I will begin with a plodding gait, with predictable steps, but surely I will be sprinting towards the end, if you remain a spectator in my stands for that long. I’ve never told the entire story of my life before, never really told any story before, so you must be patient and tender and forgiving and understanding with me. Give me time. I will give you mine. And I will swear to be a true as I can be, allowing for my age and narcissism and more-than-slight leaning towards The Lie. But I will hold your hand gently in mine, without sweat, without glances aside, and I will speak to you in low and steady tones. So what’s not to believe?
Of course, actors are paid to lie. My profession has been one of purchased professing, of saying the words of others and making listeners believe. Of gesticulating well and appropriately, of pushing out the tears so the tracks flow down my cheek and seep into your soul (if you have one), of singing the proper notes at the proper time, and of thinking the odd amalgamation of my own cogitations and those of the character. The Character. My Self creeps into the equation now and then, but I’m generally sprinting away from that persona, that past, and diving into the windstorm of another story. One that hurts and might even be legendary in its pain, but it’s not my story, not my pain, and it ends in surely less than three hours, max.
My father was a cold, sometimes drunken bastard. With dark eyes and bushy brows, an ominous nose and pronounced lips. The mouth a gash in the fleshy cheeks, which sagged into jowls. At least when I begin the story, when I’m about 11 years old, about in sixth grade, ducking about in an old castle of an elementary school called Hanby.
Named after Benjamin R. Hanby (not sure at all about the R.), who penned the immortal Christmas ditty, “Up On the Housetop.” His old home, surely from the 1880s or so, is a modest museum in my hometown of Westerville, Ohio. We must’ve visited the two-story brick-with-wooden-shutters house when I was attending Hanby Elementary or Hanby Middle School. (It housed the fifth and sixth grades of Westerville youth, who had at last escaped the even older, castle-esque building which definitely was the elementary school; where I had successfully climbed a rope to the top of the gym roof, as part of gym class, to the momentary and enforced admiration of my classmates. Where I had almost won a spelling bee; I came in second, because I misspelled the word ‘coal’ — omitting the a and adding a final e, as one of my classmates spelled his name. I believe that I was the expected winner until that gasp-inducing gaff. I was already a writer and a bit of an actor when reading.)
But I’m not starting in elementary school, I’m commencing my life’s tale with a fifth grade talent show. I began my true performing career paired with Jerry Eberhart, doing a childish rendition of a vaudeville sketch. Or what we considered a vaudeville sketch. I was a waiter, Jerry was my freckled customer, I asked what he wanted, he told me, I mixed the ingredients in his Mexican sombrero (actually we’d placed a protective plastic bag within the hat), and glopped the hat on his head for the Big Finish. Mucho laughter and applause from the student audience, with raw egg dripping down my freckled partner’s brows.
I cannot tell you why it was a sombrero. Probably because it was the only hat which one of us owned. I cannot tell you what any of the lines were. Did we speak all of our set-up words to silence, only achieving the remembered laughter and applause with the final squelch of sombrero on skull? And was it truly Jerry who got squelched? I’ve always been the “little man,” the victim in most comedies since then. I excel in portraying pitiable, vulnerable, quirky losers. Even though I’ve also been a leading man. But Jerry was surely more of a Character Actor back then. I had climbed that rope, after all. True, I played the violin — worse than badly, true, but I played it. Carried the case to Hanby School for the weekly orchestra rehearsals — or were they really individual lessons? (I pity the poor teacher, enough to have totally forgotten the unfortunate him or her.) So I was an athletic musician, a sensitive male, a leading character type. Who loved the sound of that laughter and applause.
No, my intimidating, scary father didn’t give me laughter or applause, at least not in my childhood, when it really would have given me confidence and a strong sense of identity and support and all of that good stuff which parents are supposed to offer. Mom gave me love and hugs and kisses, and was complimentary to all of us, I’m sure. But since she said nice things about all five of my brothers and I, how could I take any praise from her as True? As bankable? It’s always the parent who denies the love who commands our Life Choices, right? Trying to please the Ultimate Displeased.
Told you that I would begin with stereotypes. But I’m proving them to be True, yes? Bankable. As in “you can take this to the bank — and get it cashed!” Difficult parents produce difficult kids: troublesome and/or troubled. I was the latter. I shied away from troublesome types. Like my father complaining to cashiers, happy to raise his voice and gain the attention of the entire story, usually over a matter of a denied credit card or a refused check. He would fight embarrassment with one person by loudly bringing embarrassment to an entire store. And his young son, watching with big eyes, listening with big ears. Wanting to disappear backstage, whilst Padre chewed the scenery.
Dad was an Air Force man, a Master Sergeant by the time he retired, teaching in the ROTC at a small college in my home town. I’m not sure what he taught, have some vague images of him sitting at a desk in a room full of decorative, parade rifles: an armory for Registered (?) Officer Training Corps students, of hopefully prop guns, one that couldn’t fire a bullet. Was he really some type of Master of Arms, a clerk for the costume weaponry of potential soldiers in the 1960s? He must’ve had another side to his job, in those rather musty, wooden hallways of Otterbein. He would give us coins for the snack machine, on a lower floor, and I and my brothers would scamper to the metal display case, with the pull-knobs. Plunk in the nickels and dimes, pull the knob until it sounded that satisfying “thunk” — and then out would slide the Groetze’s Caramel Creams. Little brown doughnuts with a white, creamy center, eight to a box, in two rows of four. Mustachioed chef on the plastic wrapper.
This was love from my father, in his blue uniform, with a dark tie and polished black shoes. Crew cut sharpening his crisp outline; grey at the temples, dark hair swept into a little point on his widow’s peak. (Why do we call it that? Do wives who’ve lost their husbands dash themselves against such peaks, such sharp cliffs upon the brows of other men, searching for new love?) His deep, rumbling tones would offer the chance of candy, he’d pull the necessary lucre from his uniform’s pockets, and we would have a treat to somewhat while away the boredom. My god, yes! — He had to take us to work for some reason, Mom couldn’t take care of us that afternoon, so he was trying to get things done and amuse us… And I read his office copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology, both the stories about the Greek and the Norse gods, with wonderfully detailed, black-and-white pictures of Apollo in his chariot, Icarus falling as Daedelus watches in horror, Medusa’s serpentine locks still writhing on her disembodied head — held by Perseus…
Dad must’ve been in his forties then, he was still slender, without the beer belly that hit him in his fifties, when I was a teenager. In the sixties, my step-brothers were ripe for the Vietnam draft. Dad left Otterbein and began editing books at the Ohio State University College of Business. Came home with Mom, who was then working at Ohio Oil and Equipment as a book-keeper and secretary; he’d have a few beers, lying on the couch, and would watch the news. Anti-war protests would pull angry names from him, like an assured nickel-and-pull-knob transaction of a snack machine. “Goddamned commie punks! It’s outsiders, stirring up the students! Punks, all of them!!!” So my brothers (I didn’t really think of them as step-brothers, I’d lived with them all my life) surely felt the pressure to enlist or be drafted. They never spoke against the war, against serving their country as Dad had done in World War II. How could they, when this raging, drunk step-father would throw beer bottles at them if crossed? Running, thundering after brother Dan, still in high school, as he ran out the back door, into the garage, ducking a thrown Budweiser bottle. Terrifying to a ten year old who loved kittens.
Ah, but actors must come from troubled homes, yes? Homes where a religious mother endures the alcohol-inspired rants of the frightening father? Punches or pushes or slaps between spouses aren’t necessary, not when forming the psyche of a make-believer. Harsh, hollered, hideous words are sufficient, when and where you expect Ward and June Cleaver-type softness, patience, wisdom, reassurance. Mom could screech her replies to his ugly, blunt proclamations; I hated her ringing cries as much as his Odin-like thunder, even if they were justified.
“Your son is a goddamned punk! An idiot who’s going nowhere and you encourage him!”
“You’re just a stubborn hillbilly who gets drunk and starts yelling about anything and everything! Spend money that we don’t have and you take it out on your family! Why don’t you go off with your other women and just leave us? We’ll be better off, god knows… I don’t need this type of grief, shouting and fighting and carrying on at all hours.”
Then the tears would come and the door would slam and we’d be left with Mom. In a house that resonated with anger, frustration, sadness. Thick in the gloom of the place. The windows never seemed large enough, the sun bright enough, the air fresh and open enough. All of the cat and dog piss and crap in the corners certainly didn’t help. The holes punched in the walls by little boys or bigger step-boys and biggest step-Dads. Punishment weighted the atmosphere with its threat of What Will Follow Any Offense. No wonder I escaped into comic book heroes, mythic battles of Good and Evil, and my solo versions of such stories enacted in our yard.
Who needs another kid to be the bad guy? I could see them in my mind, pummeled by my lightning fists, demolished by my brutal side-kicks. Ah, they try to shoot me, but I deftly side-roll into another of their gang, taking his monstrous legs from beneath his porcine form. An unexpected hand-spring, with my soles imprinting themselves in the hairy features of the ringleader (a la Jack Kirby’s Captain America) and it’s all over. I stand in the grass, panting the most infinitesimal amount, staring at the fallen foes around me. They were Bad and I was Good, no grays involved, and I didn’t even get hurt. Bounced right back, no blood, no bruises. Not invulnerable (and I’d only fly in my dreams), but athletic and acrobatic enough to walk away, unscratched and unscathed.
In my junior year of college, as a BFA Acting major, I would utilize my backyard battle-skills — and the years of junior high and high school wrestling which followed — in my Stage Fencing class. I’d already taken Competitive Foil, as an HPR (Health and Physical Recreation) elective, for 1 credit. Learned the seven parry positions, advance and retreat and lunge, and then we’d don our masks and plastrons, come en garde and “allez!” We were sparring, first to three touches wins. Val Calarese, the Foil instructor, was a bronze medalist in the Olympics in Mexico; those world games had been at least twenty years before he was teaching at my college, so he was a bit rotund, but still indescribably deft with his parries and thrusts. He’d touch you in the proverbial blink, with your blade in mid-thrust, your ego handily cut down to size. In the inter-class tournament, which finished the course, I came in first place — but failed the class because I didn’t attend the final session. Still wish that I could apologize to my short, balding, hairy-armed, mustached old teacher. I meant no disrespect, was amazed that I had won; simply overslept and missed that last class. Maybe I honestly thought the course was over with the tournament — or that, having beaten my classmates, I didn’t have to attend anymore. (Maybe I didn’t win and didn’t fail the course; can’t trust my head anymore. All those lines still floating around up there, taking up space.)
Life stretches on into the misty future and I’m taking one step at a time, often wishing that I had just the slightest inkling about where I’m going. In relatively contented, peaceful, calm moments, I feel as though I have some concept of my Destiny, my Path. Delusions of grandeur, I guess. Because then I’ll be propelled into a phase of my existence and I cannot fathom why I’m there, then, doing that. The hell of it is, they can be looonnnnggg phases, too. Years and years!!! “What the fuck is going on?” I think. Yet the fuck keeps going on and on and on and on…
This is why the best type of punctuation ever devised, at least in my estimation, is the run-on period. The elipsis. Elipses… You know, those dot-dot-dots. They keep options open, they echo the open-ended quality of our days, they deny the definite absurdity (or the absurd finality) of periods. So I use a lot of them, often. Dot-dot-dot. Kind of like an up-ended inflection in conversation. It hangs in the air, regardless of whether you’re making a statement or delivering a question. That parallels the suspended feeling of Life, also.
The paradox of that type of suspension, the ebb and flow and flux and fucks of our existence, is that it can feel wonderful at times, terrifying at others. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself held in a certain period of years that’s not too bad, maybe not all fabulous and fireworks, but preferable to being disemboweled… If you’re fortunate to be suspended and yet animate in such a time of your life, that floating sensation can be rather pleasant. You don’t think about the inevitable fall, of course, or try to not think about it; you float onward, denying that you’re bound to swerve yet again in the not-so-distant and oh-so-befogged future. You’ll veer this way or that, up or down, into happier or more desolate times, screaming or stunned or joyous. And then you may find yourself hung in that new phase, for who knows how long and for what reasons.
If you live long enough, you either find the reasons behind each point in your Life path, or you invent them, or you simply stop asking about them. Essentially it’s the same way with the search for God or religion; you find him/it, you invent him/it, or you forget him/it. Perhaps the fourth choice is you try to destroy him/it. I’m not sure. Dot-dot-dot…
I am sure that it’s no picnic to live a dot-dot-dot existence, to always be unsure and uncertain, to continually have a sense of moving ground and Time beneath your feet. You know where you’ve been, and where you were after that, and you know where you are now, and then you have the sense to know that you can’t know where you’ll be next. Dead, yes. You know you’ll be dead sometime. But if you haven’t destroyed your God, and (even if you have) perhaps because He’ll have a different perspective on the matter, you’ll still have to deal with the changes after Life. Yes, of course, there’s the Big Change into Death, quite a monumental change it would appear from this side of the Veil. But what if the changes continue after Death. Good god!!! Dot-dot-dot forever?!!! What are we supposed to learn from that? What’s the point of that?
Let’s forget about the point of it all, for a while, and just adjust our focus to It. I can more readily use periods when I focus on It, the Known, the Present. It’s just a moment of suspension, cosmically speaking; you can still feel the ground moving, but you can look around and see all of the other faces wearing their smiles and achieve a state of temporary forgetfulness. Even temporary self-importance. Isn’t the short-term way of looking at Life marvelous?!
One of the topics I enjoy most in teaching an acting class about Shakespeare is Irony. By using the John Barton/Royal Shakespeare Company programs and book, PLAYING SHAKESPEARE, my students and I not only get to intellectually attempt to understand Irony — we also hear skilled examples of the intonation and phrasing which make it clear to an audience.
As Barton, the sweatered and be-tied wooly bear, sagely says, “Irony is something between thought and emotion, both felt and understood.” (I’m paraphrasing, probably putting his wisdom more into my not-so-wise wording; but that’s what one does, as an acting teacher, as any humble professor — you stand on the shoulders of giants to pass along their filtered learnings.) Ben Kingsley reminds us, in the program entitled IRONY AND AMBIGUITY, that, “One cannot write ironically, you cannot show it on the page, the actor must decipher it.” (Again, not a direct quote; this is a blog, which nobody reads, not an academic thesis.) But Ben and company do a splendid job of demonstrating how the actor deciphers double-meanings for an audience. They do the physical and verbal cues which serve as the wink to the observers, slyly acknowledging that more than the surface meaning is at work. Text and sub-text are apparent — consciously apparent for the characters, actors, and audience.
