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January 5, 2006

One on One:

W. Stephen Coleman

W. Stephen Coleman has pretty much done it all in the theatre and in film. The associate professor of theatre arts not only teaches both graduate and undergraduate acting and directing classes, he acts and directs professionally as well.

In addition to more than 200 roles on the stage, Coleman (using his stage name, Alex Coleman) has played featured roles in a number of films and TV movies including “Achilles’ Love,” “House Guest,” “Silence of the Lambs,” “Alone in the Neon Jungle” and “The Ten-Million Dollar Getaway.” He also has done hundreds of radio and television commercials, and has appeared in numerous industrial films.

Acting is acting, Coleman said, but depending on the medium an actor must employ different techniques, and rehearsals and performances have a different feel to them.

Coleman’s recent directorial outings include “Twelfth Night,” “Old Times,” “Arms and The Man” and “Waiting For Godot,” where he directed himself in the role of Estragon.

His most recent professional outing was playing the role of Gen. Edward Braddock in the four-part PBS series “The War That Made America,” which debuts on Jan. 18 and 25, 9-11 p.m. The locally shot program is a production of WQED Multimedia and French and Indian War 250, a public/private partnership formed to spearhead the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War.

On July 9, 1755, Gen. Edward Braddock crossed the Monongahela River near what is now West Mifflin to North Braddock.

Commanding 1,200 British regulars and colonial militia, Braddock headed to attack Fort Duquesne eight miles away at Pittsburgh’s Point. His troops were met by some 900 French and Indian fighters who surrounded the British troops and used the advantage of higher ground and the cover of trees to shoot at the exposed troops. In the Battle of the Monongahela, more than half of Braddock’s soldiers were killed and Braddock himself was fatally wounded, dying four days later.

“I die in the first act,” said Coleman of his role as Braddock. “But it’s a very important role in a series about a very important war in our history.”

In a recent interview with University Times staff writer Peter Hart, Coleman discussed his experience working on the PBS project as well as the differences and similarities between acting and directing for stage and film.

University Times: You’ve suggested that film and stage are different media for actors. Could you elaborate?

Coleman: First, let me make it clear: Acting is acting is acting. The actors’ source is always the emotional events in their own humanity, their own experiences, that then is translated through the technique of acting. I’m a firm believer that acting cannot be taught. Acting can be improved. But it’s like any other field, it requires basic talent.

So what we essentially teach in acting is craft. Because acting is so grounded in the human experience of the person doing it, there are techniques by which you can enhance the actor’s ability to tap into those experiences. So it’s craft in the sense of technical aspects like voice and movement and speech and decorum and diction and mannerisms, but also it’s technique to tap into the emotional, psychological pieces of who you are and to use that and put that to service.

That’s the baseline. You can’t do film or stage or television or any other type of acting without the kind of honest truth-telling of the experience of the character. Even though there are differences in the techniques of film and stage acting, the source and the baseline are the same.

I’ve thought about this a lot: There are two primary differences between stage acting and film acting. One is that a lot of film acting requires the reactive moment because that’s what the camera is focusing on. You’re speaking, but the camera is on me, watching my reaction.

But the other, more important difference is scale. In film, you have to constantly pull it down, pull it down, pull it down, because any falseness or anything too big that might appear false is magnified by virtue of the camera.

Let’s say a character says something to you. On stage you might throw your head back and move your arms; in film you might tighten your jaw and that’s enough. For actors who trained in the stage, myself included, I need to constantly remind myself to pull it back.

Also, in film, there is definitely a difference in the way in which you are treated by virtue of the size and importance of your role. There is a class structure that exists in films that doesn’t exist nearly as much with stage actors.

When I first started doing movies, I was an extra. They don’t even refer to you as a person, they just say: “Get the background,” which means people who have been in a holding room for god knows how many hours.

When you’re playing a name role, almost invariably, the whole approach to you and your time shifts. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but it’s definitely true.

University Times: Among your vast theatrical and film experiences, how would you rate this PBS production experience?

Of course, I haven’t seen the finished product yet (laughs). With film, it’s very much like the cliché of the Army: You hurry up and wait. Barney Hughes, the great classic character actor, used to comment the most important thing a character actor can learn to do is The New York Times crossword puzzle. My rule is you never go anywhere without a good book.

In this film, I can honestly say though, there were very few long waits. I shot intermittently over a three-week period in May and June 2004. It might be three or four days one week, then only one day another week. We had a couple of holds for weather, but that’s out of anybody’s control. So this was a very good experience from the very beginning to the very end.

University Times: How did you prepare for this project?

I had two days of training —quote, unquote — in mid-May of 2004. I have a pretty good British accent, so I was able to use that. And I have a lot of stage combat experience, which was helpful.

