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Sculpting a Character

I am, primarily, a visual artist. I graduated Olivet College in 2012, majoring in Visual Art K-12 Education. Though I was heavily involved in theatre throughout college, I always showed up to rehearsals with clay under my fingernails and plaster dust in my hair. I finished my final printmaking project two weeks early, so I wouldn’t have ink stains on my arms during performances of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. Being fully submersed in both worlds, I couldn’t help but relate one to the other. As I approach Antony and Cleopatra, I find myself calling upon the lessons I learned from one of my favorite media: sculpture.

When I sculpt, I first take my materials into account and make a plan to execute my work. Approaching a play works the same way. The script is, of course, the main substance. But with Antony and Cleopatra, there are historical writings, essays, and countless adaptations to consider. Ideas from some of these sources will be grafted onto my performance like malleable clay, while some will be left in the scrap bin. At the first full company meeting, the director’s vision is laid out. It falls across the table like a sketch that solidifies the final form of the project, giving clarity and guidance to the whole company. Then, at the readthrough, the voice of each actor brings new textures and colors to the work. Thoughts and perspective entirely different from my own begin to mold my conceit of the play. The concept of the show begins to take shape.

One of the more awkward stages of sculpture is blocking out. This is the process of using a soft material to form the overall, basic shape of your sculpture. It can be tedious—piling heaps and handfuls of clay onto an aperture without much finesse or consideration. The goal is to make a sturdy foundation that can be modeled into the final work. To me, early blocking rehearsals are a lot like this. Scripts in hand, actors move about the stage, trying to bring out the overall message of a given scene. There’s a lot of problem-solving and logistics involved. Creating clean exits and entrances, balanced stage pictures, and natural movement is much like evening out the weight of material on an aperture; skip this step, and the whole thing is liable to topple over in the end. It isn’t the most glamourous part of either process, but it is vital. And, now and again—in moments of electric energy—hints of the final product show through.

Detailed modeling and carving begins next. The excess is scraped away; the essential is built up. The vague, balloon-like quality of the work diminishes as specificity emerges. In acting, this is when I learn the most about my character. Who are they, exactly? What do they want? How do they relate to others? What are their choices, and how is each choice made? These are questions that must be asked moment to moment, but also on a larger scale. The character choices I make in the beginning of the play must be informed by what I know about the end.

My sculpture professor used to tell us to “bring it all up together.” When carving a face, it is a mistake to carve one eye perfectly while leaving the rest of the piece indistinct. If each feature is carved individually from start to finish, they will not fit well together in the end. Measurements and angles may be off, or there might be a general lack of harmony between them. Instead, an artist should work with each feature a little at a time, considering them as a whole as details and nuances emerge. Actors must do the same with each other. I cannot sit alone in a room and learn who my character is. I cannot discover her quirks, her hopes, her fears, and her feelings by myself. When scripts are finally set down and I can look other actors in the eyes, I am finally able to tap into the soul of my character.

At a certain point, every sculptor and every actor must leave well enough alone, lest they carve until they are left with nothing but a messy pile of scraps. When a sculpture is finished, it can be cast, painted, polished, or sealed. This finishing process is similar to getting costumes, sets, and props in a play; both are exciting, both add meaning, and both make the final product look great. Still, there’s risk in both scenarios. If not done carefully, important details can be lost when new elements are added. A once clear message can be muddled.

Finally, the piece is ready for display. Both the static art of sculpture and the living art of theater require an audience. There’s no controlling what a viewer will experience when they approach a sculpture or a play. Who knows what point of view they’ll look at it from? The unique perspective that each observer brings is the last component to any work of art. For better or worse, fresh eyes will see things that the artists themselves never could. We can only hope that through all our hard work—our hours of process and practice—we are able to make an impact. The art we’ve shaped becomes a tool for carving something new into the lives of others, and the process goes on.

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