Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Pygmalion: The Fun and Challenges of Acting Shaw, with the Higgins Family

The family unit is an integral part of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. In past posts, we’ve explored how the Eynsford-Hill family presents strong foils for the primary characters, and examined what similarities exist within the Doolittle family. Today, we finish our series by talking to actors Lisa Herceg and Steve O’Connell about the relationship between mother and son in the Higgins household.


Henry Higgins and his mother

Throughout the play, Henry Higgins behaves impulsively and with considerable distain for society’s rules and manners. Few people are able to keep him in line except for his mother.

“I think that Mrs. Higgins is one of those very bad mothers who did a sudden switch,” says Lisa, who plays Henry’s mother. “She doted on him so much early on in his life that there was no need for him to behave appropriately according to society. Then once he became a man, she said ‘Now you need to behave in this certain way,’ And it didn’t work.”

“She created the beast, and then all of a sudden wanted it to be tame,” observes Steve, who plays Henry.

Mrs. Higgins, like a good doting mother, is concerned about her son finding a romantic love interest. In the play, Henry brushes off his mother’s laments about his lack of a love life by proclaiming “My idea of a loveable woman is someone as like you as possible!”

“I think that the key word in that phrase is ‘loveable,’” Steve says. “Henry understands that women are attractive and that they’re amusing, but the difference between that and loving a woman and having that sort of romantic relationship… he would want somebody who dotes on him as much as his mother does, someone who is not interested in seeing things and being seen and being part of the societal parties and soirees.”

“Well and someone who doesn’t take any guff from of you,” Lisa observes wryly.

“I don’t think he would ever admit that, but yes,” Steve concedes. “He is attracted to that without even knowing it. I think we see that in Scene 5 with Eliza, and how she won’t just bend to his will. There’s something enormously attractive about that, and he has no idea what to do with it. Women have defined roles in his life, like his mother and his housekeeper, and he thinks he has Eliza’s role defined, but it ends up not being defined for him. It’s the fact that he can’t pin it down that’s very attractive and very frightening at the same time.”


Higgins with Eliza
“I’m a really big believer that whatever the audience sees and takes away from the show is an individual experience, and that experience is always correct. I’m very hesitant to talk about process in a way that seeks to influence what somebody’s experience might be.” -Steve O'Connell

There is a danger in playing Henry Higgins that he might come across as cold and removed because of the density and intelligence of the language. The other characters often refer to him as a bully, a brute, rude, and having no manners. But Steve took a unique approach to the character.

“I think the key for him is that he’s excited about life. He’s just so excited about the possibilities of what life has to offer, and if you play excited— even if you’re barreling over people—, there’s a twinkling in the eye and an openness of the heart, and I think that with that in mind, you can sort of forgive a person like that. If the heart is open, then I think, as an audience and as other people in his life, we’re more willing to be like ‘Oh, it’s just that guy. It’s just Henry being Henry.’ Instead of thinking, “What a jerk!’”

Lisa agrees. “He always seems like a gigantic golden retriever puppy to me. Like, he has no idea how big he or what kind of mess he’s making.”

“I can see how the language sort of draws you into thinking of him as being cold and removed, but the first time I sat down and read the play, I was like ‘man, this guy just really loves what he does and is very excited about trying to convince everybody else that the study of phonetics is this wild and crazy time!’ He really believes that it can change the world. And that philosophy is not cold or removed at all. It’s all about trying to connect with other people. He just wants to connect on his own terms and his own way, and that’s kind of where the disconnect comes from. But it all starts in a positive place, in a connecting place. If you started with a cold ‘I’m better than you and don’t want to deal with you’ attitude, where would you go for two hours?”

A similar positivity can be found in the actions that Mrs. Higgins takes through the play.

“You would think that the train wreck that is Eliza would send her reeling,” notes Lisa, “and you’d think she would want to get this train wreck out of her drawing room as quickly as possible. But instead, she leaps to Eliza’s defense when Freddy is laughing at her. She asks Freddy if he’d like to see her again, which would indicate that she wants Eliza to come back. She takes her in when she leaves Henry. She’s really going out on a limb for this kid. She’s an outgoing and compassionate woman.”


Shaw’s plays are known for being full of rich language and dense with ideas, and Henry Higgins is a unique character in his obsession with dialects, sounds, and the way people speak. We asked Steve why he thought Higgins is so fascinated and drawn to the study of phonetics.

“Why is anybody fascinated and drawn to anything?” Steve replies.”I’m sure it was something that just piqued his interest when he was younger. I think it stems from the fact that he was just good at it and it was an intellectual pursuit that I think not a lot of other people were very interested in, and therefore he could shine. Especially when he was a younger person, I think he was very interested in being the best at something, and if he wasn’t the best at it, he didn’t have time for it.

“And then it became a passion. Things don’t become a passion right away until you learn more about them. And I think that has been and continues to be a life-long process for him. But the initial attraction I think came from success, which is kind of like a drug for him.”


Mrs. Higgins
“I am not accustomed to working from the outside in. I am accustomed to coming from the inside out, and the physicality comes as I’m working more on the character.”

In addition to being an ensemble member with Stage Left, Lisa is also a member of Babes With Blades, a company which focuses on stage combat in their productions. Most recently, Lisa played the title role in their production of Susan Swane and the Bewildered Bride. Transitioning from that role to Mrs. Higgins, who spends almost all of the play sitting in a chair, was a challenge.

“It drove me bananas the first three weeks,” Lisa confesses. “I thought I was going to lose my mind. And then I realized why I was being asked to be so still and not move, and I started to visualize the character. I am not accustomed to working from the outside in. I am not an “outside-in” kind of actor. I am accustomed to coming from the inside out, and the physicality comes as I’m working more on the character. When I got it, I got it, but I had some work to do to get to it.” -Lisa Herceg

Steve also found working on Higgins from a physical place to be helpful. “I’m usually more of an “inside-out” sort of person,” he says, “but with Higgins, when I started really physicalizing him and letting him talk with his hands and using the length of my body, that really helped. That was a continuation of the character that I couldn’t have done if I was just looking at the lines. And it also brought a kind of lightness and enjoyment that I was seeking, that came from a purely physical place first rather than an intellectual place.

“I found that I’ve been able to work from that place on the last few projects that I’ve done. I said to myself, ‘Just let your body do what it wants to do and don’t judge it,’ and it’s been really liberating. I used to think, ‘No, I have to intellectually figure out what’s going on first.” But that’s not how people act in real life. You don’t figure things out first and then act; often times you’re informed by what your body is telling you to do. That’s something that has been relatively new in my work as an actor: letting physical things inform the emotional.”

“In this case, the language informs it,” Lisa adds, “because these characters have very specific rhythms in their speech, and they’re all slightly different. How my character sounds was a big part of how I approached working on her.”

“I had a great teacher in grad school who did a lot of Shaw,” Steve says, “and he talked about how doing Shaw was like riding a bicycle in a crowded attic. You’re in a confined space, and there is no place to stop and put your foot down, so you always have to just keep driving. And there are so many boxes in the attic that you always have to make these twists and turns, and if there’s a box in front of you, you have to slow down and go around it. It’s all about down shifting and moving and adjusting, but never stopping.

“Describing Shaw’s language in that visual way just made sense to me. It was a great image for me eight years ago, and I came back to it here.”

You can see the Higgins family in action in BoHo and Stage Left Theatres’ joint production of Pygmalion, now playing at Theater Wit until February 10th. Do you have thoughts on the characters or our actors’ approach to them? Leave a comment below and join the conversation!