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  • Sonya Cooke

Pillar Number Three : Meaning


The magical thing about human nature is that the same event can happen to two people and it will be received and responded to differently. The event has a different meaning for the two individuals. For this reason, Meaning is the third Pillar. A Meaning is a character’s feeling, value, or perspective on a circumstance, character, or object in a play. If you are sitting in your home reading this, take a look around and notice the objects in your room. Consider what they mean to you, what history you have with them, what stories they tell just by looking at them. What feelings arise when you look at one of particular meaning? Can you specify what that meaning is precisely? Does it bring up laughter, happiness, or pain? Perhaps you are in a coffee shop, in which you have little personal connection; however, seek out something that goes beyond the visual and enters into memory, opinion or feeling. Maybe the barista smiles like an old flame of yours, and seeing that smile again fills you with loss. All meanings are not equal in weight and quantity; some things have no meaning at all. I feel passionately about one meaning and only have a small opinion about another. Simply by reading a newspaper headline, we can start to see how things mean things to us, without our even realizing it. The character is similarly unaware of his meanings. They just are. Meanings are wedded to the circumstance, person, or object. It is the actors job to distinguish between the two.

Meanings go far beyond inner thoughts and feelings. They impact our behavior and may manifest outwardly. When people see babies, they cannot help but boisterously greet them. To a certain degree, the behavior arises due to the meaning the individual has for adorable babies. Sanford Meisner is one of the acting theorist who understood how meanings impacted our behavior. He talks about the Pinch and the Ouch to describe the connection between an event and the impulse it generates. Through his training, actors learn to remove the emotional blocks that inhibit the expression of how an event affects them. Similarly, meanings explore how the character or actor is affected and helps to unlock it from the subconscious and bring it to the fore. Ultimately, by crafting meanings, an actor can implant a “pinch” in the script so that he can genuinely experience the “ouch” when the moment occurs onstage. Programming meanings is like burying land mines in a field so that when the character treads upon them, they erupt with spontaneous life and feeling. By identifying meanings in the script, the actor begins the process of endowing the play world with personal and rich “ouches.”

Identifying and specifying the meanings that stud every scene in every play is an essential practice for the actor for two important reasons: There are meanings imbedded in his surroundings that are not necessarily scripted but that definitely impact the character in the scene. Meanings allow for more emotional depth and connection to the character. I say “emotional” because the intellect is insufficient. The multitudes of knowing can never replace one ounce of emotional understanding, and this is gained only when the actor makes a personal connection to the meaning at hand. And secondly, the actor mustn't confuse the character's meaning for his own meaning. In the early stages of the process, it is helpful to separate out the meanings for the actor from the character, because it helps establish a home base for the actor where he knows how he genuinely relates to the playword. From there he can grow into the character, but he can never do so if he doesn't begin from his own sense of truth. This harkens back to the importance of the truth barometer. An actor must adhere to and strengthen his truth barometer by not betraying it with taking on another's meaning. Instead, he must be ruthlessly honest to say that he doesn't share a meaning with his character. There is plenty of time to cultivate that meaning. Let's examine a simple example to test out this idea: If the meaning is that my character screams in pain when a passer-by steps on her toes, I can relate because I've been there before. However, what if the meaning is more far-reaching? What if my character burst into laughter when her toes were stepped on? I could not pretend that I shared that meaning. It would be false, and at this early stage, we do not have to force ourselves into a mold that doesn't fit. We must begin first by being truthful about our similarities and differences. It will help us know what to work on down the road.

Also, by being frank about what is truthful to us, we begin to weed out the common affliction among actors of "Playing Emotion." A pernicious trick that actors frequently rely on, playing emotion means acting based on the perceived emotions of the character. An example would be saying to yourself, “I’m sad on this line and complacent on this line,” and simply serving that interpretation. An actor playing his emotions onstage is simply not in the reality of the play; in fact, doing so creates a huge gulf between himself and the character. At all times, the actor must avoid this tactic by not forcing emotions. Later Pillars address how the actor's truth barometer is adapted to accommodate another's meanings, but until then, let's examine how a meaning works and is used as a tool.

Meanings are broken down into three steps: Identify, Specify, and Try On for Size. Let’s take, for example, a moment from The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams: One of Laura's precious figurines in her collection breaks. Using the steps above, let’s explore the meaning:

1. The actor inhabiting the role of "Laura" first identifies the moment as when the figurine falls and breaks. This is a moment that has meaning to her. On a separate sheet of paper, the actor simply writes out this moment.

2. Then the actor specifies what it means to Laura. The script will suggest to the actor how to specify the meaning, but it’s up to her to get crystal clear on it. The actress has artistic license to get as detailed and particular as she likes, but specifying emphasizes distillation as opposed to elaboration. Perhaps it’s as simple as the fact that Laura is devastated. But, maybe it signifies loss of hope, helplessness, or the end of perfection…the possibilities and nuances are limitless.

3. Once the meaning is identified and specified, the actor tries it on for size. She assesses her choice by asking herself this question: Does this meaning personally affect me in the way I’ve specified? If the answer is “yes,” then the work stops there. She’s activated a tiny, ticking time bomb that will erupt onstage when the figurine crashes to the ground. If the answer is “no,” the actor then begins the process entailed in the next Pillar. There is no shame in answering "no." If the actor fails to hold to his honesty, then he will craft himself out of a role. Actors who do not acknowledge their own sense of truth and only consider the feelings of the character will find themselves puppeteering the role, not really living it. The audience wants to see the character brought to life through the spirit and body of that actor. If he does not lend his humanity to the role, the audience would be better off seeing a cartoon, robot or hologram.

Ultimately, meaning work results in a to-do list for the actor's homework. From the three steps of breaking down meanings, the actor now knows what meanings need to be adapted and transformed. Without this list, the actor may wander blindly through the role, not sure what to work on. Working on meanings helps to streamline the actor's process by giving him a path to follow. From this point on, the magic of transformation begins. From here we depart from an intellectual gathering of circumstance and meaning and venture into our imaginations to transform into character.

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