We were given a book called “Crucible of War,” a huge history tome, a brilliant book and it has tons of firsthand accounts, letters that were written, documents and descriptions of battles and primary sources, and then we sat down with the script.

In the training rehearsals, the director and military advisers trained us to ride English style, and talked about the decorum of the military officers, the way they carried themselves, the mannerisms, how you wear your gloves, how you salute, how you take off your hat. They’re very specific and they wanted it to be very accurate in terms of the history. That was a strong goal for this project.

This was a little frustrating because the historians didn’t always agree. These were mostly hair-splits; the average person wouldn’t know the gorget wasn’t quite right, or which was the correct one for that rank. Ultimately, you say, “Would you make a damn decision about the gorget?”

University Times: Other than the weather, were there any logistical problems?

There were some in terms of the sheer numbers of people, literally hundreds of actors on the sets. They used tons of extras: a lot of Native Americans brought in from tribes in New York, re-enactment extras, the colonials, so you never had fewer than 100 people standing around watching, and half the time the production assistants had to scream, “Quiet on the set” because there are so many people.

This was more of an epic; 90 percent of it was shot outdoors. Home base was in an giant abandoned building in Ligonier. Most of the outdoor stuff was miles into the woodlands, so we would be taken by 15-person vans to the locations and it took some 25, 30, 40 minutes to get down these old logging trails.

When sitting on a horse for hours while they’re getting the right light or deciding to shoot it this way or that way, it puts a different pressure on the actor to turn it on at the right time. When you’re in play rehearsal, by contrast, you do a couple steps and say, “Let’s do it again,” but you’re still in the same acting mode.

I had a very pleasant horse to work with. We had only one dicey experience. I’m sitting there on my horse with George Washington on his horse and these two horses were very mellow and they were picked for that reason.

All of a sudden, both horses start to get feisty and they’re stomping and snorting and I’m saying, “What the devil?”

Well, a guy who was the prop master was a retired zoologist and he loved rattlesnakes and he had found this rattlesnake. And this nincompoop — He was a nice guy, but come on! — he’s carrying the largest rattlesnake I’ve ever seen in my life along a road about 50 feet from where we were on horses!

And you’re always wearing your authentic uniform — these were handmade in Canada for the principals and you only have one and it’s hot — and one day I finally got back to the costume truck and no one was there to help me take off the clothes. They’re a bear to get out of yourself. You can see why rich officers back in those days had help dressing. If you could afford it you’d certainly have a valet.

I was a little grumpy about that, but I divested myself as best I could.

University Times: Was it challenging to portray the historical Braddock?

I’ve done so much classical theatre that it was no problem for me to stand up straight and try to look, you know, not like a dandy, he’s not a dandy, but he was a very refined British gentleman.

He apparently was a very capable supply officer, knew logistics, moving supplies, that sort of thing. That’s what he did when he was back in England and he rose in the ranks and became a general. They sent him here to command the troops in combat. He didn’t have any experience, he had never fought a battle, much less a guerrilla war.

The colonists who were here, who were siding with the British at that time, kept telling him you can’t fight the way the British fought over there in Europe. It doesn’t work here. He was killed in the first battle he ever fought.

As far as the acting challenge, with the Braddock role, a lot of what I had to do was not dialogue. It was monologue or monologue that would then be turned into dialogue, where I was shot separately.

I had one sequence, a scene where Braddock is meeting the governors that he had assembled in Alexandria, Virginia, to deal with the “French and Indian problem” just after he arrived in America. And it was a lot of speech, I mean a lot of speech, and I said to the director, “You’re going to shoot this in segments, right? So I can refresh this.” And he said, “Absolutely. No problem. We’ll shoot a bit then break.”

I had learned it pretty well. I got to the set and I said, “I’m ready to go, but where are we going to take the first break?” And he said, “No, no. Let’s just do it as a monologue.”

In the script, there were supposed to be scenes in between what I was saying — reaction shots and so forth. But he just had me stand up at a map with a pointer and go speech by speech — speeches that were not necessarily connected — and he said he would put it together in the editing room.

I almost freaked. Fortunately, I had learned it well enough; I was able to do 90 percent of it very carefully and about 10 percent of it with a few glitches where they might have to do a re-take or to check the script. For an actor, that’s frightening. That never happens on the stage, because it’s all live and you’re working interactively with other actors.

University Times: What personality traits of Braddock’s did you play up?

I tried to focus on the attitude of superiority that he was depicted as having both in history and in the script. So, I was trying to give that some reality.

There was one nice bit in the script — of course, I’m not sure it made it to the final cut — where the character has this interaction with a maid that’s very human, very down-to-earth. It’s friendly, not sexual. And then the script called for him to turn to the camera to speak about his innermost feelings at the moment: a soliloquy. Very gentle. I felt a little relieved that the character wasn’t totally one-note-ish. It says he’s human too.

