Mrs. Gibbs Shares Lessons from Our Town
Since the Black Box production of Our Town is opening at the end of this week, I got to meet with Annabelle Vaes ’19 to talk about the play and her role as the “plump and pleasant” character Mrs. Gibbs.
When director Phil Soltanoff first told you that you were going to lip-synch, was that hard to swallow?
For me, it sounded interesting from the beginning. As Phil Soltanoff said more and more about it, I knew I would love to be a part of this!
But that is probably the most challenging thing for an actor to do, right?
It’s really hard! I mean, every time you watch the original video, you find more details, and it’s really hard to match everything. But by copying exactly what the actor is doing, you’re making it your own. That’s when your own character comes into being. Everyone is telling me that I don’t get to do any of my own things, but by doing this I am doing my own thing. By having these kinds of barriers, you're actually more creative. One of my friends actually said, “If you give an artist one crayon, he would do more than with a whole box, because he would have to get more creative.” So that’s what it is!
In a more technical way, how do you work? Do you watch the video and then try to copy what the actor is doing in front of the screen? I guess the screens are behind you…
Well, we also have a screen in front of us, but at the beginning it was reversed, so we had to do everything reversed, and it was really hard. But then we switched it, so that really helped. The thing thing is, on my computer at home it’s not switched! What we would do sometimes is slow the video down and learn the movements that way. What we would do during the rehearsals is look at the video a couple of times. Then we tried to do the big motions and gestures so that we could get used to the idea. Then we would go home and try to find out the details on our own.
You’re not only copying the motions, but you’re also copying the movements of the lips, so do you want to say the text sometimes?
Right now I still have to go back and look at the text. They speak really fast and sometimes I only get half of it! For now, I’m just getting used to it, and I have to practice at home.
Is the process of learning that different?
I really love working this way! For me, it has always been a matter of looking at the text and then blocking out the scene before acting, but with this play, it's reversed. Basically, I’m just learning through watching the video. I mean, when you’re learning a text, you’re still looking at it, but here the movie is our text. It’s our primary source and by repeating, we’re doing the same thing we’d do by looking at a script; we’re going back over certain lines, repeating them etc.
In a broader sense, do you think that all this technology involved in the process of learning the text impacts the way you act?
Already, because we’re lip-synching, it is a little different. The video does have an impact because it forces you to work not only with an ensemble, but also with another person on screen, whereas if you’re doing it by yourself you don’t have to worry about keeping in time with someone. With this play, you’re really forced to stay in time and that’s hard, but that’s a lot of fun! And once you get it, you can add your own things.
What do you think you are bringing to your character?
I don’t know yet! I’m still discovering my character.
So what do you hope to bring to her?
I hope to make her three-dimensional! I hope to embody her so much that what’s on the screen is in reality. It’s a challenge and I really hope to bring her to life!
You’d rather have the audience watching you and not switching back to the screen then?
They can do whatever they want, but it would be such an honor if they looked at me and said, “Woo, she’s doing the same thing as what’s on screen!”
Do you think it’s going to puzzle the audience?
I’m not sure what the audience will know. I think they know it’s a video, but at the beginning they would probably not be looking at both. That’s fine, it’s supposed to be unsettling. At first, they will probably be looking at the video a lot more, but then they’ll look at us and go back and forth until the end.
Do you think that, in a way, this version of Our Town could be seen as a criticism of how often it has been staged?
I don’t know exactly why Phil Soltanoff wanted to re-do it, but I think he wanted to give it a new life. The more we work with the play the more we respect it and the message Thornton Wilder managed to get across.
Now that you’ve worked on Our Town, why do you think this play has been staged so many times?
I guess it’s because it’s about everything and nothing at the same time. It’s about everyday life. You know, sometimes ordinary things are the most important ones. This is a timeless story. It’s about life, and life not only repeats itself but the story also could happen in different places and times, with different people and that's why it is so relatable. It’s our town; it’s about our life. You might not want to see such ordinary things in a play, but the fact is that it’s about us, the people. It reflects on your own life in a very simple and direct way.
What would you say to people to make them want to see the play?
First, you would miss something great if you didn’t come. This won’t happen every year. This play might be a one in a lifetime thing and it’s a unique experience! You should seize the opportunity to see this play because it will impact you in some way.