An unusual start: Acting I turns Terkel’s interviews into monologues

Alexander Lautin and Lawson Wright

For the first project of the year, the Upper Division Acting I Class released a series of video performances online. Their goal: bringing to life subjects interviewed by historian and journalist Studs Terkel.

Since the beginning of the year, the class has been learning the fundamentals of acting through group acting exercises, theater teacher Benjamin Posner said. This makes the students feel more at ease around each other. “[For this project in particular,] we focused on fundamentals of Acting from Uta Hagen and some of our own explorations into empathy and emotional access,” he wrote. 

Terkel created works on the Great Depression and World War II. Posner’s class used a collection of testimonies from people in different occupations from a book called Working, an oral history that investigates the idea of work for different people under different circumstances, one of Terkel’s best known and most celebrated works, Posner said.

The acting classes always start the year with monologues because they are individual assignments, Posner said. “They’re a good way for the students to practice some of the skills that they have been learning.”

Instead of the monologues from plays that Posner typically uses, he chose to incorporate a collection of interviews from Terkel because it would pose a challenge for the students, he said. “I think it’s really good material for the actor because it really asks the performer to inhabit these people,” he said. “The interviews by Terkel were written in the 70’s, so it’s a little bit of a stretch in terms of the language.”

The students were tasked with taking these monologues and making them their own, Yasmeen Masoud (9) said. The students needed to embody the characters, rather than just reading their stories, she said.

Students were able to choose their roles from the collection of interviews from Terkel’s Working, Posner said. “I said ‘skim through it, find somebody who resonates with you, somebody you know, read their words out loud, and deeply connect.’” 

Masoud said that she looked into actors and photographers because their careers represent some of her biggest passions. Ultimately, Masoud chose the character Jill Freedman, an aspiring photographer, because she felt that she could best relate to Freedman’s experiences. 

Celia Stafford (9) chose to play the character Jill Torrence, a model, because the role was  different  from what she’s used to, she said. “I chose her because I felt like she seemed really complex, and she seemed like a really interesting character.”

The purpose of the project was to stretch the class’s acting abilities and play a character that was a real person, Stafford said. Stafford learned how to play a role that was more serious than her typical comedic role in plays, she said.

One of the main tasks for the students was to find clues about the characters’ personalities from the interviews to use when developing their characters, said Manager of the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Film Studies Jonathan Nye.

Masoud spent a lot of time figuring out her character’s personality by close-reading her character’s interview, she said. “I definitely learned that our characters have to be multifaceted,” she said. “To have a good performance, you really need to know who this person is.” 

The move to HM Online 2.0 has added difficulty to the project, Nye said. “You’re just in a screen, so it’s just your face,” he said. Putting in the time and effort to develop and show a character’s emotions is extremely important now more than ever in order to get that character effectively across to the audience, he said. 

Since students had practiced and prepared for their performances to be in person, it was difficult to go online at the last minute and film performances at home, Masoud said. “We were all used to rehearsing in person,” she said. “It’s still not the same when you’re just looking at people virtually.” 

Stafford made it her goal to get into character before her performance. The hardest part of her preparation was trying to make it seem genuine, she said. “I want[ed] to make it seem like I was actually this woman who was talking about her experiences.”

“Posner really showed us that we need to make these characters full people rather than just a couple pages and a couple lines,” Masoud said. “They really have to have their own backstory, and you have to know who you’re talking to and what your purpose is and why you’re telling these stories.”