The best qualities an actor can have (besides being real in the moment) are physical specificity, stillness and body confidence. It’s not for nothing that one of the classic one-liners of good acting is, “Don’t just do something – stand there.”
My latest role –the scheming, manipulative antagonist in Molotov Theatre Group’s Extremities – is bringing that home to me in the strictest way possible. I make only the slightest physical gestures to bring my character to life. I have no choice. I’m hogtied.
Extremities opens October 10th on the DCAC stage as the first production in Molotov Theatre Group’s 2013/2014 season. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, my character comes to a remote farmhouse, planning to attack a woman while her housemates are away. In the play’s nerve-wracking opening moments, the woman narrowly turns the tables on the attacker, and confines him (me, that is) in her fireplace, deciding what to do next. When the housemates return, mind games ensue as the attacker pits each against the other. It’s hard to watch – and harder still to act.
To put a finer point on it, I’m 6’3”, and for most of the show, I’m bound hand and foot, blindfolded and locked in a standard-sized fireplace. That would be a stress position for a much smaller person. I can barely move, I can’t see, and yet I’m fully part of a tight four-person ensemble.
This is a guerilla-style crash course in acting. Forget theory – when your stage is a fireplace, you’ve been thrown into the deep end of given circumstances that most actors never encounter.
I give tremendous credit to the other three members of the cast (Sherry Berg, Jennifer Osborn, and Alexia Poe), who have to deal with me in this restrained position. They have their own challenges to deal with, and on top of that they have to treat me as the living character I am, not as a speaking set piece. But there I am, sitting like a lump while events unfold around me.
From an actor’s perspective, this has been an amazing experience. I’ve been deprived of the sense of sight, and my sense of touch has been reduced to only what I feel happening to me. I can’t use the same cues most actors have to anchor me to what’s happening throughout the play. I have to rely on very careful listening, and other subtle ways of getting along in my environment, to immerse myself in the reality of the play.
It certainly strips away bad acting habits. If you’re tied up, you can’t use gestures or other declamatory techniques to be convincingly in the moment. Your tools are only what you can do with your voice, your facial expressions, and the ten inches or so you have around you in which to shift your position. You have to be completely confident in what your intent is every step of the way – and confident that you can make that intent clear with almost no movement at all.
I’ve never felt so completely in the moment as I have in this show. Because I’m listening so keenly, the show unfolds for me the same way it must to the audience. It feels different every time. I’m very aware of the nuances of the other actors’ performances – and the subtle changes those performances take on every time we do the show. Being thoroughly immersed in what’s happening allows me play into it more naturally, which is absolutely critical if I want to be seen as more than just a talking fireplace. And I still have to be strong enough to be convincingly manipulative, although I’m physically incapable of manipulating much of anything.
When I was a less experienced actor, a director trained me to stop being so broad physically while acting by having me run through a rehearsal (more than one, truth be told) with my hands in my pockets. It was humbling, of course, to realize how much I used physicality as a crutch to show things to the audience, not as a way to really connect with what was happening in the moment.
Looking back on it, that experience was nothing in comparison to what I’m learning in this role in Extremities.