By: Sean Wiberg
Most theatrical performances combine three key elements: technique, imagery and storytelling. If crafted right, each element will support the others towards the same end: the story of the play. The way these elements are layered is essential to how that story is told. When it comes to composing a performance, who better to look to for guidance than the great composer himself: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
In his day, Mozart revolutionized the world of musical composition by, among other things, being the first composer to organize his scores vertically, instead of horizontally. What this meant was that, for the first time, each instrument and voice part ran parallel above all the other parts in harmony and one could see what instruments were playing at any given moment. Not only was this a change in the way music was read and played, but also in the way it was written. As a result of Mozart’s new method, composers realized that while the focus of the music could change, all the other parts could be written intentionally to support that changing melody.
The reason this concept is so important to me as an actor is because of the idea that everything is happening at the same time. Just as melody and harmony run simultaneously, so do the given circumstances that continue to exist as the story unfolds. Artistically, this concept is one of immense depth—every moment is filled with layer upon layer of facts, relationships, actions and intentions. However, though countless things are happening on stage at the same time, if everything lines up, a story is told.
This idea of vertical composition is very present in my mind this quarter as I am working on Naomi Iizuka’s play Language of Angels. It’s a poetic, haunting story about a group of kids in North Carolina in the late eighties. While partying in a mountain cave, they lose one of their friends, Celie, who is never found. The play examines the fallout of that night and ultimately the collapse of their friendships.
The process of this play began with extensive table work. Kevin Kingston, the director, led us through the script until we had pieced together the given circumstances: when and where each scene takes place, who each line is directed to, why each line is said, details of every relationship, etc. For the sake of my metaphor, let’s say these given circumstances are the technique, or the mechanics of the symphony. These facts are the tempo and key signature of our music. Without them, the piece would have no shape and no space in which it could exist.
Next are the harmonies. These are the sounds that make the music beautiful. They entice and captivate the audience. The harmony is what gives the music color and life, but at the end of the day, it’s only there to support the melody. For me, the harmonies are the poetic language in the play and it’s Appalachian setting. At the top of the second act, I (Billy—the name of my character) describe speeding down a country road at night and being pulled over by a cop. The monologue is essentially a story that I am recounting in chilling detail. What becomes essential to acting this moment, is finding a razor sharp specificity with each image and event that I describe. In other words, if I visualize in my mind’s eye the exact things I’m describing, the text will come to life and the audience will come along for the ride. And really, that’s the magic of acting. In my experience, if an actor believes in what he or she is saying, the audience will too. Sympathetic reaction is human nature. So, for example, one of my lines reads: “And after, after I hear his footsteps on the earth, and then he’s there, shining his light…” If I, the actor, imagine listening to a policeman step out of his car and walk towards mine, his boots scraping the pavement, and then seeing the blinding white beam of his flashlight in my rear-view, and really commit to those images, then the audience will to.
As an actor, it becomes my job to craft my character’s melody, while still keeping the melody of the play in mind. To do this, I look for a couple things: When is my character a driving part of the plot?, and when is my character’s story secondary to the plot? Answering these questions helps me understand when the stage is mine to tell the story, and when it’s mine to quietly do my job in the background. Finally, I have found that watching rehearsals of scenes I’m not in has deepened my understanding of the story Kevin is trying to tell. This idea is not one that is taught to the actors at the Theatre School and it’s one that many actors overlook. However, I would insist that it’s something that performer should never overlook.
The melody of the play is the story that it tells. As an actor, it’s sometimes easy to forget this because each character has his or her own melody too—and that melody must be told with clarity and truth—but at the end of the day, the question is, ‘what is the story of the play?’ I’m not going to reveal what the story of Language is, because I’d rather not spoil it. But the point is, that the story is the most important element to any play because after all, theatre is storytelling. All aspects of the symphony are codependent—the mechanics, the harmony and the melody—but the thing the listener hears first, is the melody.