I had occasion, recently, to coach James, a character actor, who was auditioning for the role of the Devil in a smart, well-written dramady, at an up and coming downtown theatre. If they liked James, even if he didn’t get the part, he’d have his foot in the door with their casting director.
James has had a lot of training – mainly Meisner. Initially, he had come to me to strengthen his overall technique, but when the Devil came along, we switched abruptly to coaching. I had played the Devil once, myself, in an adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, Part II at the Marymount Theatre. My part was Mephistopheles in disguise as a hideous monster named Phorkyas, humpbacked and possessing only one tooth – I had a great mask and I got to direct the scene myself! James, on the other hand, was auditioning for the undisguised Devil, who is characterized, on the surface at least, as a Devil-may-care sort of tempter. Fortunately, James had had a couple of months to begin grounding himself in basic sense memory before this opportunity to audition came along. In a moment, we’ll get to why that’s important.
We were only able to Skype a few times before the audition, so we had to work quickly. We discussed the concept of the Devil, as he appears in various guises from The Devil and Daniel Webster, by Stephen Vincent Benet to The Exorcist, and we decided that what he wants is power. So the actor’s objective in the audition scene is to get the other character to submit to his will. Once that was established, we were able to move on to the ‘actions’ he uses to obtain this power.
As we began to set up the ‘actions’ an interesting complication occurred. James found that when he shifted from one ‘action’ to another – for example, switching from ‘upsetting his balance’ to ‘tempting him to abandon his lover’ - every line was still sounding more or less the same. At this point, we needed to work on subtext. Making a clear distinction between these actions was crucial; we couldn’t wait until the second beat of the scene where the Devil ‘warns’ the other character – because the first beat is at least two pages and requires at least one action change to keep it moving along dramatically. The scene was well-written, which helped.
And then, we discovered something particularly helpful about the way the Devil thinks – a major characteristic that makes him… well, the Devil. As long as he gets what he wants, his manner is rather pleasant and he can be quite amusing in his use of irony. But why is he like this? We must pin it down, get to the psychological basis of his behavior. I remember asking James, “What makes the Devil different from everyone else?” James was stumped and time was short, so I explained that the Devil is only interested in power and control. He doesn’t care about anything else. Nothing gets in his way – and he loves to play the game of gaining control. He’s good at it and it’s fun! James agreed, and his Devil began to smile, which helped immensely. But it didn’t really work until we talked about subtext.
I spent years figuring out subtext and how to teach it. My difficulty was rooted in oversimplification – something to which I’m not usually prone! It turns out that there are two subtexts. One is the deep subtext – this is where sense memory is essential; the other is the kind that is generally thought of as subtext - the one that gives intention to each line of text. The first ‘subtext’ is part of the actor’s preparation before actually entering into the scene. The second ‘subtext’ is composed of what the character actually means – not the words he says. It is an entire script which underlies the actual text. All acting takes place in conflict, so the deeper the problem, the more oppositional these subtexts become. (Don’t worry if this is confusing; I’ll be going into this in much more depth.)
James is an intelligent actor – also one who comes from a Catholic background - and he had said something earlier in our discussion about the Devil, which returned to my consciousness as we were talking about subtext. He mentioned that the Devil’s first incarnation had been as God’s angel, Lucifer – which, by the way, means ‘bearer of light.’ He was cast out of Heaven for trying to rise above God. This gave us a basis for figuring out the bottom subtext before we moved on to the subtext for the actual speaking of the lines. Since James was already aware of sensory recall, it wasn’t too difficult for him to go through the process that brings up an ‘image’ or ‘object’ from the unconscious. Once he had that in place, he not only knew what the scene was about, he was absolutely sure of the person to whom he was talking. Then he could figure out the other subtext which always supports the action that is being played. For example, let’s say your ‘action’ or ‘intention’ is to undermine, and the line is:
‘That’s a nice suit you’re wearing:’
A suitable subtext would be: ‘God, you look awful!’
But, of course, you’re the Devil, so you’re enjoying yourself – which brings us to ‘character adjustments,’ which will be one of our future subjects. I think we need to spend a little more time on ‘subtexts.’ And we’ll have to see how James worked it out and put it all together…