Thursday, December 19, 2013

Character Creation: Table Work

As you already know, I am preparing the role of the Old Drifter in Shawn Jaeger's new opera, Payne Hollow.  This week, I entered into the next step in opera character creation which is aptly called "Table Work."  Basically, we sit around a table and talk in-depth about the libretto, the music, and our characters.

The first meeting was with the full cast, the director, the assistant director, and the musical preparer.  Payne Hollow has a small cast (only four roles), so it was a rather intimate gathering.  Every director has a different approach to table work and each experience is different depending on the size/dynamics of the cast.

In our table work, our director posed many questions about our characters' back stories, our motivations, and our driving objectives in the plot of the opera.  This is the first place where we make some definitive and important decisions.  The funny thing, for me, was that we spent the first 20 minutes of the meeting deciding my character's sex.  What else is new, right?

Needless to say, we got into some riveting conversations.  The most interesting thing about this character, to me, is the fact that she's drifting, without a home, down the Ohio River in a futuristic world.  Detailing this futuristic world also really gets my brain going, especially since I'm such a sci-fi nerd.  I've read so many post-apocalyptic novels.  I never thought I'd be in a post-apocalyptic opera!

Our second meeting was with the composer.  It was extremely intriguing and inspiring to hear him explain how he came to choose and construct this opera.  He has some really cool ideas and his execution is amazing.  This score really stuns me with its depth and beauty.  And I haven't even heard it orchestrated yet!

Starting a brand new work is exciting, humbling, and, frankly, the tiniest bit terrifying.  It's amazing to create something from scratch and to have the composer as one of my collaborators in the process.  I love the idea that I'm the first person to bring this music and this character to life.  It's also enlightening to get the composer's perspective and insight as I'm preparing the music.  I love that aspect of new music. 

The part that frightens me is the total lack of crutches.  You can't listen to a recording and hear the orchestra.  You can't rely on learning from listening (which is never something that I do or recommend) and you can't rely on memorizing from listening, either.  It's just you and the score.  That can be daunting.

But I'm embracing all of it with a huge smile.  The composer is really open to discussion and that is a huge help.  I'm genuinely pumped about this project and I really hope to be completely immersed in every part of it.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Character Research (aka Kim's Favorite Pastime)

I will flat-out admit it: I LOVE character research.

I'm once again at the very beginning of the opera production process.  I call this "character research," but it's really much more than that.  I love this part because I'm completely on my own and my only goal is to dig deep into every facet of the character and production.  In the past, I've had a lot of fun and made a lot of discoveries during this stage in the process.

There are two parts of character research: book work and music work.  Music work comes with learning the role and peeling back all the layers of the score.  That's a whole other post and it's not something that I'm doing at the moment (since I don't have the full score yet).  But, I'm deep in the book work for this role and I'm making some wonderful discoveries.

I've always loved this part of the process because it feeds my curiosity and natural bookishness.  I get to read tons of book about a wide variety of subjects, learn new facts, and become immersed in another time and culture.  It has also opened me up to new experiences and thoughts that I wouldn't have had otherwise.  For example, I watched tons of David Bowie concerts and read biographies about his life while preparing an '80s glam rock Orlofsky.  I also watched Arrested Development for the first time (before it was cool! lol) because my director suggested it; she wanted me to see sociopaths in action.  Needless to say, it was very helpful for my sociopath Orlofsky.

Right now, I'm working on the role of the Old Drifter in Shawn Jaeger's new opera, Payne Hollow.  This person is essentially homeless, living on a tiny boat on the Ohio River and trading to make ends meet.  The opera is an adaptation of Wendell Berry's play, Sonata at Payne Hollow.

In preparation, I began by reading/studying the source material: Berry's play and the opera's libretto.  Then I did some research on Mr. Berry and his other work.  Next, I read up on the characters in the opera (they were real people!) and their lifestyle.  Then, more to the use of my own character, I began reading stories about people who live without a home.  There are books that record the oral history of people who have lived, for one reason or another, on the streets.  My favorite resource so far has been Howard Schatz's photo book, Homeless.  This collection of portraits is moving, beautiful, and compelling.  I learned so much just from looking into the eyes of these people and reading their stories.

Another great find from this set of research is Berry's poetry.  It's like Thoreau and Rilke had a child.  It's so simple, yet profound.  Here's one of my favorite stanzas (from Sabbaths 2002, Given):

We come at last to the dark
and enter in.  We are given bodies
newly made out of their absence
from one another in the light
of the ordinary day.  We come
to the space between ourselves,
the narrow doorway, and pass through
into the land of the wholly loved.

Everyone has their own process when they're creating a character and I think that some people might see this type of character research as tedious or non-interesting, but I find it crucial to my acting.  I think there is a new depth to my artistry after I've done this work.  Granted, there are so many other pieces left in order to create a full character, but this is where I start.  I hope to continue to explain/blog my process as I walk through it this time around.  I'm very excited for this project and I can't wait to dive right in.