Dramatic irony would be something different, something unknown to the characters, but known to the cast and crowd; we know that Romeo and Juliet are star-crossed and fated to die. The Chorus/Prince tells us so in the prologue. But poor love-struck, love-stabbed, love-stained R and J don’t know it. Come to think of it, when they start using self-aware, self-mocking irony in their words, they show their growth in understanding what a more mature Love can mean… Their character arcs are in the transition from blind Love to Love that sees. (“Shall I believe that Death is amorous?”)
I’m not concerned with dramatic irony in these paragraphs; I’m pursuing the description of self-conscious irony, self-mocking irony, an objectively subjective (and vice-versa) look and eloquence wherein a character basically tells God and the audience that his/her situation sucks. (“Tis a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”) Macbeth or Hamlet or Prospero or Lear steps away from the breast-beating, emotional indulgence, and wryly speaks his mind, as well as his heart. We hopefully get a break from bad acting, the emotive immersion which suffocates both the onlookers and Shakespeare’s intent (I think); the character uses upward inflection, a hint of a smile or mischief in the eyes (a crinkle at the corners, perhaps), to put their own words in quotation marks. Or they could laugh after very seriously, dryly pronouncing a “line” — a phrase self-consciously satirized after (if not as) the syllables have dropped from their lips.
Again, it might be easy to find words for it, to help a young actor “do it” — to “do” Irony — but description is not demonstration. Which is why I’m so relieved to be an actor teaching acting, and can only really teach what I can do.
Oh, yes, before I abruptly end this burp-o’-thoughts, I must state that Sarcasm is an attack, usually at another’s expense, and not a requisite self-mockery, which would make it Irony. Clear? Come ask me to demonstrate; pay me for the lesson only if I can both do, and help you to do so, too.
Regarding Journals and Notes
When you leave a college acting course, after an entire quarter’s worth of study and exercises and performances, you should have some sort of tangible, physical evidence of your training; otherwise, the ten weeks and their cost may evaporate and be for naught. (Can you remember everything that you did or discussed or learned from last quarter’s acting class?) So keep a journal, a personal record of the experiences and thoughts and lessons you have in the class; taking notes in such an on-going log of your study of acting is good practice for note-taking in the profession. Directors usually love and re-hire actors who write down notes they’re given — and who then implement them at the next rehearsal. Even if you think you’ll remember the notes, jot something down, anyway; your teacher or your director will appreciate your visible attentiveness.
Regarding Punctuality and Politeness
In a sense, you’ve already begun your acting career. Your professors and classmates are shaping their opinion of you daily, forming their recommendations or criticisms about your work. So don’t miss or be late for classes and rehearsals with scene partners. Tell your teachers when your partners are being impolite and/or irresponsible; “ratting” on them might help the professor help them — or it might cause the eventual dismissal of the slackers from the Professional Actor Training Program. At any rate, there’s less of a chance that a Wright State BFA graduate will be likely to commit professional suicide by being consistently inconsiderate, late, absent, argumentative, whining or apologetic. If you have a problem meeting memorization deadlines and scene-partners, leave the program now.
Regarding Health and Focus
It’s quite common for theatre majors to become ill, so you have an excellent opportunity to practice professionalism and stay healthy amid the dis-ease. Eat well, sleep well, drink lots of water, stay on top of your work and your problems; prioritize more, socialize less. You should have a good time while in college, but you’re paying a lot of money to get the most out of your training, not to drink, do drugs, have sex, play video games, watch movies, etc. If either ill-health (physical or mental) or a lack of motivation affects your work too much in the PATP, leave the program. You’ll hopefully be healthier and happier elsewhere.
Regarding Minding Your Own Business
If a scene-partner keeps missing or being late or being unprepared for rehearsals and classes, that’s your business. It directly affects your work and should offend your professional standards. Talk to them first, in a calm and detached manner; if they don’t remedy the matter, inform the prof what’s going on. Then you’ve done all that you can do. If you’re the one that’s been late or absent, apologize, be humble, and don’t let it happen again.
If your scene partners are doing all of the work assigned them, and doing it on time, and rehearsing with you faithfully and with noticeable effort, that’s all you should expect. It’s not your business if their work is dishonest or weak or imperfect; do your job, let them do theirs, and let the teacher (or director) do his/hers. Actors progress at different rates. We are all being judged and we can all be better actors, so remember about throwing stones in glass houses… Art is subjective, not just; expect opinions, not justice.
Be kind, don’t gossip, help but don’t harm. And only offer help when it’s requested; presumptuous actors, despite the best intentions, are often disliked — and unemployed. You’ve got enough to do; don’t try to run your classmates’ lives, the class, or the department. Mind your own business, do your own work, enjoy your own life.
Regarding Being An Actor
This is the Professional Actor Training Program, so supposedly you’re here to better your acting skills in order to become a professional. But, if you’re acting now, even if only in classes, you’re already an actor. So act like one. Actors are child-like, not childish. They should be more humane and sensitive towards others, not less so. They are healers (of others and themselves), not harmful critics. Serve the Theatre, not merely your Self (or the Theatre Department). Let Acting make you divine, not a diva; the discipline and humanity of stage acting can make you a better human being. Better human beings make better actors.
Regarding the Program Cuts
If you love to act, and understand the work and sacrifices that the profession will demand of you, it won’t ultimately matter whether six people in Dayton, Ohio think you are good enough. It won’t ultimately matter if you are released from this program, or any program. It won’t matter if you are kept in the program and never play a leading role on our main stage. It won’t matter if you do play several leads here and then face constant rejections professionally. If you love to act, regardless of fame and fortune, you will do so. Otherwise, if any single rejection is enough to make you quit, then the person(s) who gave you that rejection has possibly saved you from years of unhappiness.
Was chatting with a teaching colleague at the university yesterday. He mentioned that we don’t need to take outside theatrical jobs, due to our steady salary from Wright State. I qualified my agreement by noting that, as a father of yet a third son in college, I did need the additional income. But I understood his point. Other actors and directors financially need to take theatrical employment, sometimes when it doesn’t appeal to them artistically.
Yet, especially at the end of a long and trying day of professing like I’ve just endured, I find that I do NEED to act. Not for the money, but for the happiness and/or contentment it gives my heart and mind. Unless I’m rehearsing or performing in the evenings, I feel rather at sea in the classroom. I know what I’m doing when I’m creating a character, weaving those choices into the blend of other actors and the director and designers; I know who I am when I’m playing somebody else in front of audiences, hungry for a good story. Maybe the evening of Art balances the day’s Academia: the doing balances the dogma. Maybe I’m simply, organically, psychologically far more of an actor than I am a professor.
At any rate, after the initial thrill of being back in the classroom after a year of nothing but acting, I’m fighting the old, pre-sabbatical tensions, anxieties, and displeasures. I’m around Judging once again, instead of Joining; instead of “we” — it’s sometimes “us” and “them.” When students and faculty gather in Actor’s Rep class, it feels right: endless possibilities, nothing Right or Wrong, it’s positive playtime. At such times, acting’s not about wagging the finger of authority and saying, No!” It’s about smiling and saying, “Could be — or maybe you could —”
I will persevere, breathe, continue to stretch and juggle and tai chi with my classes. Analyze the angst and drain the drama. (And return to evening stage adventures ASAP.) Do what I NEED to do.
This will be the eighth time that you are playing Ebenezer Scrooge. How do you keep the role fresh each year?
Most of the credit for the continual renewal of the show lies with our gifted, insightful, and Dickensian director, Michael Haney; he never lets us come to rehearsals without a firm commitment to making it fresh, making it more honest, more human, more rooted into the current cast. Add one new actor (and the children alone change considerably every two or three years) and that domino will, under Michael’s skillful eyes, fall into place and affect everyone else in that scene, if not in the show. What also helps me is that I adore Charles Dickens and have read all his novels, some two or three times.
What have you enjoyed most about being in A Christmas Carol for the past 15 years?
The family atmosphere of the show, with all the familiar faces — including the audience members who return each year and greet us in the lobby, as the cast carols, afterwards. The production is a gift which the cast is given — and passes along, with as much joy and heart and belief and we can muster for each and every performance. When I’m thanked by generations of a family after a show, I simply cannot believe what Charles Dickens gave us all with this ghostly little tale of the Christmas spirit(s)…
What are your favorite memories of the show?
I was recently photographed, in my sweat-soaked Scrooge costume, with a smiling group of kids after our Federated performance, for under-priviledged children. They’d been given sack-lunches by the cast following the show, I’d convinced them that I was the happy, nice Scrooge now and it was safe to say hello to me. Many actually rushed into a hug with the reformed Ebenezer — so many that their teacher thought the moment should be recorded. I know that my beloved predecessor, Joneal Joplin, always adored doing that annual show for those kids — and I certainly feel the same way.
You played Bob Cratchit, and now Ebenezer Scrooge. If you ever gave up the Scrooge role, is there another role in the Dickens classic that you would enjoy taking on?
I’ve actually also played Young Scrooge, Dickens (as narrator), Marley’s Ghost, Topper, and some smaller roles in CHRISTMAS CAROLs at the Human Race Theatre and at the Milwaukee Rep. (My wife, Carol, and then-youngster sons Charlie and Toby were in a version of the show with me for a few years, with Charlie as Tiny Tim.) But I would love to play one of the ghosts, any of them; as I age, I enjoy the thought of spiritual guides having the chance to help a lost human soul towards redemption. (Plus their costumes have glitter and lights…)
A Christmas Carol is now in its 22nd year. Why do you think this production is so popular with Tri-state families?
Humanity always needs to gather in theatres, share stories of hope and generosity and transformation, especially in the holiday season: “We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.” We need to see bad men become good, to believe that we can all become better.
We get on the stage today, for our first “spacing” rehearsal for TIMON OF ATHENS! Always a welcome break from what grows to be the hum-drum of runthroughs and notes in the rehearsal hall. I’m now in even fewer scenes in the production, since we’ve been running long and I was happy to suggest that there was a brief (six lines, if that much) part of one scene with me that was fairly pointless…
Debt Collectors Hounding Timon: Here comes Apemantus! He’ll be sure to chide us. The dog!!!
Apemantus (entering): Poor rogues and usurer’s men… Bawds between gold and want!
Debt Collector 1: What are we, Apemantus?
Debt Collector 2: Why?
Apemantus: Because you ask what you are and do not know yourselves. (Exits.)
Not an exactly essential or enlightening little exchange, so I was glad when the director agreed to get rid of it. So now I have more unbroken off-stage time, to memorize lines for A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS in the fall, or read my Thomas More biography (more like a Thomas Bore bore-agraphy), or continue adapting BARNABY RUDGE, PART TWO… Your father’s life is one long party.
No, I’m joking, though I do get lonely and a bit listless here, the company is wonderful, TIMON is fascinating alone because of Greg Jackson’s work in the title role (darkly funny and very touching), and I love the town of Madison. There are nail salons and banks and churches every hundred yards, it seems, but also nice restaurants (my favorite is the Nautilus Diner — relatively cheap and just a local hang-out) and the little, rather seedy Madison movie theatre. Four small theatres with sticky floors, where I always seem to catch the latest superhero flicks when I work here.
However, if it weren’t for the Drew University gym, and the company’s ability to make use of the weight room, treadmills, indoor track, etc., I’d go bug-nuts!!! Exercise is the only REAL activity that can drive away my blue thoughts of home and futility, etc. I’ve been running 5Ks on the treadmill (that’s a bit over 3 miles) during our lunch breaks — sweating buckets and then using the nifty new weight machines to add some muscle tone to my academically-amorphousized chest and arms… I hope you’ve all discovered that the best way to defeat depression, anxiety, and broken-heartedness is to jog a few miles, preferably outdoors, or at least out of the house.
Because I’m playing Apemantus (who’s a cautionary friend of Timon and a caustic cynic to the rest of Athens) as a cripple, I have a crutch with an arm-brace, and turn my right toe inwards. (The imagined “back-story” is that Timon and I were once in a war together, in which I was disabled — perhaps run over by a tank? It’s a steam-punk world, after all, design-wise…) So I’ve also developed an off-stage ache in my ass, specifically my left gluteus maximus — and in my right knee (which is more understandable). Makes it harder to jog, unless I spend time stretching (doing what I teach, DUH!). Maybe I need to switch crippled legs for every performance, just to even things out.
Oh, my boys, how I miss you. I wish we talked daily on the phone, myself and each one of you, but I’d probably run out of things to say. I often feel I bore you guys, since my life seems so ritualized: teaching classes, directing shows, rehearsing or performing as an actor. I’m not a fountain of wisdom about car maintenance or financial investments or how light bulbs work. I don’t know what I could tell you about male/female relationships other than people fall in love, fall in bed, often mistake the latter for the former, but it’s fabulous when the sex and the love are both there for both people… But things change, too. As you have all three learned, personally, now. So I needn’t tell you that.
At any rate, since I have a year-long sabbatical from teaching, it’s my last break from my class-room career (until I retire) — and I intend to spend as much time contemplating my family life as my artistic pursuits; hopefully more time on you three and your mom. I know we need more income (we always do), so I’m cogitating on that, as well. Toby can tell you my incredibly lucrative idea of a series of biographic books… (It would sell!) If I could write a play for the four of us (and I’d happily write one to include the stage talents of your mother, as well, but she seems to have sworn off The Theatre), that was timeless and hilarious and made ironic use of our familial ties (like THE ROYAL FAMILY or LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT or AUGUST; OSAGE COUNTY — but more hip and funny), our fortunes would be made… Once it was produced at a major theatre, that is… And we were then in the film together… With subsequent solo careers…
Enough. I babble. But I also send my love and open heart to the three of you. Write when the mood hits. Letters are a lost art, but easily rediscovered with a pen and paper. Or via e-mail.
