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3 Actors Prepare: Getting Ready for the 4th-Year Rep

This year’s fourth-year drama repertory season, which runs February 15-26, spans three centuries and three continents. The most historical work is The World in the Moon, which is alumnus Orlando Pabotoy’s commedia dell’arte-infused adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 18th-century opera Il mondo della luna (Carlo Chiarenza wrote the English translation). Athol Fugard’s 1989 My Children! My Africa! depicts a fraught classroom in apartheid-era South Africa. And in Circle Mirror Transformation, which Annie Baker wrote in 2009, a group of Vermont townspeople take a creative acting class that forces them to reveal more about themselves than they had planned for. The Journal asked one actor from each play to keep a log of his or her experiences preparing for their roles. 

In this warmup exercise for The World in the Moon, Michael Curran-Dorsano (pointing), who plays the scoundrel Ecclitico, works with fellow cast members including (from left) Pippa Soo, Jordan Geiger, and Richard Dent. Performances take place on February 15, 18, 19, 23, and 26.

Jeremie Harris rehearses Athol Fugard’s searing 1989 drama My Children! My Africa! Performances take place February 16, 19, 21, 24, and 25.

Married couple Marty and James, played by Claire Karpen and Scott Aiello, are taking an acting class with Lauren, played by Kahyun Kim, in Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, which will be performed on February 17, 22, 25, and 26.

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Michael Curran-Dorsano plays Ecclitico, an imposter-astrologer who resorts to trickery to get the woman he loves, in The World in the Moon, which is directed by Orlando Pabotoy. 

January 9

After a week of clown warm-ups, doing magic tricks we’d mastered over break, and exercises to get in touch with our pelvis, today we finally got our hands on the commedia masks. Each one represents an archetype: lover, dirty old man, schemer, etc. We created characters using the masks and explored imagined worlds. Only after this did we pick up the text: nine actors sitting around a table, putting the language into the room for the first time. It was a little clunky (partially due to the fact that it’s a translated opera libretto), but eventually we started to discover the wonder of the piece. 

January 10

We leapt right back into it today, starting with a warm-up, followed by creating a song-and-dance number to show off one of the magic tricks we’d learned. Mine involved transforming into a dog and sniffing out a hidden card from a deck. 

We then did more mask work. We began by clearing our thoughts, relaxing our bodies, and asking questions of the mask to stir the imagination. My character was Beatrice Styx. Her sole goal in life was trying to reach orgasm. I entered from behind a makeshift backstage, and proceeded to be interviewed/seduced by the audience. Each actor in the cast created a character—they ranged from fast-talking con men, Spanish lovers, lonely factory workers, and mischievous servants. 

We are all now very sore, tired, and drained—and it’s only day two. I have no doubt the insanity will only intensify. 

January 11

I have to find the heart of the piece, but the translation makes it hard to penetrate. My character is a Harold Hill-type: a brilliant salesman and trickster who can fool anyone. I’m trying to be as free as possible and still probe how the thoughts and action connect and elicit each other. It’s a very playful style, but I can’t forget sincerity, heart, truth. I have to ground the thing, flesh it out. This play has everything I love: comedy, physicality, heightened text and situations, poetry, imagination, improv, collaboration. 

January 13

The direction I’m pursuing today is not playing over-the-top, but finding [the character’s]  heart [so that the audience believes that these are] real people—in an insane, stylized world. It’s an interesting dilemma working with a rather stiff libretto, but we are starting to soften it and find its poetry. 

I was given my mask for the first time: the trickster. I’ve decided to draw on ringmasters and the old vaudeville M.C.’s for inspiration. It’s a very collaborative room, a very open room, and all suggestions are welcome. We need to get off book as soon as possible: it’s too physical of a show not to be.

I’m having fun integrating different styles of movement [as a] dancer’s grace and flow are important for my character. He’s got to charm and be smooth; to be devious and fluid. I need to visit the Big Apple Circus to look at their ringmasters.

January 14

In the past two days, we managed to stage the first act, including a massive dream ballet that consists of a lot of flying, body-baring, and slow-motion dance.

I started to find some new physicality: a strange mix of dance, circus, and Jack Sparrow. I’ve gotten so caught up in the style and the physical life that I’ve forgotten about the basic [like getting better acquainted with the text]. I still need to explore some vocal choices. Maybe something smooth, but that also has some flair? It’s great to be in such a collaborative environment; I really feel like we are all investing a lot of ourselves into the piece. I have a feeling it’s going to be magical, raunchy, insane, beautiful, and thrilling. Or at least that’s the goal. It’s crazy how conditioned we get to defer to a director or writer, and we forget that we have to be equally inventive as actors.

I love the energy, the thrill and the not-knowing of this work—it keeps me honest and in shape! 

Jeremie Harris plays the passionate, conflicted high-school student Thami in My Children! My Africa! which is directed by Jonathan Rosenberg.

December 1

Tomorrow is the first read-through, and I’m excited and nervous. Excited because I’m in love with this play and the story; nervous because I hope my accent is all right! I told my brother that I’m in this amazing play, and he didn’t ask me anything about it, but immediately said, “Make sure your accent is good. I remember watching Scarface, and I loved it except that one of the actor’s accents was terrible.” And now I’m about to read for the first time in front of our director, and there’s no faking the funk, because he’s from South Africa. If I sound crazy, he’s going to know! 

December 2

The anticipation is making us bounce off the walls—a lot of times that’s what first readings are like, especially when the play is great, because if the reading falls flat on its face, you can’t blame it on bad writing to make yourself feel better. LOL.  

I have prepared in the way I learned over the past four years, making sure I looked up all the meanings of unknown words, events, places, etc., but now it’s time to let that go. We get to the final scene, and I begin to tear up, being swept away with this story, and with how powerful, important, and necessary it is to be told. We finish and the director, Jonathan, says, “This play really get you, doesn’t it?” 

