In coaching, I’ve been working with an up-and-coming actor named John. Our current project has been to workshop a scene from Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie. In it, John plays the role of Tom, who arrives at his house with Jim, the gentleman caller that Tom’s mother has pestering Tom to find and bring home to meet his sister. While dinner is being prepared, Tom and Jim discuss their plans of how to rise above their mediocre lives.
We had already spent a couple weeks laying the groundwork of objectives, obstacles, and substitutions, so John knew what Tom wanted. The exercise that follows ought not to be done until that foundation is laid. And always, pursue your objective.
I asked John to brainstorm three adjectives to describe Tom. He came up with
As a matter of fact, those adjectives come straight from the script, as Tom describes himself. John was insightful to recognize those as three key landmarks.
Then I had John run the scene, but being 100% dreamy. Every single line. Even if it didn’t “sense”. I said, “Let your mind wander the entire time. You’re not in this conversation. You’re always somewhere else. Play a mantra on repeat in your mind, ‘How can I escape this life?’ If you are so pre-occupied with that thought that you miss your cue, then that’s a success!”
John committed to being in this distant, dream-like state throughout the entire scene. His speech was soft, his eye contact with me was next to nothing, even his movement wistfully carried him off to be by himself.
“How did that feel?” I probed.
John concluded that there were some moments where the dreamy state felt right, and others where he would have wanted to make more eye contact and speak directly. That’s exactly what we were looking for. John made a few mental notes about where dreamy felt appropriate, and then performed the scene again.
This time, he maximized his second descriptor, boiling. When every line was “boiling,” John’s Tom was agitated, angsty, and restless. His rant about wanting to “do” something in life was truthful and driven. The “boiling” was right on the surface throughout the scene, so it was easy to access when the words matched the emotion.
In the third run of the scene, John maximized “tired.” This tired wasn’t a *yawn*, “I-need-a-nap” tired. It was a burdened, languished tired that could reasonably result either giving up or getting out. Where “dreamy” was light and drifting, “tired” was heavy and sluggish.
John internalized how each of these aspects felt on their own, and where each descriptor would be the driving force. I call this Min-Maxing. Maximize one aspect of your character (it could be an emotion; it’s also very powerful with a singular objective), and minimize all other aspects and impulses. Think of it like a stress test. Put all the responsibility of driving the scene onto one dominant aspect. It will become very obvious very quickly when it is effective and when it is not. Obviously, Tom doesn’t appear “tired” all the time, but since John experienced the depths of being fully tired, he could tap into anywhere on the spectrum when he needed it.
So, in one final run of the scene, John put it all together, and Tom came to life. Conversation about his family and work dredged up his tiredness. Those topics got him dreaming about how he plans to improve his life and situation. When the conversation turned to his plans, his angst boiled to the surface, and he grew restless and passionate. Like in Pixar’s Inside Out, John found himself in control of all the buttons, pulleys, and levers that made Tom tick. The true magic, however, comes when the actor can mentally let it all go. Do the homework, push the buttons, flip the levers, but then when it comes time to put it all together, trust your instincts. Trust that you can access all of the resources you prepared.
The true magic, however, comes when the actor can mentally let it all go.
This is a relatively simple exercise that can work great wonders in the front end of a rehearsal process. As is the case with any of the exercises you find on Stagebite, feel free to give your director a head’s up, if it makes you feel more comfortable. “Hey, I just want to experiment with a few things as we work the scenes today, if that’s okay with you.” You’re a professional, you’ve got a process, and a director will respect that.
- Know your objectives.
- Brainstorm three adjectives or aspects that describe your character.
- Run the scene three times, each time maximizing a different aspect—every line, every action is driven only by that aspect.
- Run the scene a final time and integrate all three aspects. Let each one support your objective where it is most effective.
- Let it go. Don’t overthink it. Trust yourself.
What adjectives or aspects describe your character? After trying this exercise, what discoveries did you make?