I’ve never loved tablework, the tedious process of a director sitting with actors at — yes — a table, in a rehearsal hall (where one should be moving around and actually rehearsing); the group sits for a reading, then starts to deconstruct the script, like an archaelogical dig or circle jerk, asking questions, finding possible answers. The scholarly side of me, miniscule as it might be, would enjoy the process except for the Economic Essentials of American Theatre: there’s not enough time to spend even two days, of a three or four week rehearsal schedule, on your ass. The true problems appear in the staging of the story-telling, trying to make it clear to the audience what you’ve decided at the table. Too much blabbing never converts to concrete, noticeable behavior; it’s like all those pages of “back-story” that some academic acting teacher made you write in college. It’s beloved by some actors, they squirm with glee when hours are taken over a bit of punctuation, but I become quiet, sullen, disgruntled, IMPATIENT. The maddening desire often sweeps across my soul to foam at the mouth, hurl the table and scripts against the nearest mirrored wall, and scream and rage and vent until my vocal chords erupt with blood.
But I’m paid to do as the director desires, and there’s always free coffee, and most professionals don’t spend more than eight hours at the fucking table, anyway. I can endure a day of democratic inquiry and humorous banter. Thank Thespis that I’ve rarely suffered through a pedantic, professorial, facist helmsman (or woman) telling us “what it all means and how it should be done.” …Loving the sound of their own voice, lowering their Greatness to offer Pearls to the acting swine. That was a part of college, too. I learned, through such training, how to loathe such directors. They fully educated me to be IMPATIENT.
Admittedly, the reason that I was drawn to read about Zen Buddhism, that I loved Salinger’s short stories, and that I took to tai chi like it was mother’s milk, was because I was an impatient soul by nature. And by nurture. Dad always seemed to be in a rush, or wanted us to be in one. In our home, if something had to be done, it had to be done NOW. “What are you waiting for?! Why did it take you so long?! Why are you so slow?!” Time was in short supply, Life was speeding by, you didn’t waste — you went, you did, you accomplished.
While I was growing up, my family never seemed to talk at our table. Never discussed our daily doings. The tension made you eat quickly, thank Mom for the meal, and flee. Dictatorial fathers create lightning-swift dinners; avoid criticism, swallow in gulps, be criticized for gulping, and get the hell away from the table and out of the house!!! Dad was the smart one, you were the stupid kids, don’t bother to talk, shut up and go away. (I dearly, dearly loved my father, but emotionally this is what coiled my inner spring, explosively-tense with the dread of Being In Trouble, Doing Something Wrong, of Now You’ll Get It!)
My professional career began with the hectic pace of summer theatre, first at Otterbein College and then at Wright State, in which you’d rehearse a show for maybe two weeks, open it, then rehearse the next during the two weeks of the first show’s run. Generally, you’d do four or five shows in such a rapid turn-over manner during the summer. Decisions were quick, on the fly, in the trenches, not a moment wasted, calling on every bit of your instinctual analytical, physical, and emotional skills. (Though most summer theatre fare didn’t require much in the way of human feeling: you were sad or happy, funny or serious, forget complexity or in-betweens. Glancing, superficial, neon approaches were the way to survive. Never look back, no second-guesses!)
Dearest Young Actor,
I’m flattered that you’d ask me for some advice about your struggles in your summer theatre job, but feel that I do indeed have experience and empathy with what you’re enduring… My summer theatre experiences are fairly extensive, with college years spent doing Otterbein and Wright State summer shows, followed by six summer seasons — of rotating rep. — with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Table work was exactly what you’re talking about, one reading and then we were up on our feet and staging things. The one director at ASF, in all those years, who tried to stay at the table for just another afternoon was deeply resented; to the older actors (and a bit to me) he seemed to be wasting precious time.
But only the academic directors at Otterbein and Wright State wasted our time in terms of being unprepared, unorganized, and unscheduled in actual rehearsals. They would have few practical notes, or procedures, or solutions to script or partner problems. I now know, from working with so many professionals, that academic, non-actor directors simply weren’t equipped to: 1) hire the right actor for the right role, 2) trust that actor, when hired, and actually collaborate, not merely dictate or stand aside, and 3) pragmatically help a struggling actor with playable, emotionally and/or logically viable actions. But, yes, many professional directors hire you to do your job and, at best, stay out of your way and don’t interfere, rather than discuss-to-death and dictate. I like those types, as I like the ones who are more knowledgeable of the practical aspects of stage acting; but not the ones who are dogmatic regarding preferred techniques.
(The recent NEXT TO NORMAL in which I performed, though admittedly a “re-mount” with only eight days of rehearsal before opening, didn’t involve much direction for yours truly; I was taught the proper notes to sing, learned my blocking from a videotape, discussed the new things I wanted to do in specific moments, and was left alone to do my work. And I liked that.)
You’re using your training, experience, and artistic instincts (and social skills) to do some good things there, it seems to me. (I also appreciate that you have a writer’s ability to record it all, objectively and subjectively. THIS WILL BE OF TREMENDOUS VALUE TO YOUR REMAINING IN THEATRE!!! — Not to mention in every other job, relationship, situation you’ll ever deal with…) But let me answer your specific questions (and urge you to e-mail again, when you feel the urge to do so)…
“Should I prepare to deal with more of this in the future?”
Yes, prepare yourself emotionally as best you can. It’s truly a test of your integrity — by that I mean your ability to stay true to your own artistic convictions WITHOUT sliding into egotistical pride and stubborn contentiousness. Theatre is a collaborative art-form. (It’s far more frightening to do a one-person show, with no one to answer to but your Self; and without a director — you have to shoulder all the blame and frustration.)
“Have I been spoiled by Wright State?”
Hell, you SURVIVED Wright State; I doubt that you were really spoiled there. I think my colleagues and I are so different in our directing and teaching styles, and perhaps too comfy because of tenure to stay truly open-minded. We can get set in our ways (thank god I get out to act regularly, with people who I’m not used to being around daily) and can be guilty of arrogantly brain-washing students; instead of daily teaching them there are so many ways to do any one moment of any show… The amount of design and technical support, of scholarly commitment to WSU productions may be better than community theatres or financially-strapped non-union or union companies. But, seriously, I think it’s a genuine achievement to run the gamut of WSU faculty (or any training program) and emerge with your artistic self intact and confident.
“How should I handle my characterization vs. a director’s when they don’t match up? Should I do what I want in this show? Is that unprofessional? How do you remain professional with a director you don’t respect?”
These are the questions surrounding your central issue and to which I can only offer opinions, BUT I firmly believe that you must follow specific direction (blocking or — ugh — line readings, if a director gives them), but the psychological motivation for those externals can differ from what s/he intends for me. Only I can be (HAVE to be) inside my head for every performance, so if the director doesn’t know why I smile as directed every night, but the audience believes it and it doesn’t disrupt the story, then my Why can be my own, under the director’s What. Always use your induction tactics (mutual victories) with directors; you can sometimes trade your Most Important Choice/Moment for three or four of theirs. And you need never work with them again, but you want them to desperately work with you afterwards. Yes?
“Why can’t you materialize up here and direct this show?”
If you are asking yourself what you need to do to tell The Story, not Your Story, if you are asking what are the character/your objectives, obstacles, and tactics for every moment you’re on stage… If you’re asking and at least trying to find answers for all those questions, hey, I am there — as you remember “my” lessons — in you.
“Should an actor be expected to block themselves? Even in a place that doesn’t seem open for playing and making choices?”
It’ll happen, if the scenes don’t involve many actors or complex interaction (like fights); what rightfully pisses actors off (though they should vent by writing e-mails to an objective third party, rather than yell at the director) is when you make choices, just as a possibility (in the absence of direction) and all the director says is, “No.” That’s Cohen Conclusiveness, a definite Threat Tactic, not a mutual victory. Arrrggghhhh!!!
Love you, hope this helps. I’m sure you’re doing the right things, adjusting as you perceive you’re ruffling artistically-temperatmental feathers, trying to keep all happy, reminding yourself it’s just one show for so many weeks…
Since my sabbatical began, I’ve been surprisingly conscientious about maintaining a daily journal; though I’ve been writing regularly in little “empty books” since my freshman year as an acting major, the truly notable change has been doing it every day (pretty much) and filling three pages per entry (likewise most of the time). Knowing that this Professional Development Leave might be my last one, since I hope to retire in ten years or less, perhaps I found more to write about; free to pursue my acting career, without academic distractions, was a blessed gift. I have so much more in common with other professional actors than with my teaching colleagues, feel so much more relaxed and like my self, my True Self… And I wanted to document that Self, amid the daily rehearsals, nightly performances, dressing room chats, drinks after the show — and lonely apartment mornings.
But I additionally wanted to become disciplined as a scribbler, a wordsmith, a storyteller on the page — aside from my storytelling on the stage. It’s one thing to “rent” the words, quite another to own them. Not merely shape them, cut them, as I did to complete BARNABY RUDGE. But to belly up to the bar and toss some language upon lined paper and see if I actually have something to say. Fiction’s my eventual goal, but daily “fact” seemed an easy place to stretch out, warm up, to jog, if you will, before an attempt to run.
But I get bored with my Self in loggings (and bloggings) and just want to stop. Cease and desist. I get embarrassed by the obviousness of the blah-blah-blah, the lack of unique phrasing and tone and insight and vivid description and characterization. Having read the autobiographies of Christopher Plummer (not very good), Dick Van Dyke (enjoyable), John Lithgow (good), Raymond Massey (not bad), Gloria Swanson ( as good as David Niven’s THE MOON’S A BALLOON and BRING ON THE EMPTY HORSES), the diaries of Michael Palin (loved them and I’m still not sure why) and Alan Bennett (brief but truly a writer’s words) — having read such volumes and more during my leave, I’ve been stupidly making odious comparisons. Of course, I’m not going to fare well against professional pen-pushers. I’ve been running my mouth in classrooms and before paying audiences; seems so much easier than attempting honesty and humor and humanity on a blank sheet of spotless white.
Reading John Irving, Charles Dickens, Richard Russo, Mervyn Peake, Stephen King, Bill Bryson, P.G. Wodehouse, Ernest Hemingway, Harper Lee — this helps and hinders a wannabe writer. I’m inspired by them, motivated by them, then discouraged by them, humiliated by them. I love acting, I love my performing career, what I’ve been fortunate to achieve or attempt, wouldn’t sacrifice it for anything — other than the need to financially care for my beloved family; even then, I’ve never really had to sacrifice the acting for the teaching. I have colleagues who know I have to act or go insane, a wife and sons who’ve seen me be a bit crazy when I’ve been between acting gigs for a week too long… The people around me seem to acknowledge who I’ve always really been (and thus why I can kinda, sorta teach it — share it). Yet there’s a little voice within me, not content with the journaling exercise, which keeps whispering, “You’re 55 — if not now, when?! You’ve got more than enough to write about, yes? All these great people, wackos and wizards who’ve tromped through your life. Different burgs in the U.S. of A., the drawl of Alabama, hostility of New York, sanctity of Santa Fe, mountains of Seattle, hills and palms of L.A. Players of Shakespeare, Shaw, Sheridan, Sondheim, Shepard, of every new and old flavor of drama or comedy or musical that’s going round the regions. Write it down, Cromer! Start with what you know, then add to it, lie your way to the Truth, you idiot!”
When I get too big for my britches (as my parents would say), my moments in front of a keyboard — wanting to “merely” spill out a short story, just a rough draft, not that long, doesn’t have to be any good, at first — put me in my place; I find that my ass fits my pants quite well after a half-hour or so. As my acting mentor, Robert Britton, told me more than once, “A writer is a person who writes.” Not someone who tries and quits.
Led an acting workshop for the Free Shakespeare company last night; they’re now rehearsing THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (coming to outdoor theatres near you soon!), and Chris Shea, the Artistic Director, thought my blabbings might be of use to the group. Since at least six of my Wright State students are involved in the production, I was honored to be asked, happy to play with the sixteen or so participants. Nervous before I got there, but not much. Had a somewhat vague idea of what I wanted to do, but resolved to simply talk my walk, share what concepts and tools I use on stage, and let them sort it out later.
Meaning that I don’t mind if actors test-drive my methods and decide they’re not for them. Unquestioning actors are bound for short, unhappy careers, I fear — at least in the American National (i.e. “regional”) Theatre. Far too many are trained to be that way, to follow the dictates and opinions of their academic teachers (most of whom are collegiate directors, after all, not professional actors) without protest; otherwise their grades vill suffer ze conzequenzes, mein Fuhrer!!! I prefaced my work with the MERCHANT cast by confessing my mistrust of Authority Figures and my firm intent to never be one.
Also asked them to forgive me if I offended them by trashing some of their preferred techniques or acting beliefs, but that I’ve been doing this long enough to have firm opinions on what works for me and what doesn’t, what interests me and what doesn’t… I know I won’t sway them from their stuff any more than they might pull my stuff from my athritic claws. Race, religion, sex, politics, bodily functions, philosophy, science, art, history — anything and everything gets discussed in Theatre, at least on stage and hopefully in the lobby during intermission and after the curtain comes down. And so should all acting theories and practices (they are not one and the same) be open for discussion outside of precious rehearsal time. But only if someone asks for aid or opinions. Otherwise, keep your Christianity to yourself; I have my Buddhism over here, thank you very much. (No, I’m not a Buddhist — nor a Christian, nor an atheist. And I’m not a Democrat or a Republican, either, if you were curious.)
We played Toss-The-Ball, One Word Story, then experienced/learned/reviewed the eight Laban energies via exercises. In couples, they physically and vocally employed Flicks, Dabs, Thrust, Slashes, Wrings, Presses, Floats, and Glides to affect their “scene-mate.” I did some side-coaching, some demonstrations, discussion of the necessity for crafted beat-changes, tactics, and obstacles — not merely defined objectives and unconscious, instinctual, inconsistent “choices.” Made some hopefully fleeting, but slighting remarks about First Folio fanatics, Viewpoints, and other things which I don’t use professionally. And tried to just as quickly say, in essence, “But, hey, whatever floats your boat — or gets you the job…”
My academic and professional colleagues would rightfully point out my hypocrisy if I attacked Authority, only to become an Authority on attacking Authority… People tend to take it personally when you criticize what they do. (They need to be reviewed in newspapers more often, perhaps. Tends to make you less defensive, to take it all with a grain of salt, and to profitably increase your humility.)
