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  • Sonya Cooke

PILLAR #2: CIRCUMSTANCE


BUILDING A STRUCTURE

“If you build it, he will come.” ---Field of Dreams

If Contact is the foundation, then Circumstances are the walls and contours of the house. And, they must feel as real and as solid as the walls of the house you live in in your own life. To the character, his circumstances are not imaginary, they are real, impending and meaningful; therefore, our standard is to create REAL circumstances that we can believe in and give over to imaginatively. In this Pillar we will begin to explore our character’s circumstances, so it’s important for us to begin from a place of respect. The Circumstance Pillar is not an intellectual exercise; each circumstance is an opportunity to activate the imagination and translate it into your own perspective.

Circumstances: the facts, events, actions and details taking place in the past, present, and future, exclusively from the character’s perspective, a circumstance is anything that happens TO the character. An emotion is not a circumstance, but the emotions of others definitely are.

“Acting is Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances.” ---Sanford Meisner

IMAGINARY VERSES REAL CIRCUMSTANCES

When playing a fictional character, it is a misnomer to think we are merely dealing with fiction. On the contrary, to someone, namely our character, these circumstances are real. We should treat our fictional characters as we do our historical ones. Typically, when an actor portrays a “real” person, living or dead, he feels responsible to uphold the truth of that individual’s life. Inauthenticity in the performance of a historical character is disrespectful, and ignorance of his or her life is more or less unacceptable. However, for some reason, this sentiment is not the same for works of fiction, which is a big mistake. Even though our characters were dreamt up in the imagination of the playwright, these life experiences, of the billions of lives that have lived and died on this planet, have certainly occurred in real-time to SOMEONE. Therefore, we can lend these circumstances some credence. The assimilation of these life experiences into one character is truly a work of brilliant and eclectic authenticity, as it brings to one body the make-up of many stories. Let’s start off on equal footing with our characters, not putting our lives ahead of theirs, but rather valuing it as we value our own. By respecting the character’s circumstances, we can start to believe them.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” --- Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein posited that the world in which we live takes place in the mind, that it is “merely an illusion.” In other words, there is nothing experienced outside of us that isn’t filtered through our perspective, thoughts, and feelings. Therefore, we are living under imaginary circumstances in our own lives! They are not “real.” Instead, they are highly processed details that seem real due to redundancy, or “persistence” as Einstein sees it.

The only thing that makes them seem real is that we BELIEVE in them, and because we believe them, they feel real. Reality is felt, while imaginary circumstance can only be imagined in the mind. Once a circumstance is known to be imaginary, its potency is gone. Much like being spooked by a shadow in a dark corner, once it is revealed to not be a real threat, the fear subsides. Therefore, because of the degree of belief, the circumstances of our lives seem more real than the circumstances of our characters. But in fact, the only distinction between these sets of circumstances, one’s own and one’s character, is the degree and fervency of BELIEF. Maybe by considering life more subjectively and by holding our circumstances more lightly, we may be able to let them go long enough to relate to another set of circumstances.

GIVEN AND FABRICATED CIRCUMSTANCES

Circumstances can be broken up into two different categories, given and fabricated:

Given Circumstances: those written by the playwright/author/writer in the script itself. They are non-negotiable in an actor’s interpretation.

Fabricated Circumstances: those created by the actor and based on the given circumstances in order to flesh out the role or events of the story. They are limitless in the actor’s imagination.

Much like connecting the dots of an image, acting a role requires the actor to use the circumstances given by the playwright in the text to create a fleshed out representation of the character. Given circumstances are naturally the first ones to examine as they are the constant and will define what the actor can embellish and expand upon. It is important to closely examine the text to comb it for given circumstances, as these will be the guideposts for interpretation.

Fabricated circumstances are truly the actor’s playground. They are the millions of ways he can fill in the blank spaces and weave a dynamic and authentic character. Whenever an actor is unsure of a sequence of events within the script, he can fabricate a circumstance to satisfy that need. When it is not clear what the relationship is between two characters, he can create circumstances to make the relationship more compelling. Most importantly, if the actor feels inauthentic in a moment, he can fabricate circumstances to justify an action or connect more deeply to the character’s truth. If he feels he is generating a moment or pushing emotionally, a well placed fabricated circumstance can encourage causation, allowing the actor to respond to a more specific and fleshed out circumstance.

