An Actor’s Journal – Fuddy Meers
By David Lindsay-Abaire
Dir. Jessica Hillman
“How do I act so well? What I do is I pretend to be the person I’m portraying in the film or play. Case in point: Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson comes to me, you see, and says to me, ‘Sir Ian, I want you to be Gandolf, the wizard. And I said to him, ‘You are aware that I am not really a wizard?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I am aware of that. What I want you to do is to use your acting skills to portray the wizard.’”
- Sir Ian McKellen, “Extras”
How does an actor manage to portray a believable character over the course of two hours while living in a fabricated reality?
At the same time, although the art of acting seems as simple as pretending, but the workload can be both mentally and physically exhausting. My favorite explanation of why a scripted performance is called a ‘play’ is that the work involved is itself play. To play a character, an actor takes on the present personality and past experiences of a character while leaving his or her own waiting outside the theater. In this context, play may not necessarily connote “having fun” – it’s hard to find joy in the cursed Thebes of Oedipus Rex or the fair Verona of Romeo & Juliet – but all pretending is a form of play.
The background work necessary to portray a living character, however, entails hours upon hours of effort. The rehearsal process requires paying strict attention to a director’s instructions for a show’s pace, the choreographed movement within a scene (blocking) and anything else important enough to create the world of the play. These, however, are just the basic building blocks of a show. Outside of rehearsal, there’s the need to memorize a character’s script, which, for some characters, can be many hundreds of lines. Some script analysis may be covered during rehearsal, but an actor is charged with picking the play apart on their own time to fully understand their character’s past and present.
The process of creating a character is never truly over. Even after a show has finished, a sudden insight during a relaxed moment may reveal new possibilities. Sometimes it’s a gesture meant to indicate mood. It might be an inflection that completely alters the subtext of a given line. You can only hope that you’ve devoted enough time during the process to creating a character that fits the director’s vision and compels the audience during live performance.
Recently, the SUNY Fredonia Department of Theatre and Dance concluded their six performance production of Fuddy Meers by David Lindsay-Abaire. Fuddy Meers revolves around Claire, a 40-year old amnesiac who awakes every morning without one memory to her name. Quickly, we’re introduced to Kenny, her 17-year old dyslexic son, and Richard, her 40-ish husband who loves to keep Claire’s life perfectly managed. The play contains four other characters: Gertie, Claire’s mother who is suffering the aftereffects of stroke; Limping Man, another middle-aged character sporting a pronounced lisp, a horrible limp and a twisted mass of scar tissue covering his right ear; Millet, a prison escapee with a strong attachment to Hinky Binky, his sock puppet; and Heidi, a cop with an attitude and a serious case of claustrophobia. Lindsay-Abaire weaves these characters into a plot that depicts (more or less) regular people dealing with past experiences of trauma and abuse. “I wanted characters who were damaged and viewed the world in skewed, warped ways,” said Lindsay-Abaire in a New York Times interview about Fuddy Meers.
The difficulty of creating a play such as Fuddy Meers exists in properly addressing both the serious issues the play raises and the comic insanity of the script. Dr. Jessica Hillman, the production’s director, found this challenge both relevant and dramatic. “[Fuddy Meers] is a funny comedy that has something to say,” said Hillman. According to Hillman, the challenges inherent in this play made it a great choice for performance at the collegiate level. “It’s important that we challenge ourselves in that way,” she said, “to be willing to be funny about things that aren’t supposed to be funny.”
When pulled off correctly, Fuddy Meers takes audiences on a whirlwind journey of emotion. “I want the audience to laugh really hard, then be shocked like they were punched in the stomach,” said Hillman. “They should leave thinking, but entertained. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.”
Accurately casting any show is crucially important, and even more so for Lindsay-Abaire’s black comedy, which calls for very specific character types. “98 percent of the actor-centered part of directing work is casting,” said Hillman. “Someone might be fundamentally wrong for a character, even if they’re a great actor.” Typecasting may have a derogatory tone to it, but it’s necessary to keep the playwright’s vision of the character in mind when selecting an actor to portray that role.
But Fuddy Meers doesn’t just require an actor to look the part; he or she must also be willing to exert the energy needed to keep up with the show’s fast pace. “[Fuddy Meers] is realism, but it’s realism shot out of a cannon,” said Hillman. The script builds up to numerous climactic moments deflated humorously by other characters living in the moment. This extremity of living is both physically and mentally exhausting.
So, how does an actor prepare for the dynamic characters written by David Lindsay-Abaire? Methods for creating a character differ due to the intensely personal nature of acting work. Really, the major rule regarding proper acting methods could be stated as follows: to use exercises and activities that allow the individual a better understanding of the multi-dimensional nature of the character they’re portraying. Much is made of different schools of thought regarding theatrical performance, but all of these processes are essentially aimed at allowing an actor to compellingly portray their role on stage. The greater concern is how well an actor connects to the process.