After eight days of rehearsal before opening(!!!), NEXT TO NORMAL hit the boards at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati on June 15, 2012. And we landed fast and hard and running. Mike Schwitter(Gabe), Mia Gentile (Natalie), Nick Cearley (Henry), Charlie Clark (Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine), Jessica Hendy (Diana), and yours truly inhabited the wonky “house of Goodman” like demons. The other five had rocked the show back in September of 2011, in the former ETC incarnation, with Mark Hardy as Dan. Now I was the newbie, the replacement, the more-actor-than-singer chosen by Lynn Meyers and Scot Woolley for the job; bless them for the beneficent Artistic and Musical Directors which they are… I’ve been terrified, thrilled, disappointed, and ultimately honored to be a part of the event. Wish I could sing all the notes with the authority, clarity, power, and beauty which they deserve, but — I knew I was on shakey ground that way when I started. I’ve gotten better, but there are some technical aspects of singing which I simply lack the training and experience (and confidence) to pull off. So I hide among the incredible, dynamic, searing voices of my cast-mates, feeding off their power when it’s in my power to do so.
This is my type of musical, my type of music, my type of story to tell… What I love most, perhaps, about the piece is that a mother and daughter have the focus, for once (or so it seems to me, in this rendition). Yes, Dan and Gabe are important, but I find the central relationship to be between Diana and Natalie: a deeply troubled mother trying to connect with the daughter she’s screwed up. The hopeless offering hope to the hopeful.
Fourteen days and seven run-throughs (if we’re lucky) before BARNABY RUDGE, PART TWO hits the mighty Herbst Theatre stage; back in the Golden Age of WSU Theatre, it was the home of countless OPSs, Mark Olsen “studio shows”, the ACTF Kennedy Center winner LOOK BACK IN ANGER, etc. I generally prefer the black-box theatre and Directing Lab shows to the Festival fare. The emphasis isn’t on expensive bells-and-whistles, or about keeping our subscribers placidly content… One can do plays and musicals actually being performed in current professional Theatre, with sexual situations, strong language, controversial topics, TEETH instead of pablum… (Maybe we’ll do THE BOOK OF MORMAN in the Herbst?) Thank the Powers-That-Be (our wise Chair) for the occasional RENT and AUGUST:OSAGE COUNTY on the main stage. But the upstairs theatre mainly must maintain sold seats with titles like THE MIRACLE WORKER, PICNIC, ANYTHING GOES, FORTY-SECOND STREET, AS YOU LIKE IT… Not my type of Theatre, though fine as training experiences for our students. (So long as they also do what’s current on regional theatre, off-Broadway, and Broadway stages — in classes, if not in front of our sheltered subscription base.)
So where do I get off, as an educator, doing my own “vanity project” — a knock-off of NICHOLAS NICKLEBY? First of all, Dickens is a “classic” author, taught in schools; he’s perhaps sentimental (i.e. you care about his characters), but he’s also a keen observer of human motivation and behavior. The scenes from his novels are primo acting material, with subtle sub-text beneath the artfully crafted text itself. For young or experienced actors, this is rich artistic broth, to be heated, savored, and served. Diracting RUDGE, I’ve had some of my best one-on-one character meetings with students, which are also one-on-one professional advising sessions: telling them that stage actors are character actors, not to be confused with personality, uncrafted “be-ers” — those film and t.v. types who cannot be hired by regional theatres because they perversely believe that they must be themselves above all, “honest’ above all, “authentic” above all… In short, everything but what the story demands: a character, different from them, in different circumstances, fighting for things they personally have very little experience with… Imagination, technique, and a keen passion for general humanity, not just their puny little selves, are demanded.
Had a good night tonight, with a quiet, focused, fun group of actors; solving problems, finding motivations and tactics and obstacles. Not just clever ways of staging or monotonous, organic ways of “being.” These young artists give me hope for Theatre not dying, not being second-fiddle to Film and Television and look-at-me navel-contemplation. …Hope for people who might play Hamlet, Lear, Lady Macbeth, Mrs. Rudge, Miggs the maid, Sarah in TIME STANDS STILL…. Craftsmen who will work in Theatre for a lifetime, with pleasure if not for plentiful profit, instead of a few seasons on a cruise-line or as chorus members in summer theatre musical comedy, or spear-carriers in Shakespeare…
Why be satisfied with the mundane, when the magical awaits with more effort, patience, commitment, striving?…
Have been in rehearsals for BARNABY RUDGE, PART TWO at Wright State for two-and-one-half weeks; our first act is blocked and am nine scenes into blocking the second. Wonderful cast and understudies, terrific stage management staff (of two), already have the majority of the props and furniture thanks to our terrific Props Master. And the script, adapted by yours truly, has been scoured and scraped during our first week of sitting at the table and reading, questioning, cutting, and dialecting. (Hey, I verbalized a noun, Ma!) It’s now a mere 54 pages long; still provides a juicy, literate, character-rich, action-packed two-and-a-half hours worth of Dickens. And we’re still clipping the unnecessaries here and there, as we go.
I do adore being in a rehearsal room with excited, imaginative, committed young actors. Try to be transparent and humble about my directing abilities, begging their patience and understanding; especially when there are more than five people on stage and I have to place bodies so the story is being clearly told AND so the actors don’t feel totally like flesh-puppets, doing insanely artificial things, merely because the power-mad dictator orders them to do so… But, hell, I’m often worse than my worst directors — and hiding behind my cute “Diractor” title ain’t enough, sometimes. I get lost, tired, sloppy, inarticulate, discouraged — which is why I never like to work more than three hours per night. (And why I like to make sure there’s coffee for all. Cannot understand how a Professional Training Program would fail to provide the most basic, necessary, professional courtesy delivered by practically every theatre for which I’ve ever worked: COFFEE!!!)
But BARNABY TWO has a lot of challenges: mob scenes (and I have a total of fifteen actors), quick shifts of locale, combat sequences, multiple-casting and quick changes, the afore-mentioned dialects, etc., etc. I completed the rough staging (I call it “sketching”) of the last mob scene tonight and feel so very relieved. My company will improve it all, once we begin work-throughs, with more questions, specific answers, exploration, attempts to do it “Right” by finding out how to do it wrong… Directors who change too much too often too whimsically drive actors nuts; and don’t work at any theatres more than once or twice. Directors who don’t allow actors to make big, glorious, bold mistakes — and then steer them back to The Story, rather than Their Story — are directors who should be kept in academia. But in classrooms (not in theatres) where they can do less harm.
This is what Michael Haney’s taught me, in our back-to-back productions at the Cincinnati Playhouse and Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati — A CHRISTMAS CAROL, SPEAKING IN TONGUES, and TIME STANDS STILL: the director doesn’t have to know everything, doesn’t have to be The Authority. But s/he must gain the company’s trust, keep it, let them fly through her/his support and guidance, and — ultimately — get out of the way.
I’m trying to follow Dickens and my actors, after pushing them where the adapter thought we were all headed… But the wondrous part is following the story where it wants to go, telling even the person who arranged the words on the paper that he was wrong.
More to come; but those are my thoughts after two-and-a-half weeks…
In 1985, I was playing Richmond and Murderer 1 in a miserably flawed RICHARD III at the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee. Nothing can devour the spirit of a professional actor more than being in a bad show — it’s worse than holding down the necessary day-job of filing or washing dishes. —— Worse because I was doing what I’d been trained to do at Wright State, what I’d been doing professionally for about three years, and it was Shakespeare on top of all that — but it was very, very bad indeed.
A fellow actor suggested that I go to a local library and watch the videotapes of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, “for theatrical therapy.” Having always been an avid Dickens reader, I knew little about the RSC’s eight-hour stage adaptation of the novel. But I needed a great deal of consolation and inspiration, so I went. I watched. And watched. And watched. Perhaps my memory is incorrect (as usual), but I could swear that I eagerly, amazedly viewed all eight hours, on four successive videotapes, in that small library cubicle in one sitting.
It fed my soul. It was one long ride through the wonders of Charles Dickens, his humor and humanity, the fabulous characters which he offered that large company of virtuoso actors, and every twist and turn of the journey had me laughing, crying, thinking. Under the earphones and inches from the small videoplayer’s screen. I remembered why I’d first started acting in the fifth grade, why I’d gone to college to study it, why my young wife and I were scrabbling and scraping to live the hard life of a theatrical couple. NICKLEBY, even on film (what must it have been like to actually have been in the London or Broadway theatres to experience it!), was a validation of the attempt to act, to tell stories to other humans in a darkened room, to transform into another being while searching your own heart and mind.
I finally own a copy of the DVDs, watch them at least once a year, and have been joyously performing in A CHRISTMAS CAROL for a total of nineteen years of my life, in Dayton or Cincinnati or Milwaukee. It is the magic combination of Dickens and theatre that we’ve attempted to offer in this new BARNABY RUDGE — and that we’ve been happily playing with for the past months. Great characters, from the pen of great writers, teach actors great lessons: in comedy, tragedy, the godly details of daily life in our eras and earlier ones… And now we offer our story-telling abilities to you, as a bit of theatrical consolation and inspiration for the evening. We share more common traits, thoughts, feelings than the current polarized politics of the country would suggest. Dickens’ spirit is doubtlessly weeping, considering, and chuckling about it all someplace…
We dedicate the productions of BARNABY RUDGE, PART ONE and next spring’s PART TWO to Brian McKnight, for all of the inspiration, love, artistry, and humanity he’s given to so many, on stage and in the classroom and throughout the poetry of his days.
During the run of A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Cincinnati Playhouse, I was approached by Michael Haney about auditioning for the upcoming Playhouse production of Andrew Bovell’s SPEAKING IN TONGUES. The rehearsals would commence hot on the heels of CAROL’s closing, when I thought I’d have a month or so off to work on my BARNABY RUDGE, PART TWO script. But the play, the director, the rest of the cast, and the salary made it impossible to turn down (I’d been offered a concert version of THE KING AND I in the same time slot, for virtually no money and little interest on my part). So I’m happy that I passed the audition, was cast as John, Pete, and Neil in TONGUES, and thus got to work with Michael Haney, Amy Warner, R. Ward Duffy, Henny Russell, Jenifer Morrow, etc., etc., etc.
TONGUES is an intensely challenging script, for actors and audiences, which defies easy categorization. It’s about marital infidelity, trust and betrayal in relationships, the power of stories to change lives, bonds between strangers, lost shoes, salsa dancing, etc. The play’s been a hit in its native Australia, but seems little known in the U.S. of A. (I had never heard of it). A movie re-working, written by Bovell as well, called LANTANA — with Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey — was made in 2001. But the play version involves actors playing multiple roles, simultaneous scenes on the same stage — with synchronized lines being said in both scenes… It has moments of comedy, moments of wonder, moments of suspense. The audience is forced to stay awake, aware, active, and to piece disparate fragments of plot together. I must admit that I was pulled into the form and substance of SPEAKING IN TONGUES almost as soon as I started reading it; it seemed like some enigmatic, purposefully provoking independent film. It showed, it told, but you weren’t sure what was going on, who these people were, why you were so intrigued by their quirky interactions…
Unfortunately, I learned once again that I’m best when entering rehearsals with my lines fully memorized; especially for intricate puzzles like TONGUES. A pleasure of professional Theatre is being cast and contracted months before that first readthrough, so you have a craftsman’s time to absorb the words, mull them, move them over your articulators (yes, including that speaking tongue), to think and feel them at work on you. Then and only then are you ready to make them work on others. But I require more time, now that I’m fifty-five and flippy, than I did in the past; TONGUES gave me less. It popped up, as ‘t’were. Ultimately, I was/am grateful. On my feet, trying to put the script down and offer up the right words at the right time, I was more than a leetle frustrated. Henny Russell, who seems to learn lines by merely pausing to inhale them, was undoubtedly rightfully frustrated with me. Thankfully, Amy and Ward were having a bit of trouble, too; but not as much as Cromer the Stoner. (Nurses at my future rest home will identify me as Demon Ted, named after mother’s final mental state. But mine may come sooner, the result of having too many of others’ words in Mind.)
Tis far, far better to act without a day job to add stress, dissipate focus, and increase the chance of illness. My sabbatical (oops, sorry, we don’t use that word anymore — it’s a Professional Development Leave) certainly improved my Scrooging this December. I was hale and hearty and happy, only gave what I considered to be two bad shows in all thirty-nine of this year’s performances. (Interestingly enough, they came at the beginning of new weeks, after I’d spent a day-off at home in Yellow Springs. Not due to any bad family vibes, I assure; maybe I enjoyed my time with my beloved four too much.)
Scrooge taught me many lessons, once again. How to not squeeze my air so much and so often, tightening my chest and throat and adding unnecessary strain to my breath and voice. Michael Haney, our ever-brilliant director, found more moments when I could be softer, quieter, more poignant rather than piercing or playing hard for laughs. I am a self-confessed laugh whore, ready to debauch myself all-too-often for a rousing guffaw from the audience. But this year I learned that some moments in the script just aren’t that funny; so I was trying to make them more human, more revealing instead. Or to relatively throw them away.
How often have I told my students to pick their high points, to not give everything all the time, to trust Michael Shurtleff’s concepts of Mystery and Ambiguity: not all character secrets have to be shouted from the rooftops. Some moments can be fascinatingly open for interpretation.
I had one moment in rehearsal when my eyes were streaming tears over Tiny Tim’s death. I guess the lack of contact lenses and Mom’s death in September allowed for more flow than usual. Of course, it never happened again in performances but I didn’t need it to do so. This year’s Scrooge was more of a matter of conservation and selection than just a pushed deluge of whatever was at hand.
I will have to revise this blogging, as it’s as nebulous as a bad acting teacher’s feedback. But I wanted to get back into the habit of splashing thoughts on my computer, as I’ve been busily spraying them on the pages of my log. Not having a PC at my Cincy Playhouse actor apartment has its good and bad points.
Found myself in the Theatre section of a Barnes and Noble bookstore this afternoon. Very small section, dwarfed by the Juvenile Romances and the Christian Fiction. (The latter two were in separate parts of the store, understand; don’t want to have you think there were bodice rippers involving vampires and a teenaged Jesus or something.) And I found myself getting rather angry about the acting books I was leafing through.
