An Actor Prepares
Stella from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE defends her life.
If you’d asked me 6 months ago what I thought of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, I might have said, “it’s considered one of the top 100 plays of all time I really have no desire to read again.”
The truth is…it’s the play you read in grad school, work on in grad school, to learn how to be an actor. It’s that kind of play. Seminal. But I didn’t really understand the richness of it until I started work on it. Stella is far richer than I imagined…
I had never thought of Stella as anything other than a victim, a small character, of small spirit, living in the shadow of her brutish husband and her fragile but larger-than-life sister. The feminist in me is ashamed to say, I had written her off. Perhaps you can do that as a reader but not as an actor. When you step into a role, you become that character’s advocate. Their voice. That’s my favorite part of being an actor, the psychological excavation of character. Defending your life, as it were.
At first, I saw Stella as very different from myself. I pride myself on my modern feminist sensibility. A strong woman with a healthy dose of self-esteem who would never find myself in an abusive relationship. Then the most humbling and startling revelation happened.
First let me say that one of the first tenets of performance is DON’T PLAY THE END AT THE BEGINNING. That is to say, you–the actor–may know where the story is headed, but your character does not. Your character is just pushing along, living their life, making choices, unaware of the inevitability of the outcome those choices will bring about.
Like life for the rest of us, right?
The humbling part was the revelation that I’d basically played Stella’s end before living her beginning. I don’t know what her marriage to Stanley will look like in 2, 5, 10 years. (If it lasts that long.) But I do know, at the top of the play she’s happy. She’s passionately in love (with a volatile man, yes)…but she’s made of far sterner stuff than I gave her credit for.
Another basic tenant of performance is this: Your character is the sum total of what you say and what other’s say about you. Read the script closely. Then build.
There is plenty of textual evidence to suggest Stella is no wallflower. She leaves home to make a “living” for herself in New Orleans, to “look after” herself, as Blanche puts it. She has no trouble telling Stanley when he’s being an “idiot” or “stupid” or “horrid”. She is not shy about speaking her mind to her sister and, in fact, is the stronger of the two. It’s Stella who takes care of Blanche. It’s Stella who recognizes Blanche’s fragility (even in their girlhood, I think) and tries to shield her sister from the hardness of this new world she herself has grown rather comfortable in.
This is where Stella begins…unaware of what’s to come. Her worlds collide with Blanche’s arrival. Tension and frustration pack themselves into a small apartment barely big enough for two people in love, much less three. Add the loss of her family home, Belle Reve (Beautiful Dream) and her first baby on the way and you have an emotional roller-coaster for any character. Losing Belle Reve means she can never go home again. There’s no safe place to run. No place to escape.
You know that saying about boiling a frog? If you want to boil a frog don’t drop it in a pot of boiling water. It will only jump out. Instead, put it in a pot and boil the water slowly. It won’t notice until it’s too late. Now why anyone would want to boil a frog is beyond me…but I think Stella doesn’t see the trap until she’s caught in it.
I’d like to say she takes the baby and leaves him. And maybe she does. But I know Williams didn’t put that on the page for a reason. He wants you, the audience, to hope and imagine it for yourselves, to hash it out. He wants you to talk about it over coffee or drinks afterward with your friends. He wants you to have heated discussions about it with your spouse in the car on the way home. Anyway, that’s what I think he wants. And that’s what I want, too.
Michele Vazquez is an actor, director, and writer who recently moved from NYC to Crystal Lake with her husband, James Knight (Stanley), and their daughter, Harper. She is thrilled to have this opportunity to make CL her creative home.