Added an article today on the process of thinking through how to create an entirely new production of Dracula. So many interesting themes (morality and sexuality, religion vs. science, life and death) as well as serious acting challenges. If you’re curious about how an actor in a project of bringing Dracula to the stage in a very different way than it’s been presented in the multitude of cheesy productions that exist, take a look.
“Actors reveal their own character flaws not by what they display in the roles they portray, but by what they will not allow themselves to show.”
On playing antagonists: An actor’s thoughts on playing the “bad guy”
Theater is filled with characters who are far from nice people. Some are merely obnoxious fools, others terrifyingly violent, dangerous people. At times, dramatists pepper their villains with humor, while others reveal the cold horror of a remorseless psychopath. The depth of the antagonist also varies with the part: Some plays’ antagonists are paper thin, two-dimensional, cartoonish characters. This thinness is often intentional, signifying to both the actor playing the role and the audience that they are not expected to take the character’s evil nature too seriously. Other antagonists are complex personalities; the playwright clearly intends the actor to communicate multiple layers of the character. Antagonists of all types exist on stage because they exist in life. Sad to say, some very destructive personalities account for a great deal of the drama in life.
It’s been my pleasure to play a number of classic roles that touch on the dark side of human nature: the vile mistress (Madame) in a gender-bending version of Jean Genet’s The Maids; the megalomaniacal and violently anti-semitic Henry Ford in Camping with Henry and Tom; the murderous playwright Sidney Bruhl in Ira Levin’s Deathtrap; Scrooge in a Christmas Carol (a special case, since he, unlike the others, is able to find redemption in committing himself to atone for his miserable ways); and the hard-hearted boss who fires poor Willie Loman in Death of Salesman. I’m prompted to reflect on playing antagonists as I prepare to play the unloving and unlovable father in the upcoming the Vermont Theater Company’s production of Robert Anderson’s classic family drama, I Never Sang for My Father.
My “career” as playing characters that one loves to hate probably got off to its ill-fated start many years ago when I was in an off-off-Broadway political theater group. The artistic director asked the assembled company “who feels they could play a pompous asshole” and I raised my hand and landed the role of a nasty business manager who didn’t give a damn about irradiating his employees. But of all the antagonists I’ve played over the years, I learned the most when I played the corrupt union boss in Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty. I was hamming it up, chomping on a cigar and imagining myself as Lee J. Cobb in On the Waterfront. The director told me to bring my portrayal down several notches. I found making this nasty character more real, more natural, made me much more uncomfortable than my Lee J. Cobb imitation. To become more real, I had to get more in touch with and reveal more of my own malevolence. The director — still a very close personal friend — quoted his own teacher, the Tony Award-winning Lloyd Richards: “Actors reveal their own character flaws not by what they display in the roles they perform, but by what they will not allow themselves to show.” It was sage advice. It allowed me to feel I revealed my personal flaws by trying to cover them up (in this case by exaggerating) than by simply letting the character’s action speak for itself.
In the role for which I’m currently preparing, Tom Garrison in I Never Sang for My Father, I have to understand this unfortunate man. He is not a psychopath or murderer; he does not have terrible secrets buried in his past. But he is an unfortunate man and a very unfortunate man to have as one’s father. He is not unfortunate because of what has befallen him, though his life has not been easy, but unfortunate in the sense that he denies all that is human in himself and so is unable to feel, unable to relate to his son. Focused on his bitterness about his own childhood and concerned only with his own short-sighted self-interest, he forces his son to make an extremely painful choice.
There are many “traps” in playing a nasty, destructive character. The most obvious, as I’ve mentioned, is overplaying the part and thus turning character into caricature. Overacting is a way of saying: “This isn’t really me. I couldn’t be this awful.” It is a a mode of denial, of distancing oneself from one’s role. Exaggeration can work if the character is intentionally, often for humorous effect, over-the-top, but it seriously detracts from the sense of stark reality that makes drama effective. If the antagonist is not real, is a caricature of wretchedness and evil and not a three-dimensional human being, the role becomes farcical. Where this is appropriate and done adroitly it can be highly amusing. Where it is inappropriate or done sloppily, it’s simply bad acting.
Many of our finest actors are brilliantly gifted at playing antagonists with barely a muscle tensed or vocal chord raised shrilly. Glenn Close, Kevin Spacey, and Al Pacino come to mind immediately as actors who can communicate extraordinary violence without the slightest overt sign of their underlying violence. I will never forget George C. Scott’s chilling portrayal as the manager of “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) in The Hustler. Seeing this film in my teens, I loathed this man who destroys the lives of Newman and Piper Laurie. There was not a trace of the exaggeration that makes Scott’s General “Buck” Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove so hysterically funny. Less known but equally powerful is Ben Kingsley’s tough guy portrayal in Sexy Beast. There’s a scene in which all Kingsley does is to shave and, without betraying any direct emotion, he conveys an intensity of violence that is utterly chilling.