As long as it is justifiable in the script, the actor has free reign to add circumstances as he sees needs fit. The more an actor fabricates circumstances the better he can envision, believe and ultimately give over to the imaginary circumstances. The Devil is in the details; if the goal is to feel circumstances as if they were one’s own, then the more specifically and thoroughly one fabricates, the more real the circumstances appear. Specificity can be found by delving into the senses: the touch, taste, smell, feel, sound, and sight of a moment. Activate one or any combination of these senses, and the body-mind cannot help but yield to the moment you are envisioning.

THIRD PERSON VERSES FIRST PERSON

Actors often speak of their character in the third person: “My character is so-and-so years old and has such-and-such a life.” “He is depressed about this but very excited about that.” Such wording only sets the actor up to perceive the role from the outside looking in, keeping it at arm’s length. Also, it encourages analysis of the effect rather than the cause of the character, which will never satisfy the deeper character questions we, as actors, want to ask. Therefore, may I suggest that from here on out, we refer to our character in first person. Instead of “He lives in Detroit,” say “I live in Detroit.” Making this shift is huge, as it starts to work on the imagination: the brain hears you speaking in first person and subtly starts to believe it. The actor will also slowly stop spewing judgments regarding his character. “He is a bit of an SOB” is harder to say in first person, which inhibits such harsh generalizations. It is easy to judge others, but we are more discerning and sympathetic when it comes to judging ourselves, which brings us to the issue of objectivity verses subjectivity.

OBJECTIVITY VERSES SUBJECTIVITY

To the actor, the only circumstances that really matter are those that come from the character’s perspective. And those circumstances are either objective or subjective.

Objective Circumstances are those that are verifiably true in the world of the character, such as a character’s occupation or city of residence, for example “I wait tables at Applebee’s.”

Subjective Circumstances are those that come in the form of thoughts, perspectives, beliefs, opinions and judgments, such as “Men are not to be trusted,” “That dress is ugly,” or “Peter, my customer, is very insulting.”

To the character, there is little difference between objective and subjective circumstances. If a character waits tables and also thinks Peter is insulting, these two circumstances may be equally true and real to him. In fact, subjective circumstances may seem more real than the objective ones, as they impact the individual more. Peter, in this instance, may be a lawyer, but the fact that he is insulting may be more relevant or impactful than his occupation.

In life, we value objective perspective more highly than the subjective, since objectivity is verifiable by facts. However, in terms of acting, this is not the case; objective circumstances are no more important that subjective circumstances. In fact, since subjective circumstances are formed by past experiences, impressions, and judgments, they are oftentimes more poignant and powerful, as they reflect the character’s identity.

SEQUENCE CIRCUMSTANCES

In view of the above, there are numerous aspects of Circumstance, but ultimately each one must qualify as one of the Sequence Circumstances: Global, Past, Previous, Present, Future, and Potential. These different categories delineate how the circumstances apply in time (past, present and future) to the character.

GLOBAL CIRCUMSTANCES

Global Circumstances are the general rules of the world and dominating features of the character’s past, such as: I was born and raised in Nebraska, I have two parents, my father left me at age ten, I went to community college, I have a best friend named Rudy, so on and so forth. Global Circumstances address how one’s roots or nurturing define character, and these details paint a picture for the actor to understand how the character came to be who he is. Just as we are the sum total of all the events of our lives, so are our characters. Oftentimes, actors write character biographies, which is a perfect way to create and lay out Global Circumstances.

PAST CIRCUMSTANCES

This leads us to the next category, Past Circumstance. Past circumstances dwell in the character’s past and are more particular to the story or scene at hand. Less like an objective biography, they are subjective and personal to the character and invite the actor to daydream. One of the best ways to get acquainted with circumstances, daydreaming is the process of living out past character moments and events by using the imagination, body and voice to imagine and bring these moments to life. For example, if in a scene a character decides to divorce his spouse, it might be useful to examine and daydream the past experiences of the couple. The actor could start with when they first met, when they got married, what their moments of tension and conflict were, or he could visit a major disagreement, etc. Any and all of this would give the scene in which he tells his wife he wants a divorce more authenticity and depth.

