5) Given Circumstances
These are the Facts of the script, the Implied facts of the script, and the Imagined facts of the script. They appear as People, Places, and Things that affect who you are—and many of them are constantly changing. So, your given circumstances change moment to moment throughout the play. Remember, the actor must Identify with the givens throughout—if it is not specific and personal, it is not useful.
Lights up. Joe sits at a desk. Where are we? NYC? LA? Birmingham, Alabama? Is it a hostile environment or a friendly environment? How long has he been there? Where is he going after he leaves this place? What does the place tell you about him? Is he rich? Poor? Remember you are looking for clues that inform your understanding of the play and so affect what you DO on stage. What is he wearing—what do the clothes tell you about him? What time is it? What day? What year? If it’s 2AM, is that indicative of possibilities that are different from 4PM? It’s 1955. So? What if it’s 1990? Does this critically change the action? Any sounds from the street below? As you can see, we are exploring all possibilities and probabilities. Examine what the author sets up for us very carefully and then specify it all for yourself. What is Joe doing at the desk? What do we learn about him from what he is doing and how does it inform the scene (especially the climax—if it doesn’t affect the climax and resolution in any indirect or direct way, it doesn’t need to be there). What do we know about Joe at this point? We know from what he does and how he does it and how he interacts with his environment. Does he go to his daughter’s room to check on her? Are there toys on the floor? We are detectives looking for clues, for possibilities and probabilities.
There is a knock at the door. Who is it? What does he do? Who does he think it is? He answers the door. It is Kirs. When is the last time he saw her? Who is she to him—when he sees her, what does he SEE? When did they first meet? What happened? What happened after that? What are the significant moments in their lives together? What are 5 adjectives that each could use to describe the other, and what are examples of those adjectives (These create “Release Pictures.” Think of a real life example. When I say “Mother,” what is released in you at this moment. Why?)? For example, if Kirs is “loving,” what was the most loving thing she ever did? Based on what you know of their relationship and how you see it, invent the rest. Explain it in detail. If she is not trustworthy, what did she do to earn that? Explain. In detail.
How is she dressed? Has she ever been here? What was she doing before she knocked? Did it take her awhile before she knocked? Why did she come back NOW? What happened to make her come back?
As you can see, we are turning over all the rocks. Once they start speaking, we go to the words. For example, “Is Debbie asleep?” Who is Debbie to her? Use adjectives and create examples, as noted. When did she last see her? And so on throughout the script. And make it personal! The givens take up the majority of our research time. They shape who we are. We are ALL unique. Why? Our givens are different. They affect all we do. If I need to be at my best at a interview to get a job because my mother is sick and I need to get her prescriptions to help her get well, and I have severe stomach ache and my suit is too small and my girlfriend just left me, etc., etc., my givens make me do certain things—especially the person who is interviewing me. (Further…I need to identify with all of this so it affects what I do and what I see. It MUST be personal or I might as well stay home.)
As you can see, there are implications, as aforementioned (and every actor implies specifics in her own way). This is where we imply certain “facts” based on the indisputable facts and our observations of character interaction and behavior. The actor projects what she sees as probable facts, and she finds that having a sense of these facts could very well help her in performance. Sometimes we have to imply some very fundamental and critical things, because the author is not spelling them out for us. We might make projections that are way off line, especially in the beginning. But we must continue testing them against the text. EVERYTHING is based on the text. Our most radical choices must be supported by the words. We will never know all the whys. We don’t need to know all of them—we’d never be able to “act” if we did. We’d be paralyzed by our inability to know everything. How much do we need to know, anyway? There is no answer to that. You are like a chef following a recipe—there are necessary ingredients and there are ingredients an actor adds. Should I be able to describe to you exactly what you need to do, then you could read it and, within reason, do it. This is the same thing as saying a book about playing guitar is all you need to play guitar well.
The “imagined facts,” which is quite an oxymoron, are those that you speculate about that are suggested in some way by the text. “What was the character’s mother like?,” for example. Prowling around in this territory may shed some light on the “character” in a way that helps the actor understand what is said and done in a way that helps her better understand the action and personally connect (if it doesn’t do these things, it’s unnecessary). It may not be necessary for some actors to speculate about it. To each her own. However, one must be careful of getting sidetracked in a way that pulls them away from the action of the play. Speculating about certain unknown facts can assist an actor in performance, but it can also be a distraction. Some would say that if an author wants one to know something, she will write it on the page. True, but some authors are more obscure and resistant to clearly stated or implied “facts” than others. Further, some actors work better by exploring everything they, especially in the beginning.
By identifying, you are personalizing/particularizing a role. Don’t discount or minimize that you are most likely doing a lot of this intuitively. All of these steps are simply guideposts that a purely instinctive (genius) actor/actress use. You may have powerful instincts for a particular role. Don’t interfere with that. But once you understand how preparation works, you’ll be able to do it much more quickly without over-thinking.
Know what you mean. Mean what you say. There is no Hamlet. But there’s you. What do you get from the text? How’d you arrive at it? What does it mean to you? If you live in Brooklyn in a one room flat without running water in 1942, so what? Know it, don’t show it. Identify.