Thursday, February 28, 2008

My Experience with Death and The King's Horseman

So I did this show called Death and The King's Horseman. It was at the Mary Moody Theatre on St. Edward's campus. Pro Arts Collective collaborated with them.

It's based on a true story about a Nigerian village in the 1940s. The story goes something like this, a king passes away and his best horseman is expected to commit ritual suicide in order to help lead him into the next life. Well, there's colonialism that's taking place within their country and when a British officer catches wind of this ritual, he intervenes and tries to "save" the horseman from committing suicide. He actually doesn't end up saving the man, he makes the situation much worse.

If you want to know what happens, I suggest you look for the play, it's by Wole Soyinka. The purpose of my blog is not to talk about the play but my experience.

I played the bride. The bride has no lines. When I first started rehearsals for this, even before rehearsals, I wasn't all that enthusiastic about it. I was like, are you kidding me? No lines?! And they have all these expectations of me?! Whatever....I mean, don't get me wrong, I was excited because I was going to do a show. But a bit disappointed that I didn't have any lines.

At the first rehearsal, I was amazed at how much the director put into it. It was like going back to school and getting a history lesson (and then some). He had a historical expert on staff, a dialect coach, we watched videos of different rituals being performed in the Yoruba culture (the actual village that where the events took place were within a Yoruba tribe). We even got one hundred and one handouts on the play, the themes of the play, the culture we were portraying and on and on and on.

It was intimidating, I felt overwhelmed and I was a bit confused. Were we going back to school or doing a show???? What was the reason for all this? But, I was one of the "lucky ones". The other Nigerian and British characters had to take dialect lessons and listen to CDs in order to familiarize themselves with the language and better sound like they were actual Nigerians/British, not Americans faking the accents. But wait, turned out that although I didn't have any lines, the dialect coach made me a CD. She said it'd be a good idea to think in the language...ooooooooooookaaaaaaaay!

So I did. I listened to the CD for a bit each day (for the first week) and tried to imitate what I heard on it. I checked out the handouts once or twice and put them away in my folder (after the first week). I showed up for rehearsal and watched. When it was time for me to enter a scene and do whatever, I did it. I mean, I wasn't exactly sure what I was doing, but I did what I thought I should do.

I tried very hard to stick to my correct cues for entrances and exits and I tried very hard to remember my blocking. Even though I had no lines, I created a story for my character and tried to figure out what she wanted. I even shed a few tears in the scenes that I was supposed to cry in. I was doing what was expected of me, I was "acting"...

Then one day, the director said to me, "We need to feel that innocence from you. You're playing a 16 year old girl." He showed me some pictures from different tribes of young African women. Then the dialect coach said to me that for one of my entrances I come in and it's too Americanized. So we went over ways to make it more "Nigerian".

After this, something happened. I realized that what I had been doing wasn't enough. Sure I read the hand outs once, I read the play once, I showed up for rehearsal and listened to those darn CDs a few times. I even created a story for my character. But I realized that it wasn't enough because I wasn't convincing those around me that I was this 16 year old Nigerian girl. Heck, I hadn't even thought of a name for my character yet. The thing was, really, I didn't care very much and it was starting to show.

So that night with my mind full of the question, "How the hell am I supposed to be an innocent 16 year old Nigerian girl?" I went to the new encyclopedia...the net. I researched all that I could about that culture and their customs. I tried to find any picture I could of the pre-married teens so I could have something to draw on. I even went on some website and looked up Nigerian names so that I could name my character.

Then I went back to the drawing board, Van Brooks' acting class 101. I began to really ask myself questions about my character, I wanted to make sure that I knew her better than I know myself. Like if someone asked me 20 questions about her I could answer them without hesitation. So I worked on her, I worked on her and worked on her. Every scene she was in, I asked myself questions like, "What is she thinking about here?" "What does this particular line mean to her?" "How would she react in this situation?" "Why would she react that way?"

I'd talk to myself constantly about my character and why she did every single thing that she did. What motivated each movement she made and every action she did. Then I took myself out of my character and using the counseling skills I learned so long ago, I found reasons to empathize with her situation.

I even went further in depth with my character's relationship with all the other characters that she came in contact with in the play. It was hard work, and I had to fight with myself to do it, but I kept with it.

Well, after all this, I discovered something. I discovered how much I liked my character. How much she meant to me. I don't think I've ever felt this way about a character. I realized how important it was for me to tell her story and have the audience really get it. Okay, so I had no lines, and okay so I was on stage with some really REALLY incredible actors, but my goal was to really get across who she was and what her small part was in this big story.

Being a part of this play was such a wonderful learning and growing experience. I had no lines and this was the most challenging part I have played thus far. I realized the importance of taking the time to get to know my character. I mean really get to know her as an insider and an outsider. I could look at the situation and assess what she might be feeling and why she might be feeling it. Then I could go into the character and relate to those same feelings through personal experience. And I discovered that the character doesn't have to stop growing after my first assessment. The character can grow as much as I allowed her to grow.

It was kind of like when I was a counselor, I connected with my character (created rapport) and I figured out who she was and where she's coming from (an assessment). Finally I became her advocate by telling her story. Then I discovered how similar acting and social work are. Both are about communication. They both use a middle party to communicate something from an unheard voice (or unheard voices) to a larger audience . It's such a powerful thing, and I'm so blessed that I do it.

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