By investigating through daydreaming the past circumstances of the story, the actor creates the bedrock of experience and an excellent point of reference for the character. Life experience informs how we make decisions in the present, and events from the past color how we perceive the world around us in the here and now; therefore, by connecting with these experiences of the character, the actor enriches the choices his character makes in the story at hand.

PREVIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES

At a certain point, the past runs into the present, and at this juncture is our next Sequence category: Previous Circumstances. It's particularly important to be crystal clear on what happens in this time frame since Previous Circumstances deal with the past events that lead immediately and directly into the action of the story or scene. There are no hard and fast rules on when exactly a circumstance qualifies as “Previous;” this is an artistic choice for the actor to make. It could be the day of, an hour before, ten minutes before, whatever is most useful to the actor. The Previous Circumstances align the actor with the present moment. It’s analogous to turning on the radio and catching a news story mid-sentence. Oftentimes, the listener must spend a few moments figuring out the gist of the story in order to follow along. Without hearing a bit of the set-up, the listener struggles to understand what he is hearing in the moment. Much like the radio listener, the actor must “tune into” the character by connecting to the previous circumstances before entering any scene.

Continuing the example of the character divorcing his wife, it would be appropriate for the actor to clarify and daydream his previous circumstances: maybe he is on the way home from a bar where he had been preparing himself to drop the bomb to this wife. If so, the actor could daydream being at the bar, walking home, coming to the front door, searching for his keys, pausing before inserting the key in the door, considering returning to the bar, smelling the dinner cooking, and therefore deciding to go in. It is these details that viscerally draw the actor into the first moment that starts the scene. By acquainting with the recent past, the actor can engage with the present.

PRESENT CIRCUMSTANCES

Once the scene has begun, the actor is now in the territory of Present Circumstances. Specificity becomes even more necessary in this segment, as the actor lives moment-to-moment in the scene. Present Circumstances are all the events that happen to the character, as opposed to anything the character does himself. We are dismantling the hyper-awareness of self an actor often suffers from and focusing on external causation, shifting his attention to his surroundings to get to the root of his actions and words. If this is confusing, consider your life and observe yourself as you are right now. While reading this, maybe you’ve scratched your nose or got up for a cup of coffee. These are all the observable manifestations or effects of a cause: the itch on the nose insisting that you scratch, the silence of the coffeepot signifying that coffee is ready, the early morning hour compelling you to caffeinate lest you fall asleep in your text. The simple fact is that every action we take, every thing we say, every feeling we feel, is a direct response to stimuli that pull and tug at us in every moment of the day, whether we are aware of it or not.

Due to this natural proclivity to attach to and identify with circumstances and the chaos it can incur, people often practice spirituality or philosophies that encourage self-awareness and detachment from the circumstances of life. In so doing, they cultivate an ability to be in the world but not of it, centered and less susceptible to the slings and arrows of the day-to-day. This is a wonderful state to practice in life, but it is death to an actor, who already suffers from too much self-awareness when he acts. Drama and comedy never revolve around centered beings. Peace and happiness are neither dramatically or comically interesting! Instead, the characters we are playing are in the throes of their circumstances, much to the intrigue and delight of their audience. Therefore, it behooves us, as actors, to immerse ourselves in these external forces, and place all the blame of our actions, words and feelings on them!

I have heard actors say, “I just can’t get out of my head,” a version of self-awareness that inhibits the actor’s ability to be present to the story at hand. Delving deep into Present Circumstances is the total antidote to this hapless self-absorption. To do this, we look through the lens of the character who cannot see himself, but rather sees a vast world of circumstance happening to him and forcing his hand to act.

