from Physical to Metaphysical,
A Ghost Story containing a goodly number of practical examples as well as containing some history and some imagination and personal stories of the author, one N. Manca, a student and practitioner of theater, to be presented this 28th day of February, year of our Lord 2013, to Dr. Menzer, professor of the class Textual Culture, and Director of the Shakespeare and Performance graduate program at Mary Baldwin College.
The shadows of history stalk the boards of modern theaters. Not just the echos of dead kings, tyrants, and lovers, but their spirits too, otherwise known as “the role.” Juliet, Henry V, and Cleopatra, their wood and paper forms long ago turned to dust, remain ever-present. All one has to do is mention them or recite some lines of text to call them forth. The ghosts of these roles happily descend to possess an actor for a time, but they lack the staying power they had in their original form, for these new actors do not keep them for life but for a few weeks or months and then the role is gone, and the actor is left to hope for another one.
In the Early Modern era, actors were given their parts handwritten on roles that were theirs to keep. Bound at each end to a wooden stick, the actors could roll them as they read and so scroll through the text. Both the physical role and the role/part-in-the-play belonged to the actor for life. The actor could choose to give them away or to leave them in a will to someone. Actors may even have been able to (or allowed to get away with) editing their roles a little, although this may have policed itself, what actor wants fewer lines?
When an Early Modern actor was looking at his role for the first time his entire impression of the play was from his character’s point of view. He would not know what other characters said about his character, he would not know what percentage of the lines in the play were his, he would not have to read great speeches assigned to another part. No matter how long a speech came before each of his lines all he would see were a few words from other characters and then his lines in their entirety. His character’s name rather than the play’s name was at the top of the role, the entire role was about his character.
These days when someone is cast in a role it is no longer a physical thing. Roles, once very real physical scrolls, have become disembodied notions of character. As time aged and disintegrated the corporeal roles of the Early Modern playhouses, so the term “role” has escaped from its physical confines and transformed into a part someone takes on. The “role” of Motherhood, of Teacher, or in a broader sense the “role” of Women; these are not handwritten scrolls and not parts limited to the stage. They are roles that people take on and are identified by, even though these terms may not be part of the core of who a person is nor even how that person might identify himself or herself.
Nowadays actors receive a complete codex, printed script either pre-edited or accompanied by a list of edits. One of the first tasks an actor then has is to read-through the script and highlight all of their character’s lines. This highlighting practice is useful in rehearsal so that an actor doesn’t lose their place and is so common that I have known stage managers to hand out highlighters at the first read through. Some actors highlight their role in one color and their cue lines in another thus making the colored sections of the script resemble a strange neon codex version of the original roles. Looking at a script in a rehearsal room one can quickly fine which actor it belongs to by opening it up to see which role is highlighted. Unlike in the Early Modern era, an actor has a full awareness of just how many lines they have compared to other characters and to the length of the script. They know everything that happens when their character is not onstage and there is no illusion or mystery as to the whole of the performance.
When I directed As You Like It, I overheard the actors playing Rosalind and Orlando jokingly arguing about who had the more important role based on how many lines their phone apps told them they each had. With physical roles I like the image of a couple young actors running up to the balcony and letting their roles unroll to see whose was longer.
Some people now want to go back to the Early Modern method of giving an actor just their lines and their cues when assigning them a role in a play (although I have yet to see these lines given in role form by their directors). I have been told that the theory behind this method is that acting without prior knowledge of what is going to happen in the play including the goals and motives of the other characters on stage, leads to reactions that are more natural than when the actor playing the role knows all along what is going to happen next and why it happens.
I can understand the thought process behind this cue script method. In the play of Life, in which we are all characters, we know what is in our heads but no one else’s. We can guess what might happen next, but we do not know. When the unexpected happens, we have not had time to prepare our reactions; we just react. Watching those instant, uncontrolled reactions onstage is exciting, and the actor gets quite a rush from having to pay attention to the scene around them, uncertain of what comes next or how long it will be until they hear their next cue.
For my most recent scene in Directing class scene I gave my actors cue scripts that I had attached the pages together and rolled like the Early Modern roles and we had only one rehearsal (which one of the leads was unable to attend, so I coached him in a quick rehearsal on another day). On the performance day, I brought a bunch of masks and costume pieces for the actors to choose from and placed a plot with cue lines for all the entrances and a few instructions on it, I gave them some verbal blocking reminders and left them to perform their scene. During the performance, their blocking was a little off and one actor exited before he should have and left his scene partner standing on stage alone for a moment before he remembered and came out again, but on the whole they performed well, and there was a certain energy to the scene that many well-rehearsed scenes lack.
Most of the time actors put a lot of effort into assuming roles they’ve been cast in. “Taking on” a role is not a simple process, like putting on a costume. An actor will study and study the text, breaking it down into “bits,” “beats,” or “units.” They may write in a transitive verb for every sentence they must speak and keep a journal of all of their thoughts relating to their role. Actors will worry over motivations, intentions, objectives, counter-objectives, and what is their character’s overarching goal. Many actors put together musical track list to go along with their roles and do many physical and mental exercises to “find” their roles. Many hours and weeks of work are involved in an effort to call the spirit of a role to them so that they can perform it faithfully and well. When an actor does a good job of this, to an audience member who may never encounter an actor they see in a role off the stage, that actor is the embodiment of that role, especially if this is the only time the audience member has seen this particular play. In such a manner, the actor can become the character, and “own the role” in a way we refer to but do not mean in the same literal fashion as the actors of an Early Modern playhouses did.
So, a role is a strange thing, and has gone on a long journey. Roles were once handwriting on a scroll, but now they are transcendent spirits that have left their earthly, physical bodies to dance through time and space, briefly possessing actors when they were originally possessed by actors for life. The metaphysical roles now live on long after the actors who originally played their parts and the physical roles they owned are dead and gone.