The Anatomy of a Choice
by Maura Vaughn
Maura Vaughn wrote The Anatomy of a Choice because she was having trouble locating a book.
As the resident drama teacher at the bucolic Branson School in Ross, Vaughn spent years searching for a book that· would guide her students though the textual analysis portion of the rehearsal process. She was trying to find something to effectively serve as a textbook for the type of class in which students traditionally read a text only if they’re later going to be expected to perform it. She even went as far as obtaining a grant from the school to go on an exhaustive, three-month search to find the ideal book to use in her class. She reread texts she’d first read decades ago when she was a student herself, texts that had just been written, everything out there she could get her hands on. “What 1 eventually realized,” she says, “is that all the great acting books out there—all of Uta Hagen’s wonderful works and all of Stanislavski’s wonderful works-supposed two things. One, that you had a teacher in front of you and two, that you had some basic information about how to read a play.” The latter, as she discovered firsthand as a young actor working at New York’s Circle in the Square, was not as straightforward as it might seem.
Getting from Point A (the script) to Point B (determining the event of the play, the event of each scene, your character’s overall objective, your character’s objective for each scene, your character’s tactics in obtaining that objective, the precise moments when those tactics change, etc.) is difficult enough for a professional actor, let alone one whose mind is also preoccupied with algebra and zits. So Vaughn started creating her own written curriculum around how to attack the requisite script-related homework actors need to do before they even set foot onstage. That curriculum is what eventually became her book, Anatomy of a Choice.
The book takes as its subject Tennessee Williams’s classic, A Streetcar Named Desire, and shows, systematically, how an actor should analyze the script in order to make the strongest possible choices. Streetcar is an ideal play here because it’s one that’s simultaneously ubiquitous enough to be instantly familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the theatre and complex enough for Vaughn to demonstrate how actors can continually pull back layer after layer of richness as they delve ever deeper into the script.
While Anatomy of a Choice was initially written with young actors in mind, it is by no means exclusively for teens. The writing is crisp and clear enough that pretty much anybody can grasp it, yet rarely seems remedial. That’s largely due to Vaughn’s taking great pains to, as much as possible, strip herself and the type of acting choices she would instinctively make from the book. As it breaks down, step by step, what to look for reading though a play for the first time-and the second, and the third-it’s easy to see the book being used as a checklist for professional or semiprofessional actors looking for help, adrift inside a difficult text.
“I think everyone can tell when an actor hasn’t fully investigated a text because every choice they make will be similar. There won’t be a build to what they’re doing,” says Vaughn, talking about dangers of doing text work haphazardly. “The other problem is when you’re acting opposite somebody, there’s this disconnect because it’s always the same thing going back and forth. Nothing real happens in front of you. Actors can be quite polished and quite proficient in what they’re doing, but [without delving into the script] there’s inevitably some spark missing.”
If being onstage is like a test, just as in high school, often the answer isn’t something ever mentioned in class-it’s buried deep in the reading, and the key is, as always, to remember to do your homework. —TBA
Aaron Sankin is an arts writer based in San Francisco.