PERFORMING THE ROLE OF VERONICA IN THE PLAY MISS WITHERSPOON BY CHRISTOPHER DURANG By STEPHANIE LYNGE A PROJECT IN LIEU OF THESIS PRESENTED TO THE COLLEGE OF FINE ARTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF FINE ARTS UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 201 4
Copyright 2014 Stephanie Lynge All rights reserved
3 Hyper vigilant I have a tendency to worry about things, and think ahead obsessively. Christopher Durang Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed it is the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present. Lao Tzu
4 ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I would like to acknowledge Kevin Marshall for his direction and faith in my performance. I would like to acknowledge Kathy Serra for her guidance and support as I found a way to come home to myself. I would like to acknowledge the SOTD department for th e education and opportunities it has provided me. I would like to thank Chris Kozak and Charlie Mitchell; without their help I never would have been able to memorize all those monologues. Finally, I am eternally grateful for the cast and crew of Miss Wit herspoon for their talent and support and, as always, grateful beyond words for my friends and family's love and constant belief in me.
5 TABLE OF CONTENTS Page AKNOWLEDGEMENTS.................................................................................................... .. 4 ABSTRACT......................................................................................... ... .............................. 6 INTRODUCTION..................................................................... ............................... .......... .. 7 8 .......................................................... ........................... .... 8 ................................................................................................... .. 9 ............................................................................................... .. 11 ............................ .......................... 12 ............................................ .......................... ............................. 13 THE PROCESS 14 ...................................................................... ............................. 14 ........................................................................... 15 .............................................. ................ ............ 20 .......................................... ......................... 23 ...................................................................... 26 PRODUCTION AND PERFORMANCE ................................................................ 28 CONCLUSION ........... ............................................................... ............................. 30 APPENDIX A PRODUCTION PROGRAM 32 B LESSAC EXAMPLES 35 C PRODUCTION PHOTOS 47 REFERENCE LIST 50 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH 52
6 Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts PE RFORMING THE ROLE OF VERONICA IN THE PLAY MISS WITHERSPOON BY CHRISTOPHER DURANG By Stephanie Lynge May 201 4 Chair: Ralf Remshardt Co chair: Tim Altmeyer Major: Theatre I created the role of Veronica in the play Miss Witherspoon written by Christopher Durang as my project in lieu of thesis, thereby fulfilling this requirement for my MFA in Acting. Miss Witherspoon, directed by Kevin Marshall, opened on September 20, 2013. Miss Witherspoon is a n exploration of Veronica's jou rney from a self protective wounded woman to one willing to engage in the world and try to make it a better place. My challenge in this thesis role was to embody Veronica's negativity, depression, and abrasive defense mechanisms in an honest way that wou ld not alienate the audience, who must identify with Veronica and her struggle or else the play does not work. This paper will document my research and explorations of character in and out of rehearsals and will include observations of my performance and process from the first day I was cast through the final performance.
7 INTRODUCTION The first time I read Miss Witherspoon I was confused and slightly bemused by what I had read. Veronica as a character was certainly a tour de force for an actor b ut I was terrified at the thought of playing her; I could not instinctively see who she was, feel her rhythms, or hear her voice. But acting is all about taking a step into the unknown and having the courage to risk failure. There was no better way I cou ld bring together all of the training I had been given at UF than taking on a thesis role that challenged me as an actor and as a person. I lobbied for the role, and ultimately was cast as Veronica. I plunged in and never looked back. I had several pers onal goals I wanted to reach through my work on this thesis production. I wanted to explore Veronica using the Lessac, Chekhov, and Laban techniques that I had not used previous to my training here at UF. I also wanted my performance to be real, grounded and truly lived moment to moment. Finally, I wanted to use the Alexander Technique to allow my character to come through me without having to use my own tension and habits. amount of lines. I wanted to be free from the script so I could use the time in rehearsals to discover the similarities and differences of the four d istinct lives Veronica lives as well as explore relationships with my fellow actors. By the time the pro duction opened, I had created four physically and vocally distinct characters and felt very grounded in the reality of Veronica's situation. My connection and interplay with Amanda Schlachter who played Maryamma, my spiritual guide, was deep and nuanced, and all of the research and work over the previous three months culminated in a run of sold out houses.
