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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Les Miz Act II – The Misery

Okay, I wasn’t exactly truthful when I said there wasn’t a negative moment in my Les Miz experience. There was a period of time that was very difficult for me and was—as times like that are—a growing experience. One night at rehearsal, Jim, the music director, said I needed to change how I was singing my Hair Hag part. I had been listening to the London cast’s recording and was trying to emulate the actress who played the
Hair Hag in that production. But Jim wanted a different sense to the role—“creepy, not pretty.” Tawny, who played the Locket Crone had developed an awesome raspy kind of voice that dripped with disturbing intent. So “raspy voice” was out of the question, so what could I do?

I tried to channel the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz and Gollum from Lord of the Rings. While rehearsing my lines I would alternately think of “my little pretty” and “preciousssss” trying to hit on an eerie tone. I stood in front of the mirror making faces, singing my lines and gesturing. It’s very difficult to marry the Wicked Witch and Gollum…oooh, that’s an unfortunate image.

Whatever I was doing didn’t work because the director, Carol, came over to me at the next rehearsal and said, “Can you be creepier? The Hair Hag is the kind of person who would cut off the hair of dead people.” Intellectually, I understood, but physically I was not reaching the creepy factor both Jim and Carol were looking for. Their direction was excellent, but to me it was like asking me to fly. I watched birds fly, I could visualize myself flying, but those wings I was flapping were taking me nowhere.

Now, I am not trying to make excuses here, but many of the urchins surrounding me on stage had more acting experience at their tender ages than I have had at age…ahem, my age. I had not been in plays in school, I had never taken acting lessons, and this was my fourth show in…ahem, many years. There is something wonderful that happens when you are in a play with a good director. You learn. And you don’t even know you’re learning. I was learning.

I watched other actors develop their characters from rehearsal to rehearsal, subtle nuances that made enormous impact on the impression their characters made, for example,  George as Thenardier. I could name many more. I could name the whole cast!!!

I felt helpless. I didn’t know what to do to understand my character better and reach ultimate creepiness. I was frustrated and it felt like I was running in a dream and couldn’t reach my destination. Suddenly, I had a breakthrough. Call an expert.

Fantine & the Hair Hag photo by Robert Nelb
I called my daughter Kate who is a professional actress with the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company. Why didn’t I think of this before??? I explained my dilemma to her and she laughed. “Mom, you don’t want to channel the Wicked Witch of the West or Gollum. You want to channel Hannibal Lecter. You don’t want to just cut off her hair; you want to eat her face.” The clouds parted and I heard the music of the spheres. Now I understood the Hair Hag.

At the next rehearsal, I was excited to try my new interpretation, but Laura (Fantine) wasn’t there. I had to do the scene with an imaginary Fantine. But I gave it my best and added something I’d never done: I smelled her hair. At the next rehearsal, Fantine was there, so it was easier. But at the end of the night, Dominic (Valjean) came over to me and said, “You didn’t smell her hair tonight! That was so creepy!”
He called me creepy! It was one of the greatest compliments I’d ever received!

After that, I smelled her hair every time (Thank you, Laura for putting up with that!) Ron (Pimp, Wedding Guest, Chorus) told me I was creepy. After watching a dress rehearsal on the monitor in the Green Room, Celeste (Cosette) said, “I’m glad you don’t sing to me. You’re pretty creepy.” I was so happy!

That was the negative part of being in the cast of Les Miserables, and I grew so much. I learned. I learned from my directors, I learned from my daughter, I learned from my fellow cast members.  I flapped my wings and started to lift off.

2 comments:

  1. This is an incredible post, Elizabeth. I don't act at all and have no idea what goes into the process of turning yourself into the character. I guess it's not unlike writing characters---how we really try to get inside their heads, their souls so we can we can give our readers that connection. Sounds like you nailed the hag role. BTW, that part always makes me cry. I want to rip the hag apart. LOL! I wish I had seen you in Les Miserables. It's one of my all time favorite musicals.

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    1. That's a great comparison, Nancy. It is just like getting inside the head of my characters. I am reading Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird and just finished the chapter on Dialogue last night.She says you can't write authentic dialogue if you haven't spent time with your character getting to know him/her.

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