Theater performance classes at the collegiate level focus their efforts on teaching students the analytical skills and physical exercises necessary to prepare a role. Actors are taught to identify the given circumstances of a character in a script so they can internalize a believable reaction to these circumstances. Even activities that are playful in appearance, of which there are many varieties, help the actor establish an in-the-moment presence onstage. To a large extent, an actor is charged with performing these activities on their own time in order to deepen their connection with their character.
This deeper connection informs tells the actor how to believably inhabit a false reality. In Fuddy Meers, the reality of Claire, the central character suffering from psychogenic amnesia, is that she remembers nothing when she wakes up. The actor (or actress, if you prefer) portraying her will never truly understand what it is to have this form of amnesia, mostly because you couldn’t get that type of person to memorize a script. The best that can be achieved is a genuine empathy for the fictional Claire.
In the SUNY Fredonia production, Claire was played by junior BFA Acting student Charlotte Foster. “Claire is a nice woman,” said Foster. “She’s not confrontational, but when she has to make a stand, she learns how to say no.” One of her top priorities was to understand Claire’s condition through old fashioned research. She found that those suffering from this form of amnesia feel disconnected and confused, but generally aren’t angry. “When Claire has control, she tries to remain positive. She learns how to take control of her life in happy and chipper ways,” said Foster.
This is an important conceit during the show. So much of what happens to Claire is life threatening, but without an understanding of the possible negative consequences, she accepts everything initially with a childlike sense of wonder. In Act I, Scene I, Limping Man takes Claire from her home after popping out from under her bed. Although she finds it strange, she shrugs her shoulders as if this could happen every day.
“I had always wanted to act, but I was a little too much of a wimp to do the real thing,” said Foster. Through high school she had appeared in one show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as the First Fairy. The director’s passion for Shakespeare influenced Foster’s decision to pursue acting as a career choice.
“My character preparation process is still forming, it’s not done, and it will never be done,” said Foster. She begins preparing by searching the script for a specific quality or quirk that makes up a large part of the character she’s portraying, and then does some research. She reads the entire script multiple times. During memorization, she notes certain things about her character’s actions or words that may denote connections throughout the script. She uses these connections to guide much of her character’s development throughout any show. “With Claire, I try to figure out why she responds to certain people in certain ways,” said Foster.
Limping Man doesn’t possess Claire’s chipper attitude. “He is short tempered and explosive,” said Mark Reeve, the actor cast as Limping Man. “He tries to convince people that he’s a good person, but when it comes down to it, he can’t control his rage.” The audience witnesses this struggle over the course of the show.
Limping Man isn’t a sympathetic character, but still needs to be played with empathy. “When he explodes, I can relate it to times when I’m so incredibly frustrated,” said Reeve. “Where I would hit my steering wheel while driving, Limping Man aims at other people.”
Reeve, a senior BFA Musical Theatre student, began taking private voice, acting and dance lessons in junior year of high school. He credits studies of acting with giving him a better understanding of character and how to communicate the author’s words through dialogue and physicality.
“The first thing that I do, and this is newly adapted, is to read the text for what it is and nothing else,” said Reeve. During his second reading, he begins to make assumptions about the character based on the author’s notes. Reeve begins building a back story for his character based on the clues given in the script and stage directions. To account for Limping Man’s rage problems, Reeve made the assumption that Limping Man’s father was abusive. “I try to use my imagination to pretend as if I had lived under Limping Man’s conditions,” said Reeve.
Limping Man’s childhood is in his past, but Kenny’s troubled adolescence is occurring as Fuddy Meers takes place. “On the surface, Kenny is an angsty, troubled teen who gets high,” said Jon DiMaria, the actor portraying Kenny. Much of Kenny’s character is defined by his pot use, which continues throughout the play. “It’s important to remember that the whole reason he smokes is to help sedate him, release himself from the world.”
DiMaria begins his process by reading the script and finding relationships between his character and others. Next, he finds the character’s given circumstances and tries to relate them to personal experience. DiMaria found Kenny’s need to find a release a very relatable desire. “I think everyone understands that,” said DiMaria. “Some people exercise, some eat too much. Everyone has their vice.”
DiMaria is a sophomore BFA Acting student at SUNY Fredonia. He’s had experience performing in high school theatre, but for him, specialized training for acting didn’t begin until college. “Here, it’s more about teaching you how to discover yourself as an actor instead of trying to impress people the best,” said DiMaria. “This is the first time I’ve ever had to go into that process head-on to create an entire life, not just what’s given to you [by the author].”
Crystal Gramkee, a senior BFA Musical Theatre major, began pursuing acting studies after her sophomore year of high school. She credits much of her early development as an actor to Michael Meeth, a theater professional living near Gramkee’s hometown of Avon. “He helped me cultivate a serious interest in the theatre,” said Gramkee. “There weren’t many outside outlets for learning about acting.” Her training was furthered by attending New York State Summer School of the Arts (NYSSSA) for one summer during high school.