8 TEXTUAL ANALYSIS The Playwright Christopher Durang is a playwright who grounds his characters in emotional honesty and realism while setting them loose in a world of exaggeration, outrageous parody, and dramatic satire. One can see these traits evidenced in some of his better known play s such as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All and The Marriage of Bette and Boo. He skewers religion and the myth of family with dry and erudite wit in the context of a world that vaguely resembles our own but is exaggerated to the point of the ridiculous Durang's early work, written before his time as a student at Yale, was described as absurdist, and although his later work would become more anchored in realism, he never completely lost his absurdist roots. He has used methods of comic exaggeration to explore subjects that affected him in his own life religion, family, sexuality, and psychology, to name a few. Durang asks his audiences to laugh at moments that are serious and tragic. He writes about issues and events that everyone can recognize a s a reflection of elements of their own lives, then exaggerates them and finds the humor within. As actress Kristine Neilsen described her experience working in many Durang's plays, she elaborated on their shared theory on why his plays not only make the audience laugh but often make them cry as well. "[Comedy] is the most effective way I've found to truly affect people. To get them to listen, and get them to let you in" (qtd. in Apple 53). Durang has always written from a personal place, using his o wn experiences as material for his plays. His spiritual journey began with a difficult home life as a child, a rejection of his Catholic upbringing, and his struggle during college with depression brought about by the
9 Vietnam War and the realization that he was gay. He hit rock bottom as he watched his mother's painful and slow death from cancer in 1979. For Durang, there was either no God, or, as he wrote for the character of Matt in The Marriage of Bette and Boo a God who ". . punishes in general for no good reason" (Carr). When Durang met his partner, John Augustine, John's sunny disposition attracted him and "opened up positive feelings, possibilities, intuitions." Durang began to suspect that, contrary to his earlier experience of the divine '' there may be a force in the universe that offers guidance.'' (Carr). While exploring this new spiritual possibility, Durang was asked to submit a short piece for an evening of theater in New York marking the first anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Still traumatized by the tragedy, Durang found he could not write abo ut the event directly, so he created a character to discuss it, along with her discomfort with life itself, from the safety of the afterlife. In 2004, the McCarter Th eater offered him a commission to write a n ew play and this monologue (now S cene 2 ) became the core idea that gestated into Miss Witherspoon. D urang was interested in reincarnation at the time, but realized that he himself would not want to come back to earth because he felt the world was not a safe place. Therefore, he decided to take his female character from the 9/11 monologue and use her as a means to explore his own fears of living in the world, as well as a possible means of coming to terms with th ose fears. The Play The play opens with Veronica on the phone talking to a friend about her depression, when pieces of the disintegrating space station Skylab begin falling on the stage. The audience soon experiences the world as Veronica does, a dange rous place that will hurt you whenever it
10 the in between place where souls wait to be reincarnated into their next lives. Veronica talks directly to the audienc e about her experiences and her reasons for not wanting to reincarnate. Maryamma, Veronica's spiritual guide in the Bardo, enters and works to convince Veronica that she must reincarnate to improve her soul and karma. However, Veronica will not budge in her belief that life is scary and painful, and she insists on staying in the Bardo. The next few scenes occur on E arth after Veronica is forcibly reincarnated into two more lives. Both times, the horror of living again proves too much and she commits suicide via a dog attack and a drug overdose, respectively. She returns to the Bardo where she is reprimanded by Maryamma who points out all the repercussions that will occur from these deaths. Veronica is very shaken by her experiences. Maryamma tries to show her the other choices she could have made, but Veronica can see only one way out of these earthly lives. She dem ands to see St. Peter, hoping he will allow her to stay in the Bardo. Maryamma leaves and Veronica speaks to the audience again. She desperately wants to be done with life and left alone, and expresses her frustration at the lessons that she is supposed to be learning. Veronica is tired and worn out, and in this weakened state, she is reincarnated again ; this time as a dog. This life is short, but Veronica returns from it more refreshed and positive, having experienced just simply living in the momen t without all of the constant worry. She is then granted a reprieve to rest during which she dreams how her previous incarnations could have been more positive if she had made different choices. When Veronica awakens from her rest with her aura a little bit lighter, she is visited by Jesus in the shape of a black woman and the figure of Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings who exhort her to return to E arth and remind people to follow Jesus' teachings and to evolve faster. Veronica refuses yet again as the Bardo shakes with turbulence caused by nuclear attacks in India and Pakistan. Veronica, terrified about
11 being reincarnated into an even more hellish world, offers to go back in time to her first reincarnation and to engage in the world from there. The ot hers agree and we find Veronica once again in a well to do Connecticut home. Scared but hopeful, she actively tries to make a difference for the first time in her many lives. Miss Witherspoon has been performed many times since 2004 and quite characteristically, many of the reviews I was able to find had the same criticism: t he play starts off strongly and then meanders off message. In my readings of the play, I had the same reaction. Once Jesus and Gandalf arrive to convince Veronica to engage in life and make an impact, the play loses focus and the ending feels a bit out of step with what came before. This apparent disjunction in plot and tone would be one of my challenges : I had to find a way to keep Veronica's stakes high and to keep actively pursuing my objective to keep the play knitted together as a whole. Much of my process would be centered around choosing objectives and actions that would allow me to keep the momentum and focus through the end, thereby not allowing a seemingly r andom rant on the crucifixion or the needlessly convoluted plot complications in the last third of the play to derail the story or my performance The Bardo A majority of Miss Witherspoon takes place in the Bardo. Described in the Tibetan Book of the Dea d this way station between death and rebirth is an important element of Tibetan Buddhism where death is both a part of human life and its foe. This is where souls are tested to see if they are ready to attain a state beyond death. There are three stages to a soul's time in the Bardo. The first stage is a powerful welcoming light and an opportunity to become one with the In the second stage, the soul takes on an imagined body form mirroring the previous physical
