Keeping It Fresh

posted by Manoel Felciano, Jan in Rock 'n' Roll at both A.C.T. and the Huntington Theatre Company

The second most common question I get as an actor—after, “How do you memorize all those lines?”—is usually, “How do you keep things fresh, doing the exact same thing night after night?”

[A.C.T. Associate Artist] Jack Willis likes to talk about being a “workman” when it comes to acting, and I appreciate the unsentimental, demystifying instinct in that word. It’s essential to bring what we do down from the lofty aerie of “artist” to a lunch-pail, workmanlike level. We call it “the work” because, well, that’s what it is. Just like anybody working on a construction site, for a nonprofit, or in a huge corporation, we have a job to do, within a larger structure. We have certain skills, both learned and innate. We have coworkers upon whom we depend and who depend on us. We have the same work ethic that you would find on a construction site or in a startup: timeliness, courtesy, respect, discipline, and professionalism. We have good days and bad days; we find both joy and frustration in our work.

The biggest differences between acting and other jobs are simply the materials and the tools. The materials? Potentially, the entirety of human experience, exemplified by one character at a time, as conceived by the playwright. And the “tools” we need to translate the word into a fully alive, multidimensional human (or animal or spectral or elemental) being onstage? Our bodies, our voices, our imaginative muscle (I recall this as “thinking outside the box” from my Wall Street days), our self-awareness, our emotional availability, our capacity for empathy, and, most importantly, our ability to listen. The biggest challenge to “keeping things fresh” is figuring out how to use all of those tools at your disposal to shape the materials provided by the playwright, and focused by the director, to experience what is going on onstage as if for the first time. To hear news, to make a declaration, to have a realization, to catch sight of someone as if for the first time.

In Rock ’n’ Roll, because of the material and because of the actors I’m onstage with, this has been more of an easy joy than a challenge. The depth and complexity of Stoppard’s writing, the broad swaths of history that he covers, means that there are always new facets to be uncovered. And because Jack and [A.C.T. Associate Artists] Jud [Williford] and René [Augesen] and all the other members of the cast never stop being “workmen,” they too continue to make discoveries that in turn affect me. None of that would be possible if we had actors who weren’t present onstage, who didn’t listen, who were in fact, just “doing the exact same thing night after night.” Now, starting previews in Boston after running the show at A.C.T. for six weeks, I am astonished at how many little eureka moments there continue to be. Having had time off has given us new ears and new voices with which to bring these words to life. It has never felt fresher.

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