Since playing a role effectively requires seeing the world through the eyes of one’s character, it’s necessary for the actor have to have enough compassion for the character to evoke compassion in the audience. If not, the audience’s interest in the character’s fate wanes and a critical aspect of dramatic tension is lost.
But there are limits to this: the actor must not make the antagonist more decent or misunderstood than the character deserves to be. In so doing the actor can make a negative character so sympathetic to the audience that it turns the tables on the playwright’s intent. In preparing to play Tom Garrison, for example, I’ve found myself finding justifications for his coldness to his son and meanness to his wife. One begins to see the more decent characters as wrong about oneself, as not taking into account why the character is the way he or she is, of judging him too harshly.
Evoking compassion should not mean portraying a character’s destructive actions as acceptable. The despicable remains despicable, the self-serving remains self-serving, the hateful rejection of caring remains hateful. If the humanness and decency of the character is played too strongly, if an intensity of rage does not underlie the character’s actions, the drama falls apart. It’s another form of denial on the actor’s part.
The challenge, then, is to simply to be real. Far more than Scrooge, Bruhl or Ford, Tom Garrison is meant to be real, three-dimensional. He is a father whom many of us, including me, will recognize all too readily: a father so righteously angry, so self-absorbed and egotistical, so dedicated to his own narrow vision of himself and so oblivious to the needs of his own children that he destroys any possibility for intimacy. He wreaks havoc on the lives of those who depend on him most in their most crucial moments of need; In so doing, he destroys himself.
Though Tom is a man without compassion, his portrayal must be compassionate, but not sentimentalized. His character needs to evoke in audience the very feelings he denies in himself. The audience should care about him despite his own fatal character flaws, making his failure to act humanly to his wife, son and daughter all the more poignant. For that to happen, the character portrayal must be as real, as immediate, as possible. Tom’s inability to allow his own feelings to surface, his unwillingness to reach out to his son despite both their urgent needs to connect must evoke in the audience not only outrage and frustration, but also compassion and sorrow.
A challenge like this is one that appeals to anyone who’s serious about acting; yet it’s definitely torturous at times. It isn’t always fun to get in touch with how one felt about one’s own father’s inability to be consistently caring or to get in touch with those parts of oneself that are far less human than one would like to believe oneself to be. Suddenly you recoil in horror as you hear yourself say or do something that fits perfectly with the miserable character you’re playing on stage.
There are definitely times when I’ve tired of being being the toxic character in a play, the antagonist that every other character hates and that the audience hates too. When I played a noxious Henry Ford, I began to feel that the other actors were seeing me as though I really were the power-hungry, egomaniacal, anti-semitic person I was playing, And after you’re cast in several such roles, you do begin to wonder what it is about your personality that makes you seem so appropriate to play miserable SOBs!
In the end, though,the pleasure of effectively creating a believable character on stage is worth the agony of getting inside the skin of a very unpleasant person. The world is not made up solely of nice men and women. Hardly. How dull and unreal theater would be if only decent folks were personified there. Where would Macbeth be without Lady Macbeth or Othello without Iago? Would King Lear’s loving daughter Cordelia shine for us if it not for her loathsome sisters? What would Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe be if George and Martha were just a kindly professor and his affectionate wife? Even Cinderella needs her evil step-mother and step-sisters in order to make her a heroine. Betrayal, egotism, hate, envy — the full panoply of inhumanity is as much human nature, sadly, as caring and love. If we are to appreciate the good, we must also understand evil.
All that’s easy enough to say, of course. Now comes the hard part: Actually doing it effectively on stage! It’s been highly rewarding to develop the role. If you’re able to come see the show, I hope you’ll find I’ve at least partially achieved my goal of making the character three-dimensional.
I wonder if many people who watch plays but don’t act in them realize how much of “the rehearsal process” is devoted to learning lines. As actors most of us are are gluttons: We want the juicy parts and that usually means the ones with many lines to learn.So we’re victims, as usual, of our own egos and have only ourselves to blame. I once hear that Michael Caine, when asked how he decided whether to accept a role, said he looked at the first and last page of the script. If his character spoke on those, he took the part.
Everyone has different methods. For a lucky few, learning lines comes easily. I had a co-lead in a show who had no idea of his many lines in the whole second act of the show in one rehearsal and came back the next night being damn near perfect. I can’t imagine how he did it. He even look well rested.