12 body. Various B uddhas appear to greet the soul and if the soul connects with one of them, the soul can stay in the Bardo and stay on the path to enlightenment. Most souls will experience feelings of distance and shame as they become more aware of their own faults. These souls continue on to the third stage where their good and evil deeds are weig hed. Here souls are visited by demons that attack them and eventually chase the soul to rebirth ( Hallisey 19) The Bardo that Durang has created in Miss Witherspoon is inclusive of many religions. He equates purgatory with rebirth and sets aside a "gen eral anesthesia heaven" for those who do not believe in heave n or an afterlife, such as Jews and atheists (though these souls are eventually reborn as well). Given the division of the Bardo as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead it seems that Veron ica is most likely in the second or third stage where she meets bodhisattvas in various forms (Maryamma, Gandalf, Woman in Hat/Jesus). This information gave me invaluable ideas of what Veronica might be experiencing each of her stays in the Bardo; facing her own shortcomings and the growing awareness of her faults raises the stakes for Veronica as she battles with all her might for what she most desires to feel safe The idea that she would be chased back into life makes reincarnation all the more terr ifying to her. Style, Themes, and Symbolism Durang's plays target some common issues, such as the myth of family, social institutions (psychology, pop culture), religion, and sexuality. In most of his works, characters fight through these issues, while having an underlying fear of the world. This secondary theme is overtly explored in Miss Witherspoon Unlike in some of his earlier work, there is no s cathing indictment of religion though there are several moments that challenge Catholic doctrine in V eronica's monologue where she speaks about her issues with the crucifixion what about forgiveness without
13 The realities of the world as she perceives it are so terrible that Veron ica would rather stay dead than have to live again. Kristine Nielsen, the originator of the role of Veronica, explained that Durang is asking do I stay in the world? ( answer that question for herself. While Durang's tone may have changed, his writing style in Miss Witherspoon exhibits a growth starting from absurdism and moving through darkly mocking satire finally becoming to a cross between comic exaggeration (e.g., Skylab falling, Gandalf and Jesus chatting about the end of the world) and grounded realism (the struggle of a woman terrified of life). Thro ugh his surrealistic comedies, Durang continues to ask his audience to suspend their disbelief as he "exaggerate[s] awful things further, and then presents it in a way that is funny . .It is how I ask people to laugh at things I know are serious and tragic" ( Siegl ). Durang clearly uses the Bardo symbolically as well as literally, giving Veronica and the other characters a neutral place in which to reflect on what is happening to them on E arth However, being there does not afford her the opportunity to truly live life and grow from the experience. The only place whe re such growth can happen is the dark and threatening world down below, and that is where Veronica eventually chooses to go at the end of the play. Context While Durang has only recently received his first Tony award, he has been writing for over three de cades, and his heartrending comedies have cemented his place in the oeuvre of American playwriting. compared with John Guare as one of ) Durang like another iconic contemporary American writer, Edward Albee, uses the family unit as a mirror of not only society but also his personal history. Robert Brustein, a senior research fellow at Yale,
14 has always been a family drama a work in which the writer lays his ghosts to rest at last, making peace with his past by exorcising the dead ( qtd in Lambert) playwright of the American family play into the middle of surrealist comedies. Durang wrote Miss Witherspoon with echoes of 9/11 in his head. The original idea was conceived for an evening of theater marking the first anniversary of the tragedy. He turned 56 as he worked on the play, the age of his mother when she died after a long lingering battle with cancer Durang experienced a great deal of anxiety as he reflected on her death and the present state of the world with its global warming, warfare, ricin laced envelopes, and mass shootings at schools. With all of these thoughts in his head and his neuroses i n high gear, he sat down to write Miss Witherspoon It is a tale for our times about a person trying to find some safety in a harsh and unpredictable world and discovering in the end that it is up to her to participate in creating that safety. Her willi ngness to take that chance is one of many tiny ripples that could, in the end, save the world from itself. THE PROCESS Concept In April, 2013 I sat down and spoke to the director, Kevin Marshall, about his thoughts on Miss Witherspoon and what he was envisioning for the production. Marshall was hesitant to discuss the concept or over arching story with me at that time, but he did have some wonderful ideas about the visual aspect. Marshall shared with me his ideas of an all white set with most of the scenery being provided by projections that would incorporate the entire theater, including the
15 audience at times. It sounded like a very exciting design and I was happy to have a picture of it in my head as I started to work on the script over the summer. how our set might function as the Bardo and how I might live within it. Continuing my work over the summer, I read and reread the script many times, each time taking notes of moments and ideas that stru ck me. I still did not understand the core of was beginning to see the story that Miss Witherspoon was telling: from a self protective wounded woman to a woman willing to engage with the world, to reach out t hrough her own immense self protective barriers and actually connect with other people to make a difference. My research into Durang and his prior work showed that this theme of fear of living in the world was a secondary theme in many of his other plays, but in Miss Witherspoon it was front and center. I asked to meet with Marshall before our rehearsals began in August, but after he read some of my work on the role I had sent him, he decided that I had a clear understanding of the script and the charact er, so unfortunately we did not get together to discuss the play or compare our conceptual approaches. I also had no opportunity to confirm what I thought was Veronica's super objective defined by Stanislavsky as the main goal that must be accomplished as the overriding goal of the actors. My preparatory work, as I will describe later in this paper, all led the actions of the play together into a cohesive s tory. All action, all aspects of the performance have to be continuously oriented to accomplis h this goal. (Stanislavksy 307), and I wanted to be sure that Marshall concurred with my analysis. Characterization
