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Little Willow [userpic]

The Actor and the Text - and the Reader

July 29th, 2009 (07:51 am)
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Current Song: Please Don't Stop the Music by Rihanna

This article was also posted at GuysLitWire.

Have you ever played a part on stage or on film that was completely unlike you? I have. I love it. In my opinion, playing against type is one of the most challenging aspects of acting - and one of the best. It's fun to do a full 180, to play a shy character when you're loud and outgoing in real life, or pretend you're from another place, another era, another walk of life.

But what about playing the opposite gender? How comfortable (or uncomfortable) would that be? How does the gender bending inform your voice, your speech pattern, your posture, your walk? What if you were portraying a historical figure attending the trials of Oscar Wilde? In 1895, Wilde, author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and many other well-regarded works, was brought to court, where his art and life were unfairly tried due to his sexual orientation.

As some of you know, I'm an actress. I've just been cast in a stage production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Written by Moisés Kaufman, the play is based on real events and uses actual court transcripts from Wilde's (in)famous trials. Kaufman is famous in his own right, known for his original plays and projects as well as his work as one of the members of The Tectonic Theater Project, the group behind The Laramie Project. Thus, the writing has a unique structure, almost reading/sounding like a documentary, with quick interjections of thoughts and quotes, clarified and underscored by various narrators.

I've played boys (or roles that are typically given boys) before. When I was a kid, I was Tiny Tim in Scrooge, a musical based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Every night, after curtain call, I'd take off my newsboy cap and let my hair fall down. That was fun, especially when I heard the gasp of someone who had been in the audience moments before.

The year before that, I fought for the right to audition for the role of Charlie in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory. They told me I couldn't, because I was a girl. I told them I could, because Charlie could be short for Charlotte, because girls could do anything boys could do, because I should at least be able to at least try. (Does it surprise you at all to learn I was this headstrong since I was, well, born?) Not only did I win the right to audition, but I won the role.

Back to Gross Indecency. I initially wanted to talk about the legal and social injustice that Wilde endured and compare that to similar persecutions and assumptions made today - but then I got an idea and thought I'd change it up a bit by discussing the actual storytelling of the piece.

Our interests in and reactions to stories might vary based on the genders of the characters - and also, in the case of written work then reinterpreted for the stage or screen, the casting.

Every time a play is performed, it is different. Each production is different, even when the dialogue is the same. The actors, directors, and others involved in the show collaborate on an interpretation and presentation of words which were previously strung together by a playwright.

When Gross Indecency first ran off-Broadway in 1997, the cast was made up of nine male actors playing multiple roles. My cast has the same number of people, but while men are playing Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, and the lawyers, women have been cast as the four narrators - one of whom also plays the judge. (Note that, as of this writing, we've only just had the first read-through. Blocking will begin later this week.) Will the presence of females change the story? The interpretation of the words? The audience's perception? Do you think an audience would react differently to an all-male cast, or an all-female cast?

Now think about this on a broader scale, and consider your own subconscious assumptions: When you read a play - or any printed story - in which a character's gender is not specified, do you picture a man or a woman? If that character speaks, do you hear a man's voice, or a woman's voice? Why do you picture the person - the gender - that you do? Does it depend on the reason the character entered the scene? The occupation or other nouns surrounding it? If it's a friendly neighbor, knocking on the door and sharing freshly-baked cookies, do you picture a man or a woman? If a one-line character is simply described as "a lawyer" or "a cop" or "a teacher" or "a doctor," do you picture a woman or a man?

Do you trust a female narrator more or less than a male? If a man writes a story from the first-person viewpoint of a woman, is that character and that story less valid than it would have been if a woman had written the story, or vice-versa? Along these lines, I could write another post entirely dedicated to the narrator of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. If you haven't read that amazing novel, I won't spoil it for you here. I'll simply encourage you to pick up that book when you get up Gross Indecency, and read, read, read.

This discussion can go even further, asking what other character traits you envision, such as race or body type. When characters in books, scripts, and plays are "undescribed" or "under-described" (because those are two different things, mind you), do you mentally picture characters that resemble you or someone you know, or do you see John Does and Jane Does, purposely nondescript? It's much different than watching a film or television series, isn't it, if you can see and/or hear that character, when the pictures, sounds, and ideas are provided for you.

How much of what we take away from a story, any story, is based on our own experiences, perceptions, and interpretations? Don't we take away more than just the words of the writer? Don't we put a little piece of ourselves into that story, page by page?

Please feel free to discuss all of this in the comments below.

Oh - I failed to mention our director's gender. Did you notice this accidental omission, or are you only noticing now that I'm drawing your attention to it?

Comments

Posted by: Kimberly (lectitans)
Posted at: July 29th, 2009 03:46 pm (UTC)

I saw Gross Indecency years ago when the professional repertory on campus here did it. LOVED IT.

I think when I read, every character defaults to mememe or someone important to me (Will, my sister, etc) unless there is a description that indicates it is otherwise. Locations also map in my mind to real places. (When I read the Mode series by Piers Anthony - which you should TOTALLY try - Colene's house and yard and outbuilding were my house and yard and outbuilding. Her neighborhood was the one I'd lived in BEFORE that house. etc.)

Good thoughts for thinking and questions for pondering!

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: July 29th, 2009 04:00 pm (UTC)

Oh, yay! I wish that you could come see this.

Re: Using locations you know: I do that as well.

Thank you for responding. I've been receiving so few comments lately.

