Behind Summer and Smoke: Character Research

In this episodic series, Sound+Noise Managing Editor Jenna Marynowski provides a behind-the-scenes view into the rehearsal and production processes of Tennessee Williams’ play “Summer and Smoke” at the Walterdale Playhouse (Directed by Mary-Ellen Perley)

Behind Summer and Smoke follows the rehearsal process of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, playing at Walterdale Theatre February 2013.

The afternoon of the call backs, the final casting decisions were agonizingly made – a difficult decision if I’ve ever seen it. Two days later, the cast and production team gathered to meet each other, have their character and research work assigned, and conduct the first read of the play. From what I can tell, the first read really set the stage for the rest of the rehearsals so far. Mary-Ellen Perley, the Director, opened the night by talking about why she was excited to direct Summer and Smoke, and left me with chills, saying the play talks about missed opportunity and how it is absolutely heart-breaking to watch.

Next up were the one-on-one sessions each of the actors had with Mary-Ellen. The first one-on-one session was four days after the actors had been assigned their roles, however, the first one I was able to attend was one week after the call backs. The one-on-one sessions help the actor, and the Director, get to know the characters better – make them into three-dimensional characters that existed before the play, and will continue to exist afterward. Not having read the research questions before sitting in on the first one-on-one session I attended, I was surprised at what a thorough understanding the actors already had of their characters. To be able to answer the question “what is your full name?” as naturally as you would answer for yourself after perhaps only having the script for a week (and your character’s entire name not being included in the script)  is quite an accomplishment.

When I went to my second one-on-one session – for the two main characters, Alma and John junior, I started thinking more about the questions themselves, rather than the actor’s answers to them. Most of the questions were very personal – questions I wouldn’t want to answer about myself, never mind answer them about someone else. These were questions like, “in the opening moments of the play, what do you really want to do?” or “what is your greatest fear?” or “why are you not close with your father? What happened?”

Sitting in on these one-on-one sessions made me realize exactly how much work goes into creating the types of three-dimensional characters that we just expect to see on stage. A lot of the time, I don’t think I notice when an actor probably hasn’t gone through this process, but I definitely notice when they have. For example, in my review of Dog Sees God, I comment on how the characters are “fully three-dimensional – neither completely broken, nor completely all together. Walking the fine line between under- and over-emphasizing the issues each particular character faced is what made this production shine.” While there’s no way that an audience – or at least I – will ever know what an actor’s preparation process has involved, I now feel like I know a bit more about what to look for. Does the actor truly know who the character is, at their very heart and soul? For interest’s sake, I looked up the definition of acting – the definition I liked the most was “serving temporarily, especially as a substitute during another’s absence”. To me though, I’ve seen a difference in “acting” versus “being”. The actors in Summer and Smoke, partially through their research work, are being their characters. Not just acting as them. And I think that’s a very important distinction that we, as audience members, need to make when we’re watching a play.

Next up: Unit work

–          Jenna Marynowski

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