16 I began my work over the su mmer with research into many productions of Durang's plays My research suggested that his work seemed to function best when the actors let the exaggerated circumstances provide the humor and kept the characters as grounded in reality as possible. Of course, it wa s important to remember that Miss Witherspoon is a comedy and no matter how dark, it always requires specific timing, pacing, and a very mindful balancing of th e dark and the light so that one element does not overpower the other. However, setting aside t he style of a Durang comedy, I decided to focus on the grounded reality of Veronica and her psyche i n my pre rehearsal work and I assumed we would work on the comedic style in rehearsals with our director. It was important that Veronica be a fully flushe d out character with real need and emotional reactions and not just a stock comedic form. As discussed later in this paper, I used several techniques to help find the many layers of Veronica. I continued my summer work with numerous readings of the script, always taking notes on moments and ideas that struck me. I marked all the elements of the play with which I was not solidly familiar and did some basic research. Having only a vague memo ry of the event, I looked up details about Skylab as well as specific definitions of "aura" and "karma" in addition to my aforementioned research on the Bardo. Since Veronica seems to be suffering from it, I also investigated the symptoms of depression in t he Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV While there were many symptoms, the few that struck me as very apropos to the script were constant sadness, irritability, and hopelessness ( Alerecares ). Anxiety and helplessness combine to create depression and I ones this was a useful way to inform my depiction of Veronica's depression without falling into the acting trap of portraying depression with low tired energy and with a lack of interest in anything This issue had concerned me as an actor because passive choices are not as strong as active choices, and can create a chara cter
17 without a clear objective In addition, comedy requires pacing and energy as well as timing, and these elements would be almost impossible to create without active choices and objectives to fight for After many readings, it was time to leave the research behind and begin the creative process. This is always a challenging moment for me as an actor. The research, logistics, and technical aspects of c reating a role have always been safe, solid territory for me. However, t he actual creative process has always seemed dangerous to me, where my footing is less sure and beginning is always anxiety provoking. It is where I must take a risk and begin to dis cover, make choices, and to penetrate the character to the core. This part of the process has always been where my self doubt doubles in size, and it is often why I leave this step until later in the rehearsa l process. I fear I will not be able to create a full, rich character that I can believe in. For Miss Witherspoon I knew the timetable of the fall semester would make rehearsals tight and I also knew that Marshall intended to use the Michael Chekhov T echnique exclusively in rehearsals. This meant I had to complete any work with other techniques before the rehearsals began. There could be no procrastination this time. I took a deep breath and began. I began my creative process of analyzing the script by usi ng a technique laid out in the Practical Handbook for the Actor a text I studied here at UF It asks the actor to analyze each scene by asking three questions: essential action of the actor in t (Bruder 19). I took each scene in turn and first specifically analyzed what my character is literally doing. F or example, in Scene three Veronica is napping, getting rid of Maryamma finding someone with more authority, etc. I consol idated these smaller actions in to one overall literal action, "Veronica struggles to protect herself." Next, I specified what the actual physical
18 action is of the character. For example, S cene three has Veronica battling with Maryamma over what happens to her next. The essential action would be protect ing myself from an annoying co worker," since Veronica had a negative history with Maryamma who was (according to g to her benefit. The last step of this technique requires the actor to helps give a fuller understanding of the action which was chosen, as well as raising the stakes and giving the actor an emotional preparation for the beginning of the scene. My example for S cene three was, fellow actor on the Mamma Mia tour). created an easy access to feelings deep seated fears and her choices for self preservation, helping me start to ground her in an honestly constructed reality. After analyzing all of the scenes, I reviewed them and determined what the overall literal and essential actions were for the play as a whole, in order to identify through action or super objective. This through action helps the actor keep the entirety of her performance focused and on track. From this analysis, I discovered the through action for Veronica is a desperate need to find a way to feel safe. I considered the difficulties of the script th at I had discovered earlier in my research and decided that this overriding objective would indeed be strong enough to carry Veronica through the less focused scenes of the play and would provide my performance with enough energy and momentum to keep the story moving. I continued my analysis of the play by applying another acting method. This time, I worked my way through the play scene by scene and beat by beat (anytime there is a change in action) identifying traditional character objectives as used by Stanislavsky. Objectives are the
19 goals that the character wants to achieve or the tasks the character wants to complete in the course of the play This work has always been essential to my creativ e acting process as it clarifies where the character adjusts her objective or changes her tactics ( which are the means whereby she tries to achieve her objective ) I never hold myself to playing these exact objectives or tactics but I find the information I discover invaluable in rehearsals when I am stuck in a rut, or unable to react to what I am given by the other actors in a way that moves the play forward. I wanted to flesh out these core ideas and have them to refer to when I needed them in rehearsal. In addition to the objective work, I also spent time analyzing possible tactics. I do not like to prescribe specific tactics to be used in specific moments until I have organically explored the options with my fellow cast members, but I d ecided to write down Veronica's tactics in groupings of scenes in the play. For example, in S cenes 1 6, Veronica use s tactics like defending, striking out, protecting, punishing, and pushing, whereas in S cenes 18 and 19, Veronica use s tactics like reachin g, solving, grasping, and pulling. This analysis helped me explore possible tactics for Veronica while in a very concrete way allowing me to discover her growth and mine even further the depth of her reality In addition, these tactics gave me an active way to experience and share her depression with the audience and begin to map out her journey through the play. One of the challenges of this role is that textually, her journey is hard to track from the first s cene of the play to the last scene. She continues to insist she does not want to return to Earth, so I had to dig deeper to discover where her growth occu rs and how I could take that journey with her. By mapping out her tactics in the above manner, I beg an to see clearly the beginnings of her character arc and how and when these changes would begin occurring in her. I simplified the information I was creating with my analysis and discovered that Veronica spirals
