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Don't Think, Just Be

Date: Oct 19, 2009


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When is it time to stop talking about your performance and just start performing? That’s a question every actor has to answer, but for the cast of Vigil, a dark comedy currently running at Off Broadway’s DR2 Theatre, it has proven especially relevant. Both actors have unusual roles that demand a careful balance of analysis and instinct.

As Grace, Helen Stenborg is onstage for the entire show, but she says almost nothing. A mild-mannered shut-in who’s guarding a secret, Grace mostly stays in bed while her nephew Kemp (Malcolm Gets) impatiently waits for her to die and leave him all her money.

Kemp, meanwhile, never stops talking. He chatters about himself, his family, and his plans to help his dear auntie kick the bucket.

Obviously, playwright Morris Panych has created characters who exist at opposite extremes, and though they eventually develop an authentic relationship, neither Grace nor Kemp is exactly “real.” They’re heightened comic foils, practically taunting the actors who must decide how to play them.

Director Stephen DiMenna, who’s also a senior teaching artist for TDF’s education program, says it was crucial to make the characters seem connected, even when Grace wasn’t speaking. “We rehearsed every day together, and we never did separate rehearsals for Malcolm’s monologues,” he explains. “We sought every opportunity to make connections. Sometimes it was ‘sit closer here on the bed’ or ‘pull up the stool here.’ They really worked through all of it as if they were speaking dialogue to each other.”

Stenborg, whose career spans over sixty years, sees a clear benefit in her role. “For me, one of the basic things about acting is listening, so surely, Grace is a wonderful opportunity to practice your craft,” she says. She adds that she’s spent time working out what Grace is thinking as she sits on stage. “I’ve got all my secrets, and nobody knows about them,” she says. “I just don’t like to talk about those things.”

Still, she’s only willing to think so much about Grace’s motivations.  “I never like to talk about characters. I pretty much try to follow the author’s intent,” she says. “People say, ‘Why doesn’t Grace ever talk?,’ but I don’t analyze it or try to sort it out.”

Gets is also wary of over-thinking. “Kemp has all these defense mechanisms and fears and neuroses,” he says. “The challenge is to march right in and commit to those things. Like a lot of actors, there’s a part of me that wants the audience to like me, and I find that when I’m doing this play, I just can’t concern myself with that. I just have to commit to Kemp’s self-involvement and his temper tantrums.”

In other words, the actor isn’t that interested in psychologically analyzing his character. “In my earlier career, I was into talking about things more, objectives and things like that. It all started to change for me when I started to work on camera,” says Gets, who rose to fame on the television series Caroline in the City. “The camera is about relationships, but it’s not always about words, and there’s an electricity between the actors that comes from trying to guess what’s in each other’s minds. I’ve really tried to carry that back to the theatre.”

DiMenna adds, “I’ve had actors say to me, ‘Why does he say this line right here?’ and I say, ‘Because the author put it there on the page.’ And sometimes there’s not a better answer than that. Once you let go of the need for a psychological reason for saying things, it frees you just to play it.”

Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor