No matter when a play was written, how many adaptations there have been or how many people have taken on a certain role, there is still something exciting about putting on the skin of a character for the first time.
For many actors, there’s a thrill when experiencing their character’s first words within the show, figuring out the little things, like how they stand, and uncovering bigger issues, such as hefty goals and desires.
Chautauqua Theater Company’s second installment in its New Play Workshop, Transit (beginning its workshop run at 8 p.m. Thursday at Bratton Theater), provides an opportunity for just that: a chance to step into a new character for the very first time.
“That’s the actor’s job, to go deep into the interior of their character and find out what is driving them: their fears, their anxieties, their needs, their wants,” said Kate Skinner, who is playing the mother, Madge, in the show. “These are things that you have to investigate so that you can bring to life a character that resembles a human being, as opposed to just a character on the page.”
Skinner, who performed with CTC years ago in The House of Blue Leaves, has made a career of performing in both classical plays and also new works, constantly taking on the life of a new character. For her, taking on any role is always like stepping into a brand-new persona. No matter the character, Skinner said, the role has to move through the actor, shifting and changing along with the production and pulling from the performer’s personal experiences.
Carly Zien, the CTC conservatory member who appeared as “Maggie the Cat” in this season’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, will be playing the role of Leslie in Transit. Zien has the unique experience of playing a well-known Tennessee Williams character and a never-before-seen role in Kait Kerrigan’s new work, all in one season.
“I always feel like it’s a gift to be able to use my imagination to really create something for the first time,” Zien said. “For me, I have to get past the expectations that I have to be brilliant and be genius, and trust my instincts and trust that whatever I can bring to this version of things is going to be valid.”
For both Skinner and Zien, one of the amazing things about working on a new production and bringing a person to life for the first time is the opportunity to work one-on-one with the playwright — Zien said it’s like being at the very beginning of the story and watching it unfold. The actors have the rare opportunity to discuss the character’s ambitions and traits with the playwright.
“I have tremendous respect for the word that somebody puts down, and I want to honor that and bring it to life as fully as I can,” Skinner said.
When it comes to figuring out what makes their new characters tick, Skinner said that it occasionally comes with experience. After performing for more than 40 years, she says it takes a lot for a certain character to stump her anymore.
“I’m also the kind of actor where I’m happy to dive in and see if it works,” Skinner said. “I’m not this slow, careful actor. I’m like, ‘OK, let’s try this.’ ”
The additional challenge of performing in one of CTC’s New Play Workshop pieces is the possibility of script and plot changes each night. Because the goal of the workshop is to allow the playwright to see his or her piece alive and onstage, with the intention of reshaping the play for the better, characters within the piece have the potential to change each night, too. To handle the changes between each performance, Zien said that she channels what a professor once told her: “Hold on tightly, let go lightly.” Zien said this means to make strong decisions for the character, but to be able to morph and change those decisions when necessary.
“The text is always the skeleton of the character,” Zien said, “and my job as an actor is to build the flesh on top of that.”