understudying Wayne Carr’s Posthumus

I had heard of Wayne Carr before I met him (during 2 Henry IV) or had a chance to do a show with him (Cymbeline).  Recently I remembered meeting him in February of 2002, observing his MFA voice class at Penn State when I was auditioning there.  Having forgotten that, I started to hear about Wayne through friends.  He had one of those preceeding reputations that  damn near intimidates me, but happily, he has outshone it–so personable, such a decent guy, so competent, clear and compelling onstage.  All praise due to the dude! 

So now I’m understudying him, and Sunday afternoon was my first chance to really study, to come into a rehearsal that I wasn’t otherwise called for, sit at the table and watch him work with the director and the text coach on a pivotal moment in Posthumus’s arc: He is convinced of his wife’s infidelity and vows to have his revenge against her and all women, the famous “Women must be half-workers” soliloquy of Act II, Scene 4.  It was tremendous and inspiring to watch him work, a free training session really; but it’s also a bit whelming to know that I’ll need to be ready to play the role should, the gods forbid, that need arise.

It’s a tough tough speech, full of large leaps in logic, technically demanding textually, and taking place in the midst of a huge emotional shift for the character.  And at this stage in the rehearsal process, with lines only recently memorized, blocking newly in place, dealing with a new gestural/physical vocabulary, etc,  there is also a lot of stopping and starting the action to tweak any number of the 17 plates the actor is spinning in the speech.  It can be enormously exhausting.  To watch, even.  When break time came, I told Wayne to go have a nap.

Big set pieces and monologues are the big-money moments in Shakespeare, where everybody perks up and gets drawn in to one of Shakespeare’s greatest hits.  Usually that kind of refocused attention from the audience comes only on fights or kissy scenes, so it’s all on the actor’s mastery of language and commitment to grab that opportunity to pull them in deeper. 

Jeffrey likened them to arias in opera, in that they are heightened stand-alone moments in the story for which must be approached with an increased formality and scrutiny to attain the heights of expression called for by the character’s extreme circumstances.  These are the type of pieces actors often audition with, but to get to perform them in the context of a whole play, while you’re in the midst of an unstoppable psycho/physical/emotional express ride, is a terrifying prospect you can’t wait to get to do.

Back to Wayne.  He stays amazingly calm while being directed, even when there are clearly an unmanageable number of ideas being thrown at him by the director, text coach, Shakespeare, and himself.  For instance, in verse work, every piece of punctuation is a clue to delivery for the actor–where and how deeply to breathe, which phases need more emphasis and which are parenthetical, when to diverge from the poetic meter, how to flow from one sentence to the next in a way that approximates human thought.   “I don’t naturally pay attention to punctuation,” said Wayne, and I think it’s totally normal not to, because it’s the higher-level operation of a trained actor’s mind (until some years n’ years down the line, it becomes second nature).  Yet Wayne stays on top of nearly every note our brilliant text coach Gale Daly points out to him. 

Meanwhile, Jeffrey reminds him that besides all these details that need to be incorporated, he is also looking for his actor’s instinctual input–what human reactions and associations Wayne is bringing to the table that will make this speech more than merely an exercise in breath and diction, but a breathtaking distillation of humanity in all its complexity of consciousness.  The actor’s experiences of most profound wonder, pain, exaltation, powerful emotion and heroic will are brought to bear.  

The idea is that the audience recognizes the human connection and gets swept into making their own connection with the story, rather than safely and analytically watching a technically adept actor operate his craft at a dry remove from the blood and soul of the story.  Watching Wayne rehearse, even as I cram to learn his lines and movements, I often do get lost inside how wrenching Posthumus’s situation is, and forget about the presence of the technique that makes his powerful performance possible.

So, no pressure Mr. Carr.


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