Saturday, January 16, 2010

On Being Overweight and Forty Eight...

I can remember being in college and my early professional stints piling on the make-up in order to ostensibly look the age of the character I was playing.  I've never had a make-up class in my life.  Everything I know about stage make-up was learned vicariously, watching other actors, learning from them.  One early role I recall is playing Porter in my first Deathtrap (I've since gone on to play both Clifford - twice - and Sidney in professional productions).  I was twenty, I think.  It was way back in my Tent Theatre days in Springfield, Missouri.  This is the notorious production that had the director, an older gentleman named Howard Orms, declaring at the initial read-thru, "These guys are NOT gay, they're JUST GOOD FRIENDS!"  I decided that I had to change everything about myself to play that age.  I adopted a sort of waddling walk (to indicate the character was in his forties, I suppose) and caked on the make-up so thick I could have done the title role in The Elephant Man.  I rather fancied myself the Olivier of the midwest.  Unbelievably, I was allowed to go onstage like that.  I can only imagine what the audience must have thought.  Back then I was especially enamored with stipple. Remember stipple?  This was a dabbing technique that allegedly allowed the actor to look like he had a few days growth of beard.  Problem was, I have always been a face-toucher.  My own face, that is.  Always swiping, touching, wiping my own face.  Little thing I picked up from Brando.  Anyway, to do that with a mug full stipple and before long I looked like a six-year old who's been baking brownies with his mom.   No matter, I loved stippling.

So today I find it amusing that I am told I can't play thirty-three anymore.  I've added a very simple, elegant scene at the opening to inform the audience that this is a memory play.  

The truth is, I don't like writing episodic work.  Praying Small is completely episodic.  And non-linear.  That is to say, at various time throughout the piece, Sam is seven, sixteen, twenty three, twenty eight and finally thirty three.  It bounces around in time so the audience is taken back and forth through his life.  Very dependent upon theatricality and the willingness of the audience to suspend their, well, disbelief.

I don't like writing like that.  It's easy.  And in a way, sort of cheap.  It's TV writing.  

I prefer writing in the Aristotlean Unity of Time.  Meaning the time that elapses on stage is the exact amount of time that elapses in the audience.  Chekov was pretty handy at this.  Of the living playwrights, Lanford Wilson does it exceptionally well (Tally's Folly, Fifth of July).  It is far more challenging to the playwright because he and he alone is responsible for shepherding the audience from one emotional valley and peak to another.  He cannot rely on the "fade out" or the "black out" or the "meanwhile, back at the castle..."

I stopped acting for a living around 2000.   Many reasons for this...the biggest of which I can't really go into.  In the past ten years I have gained a not entirely incorrect reputation as being the hermit-like, demanding, eccentric acting teacher on the Northside of Chicago.  The Reader (Chicago's second-rate version of The Village Voice) called me, "The most prestigious acting coach in the city...if you can find him."  A part of me always liked that.

I came out of my self-imposed exile in 2005 to do a couple roles at Florida Rep.  Upon returning to Chicago, I immediately went back into my hole and began teaching again.  

And during this entire time I wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote.  I wrote Praying Small in the basement of a warehouse where I had set up a computer and printer in a dark corner.  The warehouse was part of a complex with The Salvation Army where I was working as a drug and alcohol counselor.  I would finish my 9 to 5 existence and wander down into the depths of this dusty, dirty, cavernous warehouse and write my magnum opus.  

So now I'm in Los Angeles and about to play the role I wrote in that warehouse basement all those years ago.  Another blog will explain why I'm here.  But mostly it has to do with falling in love with a girl named Angie.  

I've been offered the title of "Playwright-in-Residence" with NoHo Arts Center.  They don't realize it yet, but because of that, they have become the recipient of a whole gaggle of plays written in a dark, dusty, cramped, magical warehouse basement.

See you tomorrow.