20 from bad to worse in the first 10 scenes, bottoming out after returning from Ginny's original life. Only after her incarnation as a dog does she find some relief from the anxiety and stress of her lives on Earth. T his breathing room begins to allow for a bit of change. Veronica experiences even more growth after her do over of Ginny's life. Th e emotional space that is created by her positive life experiences allows her to take th e plunge and offer to go back and help fix the world. This offer is, of course, only made under duress and the threat of living in a post apocalyptic world, but it is still a very large step for Veronica to make. Finally, as I analyzed the script, I realized I needed to discover to who m Veronica i s speaking to in her monologues. Marshall had told me he wanted me to speak directly to the audience, so who could they be and what could I want from them? I played around with several ideas and, in the end, the concept that made the most sense to me was that they were other spirits in the Bardo feeling trapped in the Bardo (Durang 75). The choice I made supported Vero of feeling hemmed in and looking for an escape. Viewing the audience as fellow spirits in the Bardo made them my contemporaries and as such, perhaps people I could convince to support me in my quest not to return to Earth. This possibility gave my objective very high stakes anytime I directly addressed the audience. Vocal Explorations Up until this point, the preparation work I had been doing was all intellectual analysis. Now it was time to explore the text from a vocal standpoint. I began this investigation by taking apart the three longest monologues and analyzing them using the system described in Arthur The Use and Training of the Human Voice The markings that Lessac teaches
21 de ayed within a sentence. There are many more opportunities than can truly be played at one time, but this technique allows the actor to investigate many possibilities that might never have been discovered otherwise and this, in turn, helps to keep the acto r from falling into habitual vocal patterns. I analyzed the first two monologues in Miss Witherspoon as well as the "Christianity" monologue (see A ppendix B) prior to my memorization work. The work proved invaluable when I began to memorize the play as i t gave me a framework in which to explore these lengthy and meandering monologues. It allowed me to avoid falling into vocal patterns before rehearsals began. I worked on the lines by first exploring the consonant NRGs, followed by the tonal and struct ural NRGs. As a singer, the tonal and structure NRGs come much more naturally to me, which is why I began my explorations with the consonant NRGs. Each time I would make my way through the monologue, I would focus on different possible playing opportunit ies. I also would combine body support physicalities such as radiancy, buoyancy, and potency (Lessac 204) with the various vocal NRGs to continue my explorations. Once in rehearsal, I had the freedom to allow my acting impulses to shape the vocal choices of my pre memorized lines. I was given a note by the director early on to use more of my lower range. This note had been a common theme in my time at UF and had caused me a great deal of frustration as I have a physical dysf unction in my right vocal c o vocal fry the lowest parts of my vocal range. After two years of not understanding how to use this note, I
22 requestin g lower pitches in my range, but were a response to hearing fewer overtones than was desired. The Y buzz, as taught by Lessac, is a tool used to increase the bone conduction of tone. This bone conducted tone creates more overtones, or resonant frequencie s which in turn make the voice sound richer because of the additional resonance (Lessac 124). My attempts over the last two years to use the very bottom of my vocal pitch range w ere not in fact what was needed. I had added additional Y buzz exercises ove r the summer and these combined with my previous warm ups and work over the last two years has finally led to more overtones in my voice. I feel that my voice is richer now and that I am no longer trapped in the few bottom no tes of my range but free to us e my entire range which I did in my performance as Veronica. To maintain and continue strengthen ing my voice for the vocal marathon presented by Miss Witherspoon rehearsals and performances, I gave myself a 25 minute vocal warm up before each rehearsal and show This warm up started with the aforementioned Y buzz to wake up the resonators. I continued using words and sounds to activate the tonal and structural NRGs and carried that work into some tongue twisters to warm up the facial muscles. I then ran one of Veronica's monologues at a fast tempo to continue working my facial muscles and getting my mouth around all of the words. At this point, I turned to my background as a singer, and I would sing a few warm ups, including a song. The reason for i ncluding this element was that I was using all of my range for this role, and I found that singing was the best way to warm up the top end of my range while keeping it in a forward healthy placement. After singing, I would Y buzz again for a few minutes, then move on to my physical warm up. Taking the time to do this warm up allowed me to be present and ready to go from the first moment of the play, and minimized any concern I had about my vocal use.
23 Physical Explorations The physical demands of Miss W itherspoon were slow to reveal themselves to me so I began to research how some of Veronica's "lives" would move by watching videos of babies and dogs and taking note of various physicalities of which I could make use. I wanted to make the physicality of each life Veronica led as distinct as possible. Because both babies were visually created by my body hidden in a bassinet with my head sticking out, the characters were actualized entirely by my head movement and the puppet arms which I experimented with in the rehearsal process. For Ginny at five years old, I observed my five year old nephew in his quieter moments. His hand and head movements were loose but could also be very careful, as if he was afraid he would do whatever it was he was doing wrong. He would be fascinated by the smallest things and lose himself in observing them. I used these elements t o create the physical life of a child walking on eggshells in an unhappy home. Thirteen year old Ginny was a physical amalgam of middle school stude nts I have worked with in the past. The physical slouch, the purposeful disengagement, the slumping sulking walk and sigh that every parent dreads were perfect to bring this Ginny to life. The Chekhov Technique offers a creative tool for physical transfo rmatio n call ed the Imaginary Body in which the actor locates the center or lead, i.e. the point from which the character initiates movement (Chekhov 100). As Ginny got older, her center moved steadily downward from her heart to her lower pelvis. This slowly sinking center added to the weight Ginny carried with her as she grew older, and this weight affected everything from making her walk heavy, slow, and sloppy to her hunched and self protective posture.
