April 14, 2003

McDonough book helps actors tell stories

By Michael Terrazas

They are some of the most pivotal moments in the history of drama—Oedipus’ blinding of himself, the poisoning of Hamlet’s father, the angel appearing to a young Joan of Arc, the suicide of Blanche DuBois’ husband—and yet no theater audience has ever seen them.
All of these events, so crucial to the plots of their respective plays, happen offstage. The audience knows about them only through their retelling—but the specific events, for all their consequence, do not hold the audience rapt all by themselves.

Tim McDonough’s first book, Acting Narrative Speeches: The Actor as Storyteller (Meriwether Publishing, 2002), is designed to help actors bring these monologues to life. Through 18 chapters and an extensive appendix, McDonough explores the skills and techniques that enable actors to bring remembered, imagined or unseen events to life.

“Learning how to live the story of a speech is learning how to live the story of a play,” McDonough writes. “Entering another time and place is the very heart of acting, and the many skills involved in acting narrative speeches can be used in every aspect of performance.”

An associate professor of theater studies, McDonough knows his craft well; the highly respected actor has played just about every major role in the Western canon, from Lear to Willy Loman. Atlanta theater patrons are well acquainted with McDonough’s tall, gaunt frame and gruff voice, and in Acting Narrative Speeches he tries to impart both the skills that have helped him and those he has learned through three decades of teaching, acting and directing.

Principal among these skills—and a technique that somehow has escaped detailed examination in acting instruction—is what McDonough calls the “opposites” approach. Human emotions, he points out, are rarely absolute. Even in the most impassioned moments, rare is the individual who does not experience at least some degree of ambivalence—a tinge of doubt in confidence, a hint of pain in pleasure.

“Fine actors know this, of course,” McDonough writes. “They acquire a habit of mind that looks for the conflict within and shape performances that have the inner struggle requisite for powerful roles. An ability to create divided selves is an essential qualification for moving center stage.”

In his exposition of the technique, McDonough encourages actors first to develop a speech as they would initially interpret it. Then he instructs them to develop a second “draft” that mines the emotional and contextual opposites of the first draft—and playing it as the complete truth. In a subsequent chapter called “Layering,” he helps actors learn how to weave these two or more versions of the same speech together, until they are left with a nuanced, rich performance.

Though all good actors, either consciously or unconsciously, incorporate this concept into their work, McDon-ough said surprisingly little attention is paid to opposites
in formal acting texts. But it is a technique that has yielded quality results, both in McDonough’s own acting and that of his students.

“Maybe there are a lot of teachers out there dealing with it, I don’t know,” he said. “But it’s not remarkable that there’s a lack of vocabulary for it; there’s a general lack of vocabulary in acting and even more in directing.”

Goals and motivation are all well and good, but sometimes a character’s motivation for telling a story is simply—or, perhaps, principally—to live in that moment once again, and that’s where Acting Narrative Speeches can help most. And, like all great art, the creative work that is the foundation of McDonough’s book was born from the marriage of inspiration and emulation.

“Opposites came out of impromptu workshop I had some years ago in which I asked students to come with opposites for their monologues, and the results were immediately interesting,” McDonough said. “I can’t tell you how many things in [the book] have to do with what students have shown me over the years. Maybe I opened certain doors for them, but people just started walking through.”