Heidi is a very direct woman who wears her emotions on her sleeve and has a mild case of claustrophobia. “She’s had a poor upbringing,” said Gramkee of Heidi. “If I met this person in real life, I’d feel bad for her.”
As the audience finds out, Heidi has had vast prison experience. Gramkee’s personal experience with jail is limited to watching video of a real prison that friends of hers visited. Still, it helped bridge the gap between television and real life for herself. “It helps me understand how this hardness manifested in her,” said Gramkee. “Holding a gun and seeing blood are not big things.”
Gramkee likes to begin her approach by reading the script and focusing on the motivating forces behind the character’s actions, or the character’s objective. “I feel it’s the most important thing in a play,” said Gramkee. “It defines how high the stakes are for the character.” For Heidi and her high energy, Gramkee concentrated much more on creating Heidi’s physical presence. “When you have a character that’s a little far removed from yourself, playing with physicality first is helpful.”
Creating a believable physicality is especially important when playing a member of a different age group. All of the roles in Fuddy Meers, except for Kenny, are about 15 years older than the students portraying them. Gertie, Claire’s mother, is in her 60s and the oldest character in the show. In addition, Gertie’s had a stroke, and an actor portraying her needs to memorize two scripts: her befuddled speech patterns throughout, and Lindsay-Abaire’s translations listed after the script, in order to make sense of the former.
“Gertie’s got a lot of spunk,” said Camellia Tatara, this production’s Gertie. “She still has a lot of wit, she’s very sharp, and she doesn’t let the fact that she’s had a stroke hold her back. Tatara, a senior BFA Acting student, began performing in community theatre during middle school. Intensive studies in acting began for her at SUNY Fredonia. “I can’t even remember if there was an actual moment where I knew I wanted to act, it’s just something that I’ve done since I’ve been younger,” said Tatara.
To portray the age of her character, Tatara also focused heavily on physical awareness. “I experimented with pushing my hips out, slumping my shoulders forward and creating an arch in my back,” said Tatara. “People who are in their 60s can be in great health, but suffering a stroke takes some toll on your body.”
On her first reading of a script, Tatara looks through it and tries to gain a better understanding of scenes by separating them into beats, or units of action. Beats can change for a character with a shift in objective or the strategy used to obtain that objective. “I make sure I know where they are so I don’t remain static throughout,” said Tatara. She likes to spend a little time creating a character’s back story, but doesn’t try to create an intricate past. “I don’t go overboard because the audience won’t understand all of it,” said Tatara. “I just let it develop. It’s easier for me to just work through it if I’m in a scene.”
An actor playing Gertie has two scripts to memorize; the actor playing Millet has two different personalities to portray. Although not a textbook schizophrenic, Millet has a sock puppet named Hinky Binky that acts as his alter ego. “Millet is a very sheltered human being,” said Scott Malkovsky, who played him. “He doesn’t see the picture as a whole because he was always so cramped and unloved.” Millet made Hinky Binky while in prison. And Malkovsky believes that he creates the alter ego in order to fight back against his troubled life, in which his mother was a freebaser, he suffered blackouts and was convicted for a crime he’s not sure he committed.
Malkovsky’s early inspiration to pursue acting came from watching Ace Venture: When Nature Calls. “It’s Jim Carrey, plain and simple,” said Malkovsky. “It made me laugh, and I realized that I wanted to have that effect on people.” After his sophomore year of high school, Malkovsky entered the Lab Company Junior program through the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY. Actors in the program performed one show every summer and received master classes from professional actors working with the Hangar Theatre. “We learned a lot of the same things that we learn [at SUNY Fredonia], just without the terms like ‘objective’ or ‘obstacle,’” said Malkovsky.
To achieve a connection with Hinky Binky, Malkovsky took home a rehearsal version of the sock puppet to work with on his time. “Getting used to the interplay, I ended up having a lot of conversations with myself,” said Malkovsky. “I tried to make myself rely on Hinky Binky as often as Millet does.” Establishing the connection offstage helped Malkovsky create a more complete Millet during performance. “During the show, I’m not confiding in ‘Hink’ so much, but it’s important as background,” said Malkovsky.
Without this connection, a role’s performance is meaningless. The study of acting places a lot of emphasis on breaking down a role into many critical parts meant to define that fictional person. We may not always be thinking about our own personal objectives or obstacles, but they’re ever present. Analyzing these different aspects of life makes it much less daunting to portray a role confidently. The passion required of an acting professional is important, not just for financial reasons but because of the necessary work ethic. “Preparing a show is a lot more work than people would think,” said Dr. Hillman. “It’s work I love, but it’s work.”
Steve Brachmann is a freelance writer and actor from Buffalo, NY. Has had work published for Dissolver Magazine, Image Icon Entertainment, Northeastern’s Times New Roman and The Buffalo News. His personal blog can be found at http://scubasteve519.livejournal.com/.