Vagabond has a cool cool series called the "Directors Sessions." They recruit Chicago directors to work with actors at a one-night workshop. Actors are given materials to prepare a week prior and told to come in off-book, having rehearsed with their scene partner at least once. Then the director does what directors do: direct. It's a chance to train, learn, and of course network.
I signed up to do a workshop with Kierra Fromm (About Face, Steep, Remy Bummpo, The Gift, TimeLine, Theater Wit, Strawdog, everywhere else). I'd auditioned for her before and loved her energy so I signed up. I just signed the heck up, y'all.
For the workshop, I prepared a scene from The Columnist with Brian Sheridan (of Chimera Ensemble). We met two or three times in his basement rehearsal space to...you know... rehearse. I won't describe the entire scene, but it seemed to have a pretty lopsided power dynamic, and we didn't really think to question it. My character came in all hot and aggrieved, and his remained calm and held his cards close to the chest. My guy was unable to get what I want from his guy, or even get a strong reaction from him, and that was the dynamic.
In the workshop, Keira focused on nailing some fundamentals: stakes, given circumstances, objectives, tactics, etc—not just intellectually, but as a way to fuel performance. When we got to working our scene, Keira helped us question the assumption we'd made: I had prepped my character largely as someone who knew he was going to lose this particular fight. Other Brian prepped his as someone who would end up perturbed at most.
I didn't walk in thinking "I have low stakes." For my character, the conversation could help change the course of the Vietnam war. But I did have low stakes, because I knew how the conversation would end, and didn't believe I had a chance to change them. (In case you're wondering, that's death for drama.)
But what if my character believed he could actually score a win? What if at the end of the scene, my character emerged victorious, even if only in his own mind?
Suddenly the scene took us somewhere and the characters had been changed by the end of it. By investing more fully in an immediate goal that I felt capable of achieving, every move my partner made was important to me: it told me how close I was to getting what I wanted.
I suppose the lesson I learned there is to keep your stakes high, winnable and in the room. But it was also to be aware of your assumptions and question them. I think I often read a play or an audition side and form unconscious beliefs about the scene, but there's no part of my process designed to test them. Bringing awareness to those assumptions can only serve to solidify a stronger performance.