Saturday, January 23, 2010

Throwing Out the Opening Pitch...

Today is our first read-thru of From the East to the West at NoHo Arts Center. Opening Day. Not sure who's gonna throw out the first pitch yet.

I've been here about 120 times before. First read-thru, first rehearsal, first cast meeting. It's a very exciting day for the actors, the director and everyone involved. A few I remember with some interest.

Ordinarily the actors are on pins and needles because often times they don't know who they're up with. At least I always was. But that may be because often times I was the hired gun. The ringer brought in to upset the balance of power. The opening read-thru of Moon for the Misbegotten was like that. I was doing Jamie Tyrone in that particularly distressed piece of writing by Eugene O'Neill. Opening day was disastrous. As it is in many cases, I knew no one in the cast that day, shook hands with everyone, had a pastry and a cup of joe and just started acting. The director, who I suspect works in a factory somewhere today, wanted us to "whisper the lines with no inflection," because he wanted to "mold the music." Er. Someday I'll write an entire blog on bad directors. Actually, that's a lot of material, so maybe four or five blogs with a " be continued" attached to each.

I did Lost in Yonkers six times. Six different productions. One of them won a whole slew of Jeff Awards in Chicago - I was doing Louie, as always, the tough but ultimately soft gangster. On opening day once again I knew no one - I had been shipped in from NY for this one. But a weird thing happened. Turns out we had all done the piece elsewhere...some, like me, several times. So when we started the read-thru, none of us opened our scripts. The entire cast just hit the lines at a dead run. Remarkable. Now, mind you, this was a big-time, hotsy-totsy production. Big Equity theatre, big names in the cast, all that. It was cool.

Taught me something, that opening day. Something I had been waffling over for several years. Some time back I read John Gielgud's autobiography. A little gossipy for my taste but some of it was quite interesting. In it, Sir John said he always came to the first rehearsal OFF BOOK. That is to say, he memorized the lines, regardless of the size of the role, before opening day. This is in direct opposition to the standard American, method-influenced, approach. One must discover the line organically as one discovers the "still life" of the set and one's surroundings. Horseshit. An early revelation about Mssrs. Stanislavski and company. Although for the real actor rehearsal is the golden time, the most fun, but it is NOT why we're there. We're there for the fat lady (again, Sallinger, thank you).

I have, for years, urged my students to come in off book. Most ignore me. Hell, I ignore me.

There may, in fact, be some merit to Mr. Stanislavski's organic, discovering approach. But I think he failed to grasp the overwhelming ability of the American actor to rationalize, not to mention his inherent laziness.

I remember working, several times, I'm sorry to report, with a despot of a director in South Florida. Rather fancied himself the Otto Preminger of the stage. In my mind I always picture him in a lion-taming costume. He was infatuated with "table work." That's when the cast is not allowed to get on their feet and actually work for a long time after opening day. He just wanted to read the script over and over and "talk" about it. Oh, my lord. This guy would sit and pontificate endlessly. I think on one of those occasions we were doing a play called Born Yesterday, the old movie with Billie Holiday. We sat and discussed the play till I thought I really might just fall off my chair in a dead faint. While a decent script it was hardly Lear or Hamlet. These kinds directors, charlatons all, just don't want to let go. Directors like this think, for some ego-laden reason, that they, rather than the actors, have the final say in the presentation of the piece. This guy still runs a theatre down there, and still routinely churns out bad work. Oh, well.

So, today is a big day. A fun day. We'll hit the ground running. The last time this play was read publicly was almost a year ago today at a small theatre in Chicago. I was doing some work in Indiana at the time and came up to see the reading. It wasn't bad, actually. And I was gratified to learn that the theatre had to turn away about 100 people because it was filled to the rafters. It was just a little Saturday afternoon reading of a new play.

I think it safe to say, a lot of people have been waiting for this one. In Chicago I was told by a good buddy of mine at Steppenwolf that this play had been discussed for several years now and in fact some theatre folk thought it was a myth, that it didn't exist at all. That makes me smile today.

It does exist. And it is the best I can do at the moment. It is a deeply personal piece of writing that I have long refused to show. But today, we show it, and work on it, and get it on its feet.

I am reminded of Sondheim's line in Sunday in the Park with George..."Look, I made a hat. Where there NEVER was a hat!" He has a way with words, that Steve.

See you tomorrow.