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Masterful lessons in acting benefit students and SFS

SALISBURY — Laura Linney finally conducted her master class — postponed by the October snowstorm — to benefit Salisbury Family Services on Saturday, Nov. 26; and it was a revelation in stage craft. Two teams of students each brought quite different five-minute scenes to Linney, who in fewer than two hours helped them find deeper, more defined characterizations.Christian Lange and Lindsay Portelli from The Hotchkiss School performed a few minutes from Act 1 of “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?,” Mark Medoff’s first New York hit about a dingy diner in New Mexico on the skids after a new freeway has passed it by. Stephen (Lange) is waiting for Angel (Portelli) to show up for work. She is late.Linney waited for the first run through, then pelted the actors with questions: “Where are you? What time of day is it? How long have you been working (Stephen)? Do you care you’re late (Angel)? So you had a fight with your mother, why? Over what?”“Don’t skip steps,” the actress said. “I go through every line and action and personalize it. This is hard work. Language may be saying one thing, but actions can say something else.” Everything you do on stage creates character, reveals character to the audience. As Linney suggested more and different stage business, a new entrance and new positioning, the two actors began to deliver lines differently, inhabit Stephen and Angel with more definition. Their characters seemed to grow before the eyes of the audience.Chris Hussey from Salisbury School and Rebekah Purdy from Housatonic Valley Regional High School had given three performances of Dale Wasserman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in October, so they were sure of themselves and reluctant to change the scene from Act 1 in which McMurphy and Nurse Ratched first meet. (Linney smilingly acknowledged the difficulty of thinking differently in front of their director, Procter Smith of Salisbury School, who sat in the second row.)Linney said the play is about what’s outside (the mental hospital) and what’s inside. McMurphy’s (Hussey) expectations of the hospital are slammed against Nurse Ratched’s (Purdy) real world of control. None of his charm will work here. For her, the hospital is home, and he is a misbehaving guest.Again Linney probed for background, motivation. She suggested new business, especially for Purdy. When she asked Hussey what kind of piped-in music he asked Ratched to turn off, he said polka. Soon Linney began singing — really an annoying, continuous sound — as Hussey and Purdy played the scene a last time. Hussey suddenly shouted his lines with anger; McMurphy had become more believable.

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