In The Pursuit of Excellence
On playing Simeon Cabot in Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under The Elms…
Driving to the theatre every night gave me a purpose. It was like going to work every night, only better, because I actually wanted to be there. It became a routine that I genuinely looked forward to, although it didn’t involve the monotony or lifelessness that the word ‘routine’ implies. Arriving to the theatre and warming up my voice and body may have been occasionally repetitive, but walking onto that stage and saying those lines was always exhilarating. Acting requires the actor to be present; to live in the moment. This is something I’ve personally struggled with my entire life; often finding myself dwelling on the past or dreaming of the future. But shortly into the run of Desire Under the Elms, I found peace in simply being onstage, living in the moment, and reacting to my scene partners and the given circumstances of the play.
I’m not for a moment trying to convince anyone that my performance was perfect. It reflected where I’m still at: In development. There are emotional depths that I can reach in the darkness of my bedroom with emotive music blasting or in the safety of an acting class that I couldn’t quite reveal (when necessary) under bright lights before an audience. It’s as if I never wanted to fully surrender control in case I forgot my lines or, God forbid, was actually authentic. But I had moments, and I think as a young actor, that’s all I can ask for. I found my power by simply standing tall and delivering my lines without the need to gesture, emote or ‘push’. I learnt to use O’Neill’s language; to articulate every word with muscularity I hadn’t truly exercised to its full extent until this production. I used my articulators (my tongue, my lips, my mouth) to ridicule, to tease, and to scorn. And by doing so, Simeon came to life.
My breath, now one of my biggest allies on the stage, was integral to this performance as well. Using my diaphragm and breathing deeply put me in touch with my emotional life, while also aiding me in delivering several lengthy passages without running out of air. But Simeon isn’t one to speak often at great length or express himself with emotional dexterity. With a hard upbringing in his wake, Simeon often fights back his emotion, which O’Neill craftily alludes to within the structure of his dialogue. A few lines broken up with 3 or 4 dashes were often an indication that emotions were arising and then being quickly suppressed with short, sharp breaths.
“Waal – ye’ve thirty years o’ me buried in yew – spread out o’er yew – blood an’ bone an’ sweat – rottin’ away – fertilising yew – richin’ yer soul. Prime manure, by God, that’s what I been to yew!”
Taking breaths whenever these dashes appeared was essential; doing so fought back rising sadness or anger, emotions that Simeon felt but fought hard to stifle before they were released. Watching a character fighting emotion is always more engaging and heart-wrenching than one who expresses emotion openly; perhaps one reason these passages interspersed with dashes existed in the first place. Did I successfully adhere to O’Neill’s strict notations and achieve the desired effect? I’m not sure. I acknowledge it’s an aspect of my performance that I’d like to fine tune and continue to cultivate. Naturally, if there’s no emotional preparation done before a performance then there’s no emotion to actually fight against with quick breaths or otherwise.
Emotional preparation is always important for any performance, and Desire Under the Elms was no exception. I enjoyed trying different techniques, from sensory work half an hour before the show to automatic writing across a page of scrap paper moments before walking on stage. One night I rattled off the given circumstances under my breath before my first cue, and another night I improvised dialogue with my scene partner. Performing was like going to the gym every night where I could train. It wasn’t perfect, but flexing my muscles felt great and improvement was inevitable. By the final performance, getting onstage was exhilarating; an experience I looked forward to, rather than fearing.
But all in all, there’s nothing better than working collaboratively with a director and fellow actors to produce a piece of theatre and tell a story. It was a blessing to work with Andrei on this text. Not only did I learn about Eugene O’Neill, discipline, and technique, but also about myself and my capabilities as an actor. I had the opportunity to hone my craft, which allowed me to grow professionally and personally. My only hope is that I have the opportunity to work with Andrei and the cast members once again some day. And for those who haven’t given Eugene O’Neill a shot yet – you don’t know what you’re missing out on!
Written by Timothy Smith of The Sol III Company