University Times: What would Braddock think of your performance?

I had a very nice compliment paid to me when we shot, in the forest, the death of Braddock and some scenes around that. Apparently, there is only one portrait of Braddock extant, a vanity portrait in a very formal pose done some 50 years after his death. There was a historian on the project, one of the foremost historians on Edward Braddock, who said “We don’t really know what Braddock looked like but after today, he looks like Alex.” I felt good about that.

University Times: You will have the opportunity to see yourself portraying Braddock, whereas a stage actor usually doesn’t have that. Does that make a difference?

It doesn’t make a difference to what you do in the movies. You can’t be thinking: “Does this look okay?” You can’t be worrying about that. If you’re thinking about that you’re not concentrating. There are stories that a lot of great actors, Brando for example, did not watch his own movies; he didn’t want to see the product. I don’t mind. I look at them.

University Times: If you’re a stage actor, you go through the performance, some things are going to go wrong and often do, but your mind is geared for that, whereas if you’re a film actor, you can say, “We’ll shoot this again.” Is it a danger to rely on that?

First of all, if you don’t know your lines at least reasonably well, you should find another job. For example, I was struck by the fact that when Anthony Hopkins does a movie, he pre-learns every word. He said to me, “That way you don’t have to worry the night before; you’re not frantically learning your script.” And of course he’s a stage actor, too, so he’s used to learning large amounts of lines.

There’s a kind of an unofficial rule of thumb if you’re an actor in film and have what you perceive to be a bad take, you swear. You say something nasty, so that the take has to be re-taken. That’s particularly true for anything geared toward TV.

On stage, the actor is not always aware, and shouldn’t be aware, of what is a good take and what is a bad take, unless it’s a major flub.

University Times: How is the role of director different between stage and screen?

Film really is a director’s medium. The film director has more power over the final product. Once the actors are done that’s only a third or a half of the total project. Then it goes into the editing room and the music and other sound and special effects are added.

In the theatre the director says, “I’ve got you as prepared as I can,” and at that point the director gives over the entity to the actors.

In the theatre, it’s tradition that the director sticks around for opening night and then leaves. There’s even either an official or unofficial Equity rule that once the show opens the stage manager is officially charged with maintaining the show as the director.

However, there are some similarities. The director certainly functions in part as a surrogate audience, for example. Good directors pride themselves on being able to tune in rather quickly to the needs of the actor. Some actors need to be coddled or petted, while others might need you to shout at them, so the interpersonal relations aspect is huge in both cases.

My first attention as a director is to the script. You complete the conception before you cast it. I have my artsy-fartsy side, aside from being pragmatic and craft-oriented, and that side appears mostly when I direct. When I read a play I wait for a voice to say to me how this play works. What is its essence? Most of the time I’ll get a little voice in my head that speaks to that.

When I teach directing I have my students do what is called a Hodge analysis. You break down the script and summarize the action of each scene. And you do that in terms of active verbs, so the characters know what they’re doing to each other.

It’s an arduous task, hugely analytical and intellectual. But it clues them in to the point that you don’t go into a script lightly. You really have to find out what it’s about yourself, how it ticks. It’s far more intellectually based than what the actor does.

Not to say that actors aren’t intellectual. I’d prefer by a 100 times to work with a smart actor, but there are some very good dumb actors who just respond intuitively to the material. That’s just as valid for what the actor produces.

I don’t know any successful dumb directors. It just doesn’t work. You have to have the intellectual resources to deal with a script first of all, but also to deal with all those other artists who are collaborating with you, actors, designers, stage managers, technicians, musicians.

University Times: Is it strange to direct a production you’re also acting in?

It’s a little strange in stage work. I’ve done it about a half-dozen times. The key to it is casting.

You really have to rely on the people you’ve put around you to do their job without the usual kind of objective eye that the director provides when he stands outside the environment.

If you get the right people, it’s not a problem. Invariably, when I’ve directed myself in something, the experience becomes far more a collaboration.

University Times: You mentioned that actors need to be treated differently depending on what makes them respond. Does ego ever get in the way when you’re directing?

I have no problem with the concept of ego in the theatre, with the profession or the art. Who in their right mind is going to go before an audience and expect that they’ll pay attention to you for one to three hours, unless you’re vested with some degree of self-confidence? There are a few quirky types who transform when the lights go up — otherwise, they’re very shy. But that’s rare.

With extreme egotists, you always wonder: Will they relax that ego at least to be able to work with their colleagues? But the presence of that ego, of that personality, that is just the hub of the wheel. You’ve got to have it. But it’s a fine line between being disruptive and subjecting your ego in favor of the larger goal.

The few greats I’ve worked with over the years, they become team players. They demand the respect they deserve, but they’re part of the team.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 9

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