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Surrogate singer: Lelaina Vogel ’15 goes vocal for Radcliffe project

Lelaina Vogel '15 with "Bruce," her surrogate for "Character Analysis," a project by Radcliffe fellow David Levine AM '96.

Lelaina Vogel ’15 is a psychology concentrator whose interest in theater led her to participate in Radcliffe fellow David Levine’s study Character Analysis. In this experiment, actors are paired with volunteers for three months, after which the “surrogates” send actors out into the world to complete a mission in character. I sat down with Vogel to discuss her experience with the project. This is the second post about this project. Read more about Levine here.

How was your experience working on Character Analysis?

It was absolutely groundbreaking for me. It really broadened my horizons about what theater can be, what the arts can be and what it tells us about ourselves. It was an extremely stressful and nerve-wracking experience, but one that I consider transformative.

How was working with your surrogate?

My surrogate is a wonderful man. I greatly enjoyed working with him. Given that he is around the same age as my mother, he’s not someone I’d usually spend social time around. He’s very sweet, and over the course of the three months of working with him (and I’m working with him a little this fall) we’ve managed to get to know each other very well. We set up a very specific way of dealing with each other. Whereas with most actors and surrogates, the actor asked questions and tried to get to know the surrogate, we traded information. I’d ask a question, then he’d ask the same question back to me, which actually made for a great relationship, and I got to know things about him that he’s never told anyone else before. It was extremely intimate, but at the same time I had to maintain some sort of detachment from the situation, simply because I was analyzing him at the same time as getting to know him.

What mission did he send you on?

I haven’t completed my final mission — I am the only person, I believe, who hasn’t completed their final mission. He is sending me to go to karaoke for him. He’s never been able to sing karaoke because he’s got a little bit of stage fright, and is a more demure person. I’m going to go out and sing karaoke as him. He thinks if I can do it as him, and tell him how it goes, then he may be able to do it later on himself. It’s a lot of trust.

How has this changed what you think of theater and character?

For me, as an actress, it changed the way I look at my process. In most acting, you’re given a script, and then you take the details from that script, and put them together to compose some sort of character. That character is approximating an individual. Here, however, I was given a real individual who I had to break down into those details and reassemble into a mirror image of that same real individual. Which, of course, is exceedingly difficult. I realized how overwhelming it can be when you have too much information as an actor. I could go sing karaoke for him, yes; but I also know about personal details, like his interpersonal relationships, his past, his family. How much of that do you think about at any given moment? You have to quiet down certain thoughts and certain details to get to one pithy idea. My “Bruce” was much slower than actual Bruce, because I was thinking through the filter of what I think of Bruce, in order to achieve a real Bruce. David did this piece in Berlin, and he had an actor become a farmer and spend a couple months farming. For this piece this guy actually went out and hoed in the field. He got so concerned about making his rows like he had seen done by other farmers that he was about half-speed of what an actual farmer would have been. Much the same thing happened with us. For this piece, my thoughts as Bruce come slower than my thoughts as Lanie, and I have to filter out Lanie to get to Bruce. It’s exceedingly complicated and layered and hard. But really fun.

How do you think this experiment will continue?

I don’t think this will ever be done. If I know David, this is something that fascinates him and will keep coming back. For me, too, I plan on thinking back on this. This was completely new and strange for me and equally wonderful.

Under the auspices of the Office for the Arts’ Learning From Performers program, David Levine will engage undergraduates in Hunter and Prey, a collaborative video/performance project on November 16 and 17 at the Harvard Dance Center. No prior performance experience is necessary; click here for more information.

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