08 March, 2011

Ask Al: Creating a Character (from the Hello Again Blog)

The Hello Again blog has asked me to contribute by documenting the creative/character building process for The Young Wife. Below, is the first installment that address the beginnings of "how does one go about creating a believable character onstage?" Enjoy!


“Whenever an actor first reads a play on which he is going to work, he is an audience. He visualizes the play and hears it like an audience. Whatever identification he may have with the play is similar to the identification he may have with the play is similar to the identification an audience might have and should not be confused with the organic identification he must find with the character he is going to play. He laughs at or with the play, he cries at or with the play, and, more than anything else, he cries and laughs at or with the character he is going to play.
“This is the moment where the images he conceives, and the tone and sounds he hears in his imagination on his first contact with the play must soon be discarded and not confused with the real work on the play and the part. The actor still has to go backstage and then evolve on stage.”
—Uta Hagen

In preparing for The Young Wife in Hello Again I first did two things. I read the play. Then I read it again. And then again. (One could say that I said Hello again and again and again…)

An actor’s ultimate job is to create a character that serves the play. The story (and not their own ego). So obviously in order for an actor to make a meaningful contribution to the piece overall, one has to gather information, make provisions for, and establish as much detail as possible concerning the play itself before beginning to “interpret” or make an outline for their own role within the play/ story/ piece.
To quote Uta Hagen once again, “all tedious research is worth one inspired moment.”

I always try (sometimes without a great deal of success) to throw away as many of my first impressions as possible, because whenever my first impressions have been utilized in the past I have always experienced regret. (It is tremendously difficult getting past them.) My first impressions got in my way like Prince Phillip feebly making his way through the thorny branches in Sleeping Beauty. Only less sexy. And without a sword. Leaping toward a “photograph” of my first impression is almost always a trap— an objective perspective that, in my opinion, doesn’t do me any good. At all.

However, working subjectively through the play from its foundations one avoids ready-made-microwave-dinner-type-character-cliches. (Example: choosing to cry at the moment when you feel sorry for the character you are playing, the actor could be providing the tears that should arguably be in the eyes of the audience. A character truly struggling does not necessarily mean that the character is moved.) Through asking myself/you as the character who “I” am, what “I” want, what “I” do, one ends up with profound, deep-rooted human meaning.


A great place to start is by asking yourself “What is the playwright trying to communicate?” Then to attempt to define it in an active sentence. (We have done that as a group, as well as on individual levels, but we can’t give it all away now can we?)

Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde served as Michael John LaChiusa’s source material— and Hello Again was the result of this dramatic suggestion. Now do not be confused— Hello Again is in no way a “musical version” of La Ronde (in the way that Hello, Dolly! is the musical version of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, or She Loves Me is a musicalized version of The Shop Around the Corner)—instead, it is inspired by, but not a word-for-word musicalization of this 1900 play by Arthur Schnitzler which scrutinizes the sexual morals and classism of the period through a series of encounters (rather than focusing an exploration of relationships—particularly sexual— outright, which is more the focus in Hello Again).

The play was not publicly performed until 1920 when it elicited violent critical and popular reactions against its subject matter, and interestingly, in 1922, Sigmung Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, wrote to Schnitzler saying, "you have learned through intuition—though actually as a result of sensitive introspection—everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons." (Cool huh? They became very good friends as a result of this correspondence, and Schnitzler must have been relieved, for up until this point his edifice has been wrecked. Edifice Wrecked… Freud. Oedipus? Get it…? Awful? Okay, it is. It’s awful…moving on…)

All this being said, in La Ronde, each of the characters in the play is literally the same person from scene to scene— the circle is literal, The Young Wife who interacts with The Young Gentleman is the same exact person that interacts with The Husband in the following scene. It is entirely possible that the characters in La Ronde are all members of a singular small community.

But in Hello Again the characters are not in any way the exact same person (because of course, first of all, they are set in completely different times/decades and places),  the connection from scene to scene is less literal, more symbolic, and entirely nebulous which allows for a lot of dramatic and interpretive wiggle room— more homework and more discipline required to create believable and meaningful characters.


One of the things we discussed at the very first read/sing through was how each of these characters may indeed both be Nurses, Soldiers and Wives, and they share qualities, but they are different people. Perhaps echos of the previous selves (The Soldier), or influenced by experiences from a sort of  “past life” shadow (The Nurse), or perhaps they are simply experiencing the same longings within the confines of different circumstances (The Young Wife).

Where to begin? Most crucially, it was essential for me to identify that I was not developing one character, but indeed, two— The Young Wife in Scene 4 set in the 1930s, and The Young Wife in Scene 5 set in the 1950s.
The Young Wives, if you will…
     …and I know you will.

So. I began by giving each woman a proper name.

One of the most beautiful things about this piece are the reoccurring themes—from musical repeats (“hello again” / “his eyes are green,” the “we kiss,” theme, and “i’ve got a little time” / “we have a little time”) a brooch that travels through time, shadows of characters we meet again and again, and, of course, everyone’s names— Marie, Sammy, Emily, Sally, Marianne, Leocadia…

The 1950s Young Wife already has a name outright— Emily.

And because I find it difficult to create any kind of real person without a name so I named The 1930s Young Wife Marianne. It was a logical step: Emily refers to her friend “Marianne” who is having an affair with a “college boy.”

Thus Marianne and Emily.
Hello (…Again.)

In order to really be Marianne and Emily, I had better know who I am when each scene begins and how I got to be that way. Time, place, relationships— hair styles, undergarments, current events, weather, social expectations, income, education, personal likes and dislikes. All valid and important and useful if not outright necessary information. What do these women want? Need? Desire? What are they afraid of? Amused by? Repulsed by? Each scene in Hello Again is ostensibly a mini-play within itself, as well as contributing to the “macro” of the whole circle so there is very little to draw from in the text itself, one has to utilize the full force of their imaginative powers.

Sheesh! I’d better get to work.

But in the meantime, I will leave you with this quote, by director Jack Cummings III, from rehearsal:

“I think you actually have to… open his trousers…like with the belt and fly and everything…and just.. you know...really get in there…”

Over and out.


  1. So so interesting! I love knowing how it all comes together.

  2. Thank you Emily, let me know if you ever have a question yourself!



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