For others it’s everything from a long, arduous struggle to a complete nightmare.. In the process, of course, you think about your character. The lines inform you, they mold you, they make you who you are as a character in a play. But it always come back to knowing when you’ve got to say what and a bit of when and what you’re supposed to do.
The hope is always that you’ll get beyond this, that lines will become so well engrained that you’ll no longer have to think of them. There’s a famous quote by Glenda Jackson: “The whole essence of learning lines is to forget them so you can make them sound like you thought of them that instant.” A worthy goal, to be sure. Meanwhile, it’s time to run through one’s stack of 3×5 cards with cues on one side and your lines on the other and hope those memory engrams have begun to stick in your mind a little better than the last time you ran through the stack.
As an actor who tries to feel what the character is feeling to give the lines the right meaning and one who tries to avoid the trap of solidifying a particular “line reading” at the expense of spontaneity and responsiveness to one’s fellow actors, I hate to admit how much of my actual “emotion” on stage is stark, unadulterated fear of forgetting my lines. I’ve done it enough times to know that the lines will come, but also enough to know that things will, sometimes, go wrong.
But whether you’re murdering your lover in a violent rage or making a silly joke in a moment of frivolity, you’re also praying to god remember what you’re supposed to say or do next.
There’s more than one way to lose your mind while on stage. Here are a few of my personal favorites:
The first is simply not spending enough time learning them. How much time is “enough time”? Well, that depends on the person learning the lines. That person knows how fast he or she learns and knows how many hours, days, weeks ahead opening night is. Sometimes there a flaw in the calculation. Sometimes one’s over-confident or under-committed. Occasionally I’ve run into actors who actually don’t feel it’s necessary to learn their lines until the show opens. Not only is this nearly always a recipe for disaster, it deprives the other actors of a safety net in case they lose their way. But sometimes it’s just that real life intervenes in a way that’s unexpected. It happens.
Line Crisis #1: The most common disaster is having no idea what you’re supposed to say next. Everyone has seen an actor go blank. I’ve seen one of the most accomplished actors in the business lose her mind right after her opening line. There is a particular look of terror in an actor’s eyes at that moment. What am I supposed to say next? I have no idea! What did I say just now? No, no that won’t help! Will this eternity ever end? No, that’s why they call it eternity!
One time another actor could not remember a line during a rehearsal. I teased the actor, because the line was the title of the play. The gods of theater quickly took revenge on me for my teasing. In the middle of a performance before a full house, I went completely blank. I was holding a gun on my lover who was supposed to be frozen in terror. Nothing he could say to help me. When that endless moment of what I’ve heard called “going into the white room” was over, the word I was supposed to say was, of course, the title of the play. Lesson #722: Never taunt another actor — your turn will come all to soon!
In my own defense, I will say I’ve saved a fellow actor or two when their own mind went bye-bye. Once I was a stage manger standing at a doorway entrance to a cafe scene when one of the actors went so blank and with such obvious terror that all the other actors were frozen in place, unable to speak. We might still be in that cafe now, years later, except that there was a woman playing a waitress standing next to me and I told her to go out and ask if anyone wanted more coffee. She objected, but went out. A moment later, everyone unfroze and the play went on. This pause was long enough that I imagine the audience did realize something was seriously wrong, but no one died, life went on.
Line Crisis #2: A variant an the first is less agonizing in the moment, but perhaps even worse in retrospect: You think you’ve finished, you’ve said what you have to say; you’re convinced it’s the other actor who’s gone blank. But you’re wrong. You’re supposed to say something else, something that’s almost impossible to move forward from if you don’t say it. In the play, I’m doing now, for instance, I’m supposed to have a bad cough. My cough is a cue for a whole dialogue that in which my son tells me I should “get that cough looked into.” If I don’t cough, what’s he supposed to do?
Sometimes you realize that the yawning gap in the action is because you haven’t given a crucial cue line and sometimes the line or action comes right to you and you try not to let your embarrassment screw things up even worse. But sometimes, now that you know it’s all on you, you still don’t know what you’re supposed to say. See Line Crisis #1 amplified by the fact that time has passed elapsed before you realized what the hell was going on.
Line Crisis #3. You know the line, but the sequence of words it get mixed up in your head a bit, so you’re afraid you could spit out utter gibberish. Actually, not too serious. Audience’s are generally reasonably forgiving about a garbled line or two as long as everyone keeps their cool and doesn’t break character. The danger is that the garbled line will throw you off and lead you back to Line Crisis #1.
