One of New York City’s most respected and notable acting teachers, ROGER SIMON, offers Stage Voices’ readers insight into the inner workings of an actor’s technique
PLASTIC VALUES–“A HOMBURG, DEAR BOY!”
By Roger Hendricks Simon; edited by Tania Fisher
“Plastic Values”–that’s what Nikos Psacharopoulos, my directing teacher at Yale School of Drama, called all of the things an actor comes into contact with on the stage: the props, costume pieces, sets, sound, and lights–the texture and feel, as well as the shape, color, and smell of those things when contact is made with them. It’s not just the spoken words–and the relationships with other characters in the scene–but also the relationships with those items on stage that give a performance needed texture and dimension. This means an actor is giving actual life to what otherwise are inanimate objects–and that life relates to the inner life of a character at the moment of contact.
Just the other day, I went to see a one-woman show: The actor had talent, having not only written the work herself, but she also composed and sang her own songs. On the tiny stage, she surrounded herself with one or two chairs and numerous costume changes and set pieces. The performer then proceeded to play various roles from her life. Throughout the performance, recorded sound effects were heard, which usually marked the end of one section and the beginning of another. I watched the actor repeatedly take off her costume pieces and replace them, but nothing seemed to be happening, other than that a new scarf or hat was put on to indicate a new character. The audience began to realize that we were only waiting for a costume change, rather than watching a character transform in front of our eyes.
The feel of that scarf going on–the smell and smooth, silky texture of it–should have conjured up the essence of a new character. Then we would have been watching something exciting happening: a transition that had real life to it–not simply a signal for a pause in the action. How wonderful it would have been for the viewer to actually “see” and “feel” the actor make a transformation happen—to see Dr. Jekyll become Mr. Hyde! When there was a taped sound effect–of a gavel banging, to signify the entry of the dominating father, for example–the actor failed to let that emotionally move her. Her dominated, fearful daughter didn’t physically or emotionally grow, as she changed to the father’s role of judge or when she moved into the next scene. The same was true when the recorded sound of the surf took her from an interior setting to a beach. Yes, we knew we were now on a beach because we heard it, but how wonderful it would have been to have had her actually visualize that beach, with all its sensuality, for a more fully realized and felt transition.
The actor has to do more than just put on new costume pieces or hear sounds, and so on. He really has to allow himself to take on the new character during the process of giving “life” to that scarf or sound effect. Otherwise, the audience feels cheated. And we should feel cheated, because the performance has stopped momentarily: Actors need to find a character’s life in transition, too–not only before and after a scene change takes place.
And those transitional moments, if fully realized–through the use of those props and set and costume pieces, lights, sound, and more–can be the most memorable and moving moments of a performance. It’s often scary for actors to do this, particularly if they’re beginners, because they may feel the need not to be boring and to get on with the words–quickly doing the technical mechanics of putting on the new hat, in order to then become a new character. But the irony is that if performers don’t take the necessary time to fully invest in allowing the “plastic values” to affect them, they truly will be boring! Despite fears of an audience’s lack of patience, or the time limit of an audition, it’s entirely necessary not to rush the process of making things happen. That’s why people go to the theatre: to see actors make things “happen.” Particularly in the rehearsal process, taking the time needed to rehearse a scene or transition fully is essential, even if tightening occurs later. The audience will feel the captured life, because the actor has found it in the rehearsal process. If actors fail to be comprehensive, audiences might as well read the play in the library and try to visualize characters’ lives themselves.
So, I always say to my actors at The Simon Studio, here in New York City, “That’s why they pay us the big bucks! Take that needed time and make it happen!” In our wonderful age of sound bites and the quick fix, we are, unfortunately, influenced by pressures to meet demands, particularly commercial demands and deadlines. An actor or director has to be very careful not to rush the process by going immediately for results.
Roger Hendricks Simon is the Artistic Director and Founder of The Simon Studio. For more details and class information contact Roger direct. Ph: 917 776 9209 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Check back with Stage Voices next week to read the second part of Simon’s article.
(c) 2018 by Roger Hendricks Simon; edited by Tania Fisher. All rights reserved.
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Photographs courtesy of The Simon Studio and Tania Fisher; from top: Roger Simon, The Simon Studio, Tania Fisher