Tennessee Williams offers a host of rich, vulnerable characters that provide a veritable playground for the actor to explore. John and I have been working together in coaching sessions for a while now, and John’s character of Tom from Glass Menagerie still offers new angles to discover. (You may remember John’s work min-maxing Tom’s personality in a previous article).
In a recent session, we dove into the concept that Tom’s fire escape is quite literally an escape. He retreats to the wrought iron landing to escape the physical and emotional stress and dilapidation of his mother’s apartment. Inside is overwhelming confinement, responsibility, and stagnation. Outside offers a view of life on the horizon.
It became crucial, then, that John could feel the difference between the two environments and let them affect him physically.
I asked John to think of a physical location where he felt stressed and overwhelmed in real life. He nodded and shared what came to mind. Then, I had John think of a physical location that he has visited where he felt the most relaxed, free of responsibility. He smiled and reminisced about a beach in California near where he visited a relative.
“I asked John to think of a physical location where he felt stressed and overwhelmed in real life.”
For each of these locations, we spent a few minutes brainstorming the sights, sounds, and smells associated with them. As the memories of those environments became clearer in his mind, John’s demeanor changed notably. Thinking of his stressful environment, John’s fists and jaw clenched; his shoulders were raised; his breathing was rapid. I asked him to talk about what he was sensing, and his voice was agitated. At the beach, of course, the opposite reactions occurred. John’s face, muscles, and voice were significantly more relaxed. I didn’t instruct him to make these changes, remember. They were natural reactions to reliving those memories.
“For each of these locations, we spent a few minutes brainstorming the sights, sounds, and smells associated with them.”
Finally, we designated sections of our stage to be the fire escape and the living room. I suggested that John spend a minute in each physical location and once again dredge up all the physical and emotional reactions associated with those spaces. Soon, those physical spaces on stage became imbued with John’s real physiological reactions. When John crossed the threshold from the apartment to the fire escape, it was as if a weight was lifted. It became believable that Tom has used that physical location as an escape for years.
“Soon, those physical spaces on stage became imbued with John’s real physiological reactions.”
For your character and your script, there might not be two distinct areas on stage that represent two different emotional states. There may just be one living room, or one park bench. Nevertheless, the process remains the same:
- Consider what the space represents to the character, and substitute it with a similar physical location in your life.
- Brainstorm the sights, sounds, and smells associated with the real-life place and allow your body to react accordingly.
- Repeat the previous step in the physical location on stage to bind the reactions to the space.
Then, “getting into character” may be as simple as stepping into that space.