Line Crisis #4. The fatal leap: You skip a line to another point in the script and other actors have no choice but to follow you. There are two varieties, large and small:
4a. Small: A stumble, maybe noticeable, maybe not; maybe throws off the other actor, maybe not; Only a line or two skipped in reality, no harm to flow or information to the audience.
4b. Big: You and the other actors are now in completely different moment in the play than you should be. A major chunk has been skipped, very likely containing material critical to the play making any sense.
I will never forget the time this happened. A three character play, all of us on stage the whole time, other than very brief moments stepping into the wings pretending to do something. A sound cue wasn’t played, a line was dropped, another line was mangled, and then, the fatal leap: I spoke a line and did an action that belonged later in the act. Not a little bit later, fifteen minutes later! A crucial part of the story would be lost if we didn’t retrieve that section of the play. All three of us looked in horror at each other. We all knew what had happened but had no choice to go merrily forward from cue to line to cue to line. After a few minutes, a tiny window of opportunity opened and we went back to the missed portion of the act. The same thought crossed all our minds simultaneously: What would happen when we got back to the place we’d jumped to? Amazingly, without any of us being precisely sure how, we got back to that spot and smoothly jumped ahead to the closing lines of the act. The director, the stage manager, and my wife (who had run lines with me endlessly) cancelled any heart stress tests they might have ordered, because they figured they’d survived this, but first-time viewers of the play I talked to afterwards had no idea that something had gone wrong!
Line Crisis #5: The sometimes-fatal false fatal leap: You (or another character) didn’t skip a line, but you think you did. In the non-fatal variety, nothing bad happens, you just go on. In the more serious variety, thinking you’ve missed a line discombobulates you enough that a Line Crisis #1 through #4 rears its ugly head.
I think these are most of them. There are probably others that I just haven’t had the misery to experience for myself. Or perhaps they were so horrible I’ve repressed them.
You might ask, given the potential for the disaster, why does anyone do this? Perhaps it’s like parachuting or bungee jumping, the adrenal rush of the fear makes one feel more alive. Or perhaps it’s just so enjoyable when it all does work, when an audience is moved, or thrilled, or laughs aloud, or cries, or thinks a thought they didn’t think before. It feels so good that it’s just plain worth it.
On stage, one rides the surfboard of the lines whether one has good balance or not, and says a silent prayer every nanosecond that the flow of memory to mouth keeps flowing, hoping that the sense of being out there on your own personal tightrope will only add to the drama and so add to the pleasure of both actor and audience alike.
Read on: Effective Methods for Learning Lines
As we pass from the first to the second week of our three week run of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I’ve decided to post the notes I write as I think through the evolution of Scrooge in the play. If you’re curious: Dickens’ Christmas Carol “beats”.
Added a short essay on the difference between community theater that’s fun for the cast and community theater that strongly affects its audience.
There are few things that compare with the pleasure and terror of opening nights. Will one’s mind go blank in the middle of a line? Will anyone show up to see the show? Will they laugh at the parts the ensemble thinks funny and be properly scared by the more thrilling moments? It’s like being on the roller coaster as it heads up and up and still more up before reaching its crest and letting loose. Nothing for it but to hold the safety bar and hope you enjoy the ride! Except there is no safety bar.
Jekyll and Hyde, which we opened last night, somehow makes me think of President Jimmy Carter. Remember his peanut-grower’s smiling face? He usually smiled. Carter is infamous for saying something to the effect of “I lusted in my heart.” The actual quote is “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” per the Top Ten Unfortunate Political One-Liners of Time Magazine, but “I lusted in my heart,” sums it all up well enough. Carter’s only problem was the he was President of the US (admittedly a pretty bad problem to have!), ‘cause everybody lusts in their heart sometimes.
So Dr. Jekyll’s problem is not so unique, even if his “scientific” solution of devising a potion to separate his “good” and “bad” sides is a bit extreme. Like most myths, the difference between Jekyll/Hyde and us “normal” people is only a matter of degree. By exaggerating a “normal” condition, J&H brings that condition into focus. This is why I love the line, toward the end of the play where my character, Mr. Utterson, says, “It is the curse of mankind that these incongruous personas are bound together in an agonized womb of consciousness.” Anyone who has any insight into themselves at all recognizes that there are aspects of our personality that are incompatible with each other.
Don’t we all struggle to reconcile “incongruous” aspects of ourselves? The wish to be brave and daring and the pull to hide in the corner? Lust and moral rectitude? Hatred and benevolence? And doesn’t most of humanity share with Dr. Jekyll the curiosity that drives us to tinker with the very building blocks of nature? Most of us are openly fascinated with the unraveling of the genetic code. Most of us are similarly fascinated with the unlocking of the enormous power inside the atom even as we may decry it’s use against people and the dangers of trying to supply our energy needs through such potentially catastrophic means.