24 Lonnie the dog was the most enjoyable character to research and explore. Lonnie is full of joy, and I wanted to represent that physi cally since as a dog I did not speak. The elements that I observed and played with were bounding body and leg movement, the head shake that dogs do when they are excited, and the contented stare. Lonnie was a joy to create because he was so full of life and happiness. My enjoyment of finding his phys icality allowed me to feel something similar to what Veronica experienced when she was Lonnie a freedom from stress, sadness, and worry. Veronica's Bardo physicality was discovered during rehearsals. I di d not come with a preconceived idea about how she should move or look, and during the second week of rehearsal I noticed myself slouching during scene work. I did not want Veronica to wear her depression on her sleeve, but the heft of it weighing her down seemed appropriate for the character, and I decided to keep it. As Veronica grows over the course of the play, I worked with letting her feel a little bit lighter and using a more open and accepting physicality allow ing her to hear what the other charac ters are saying without feeling as threatened. Veronica does not grow in significant ways in this play but she does manage small steps and I wanted her physicality to reflect her growth in the same way her choice of tactics did. She does not become a h ero at the end of Miss Witherspoon she is still a wounded woman. The difference is that she is finally willing to take a chance. I continued to explore Veronica from a physical angle by using two different techniques. The first was developed by Rudo lph Laban as a reaction to his observation of society's loss of expressive movement and subsequent loss of physical communication. The Laban method breaks down movement into categories of Weight, Time, Flow and Space and then combines the categories into eight basic Action Drives which are: Float, Punch, Glide, Slash, Dab, Wring,
25 Press, and Flick For example, Float is a combination of light Weight, sustained Time free Flow and indirect Space whereas Punch combi ne s a strong Weight sudden Time, bound Flow and direct movement in Space (Newlove 13, 68). I have found in my work that Laban is a tool is seeing the world a fter the nuclear holocaust in S cene 18, I would imagine a physical Wring in my body (in my stomach and heart) and I would allow that wring to create a contraction in my Action D rives Laban described and used each of them, in turn, as I worked through my monologues and scenes. Like the tactic chang es I described earlier, I was able to track Veronica's growth through her choices using the physical language of Laban's Action Drives. In the beginni ng of the play I discovered I could use Wring, Slash, and Punch as internal physical motivators for Veron ica's lines and actions. Later, as Veronica is more open to change, I found myself continuing to use Wring but was able to replace the more defensive and violent Slash and Punch with the lighter and more open Flick and Float This physical language work s very well with my creative process. I was a dancer many years ago, and my connection to my body is still very strong. In my work at UF, I have found that coming at a role using Laban encourage s me to make stronger choices while at the same time keeping me more grounded. Using what seems like a similar technique to Laban, I continued to explore the physical side of Veronica using Chekhov's Archetypal Gestures. The 10 Archetypal Gestures, used by Chekhov as part of his Psycho physical acting exercises a re: Push, Pull, Smash, Lift, Gather, Throw, Tear, Drag, Penetrate, and Reach (Chekhov xxxvi). These gestures are a physical way to explore the impetus behind the lines and actions of a character. In performance, these impulses would be subtle or interna l most of the time I knew that the director would be using
26 this technique exclusively in rehearsal but I wanted to do my own exploration before rehearsals began. Using these gestures, I divided them again into three groupings, coinciding with Scenes 1 10 11 17, and 18 19. I physically used each gesture in my scene work as well as the monologues, and discovered that Veronica would use Push, Throw, and Tear which would transform into Drag, Pull, and Reach by the end of the play, allowing her to be more receptive and less closed off. I used these impulses vocally and physically to inform how Veronica interacted with the other characters. For example, Veronica would verbally push Maryamma at the beginning of S cene 3 but would reach out to her verbally in S cene 18. This technique, in combination with Laban, was able to help me enrich my character's interactions on stage by nse to her situation. Alexander Technique My use of the Alexander Technique (AT) throughout this process was invaluable. One of the directions that the Alexander Technique teaches is: go forward and up so that th This is used to help reestablish a healthy primary control (the relationship of the head, neck and torso that initiates movement) and allow the actor to release habitual tension and open up the possibility of discovering character physicalities and quirks that are beyond the ones we conventionally use. I have a tendency to allow my character's tension to become my own and vice versa. Veronica is under a great deal of stress in this pla y, and during our first stumble through of the show, I began to feel massive amounts of ten sion in my neck. Concerned I was getting into a physical habit that could cause me difficulty, I decided to use the Alexander Technique consciously as described in The Ac tor and the Alexander Technique I gave myself a physical warm up before
27 rehearsals which I continued throughout the run of the play that included constructive rest which is lyi ng on your back in active rest raising awareness of your body and releasi ng tension and the pouring of the body from one position into another such as letting your knees fall to one side and then the other while again releasing any excess tension Constructive rest ] releases tension and allows the skeleton and the organs 13). The conscious awareness of my body in addition to my use of the AT directions above brought me to a physically neutral space. I would then stand and walk about the roo m, continuing to give myself AT direction s as well As I worked on the show in rehearsal and in performance, I would check in with myself (raise my aware ness of my physical state to a conscious level) and release any tension I found. I discovered that during specific moments of the show, e.g., all of the scenes in which I played a baby, and Scene 18 with Gandalf, I would almost always experience more tens ion. I believe it was the physical position of my body as the baby and the emotional requirements of the scene with Gandalf that caused this habitual tension to interfere with my body. While some performances were less tension filled than others, I have no doubt that my performances were better because of this application of the Alexander Technique and its effect on my physicality. I was able to bring a sense of ease to my performance that allowed more of the character to show through in the performance and less of the actor to get in the way. Not only did I need to release my own habitual tension, but I needed to find a way to inhabit the physicality of Veronica in all of her states without causing myself pain. As I played inside Veronica's slouched bo dy, I would give myself direction to release within that physical shape, thereby giving myself ease within the
28 shape of Veronica and allowing me to play within her physicality comfortably for the entire run of the show. PRODUCTION AND PERFORMANCE After four weeks of rehearsal, we began our technical rehearsals. This show, while it can be done with nothing more than a chair and a table, was envisioned by the director and the designers as a much more beautiful and complex world. The use of projections, s pecialty lights, and scenery flying in and out from the catwalks made for a very complicated and difficult technical rehearsal. Our stage manager had a difficult time keeping the technical aspects moving in a timely manner. At no point during our technic al or dress rehearsals were we able to get through the show without stopping. Incorrect cues were called, resulting in the actors speaking in the dark and having to hold through long pauses as furniture was brought out from backstage. Also difficult was the lack of support from the costume department. All of my costume changes were fast changes and half of them happened on stage, but even though I had requested repeatedly that we have a quick change rehearsal where these changes could all be set and chor eographed, I was told it was not needed. Finally, during a particularly difficult technical run, I stopped and insisted we set how the changes would happen and where they would happen. My dressers were absolutely wonderful, and once we all knew what was happening, the costume changes went smoothly for the rest of the run. The run up to opening night was a very frustrating experience for me. I wanted a chance to have at least one clean run to feel secure with juggling all of the technical aspects and sta ying grounded within the acting choices I had made. Alas, that is live theater, and opening day arrived without allowing me that chance.
