Sunday, January 24, 2010

On Hamlet and Roanoke...

Ralph Richardson, my favorite of the "big three" - Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson - said, "Repetition is the soul of art." It is a quote I often think about. He was speaking, of course, primarily as an actor, although I think it applies to other disciplines as well.

To the non-artist, the incidental creator, the weekend craftsman, it doesn't make a lot of sense. To the professional it makes all the sense in the world. Tiger Woods didn't become the greatest golfer on the planet by being a talented, he hit, quite literally a million golf shots before anyone had ever heard of him.

There's the old joke of the tourists in NYC. They stop a man on the street and ask, "How do we get to Carnegie Hall." The man says, "Practice, practice."

Well, Sir Ralph nailed it. Until the actor has done the show and the lines over and over and over and over...he is not in the moment. He is worried about what to say next. He is waiting for the other actor to stop talking so he can talk. That's not acting. That's memorizing. Sort of like Truman Capote's line about Jack Kerouac, "That's not writing, that's typing."

So yesterday we read through From the East to the West. I have an extraordinary cast. We sat down, riffed a bit, talked some about the schedule and then dove in. No marking ("marking" is when the actor just skates through it - like a dancer too tired to do the leap and turn, he just moves his wrists in such a manner as to let people know he just "jumped and turned."). Full out right out of the gate. That's how I like it.

When I had a few good friends over to my house last month to do a reading of the piece before some final rewrites, one of the actors was the amazing John Schuck. The way the piece is written, before anyone says a word, John's character has a long and somewhat emotional monologue. So there we were, casually lounging about the front room, drinking tea and coffee and soda, munching on chips and fruit, joking around, telling old theatre stories. Finally, after a bit, I said, let's get started. Schuck sat up and attacked the script. Mr. Schuck is an old pro, been around forever, and knows his way around a script. He set the bar so high with the first monologue it was amusing to watch the other actors sit up and look around as if to say, "Well, shit, I guess I have to ACT today." Suddenly all informality was thrown out the window. The competitive edge was on. It was a barnburner of a reading, all because John Schuck didn't "mark" it. I like readings like that. And that's exactly what happened again yesterday.

The script needs a tiny bit of work...throw out a line here, rewrite a short scene there...nothing to really be concerned about. The painting is there, I just need to add a few shadows and lines.

My young cast is amazing. I don't thing they really know what they have in their laps, but that's good, I think. It is the cool thing about youth. I have seen probably twenty Hamlets on stage in my life. I've seen Kevin Kline do it, Kenneth Branaugh, Chris Walken, William Hurt, Daniel Day Lewis, Ralph Fiennes, and a slew of lesser names. You know what? The best Hamlet I ever saw was in Roanoke, VA. I was down there doing a new play festival, a really good play called The Dropper written by the veteran actor Ron McLarty. Anyway, in the cast was a young kid, maybe 17. John Beard was his name. After the play was done, I stuck around to do another show there, 1776, I think it was. Young John and I had become friends during the run of The Dropper. So he called me one night, a few weeks later, and said, "I'm doing Hamlet at my high school. We're doing a run of it at an afternoon assembly this Friday. Can you come?" I was filled with dread. The thought of spending my Friday afternoon in a high school auditorium watching the greatest play ever written being disemboweled by a bunch of teenagers was daunting, to say the least. But a friend is a friend and I said yes.

The production was awful. As bad as you might imagine. But in the middle of this mess was the most vital Hamlet I had ever seen. The kid nuked the role. Chewed it up. Make it frighteningly immediate. An urgent performance. I was astounded.

Afterwards, I chatted with him a bit backstage. He told me, in beautiful naivety, "This guy can really write (referring to Shakespeare), And he's got a whole BUNCH of plays. I can't wait to get to them all." It's the way theatre should work. He played Hamlet as though no one had ever said those words before. As though it were a new script being shopped around. As though he were the very first to discover the power of that perfect, perfect play.

That's how my young cast attacked From the East to the West yesterday. I was well pleased. I was humbled.

Repetition is the soul of art. Yep.

See you tomorrow.