So it is a great pleasure for me to play the role of the Everyman in this dramatization of what is a natural human conundrum. How can we reconcile conscience with licentiousness? Not easily, is the short answer. To our peril if we try to find a way around our inner contradictions is the moral. But it strikes me that Dr. Jekyll, even to the end, regrets most that he didn’t quite get the formula right, that he is doomed only because his potion was not quite correct.
Like Dr. Jekyll, is humanity still tinkering with the formula? Trying to find ways to have it all for ourselves and still hold our head hight in moral superiority? Seems to me there’s an awful lot of that going on all over the globe. And we all fear catastrophe may lie around the corner.
Anyone involved in any theatrical venture has a point in time, if not several, when they get the jitters.
There is a great scene in Day for Night, a Truffaut film, where Truffaut himself plays the role of the director of a film within the film. Toward the end of the movie, after all hell has repeatedly broken out in the course of making the film within the film, Truffaut’s character is being interviewed. Asked about what the process is like, he says something like this: “When you start making a film you think it will be the greatest ever made. Soon thereafter, as everything begins to fall apart, you despair that you will never be able to finish the film at all and that it will never be released. Toward the very end, you begin to see that you may actually be able to cobble together enough footage to at least finish the film. Then, in the final days, you begin to see how, just possibly, the film will actually turn out to be good.”
I think every actor, stage manager, set designer, director (and I’m sure a very similar process happens in virtually all creative endeavors) goes through the awful moment where it seems that nothing is going to work out as planned and that, far from being a brilliant display of wonderful talent, the play is going to be a complete disaster. Perhaps it will never even see the light of day. Perhaps it shouldn’t ever see the light of day. The sets don’t come together, the lighting and special effects don’t work, the actors don’t know their lines, advance reservations are pitiful. One begins to wonder why one ever thought this would work.
Of course, what makes the jitters intensify is the realization that sometimes one’s worst fears do come to pass. There’s often a point after that initial horrible feeling that nothing is going to work where still more things begin to fall apart: a key actor or technical person gets hurt or sick or disappears; a key rehearsal can’t be run because of a leaky pipe in the theater; a crucial set piece is broken during a run-through.
Live creative artistry is literally like riding an old-fashioned roller-coaster ride. The whole long process building up to the first public showing is like the slow cranking up as the roller-coaster is pulled up the long incline up. You can’t quite believe that you’re so high up and there’s still what looks like an infinite upward slope before the thing will let loose. And there’s no getting off. You’re on the ride and it’s going up and soon will come down like a hurricane. Nothing to do now but hang on.
Roller-coasters, though, do tend to stay on their tracks. That’s the fun of it: all of the terror but little if any (hopefully) real danger. Not so true of theater. I’ve seen seasoned professionals go completely blank in front of a full house. Set pieces can and do fall apart and crash to the ground. I saw a performance of Porgy and Bess where an understudy had to play Porgy’s part in the second act because the lead actor broke his leg coming off stage in act one.
So jitters though they may be, they can’t be easily dismissed. Contrary to the show biz trope, “The show must go on!” there isn’t any guarantee that it does have to go on.
So if local/community theater has the advantages of not needing thousands of advance sales to be viable, of not having to deal with the egos and personal foibles of big stars, and of not relying on massively complex staging and million dollar pre-promotion, it also has only so much room for error. People are likely to be more tolerant of minor glitches, but there are limits to that even in the smallest theater setting. The audience is coming to see a show. They want to experience what a troupe actually does, not just what it aspires to do.
A week before opening is when these jitters usually begin to peak. Suddenly, there’s no sense of unlimited time to fix whatever isn’t working, to be confident that actors will learn their lines and the technical folks will make everything happen as planned that doesn’t seem to have happened correctly thus far. Now it’s all got to come together and, nine times out of ten, maybe 99 out of 100, it doesn’t come together yet. Time suddenly becomes painfully finite. If it takes an extra hour to get a set piece or a costume together, if an actor is delayed getting to the theater, there’s no way to get that time back. Sometimes sleep is sacrificed. But that too is a finite commodity and sleep-deprivation is rarely an ideal state for optimal performance.
So that’s where we are now with the production we’re putting together of Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde. A unique conception: Taking the original Robert Louis Stevenson story and Stevenson’s evocative prose and using modern stagecraft to upset audience expectations and make the performance scary, theatrically jarring, philosophically meaningful, and simply fun and funny in parts. All put together on a tiny, minimalistic stage. Classic black box theater.
