Kernals of Truth: Imrovisation and Discovery.

by Randall Wise

Iron Age has a unique rehearsal process, one that often heavily depends on improvisation, especially early in the process when we are actively discovering character relationships, exploring subtext and developing backstory.

For “Buried Child” our first two full rehearsals were almost entirely improvs. Tuesday, the first night, was a long, hard, physical night for all, but especially Dave Fiebert (playing Dodge). Through intense activity which included Dave being literally restrained to have his hair “cut,” Dave found a voice and physicality for his character, but also discovered a profound emotional place in himself that helps explain Dodge’s actions in the play.

Wednesday night we had three actors in (Dave, Chuck and Luke, playing Dodge, Tilden and Bradley). After our usual ball toss warm up, the evening began with a basic question: why is Tilden the way he is? 20140215-123429.jpgIn “BC” Tilden is a severely emotionally damaged man – Shepard describes him as profoundly burned out and displaced. He has clearly had a traumatic life experience that has left him in shock and almost completely shut down. The question the actor Chuck had was why? What happened? Was it one thing or a series of events? The script gives us clues, and John and I had some ideas, but we feel the best way for an actor to learn about a character is to discover it through work. Improvisations, especially with a group of actors as intuitive, supportive and willing to take risks as Chuck, Dave and Luke, are a terrific tool to let an actor discover answers.

We always tell actors that improv is a tool – it won’t always give us what we want, and sometimes it will “blow up” and we will have to call it and move on to another. But it has been our experience that even in an improv that doesn’t work you find answers, even if the answer is that particular direction is the wrong way to go. Most of the time though, kernals of truth appear, and often there are real revelations. One of the coolest things about improv when it is working is that doors are opened that you hadn’t expected.

This night was a great example of that.

We started with a simple physical exercise for Chuck, where he had to do a repeated activity, stacking wood, focusing entirely on that while Dave and Luke tried to distract him. Watching Chuck dive into this, seeing him develop an emotional attachment to the wood he was building with, and how he was finding a vocal and physical truth for Tilden it occurred to me in a flash we should push this exercise into a new place – a door had opened.

A significant prop in the play is a fur coat that Tilden in fascinated with. We had a fur coat in the room, I pulled Chuck aside and gave him the coat and told him to continue where he was going but now to hang onto the coat (Dave and Luke were instructed to try and get it from him any way they could other than directly taking it from him). As the improv continued and Dave and Luke pleaded, threatened, bribed and demanded the coat, Chuck/Tilden agreed with them in every case but wouldn’t give up the coat. Dave and Luke were playing their characters Dodge and Bradley, and using the text of the script, began to talk about the family pact and how Tilden had to give them the coat to save the family. Tilden agreed, but couldn’t hand the coat over. It suddenly became very clear to all of us what the coat symbolized and how, in the text, when he agrees to give it up, the “switch” in Tilden’s head is tripped. It was a profoundly powerful rehearsal moment and all of us were thrilled, and shaken by the revelation – a revelation they lived through.

We may have found that same answer by talking it through, but it is my belief that finding answers through the work creates a much more profound connection for the actor, a sense memory they can draw on from their gut.

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