What goes into developing a character – for starters, dedication, personal reflections, and connecting with parts of your life. For everyone, it is different, and depends on the character the person is playing and the actor’s different experiences. No one person will have the same take on a character as another, which makes live theater so wonderful. I’m producing Steel Magnolias, Saline Area Players’ upcoming show this week, and asked some of the cast members to reflect on what it is like for them. The richness of their answers excited me.
Diana Armistead, who plays Ouiser Boudreaux, an eccentric wealthy woman in this southern town, says that her character is a composite of various people she has known. She doesn’t want to say who, but notes that she is not playing one person, but perhaps parts of different people that she can pull from. She thinks of her character as a composite of different moments of different people all in one.
She also has a special connection to this play – roots. When she first read the play, she realized that it takes place in the northwest part of Louisiana, which is personally significant to her since her father was from Shreveport, a town a little north of where this play takes place. She never knew her father who died in Monroe and lived mostly in Shreveport. Her great grandpa started a hospital in Shreveport. Although she grew up in Michigan, she has visited the area several times, driven around the cemeteries to find the names of ancestors, saw the home in which her father was born, and began getting to know her cousins. Doing so has helped her really visualize the area of the country where the show takes place, and being in this show, is an opportunity to live in that world for awhile.
Patti Ringe who plays Truvy, the beauty salon owner, has tons of funny lines. Having been raised in a house full of laughter, she’s used to one liners and zingers thrown out during everyday conversations. Each family member used a different pattern of speech, and timing was also different. She also watched a lot of comedy shows with women stars, growing up. She says that “developing a character was more like squeezing some of my favorite character's traits together, and throwing in a southern drawl.”
Patti says that she has played different types of roles on stage and in real life, but wife and mother are her favorites, and she uses these in her role. Her on stage home life is much different from her personal one. She says “I can feel my character’s pain about these relationships, and how she uses humor to deal with/deflect tough events in her life. I have strong relationships with my mom, my younger sister, two precious daughters and many women friends, in real life, so the bonds between these women are not foreign to me either. It's funny how normal these on onstage conversations are, and how they could take place anywhere...really!”
Another character in the play is M’Lynn, the mother of an adult daughter who has diabetes and eventually dies. M’Lynn is being played by BJ Danner. She says, “I have no idea how it is to lose a child and I don't ever want to. But I do know what it is like to have a child who has a chronic disease that they will never grow out of. Our son has asthma and never grew out of it. When he was 2, he was hospitalized 5 times. We almost lost him a couple of times and it is truly difficult to stay strong and positive when you have a sick child. We did not let him use his asthma as an excuse to not exercise and play sports. He played football for 4 years in high school 3 years on Varsity and was on the track team. Art is 31 now and has 3 beautiful children. He will always have asthma but knows how to handle his disease and live with it. I find I can identify with M'Lynn's concern for her child and I try to channel that experience into my role.”
I’m impressed by the self-reflection these actors put into their characters. Plays mirror life in so many ways and the connections between the people we play and our real lives are closer than we expect sometimes. Come see Steel Magnolias Oct 26-28!