Let’s use the example from above of the husband entering the house, but now in the first person: The strong smell of garlic and onion hits me, my hunger kicks in. My wife, Carol, approaches; she smiles at me, there is some tension in her face, she asks me to set the table. She talks about her day, she is in a slightly stressed mood. The forks aren’t in the drawer, she points me toward the dish-washer. She smells good, her hair is damp, she must have showered recently. She opens the pot and in it is chicken korma. She asks me to help serve and inquires about my day. She senses my discomfort. She keeps asking me questions. She is on to me. The details are limitless, but the actor can prioritize what present circumstances heighten the stakes of the scene, connect him more deeply to his partner, and/or spur him on to achieve his objective.

Clarifying present circumstances can feel like painting in the style of Pointillism: each dot is an individual moment, painstakingly crafted. There is great value in this work; however, it’s also useful to cluster Present Circumstances into Episodes, or Beats. Episodes, also called Beats, are the chapters of a scene; as contained segments, they have a primary event or action taking place. All the characters in a scene should be able to agree on what essentially is happening in an individual Episode (likely this is an objective circumstance,) although they will have their own perspective on it. An episode is like a tiny planet: it has its own rules and belief systems governing it. To utilize this tool, the actor, either alone or with a scene partner, identifies the major episodes that occur within one scene and gives each episode a title. It is important that the title encapsulates all the different points of view. In examining the episodes in sequence, one should feel that they are covering all the major movements of the scene.

One can tell the beginning or ending of an episode when there is a significant shift in action, behavior or conversation amongst the characters. These circumstances are called Game-Changers, in that they change the course of the scene. It’s useful to clarify when a game-changing circumstance occurs, because it signifies a shift in the rules of the play-world.

In our example of the husband divorcing his wife, the first episode could be titled, “Something unsaid” as it is the major event taking place. Within it, Carol is realizing there is something pressing on her husband’s mind, and to him, he is discovering that she is picking up on his burdensome state of mind. The game-changer would likely be when he finally says to her that he wants a divorce, at which point the episode may be appropriately titled “Divorce.” From episode to episode, information is revealed, points of view change, and action is taken. Delineating these changes helps the actor to commit to the moment he is in and make the shifts of action and realization only when they happen to him.

FUTURE CIRCUMSTANCES

Just as much as the past and present affect the character, so to does the future. Future Circumstances are the next category of Sequence Circumstances. Although certainty of the future is a contradiction in terms, we depend upon the enfoldment of the future without question. The future is never a given, no matter how consistently dependable it may seem to be. Only by repetition of experience have we grown to lend our faith to Future Circumstances. Relating this to life: Very likely the reader knows he's going to go to bed this evening; he has a good sense of what will likely happen tomorrow: he will have breakfast, he will go to work, he will pick up some groceries, etc. He depends upon these plans. When the day’s itinerary is set, there is no reason to doubt its enfoldment. Why would you think otherwise? However, the truth is we have no guarantees that night will come tonight, that work will happen tomorrow, or that groceries will be bought. We put so much stock in what is only a false guarantee; the future makes no promises. Nevertheless, we make our plans, and we believe in them.

Just the same, the character is counting on certain Future Circumstances to transpire. It is useful to identify what those Future Circumstances are to the character, as they affect how the character behaves in the present. If you knew that in a few hours, you would be with the love of your life, you would behave differently in the present moment, as opposed to knowing that you would be with your arch nemesis. With either a loved one or an arch nemesis looming in the future, your behavior alters. On this premise, we realize the potency of Future Circumstances in our craftwork. What is your character expecting or anticipating?

Future Circumstances are an excellent acting tool in that they set the stage for very full realizations, disappointments and revelations during the scene. A character who fully believes in a future circumstance will be terribly disappointed and surprised when the story takes another turn. Every character has his own idea of how his story will play out. He is completely unaware that things will not go his way…who is? Who can anticipate such things? We wish we could, but unfortunately we are stuck with blind faith, and so, too, are our characters. This lack of hindsight knowledge is the key to crafting discoveries in scenes. Setting up what you don’t know is just as useful as setting up what you do know. But how do we, as actors, un-know what we know will happen in a scene? By fully investing in future circumstances. The more fervent the faith, the greater the surprise the character/actor genuinely experiences in the moment.

Perhaps Carol is planning on watching a movie with her husband on this evening, or she intends to discuss a vacation for just the two of them. With these plans set in mind, she will be all the more surprised when her husband voices his desire to divorce and those future circumstances come to a screeching halt.

