a responsibility to the playwright. It seems to me like that would be intimidating if the playwright is local! Do you often get to meet the playwright at some point in the process? What is that interaction like?
D: The interaction varies based on the playwright. Some like to be involved in the transformation from page to performance. Some like to hand it over and see where the director and cast take it. In almost every instance, however, the playwright has been available at some point to answer questions about their work. Hearing what inspired the story, or what part of the writer’s imagination spawned the characters, is SO helpful in building a picture of the character.
During Possession, Patrick Cleary spoke with us about the importance of perspective in looking for truth in the smallest details of life, as well as the simple statement that “the two characters are related in some way.” And then he left us alone with the director to find the life in his words. If the play is not set in the current day, it is also super helpful to be able to pick the playwright’s brain for historical context and any research he has done. During Sputnik: A Love Story, which revolves around a Nigerian student who comes to New Hampshire in 1958 to track Sputnik and to see his true love, Lowell Williams was able to share with us his extensive research into years that precede the American Civil Rights Movement and the Redstone rocket program. It really helped set the tone for each character’s point of view in the piece. In most cases, when a playwright gets feedback from the cast or director about particular sections that aren’t quite working, they are usually open to making adjustments that clarify the storytelling, which also happens to be a perfect example of theatre being the ultimate collaborative art form.
M: In your experience, how often is the playwright also the director, and how does that affect the rehearsal process?
D: Not often. In most cases, the original works I’ve performed in have had a director who is not the playwright. In these cases, the playwright was as interested as anyone see how a director would help transform their words into a production. A director can often find inspiration, nuggets of truth, visual themes, relationship information on the page that the playwright didn’t even realize was there. (True story! I’ve actually heard at least three playwrights say that.)
When the playwright is also the director, the rehearsal process can be difficult. A playwright often has a set picture in his head of exactly how a character should be played. This can limit the actor’s ability to make choices. On the flipside, as the person who conceived the character, he can also convey this detailed picture to the actor. In Candid
Candidate, it initially appeared to me that Judith was very flat, dogmatic, and literal, whereas Don Tongue had written her thinking very differently. As director, he and I found a woman who was probably somewhere in between our two visions. Unfortunately, the playwright as director can also mean blind spots or confusion within the story, especially in instances where the work has not been vetted through previous readings and revisions. A director can see these trouble spots and work with the playwright to fix them. The ultimate goal is to convey a story to an audience.
M: You’re obviously passionate about this entire process. What do you enjoy most about rehearsing and performing an original piece?
D: I’m all about transformation. That’s what I love about theatre. Not my personal transformation– the transformation of black and white words on the page into a live 3-D performance through human imagination and interaction. That process is exhilarating. In an original piece, that transformation is happening for the first time. It’s as if a musician has written a new symphony and you are among the orchestra who gets to play it for the first time. Sometimes it still needs rewrites, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always magic.
M: What encouragements can you offer to an actor who is thinking about auditioning for an original play?
D: Do it! It will challenge your skills and free your talent differently than established roles. And you just might have a hand in creating something that outlives you. Today’s classic works were new plays once upon a time.