Last week during the annual post-Christmas reunion dinner with some of our friends from UC Davis, Ruth asked me if I had a favorite character that I have played. I was stumped so I asked Dave since he lives with all those characters and my opinions about them and I suppose he sees my relationships with them more clearly than I do. His answer: Marianne from The Miser. Of course I agreed. I loved Marianne with her innocent belief that everyone loved her because that was the natural order of things, and I loved playing her in the awesome costume that our designer, Michael Berg, devised for me: a purple princess dress with a purple lace-covered and pink and purple ribbon-trimmed corset worn on the outside, plus multi-colored lacy stockings, purple lacy socks and my pink and white checked converse lined with more purple lace. A blonde wig and a giant pink and white polka dotted bow completed the marvelous ensemble. My pre-show playlist for her included “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Practically Perfect” (from Mary Poppins), and “Barbie Girl,” all of which helped me get to that super cheerful place from which Marianne did everything. I also found a voice for her that is considerably higher than mine with which I got to say the sometimes show-stopping line, “But I’m not very responsible with shiny things.” How could I not love her?
But if Dave were to have suggested another character–Hermia from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Nina from the Cocktail Hour or Germaine from Picasso at the Lapine Agile, for example–I would immediately have raved “oh, of course, SHE was my favorite.” I have, in fact, fallen in love with nearly every character I have played, which is, for me, a key to making them playable. My job is to take whatever clues about the character I can find in the text and create a living person and that job is so much easier from a place of love. Falling in love with each character keeps me from playing a type rather than a person, and keeps me from playing my opinion of her or from being apologetic about her actions. Being in love with the character saves me from the temptation to comment on her in my performance, as if saying to the audience “I know she is an idiot, but she’s written that way so what can I do?”
There are a few characters I simply could not fall in love with and my performance of those characters suffered from that inability to connect. Paula from A Seagull in the Hamptons leaps immediately to my mind. I really didn’t like her much less love her. I found her weak and whiny and couldn’t find my way to a more sympathetic view of her. So I never fully got her and I struggled with every rehearsal and every performance. I was relieved to let her go when the show closed.
In a few weeks I will be taking on Mae (also called Sister Woman) in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I am already quite smitten with her despite her somewhat caustic nature and capacity for meanness. I have sympathy for her because I suspect she suffers from a great disappointment in life as it has turned out for her. Half my work is already done because of this sympathy and burgeoning love.
There is a lesson in here, I am sure, that concerns something much bigger than acting. If love is what lets me into a character’s world and allows me to create her with sympathy and honesty, what could I do outside of myself and outside of the theatre with that kind of love? What might I do for myself even? If I can love these characters despite their naive idiocies or petty jealousies or bad choices, I can also love myself despite my naive idiocies, petty jealousies and bad choices. And if my capacity for love extends to fictional creatures, it is certainly big enough to take in the rest of the world.
I have never thought about this kind of connection between the work I do as an actor and my capacity for sympathy for other human beings and for myself. On the cusp of a new year seems like a great time to begin.