29 Our opening night audience was boisterous and was filled with family and friends, and for the first time, I actually had an audience to talk to during all of those monologues. It certainly made a difference and I began to enjoy the fact that my performanc e of those monologues would be different each night, depending on the individuals to whom I spoke and the audience reaction. As the performances progressed, I was very pleased that I continued to make discoveries every night and that I was able to be more at ease physically with my acting partners on the stage. My connection to Amanda Schlachter, the actress who played Maryamma, continued to grow and ground itself in the bizarre reality of the Bardo, and every night was just a little bit different. As an actor I have always been able to go with the flow during a show, and that continued with this production as well. For instance, when the lights erroneously came up before I made it onto the stage at the top of the show I answered a silent phone and made up lines to make it make sense. When the actress playing Mother 2 began playing the comedy a bit more strongly in our scenes, I joined her and reacted in kind. When I skipped a sentence or two or reversed words or just got tongue tied, I let it go and s imply kept on moving ahead while making sure that nothing important had been left out. I found I really enjoyed being in the moment as much as I could be, and seeing where Veronica would go next. Miss Witherspoon is a dark comedy, and the old theatrical saying, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard" is still true today. The audience was part of our cast every night and their level of involvement influenced the show, especially during my monologues, as I was speaking directly to them. This has always been a com plicated part of live theater. We must give each audience the show we rehearsed, but we must also be able to take what the audience gives us and play with it, ride the waves of laughter, or continue with the show we have created even if there is no laught er. My performance was directly influen ced by the audience and I tried very hard to
30 be present with them, though unfortunately I know at times I forged ahead to keep the show moving instead of trying to connect with them. I do not feel that we the actors ever really functioned as a cohesive cast in this production. There is a style to plays written by Durang, and as a cast we were never really acting in the same play or in the same style because this was never addressed in rehearsals. The actors I worke d with were lovely, talented, giving, and supportive, and I would work with any of them again in the future, but we were not given the direction we needed to present the play as a cohesive whole, and I believe our performances and the show overall suffered from this absence. CONCLUSION I had several personal goals I wanted to reach with this thesis production. I wanted to explore Veronica from vocal and physical perspective s that I had not used previous to my time here at UF. I also wanted my performance to be real and grounded and trul y living in the moment. F inally, I wanted to use what I had learned through the Alexander Technique to allow my character to come through me without having to use my own tension and habits. I did examine my character using vocal and physical techniques I have learned in my time here at UF during my pre rehearsal prep time. I worked on the text from a Lessac perspective and I used Laban and C hekhov techniques to explore Veronica's physicality. I believe using these techniques helped me discover nuances and helped me create a layered and grounded character. I feel that I did create a believable and realistic character with honest emotions, re actions, and issues, as Durang would have wanted. However, I do not believe that I was able to truly live moment to moment in this play. There are a myriad of reasons for this failure, but finally, I was not able to connect consistently with my fellow ac tors and the audience to create that exciting
31 dynamic of intimacy and spontaneity. There were certainly moments that I was able to live moment to moment on stage, but on the whole, I believe I did not reach this goal. However, I was more successful with my use of the Alexander Technique to release my own tension and habits, and this allowed me freedom to create Veronica as a separate individual. All in all, I was very pleased with my growth as an actor and my incorporation of the tools I have been learni ng. I was able to synthesize many of th e techniques I have learned at UF into creating a character as difficult and wild as Veronica I am proud of the work I did and, while I would like to dig back in and work some of the outstanding issues, I believe I acquitted myself well and am pleased with the result.