Look, here’s what I’ve done, for over thirty years, as a professional stage actor. I know it can be different from what is done in some theatres by some actors, but this is what I do to not only keep the present job, but to gain good enough reviews and a reputation in order to get the next offer…
I do not just “Be”, whatever the hell that truly means. I’m a boring little git, in real life. I mumble, I plod, I exhibit little intelligence or grace, and I’m just a 54-year-old American actor who lives in Ohio. So I’ve been trained and employed to read a script, analyze it, memorize my lines, and do what the character would do. What the character is scripted to do, and say. And to do it through my own chosen, director-approved, appropriate actions: call them Tactics or Tools or whatever, they are literally how the actor/character moves, speaks, and thinks to get what s/he wants. Reacting to how the other actor/characters are doing things to get their often-opposing wants.
Luckily stage characters aren’t written for one particular movie star; they’ve been played over and over by all sort of different, trained interpreters. Fed with different stagings by different directors. And I always have to speak in different wordings, if not different dialects, if not different voices, when I play characters on stage. I have to move differently. I have to think and feel differently. And all stage characters are character-roles. They ain’t me!!!
Yes, you use the appropriate bits of yourself (thinking, feeling, speech, and movement) that mesh with moments of the character’s doing, their act-ing. For three to four weeks, up to eight hours per day, you rehearse possibilities and then your choices, so they hopefully seem more natural, more instinctive to you. So the audience is pulled into the necessary, artistic (selected and crafted) illusion that it’s all happening for the first time. And a part of you, inside the “machine” of the character, is pulled into the make-believe, also.
But you never go insane, or psychotic; you cannot truly believe that you’re somebody else and just “Be.” Bollocks!!!! That’s not what you’re paid for, unless you’re some sort of star and you’re going to malign the script and demean the character so it’s just you. A boring little git of a you — which is whom you trained and now earn money in order to escape from… And whom the audience does not want to see!!! They want a truthful story, in stage work, not a star.
Expend your heart trying to achieve fame and fortune on Broadway or in Hollywood, if that’s what you desire; but be trained to do things, appropriate to the wide spectrum of dramatic literature and history and human psychology, if you want to “just” be a working stage actor.
Hmmm, maybe I should write one of those unread books in the Barnes and Noble shelf for Theatre folk… That’d make my fame and fortune, wouldn’t it? I’d be the table-talk of every American dinner table, huh?
(How can anyone be arrogant in an art-form that the vast majority of Americans never see, don’t know, and couldn’t possibly care less about?)
Listened to the WDPR broadcast of my ROMEO AND JULIET work with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. Despite much praise afterwards, verbally and via e-mail from respected audience members, and the standing ovations — I couldn’t stand to hear the recorded performance. The DPO was exquisite, it goes without saying: passion and precision in every note. So I know it affected the audience as it affected me; your image-ination is pulled into the combination of what you see and hear, absorbed into your suggestive human nature — and POOF! something can seem better than it was…
But, having listened through the broadcast on Saturday morning and taped it, I simply cannot bear to hear it all again. This has happened to me in the past, seeing myself on a videotape of what I thought was an excellent show, which got positive or glowing responses from the patrons — and then being disappointed by my work. But I’ve obviously allowed myself to forget one of my maxims in my Acting Professionally class: “Don’t believe your own P.R. (Public Relations)!!!” I sincerely expected to be blown away by the artistry, the brilliance, the interpretative nuances of my Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio, etc. Instead, I’m aghast, embarrassed, and quite properly humbled by the awfulness of it all.
Yes, the actor tells himself, in his own defense, I was on a microphone that boomed out an echoing version of my voice, in order that it could be heard over the orchestra. Yes, I was told by the sound engineer to not trust the mike and allow myself to get too quiet, a mistake I’d made in our first rehearsal in the Mead Hall. And, yes, I’ve heard the recording of the first version, two years ago, over and over; I initially didn’t like parts of it as well, but it is overall a far more believable, detailed, moving bit of acting than this current taping could ever be… I’m over-acting, too loud, too slow in some sections, too fast and monotoned in others. Luckily, perhaps, I can’t see how my physicalizations affected the show; I certainly hear the mike’s thumping and shuffling as I moved here to be Romeo, there to be Juliet, etc. But did the action suit the word, or hopefully improve the speaking of those words?
So, to depart from the specific instance of artistic disappointment and, I could define it, failure, let me muse about what one does in response. I’ve had admitted failures in my acting over the decades, god and the audiences know; it’s just that I haven’t allowed myself to be this hurt by the experience in a long time.
Eventually, of course, you just move on. I don’t want to say that you forget it; I think it’s a poor actor who forgets their mistakes, instead of learning from them. And you have to remember history to learn from it. Come to think of it, forgotten history isn’t History, is it? It’s just stuff that happened that nobody knows about, because nobody cared to write it down or even acknowledge it at the time — or they chose to bury it, as if it never occurred. Or rewrite it, revise it, as if it occurred a different way.
But actors should remember when they suck, and not generalize the excreable quality of a moment or two into “It all blew chunks, the whole thing!!!” No, eventually I will listen with a bit of horrified patience to the tape again, and find the good moments and note why they were good — and define why the so-so bits were mediocre — and learn what not to do again by identifying what makes the lousey parts technically so bad.
I so hope that directors, who have the wisdom to see their productions again, towards the end of the run, can thus identify the Bad Bits. ‘Cause not even critical and popular successes are perfect, to the creators. The defects should be humbly noted and learned from, as well as the good stuff acknowledged. But only the monomaniacs (like George W.) refuse to admit wrong-doing.
I can tell you (and I’m mainly telling myself in these blogs, I know), that I was mainly bad, in that recording; I will try to do better, given the chance. And, since I intend to keep acting (because it would be impossible for me to stop and it’s the only thing that makes me a legitimate acting teacher), I will have the chance.
Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move on. (But keep the dust in a jar — or in a journal, for future reference.)
Drove to see our middle son, Toby, on Friday. A two-hour plus journey in my Saturn (named Prospero — there are reasons) and in my thoughts. Listened to a Nick Hornby novel on CDs, but mainly listened to my brain-droppings. So truly blessed to be able to hop in a car and visit my college boys. Never had the time before, but my sabbatical allows it now. Have the chance to compare their education and educational environments with where I went and teach (Wright State — where it often seems I’ve always lived, a la Shirley Jackson’s castle). Toby’s housing has already been the subject of a blogging, so I needn’t blundgeon that topic again. But I often wonder about why he chose to attend such a large university, where anonymity is virtually assured. And, since Elliot and Charlie chose to spend their student debt upon a small, residential, liberal arts college, I was thinking why Toby felt he had to swim in a more specific, non-cross-disciplinary branch of academia.
He’s still searching for his passion, I think. For the equivalent of what Acting was to his parents. Something, some Way that pulls him from day to day, affects his income, his reading, clothing, politics, religion and/or spiritual leanings… That makes him endure the necessary compromises, digressions, contrary-companions, etc., that Life throws at him. Is such a bliss more obtainable, more obvious or more elusive in a large school? Where one lives in dark, nicotine-aromaed, chaotic hovels, and attends parties celebrating excess, and has a new professor for every course?
I was one of two acting majors in my class. Started with more, certainly, and I well remember about a dozen. But the others slipped into other majors and pursuits. So I was a big fish in the smallest of ponds. So unlike what the current Wright State acting or musical theatre majors experience. But perfect for my needs, though I never planned to attend that program — or the many changes of curriculum and faculty which occurred during my student years. My blessed (and often depressed) BFA experience was a sterling example of luck, circumstance, and my daily choices. Might have been possible in a small place like Kenyon, but never in a massive academic factory like Ohio University.
Elliot, our youngest, will do very well at the smaller school. He’s gregarious and makes friends easily; has already taken the stage there and proven that he continues to enjoy his acting and the society it provides. He has a firmer, more magnetic pull towards his bliss, his passions, his purpose (?) than his older brother, perhaps. So a more contained, and yet less-specialized course of study seems appropriate.
But it makes me wonder, during long solitary drives, to provision and enjoy my English major, whether Toby has found his Path yet. Or has “merely” made his first steps on a dusty side-trail. Hard to see the ones you love so very much wander off, even when you know they have to search and that you strayed constantly yourself — from and towards your Self.
I can only make my journeys to catch up with him, now and then. And try to let him know there’s always a path to the Old Place. The Old Folks. The ones who are still watching and listening for his steps.
Wouldn’t it be marvelous if we were all Druids, everyone on the planet, united in one religion, all painting ourselves blue at the same time, agreeing on when we shall hug the trees and erect the monoliths and bay at the slivered moon? And we, of course, would have have to be sure the blue was exactly the same color, and painted over exactly the same parts of everyone’s bodies, no naughty bits omitted unless everyone’s were. And we’d have to face the slivered moon from the same angle, bay the same sounds, simultaneously, never deviating from a detail regarding our deity worship…
Facist, fanatical, fundamentalist horrors, yes?!!! Thank godS for the differences of the religions, the beliefs, the faiths, the believers, yes?!!! Why should I, as a non-organized, devout believer in my own, idiosyncratic, humanist view of a Higher Force (and I don’t mean I follow the Jedi Way) — why should I have people appearing on my doorstep, or shouting on my campus, or preaching on my media about the Ultimate Truth of Their One and Only Religion? Do they have the right to verbally persecute my beliefs because they believe their beliefs are the Only Ones to Be Believable?
Hey, fellow humans (which takes in considerably more people than just fellow Americans — if we are fellows, anymore)… Plurality, differences, many views exist in this world. Look how many varieties of insects or bottle-caps there are… Why do we want to slam one with another?
But here I will get off my High Horse to safely climb onto a Smaller, Less Significant Pony. Yes, I’m all for celebrating the diversity of Religions and Politics, instead of this incessant attacking and self-righteous proclaiming. But let me focus on a facet of my worldly experience that truly drives me nuts, just because it isn’t as important as The Big Social Items — yet fanatics abound even in nutshells: Theatrical Taste.
I attend a play or musical and I don’t like it. Others do. Fine. End of story, yes? Especially in an academic setting, when faculty and students and audiences are naturally free to voice their opinions, to maintain their personal integrity and beliefs. In something as relatively insignificant (and unknown to the majority of the population) as Theatre, who cares about differing perspectives? I’ve done many shows in which I didn’t really care for the script, but I liked the director, the cast, certain moments, etc. It’s very hard to find any play or musical, especially when you’re paid to perform them, in which there isn’t at least a moment or two which pleases you. In either content or form, in either the text or the way it’s per-formed.
As a practitioner, I pride myself on being able to articulate what I like or dislike about productions. Especially ones which I direct or in which I nightly act. The beliefs become more cogent as time passes and if I write them down, certainly. But I can walk out of a show, on stage or off, and rattle off some structural or thematic positives or negatives, easily enough. I’ve been doing this since junior high, after all. But I’ll have friends in the same show, or in the same audience as myself, and we will disagree. This used to drive me a little nuts, but I’ve never cared for pointless arguments (they seriously give me headaches), and now I’m only truly bugged by the persistent preachers who will not shut up. They are the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Artistic Taste, ready to cram their own perspectives down your screaming throat, regardless of your reactions.
Unless you Circle The Wagons. Join the group. Protect the Us and Condemn the Them. Because, as one of the most disastrous and powerful leaders of civilization all-too-recently spewed, “You’re either for us, or against us.” (Bush the Barbarian, but he talks to The God, so he knows who’s Us and who’s Them.)
Liberal theatre folk will jump on such intolerance if it occurs in religion, politics, sexuality, censorship — but then they’ll say (or heavily infer) that you’re not being a team player if you don’t root for the team. “Yes, it’s a hideous production of a slight and stupid piece, it’s certainly how I wouldn’t direct it, but we must Circle The Wagons, give it a standing ovation, pretend that we like it.” And thus serve as sterling examples to our students and audiences, who we’d like to believe like everything that we do. “…Either fer us, or agin us…”
Such conflicts may be inevitable, so long as humanity tries to do “The Right Thing” instead of “A Right Thing, for This Moment, In Context, for the people concerned.” But surely the ongoing, ever-flowing, unstoppable stream of differences points out the idiocy of insignificant theatre workers (especially theatre leaders) saying, “You must believe or act as if you believe this, for the good of the organization.” What is a theatre group but folks dedicated to telling different stories to different audiences, night after night? Staying open-minded to the moment?
So please, have the courtesy to respect my views. Don’t ask me to like something that I don’t. Don’t try to convert me. I promise to speak my beliefs and respect your right to have and speak your own. Co-Existence Can (and Does!) Exist.
Our story continues…
Had my first of two rehearsals (and that’s all I git) on the Schuster stage tonight, with Neal and the Dayton Philharmonic. I am 54 years old, been acting professionally since I was 21, and I’m supremely confident (perhaps e’en arrogant) in my ability to comprehend, speak, feel, and mean Shakespeare. But I was soooo nervous just an hour or two before I hopped in the car to drive to Dayton. Got there early, of course, so I could walk around, shake my hands and arms (my students and cast-mates see me do this constantly, like I’ve got ants running from my shoulders to my fingertips and I’m trying to shake-shake-sh-sh-shake the little critters off). Walking in the aisles of the theatre while the orchestra was rehearsing other pieces for the concert; mumbling to myself, doing my tongue-twisters and articulator warm-ups. Trying to calm myself to do my work.
For god’s sake, it was just a rehearsal, my first time to go through the blocking (my own devising) on the stage, have a microphone to play with, have my stool (my only prop) and lights and — oh, yeah, the music and Neal — all of it there for the first time. C’mon, Cromer, give yourself a learning curve, breathe and play…
And I did. Got most of it right, in fact. But “went up” at one point, had missed my cue, looked up to see Neal doing his own version of the shaking-arms thing — but his version involved a repetitious finger-waggle in my direction. Well, he could wiggle until the Rapture came and took all those angelic musicians away BUT Mr. I-Have-No-Frigging-Clue Cromer wouldn’t have been able to speak. The words had gone.
And I didn’t spontaneously combust and get dragged into the seventh ring of hell; Neal and the celloists didn’t disembowel me, call me a fraud, and revoke my acting privileges. I stated the blatantly obvious (“I’ve gone up on my lines, I don’t know where I am…”), they simply kept playing, Neal gave me the next word and POOF! All was well in Rehearsal Land.