POTENTIAL CIRCUMSTANCES

Remember the Subjunctive verb tense from French or Spanish class? We have it in English, too, but don’t study it closely. The Subjunctive is the verb tense of what could be. The basic structure is “If X then Y.” It is a unique tense, as it dwells in the possible, not in the actual. Example: “If I study hard, I will do well on the test.” There are no guarantees, only good guesses. If Future Circumstances affect how characters behave, then what impact does potentiality have? Potential Circumstances are those that haven’t yet come to pass and depend on certain action; in other words, the future is contingent on certain factors playing out. Compare this to how we think and behave in life: We live in the potential state of mind all the time without realizing it … “If I take a class at this acting school, then I will have the chance to perform, as well,” “If I sit close to this attractive woman, I may get to chat with her,” “If I eat this frozen yogurt, I will feel happier.” It is through the lens of the potential that we gauge, implement or redirect our actions. This is a powerful aspect of our consciousness to tap into, as it is how we manifest our desires and goals, large and small; thus, in this way, Potential Circumstances affect our behavior.

Future Circumstances are more concrete and dependable, like:

"I will eat dinner tonight.”

“I will marry so-and-so tomorrow.”

“I will complete my degree.”

“I will meet my lawyer at 2pm.”

Potential Circumstances are more elusive. Written in an “IF/THEN” statement, they usually are grappling with an obstacle of some sort:

“If I complete this task, I will be able to join my friend for dinner.”

“If I confront my fiancé, then I won’t be deceiving him or myself anymore.”

“If I meet with my professor, I can possibly salvage my grade.”

“If I convince the bus driver to let me on, then I stand a chance to make my meeting.”

As you can see, if the character plays her cards right, she may gain a set of future circumstances she desires, and this compels her to act. It is best to consider Potential Circumstances in a positive light by wording them in such a way that improves the character’s situation. It is easy to succumb to the negative as an actor by playing the problem, however it’s antithetical to how we live life. Even in the depths of despair there is a silver lining, and we reach for it no matter how grim our state. It’s important to clarify that “positive” doesn’t mean rainbows and sunshine, nor does “negative” mean evil and bad. Positive, in acting terms, means progressing toward your goal, and negative means affirming the obstacle or devolving into the problem.

Here are some examples: Negative --> Positive Potential Circumstances:

“If I don’t say something, then Carole and I will continue to struggle.”

--> “If I say something, then the truth will be known.”

“If I deflect her interrogation, then she will remain in the dark.”

--> “If I answer truthfully, then she can take the steps to move on.”

“If I don’t explain my reasoning for divorce, then she won’t understand me.”

--> “If I explain myself, then she may understand and calm down.”

Actors should lean against the positive rather than the negative, as it brings them closer to the circumstances the character desires. Potential Circumstances are the circumstances hoped for; therefore, the actor, as the character, strives to make what is possible actual. This makes for an active, dynamic performance; an audience loves to see characters fight for something tooth and nail.

However, there is still good reason to acknowledge what you are running away from just as much as what you are running toward. Declan Donnellan in his book, The Actor and the Target, stresses the use of Binaries: the person/event/thing you repel and person/event/thing you desire. According to him, these two poles of one’s objective and obstacle are like gravitational magnets steering your direction. Without one, you cannot have the other. Explore the power of what you don’t want and how it can motivate your action in tandem with your positive Potential Circumstances.

IN SUMMATION The Circumstance Pillar builds the house in which the character lives. When the character feels rooted in his surroundings, previous, present, and future, all he has to do is live and respond truthfully to what is around him. With this structure comes tremendous freedom for the actor. When responding to a circumstance, the actor need generate nothing on his own. He crafts his circumstances meticulously so that effort is entirely absent from his performance. Relating this, again, to our own lives (our best teacher), we do not effort to experience or feel anything. Things just happen! And it’s the same for the characters in the story. They are responding to stimuli and aiming for the happy ending they envision at the end of their personal story. The circumstances and environment dictate the character. All the actor has to do is assume the circumstances and the character's life happens on its own.

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© 2013 by Sonya Cooke. All rights reserved

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