One of the intriguing parts of doing the historical research and writing for Beguiled was learning about the theater scene in NYC in the 1920s. I’m not a theater buff, nor an actor, but while following Miriam, my protagonist, into her dream world of preparing for the stage, I had to learn about how people train via the Stanislavsky method.
The character of Chernoff, the stern coach who had studied with Stanislavsky in Russia, taught the impressionable young Miriam the fundamentals of using one’s self – voice, movement, feelings, memories – to convey a real character on the stage.
Miriam, a girl who had practiced dance and voice in her parents’ bedroom as a youngster, so smitten was she with the stage, immediately felt at home following the exercises that Chernoff proposed to the class.
I studied texts of Stanislavsky, Michael Chekhov, and Lee Strasberg, among others, in order to be able to convey the spirit of how someone would learn to act. My own improvisational acting training with Daena Giardella, a wonderful improv coach in the Boston area, gave me personal experience with some of the exercises.
Actors have to be able to express a range of emotions about situations that they may never have encountered themselves. They need to put themselves in the shoes of strangers in such a way as to seem authentic to an audience. “Chernoff,” like his mentor Stanislavsky, and like many other acting coaches, asks students to let themselves sink into an experience of a time when they felt similar emotions to the character they’re impersonating. Everyone has felt fear, guilt, mourning, sadness, or any other human emotion. Experiencing the emotion is the impetus for realistically conveying this in our bodies, our gestures, our senses, our voice tone, our movements. This is what Chernoff was trying to teach the young Miriam when she began her acting training.
To her surprise, Miriam got immediate praise for her efforts. She seemed to be a natural. This propelled her to make an unusual, bold decision in Beguiled. One that haunted her as it enchanted her.
One of the plays she saw in her early trip to Greenwich Village was O’Neill’s Moon of the Caribbees. Although she and her girlfriend immersed themselves in theater-going, this more thoughtful production appealed to them more than some of the song and dance shows that her Pop had introduced her to from the time she was a girl.
I’m having fun doing book events and reading a chapter using this method of sinking into the experience of the characters as I read their words. It seems to make the story come alive.