In this blog post, Tara Velan, a second-year student in the Professional Actor Training Program, reflects on her work developing the character of Miss Gilchrist in Brendan Behan's The Hostage.
This winter I have been delighted to be a part of The Hostage creative team. Our work has been a rollercoaster of experimentation as we bring Brendan Behan’s story to life.
Awakening the life of Miss Gilchrist continues to be challenging and rewarding. While exploring this world alongside so many fellow layered characters (our cast is quite large!), I have discovered some valuable tools for my acting practice.
Part of our goal as actors in the Professional Actor Training Program is to identify and develop an individual process of character development, so that the skills we gain from our training aid in the construction of a personal method for creating performed art.
In addition to our work with evolving character, we must lend our full presence to the space and our fellow scene partners. During our actual lives we live fully present in the moment; the past is past and the future is unknown. To live fully in an imagined reality we must strive to keep this freshness. We must take in our surroundings and fellow storytellers with keen use of our senses.
In addition to our work with evolving character, we must lend our full presence to the space and our fellow scene partners...We must take in our surroundings and fellow storytellers with keen use of our senses.
Our director, Tina Polzin, has been super at reminding us to be receptive to each other and use our full selves in the world of the play, as we would for any duty for which we are passionate. Our rehearsal warm-ups include improv, song, and dance—all in our various dialects.
Every character in this collaboration is in service of Behan’s story and we are all desperately in need of something to reward our purpose in the play. Our objectives are truly heightened to life and death consequences —and in life, it is always unpredictable what we will win or lose.
One reason I love to act is that when I’m inside someone else’s reality the character can help remind me that in real life it is OK to be human, heartbreak is inevitable, and laughter and hope are the reliable stuff. Sometimes my character supports me just as much as I support them. I learn a lot from someone else’s life.
My work in the show is particularly demanding because, while I provide much of the comic relief during the course of the play, I cannot think solely in terms of comedy and parody. If I do I run the risk of becoming a slapstick shell with no real rooted need to change, or in Gilchrist’s case, need to save. I must show the hostage soldier Leslie the right path for his soul to be sent to heaven.
My work in the show is particularly demanding because, while I provide much of the comic relief during the course of the play, I cannot think solely in terms of comedy and parody. If I do I run the risk of becoming a slapstick shell with no real rooted need to change.
Below is an excerpt from my character folder, which I have developed over the last month outside of class. This is part of my preferred method of individual process. I keep documents and photographs to remind myself of my life as this amazingly religious woman:
As Miss Mary Gilchrist, I am a Catholic girl turned converted woman of Evangelical Christianity. Though I enjoy my time converting and spreading the good word, I am still well acquainted with the teachings of the Catholic Church, and certain sacramental flair. I particularly love ornate vestments because they remind me of the sewn costumes my grandmother made me that I wore to the Cèilidh when I was a little one—my gilly slippers were always worn out by the end of the school year. One of my fondest pastimes was the Irish Reel and I have such an amazing opportunity to show the members of the lodging house my dancing ability. Did you know that Gilchrist literally means Gilly of the Lord? I like to think of myself as the Lord’s slipper!
I love that I was named Mary because my passion for evangelizing is rooted in my connection to the reality of miracles. The miracle of the Immaculate Conception is one of my favorite stories to tell. And the Birth, Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ is the most compelling hook for those in need of the direction of Christ to understand His teachings.
AN IRISH BLESSING
MAY THE ROAD RISE UP TO MEET YOU,
MAY THE WIND BE EVER AT YOUR BACK.
MAY THE SUN SHINE WARM UPON YOUR FACE
AND THE RAIN FALL SOFTLY ON YOUR FIELDS.
AND UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN,
MAY GOD HOLD YOU IN THE HOLLOW OF HIS HAND.
Miss Gilchrist has shown me that determination for a good cause in the face of the unkindness of others is often rewarded. I cannot play a character that may be so easy to judge from the outside without truly believing in my doctrine from the inside. And I am so happy to have the opportunity to explore my own Irish heritage in this project.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide how you feel about Miss Gilchrist. I have many secrets, and perhaps things are not as they appear…
I invite you to step into our world for a night.
Pipe and drum are gaily playing somewhere.
Misty fog and chimney smoke swirl into passing grey above.
Fireside warmth emanates from windows dotted with amber gold light in mossy brick.
Guinness, whiskey, shepherd’s pie.
Fields and fields beyond the city to the horizon of emerald green surround coiling stone fences in the distance, patterned with shamrocks and clover…
It is Dublin, 1959.