What's my motivation?
January 4, 2008 10:58 AM   Subscribe

"Forum" (Sondheim)Filter: What's my motivation?

Yes, it's the cheesiest acting question out there, but... a little help in that area.

"Forum," is, granted, low comedy, farce, etc., and as such requires less of its actors in terms of character depth, development, etc. In fact, for pretty much everyone who isn't Pseudolus, I think the stronger the sterotypes are portrayed, the funnier it can be- very commedia dell'arte, where each character's behavior stays within the confines of his/her role to ensure maximum laughs.

Of course, this means that the actors must take the effort more often reserved for that deeper work and apply it to the also quite difficult requirements farce demands in terms of comic timing and physical expression. As we all know, dying is easy; comedy is hard.

That being said, I can't wholly abandon the need to work on some sort of objective. In the character of Domina, Senex's shrewish wife, I struggle with exacly how to present her and, yes- her MOTIVATION.

In her scenes, she's obnoxious, bossy, cutting, etc. But in her solo song, "That Dirty Old Man," she alternates angry outbursts at Senex with dramatic, swooping declarations of love. Comedy comes from juxtaposing these diverse vocal styles in one song. After all, in a musical, inner emotion that cannot be expressed in spoken dialogue comes out in the musical numbers. Therefore, I have to assume that the "bipolar" nature of the song is indicative of Domina's _real_ feelings.

She states that she knows he messes around. But does he really? All we see is a somewhat impotent guy chasing after the virgin Philia. We never really see him DO anything. It's only referred to by Domina in her song. Is the shrew secretly THAT insecure?

Since at the end of the show, Domina THINKS she's won him back (due to the mistaken identity plot devices), so she's happy. If she's happy because she met her goal, then getting Senex back must be her goal otherwise she wouldn't be happy. ??

If I choose to play her as if she's a bitch on the outside but really loves her man on the inside, will that destroy the comedy? Stereotypes can't have subtext.

Am I overthinking this? In this case, should I just keep repeating, "The right choice is the one that gets the most laughs?" Because this show is nothing but laughs. I'm willing to look as foolish as necessary to get them!

There's nothing to be gained in trying to garner the audience's sympathy. I think I'm doing the show a disservice if I try to do that.
posted by I_Love_Bananas to Media & Arts (4 answers total)
You are overthinking this. In Forum, the right choice is absolutely the one that gets the most laughs.

That said, Sondheim does like to humanize his characters, and Sondheim's plays typically value love and marriage. If you can play to the ambiguity -- she loves him AND she's a bitch -- without losing the comedy, by all means do so.

But remember: "Nothing with gods, nothing with fate; Weighty affairs will just have to wait!" Have fun.
posted by ubiquity at 11:48 AM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why can't she be a bitch who really loves her man?

You can't play "bitch," any more than you could play "evil." So what does she want?

I think she wants some order in the house. I think she wants a husband who's strong, in control and honorable -- and not a walking joke, which is what Senex is. Doesn't she mention that her father was a high-ranking military officer, like a general? She simply wants a household and husband that are both respectable and worthy of envy. The fact that she expresses herself as a strong, uninhibited woman (she's strong, she wants her man to be strong) makes her come off as a "bitch."

(That should be your motivation, anyway. This kind of feminist interpretation is probably not what the writers who created the Gemini were thinking about!)

She wants her husband to be all these things. And she wants that strong, respectable person to love her.

And just because we see Senex as impotent doesn't mean she does.

I think you can make all these choices, and if you then perform instead of overthinking them, you'll get laughs.
posted by PlusDistance at 11:50 AM on January 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Stereotypes can't have subtext.

I directed that show years ago, and I'm the Artistic Director of a theatre company. And with those credentials, I will STRONGLY disagree. I will also, for one second, play devil's advocate to myself and say that there's no such thing as The Right Way To Act. It's a matter of taste. That said, for the rest of this response, I'll write strongly about MY taste and the way I work as an actor (and as a director who with actors).

I would never ever ever approach ANY character -- or allow one of my actors to approach a character -- as a stereotype. It IS important for an actor to know her character's purpose in the story, but her moment-by-moment scene work should not be based around playing a type. It should be based on playing actions, listening and watching her scene partners, and responding to them truthfully.

In farce, the script will do 80% of the "funny" for you. You can relax and play the truth. But there's the secret to the other 20%, and I'm get there in a few paragraphs...

When you are playing a scene -- or a moment in a scene -- you should be first and foremost play an Action, which means engaging in some sort of activity in order to achieve a gaol. It helps most actors to express their actions as verb phrases. If you can't do this, or if your phrase is really weak, like "my action is 'to be happy,' you know you're on the wrong track. To be happy isn't playable. How do you do it? (If your answer is, "by dancing," then THAT'S your action. To Be Happy is your GOAL.) Common actions for Domina might be To Chastise, To Cockblock, To Belittle...

OBSTACLES hinder actions. In a scene, maybe you're trying To Chastise someone, but it turns out that he's deaf and can't hear you. That's an obstacle to your action. Once your character is aware of an obstacle, she must switch actions (or try the same action in a different way).

Obstacles can be internal or external. External obstacles come from other actors or the environment. You can't play your action To Leave, because the door is locked; you can't play your action To Kiss, because your partner has run away from you... Internal obstacles are inhibitions: you can't kiss, because you're shy, etc. (maybe your character will overcome this by pulling her lover into a dark corner...)

Many internal obstacles have to do with fear of social scorn. Why doesn't Ed propose to Marsha? He's afraid people will make fun of him...

