Excerpts from an article by Marvin Payne (appearing as Mr Bennet in BYU’s production of Pride and Prejudice)
I’m in rehearsals for a production of Pride and Prejudice “down to the BY,” as my wife’s grandfather would have said. I’m Mr Bennet (the British don’t punctuate “Mr”). For rehearsals involving only the Bennet family, I’ve typically been the only guy in the room—totally female family, female director, female production staff, and two female dramaturgs.
A word about dramaturgs: Good luck defining what the heck one is, besides brainy and nice and one of them has a dog that acts (in this very show!). I think the definition of “dramaturg” is something you feel rather than try to articulate. And it takes a certain kind of person to feel it.
On a recent Thursday evening our director, Barta Heiner, gave us an assignment: Carefully research and choose an animal that your character might be if your character was an animal. Don’t tell anybody what it is, but come early on Saturday morning prepared for an “acting exercise.” Everybody else probably had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Not me.
I wasn’t able to think of as many as five animals to choose from, let alone an animal who embodied the essential characteristics of an English country gentleman living in a high estrogen zone. So I asked Mr Google “What kind of animal would my character be?” Instantly I had at my fingertips a few dozen quizzes I could take that would determine the answer scientifically, unanimously, incontrovertibly. So I just started answering the questions the way I knew Mr Bennet would. The first quiz concluded that Mr Bennet was a wolf. I took another. It affirmed that Mr Bennet was an unspecified bird. The third quiz made him a dolphin, the fourth a bear, and the fifth quiz (the first one wherein the questions were composed with conventional grammar) identified Bennet as a mole.
Actually, mole attracted me, because the site said that both Bob Dylan and John Lennon were moles. But I wasn’t confident I could pull it off, so I took a sixth quiz. It said “Cat” and something inside me went “ping” in an affirmative manner. Cats are something this actor can take or leave, but here are the parallels: Mr Bennet is mostly about emotional hiding out. See the cat, when something chaotic is happening, tiptoeing off to somewhere the heck else. Also, cats have retractable claws which are mostly retracted but can, in a crisis, un-retract them.
And fundamental to cats is this totally unearned sense of dignity. Carrying themselves erect, landing on their feet, moving among lesser creatures as though they, the cats, never doubted for a moment their absolute superiority—a superiority born, not out of accomplishment or even aspiration, but merely out of being cats. The hereditary aristocracy of early nineteenth-century England is just like this (without whiskers).
Here’s how it went down that Saturday morning. We all lay on tumbling mats on the floor with the lights dimmed. The company, who seemed to know innately exactly what to do, had arranged big black blocks of varying proportions in almost random patterns, some forming little walls, some tunnels, some leaning on others in diagonal ways. In the silence, with our eyes closed, we followed Barta’s instructions to breathe in energy and breathe out tension. We were allowed to endow these gasses with colors, if we thought it might help. This was not general, lung-centric breathing, but was dispensed to every part of our persons from toenails to the hair follicles upon our heads.
Once we had reached a meditative state that would have made the Beatles jealous, we were invited to contemplate our chosen animals. I thought, “How could I possibly be more ready for the acting exercise?” Still on the mats, after some contemplation of our critters, we were invited to admit them into our bodies and allow them to take over.
That’s when the fur hit the fan. Instantly I was surrounded by a frighteningly authentic menagerie. All my Bennet daughters and my Bennet wife were flying things, warbling and tweeting and quacking. Only Elizabeth, Mr Bennet’s favorite, the one with whom he has an emotional and intellectual bond, was not a flying thing. She was—get this—a lioness. A cat just like dad, but bigger and better! Remember we didn’t tell anybody what we were gonna be? Slam dunk!
The other lioness was Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Imagine what happened when those two met up! Lady Catherine’s sickly daughter was a fawn, cowering next to a controlling mother who might at any moment devour her. Darcy and Bingley, as wolf and dog respectively, rough-housed so authentically that Bingley emerged with bleeding knees.
Mr Collins’s meerkat was astounding, snaking about underground and then poking up, glassy-eyed, into the risky world like a, well, a meerkat. There wasn’t a trace of human in the whole guy. It was at once beautiful and deeply scary.
For the first half of the morning, Barta thought I was an orangutan. Mr Bennet’s second youngest daughter, Kitty, never did let go of the impression that I was a penguin. But I’m taking comfort in the fact that nobody thought I was a dramaturg.
I was so astounded by the talent and abandon and commitment of these players that I could hardly remember to purr, and mostly forgot that cats walk on all fours. I felt like somebody had tossed me a paper helmet and shoved me out onto the grass in LaVell Edwards Stadium, with Cougars bearing down on me from one direction and screaming Utes from another. More than once I reflected with relief that I’d chosen an animal who hides. Which I did. A lot.
At the end, we all lay down again and Barta gently talked us back into humanity. She
finally directed our attention to our departing animal, which turned back at a distance to give us a last look. And here was the big surprise. What I felt in that moment was gratitude to the cat, for visiting me and teaching me so well about the tender and tormented Mr Bennet. Didn’t anticipate that.
Now I know what an acting exercise is.
By the way, the dog that can act? She wasn’t there. Barta didn’t think she needed it.
[To read the entire article, use this link: http://www.ldsmag.com/article/1/13940]