And I was having a great time before the goof, riding that wave of verse and symphonic splendor — and I had a great time after it, finishing the last scene. Oh, to quote my new-found Buddha, Buck Brannaman (the horseman), sometimes the horse is just a projection of you, your bad habits, your attitudes… Well, an actor can think and feel himself into a bad performance — or open himself up, know he knows what he knows, and just enjoy the ride. Stop with the bloody spurs and just gallop.
First time I’ve ever used a horse metaphor. Feels good to try something coltish and unbroken.
About two years ago, Neal Gittelman, maestro of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, talked to me about acting a bit with the DPO. The idea was to sort of orally-interp. some ROMEO AND JULIET scenes, with Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet music sandwiched between or laid beneath the Shakespeare. For a youth concert, with bussed-in school kids. Sounded great to me, I actually like ROMEO AND JULIET (though have never seen a stage production that worked, because the chemistry — or age or good looks — is never right between the leads).
(I will confess, since I don’t think I ever have before in these bloggings, and since no-one ever reads them, anyway, that I HHHHHAAAATTTTEEEE the following Shakespearean so-called romantic comedies: TWELFTH NIGHT, AS YOU LIKE IT, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST. Never want to see another production of any of them again. Or ANYTHING GOES, LADY BE GOOD, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, FORTY-SECOND STREET… Basically any tap-centered so-called-musical-comedy. I know comedy, at least the type at which I laugh — and dese ain’t dem.)
I thought I’d just be behind a podium, with a script and a pitcher of water, glass, that sort of thing. Dressed all in black. Orchestra behind me. Cued to read, nice microphone, all easy and a bit informal, maybe even slightly “hip”… But it somehow evolved into me moving, acting out scenes, script in hand, yes, but not really needed except as a security blanket. I’d done Lemony Snicket’s THE COMPOSER IS DEAD twice before with the DPO, a reading (or was it memorized, I don’t remember now) of the Queen Mab speech from R&J, and, of course, the Human Race co-production of Tom Stoppard’s EVERY GOOD BOY DESERVES FAVOUR. So I was used to acting with the orchestra. But not acting the parts of Romeo, Juliet, Lady Capulet, the Nurse, Friar Laurence, Mercutio, Tybalt, Benvolio, and the Prince/Chorus. Sometimes with three characters on stage at the same time!
But Neal had seen me do I AM MY OWN WIFE (a one-man, many character show at the Human Race) and thought it was possible, I guess. So I acted the bits in the youth concert; over-acted in parts, at least in the recorded rehearsal which I’ve heard. But, I immodestly admit, I thought I had done some of the stuff quite well, with verbal relish and a good interplay with the music. I kept the staging as simple as possible, with the inevitable now-I-face-right-now-I-face-left cliches here and there… It seemed to go well with the kids.
Then Neal inquired about expanding the script a bit, adding more music, making it appropriate for some evening, adult concerts. Well, with thoughts of famous Brit actors doing such concert readings, of Shakespeare or poetry or the Bible, etc., I did the smallest of gulps and said, “Yes!” I could do that, add the post-sex-wedding-night-parting scene (“It was the lark… No, sweet butt, it was the nightingale…” etc.), and the Queen Mab speech. Watch for more cues, that curious point and look Maestro Gittelman throws me, amid all the complicated conducting he’s doing with all those musicians, all those instruments, all those precise artists who know what the hell they’re doing when… Sure, I could do that. Hell, I had six months to prepare, at least.
So I take the recording of our prior version, with a script, and a copy of the complete play to New Jersey with me; to study and memorize and improve during my TIMON OF ATHENS and Apemantus days with the Shakespeare Theatre in Madison. And I do review my lines, amid my avid reading and journaling and TIMON rehearsals and performances. But I don’t write the necessary new narrations, the segues, the connectors — because I think even my old ones sound so sophomoric, next to William’s words. “Now the masked Romeo spots Juliet across the dance-floor — and will eventually slip beside her, to take her by the hand…” Gack!
I come back to Ohiya, begin rehearsals for MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. Keep thinking that I must work on the ROMEO AND JULIET staging and write those damn narratives; c’mon, Bruce, we’re talking about maybe three short paragraphs, maybe four. And the blocking for the scenes has to be simple. But my mother dies, in her sleep, at the nursing home where she’s lived for roughly a year…
And my world shifts. Changes. Gains a new perspective. Loses a lot of old ones… MAN FOR ALL SEASONS has speeches which I must say about Death and mortality and convictions. But my Mom has died and it’s just a play. ROMEO AND JULIET is just a concert. Make-believe. Important, but not as important as they used to be.
The funeral, the burial, the family problems… I’m really glad to have SEASONS performances as a distraction. But R&J is really a back-burner issue. And the weeks pass. Nothing written, nothing staged, meeting with Neal regarding the new version looming… I drive back and forth to Cincinnati, speak my R&J lines aloud, get them fairly cold, start learning the old narrations as well. I am to be totally off-book this time, no script, just my little pea-brain on that large Schuster stage with what, 80 musicians? And all those audience members and the Maestro staring at me. (Well, Neal is too busy and too centered to stare. He’s a combination of a Buddha and Bernstein. A calm genius.)
TO BE CONTINUED
Drove to visit Toby in his new college housing yesterday, a relatively-inexpensive-yet-comparatively-overpriced dump of a slum-lord’s dream. Dark, musty, filled with discarded furniture and junk from prior tenants, truly just the type of place where a loving dad wants his son to live for nine months of his higher education. Thank heavens I came bearing gifts, a care package of goodies from his mom and me — and then we went out for a grocery-shopping spree and a nice meal. Otherwise, the guilt would’ve suffocated me on the long drive home; I’d've been found, blue-in-the-face, slumped over the wheel, and wrapped around the The Bad-Dad Designated Deserved-Death Tree.
I know that I lived in a dark, dingy, depressing little crap-hole apartment in Fairborn, during my fifth year of BFA studies. It was all I could afford — and my parents, understandably enough, rarely visited. Came furnished with distorted, barely-functional furniture and a little kitchenette, stains everywhere on the floor and walls. But it was mine own, and I got a few young lady friends to visit (one of whom I eventually wedded). So I guess one can’t judge a domicile by its exterior or interior… Nope, screw that, one can and should judge domiciles by such criteria; the judgement will doubtlessly be accurate, just, and appropriate. So I lived in a dump and now Toby’s residing in a dump, too.
Well, at least he’s in college. Though most of his neighbors, crammed into their equally claustrophobic rat-farms, are also O.U. students — some of the nearby residents are just the type of people who always reside in such earthly rings-of-hell. They have sixty-three cats meowing and be-crapping their tiny, curtain-shut spaces — and an antique au-to-mo-bile rusting in the tall grass of their driveway. And they dint never need no book-larning tuh git tuh their lahf uv luxyooree!!! Hail no!
Where’s the skid-marks and ditch leading to that Bad Dad Tree?….
While in my senior year of Westerville High School, I began keeping a diary; like so many things I eventually have become obsessed with or dedicated to, it didn’t seem appropriate for a young mucho-macho guy to be doing at the time. Girls kept diaries, began every entry with, “Dear Diary” and such. Narcissistically detailed their latest pimples or Jimmy’s kisses or how the kitty is just being so naughty… But what did a guy write about?
But Dad kept a log, in his miniscule but elegant handwriting, which I’d occasionally peruse. And he would sometimes be quite mundane, recording the weather or meals and such, but often I thought he was quite profound, insightful, AWARE!!! When he often seemed so distant around the house, it seemed that he could open up and ponder “aloud” in his scribblings.
Then I got into college and Bob Britton took over the Professional Actor Training Program (hell, he invented it!) at Wright State — and required us to keep acting logs. Which he, at first, read and graded! (What an audacious snoop, now that I think of it…) Eventually it was totally up to us to keep at it, but I found that I couldn’t really stop. I have over twenty of variously sized, covered, and lined or blank journals now — all but one bound, the exception being a small, college notebook. And I feel a nagging, vacant pull when I go too many days without jotting down some events and reactions, though I have gone months sometimes in silence. I consider those days, especially with my steadily worsening memory, lost; as ephemerally disintegrated as the performances I’ve delivered. Dissolved into Time with few traces lingering. Wisps of my Life dissipating like the smoke of snuffed candles.
I read Charlton Heston’s diaries when I was in college; still have that volume in my library, in fact. Nothing earth-shaking or even that literary about them, but they were the daily deeds and deliberations of a major film star. They made the untouchable world of such people more real, more comprehensible, more human. All was not golden in the land of fame and fortune. Artistry still struggled to survive, as well as family relations and personal integrity. (Funny, but I am so diametrically opposed to Mr. Heston’s NRA Republican Conservatism and yet found it so easy to connect to him as a human being in his diaries…)
Autobiographies by actors are a passion of mine, also, which began with David Nivens’ witty and well-written BRING ON THE EMPTY HORSES and THE MOON’S A BALLOON. I always spend far too much money on books by or about the lives of actors or comedians. They make me both humble and ecstatic to be a stage-walker, to know that everyone has had hard times, that all is cyclical (karmically and in terms of the ups and downs of every life). They make me detest self-proclaimed “experts” and “authorities” with even more gusto, because the truly wise seems to know that they’re fools.
Currently reading Michael Palin’s diaries, as I’m cultivating a daily journal habit myself for my sabbatical. Like his filmed journeys to the far corners of our Earth, I’m mesmerized by the glimpses into his thoughts, feelings, observations, personal and professional life. He’s a man I wish I could know, whom I like and admire, both through his work and now through his present-tense, concise but vivid summaries of his days.
Perhaps that’s the essential need for keeping and reading accounts of lives, in a detailed, daily manner… You find a kinship in souls, regardless of their nationality, race, religion, sexuality, politics; true, I rarely read the diaries of people I’d hate. (Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, George W., Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld — sorry, not interested — unless they recanted their stupidities and sins…) But I often discover my own frailties and self-disappointments at work in those who often become my heroes. Just because they have the guts to try to tell the truth to the one person who’d really know what’s b.s. and what’s not. Themselves.
I sometimes wonder what kind of man I’d be if I hadn’t had Ruth Amanda Warner Distelhorst Cromer for my mother… If I — and my four brothers — hadn’t had her gentle, generous, kind, patient, loving example to offset my dad’s more brusque, harsh, intimidating, distant method of parenting.
I know I wouldn’t have been able to offer my wife Carol any type of love that listens and attempts to understand and to compromise. I wouldn’t have been equipped to enjoy the time I had with my three boys as they grew. (Mom always said the time would never be long enough and, like so many other things, she knew what she was talking about.) I wouldn’t have grown to be someone who hugs readily and often and rather indiscriminately; I began my college theatre days hating hugs, thinking they were so phoney and actor-y and invasive. But now the Mom part of me hugs my brothers, my sons, my wife, my cast-mates, my students, dogs, cats, telephone poles. (Mom gave great hugs.)
Without Mom, I might still have been an actor, because Dad made me love words and comedy and big ideas, but without Mom’s goodness, her sensitivity to the plight of others, I’d never have been able to play so many of the roles that I’ve been blessed with. Mom was walking compassion. She never saw anyone in pain, I think, with whom she didn’t empathize — often when the men in her household would be shaking their heads over her unnecessary vulnerability. Mom has made me, on stage and off, and hopefully in my classrooms, see the value of caring for another human being. Trying not to judge, to be superior, or to be intolerant, but walking in their shoes — recognizing we are all human. Aside from trivial matters of race, religion, sexuality, politics, where you leave your dirty laundry, we are all human. And potentially very good, decent, luminous.
Mom has somehow entered my emotional system, I believe, and made it possible for me to cry at the smallest suggestion of tragedy. On the day after Dan and Connie had called to tell me that Mom had died, I was once again rehearsing the part of Thomas More in MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, my next play in Cincinnati. Work was a welcome distraction, I thought, from grief; but More’s final speech, before his execution, says:
“Have patience, daughter, and trouble not thyself. Death comes to us all, even at our birth. Even at our birth Death does but stand aside a little. And every day he looks towards us and muses somewhat to himself whether that day of the next he will draw nigh. It is the Law of Nature and the Will of God.”
So I’m on stage, surrounded by my great group of cast-mates, who know about Mom’s passing. And I’m kneeling by More’s chopping block (he’s beheaded for his religious beliefs), speaking the speech, and get to “It is the Law of Nature…” And I’m hit by the reality of Mom’s death, the law of nature robbing me of this woman who made me the best husband, father, teacher, actor, and man I can hope to be — and I can’t speak. And the silence goes on, with this breathless sob freezing the thirty or so people in the theatre for maybe a minute — but a loooonnnngggg minute. And then I go on, voice level, focus regained, onto the next part of the scene, no problem.
Because Mom also taught me that you get hurt or feel the hurt of others, and you feel it fully, and then you go on. Knowing that some hurts never go away and that others will come in their place. But you must feel fully or you are not human, not truly a caring soul, and not what Ruth Amanda epitomized. So I thank her, I will miss her hopefully every day of my life, and I consider myself blessed to have been one of her boys.
Okay, I have about fifteen minutes before I trudge to the theatre for our first preview, so I will at least begin to answer your questions. First, thank you for your compliments and for thinking that I might have something worthwhile to write to you about life as an actor… I will say that I’ve never regretted choosing to spend so many decades in and around Theatre, but I fully sympathize with your situation; my son Charlie is experiencing the same doubts, empty pockets, and less-than-desirable roles and less-than-desirable pay for the roles he gets.
When I graduated from Wright State, I was lucky enough to be chosen as an apprentice for the summer with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival — which was then (in the late seventies and early eighties) a summer-only rotating repertory company; in Anniston, Alabama, of all places — not what one would consider the intellectual or cultural heart of America. But Martin Platt had built an impressive group of actors and designers, financial patrons and loyal audiences. Families would get a motel room in Anniston, or park their RVs in the theatre parking lot, so they could see all four mainstage shows over the course of a weekend. They could even see a more modern piece in the smaller theatre.
For a young actor, with classical aspirations, it was a godsend. In my first season, I was a soldier in MACBETH (and assistant to the fight choreographer), a soldier and Jacques de Boys in AS YOU LIKE IT (and assistant to the fight choreographer), and was then hired to play Sebastian in the fall tour of TWELFTH NIGHT (for which I did the fight choreography). I saw and heard experienced, classical actors night after night for the first time — and I was on stage with them!!! All of the academic bullshit taught at Wright State by non-actors got blown away and I was really getting the Good Stuff: practical, immediate, repeatable, reliable, CRAFT!!!
