On Being, Writing, and Borrowing
By Ian Ferguson with fangirl contribution from Kat Edwards
Some jokes have been made around the theatre recently that this is a season of Ian Ferguson. The last time Ian graced our stage was in our 2014 production of On the Eve. This year he’s performing in Once and Foxfire, but he is also the composer for The Manufactured Myth of Eveline Flynn.
I thought it was interesting that this actor/songwriter was portraying a songwriter in the same season that we are producing a musical that he wrote all of the songs for, so I asked for a little contribution from him for this blog series from the cast of Once.
How do you portray a songwriter and effectively sing this well-known music as though it is your own? This was a question posed to me about the process of preparing to play “Guy” in ONCE. It’s an interesting question and, honestly one I hadn’t considered – for one because I’ve actually myself been a songwriter for longer than I’ve been an actor, so I’ve never separated those two parts of me. But I want to try to answer that question by first talking about character work and then music.
I often winking-ly remark to friends – both inside and outside of the theatre community – that we (actors) have weird jobs. Essentially, we take words written by another person that are imagined to be said by a fake person, then we try to find a connection between our real selves and this fake person invented by a stranger. See? It’s odd, right? But when we’re successful at it; when the relay from playwright to director to actor to audience member is executed like we hope, people experience complete human honesty. There’s no thought about an actor remembering words or pretending or faking anything; just experiencing life honestly. The fact that it’s on a stage under lights in front of an audience suddenly feels incidental.
The same is completely true of music. You don’t have to be an actor or a musician to connect with a song like it’s your own. Anyone that is moved by the combination of a melody and some lyrics knows that feeling when it seems like someone read your mind, your life, your struggle and wrote a song about it. “This is my song” we say, feeling the depth at which, we seem to have been understood by a stranger we’ve never met. The fact that someone else wrote it seems secondary to the clarity you feel singing along.
Interestingly sometimes the near-reverse can happen. As the composer of the music and lyrics for the upcoming Theatre 3 production of THE MANUFACTURED MYTH OF EVELINE FLYNN, certainly the beginning of that process is always personal as I try to inhabit and write for the minds of the characters we’re creating. But as the work continues and we push and pull practical or technical aspects of the songs, you develop a somewhat arm’s length approach in an attempt to be objective. Suddenly these songs that came from my hands sound like the work of a third party and I’m simply there to review and edit.
So, when it comes to playing a character who’s a song-writer and performing iconic songs that were written by someone else as though they came from my own mind about my own experiences, it’s really a perfect union of the work of an actor and the everyday being of a music lover. If I can get into the heart of this character’s story through the spoken words of the script, then pairing the music and the voice to that story is really only made simpler. What a gift for an actor! To not only get the facts spoken by a character about themselves in dialogue, but to also hear and experience the core of what moves and hurts this imaginary person in a way we all recognize when we’re singing or screaming at the top of our lungs during rush hour.
Nothing about that seems borrowed or rehearsed. It’s just the life and the music. Just clarity.
Shameless plug for Ian in 5…4…3…2…1…
Catch more of Ian Ferguson this season!
The Manufactured Myth of Eveline Flynn – January 31 – February 24, 2019
Music and Lyrics by Ian Ferguson
Book by Michael Federico
Foxfire – March 14 – April 7, 2019
By Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn