Lines and Characters Tested in “The Crucible”

Paul Brissett writes here about the experience of performing in a play done by a good community theater. Paul is also a freelance reviewer of drama in Duluth, and this piece was originally published in the Duluth News-Tribune.

1Paul Brissett

“How do you remember all those lines?” is the most frequently asked question of actors by non-actors.

Learning the lines is, if not the easiest, at least the simplest part of acting in a play.

One local amateur actor once said, “Learning the lines is easy. Taking care of your home, family and day job while you’re working on a play is the hard part.”

Time demands on an actor in a community theater production are so heavy that many of us have made deals with our spouses or partners to do no more than one play a year. We auditioned for “The Crucible” in late November and began rehearsal on Dec. 5. I was lucky; my character doesn’t appear onstage until the second act. Many of my cast-mates have been rehearsing from 7 to 9:30 or 10 p.m. every night, Monday through Friday. Until the final two weeks of rehearsal, I’m called just two or three evenings a week. Time spent in actual rehearsal is not the only investment of time. Lines must be learned on your own time. They are memorized exactly as you would expect: Read them over and over and over and …

Each director has his or her own method of preparing a play, but most generally follow the same sequence director John Pokryzwinski did in this one: Understand the story. Understand the character you’re playing. Learn the mechanics. Then polish, polish, polish.

“The Crucible” is Arthur Miller’s recounting of the Salem witch trials of 1692 — an event of which most Americans are aware but the details of which are not generally known. In the spring of that year, a number of young girls in the small, isolated village of Salem, Mass., began accusing townspeople of witchcraft, saying the witches had appeared to them in the company of Satan. A court — which at that time combined the authority of the state and of the church — was convened to try the accused, ultimately ordering 19 of them hanged. Miller’s characters include people actually involved, and much of his script is taken directly from the records made at that time.

To give us historical perspective, Pokryzwinski invited Neil Storch, a retired University of Minnesota Duluth history professor, for a three-hour session. We learned, among other things, that the Puritans were not as puritanical as is commonly thought. They drank liquor. Brides went to the altar pregnant. In short, they were real people, not to be confused with the cartoons trotted out around Thanksgiving. Storch said there are a number of theories as to the cause of the events in Salem, none provable. Our task as actors, though, is not to explain these events, but only to take the audience back to that time and place so they can reach their own conclusions.

Two Views of Danforth

After our history mini-course, we began reading scenes and discussing them, concentrating on why our characters did or said what they did. Pokryzwinski would press us for ever-more-specific answers and for possible alternative explanations. It quickly became clear that Pokryzwinski and I had distinctly different views of my character’s personality.

My role is Danforth, the deputy governor of Massachusetts who served as chief judge. From my first readings of the script, I saw him as a legalistic automaton, detached, impersonal, emotionless. He seemed devoted to the idea that the legal process was capable of determining absolute truth, and that if a person were condemned by it, he or she deserved to die; no guilt devolved on Danforth for the death.

Pokryzwinski felt Danforth was much more human — if sanctimonious and inflexible — and that he had a capacity to respond emotionally to the events around him. For instance, Pokryzwinski repeatedly challenged my conviction that Danforth would experience no anxiety or self-doubt whatsoever when the accusers’ veracity came under question.

We agreed to disagree, but Pokryzwinski put me on notice that he would have me do certain things on stage more consistent with his view than with my own.

This is a classic dynamic between actor and director, in which the director almost always prevails.

Finding the Characters

Professionals and formally trained actors have numerous tools and techniques to use in developing their characters, but the members of our cast have little, if any, formal training. From reading some standard texts on the craft, I know the actor’s challenge and responsibility is to find a way to do what the director wants that does not violate the actor’s understanding of the character.

The playwright has given us the words, but only hints as to why our characters say them, how they intend them to be heard and what the character wants to accomplish by saying them. Discovering or deciding that is our task. A lot of that discovery happens during the rote memorization of lines. As we read the play over and over again, we are constantly recognizing new meaning in both our characters’ statements and in others’.

Pokryzwinski, himself a skilled and experienced actor, provides guidance, mostly in his probing questions. But he never dictates; each must “find” his or her own character.

Several nights of working out blocking — who stands where and moves where and when — provide more material from which to build a character. True to his word, Pokryzwinski assigns me actions that Danforth, as I conceive of him, likely would never take. In one scene, for example, he wants Danforth to move quickly back and forth between two other characters to indicate an eagerness to dispose of a problem.

Group Effort

It’s been said that theater is the most collaborative of the creative arts, and what happens now points that up. As I follow Pokryzwinski’s instructions but also try to remain true to my own image of Danforth, the character grows, taking on new dimensions that are the product of the playwright, the director and the actor.

As other characters similarly grow, the way Danforth reacts to them must also change. For example, a line I had roared out in majestic indignation had to become less outraged when another actor decided his character would be less confrontational in such an exchange. Thus, the collaboration is expanded.

Danforth’s evolution will continue until our run ends. Every rehearsal and performance will add to the character. The audience at the final performance probably will not see anything different about the man than did the audience opening night. But I will be more confident of my grasp of him, which ought to make him in intangible ways more real to the audience.

My goal is to become Danforth to the extent that, if something unexpected happens in a performance — whether another actor forgets a line or a piece of the set falls over — Danforth, not I, will react to it.

I enjoy performing for an audience, but — as others in the cast have told me is true for them as well — rehearsal, specifically developing a character, is the most satisfying part of what we do.

Performance is a touchstone — seeing whether our efforts over the past eight weeks are adequate to dislodge an audience’s awareness of actual time and place and take them to another. Applause is not so much our reward as our score, an indicator of the extent to which we succeeded.

This piece was initially published in the Duluth News-Tribune, Thursday, January 26, 2006.