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On playing antagonists: An actor’s thoughts on being the “bad guy”

“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.

 

 

 

Coming up on anniversary of “managing” Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery

Coming up on a year of “running” the Hooker-Dunham Theater and Gallery, a moment of reflection on it.  I can’t “sum up” the experience because each piece of it has been and continues to be unique.

The total experience is overwhelming. So many hopes and fears pass through a theater. (It is, after all, designed for drama and human comedy!)

As manager, I have seen people at the beginning of their lives in theater or poetry or music or art (or burlesque, for that matter) come through and try their wings. And I’ve seen people who have been around for a long time try new things. That’s all pretty exciting.

It seems like most everyone who comes through here feels they got their money’s worth and then some.

So if I the nuisances remain minimal and folks, including me, come in and enjoy themselves, then I’ll be very happy continuing the experiment.

Community Theater: Last weekend of Jekyll and Hyde

With Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde concluding its two-week run this weekend (Oct. 30 to Nov. 1), a few thoughts about community theater in general and this show in particular.  (I’ve been both blogging and writing articles about the production as it’s developed. If you’re curious about the process of thinking that went into developing an entirely new adaptation and production of the piece you may want to take a look at them:  Blog entries and Essays).

I have been and remain a lifetime proponent of “amateur” artistic efforts as well as of the value of a sense of community (see “Creativity and the Adult Amateur” and “Dreaming of Community”).  Putting my perspective as simply as possible: High-quality amateur work, whether in theater, dance, painting, performance art, etc. etc., can be utterly enchanting and mind-opening to its audience as well as a major source of creative expression. Likewise, an intense and valid community experience, that is, one that provides a shared intimacy, compassion, and commitment without being contaminated by ulterior or destructive motives can deeply enrich the lives of all involved.

The adjectives in these definitions are not accidental: When amateur work is not high-quality, evincing a lack of care and workmanship, indifference to the quality of the creative effort, it is worse than useless: it can be boring and painful.  Similarly, when “community” amounts to little more than “hooray for our side” or a broad but very thin social interconnectedness, it is meaningless at best and, at worst, a deceptive substitute for soul-satisfying shared experience.

When one approaches a new effort that combines amateur creative effort with a community spirit, sometimes one is shocked by both sides of the equation. I have found myself awed by the creativity and by the shared sense of commitment. Yet, I’ve also been amazed at the gaps in the mutual commitment to each other and to one’s audience that sometimes pop up. I’m not painting myself as a paragon of virtues here, I’ve been guilty many times of being less than a good partner in a shared project.  But it would be ridiculously pollyanna-ish not to mention that this occurs all too frequently and that it’s a reason why some people will studiously avoid non-profession work of any kind — not that seasoned professionals don’t sometimes bring so little new excitement that their work is often a dreary repetition of past success.

But at its best, amateur or mixed professional/non-professional (in community theater, Actors Equity and non-Equity members often perform together), can be thrilling. It is not for me to say whether our current production of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fulfills that aspiration.  I can only say that we have tried to do something different here.  We’ve taken a story known to some extent by everyone in western culture and given it several new twists. We’ve drawn attention away from a myopic focus on Jekyll/Hyde and shifted it to those perplexed and dismayed. We’ve reversed the classic detective whodunit paradigm (Robert Louis Stevenson’s story is frequently credited with being one the first of the detective genre): Here everyone in the theater except the “detective” (in this case, Dr. Jekyll’s lawyer) knows that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person. The play is retold from the lawyer’s (Mr. Utterson) perspective: And that makes it all the more of a nightmare.

Stevenson’s story actually began as a nightmare that was so vivid to him that he wrote the story in three feverish days.  (After a friend critiqued it, Stevenson threw the original story in the fire, and re-wrote the current version in three more feverish days!) We — the director, stage manager, scenic designer and cast — have worked as a group to think through all the alternatives of how we could tell the story most effectively. Simplicity and transparency are hallmarks of what we’ve come up with, making maximum use of the black box theater that is the Hooker-Dunham using a single but imposing set piece:  the door through which all pass and are, in one way or another, transformed. We’ve done our best to keep a sense of humor alive as well, knowing that we must compete with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird’s brilliant renditions of the Jekyll and Hyde tale.

As the director, Josh Moyse, tells us in his program notes, this is an invented play, in part theater, in part performance art, that is our little troupe’s first venture at the material, but very possibly not our last. Personally, I’m very proud to have been involved in the project and proud to host it at the Hooker-Dunham, a wonderful space in which to experiment.  As I write this, it’s 1 PM with a 7:30 curtain beginning our second/final weekend. Hope you’ve had or will have the opportunity to share in the experience.

 

 

 

 

 

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Hyde, continued

Murnau's Nosferatu

Murnau’s Nosferatu

(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.

The Hooker-Dunham Theater: A personal message

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:

On amateur creativity

On Community

 

 

 

A local struggle on cell towers echoes national corporate control of government

Here are links to comments I made recently about the effect of corporate dominance of the our (U.S.)  governmental processes.

The local paper, The Brattleboro Reformer, published it as a “Local Editorial

VTDigger, an online news outlet, also published it as a “Commentary

If the interests of the telecommunications industry can undermine one of the last remnants of democratic decision-making, small rural municipalities in a small rural state (Vermont), then the example applies everywhere.