It was as if Drama, Musical Theatre, Theatre Design and Media Arts students had five living textbooks in front of them, so deep was the information the actors and writers from HBO’s New Orleans production of Treme could offer. Joining in the workshop were actor and NOCCA alumnus Wendell Pierce, writer and NOCCA alumnus Lolis Eric Elie, and actors Clark Peters, Ntare Guma Mbatto Mwine and John Goodman.
“How do you develop your character for film versus television or stage?” asked a drama student of Clark Peters who has appeared on Broadway (The Iceman Cometh, Chicago), West End in London (Blues in the Night, Porgy and Bess, The Witches of Eastwick and Chicago), film (Notting Hill, Freedomland) and on television as Detective Lester Freamon in The Wire. “Film can see what’s on your mind before you utter your first word so your thought process and prelude in your body has to begin before you speak,” he answered. “With a stage play, you can see the beginning, middle and end for your character. For episodic TV you have no idea. On Treme, I’m learning as I go, yet I have to carry this as if this has been my life for the last 40 years.”
Echoed John Goodman, “specify in your mind the person you are playing. Get the song going before you start to speak and then have fun.”
The class started off on a potentially nervous note for seniors who delivered monologues for critique. “The top of this monologue should fire you,” Wendell Pierce told Hakeem Holmes as he performed Booster from August Wilson’s Jitney (a play produced and performed by Wendell). “You have to find what fuels your fire. How do you feel about a father you haven’t spoken to in 20 years? What in your own life have you brought to this? We are students of human behavior. That’s what we are as actors. You have to remember, though, that we are not just dealing with a skill. We are dealing with hearts and minds and souls and you have to tread carefully.” Added Mr. Peters, “Somehow with your words and actions you have to say your lines so strongly that we feel your father is here,” even though it is a monologue.
“The fact that you could overcome nerves and speak is commendable,” Ntare Mwine encouraged the young performers. “Sometimes there are opportunities to use those nerves to help you in presenting your character. Rather than thinking of something as an obstacle, it can be thought of as an asset.” Ntare, an American-Ugandan stage and film actor, playwright, photographer, documentarian and lecturer at USC earned his masters at NYU and also studied at UVA, Moscow Arts Theatre and the Royal National Theatre in London. His photography has been exhibited at the United Nations and museums worldwide; his acting credits include Blood Diamond on film, Heroes on television, and Six Degrees of Separation on stage.
Lolis Eric Elie, who delineated his journey to writer on Treme from his days at NOCCA in the jazz department through business school, UVA’s masters writing program, as a columnist for the Times-Picayune, author (Smokestack Lighting Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country) and documentarian (Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans), described the process of script development from collaborative brainstorming to individual effort returning to a collaborative process with the producers to bring unity to the whole. “My scenes may be returned to me with total changes but it is part of the evolution of the story.”
The master artists also touched on the evolving industry. “Now, you all can create,” explained Ntare. “You are empowered because you all have tools right in your hands – your phones, computers, video cameras. You can upload anything and have it seen. We are in the middle of radical transformation. There is really no excuse for you to not jump in. If you’re waiting on someone else, you will be waiting a long time.” “Yet,” added Clark, “somehow we have to hold on to the art and craft of what we do.”
“And you have to find those things that will fire you up,” Wendell returned to again and again. “Don’t just do research on a character for the sake of research, do it to learn, to say wow, that’s cool, I didn’t know that. As a young actor, expand your world. Go everywhere to stake your claim.”