Friday, May 14, 2010

On instincts and self-preservation...

I have been doing a lot of rewrites and revisions on my new play, Heavyweights of the Twentieth Century, lately.  Not a single soul has read it yet, but I plan on letting Angie take a look at it this weekend sometime.  It's massive.  A much larger canvas than I had originally envisioned; three acts, three hours, sixteen characters.  It deals with four subjects I've dabbled with off and on for twenty years - AIDS, the Holocaust, alcoholism and heavyweight boxing.

I think one of the reasons I'm back at it after putting it away for a few months is because one of the major characters is a thirteen year old Jewish boy that is sent to a concentration camp and I've found a wonderful thirteen year old actor to play it.  He's doing one of the one-acts I'm involved in right now in SANITY 2.  Like a lot of kids that age that start acting, he's completely natural on stage.  Acting teachers and academia haven't had a chance yet to completely screw up his head and his work.

It's another 'bare stage' piece, like Praying Small.  Just some tables and chairs or benches needed to shepherd the audience from one scene to the next.  Copious lighting and sound are needed, too.

Speaking of Praying Small, the entire show, with the exception of one scene, is now completely blocked.  I'm working with some real crackerjack actors - Brad Blaisdell, Rob Arbogast, Tara Orr, Melanie Ewbank and Bonnie Cahoon.  As my old acting teacher, Michael Moriarty, used to say, "a play is only as good as the weakest actor in it."  If that is true, and I believe it is, we may have a very, very powerful piece on our hands because there are NO weak actors here.

My concerns now are the marketing and publicity for the play.  I'm being told over and over not to sweat that part, just to concentrate on acting it, but I can't help it.  I've seen too many productions drop the ball in those areas.  So I'm a little nervous about it.  I'm terrified we'll end up acting this play in the shower, so to speak, with no one in the audience except a few nice, blue-haired old ladies that got the early bird special deal of a play and unlimited salad bar for $3.99.

Angie's parents are in town.  Had dinner with them last night.  Really nice and kind people.  We had a wonderful meal at MOE'S down the street in Burbank and then came back here and sat around a bit with her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend.  Nice, relaxed evening.

Today it's an all-day rehearsal of the show and then the one-acts tonight.  An entire day of thea-tah.  Can't complain, I guess.  Although I want to.  It's my nature to complain.  As Leo says in "The West Wing," people like us don't think like other people, we always want 'more.'  More of everything.

I'm tempted to call up some actors that have played this gargantuan role in other productions and ask them how they memorized it.  It's just massive.  So many words.  I'm reading a wonderful biography on Sir Anthony Hopkins right now and have learned he was always ultra prepared for stage performances, constantly carrying his script around and making tiny notations in the margins.  That made me feel bad.  Perhaps I'm not doing enough?  Maybe I don't have the discipline anymore to do a role of this size?

My theory of working has always been that once a scene is blocked it's useless to re-visit it until the actors put the book down.  Otherwise we're just doing what we've already done.  I'm desperately trying to live up to that, but it's incredibly difficult.  In addition, I'm being pushed sometimes to not trust my instincts when, after a hundred or so plays, I know through trial and error to ALWAYS trust my instincts.  So I end up questioning myself which is no good at all.  I'm being pushed into a corner and consequently being forced to dig in my heels and simply say, "no, that way will not work, I'm going to do it this way."  Gives the impression that I'm being a diva when in fact the exact opposite is true.  I'm being true to myself.  Of course, it's impossible to explain this without coming across as a major egoist, but it simply is what it is.  I know what I can do on stage as an actor and I know what I can't.  It's one of the things one learns as an actor after thirty years on the professional stage.  One's instincts are not to be taken lightly.

I'm reminded of the story of Lee J. Cobb in rehearsal for the original production of Death of a Salesman on stage before it opened on Broadway.  I guess Cobb was just not cutting the mustard as Willy Loman.  He was mumbling and small and introspective and unexciting.  A week before they opened, according to Arthur Miller in his book Timelines, Cobb suddenly announced he would be acting the part that night during the run-thru.  No one quite knew what to expect.  Cobb, after weeks and weeks of circling the role, walked on stage that night carrying his ever-present sample case, and became Willy Loman.  Electric.  I think Cobb knew he couldn't possibly expend the energy in rehearsal to act that towering role, it would simply be too much for him.  I know where he's coming from.  This role is so large, so all-encompassing, that to run full-speed-ahead in every rehearsal would kill it.  Not to mention me.  Instead, I like to nail the scene once, full out, and thereby know I can do it and then sort of leave mental and emotional breadcrumbs so I can find my way back.  To keep drilling so deep day after day is just too overwhelming for this role.  Do it once, find the levels, pace myself, give enough to know it's there, and then mark it the next time through.  It's not so much selfish as it is an act of self-preservation.  All of this comes across as a bit nebulous and eclectic for the non-actor, but anyone who's ever done a role of this size probably knows what I'm talking about.

So today we attack some scenes we've already blocked and I'm doing it all off book.  I'll find the pace and rhythm, the peaks and valleys in each scene, do it once without the brakes on and then move on.  Best I can do.  Olivier once said an interesting thing about playing Lear.  He said by the time an actor reaches the age to play it, he no longer has the energy for it. He has the wisdom and life-experience to do it, just not the physical ability.  That's how I feel about playing Sam Dean in Praying Small.  So it's all about economy for me.  It's a long night for this character.  Over two hours on the stage without leaving.  I have the wisdom and life-experience to play it now, but I'm not sure I have the physical stamina anymore.

And now, back to the text.  My first copy of the play is in tatters.  I've thumbed through it so often it's almost unreadable now.  Have to get another one and transfer my notes.  Only once before have I had to do that: Harry Truman in Give 'Em Hell, Harry.

And so the day begins.

See you tomorrow.

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