32 APPENDIX A PRODUCTION PROGRAM
34 APPENDIX B LESSAC EXAMPLES
48 APPENDIX C PRODUCTION PHOTOS Veronica in the Bardo. Scn 18 Veronica as Lonnie the dog . on Earth. Scn 11 Ginny buys drugs from the Sleazy Man . on Earth. Scn 9
49 Veronica attempts to ignore Maryamma, again . in the Bardo. Scn 3 Veronica refuses to be reincarnated . in the Bardo. Scn 10
50 Mom 2 and Ginny in the 8 Ginny at Graduation (on the second try) . on Earth? Scn 17 baby with Mom 1 . on Earth. Scn 4
51 Works Cited Apple, Krista. "Kristine Nielsen: What's So Funny?" American Theater March 2006: 50 53. Print. Bruder, Melissa, et al. A Practical Handbook For The Actor. New York: Vintage Books, 1986. Print. Carr, Katherine. Christopher Durang. n.p. n.d. Web. 11 J une 2013. ChristopherDurang.com Chekhov, Michael. On The Technique Of Acting. Ed. Mel Gordon. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991. Print. Diagnosis of Depression DSM IV TR Criteria for Major Depressive Episode and Major Depressive Disorder ." Alerecares. n.p., 2011. Web. 2 Oct. 2013. alerecares.com Durang, Christopher. Miss Witherspoon. New York : Dramatists Play Service, Inc, 2008. Gelb, Michael J. Body Learning. New York: Henry Holt, 1981. Print. Hallisey, Charles. Buddhism ." Death and the Afterlife. Ed. Jacob Neusner. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2000. 1 29. Print. Lambert, Craig. A Yodel For Help in the Modern World. Harvardmagazine. March April 2009: Web. 23 Oct. 2013. Harvardmagazine.com Lessac Arthur. The Use and Training of the Human Voice. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 1997. Print. Newlove, Jean. Laban for Actors and Dancers. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print. Siegl Naomi. "Putting the Fun into Dysfunction." New York Times July 20 2008: Web 12 June 2013. New York Times.com Stanislavski, Konstantin. An Actor's Work. Trans. Jean Benedetti. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print. Vineberg, Steve. Family Values. Christopher Durang. n.p. n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2013. Christopher Durang.com
52 Works Consulted Abbotson, Susan C.W. Christopher Durang The Facts of File Companion to American Drama. Ed. Jackson R. Bryer, Mary C. Hartig. New York: Facts on File, 2010. 143. Print. Fisher, Joe. The Case for Reincarnation. London : Diamond Books, 1985. Print Smith, Diniti. "Christopher Durang Explores the Afterlife, Including His Own." New York Times. 26 Nov. 2005. Web. 11 June 2013. Christopher Durang.com
53 Biographical Sketch Stephanie Lynge earned her BA in Musical Theater from Indiana University in 1992. After spending the next 2 years working in theaters in Tennessee, Virginia and Montana, as well as doing a performing stint on a cruise ship, Stephanie moved to New York Cit y where she promptly fulfilled every actor clich by working dead end day jobs and barely scraping enough money together to eat. Fortunately, this state of affairs did not last long, and she booked the lead role of Amalia on the National Tour of She Loves Me. Returning to NYC after the tour closed, Stephanie was quickly cast in Most Happy Fella at Rep Theater of St. Louis and became a proud the country in many re gional houses including Sacramento Music Circus ( Secret Garden ), Goodspeed Opera House ( Houdini, Little Night Music ), Mill Mountain Theater ( To Kill a Mockingbird ), Mountain Playhouse ( Lend Me a Tenor ), Barter Theater ( Tartuffe ), and Playmaker's Rep ( An O. Henry Christmas) She performed locally in NYC in BAM Salutes Sondheim (BAM), The Importance of Being Earnest (Theater 10 10), Das Barbecu (West Side Theater), and Annie Get your Gun The Concert at Lincoln Center. After a brief stint in LA ( Empire at Hudson Theater and Showtune at Pasadena Playhouse and on the original cast recording), Stephanie once again returned to NYC, where she was cast in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway (Lunt Fontanne Theatre) in the ensemble and understudying Mrs. Potts and th e Wardrobe. She was thrilled to perform these roles for thousands of audience members over two years. After she left Beauty to originate the role of Susan in a new musical, Snapshots at Seaside Music Theater, Stephanie hit the road to tour again with the Broadway National Tour of Mamma Mia As a member of the ensemble and with more than 50 performances of the roles of Donna
54 and Rosie under her belt, she waved a fond farewell to the touring life, and returned to her Alma Mater, Indiana University, as a vi siting professor to teach in their Musical Theater program. Returning once again to NYC, Stephanie found herself teaching at New Jersey City University in their Musical Theater Department and working behind the table as a casting director (Oceanside Summ er Theater), producer (Goodfoot Productions), and director ( Bloodties at NYMF and Ancient History at 45th St. Theater). Realizing that she found artistic fulfillment in more roles than just as an actor, she began her pursuit of an MFA to allow her to teac h and direct as well as perform. During her time here at UF, Stephanie has been thrilled to delve back into the techniques and methods of acting. Her roles at UF include Penny in You Can't Take it With You and Maryjo in Piece of my Heart both directed by Charlie Mitchell; Connie Mangus in Ajax in Iraq directed by David Young; Mother in Law in Blood Wedding directed by Russ Schultz; and Veronica in Miss Witherspoon directed by Kevin Marshall. She has been honored to teach many courses a t UF including Oral Interpretation of Literature (ORI), Acting for Non Majors, and Acting I. She has continued teaching voice lessons through her private studio, and was grateful for the opportunity to direct Tick Tick Boom on the Constans stage at UF as well as stage the chorus for the opera, Dido, and choreograph Avenue Q for the Hippodrome Theater.
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