Friday, January 29, 2010

Making a Roadmap.

Sat around and did some table work last night. I know, I know, I wrote earlier how much I hated table work. Well, I do. But you have to do it at least once. And we skipped that part of the rehearsal because of our time constraints, so the cast and I decided to do it last night. And it was a good thing. Often what is obvious to me is not always so to the actor. And vice versa, I might add.

The funny thing is, the play apparently stands quite nicely on its own. This is a relief to me. As we all sat around the stage last night reading a bit, discussing it, going back to the text, doing it again, talking about a beat here, a beat there...well, a sort of weird thing happened. As we got into the second act. We stopped interrupting ourselves. We all just sort of hunkered down onto the play and started acting it. Didn't really occur to us to stop and discuss. So while we started out with good intentions, eventually all of us just wanted to act the play.

The second act of this thing is fraught with emotion. This is not "teacup acting" as a buddy of mine used to say about doing anything written by GB Shaw. It's also not typical "southern gothic" acting either (you know, as in a lot of Williams and Inge and those guys...everybody sweating and staring off into the far country, remembering some dead relative). This is. instead, quite definitely "early steppenwolf" acting. The entire play seems on the verge of breaking into a deadly fistfight at any given time. The press, early on, was calling this "Rock and Roll Theatre." In Chicago they called it "In your face acting." Whatever its called, that's what seems to be happening.

The best experience I've ever had in the theatre occurred twenty five years ago. It still remains unmatched in my mind. It was a production of the play Orphans at the Westside Arts in NYC. Steppenwolf had brought it to NY with Terry Kinney, Kevin Anderson and my buddy, John Mahoney. I didn't know John then, but we have since become friends. A dear, sweet, talented, funny man.

So I'd been in NY less than a week. My friend Robert Fiedler (who passed away this year, sadly) suggested we go see this "hot, new play" called Orphans. I had, up to that point, seen Hurley Burley (third row center, Sigourney Weaver on stage buck naked for about fifteen minutes less than twenty feet from me, thinking to myself, I LOVE THIS TOWN), Dreamgirls (the only time I've ever seen an internal standing ovation when Holliday belts out I'm Not Goin' at the end of the first act), and Kevin Kline in Arms and the Man (kinda dull, actually). So we go see Orphans. The play opens with Kevin Anderson sitting in a window sill blowing bubbles from one of those bubble bottles, the kind we had as kids. The great jazz artist, Pat Metheney, scored the entire piece. The stage lights were blue tinted, the music started low and began to build, Anderson sat placidly in the window doing his thing, the music continued to build...and build...and build. Finally, the entire theatre was rocking from the volume. Complete stillness, imagery, an eccentric pose on stage and this music is so loud the seats are shaking. Suddenly, after what seems an eternity, the stage lights bump up and the play starts. Doesn't sound like much when I describe it, but my God, it was terrific theatre. Gary Sinise had directed the piece. It was a magnificent start. After that the play is an emotional roller coaster. In my head, I always knew theatre could be this way, so immediate, so startling. But I'd never actually seen it with my own eyes. I was transported. Awash in the possibilities.

Since then I've stolen that opening (not literally) many times. I think there are two ways to start a play...either sneak up on the audience with a sort of fascinating ambiguity or come right out and slap 'em upside the head. Praying Small is the former, EAST/WEST is the latter.

That was a great week of theatre, my first week in NYC. A couple of days later I saw Mandy Patinkin in Sunday in the Park with George (to this day, my favorite musical theatre piece). He parted my hair for me. Even though I ended up doing a lot of musical theatre in my career (because I could sing), I was never a huge fan of it. But Patinkin...well, I'm not sure I can even describe how good he was in that role. He stamped it, in my opinion, the same way that Brando stamped Streetcar or Robert Preston stamped Harold Hill. I have seen the play many times since then (I even DID it) and can't get Patinkin's defining work out of my head. The role belongs to him forever, as far as I'm concerned.

Now, remember, these actors were all working on a new play when they did this. There was no compass, no video, no roadmap for any of them. Brando was doing the words to Streetcar for the first time, Patinkin was singing the soaring music of Stephen Sondheim for the first time, Robert Preston was spitting out the words to Trouble for the first time, and Kevin Anderson, Terry Kinney and John Mahoney were exploring Lyle Kessler's sad and brilliant play for the first time.

So last night as we sat down and earnestly read through From the East to the West I was thinking, "These guys are the first to do it, they're stamping it, they're defining who these characters, these people ARE." They are MAKING the roadmap as they go along, building the compass for what, hopefully, will be hundreds of actors to follow. They are not just pretending, this group of blazing, young pros. They are actually creating from dust a new thing altogether. How perfectly exhilarating.

Sometimes, like a few moments last night, the best I can do is watch them and shake my head.

See you tomorrow.