The Transformation of “Beauty and the Beast”

Kari Curletto (Belle) and I during a particularly harrowing rehearsal during the first run of “Beauty and the Beast.”

When I first went into rehearsal for P.S. Production’s version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast last April (’08), I found myself very excited to jump into the colorful role of Gaston. This classic Disney tale has long been my favorite Disney movie, and I was thrilled to be a part of what was sure to be an amazing show. Rehearsals started with the usual aligning of schedules, theatre games and exercises and day-to-day rituals of choreography, vocals and blocking. Things went just fine for a while. I was feeling confident. But, then after about a week or so, (particularly when it was my time to beging in-depth character development), I found myself getting frustrated about what I was able to offer in my scenework. (Or, rather, what was being received by the audience…aka: the director.)

If you never met me, or are unaccustomed to my work ethic…allow me to detail my mind set. I’m a very energetic, passionate dude, who admits to an occasional A.D.D. fueled speed bump, but will always give 100%, all of the time. (Simply because productions demand that…and because I love to perform and consider the opportunity a great priviledge. It is my way of offering thanks…my devoted time, efforts and talents.) I try not to be arrogant…but I think the performing profession demands a level of confidence in order to be successful, so I try to over compensate that with an even greater level of gratitude and support for others.

I love working with others because I feel like I can take away ideas, processes, disciplines, etc. that I have not thought of before. There is no sense of “leading role vs. ensemble” in my little world. (Yeah, right, you say.) I truly believe that the best work comes from a strong, unified ensemble where everyone is there to build a perfect story. Anything we can learn from one another becomes part of that ensemble’s efforts, and anyone lucky enough to be in the room at that time should benefit from that.

With that said, the frustration I felt came from the inability to provide what I felt was being demanded by Belle and LeFou, my scene partners. (Both of these actors, by the way are very good friends…and brilliant. I mean it. I have no reason for false flattery.) I found myself at war with…myself! I wanted so badly to provide the nuance, the look, the gesture, the posture, the motivation…the whatever!…so that the moment in that story reads well to the audience, and adds to the show.  We worked and worked and worked. We tried games and exercises…we switched roles and even sat and had in depth discussions about the characters.

I will tell you the director’s name. It’s Phil Shelburne, and he’s amazing. For weeks this sort of frustration brewed in me. Over time it bubbled and grew into an acute determination to make something out of a character I had trouble connecting with. Phil never gave up on me, and even in the moments when I felt completely removed, he would ask me questions like “how did you feel about that?” I would answer. And he would simply look back and smile and say, “okay. Let’s do it again.” And we would. And I would be tired. And I would be stressed. And out of that repetition…out of that unwillingness to compromise….out of that “tough love” for lack of better words, Gaston slowly crept out. I remember at one point Phil looking over to me during a final dress rehearsal and saying “…now that was something. Why must you battle me, Erik!” That felt so good. But it also made approaching this second run of Beauty and the Beast that much sweeter.

I look at this upcoming second run of the show as my opportunity to work with what I already know in a very different way. My instincts tell me to remain comfortable and rely on already engraved processes, connections and discoveries. But, I want desperately (and so does Phil) to reinvent this character.

This week when I began character development work with Phil and others, I felt myself slump back into that same frustrating rut. (Dang it!) It doesn’t help that I was having a “bad” week. (Locked my keys in the car, incidents in class with students kept my frustration levels high, etc.) But, let’s be honest. Those are excuses. Theatre is an escape from reality. But, especially last Friday I noticed something I never realized before. My roadblock…or rather, oversized speed bump…was the fact that I was thinking about it too much. (Phil says this to me all the time. That I’m the very definition of a cerebrial actor. Someone who thinks too much. Imagine that. Wish my high school career was peppered with comments like that! Phooey on you Mr. Glenn!)

But seriously…I would be in the middle of a scene and instead of LISTENING to my partner….I would be thinking about what I should be doing. Instead of REACTING to my partner….I was thinking about how to react. Silly, isn’t it? Some may say….well, just STOP DOING IT! But that’s what’s going on…I notice myself THINKING, and I’m struggling with myself to STOP THINKING, during the scene! Yikes! It’s a bad, bad thing. Sounds crazy, I know! But add on top of that a wildy enthusiastic personality who ONLY wants to do well for the show and make his fellow cast members and director proud….and you’ve got a fine, fine mess. On a Friday, no less! (I even bought cookies!)

I’ve been there. Someone once said that a true actor find’s the difficulties of the actor’s art infinite. (I think it was Stella Adler. Correct me if I’m wrong.) Well, I suppose I’m on the road to being a true actor, because I’m frustrated. I slept in until 10am yesterday hoping to put to rest those icky feelings and re approach this week with new found vigor.

I suppose the show would sit differently with me if everytime I walked in the room, everything came completely natural to me. I always thought the thrill of theatre was watching a character or a scene or an ensemble develop and come to life on stage. I witness it as a director at my school all the time..but as an actor in someone’s else’s vision…I have a deep sense of responsibility fueled by a restless determination. I find myself like a lion tamer most of the time, attempting to put on a good show while keeping my restless self at bay. (With a whip….’cause they’re cool.) I am determined…you’ll never see me give up. The discipline and challenge of the theatre haunts me…but I’m not scared. My horns are down and I’m ready to charge.

Whoever said the art of acting is easy needs to be hit in the head with a snow shovel. I will let ya’ll know how things turn out this week. I’m in training. I’m drinking figurative Gaston protein shakes, and pumping Gaston iron on the road to a beautiful new Beauty and the Beast production. I’ll get there. But I promise I’ll try not to think about it.

___________________________________

“New, and a bit alarming. Who’d have ever thought that this could be? True, that he’s no prince charming, but there’s something in him that I simply didn’t see.” – Belle

DISNEY’S BEAUTY & THE BEAST is playing at the Summerlin Library and Performing Arts Center throughout the months of October and Novemebr ’08. Click here for show information. Click here to purchase tickets.

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