Thursday, July 8, 2010
Lightning in a Bottle...
Well, we got the hat trick...three great reviews from the big three here in Los Angeles: The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly and now Backstage West. And for icing on the cake, a great one from The Tolucan Times, too.
I have no idea what the future holds for this play. It can't stay in its present venue because another play is scheduled to move into that space. And even if it could I'm not sure it would be economically viable. These are simply the hard facts of producing theatre in this town or, for that matter, anywhere else. There are irons in the fire. Who's to say if any of them will get hot enough to sustain the play somewhere. God knows, we did the best we could.
Whatever happens from here on out, it's fairly clear we'll have to start over from square one. No one's fault. Just the way things are.
I have enjoyed acting this play once it got on its feet in front of an audience. There are a thousand nuances and choices that change and morph every night. I have always contended the role of Sam Dean is a role that requires fire and explosive indecision. I have tried to play it that way although those choices were not popular in rehearsal. A quiet, defeated, morose Sam Dean just didn't seem very interesting to me.
From the first time I read these words out loud, seven years ago, I have seen this character as a man raging against the dying of the light, as a man unable to change, a man confronted with a paradigm shift and resisting it for all he was worth. Therein lies the essential drama of the piece. An actor content upon simply saying the words with irony and sad acceptance is a pedestrian choice, I've always felt. It would be tantamount to playing Willy Loman with suicide in mind from the very beginning of the play. It's just not that fascinating. The hard and fast rule of acting (if there is such a thing) is to let the audience in on the decision making process. That's how I've tried to do this thing and will continue to in our final two weeks at our present venue.
Now, there is something to be said for playing a character underwhelmed by his circumstances. Not a lot, but something. I once watched William Hurt, a fascinating actor in the right role, do Hamlet in that way. The play felt a week long. Olivier starts his landmark film of Hamlet with these words: This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind. Watching Hurt in the role was like watching a man who had already made up his mind and admitted defeat. A subtle and ultimately nearly unwatchable choice. That's how I felt when I started working on Sam Dean. At every opportunity I chose to be explosively disgruntled as opposed to tired and staid. And, as I've documented in this blog over the past several months, these choices were not met with a lot of encouragement. They were deemed, "too large for the space."
I don't believe in overacting or underacting. There is no such thing in my mind. Doesn't exist. There is only honesty and dishonesty. If the actor believes completely in his choices he can do anything on stage, be as big as he or she wants, and in doing so the moments of quietude and subtlety are enhanced to an unimaginable degree. It is the same principle as 'earning ones pauses.' If the silences in a play are unearned, that is to say, not worked for and not used sparingly, the play loses impact. It has taken me nearly thirty years to crystalize this line of thought. But I believe it to be unimpeachable.
My only regret is that I didn't communicate this idea better during the rehearsal process.
Sometimes an actor knows he's right, he feels it in his bones, and yet he can't make others see it. Misunderstandings develop, unnecessary quibbling over interpretation ensue. This sometimes happened with this play and I regret it. My final weapon, a phrase Sir John Geilgud often used, was my moral high ground as the playwright. Looking back this was probably a weapon I should never have unsheathed.
We never reached our core audience, the recovery community, with this production. Or at least we haven't yet. I think that might have made the difference, and still might in the months to come. We have had a number of Ovation voters (to the uninitiated, these are the people who decide if a play is worthy of an Ovation nomination, LAs version of the Tony) attend and from word-of-mouth it would appear we have some strong allies with that group of people. Impossible to accurately gauge this, but I'm hopeful. It would be sad if in another six months or so the nominations and accolades came about for a show that was long closed and forgotten. But then again, this happens a lot, not only here, but in Chicago and NY, too, so I guess that's not entirely out of the realm of possibility. I was once involved with a play in NY that virtually swept the OBIE Awards and by the time the ceremony rolled around we were all out of town doing other projects. None of us, with the exception of the director, could even attend the awards.
Theatre is ephemeral. It is one of the reasons it can be so exciting. What an audience sees on any given night is the one and only time that moment of lightning will ever be captured. I remember years ago I watched three of the most amazing stage performances I'd ever seen - Terry Kinney, Kevin Anderson and John Mahoney in a Lyle Kessler play called ORPHANS - and some time later seeing the film version of it. Didn't even come close to the overwhelming emotion I had felt watching it for the first time back in June of 1985. It was a Steppenwolf transplant to New York, directed by Gary Sinise, and it was truly lightning in a bottle. All three performances were quite simply unassailable. Upon seeing that play I walked around the streets of mid-town for about an hour trying to comprehend what I had just seen. Now, THAT is what theatre, at its very finest, should be about.
A couple of years ago I ran into an actor in Chicago that I hadn't see in fifteen years or so. Just walked into each other on the sidewalks of the North Side one day. As we approached each other I vaguely recognized him (we had both, of course, aged a bit) and he shouted, without preamble, "Arnold Wiggins!" We stopped and chatted. He said, "For the past fifteen years I've thought of your performance in Boys Next Door at least once a week. I've never gotten over it." Theatre is ephemeral.
Two more weekends of doing our best in this play. It's a lot to be grateful for.
See you tomorrow.