IN FARCE, MANY CHARACTERS HAVE DAMAGED SOCIAL SENSES. (There's the other 20%!) They engage in their actions as if they had no inhibitions, because they're totally unaware of how other people see them. Think of Kramer on Seinfeld. He's the perfect farce character. Characters in farces often have no internal obstacles, or, at least, they don't have ones that stem from fear of social embarrassment. THIS is what makes them seem like stereotypes. You would be much more "your type" if you didn't care what anyone thought about you.

Years ago, a director told me her way of thinking of this was that CHARACTERS IN FARCES PLAY ACTIONS AS IF THEY HAD BLINDERS ON. You know, those cards that are in front of horses eyes, so that the horses can only see straight ahead.

When characterss gung-ho play their actions, without reflecting on them much or holding themselves back (do to social fears), AUDIENCES (not actors) perceive the characters as "types." If a character has inhibitions, he's more likely to be perceived as "three-dimensional." Chekhov's characters are tormented by internal obstacles.

Why do characters play actions? To achieve goals. If your action is To Chastise, you're doing so to achieve some goal. Once you achieve it, you stop playing that action (it's served its purpose). You might also stop playing it if you're thwarted by an obstacle. You stop playing an action when you win or lose your goal. Which means that when playing an action, you need to know your goal. If you don't, you can't know if you've succeeded or not.

There are many types of goal. There are momentary goals (I'm flirting with you so you'll kiss me), longer-term goals (I'm seducing you so you'll marry me) and story-length goals, which are often called superobjectives (my character is trying to marry into a rich family...)

In my opinion, (some) actors tend to focus WAY to much on story-length goals. When you're acting, you're not playing The Story. You're acting in real time, so you're playing individual moments in the story. It IS important that you understand your purpose in the story, and a superobjective can help with that, but your main job as an actor is to truthfully tackle the moment-by-moment stuff. If your moment-by-moment work somehow gets to be at odds with the story, it's the director's job to set you back on track. HE'S the guardian of the story; you're the guardian of your character's moment-by-moment truth.

Superobjectives can also help you figure out moment objectives. You MIGHT, upon reading a script, get a really strong notion of what your character's life goal is. From that, you might be able to reason your way to her moment goals: Let's see, my character wants To Find Love, and in this scene she's totally alone in a new city, so she Searches For a Bar, and once there she sees a friendly looking guy so she Checks Her Makeup.

But more often, I find it easier to go the other way: hmmm... I have no idea what my character wants, but I can see that in THIS scene (that we're about to rehearse), she seems to be really aggressive. Why? Well, she keeps berating her husband for drinking. Maybe she's worried he has an alcohol problem. Okay, I can play some of that! My action in the this moment is To Shame Him... oh, that doesn't work, he just jokes it off... okay, so now it's To Plead with him ... now it's To Grab The Bottle... I'm trying to stop him from taking another drink! What does that have to do with my goal in the whole play? I don't know. Oh well, I won't worry about it. Maybe, eventually, a larger goal will emerge. If not, I'll just keep up the moment-to-moment work.

Domina: I wish it hadn't been twelve years since I worked on the show. I DO suggest that, in keeping with my above advice, you go through the script scene by scene and moment by moment and ask your self "What is she doing?" (Or, better yet, OWN the character and say, "What am I doing?") See if you can express each "I'm doing..." as a strong, playable verb phrase (hint: a thesaurus is your friend.) If you get stuck, talk to your director. "I don't get what I'm trying to do here" or your fellow actors.

She does do a lot of chastising, nagging (not the most playable verb), bossing, accusing, ordering, etc. SHE DOESN'T HAVE A SOCIAL SENSE THAT THIS MAKES HER COME ACROSS AS A BITCH. She's not trying to be a bitch; she just doesn't care or see that she's perceived that way.

You also know, because she says so in an internal monologue (song), that she loves her husband. Why would she boss around someone she loves?

There are many reasons people do this, and I'll bet if you think about them for a while, you'll be able to list some. Some people boss because it's the only way they think they can get attention from the person they love; some do it because they're jealous (don't let me catch you looking at another girl!); some do it because -- although they're in love -- there's a more immediate, important goal in their life than nurturing that love. For instance, I might boss my wife (who I love) to quit spending so much money, because my immediate goal is to cure my financial woes. My love for my wife MIGHT be an obstacle to doing that (What if I was chastising her and she starting crying?)

Is Domina trying to boss her husband into being true to her? Or is she trying to boss him into something else, and her love for him is a potential trap she has to avoid? When a character seems "bipolar," you can usually make that playable by deciding that one trait is the action/goal while the other is an internal obstacle.

Good luck. That's a fun character.

If you need more help, I recommend these resources:

"A Practical Handbook For The Actor," which is the most straightforward approach to (Stanislavskian-based) acting technique I've ever found.

"Working on the Play and the Role," which takes you through a step-by-step, action-based breakdown of an entire play.

"The Stanislavsky Secret," which contains the only sensible approach to superobjective I've ever read.
posted by grumblebee at 12:24 PM on January 4, 2008 [10 favorites]

I think she wants a husband who's strong, in control and honorable
Haha, if only. Domina makes it clear in the song that she loves foul, dumb, filthy Senex-- she just wants his filthiness directed at HER, rather than at some young nymphet.

I think this song (funny as it is) is about pain: she wants him, needs him, and of course he's off chasing someone else, as he has been off and on for the past thirty years. He always vows reform and it never fucking stops. The frustration is both emotional and sexual-- Domina, I'm sure, would be a superbly dirty old woman if Senex just gave her the chance.

See also: The more you love someone, the more you want to kill them.

Hope this helps!
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:30 PM on January 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

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