Is it just me, or can actors be some of the biggest control freaks ever? Maybe it’s just me, I dunno; someone fact check me, please. For me personally, there have been so many instances in my life when partaking in theatrical endeavors that I have found myself trying to have a tight hold on what I think the character is feeling. I create my own idea of what the character wants and feels. While yes, there is a certain amount of internal development that is up to the actor portraying the character, so many times, it’s easy to miss what the writer intended to be said on stage.
I recently got to work on a translation of Sophocles’s “Antigone” by Anne Carson. What’s most interesting about Carson’s translation is that there is not very much punctuation written into the script. Aside from a few question marks and exclamation points, there isn’t a ton of established punctuation. This allowed freedom for the cast to really sit down and digest the words that we were speaking. We had to do our homework by adding our own punctuation. The lyrical nature of her script was fascinating to study and by far one of the biggest challenges I have had thus far as a stage actor.
A favorite saying that our director, Tee Quillin, would say at least once a rehearsal was, “Trust the text.” There is a tendency with actors, especially young actors, to add their own interpretation on the lines they are reciting that sometimes is in the total opposite direction of what is needed for the show. It’s easy to walk into a show thinking, “I know what I want this character to be like,” and totally disregard what is truly needed from you as a performer.
I struggled with this majorly while playing Ismene, Antigone’s younger sister. There are so many ways that this character can be played, and Tee’s direction that he was taking us on was that Ismene is naïve to a major fault. The poor girl had so much love for her family but was trapped following the rules that had been set in place by earthly leaders. Since Ismene was following the rules made by men instead of those set by the gods, there was a major disconnect between her and Antigone.
Another thing about Ismene is that she really does not have a lot of fight in her, unlike her older sister. This is where my struggle stemmed from. I have dealt with a lot of crappy situations in life that have dragged me down, but I have never felt completely hopeless. Getting to that mental state was a long process, and a frustrating one, I might add. I would leave rehearsal, kicking myself that I wasn’t getting what our director wanted. There were many conversations about the character, and Tee always pushed this one thought: Trust the text.
The beauty of storytelling on stage is that actors are able to bring to life the words of playwrights. Every writer puts great thought and detail into the words they put down on paper. It takes analysis and time to get a true understanding for what the writer wants to be portrayed on stage. It also takes not only a good director to convey the theme of the work to their company, but also a trust in that director that they have done their homework in analyzing the script. From there, the actor must trust the words that they are speaking to do their work.
In Shakespeare’s masterpiece, “Hamlet,” the title character gives a speech to the players that begins with him saying, “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines.” Basically, Hamlet is telling the actors to not over-exaggerate the lines he has given them like other actors did; otherwise, he might as well have a newscaster say the lines. Further down the page, Hamlet continues, saying, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Translation: Fit the action to the word and the word to the action, always acting natural, no matter what it takes. Exaggeration has no place on stage, where the purpose is to represent reality, holding a mirror up to virtue and to the pulse of the times.
What makes this one of my favorite Shakespearean speeches of all time is that Good Old Will used his main character to call out all the over-acting actors of his time. The performers were exaggerating everything instead of playing true-to-life. Shakespeare was calling out the people who weren’t just taking writer’s words at face value and performing them earnestly. I believe that this speech is one that every actor should have memorized and revisit over and over again during their career. It can be easy to lose sight of the truthfulness needed to be an actor. It’s also terrifying to be truthful. You know why? Because being truthful means being vulnerable, and that is hard to do with just one person, let alone an entire audience.
The more I thought about the phrase, “trust the text,” the more it made me think about my spiritual life. So often, I think to myself, “I’m sure this is the right thing to do,” without really talking to the One know really knows what is best for me. It’s amazing that we have been given a book that was literally inspired by the breath of God and we so often don’t really trust it. Oh yeah, the Bible says, “Be anxious for nothing,” and “Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid or be dismayed for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” But am I a person who is anxious all the time? Yep. Am I a person who is often afraid and/or dismayed by how life is going? You betcha. Even though I have been told time and time again that I am *never* alone, I still have a hard time trusting the guide book that has been given to me. However, during the times I let go, breathe, and let God take a hold of my worries, I find that in my vulnerable state, I feel much more freedom as I walk through life.
“Antigone” was an experience that taught me how to breathe out the text and to really trust not only my director and fellow actors, but also the playwright. When you allow the text to do it’s work, you find that you aren’t having to work as hard. By not forcing a performance, you are better able to connect with your audience. It also reminded me that I still have so much to learn about myself and my craft, but that it’s perfectly fine that I don’t have it all figured out yet. That’s the point of life; we’re always learning. I can say that I finally got to a point with Ismene that I was proud of myself as an actress. It was difficult and a little painful at times to work through the emotions of the character, but understanding how to trust the lines I had been given was a lesson I will forever be grateful for. As long as I keep performing, I will always make sure to have those three words in mind as I get to know my character, and as long as I continue my walk with Christ, I will be persistent in learning how to truly trust His text.
Cast, Crew and Designers of “Antigone”
Until Next Time,