Sunday, January 17, 2010

On Preparation

As I start on this massive memorization of the role, I thought it might be interesting to talk a bit about process.  For the uninitiated, "process" is simply a word the actor uses meaning "how do I get there from here."

Angie and I had my dear friend, John Bader, over for dinner last night.  John and I have known each other for twenty six years.  We were interns at a creepy, little theatre in Iowa called The Old Creamery together.  This was back in the day when an actor could work at an Equity theatre for forty weeks, take a "test" to compensate for ten more weeks, and walk away after a year of internship with their Equity Card.  Equity is the union for stage actors and imperative if one wants to make a living at this stuff.  This is what John and I did.

There are maybe a handful of people on the planet whom I will engage in conversation about the nuts and bolts of acting.  John is one of those people.  Jeff Wood is another (a fine director and one of my earliest and most satisfying collaborators), Jimmy Barbour, the late Robert Fiedler, maybe a few others.  I simply don't have the patience for the misunderstandings and the, well, bullshit.  Too many actors want to talk about how they "rehearse" not how they find what they want to actually work.  They confuse process with practice.  Subsequently it often becomes mind-numbingly didactic and convoluted.  Words and ideas are twisted and tossed and before you know it, the conversation has become almost impossible to understand unless you've read Hagen and Adler and Strasburg and Bobby Lewis and Meisner and God knows who else.  Not to mention that ninety percent of these people don't have the acting chops to back up what they're saying in the first place.  So what happens is the entire conversation becomes masturbatory and self-indulgent.  It's just so much yapping.

But with people like John, I discard my general rule of not talking about acting because I know he understands and can follow my serpentine thought pattern.

So we sat out in my sun room (soon to be my office) and we talked about acting.  And since I'm about to start work on Sam Dean in Praying Small, I thought it would be a good thing to recount.

I am not a method actor.  Used to be.  Used to live and die by it.  Used to read Hagen and listen to Adler (actually met her) and Strasburg (He died just before I got to NYC) and take all of it as the gospel.  It took me awhile but I finally realized these people were all talking about rehearsing a role.  I have no interest in what is done in rehearsal.  Theatre is Machiavellian in that the ends always justify the means.  So the means are incidental.  The end is when the fat lady (I'm paraphrasing Sallinger here) is actually moved by what she sees on stage.  That's the job.  That's what it's about.  Here's a truth - no one gives a shit what the actor is feeling.  It's all about what the fat lady is feeling.

Gentle Readers of this blog will recognize John Bader from a hundred television and film roles...most notably an award-winning stint on a show called The Practice on which he played a very eerie serial killer.  In the late eighties and early nineties I studied intently with the brilliant actor Michael Moriarty (more about him in another blog) and John was working with NY theatre icon Julie Bovasso.  I think it safe to say we could not have been farther apart when it came to "preparation."  John was all about finding an immediate honesty before proceeding. And I was all about finding the external things and hoping the honesty caught up with me.  

Interesting thing happened over two decades, though.  John slid toward my way of thinking and I drifted towards his.  We think almost (almost!) exactly alike these days.

The best way I can explain this to a layman is to recount a story Michael Moriarty told me over copious bottles of white wine many years ago.  He told me the story of Olivier and Anthony Quinn working together in Becket in London and then on Broadway in the mid-sixties.  Quinn was, at the time, known as a quintessential method actor.  One of Elia Kazan's boys.  Olivier, of course, thought all of that to be utter nonsense.  The story goes that Quinn, playing the king, was struggling his way through the Act I final monologue, mumbling and groping, desperately trying to find a moment of "truth" in his work and all the while Sir Lawrence was watching, utterly transfixed, from the wings.  After a half hour or so of this, Olivier stepped out on stage and said, "My God, Tony, I've finally sussed out the difference between American actors and British actors.  It's like football, really.  You American method actors absolutely REFUSE to run unless you have this ball of truth tucked firmly beneath your arm.  Whereas we Brits run as fast as we can and hope to God someone throws us the ball!"

There it is in a nutshell.  

I'll see you tomorrow.