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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles.
A teenage boy sits down with a friend, and before he says anything, we know how he's feeling. His shoulders are hunched. His right foot his is turned in. It's like he's collapsing on himself.
If you remember being a teenager---or you are one---then it's easy to recall when your own body told this awkward story.
That physicality guides Taylor Trensch's work in Bare: The Musical. In this "pop opera," Trensch plays Peter, a sweet, gay student at a Catholic high school who's secretly dating a jock. The boys have wildly different reactions to their first experience of love, and the show turns on their struggle to be honest with themselves and their community.
When he started rehearsals, Trensch wanted to master Peter's movements first. "It was helpful for me to work from the outside in," he says. "To experiment with posture and gait, to see how Peter moves, and see how that affected me on the inside."
Trensch, who has appeared in Wicked and is currently in rehearsals for the Broadway musical Matilda, doesn't create every character this way. "I approach each play differently, depending on how the director works and how the entire team is working," he says. "I don't want to be so set in stone with a process that it's impossible it communicate with anyone."
So why did it make sense to create Peter from the outside in? "This show is obviously very heavy," Trensch says. "And I think it's easy for actors to fall into a trap of feeling too much, or showing they have the ability to feel. If the cast is working too hard to communicate that---that we feel these emotions and we cry---then the audience would completely check out. I didn't want to start with finding Peter's turmoil, or else I'd be a sappy old sucker.
The next step was mastering the music, which is written by Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere. Peter's songs are both emotionally loaded and technically challenging, and Trensch had to find a balance between hitting the notes and selling the emotions. "I had to work hard on letting go and trusting that the music and the notes and the tones would help me communicate just as effectively as trying to muscle through a 'performance.'"
He points to a climactic song called "Absolution," where Peter confronts an authority figure after a crisis. "In rehearsals, the material was still so fresh, and I was still feeling everything to such a huge degree, that I could barely get through the song," he recalls. "And I think some part of me---the actor who loves to feel things---thought, 'Oh, this is great! People are gonna like this!"
But director Stafford Arima and music supervisor Lynne Shankel convinced him to lower the emotional volume and concentrate on singing the song. "That song became a million times more effective than it ever could have become if I were choking back tears and gasping for breath," Trensch says.
While he's taming the feelings in Bare, Trensch spends his days preparing for the family-friendly Matilda, based on Roald Dahl's novel about a gifted young girl. (Trensch plays her brother.) That creates a certain amount of whiplash, but the actor says it's valuable. "It's been nice to have something so upbeat and fun to do during the day," he explains. "It helps me find the hope and lightness in Peter. As we continue, it will be interesting to keep working differently from day to night."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Chad Batka