If you’re in the Brattleboro, VT, area this coming weekend (the show opens Friday, October 24 @ 7:30, continues the next day, Sat. Oct. 25 and then Thursday, Friday, Saturday Oct. 30, 31 and November 1; all seats $10.) come see what we’ve done. Jittery as I am, I’m still hopeful, like Truffaut, that it will actually turn out to be quite good.
If you’re interested in some of the thought process that went into the production, take a peak at the essays I’ve included here, including a new one: Monsters from the Id.
(Continuing to blog the development of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Josh Moyse, opening on Friday, Oct. 24 and running through Saturday, Nov. 1 at the Hooker-Dunham Theater, 139 Main St., Brattleboro, VT)
From the multitude of possibilities of where one might take re-telling the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there comes a point when you have to make some choices. We, the actors, have been deeply enmeshed in this process, though ultimately Josh Moyse, the director, is both determining the script and the staging of the piece.
I say “determining the script” because he isn’t writing it from scratch, but is using the text of the original Robert Louis Stevenson novella as the primary source of the dialogue and much of the imagery. This rendition of the tale is quite unlike any of the film versions of Jekyll/Hyde and completely unlike the musical version. The films introduce characters not found in the novella: a virginal “good girl” whom Dr. Jekyll intends to marry before he goes off the rails and a down and dirty barmaid whom Mr. Hyde abuses. The films needed love themes so necessary for Hollywood, but quite irrelevant to the core of the tale.
By following the Stevenson story and using his archaic-sounding vocabulary and syntax, the tale is necessarily set in the Victorian era. Because that era is so associated in our minds with an exaggerated dichotomy between the moral and immoral, it is fitting for this tale, but the setting is ultimately irrelevant: the “issues” raised by the novella are as relevant today as they were a hundred and thirty years ago.
Though our production uses the novella as a starting point, where we have gone from there is the product of long conversations between the director and cast. Some characters from the original story have been dropped and some given more prominence. In our version, unexpected interludes, interspersed between sequences of dialogue drawn from the original novella, disrupt the audience’s expectations of a chronological sequence.
We are trying, as I see it, to do a few things: To give the audience a sense of the terror that unrestrained evil evokes, but also a taste of the humor inherent in the over-exaggeration of dichotomized good and evil. Yet what we are going for is not parody of the Robert Louis Stevenson story so much as satirizing the idea that good and evil can always be so easily distinguished. We are also striving to evoke the sense of claustrophobia and shadow that are essential to a good nightmare.
The core of the story is the tragedy that Dr. Jekyll’s proving the validity of his theories destroys himself. Dr. Jekyll asserts that all people contain within themselves both good and evil, that life involves a continuous struggle to act humanely rather than meanly, cruelly. But horror is the consequence of trying to enjoy the fruits of both morality and immorality. Death is the price Dr. Jekyll must pay for toying with the balance between the two, for trying to find ways in which to be both morally superior and to allow himself license to do whatever he wants.
But The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not only about the horror unleashed by toying with human nature, nor is it, at least as we conceive it and portray it, only the condemnation of the dark side of ourselves. It is also a critique of the whole notion of moral superiority. Jekyll tempts fate not only because his Mr. Hyde alter ego acts immorally, but also because he tries to elevate himself above others in his Dr. Jekyll persona. It thus condemns moralism just as much as immorality.
One does not have to believe in Hindu reincarnation, nor in some kind of “final judgment,” nor even that bad acts create bad karma and thus we must pay in this life for our misdeed, to grasp the psychological truth that we suffer consequences for our actions. The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde makes the consequences literal: When Dr. Jekyll as Mr. Hyde cannot transform himself back to his “good” self, he destroys himself. This is psychologically valid: When we act inhumanly, unless we are such psychopaths that we have rid ourselves of all human emotions, we pay the consequences, whether we are conscious of our guilt or not.
In melodrama, all of this must play out literally: Dr. Jekyll, trapped by his potion in the persona of the evil Mr. Hyde, destroys himself. In real life, we usually pay more subtly. It isn’t that we can’t formulate the potion that will relieve us of our responsibility for our actions, it is our own mind — or soul if you prefer that metaphor — that will not allow us, whether consciously or unconsciously, to escape from our responsibility for our actions. And this is true whether the action is to moralistically condemn others as our moral inferiors or it is to abuse our fellow human beings.
In this sense, Jekyll and Hyde, for all its dramatic exaggeration of good and evil, makes a simple yet psychologically valid existential point: We choose our lives by our actions. We can never escape the consequences of those actions, because we know what we’ve done, what we’ve chosen to do.
This a very crucial point to me in this age in which denial of responsibility is so prevalent. Everything wrong in the world is either someone else’s fault, viz. the demonization of “them” and near deification of oneself,, If something clearly is one’s own fault, then it’s our genes or a chemical imbalance, or a lousy childhood, or “stress” or trauma we’ve endured that causes us to act destructively.
Meanwhile, while we contemplate these complex moral, psychological, existential, ethical questions, we should enjoy the roller coaster ride. When we look at our reflection in our bathroom mirror as though it were one of those shape-contorting mirrors of an amusement park “fun house,” we should remember to laugh heartily at ourselves.
For more on exploring how to portray The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, check out these articles.
Black Box Theater: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
One of the most alluring possibilities in using a black box theater like the Hooker-Dunham is creating a production from the ground up. It’s “minimalistic” set-up, a small stage framed by either thick black drapes or, if the drapes are open, stone slabs and bricks. As I write, we’re trying to do that, starting from the Robert Louis Stevenson novella (yes, the author of the Disney-ized, i.e. sanitized Treasure Island!.).
Josh Moyse is developing an entirely new rendition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I say “rendition” rather than “adaptation.” We are paying great heed to the iconic story of the doctor who took a potion that transformed him into all that was evil inside of him, all that was instinctual, and all that was vile, despicable.
Most people cannot think of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without conjuring up images of Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, or Heckle and Jeckle. It is engrained in the cultural heritage of many cultures and is, perhaps, universal: The divide that sometimes can feel so deeply embedded in our nature between the will to be good and beneficial to others and the will do whatever the heck on wants. If that includes doing harm to others (and what else is that axe raised over your head in anticipation there for?) a line is crossed that no one can abide.
Theater has the wonderful ability, not unlike a really good roller-coaster ride or anything else that’s scary at first but you’re really glad you did it, to allow us to feel fear and see evil and, at the same moment, to feel safe. The homicidal maniac on the stage is not going to come and actually attack us in our seats.
So here is a simple space in which to build a world of claustrophobic nightmare. Because that’s what Jekyll and Hyde is, a nightmare, in which the truth is horrible to behold). (Hyde complains: “Why does it always have to be Jekyll and Hyde? Why can’t it be, at least some of the time, Hyde and Jekyll. I know, it sounds like a law firm, but it still would be more fair.”) A nightmare. Jekyll goes too far and terrible things happen. Man crosses a boundary he should not cross.
(It occurs to me that this is not unlike the central question of Copenhagen, that just finished a wonderful four-week run at ATP in West Chesterfield. In our infinite quest to know but also in our fear of other humans and desire to be able to destroy them before they destroy us, we have delved inside the atom, and found a way to unlock its energy.)
Dr. Jekyll is toying with the laws of the universe. He is Edward Teller ( “father” of the hydrogen bomb). He is Faust Robert Johnson at the crossroads, making his pact with the devil. Or Robespierre, chopping off the head of the king, and so, according to some psycho-historians, killing God and kill Father. He is poor Oedipus — except that Oedipus had no idea what he was doing while Dr. Jekyll is trying to do what actually happens.
The point is that working with the novella means exploring some very interesting terrain.
Here are some ideas that have crossed my mind. (Whether any of them will seep into our production remains to be seen.)
A local director has been talking to me recently about a Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde project for this fall at the Hooker-Dunham. He isn’t interested in a conventional melodrama, but in using Jekyll and Hyde as a jumping off point for exploration.
The beauty part of Jekyll/Hyde is of course its greatest challenge: it is utterly familiar to everyone. We’re not in the realm of work, as was Jean Genet’s The Maids production we did last year, known primarily by theater aficionados, but a world that’s, if anything, utterly familiar to everyone. When I asked my sons to tell we the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, they all knew instantly. When I asked them where they learned the story, they certainly hadn’t read Robert Louis Stephenson’s (yes, the author of Treasure Island) novella. When pressed, they remembered Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny cartoons, but the impression was indelible.
I have no idea, at this point, of the specific direction the director wants to take the production, but the concept started me thinking. So I’ve decided to share my thoughts here just as a way of starting a conversation, and, possibly, being of interest to others in other settings who might be looking for an interesting project. Jekyll and Hyde has the great advantage, from a community theater perspective, of being in the public domain, removing the hurdle of getting rights and, very often, being bound to copyright restrictions about how one puts the show together.
Everyone knows the basic story: Dr. Jekyll (people are often confused on who’s the “evil” one; Jekyll, despite his “beastly” name, is the doctor-scientist, while Mr. Hyde is his hideous “other self.” The “correct” pronunciation is apparently JEE-kyl, btw.) endeavors to separate good and evil parts of himself into separate beings. He develops and drinks a potion that turns him into the horrifying Mr. Hyde. The same potion transforms him back to Dr. Jekyll. In typical morality play fashion, catastrophe ensues and ultimately Jekyll/Hyde must die.
