Since before the first humans regailed their tribes with tales of the hunt,
Before the first storytellers began to tell their sagas around the sacred circle of the fire,
Before the first kokopellis and griots and troubadors began ennacting the miriad cycles of stories and dreams, lessons and fantasies, all embellished with details and woven into myth, actors have been trying to figure out the same question:
How Do You Get In Character?
Here in the rehearsal hall of the California Shakespeare Theatre in the year 2006, we are still trying to figure out that one.
As an operator of a 9 foot body puppet with 6 foot arms and and a two foot lip-span, getting into character is simply the quite prosaic act of climbing under the belly, getting a stool under me so I can secure the shoulder and waist harnesses and then getting our ever vigilant assistant stage manager Keely to unclip me from a pulley system hanging from a crossbar near the cieling. Now I am, indeed, In Character.
Or Am I?
I had a bit of a meltdown/ epiphany the other day as I was working inside the puppet. They say acting is about choices. When you're doing Shakespeare you're not exactly originating the role. Thousands, Millions have played these roles before. A hundred actors are creating a hundred different Falstaffs as you read this. It is the choices that each artist makes within the framework of Falstaff that defines a particular version.
With Puppets, every choice is put under a microscope. I read in one of the research books our ever informative Daniel "Slutty" Venning had and it said "An actor represents a character. A puppet is the character." We just supply the choices. The puppetteer is constantly making decisions on movement, angle, speed, duration and a thousand other kinesthetic awarenesses. That's how the puppets, these inannimate objects of wood and wire are able to express different emotions. Choices.
But there's more. I don't know what to call it. Life Force is the only thing I can think of. This is the element that I find so compelling in this work: the puppeteer most pour his or her life force into the puppet to give it breath.
And I began to think of my work as an actor outside of a puppet. When I'm simply operating the puppet that is my own body. Is the character I am playing pouring its life force into me? and how can I remain susceptible to that and not get in the way of the many possibilities of that level of transformation?
When an actor forgets his lines it is said that he "goes dry".
When the work is going well it feels like its just "flowing out of you".
I think this life force thing is liquid in nature. And like liquid it seeks its own level. It has to fill in the valleys before it can engulf the mountainous peaks. A real connection with a role comes along and you feel like he's in your blood. You see through his eyes, think his thoughts, feel his feelings.
They say an actor is a vessel. A holder of stories. A cup for the sweet elixir of this magical potion: Life.
The Puppet speaks
So how does one get into character with a 9 foot puppet resting securely on your shoulders, practically crying out for some strong, actable, playable choices?
With a little help from your friends.
When we want Falstaff to talk and make big gestures or even do something as simple as picking up a stool it takes at least three of us. The tremendously talented Max Moore takes over the left arm. Geoff "Googie" Uterhardt, an amazing actor/puppeteer takes over the right, sometimes aided by the delightfully irrepressable Lorna Howley and we all try to pour our life forces through the sieve of Falstaff into this gigantic collection of foam rubber and plastic tubing. Its really something.
Like our actor ancestors before us, we are all trying to get into character. The same character. At the same time.
Hopefully. there is enough rehearsal time ahead of us so we can get comfortable with this monster and start to listen to what Falstaff the Puppet has to say.
To hear about his choices.
To stop struggling with the mechanism and as our puppet master John Ludwig says: "To be ready to listen, for the puppet will only then reveal its secrets".