For seven seasons (’79 through ’85) I returned to ASF, which was my artistic home for three months out of the year. It kept me grounded and sane, gave me a sense of identity — no matter what survival jobs I had to take elsewhere, I knew I was an actor. Martin Platt was very loyal to his company members and gave many of us “youngsters” a steady growth in size of roles, contact with visiting directors (like Ed Stern), and salaries. Eventually, it seemed that I had achieved my dream position when the ASF opened in Montgomery, on a nine-month contract, and where I had promises of leading roles, title of Fight Choreographer (I never used the term “Fight Director”), my own armory space, and my name on the dressing room door.
I taught Stage Combat in the MFA program in that first year in Montgomery, as I had in Anniston, but I never wanted to be a teacher, except as something to occasionally be an offshoot of my acting career. I certainly never desired to teach at a college. Quite the opposite. Academia is filled with non-actors teaching actors, non-directors directing actors, people who don’t have the chops to do it professionally, so THEY TEACH?!!! What is wrong with this picture?!!!!
So why have I taught at WSU since 1987? Because I got married and had sons. Actors don’t make enough to support families, not the vast majority, not on acting alone, and I wanted/needed a steady relationship and children. Carol and I met in college, married when we worked together at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and spent our non-ASF months looking for a viable “market”. We moved to Seattle, moved to NYC, then moved to Montgomery for the opening of the new 22 million-dollar ASF complex. But Carol wasn’t hired as an actress in the company, though a lesser-talented, former Wright State classmate of ours — married to the Business Manager — was!!! Since we still didn’t have any kids, we decided it was time to end our Alabama days. We moved to L.A. after that first season.
(The whole company atmosphere had gotten petty and mean — victim of the “Edifice Complex”; it was beautiful to do summer rotating rep. of the classics, with a group of friendly, quirky colleagues getting together for three months and for relatively slim salaries, but the new Theatre seemed to spawn greed, jealousy, and competition. I was happy to leave, and to put my marriage as a higher priority than my career.)
Carol was pregnant with our first son, Charlie, as we struggled in L.A. I got a night-job on a Glendale newspaper (setting copy for ads, as I remember), did some bad Equity Waiver Shakespeare (very disheartening, with a dogmatic director who was also playing Shylock — badly), and we became parents. My dad was diagnosed with cancer (back in Ohio), Wright State fortuitiously offered me a teaching job, and so we returned. Had another son, spent two years living in Beavercreek (ugh!), then left WSU and teaching to return to acting in Seattle. Briefly, the boys were diagnosed with an expensive medical condition, the bills were too much, Wright State fortuitously offered me another position, and so we returned yet again to Ohio academia.
I only go on so long about my non-teaching days because I think the common thread you need to contemplate is A Need of Family. If you can be ambitious to the point of putting career above your parents or girlfriends or wives or children, you’ll probably do better as an actor than I. But maybe not. For myself, I couldn’t survive the insecurities and rejections of Theatre if I didn’t have Carol (and now my sons) to ground me, to make me whole. One way or the other, you can never be sure where your life will take you, but you have to “stick to your guns”, and know what makes you happy.
Have been in rehearsal for A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company for over two weeks now. Had our first rehearsal off-book today and I survived it, though our Assistant Stage Manager Ellen seemingly delights to give me thick sheathes of line notes. They do those rectangular slips of paper, one per muffed line, called line, forgotten line, etc. Very discouraging, but an actor needs to face the reality of not saying the words correctly — and patiently work to the perfection of saying all the playwrights phrases, as penned; not the way you want to say them or misremember them. Like notes from the director, a professional actor should take the aid (and it is offered aid) and say, “Thank you!”
I’ve been struggling to just get the “rough draft” of memorization in my skull, so I could feel some sense of ownership of the part. Now I can calm down a bit and do more of the detail work. I like to come into a show off-book, but just couldn’t do it on this one. Too many lines and I was too distracted with my Apemantus work in New Jersey and then getting my sons off to college. (Still working on helping Toby return to O.U.; he can’t find a cheap, clean, close-to-campus place to live. This makes it very difficult for an actor/father to not prefer to be a father/actor. And put the repetition of the More words off ’til the proverbial Later.
Not enough is said of memorizing in acting classes. It seems like a simple enough task, but not when you get a mammoth role and have to gradually, pain-stakingly, stoically say them ALOUD over and over and over. Noting what in the preceding line motivates you to say yours, putting a little slash-mark there, at least mentally. (In my acting classes, they have to do it literally. Most of the beat changes are in The Other’s lines, not your own.) I’m older and the memory is a bit tired of stuffing things in it, so I have to start ahead of rehearsals or I’d never accomplish the ingestion. Especially if it’s a dialect role, like More, when you must repeat the words ALOUD (does no good to just think them!!!) and also get the vowel substitutions and splashed ‘t’s, etc. into your muscle memory, into your articulators so fully that you don’t have to consciously think about it. Until I own the words, I can’t act the role.
Never understood academic directors who forbid their casts to memorize ahead of time. Or teachers who pile on lengthy scenes without enough time for the student actors to properly learn their lines. Let the teachers try it, see how they do. But the Golden Rule is so often ignored by acting teachers or academic directors — or professional directors who don’t work more than once at any theatre…
When I got home from Cincy this evening, I went for a two-mile jog, speaking my lines ALOUD as I ran; great for a distraction from complaining muscles and lungs and a perfect way to kinesthetically slip those syllables into mouth-muscle-memory. And don’t worry about memorizing line readings (that’s another dickhead complaint by academics); Thomas More never runs while speaking on-stage. The speeches always sound very different. Duh!!!
Reading Michael Palin’s diaries, the second volume, for writing and Life inspiration. The Pythoners’ absurdity, their delightful cut-to-the-chase satire of society, their what-the-hell!!! and what-the-hell? outlook is soooo healthy. My intelligence doesn’t match any of theirs, but I feel my heart slow a bit when I read their words or see their sensible nonsense. For one who’s been so anxious for the past weeks, fretting about my sons’ college costs, wondering what-the-hell???!!!!… “Can’t afford this. Break their hearts, but… Better to face it… How could I have been so selfish, to be an actor and to then have children?… I CANNOT PROVIDE!!!… They are smart, sensitive, decent people and yet I can’t give them an education. How will they learn to question authority, until they have the knowledge to intelligently question everything?”
My leave from academia already has me reading more, writing more, running more, and — yes — questioning more. Never one to believe the tone and body language of Experts and Authorities and Know-It-Alls (George Bush is a prime example, but merely the stupid form of an arrogant professor), I’m developing some type of Thomas-More-ish compulsion to write against the sinful self-righteous. Those who talk, but don’t walk the walk.
Yes, I am guilty, I confess. (This is why I hated Bush, he’d never admit his horrific mistakes, his devastation of thousands of lives and now our economy.) I talk, sometimes, in too definite a manner. I become frightened or too sure of my opinions and “facts” — but I try to do something, to live my daily life true to my mouth, to perform my art as I profess it. I fail, often, yes; but the successes and the on-going effort make me endure.
Just watched THE BLACK SWAN with Carol the other night. You can take the Artistic Perfection thang too far, at the expense of too many, definitely. And I’m not sure what humanity will have gained by that one moment of “ultimate” artistry. But the film’s dire warning was well-taken by Fretful Me: have a Life and your Art, not one or the other. Balance your beliefs with questions. Check to see if your parents were nuts, maybe you came by your instability honestly.
Oh, and own your shit!!! Take responsibility for what you do and think; change it, if you don’t like it. Be wary when you like it too much and others are left bloodied by your unquestioning pursuit of The Way — it might just be Your Way, or better still, merely your way today.
I want my beloved sons to stay humble, open, happy in asking rather than hideous in Knowing.
Back home from my TIMON OF ATHENS adventures in New Jersey. Trying to find the finances to get Toby and Elliot in college for the fall, but — like Timon — we’re over-extended. It’s a day-by-day matter of trying to find out the ACTUAL cost of Kenyon and Ohio University, our ACTUAL income, and reconcile all that with our ACTUAL credit debt… Nice to have days free from the Make-Believe Land of acting and teaching acting, so that I can actually pay some attention to actual reality for a bit.
I’m continuing to journal daily, as I started in Madison, NJ. Trying to gain discipline as a writer, in order to pen something creative and fictional during my sabbatical. Often it seems it’s merely a matter of spilling the words on the page, knowing it has to be revised — but not as I write. Editing in the moment kills the moment. It’s like trying to perform in rehearsals, instead of rehearsing. Trying this, trying that, working through the possibilities. Yes, dammit, you have to make choices as an artist, it ain’t just wiping your instinctual ass randomly on a canvas (as some bogus acting teachers would have you believe). But first you play, then you shape, and then you publish (to mix artistic metaphors).
At any rate, my journals are just for me, not for the general public. They’re a way of trying to be truthful and not censored. Of ranting and raving at times, knowing that just because it’s written one day, that doesn’t mean it’s transitory and won’t be a true feeling or thought the next twenty-four hours.
Reading Charles Dickens and John Irving and gaining inspiration to really do it this time… Unlike this blog, which falls way behind in my priorities, and is more edited that my journal or attempted creative scribbling, I need to sit repeatedly before empty pages and fill them.
I find myself in Madison, New Jersey, transported in rehearsals to the world of TIMON OF ATHENS. This is my twenty-first Shakespearean title, added to the many repetitions of MACBETHs, DREAMs, ROMEO AND JULIETs, HAMLETs, etc. It also signals the commencement of my second (and perhaps final) Professional Development Leave from Wright State University. I have a year to recharge my teaching batteries, renew my knowledge of acting (especially the artistic/technical and business sides of a working stage actor’s life). Essential for anyone presuming to train professional actors in a conservatory-approach curriculum like the WSU Professional Actor Training Program.
An added thrill of the current job, playing Apemantus in alumnus Brian Crowe’s production, is being surrounded by my past Shakespeare students. Which include Mr. Crowe, Jasmine Batchelor, Greg Mallios — and I had the pleasure of watching the resonant, articulate, funny Brian Cade playing Demetrius in an outdoor DREAM last night: all here at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. And none of the productions involving First Folio fanaticism or flavor-of-the-month, Professor-Harold-Hill acting dogma… Just daily work, eight hours of it, by people who do it professionally, not academically.
I have emerged from the depths of professorial pontification into fresh, clear, sweet air.
(Bruce’s remarks, excerpted here, were first presented at the Playhouse’s Annual Meeting this past June, 2010.)
First of all, I’m quite serious when I apologize before speaking publicly without the aid of a playwright or author’s words. I’m one of those shy actors, who played in the back yard by himself as a kid, a superhero battling devious bad guys, providing all of my own soundtracks and sound-effects. I was nerdy in junior high, but an English teacher somehow coaxed me into auditioning for a school play, The House at Pooh Corner. Yes, the Pooh as in the bear. So A. A. Milne provided my first public speeches, which I delivered in shorts and fake freckles. I was Christopher Robin.
So, to o’erleap Time, this shy kid grew up, studied acting in college and has been fortunate enough to become and remain a professional stage actor for the past 30 years or so. I do pretend to be a full Professor, of Acting and Movement, at Wright State University, during my days. But I am, first and foremost – and it’s the only reason I can strive to teach acting to young hopefuls – an actor. I get the same thrill playing Lear and Hamlet and Prior Walter in Angels in America and definitely Ebenezer Scrooge now as I did rolling in the grass and pounding imaginary villains in my back yard as a kid. Like many actors, if not all, there’s a big part of me that can’t seem to fully grow up.
When the cast of the Playhouse’s A Christmas Carol gathers in November, as it has for the past 13 years in which I’ve been blessed to be in the production, there are thus a lot of kids in the room. Some are 7 to 13 years old. They’re generally shorter and cuter than the rest of us. Some are older, but don’t appear in the show. Mr. Stern is always there, and Mr. Ward and Mr. Haney, and most of the Playhouse staff. They are kids like the rest of us, don’t let them fool you, but they don’t get to play in public, as the actors do. No, only the older folks who are cast as Fezziwig, Belle, Marley, Cratchit, Past, Present, and Future – those are the actors who still get to don costumes and makeup and learn lines and blocking, who do our very best to learn the intricate and arduous and well-intentioned direction of Mr. Haney, and who go out on the Playhouse stage during the holidays to play in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
And we do. We play. We first play in a read-through, then we play weeks of rehearsals, then run-throughs in which you’re actually expected to act while you do the blocking and dancing and singing you’ve been taught in rehearsals. We play in previews, and then in performances. We play when we’re tired, or ill, or beset by personal problems because, yes, we get paid for it, but also because, dear lord, how fun it is to play A Christmas Carol…
Charles Dickens is perhaps my favorite author, because he loved humanity so much and was so supernaturally equipped to record mankind’s eccentricities, foibles, quirks, mannerisms, genius, idiocy, horrifying evil and blinding goodness. Dickens churned out his serialized novels with a godlike capacity to weave invention with insight, to see what was occurring in his world and what might and could occur in his fiction. A Christmas Carol is perhaps his most concise, and certainly his most well-known, if not most beloved story.
To crawl into the world of Ebenezer Scrooge every night for a month, in the midst of crowds of adults and children eager to hear the tale once again, is glorious. Glorious. The family of actors gives to the audience and the family of the audience gives back to us. The exchange is laughter, love, loss, learning, and the need, the desperate need, our desperate need to change – to change the moment, change the thoughtless words, change the wrongs, the injustices, the mistakes, the miseries, to change humanity, to change ourselves.
I played Bob Cratchit to Joneal Joplin’s Scrooge for eight years and I loved it. I adored being the squirming, shivering, benevolent Bob under the steely glare and frosty speech of Jop’s Mr. Scrooge. When I would mourn the death of my beloved little child, Jop was right beside me, literally and emotionally, choking back tears.
Jop and I spent a few hours on stage, during his last week of performances, and he walked me through the role. And he told me that for him (“but you do what you feel is right for your Scrooge, always…”) that the big change, the Big Lightbulb always occurred when Tiny Tim died. Not during the next scene, at his own graveside. But when he knew he could have prevented that child’s death and hadn’t done anything, when he saw that beautiful loving family devastated – and yet enduring for one another – and realized he might have changed things. If he could change himself.