But, since every re-telling of Jekyll and Hyde is different, we can go anywhere we want with the story. So while the audience knows everything, ideally it begins to realize that it knows nothing, that this re-telling of story is in our hands now. That opens some very exciting possibilities. I’ve started sketching out some imagined scenes. Regardless of where we go with this “production,” the process is fascinating.
More to come…
Rose Spillman of YCN (Comcast local news network) aired an interview with John Scagliotti, originator of PBS’ In The Life series and organizer of this, the Gay Film Festival, now in its 9th year, coming up this Saturday, June 21, at the Hooker-Dunham. http://youtu.be/h63mxHEc2Kc Should be quite an interesting evening! 7:30, 139 Main St. Brattleboro, VT.
The In-Sight Photography Project’s Best of the Best, exhibition and sale of fine photographs from In-Sight’s archives, will be on display in the Hooker-Dunham Gallery in the lobby of the theater. All proceeds benefit In-Sight’s Scholarship Fund.
To the southern New England theater community: Announcing Act Out!
The idea of it being something like a jam session for actors (and directors). The idea is for different groups and individuals to present material they’re working on to to an audience (open to the public) of other actors, directors, etc. The first night I’m trying this is Friday, June 6 (the Gallery Walk Night preceding the Strolling of the Heifers the next day) at 7:30.
Here’s the idea: You choose what you want to perform and let me know how long a slot you want to do it. It can be as short as a two-minute monologue to as long as a 20-minute scene (including the time to set anything you want to use in the scene). Though each group or individual will have an assigned slot, we’ll all support each other by being audience when not on. The whole thing will be two hours maximum. I’m not doing any “selecting.” Whoever signs up gets a slot until the two hours are filled.
Want to try a monologue you want to use for auditions? Fine. Working on a scene of a play that you’d like to perform before an audience to see how it works? Cool! (Off book, please. Scenes should have worked up and rehearsed before performing them.) You’ve written something original and want to see it acted? Terrific! Want to try an improv? Why not? It’s up to you. I’m sure there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy! The only criteria is that you honestly feel that the work has merit and will be interesting for an audience to see.
We may even try a short improvisational piece in which anyone can participate if they choose to.
Everyone, actors, directors, audience, whoever, will be asked to chip in 5 bucks to the kitty to help cover costs of running the theater (lights, electricity, phone, etc.).
Wanna play? My only “requirement” is that once you commit to doing a slot that you stick to it and that you understand that your participation as audience for others is as important as your participation on stage!
Act Out! — Community Theater in Brattleboro
A benign madness?
With shakes of hands and the blessing of the building’s owner, I will be taking over management of the Hooker-Dunham Theater as of May 15. (I don’t have control over the website yet, so the site out there is the current management’s site.)
I’m taking this on because I think the theater itself is a marvelous asset to the town of Brattleboro, one that can serve many people’s needs. It’s done that for a long time by being open to be rented. I will certainly continue this fundamental structure.
I am not taking this on as Artistic Director. I am managing the space. I am giving my time to this. If a miracle happens and the theater earns more than it costs to run, I solemnly promise to put that money back into the theater. The theater is not currently fully accessible. Perhaps, if the right lights shine on this cavern of a theater , it will one day be safely accessible to all. That is a goal.
My wildest dreams?
That some combination of actor and directors will take root in the theater.
That video artists might find it an interesting space to work with.
That a group or groups of musicians might find it a nice place to play.
That people living around Brattleboro or coming into town will think: I wonder what’s at the Hooker-Dunham tonight?
That it will be a place where performers of all kinds will feel they have the opportunity to stretch their legs and try their wings.
That a few New Wave or Jim Jarmusch or Film Noir or whatever film fanatics will find a comfortable home.
That we’ll have a kind of playground for myself and others who enjoy a stage — or a seat in audience — a space where we can explore whatever we’d like to explore…
…and see what we come up with.
I won’t bore you with my fears. You could probably imagine them easily enough.
I’ve committed myself for giving it a go for a year.
If you’ve never seen the Hooker-Dunham, there are pictures of it on its website.
For some additional thoughts about community theater, check out these essays:
From the Ice Hotel in Kiruna, Sweden to Abisko Sky Station (also Sweden), the fjords of Tromso, Norway and then down to Oslo. A contrarian’s concept of an ideal break from winter in Vermont! No aurora borealis, I’m afraid, but gorgeous all the same. Accompanied by jazz and Bach. Enjoy!