Posted by: A Deserving Porcupine (rockinlibrarian)
Posted at: July 30th, 2009 12:51 am (UTC)

Oh! I'm sorry! I know what it's like to not be getting comments and you start to wonder if it's even worth posting if maybe nobody's reading... and you a blogger with an actual FOLLOWING! So I will answer too:

For the people question, I don't know exactly how it works-- the first thing the character does or says, an image pops into my mind, and I'm not really sure what sort of person they are. I think they all start out as generic blank-faced people and grow more interesting as they do more things. Sometimes, for larger characters, I get an image in my head, only to find out they're described some other way later, which always confuses me, and my original impression does its best to beat the new information down, refusing to accept it. I know there's at least one character in a series, I forget who and which at the moment, but there's a character I started picturing as fat, even though every description I've read of him in later books says he's very thin, and I just REFUSE TO SEE him as thin! I can't get my mind around it! Oh that's right, it's Dibbler in the Discworld series, if you wondered. Anyway.

I have about five houses in which all books take place-- I'm not actually sure if they correspond to real houses I've been in, but they ALWAYS show up when I read anyway. The Dursleys and Nancy Drew live in the same house, by the way. And if anyone lives in an apartment, it's always my grandma's old AND SUPER TINY senior-living apartment-- I'm not entirely sure where I fit all the other bedrooms in.

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: July 30th, 2009 12:56 am (UTC)

Hi there back to the munchkin in your icon.

Thank you for your response! I do appreciate it. :)

I recently finished a book in which the leading male character was described as having somewhat long hair, but since I don't like that, I gave him a more attractive (to me) haircut in my mental picture.

I didn't know that the Dursleys and the Drews occupied the same space. *grin* In my mind, Jenna Blake and her roommate Yoshiko from Christopher Golden's Body of Evidence mystery series live in the Three's Company apartment.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: July 30th, 2009 10:50 am (UTC)

Oh, what a great entry! This is the kind of entry that needs to be a group of people in a coffee shop talking for hours about it with good coffee. It has my mind whirring... and that is something this early in the morning. You know--I didn't notice the omission of the director's gender until you mentioned it, but on the internet, when people omit identifiers like gender or names, I sort of think of it as an act to protect, so it doesn't give me much pause. If we were face to face, I think it might.

I saw Man of La Mancha when I was about 9 years old, and Sancho was played by a woman. But I honestly had no idea at the time. I was SO SURE it was a guy. Even the program wasn't a tip off because the name of the woman in the role was unisex! I was so shocked to meet HER after the performance and I was just in awe... it was a big moment for me as a kid, actually. It was like, "Oh! Wow, okay! This is awesome! This means a lot." It must've been comparable to the surprise you gave people playing Tiny Tim. :) (Also awesome on you for insisting on the right to audition for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!!!). My high school drama teacher, I believe was going to do a female and male cast for 12 Angry Men. I so wanted one of those parts but left before casting.

I wonder if people read Peter Pan (the play) and just automatically picture Peter as a girl? Isn't the part usually given to women because of the whole flying thing?? Or is this a case of the one BSC book I read a long time ago misinforming me.

Even sound does it for me. Not all the time, but sometimes if I hear a singer I've never seen before I can visualize their face and body so clearly just based on how they sound. I was shocked (SHOCKED!) when I discovered Merril Bainbridge was a blonde because she just "sounded" brunette to me, if that makes any sense at all.

It's just amazing and very telling the way we fill in the blanks sometimes...

Disclaimer: if this comment is rambly and non-sensical it is 6:47 in the morning and I haven't gone to bed yet. But I know I am going to go to bed thinking about this and I will think about it more when I wake up.

Anyway, this is such a great entry! Kudos! & Congrats on the part in GI! I hope blocking goes well!!!!

- ~*courtney

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: July 30th, 2009 01:35 pm (UTC)

Thanks for responding and considering, Courtney.

That is true - The internet is another medium, in a way, and the article is another printed, word-on-the-page property to read.

Good for her! (Glad to hear it was a good show overall, too!) Did she sound or look masculine at all? Did they do things to conceal her gender?

Thank you! I played Charlie as a girl. I said her name full first name could be Charlotte.

Sorry that you left before the casting of 12 Angry Men. Hey, make that the subtitle for your next book, SGA, and make it a non-fiction psychological work, a gender study: Some Girls Are 12 Angry Men. ;)

I was going to bring Peter Pan into this article, but didn't want to distract people from the story at heart, Gross Indecency, so I didn't. I cannot stand the fact that Peter Pan is typically played by an adult woman in the stage version of the musical. He is supposed to be a young boy who will never grow up. It shows and tells me something totally different - and usually quite obvious - when it's a woman instead. It just doesn't work for me. And I say that 1) with an great deal of love for the original story (see my Peter Pan article/post/booklist) and 2) having had a friend who did play Peter in a professional production of the musical, and she was absolutely wonderful, and perfect in the role (the perfect type for that part as it is known, all thin and angles and funny and thin and youthful and fun and tomboyish).

Yes, the BSC staging of Peter Pan is quite memorable! I loved it when Dawn, as Wendy, tried to make Peter more self-sufficient. YES.

You know of Merril Bainbridge?! Oh my gracious! I've never known anyone else who knew of her music except for the person (my Australian pen pal) who sent me some of her music about, what, a dozen years ago?! Now I'm singing The Garden.

That is another great point, about visualing people when you ONLY hear their voice -singers, telemarketers, voiceovers, radio, anything "voice-only."

Go to sleep!

Thank you.

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