We discuss everything from Jonathan’s memories of South Africa to our feelings, questions, the ways in which we can relate to the story. And then he tells us, “Your accents are really good. You sound great for this stage in the game.” Icing on the cake.  

December 22

I’d  been contemplating spending break with my sister, who recently moved to Johannesburg—I figured it would be a great way to prepare for the play, experience the culture, test my accent, and visit some of the places mentioned in the script. But tickets are $1,500 and I had to let go of the idea that my deepest and best work only could be achieved if I actually spent time in South Africa. I did a monologue for my sister on Skype, though, and she gave me her input about my accent and said it sounded pretty good. She also told me to check out this amazing South African singer, Zahara. She’s also from the Eastern Cape, which is around the area my character is from, so her interviews are also another great reference. Her music has a great vibe, and I’m digging her voice.

January 3

With this play more than any other, I’ve begun to feel the sometimes solitary life of an actor. Hours spent alone in my room marking up my script with vowel substitutions and sound changes, watching YouTube clips of South African activists, reading and rereading my script, speaking the words out loud, and imagining what life was like for a black student in 1985 South Africa. What would I have done? What would I have stood for? How far would I have gone to achieve equality and freedom?

I just finished watching a five-hour 1980s documentary about apartheid that our director gave us. It made me angry and frustrated, sad and uncertain. I began to wonder if the love of money is the root of all evil—or is it fear brought on by lack of knowledge? 

It troubles me that we as humans have such a large capacity to hate and are full of so much greed. But then I find inspiration in the endless human capacity to love and give. 

Claire Karpen plays 55-year-old arts teacher Marty in Circle Mirror Transformation, which is directed by Lila Neugebauer.

December 29

Because of the holidays, I haven’t had the chance to do much tangible prep for the show, but I did manage to read through the play again and start the dreaming work: asking questions like, if I were Marty, how would I decorate my Christmas tree? Would I celebrate Christmas at all (I was raised Jewish)? (Yes, I’d belong to a church with an all-are-welcome-to-participate Christmas pageant, my tree would be full of angels, butterflies, and hand-painted snowmen, and we’d serve homemade eggnog and read poetry aloud on Christmas Eve.) At least, that’s where I’d start; this may change as I get to know her better.

Is any of that directly related to our production? Not immediately (the play takes place in the summer), but this work exercises my imagination so I can convince myself how to believably be living someone else’s experience. 

There are plenty of ways Marty and I are similar. It’s easy to connect to her joy, her love of teaching, her faith in what she wants to give her students. I’ve had some teaching experience through Juilliard’s outreach programs, and I found myself laughing out loud at some of Marty’s lines in self-recognition of both her wisdom and naïveté. I also connect to some of her jealousy, her curiosity, her hurt, her doggedness, her patience, and her dignity. Where I could stretch myself—and this is the fun part—is within her free-spiritedness, her unabashed creativity, her faith in spite of her lack of formal training in any of the arts she embraces so fully, her denial, her suspicions, her independence and her loneliness. These are not things you can play on stage. These are qualities, not actions; but they are the kind of qualities that influence and drive action. 

December 31

I should find a friend with a pottery wheel so I can see what that’s like. I guess I should also try to make some jewelry. (Those are classes Marty teaches at the community center.) I wish I had thought of this before the holidays. For now, maybe I’ll start by making a dream-catcher or painting our bookshelves. I wonder what kind of music Marty listens to. Probably a lot of Sarah McLachlan and Carole King.

January 3

I had a temp job today that allowed me to sit at a computer and investigate. I read lots of interviews with the playwright, Annie Baker, and some descriptions she had of the fictional town Shirley, Vt., where the play takes place. I copied and pasted pictures of Vermont into a collage that I’ll eventually put on my dressing room mirror. 

As I read, some questions get answered: I grew up in New Jersey, I also teach pottery and jewelry-making classes, I met my husband at a wedding in California. Others don’t, and that’s where either I get to make things up based on what I know or sense about the character, in conversation with the director and my fellow actors. Some questions I’m still asking: Why did Marty and James move to Vermont? What was the falling out between James and his daughter? Why has Marty been pushing for an acting class? 

January 9

Tomorrow is our first rehearsal. We’ll start with a presentation from the designers to all three shows. I’m very curious about how they’re going to put our show in the space. The design could help us if it can create an intimate feel, but the space also has to accommodate two other shows in rep, so we’ll see how much they can do.

I’ve inadvertently been doing some prep work that will inform my understanding of Marty: I’m coaching a student and then going to rehearsal for a student project I’m directing, which means, I’m playing the leader and teacher. I have plenty of moments of doubt mixed in with inspiration, and that’s something I recognize in Marty. So many of her sentences drift off while she searches for what she’s trying to say. Also, last night, my husband and I had a small read-through of a new musical we’re working on, and that reminded me what it’s like to work with your spouse in the room, like Marty and James. We definitely shared some knowing glances and side conversations on breaks, but we also enjoyed sharing each other and our work. There’s a real camaraderie there, but also I can imagine how painful it could become if things go sour.

January 11

We’ve now been in rehearsal for three days. We’ve started to play some of the games [the characters play]. The challenge is twofold: these characters are strangers, but we are all very close—and they are amateurs but we are all now trained actors. It’s poignant doing this play at the end of our fourth year, because it feels like we’re revisiting our first year and what it’s like to be at the very beginning of training.

January 16

After a week of rehearsals, it’s sinking in how difficult this play is because it is so close to life and we are so exposed. There is nothing to hide behind—no crazy costumes, no heightened text, no fancy set. It’s just us up there, trusting that these characters are infinitely interesting. And I truly think they are. 

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