That’s the actor’s insight, coupled with Michael Haney’s constantly illuminating direction, which has given me the gift of my Scrooge. I begin the show as the most notorious boss in history, the original “Looking Out For Number One” Mr. Ice Guy, keeping my distance and counting my gains. The spirits come, the spirits go, the spirits speak, the spirits show… But when a poor man’s son dies, perhaps known and loved only by his grieving family, then the Change, the miracle, the Dickens Hope that all men seek appears. You’re always tired by the end of the show, just when Christmas morning comes and it’s time to be slap-happy, joyous, buoyant and bounding. But Scrooge always pulls you into that Change, that renewed childhood, where everything is new again, where everything is possibility, and play. Michael has said, I believe, that my Scrooge finds his Inner Child again; I think that Dickens allows us, inspires us all to do the same. Year after year after year. God bless us, everyone.
Marsha Hanna was a friend of mine for approximately twenty-four years, if I start counting from our first show together at the Human Race Theatre Company. We played mismatched lovers in THE SEAHORSE: Harry and Gert, making love, dancing, brawling, learning to trust and truly accept each other, in some little port-town bar. A video exists of the show, so Marsha and I are captured in the old Biltmore Hotel performing space, with our buddy Michael Lippert’s laugh erupting now and then from the audience. She was 35 years old back then; I was 30. She was venturing forth on the dream of a professional theatre in Dayton, while I was finishing what I thought would be a digression from my “real” acting career: I was in a temporary teaching job at Wright State University.
She would eventually grow to be perhaps my closest theatre buddy, because of the many shows we did together, because of our similar taste in scripts, because she could converse with me on matters of craft and humanity and common friends like no one else in my life. When she was diagnosed with cancer, I immediately thought of it as a death sentence. Not a believer in organized religion, certainly not a Christian, I still began including her in my nightly prayers, asking that she be returned to full health, to lead a full life doing what she loved to do. After a year of hospitals, and shows (we finished our director/actor days with THE VERTICAL HOUR in early 2010), and chats, Marsha died. It was a full year, one that put her in peril and frustration and dependency, and I think she’d had enough. Her body had had enough, at any rate.
So months have passed since her death on January 3. I spent January and February playing Butch in NEXT FALL, at the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. Performing five or six times a week in a play about the abrupt death of a loved one, a son, a friend, a partner. Broke down in tears for over twenty performances, a mix of dreaded imaginations of my boys’ dying and Marsha’s memory and my real feelings of loss, forever loss, never-to-be-reclaimed loss… It seemed an appropriate way to vent my grief and put it to artistic use. And the synchronicity, the timing of the show made it all inevitable… I had to use what washed over me, practically every night, regardless of whether I felt it was proper or not.
A side of me considered that allowing my actual sadness to come on stage with me was cheap and exploitational; the winning, actor part of me thought it was a tribute to my love for my friend… I could show all of the audience members who’d lost loved ones that I understood, that it was a real and valid and human emotion, those sudden and wrenching sobs of the bereft.
I still miss my friend very, very much. I want to call her and chat again. To bum a cigarette off her and smoke it in the Human Race alley with her. So my love goes out, to where ever, to my beloved buddy — and I hope she knows she’s still treasured and remembered and I don’t want this pain to end for quite some time. Because I feel that then she’ll truly be gone from my life.
Finished a three-week run (nay, sprint) of THE 39 STEPS at the Human Race last Sunday — and really miss doing that show with those people (crew, cast, director, audiences, etc.)… We always got standing ovations and, dammit, we deserved them! I will be unabashedly proud of that production, of our literal blood and sweat that was spilt, often enough in the case of the former and always in the matter of the latter. Richard Marlatt, Allison Moody, Jake Lockwood, Heather Jackson, Kay Carver, J.J. Tiemeyer, Nathan and Missy — we wuz a well-oiled farcing machine!!!
And, of course, as soon as it’s over, I feel old again. Achey and out of sorts, slow to get out of bed, like a fifty-three year-old. During the run of the show, I was released, open, yes, often out of breath, but also, yes, able to dash through the following lunacy, heart a-pounding and mind-at-ease. The show totally centered me for my Shakespeare, Comedy of Manners, and Acting Professionally classes… I felt I knew what the hell I was talking about.
A few days off and I’m back in Cincy, Scrooging around again. Loving the show and Dickens as I do, if I can stay healthy, I only look forward to it all.
Now teaching three classes at the university: Acting Professionally (a business class, basically, amid all the theatrical art), Comedy of Manners (Moliere through Coward), and Playing Shakespeare (with the Musical Theatre emphasis students). As I enter something like my 22nd year of college professing, I find myself thoroughly enjoying the give-and-take of ideas, interpretations, even opposing views… College, in my mind, is supposed to be about exploration more than definition. Possibilities and pursuits, rather than pronouncements and periods. (Luckily, I like, or likely love, the alliterative.) To jump into Noel Coward’s 1920s or 1930s world, then heave off to Shakespearean Ilyria or Verona the next day, with some morning hours spent considering New York, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles… To continue the metaphor, in the latter Acting Professionally class, we spent a few hours visiting their future apartments, furnished with the pets, Significant Others, acting awards, views, etc. gained by their first five years out of college. As a creature of my imagination and the gains that it (and The Universe or a Higher Power) has granted me, I revel in these artistic travels — all contained within our minds as we move from studio to studio in the Creative Arts Center at Wright State in Dayton (actually Fairborn) Oh-hi-ya!
It’s comforting to think that Charlie’s off in Frisco, experiencing his first In-The-Real-World-of-Theatre-and-Survival-Jobs year, even as I’m trying to help my students do the same. And to think of Toby attending his O.U. classes, hopefully finding intellectual curiosity welcomed, encouraged, applauded, nurtured; but not controlled, choked, crushed, BORED!!!
I went to lunch with an old friend from college days on Monday — and immediately felt that connection of people, now with families and wrinkles, who once played make-believe together and still have the gleeful child-Self lurking behind the eyes. Actors are different. Maybe not as different as rock stars, but different. And stage actors are different from other varieties.
Tonight’s the opening of Drew Fracher’s 60s version of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. We’ve worked diligently for four weeks, twisting lines and physicalities to fit 1968 hippydom — but an idealized, imagined Never-NeverLand version of that very bi-polar and upsetting era… My personal journey has been coming from an aged general dislike of the Shakespeare romantic comedies, with their archaic and often inexplicable “wit” — and the often disconnected chemistry of the leading lovers… Coming from this challenging prejudice against the material and the conception of me as a linguistically acrobatic Romantic Lead, and then having to patiently follow Drew’s supportive and incisive direction, and finding choices that finally seem to work. Our two preview audiences have been diverse in the Laff-O-Meter responses, but both seemed to warm to the concept and the characterizations quickly. Post-performance buzz has been charged and charmed — but audience members who linger and lavish loving praise are naturally going to be verbally positive.
I’m tired from the start of Wright State duties, too few hours of rest, bad nutrition, no jogging, and the commute for Benedicking around. But I’m the one who signed-up for the assignment, and I don’t regret this odd life of moonlighting and make-believe. But I should be journaling about the experience, ’cause I keep thinking my 53-year-old arms are going to tire of the juggling act shortly. How many years, especially with the new administrative duties at WSU, can I act and teach and be familial in sufficient and responsible doses?
Current physical complaints: irritatingly achey right knee, bruised and protesting right elbow and forearm, and myopically worsening vision. Oh, and not drinking enough water to keep the voice lubed, either…
Taking Elliot on college visits has got the ol’ Grey Matter a’tickin’ about what my intentions are, as an acting teacher in the Professional Actor Training Program… Yes, as the name says, the program is meant to train students to be professional actors, but each of the faculty has her or his own strengths and techniques to offer.
Mine are geared towards the day-to-day process of a stage actor (not film or t.v.) performing a role with dynamics, consistency, personal revelation, clarity, and adherence to the director and playwright’s intentions. All of which could be summed up as performing a role, eight times a week, regardless of the material, “artistically.” Craft (technique and conscious choices) mixed with inspiration of the moment (responding to your cast-mates, to the audience, to what is really happening on a given night).
I teach what I do (the practiced and practical), as well as what I wish I could do (the ideal and the elusive). Stage acting is all I’m truly qualified to teach, because it’s what I do — thus I am so joyous about aiding young actors to approach a script, to discover a reliable personal process for the standard four-week rehearsal period, and then — most importantly, and all-too-seldom addressed in college acting classes — how to sustain a professional run. I fully confess not having found the way yet to simulate the 32-show (8 shows times four weeks) experience in the classroom, but I’m content to give step-by-step, reliable, compelling methods to “play” a part. Many different parts, in fact.
I am not a fan of personality-based techniques when mis-applied to the more demanding range of stage work. Romeo ain’t the same as Prince Hal, who ain’t the same as Lysander, etc. Juliet may be played by the young female ingenue in a company, but she’d also better be able to play Hermia, Ophelia, etc., with their own unique, different characteristics.
Acting must be a combination of the external and internal, the emotional and intellectual, the mechanical and the meaningful, however you want to phrase the vast array of paradoxes which accompany every stage performance. It’s different every night, but it’s similar. New every night, but with the technical prowess to make it consistently seem new — every night — to the audience, regardless of how the actors feel.
I am a product of the PATP, from the original faculty and approaches, but WSU has always offered a diverse grab-bag of ways (emphasize that plural — “wayS”!!!) to act, to think of yourself as an actor. It may not be as broad and inter-disciplinary as the smaller, more expensive liberal arts colleges, but Wright State’s PATP is an incredible four-year journey toward becoming the actor you can be, that you want to be, not just some malleable puppet fresh out of our mold. With the dedication of the student, we produce individual artists, capable of any number of characters, even in rotating repertory situations.
I’m emerging from the days spent shopping for Elliot’s “perfect” education even more proud and boastful about my training — and what I believe we’re currently offering at WSU. As we sail into the new seas of semesters and curriculum revision and replacing our beloved Mary Donahoe, I’m beginning to look forward to serving our Acting and Musical Theatre classes in the coming 2010-2011 school year. It is an awesome responsibility, but we’ve got a great history and amazing graduates.
We’re shopping again, this time for our youngest son’s future. Where shall he go to college and what shall he study? What friends will he make in the next four years, who may very well prove to be his oldest friends and/or closest when he has reached his fifties, like us? What debt will he be saddled with, affecting all of his career and location choices after college? And how much will he be adversely affected by his mom and dad’s opinions, no matter how much we’re dedicated to him following his own bliss?
When you crawl into the car for a college visit, you’re driving into the past, present, and future of a human destiny, a life-path, a Big Choice with Many Unforeseeable Ramifications… So you try to look for the foreseeable consequences. You try to keep track of the smiles or laughs or shining eyes of your son as he hears about the campus, the classes, the traditions, the costs… And you cast your net as wide as possible for The Best Place for this fantastic boy who’s been your delight for eighteen years. But now he must move on.
No wonder I cried so often watching TOY STORY 3.
I first read John Irving when I was in my first or second year with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, in 1979 or 1980. GARP, of course. And I felt such a strong kinship to the author, to his character, to his view(s) of the world. Marvellous, like you hear a lyric or read a poem, and you feel — less alone. You’re suddenly validated as a human being who cares about some things for which others care nothing. Your values, morals, priorities are affirmed, after years of assured isolation; I’d read Camus’ THE STRANGER while in high school (thanks to my Advanced English teacher, wish I could remember her name) and had rather identified with that cold outsider, also. Rather. The sense of looking at life, observing it, but not really taking part.
My first love (I was a senior in high school) pulled me into what I thought Life could be, of course. I thought I might have some value as an entity, as a being; I could be funny, perhaps, thought intelligent, perhaps, and could be needed, perhaps… Physically and emotionally needed.
But GARP (and now TWISTED RIVER) also spoke — screamed! — to the side of me so dreadfully dreadful of loss. Losing loved ones. Losing your identity because those you love fall out of love with you. Losing love because you find yourself becoming someone else, or being discovered as the Unworthy One after all the years you fooled some one into loving who they thought you were.
I hate being stereotypical about anything, but I am one of those actors who sought escape from his own life, his own boring Self, by pretending to be Others. See how Others lived, thought, acted. Paradoxically, I found myself with the life and identity of an actor, a good one, liked because of my delivery of others’ words, thoughts, feelings; yes, thank Goodness, often those thoughts and feelings matched my own. Then I could stand on a stage, pull an audience in, let them feel less isolated for a bit of an evening.
But oh how I truly wish that I could own the words, invent them, not merely rent the face of anOther for an evening…
That’s a long way of saying thank god, the universe, whatever for John Irving and the others who have made me feel less of an oddity. Less of an outsider. Of a stranger.
No, no, no, NOOOO!!!!! I’ve spent the majority of my life being governed by the academic year, first as a student and now as a teacher. Before kindergarten and those few years (1981 through 1987) before I began professing — maybe ten years worth of “free”, non-school scheduled Time. We all have to work, yes, to make a living. And we have to do the things we love, perhaps as more of a sideline, to make a Life. Or perhaps the real Order of Things, at least pour moi, is Family and then Acting — and then teaching. The latter is the sideline.
Hard to tell your sons that you must do the things you love to do, you definitely must find them, follow your bliss, never deny those raisons d’etre (hey, I only had four years of French in high school, thank you, Mr. Lott) — BUT you must also feed your family, provide for them. Such realities don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and they don’t have to break your heart. Let the Passions feed the Practicals. But never, ever let the Livelihoods kill the Loves.
All of which is my mind-set in noticing that I’m maybe six weeks away from Fall Quarter, three classes, maybe thirty students or thereabouts. Those things are fine, usually great, if I’m healthy and well-fed, well-slept, simultaneously acting… But the bureaucratic paper-pushing and policy-making and people-poking (and you can’t be an administrator without poking people — and being poked in return) and the hypocrisy… Well, I guess I need to play the Objective, not the Obstacles; help people, keep them from being hurt, try to keep other people from hurting others… Speak my mind and my heart and know that others will disagree.
Sigh. Back to my novel, my sons, memorizing some lines…
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