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The Body Donor Exercise

April 27, 2012

One disadvantage of college theatre: the actors are all, with some rare exceptions, all within the age range of eighteen to twenty-two. We only have two decades of life experience, which when it comes to casting, leaves us a little lacking.

For example: In our last production, two of my classmates, both nineteen years old, had to portray thirty-something year old characters (which they did, extraordinarily well I might add). In the show I’m working on right now, we have two women, both twenty-two years old, who are playing mother and daughter to each other and another woman playing twice her age. Two more girls did a one-act last semester in which they played a pair of little old ladies. In high school and college theatre, the actors are unfortunately cast in roles they would never be considered for if not for our lack of variety in age. Would you cast a twenty year old blonde as the grandmother?

Makeup helps to an extent, as does costuming but what really gets me is solidified in a monologue one of my professors did once:  just by the way he walked across the stage, I knew he had aged twenty years in the span of a sentence.

This is what my professor calls “The Body Donor Exercise” comes in handy. It’s taking on the weight of old age, middle age maturity, a child’s voice. Making movements different from your own natural impulse. I’ve done similar exercises, where I would emulate the way a classmate walks and holds himself but I had to do this specific exercise for a scene once, where I was supposed to be in my sixties. I improved from first to second showing but I won’t be playing an old lady again anytime soon.

And that’s probably an okay thing. Take me personally: I have a younger looking face combined with my short height. The good news is that I can play the fourteen year old for a couple more years. But the scene I just finished working on now had me as the pregnant sixteen year old. While I do remember being sixteen, I was never pregnant.

So imagine my roommate’s surprise when she came back to our dorm to find me now eight months pregnant. I stuffed a pillowcase to the proper size and shoved it under my shirt, walking around our dorm with it, confident that it would not fall out and that my walk was adjusting to my new center of gravity. Even without the belly, my hands started naturally going to my stomach in rehearsal. I needed to support my back to sit down and how I had to push myself up, the way I’d lean over to pick a prop off the floor.

But it was more than just the pregnancy bit that made this role difficult. Some of my friends were astonished to hear that I was doing this scene—as one of my friends said quite bluntly: “But you’re too nice! You’re a sweetheart!”

One of my classmates, a real male ingénue had a similar experience come up, in which instead of his usual love interest scene, he had to play a rough and tough army man, his complete opposite. And now me being the smoking pregnant teen threatening to abort it.

Outside college, an actor probably won’t be playing too far outside his age range but what about experience? What if they’ve never smoked and their character goes through six packs a day? An actress doing a birth scene, or just an ordinary mother and son scene when she’s never had a child? I don’t think I’ll ever forget doing a sex scene for acting class in my second month of college, the two of us just figuring it out as we went along, neither of us having done a sex scene before. Then there’s playing outside the type altogether, which is a whole different blog post right there. Until this scene, I was always cast in the scenes with the shy high school girl who goes to the prom and is suddenly beautiful—or as I call it, the Laura Wingfield type. Where is that production of The Glass Menagerie been all my life? Your Blue Roses is waiting!

In the meantime—looking back through my acting journal, I found a note I took from the beginning of the year on some audition feedback I had asked for. “Not quite edgy, desperate, out-there enough. Still too reserved.” That was then, this is now; it’s all a matter of getting outside the comfort zone, right? Expand your horizons onward!

P.S. I got good feedback for my pregnancy body donor/shockingly unexpected, intense and vicious personality.

P.P.S. and for that sex scene.

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