Thursday, November 6, 2008

Over-analyzing a theatrical role - the amalgamation of MVO

Children's Theatre Experience of Southern California is transforming itself into The Theatre Experience of Southern California, partially because of parental involvement in the program. (I got involved in my first production with CTE when kids ran home to recruit their dads for "Fiddler on the Roof.")

While the program is primarily an ensemble program, you always find that you end up doing something that involves some character development. Even if your task is to walk across the stage, you still need to answer some basic questions. This Google Books result (Singing and the Actor by Gillyanne Kayes), while tailored toward singers, could also be adapted to apply to actors:

  1. WHO? (Who are you? Know your age, your status, gender, and so on.)

  2. WHY? (Why are you singing the song? What do you want to achieve by the end of it? How is that a useful stepping stone in the larger journey of the play or musical?)

  3. WHAT? (What exactly are you saying in the song?)

  4. WHERE? (Where are you as you sing? Be as specific as you can.)

  5. WHEN? (When does the song occur? What has happened before and after the song?)
We happen to use a slightly different formulation in our group, but this illustrates the preparation that an actor should make, even when part of an ensemble cast.

Over the years, I have played roles big and small, and have often over-analyzed trivialities. In 2005, I wondered how to hold a flugelhorn I would never hold, and also wondered what Harold Hill's real name was (I don't think it's Greg). Earlier in 2005, I obsessed over a cigar I would never smoke (and did it again last month, before a costume event). Earlier this year, I even obsessed about a corporate still photo shoot. And don't even get me started on fake moustaches.

So now I'm involved in a stage production of "High School Musical." Or, as I put it some time ago, "High School Musical" (the musical). And I have a few lines. But it's not a big thing - in the script, the character isn't even supposed to be on stage (it's a voiceover); however, in our production the character will be on stage. Script-wise, the character is referred to in the script as "Moderator," and the character's sole purpose is to referee a science decathlon in which Gabriella participates.

Well, that's what the script says. I say that the Moderator is there to save the school from itself.

I don't know if the movie is like this (I've never seen the movie), but in the play, you have three things going on simultaneously - a basketball game, theater auditions, and a science decathlon. We know how the basketball coach and the drama teacher believe that their programs serve to build the character of the participants.

I'm going to tell you why they're full of it.

From the script, you can see that the moderator is not a faculty member at the school. So, unlike Coach Bolton and Ms. Darbus, the moderator can approach these competitions with a sense of independence, not inflamed by the partisan passions that consume Bolton and Darbus. (This, incidentally, is why Ms. McKessie's behavior during the decathlon is so distressing.)

In addition, the moderator is privileged to participate in a truly beneficial intellectual endeavor. While the moderator is not inflamed with detrimental passions, the moderator can appreciate the aesthetic qualities inherent in those items that humanity explores by reasonable and rational methods.

(Aside: during one rehearsal, when the director asked about character motiviation, I actually gave a short speech about the superior nature of the sciences vs. other disciplines.)

So this preparation, as well as other things lurking in my mind which have not yet yielded themselves to the inquiry of discovery, help to inform me how the moderator would behave in two specific situations - and in other situations, since the character will be onstage (but not speaking) during other portions of the play.
  1. The problem of school spirit. Because of the serious nature of the inquiry, a science decathlon should be conducted under controlled conditions. In his visits to the school over the previous couple of days, the moderator has noticed unusual behavior among the student body - behavior which can be summed up under the derogatory term "school spirit." When this school spirit even infects the controlled nature of the decathlon, the moderator is not pleased. Not pleased at all.

  2. The problem of electrical behavior outside the norm. When looking at the world, one makes assumptions (I could call it "faith," but that's the topic for a whole separate blog post.) One assumes, based upon past occurrences, that the sun will rise in the morning. One assumes, again based upon past occurrences, that if you throw something in the air, it will land on the ground. And finally, one assumes that if the electrical power at a school is working properly, it will continue to work properly through the end of the science decathlon. What happens if one of these hypotheses is suddenly, dramatically proved false?
Now, of course this is not the only way to look at this character. For example, one could assume that the moderator is in on the whole plot to get Troy and Gabriella into the theater, and that he (again, as the independent observer in the whole affair) realizes that Gabriella truly belongs on stage with Troy. However, in my portrayal I can't give the character that much kindless. Or that much prescience; after all, I am expert in playing clueless characters.

Which brings me to the sources that I am using to portray the character. I don't know of anyone (save perhaps myself) who is so narrow-minded about the advantages of one educational discipline vs. other educational disciplines. But, over the years, I have encountered people who love the sciences. Since I was stronger in math than in the physics, chemistry, or biology, it's math teachers and professors that come to mind:
  • Donald Stover. If someone asks me what the moderator's name is, I'll say that it's "Donald Stover." He was my calculus teacher during my senior year in high school, and one of the people that I asked for a recommendation when I applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Incidentally, I didn't get into MIT (which in the long run was probably a good thing), but even if he gave me a poor recommendation ("he's good, but not THAT good"), I'd definitely still respect him for it. Mr. Stover tended to be a relaxed, easygoing guy, unlike...

  • Hugh Chrestenson. I encountered Professor Chrestenson during my freshman year in college. Physically he differed from Mr. Stover; while Mr. Stover had a beard, Professor Chrestenson was clean-shaven and had a buzz cut. (Living in Portland at the time, I immediately assumed that Professor Chrestenson was Tom Peterson's long-lost brother.) Our first semester laid the theoretical groundwork for our future exploration, and Professor Chrestenson would sometimes be consumed by joy as he worked through a proof; he'd be going through things step by step, and suddenly exclaim, "Dammit, it just works!"
I'm not making a conscious effort to mimic either of these people, but I'm keeping them in mind as I think about how MY "Donald Stover" would react in certain situations. There's other characters knocking around in there, including the Reed College professors who were so impoverished that a Sunday night at the Sizzler was their big night out, and even Alexander "I am in charge" Haig (who I believe has gotten a bad rap, but who was undeniably put on the spot in a challenging situation).

So that's where I stand. Although I really wanted to be, like, a skater dude in the play, but I have like gnarly gray hair and stuff, so that was OUT.

P.S. For further background on this post, please see the real Donald Stover's teacher rankings from You may also want to see how an impromptu ECONOMICS lesson from Hugh Chrestenson changed a student's life.

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