Twelfth Night – Losing the Stage Business

Today was a hard rehearsal. And as it came to a close, I asked myself a difficult question:

Big Fish.

“Am I being a bad actor, or are we just working through a process? Or is it both?”

For my last mainstage production at UVic before I graduate, I am cast in The Bard’s Twelfth Night as Malvolio. I am rather fond of this character, of how he allows me to explore different magnitudes, from his snobby dismissiveness towards fools like Feste and Sir Andrew, to his deepset love for Olivia, to his painful disappointment in Maria, to his protectiveness as he aims to shield Olivia from being taken advantage of by Sir Toby, and to many other shades. He needs to be played honestly, but fully.

I especially like the Romantic-Comedy-esque moment of Malvolio learning to smile and declaring proudly and giddily to the world,


Great fun.

For the past few days, however, we have been working the scene where Malvolio, transformed by the belief that Olivia loves him (though she doesn’t), comes to her to accept her (falsified) proposal of love. Malvolio is, until this point, a prim and proper man, in a full business suit, but in this scene (in our version), he wears yellow leather pants that are stitched open all the way up their sides, an open black vest with a bare chest, and a riding crop. For naughty business.

A Riding Crop
A Riding Crop, via Wikipedia

And what business we tried. Yesterday, we went all out in the seductive/sleazy route, pushing Olivia to take the riding crop and slap me in the rump with it, to the point of getting down on all fours and presenting my butt in the air, and so forth. This sort of dominatrix desire approach is… well, certainly foreign to me, but I gave it the ol’ British what ho and tried my best. Honestly though, rather than just being very awkward (I’m a better actor than that), I found myself instead drowning in a mental list of “remember this line, and on this line, hold crop like so, move just like so, hit self like so, keep point of focus on this specific part of her, oh, and try to listen,  then move here to do this….”

Spanking Douglas
Less of this.

Essentially, I lost the scene, lost everything in an assembly line list of instructions. Now, actors need to be able to ‘walk and chew bubble gum at the same time’ as our director, the charming Linda Hardy, likes to say – that is, we need to be able to say our lines and remember blocking while playing a scene, certainly. But all this business with the riding crop and getting down on all fours and pretending to be a lion while being seductive and emoting the text… I lost Malvolio to it all.

So today, coming back to the scene, we tried to go back to that idea, and it was a forced, awkward mess. So Linda had us go back to brass tacks, back to the emotional, honest truth of the situation. A man enters a room, believing with all his heart that a woman loves him. A man pursues that while realizing he needs to talk in code, as others are around… before finally he just goes for it and grabs her, dances with her, kisses her copiously. No forced ‘use the riding crop in this way on line one, then this way in line two, then this way in line three…’, just a more natural flow that can now be worked on and solidified. And I really feel like Malvolio doing his best to be a Casanova, rather than awkwardly trying to force him into a becoming a closeted BDsM desirer.

Malvolio and the Countess
More of this.

Still, I felt guilty, like I had failed somehow in not being able to make Linda’s original thought work for the scene. Shouldn’t a good actor be able to make any stage/acting business work for their character, if the director asks for it?

So after our rehearsal ended, I went up to Linda and apologized somewhat sheepishly. She told me my apology was nonsense, that her directing style was to try one thing, and if it doesn’t work, to try something else, and so forth, swimming about until we hit upon a right way for the scene. A brainstorming, prototyping process. After all, why force the first concept if there are obvious difficulties?

And while my ego isn’t entirely put back together again, I understand. After all, above all else, the honesty, the eager, earnest truth of the scene, needs to be there.

That is more important than any stage business.

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