Saturday, January 30, 2010

On Put-ins and Generals...

For reasons beyond anyone's control, I've had to recast a supporting role in the play. The actor taking the role is coming in today. He comes highly recommended.

So today, consequently, we'll have what's known as a "put in" rehearsal. We literally put the actor into the show.

I've been here before as an actor. The first time was years ago in a six month tour of The Fantasticks. I was put in as El Gallo. The actor playing the role was in charge of teaching it to me which was unfortunate because apparently he was bitter about leaving the show. Had nothing to do with me but he was being replaced for some reason. The weird part was that he was the one putting me in. Just the two of us rehearsing the role, alone in a dusty rehearsal space with nothing but a few chairs and a step ladder (El Gallo spends an inordinate amount of time sitting on this silly ladder during that simple, but elegant play). I'd had a few days to memorize the songs and lines (back then I could actually DO that in a few days). So he was assigned, by some clause in his Equity Contract, to do this. He resented me deeply. Even though he immediately acknowledged that I'd had nothing to do with the replacement, he still wasn't too warm towards me. It was a long time ago and I don't remember a lot about it except one line he said to me during the put in. At one point El Gallo has to ride in on an "imaginary" horse. I ride up to the ladder, dismount, and as I recall, immediately sing a song. I asked him, "Okay, so what I do with the horse?" He said, without missing a beat, "Oh, fuck, I don't know, ask Uta Hagen what you do with the fucking horse." All these years later I still smile about that one.

Some years later I was asked to step into the opera singer's role (Tito) in Lend Me a Tenor at a small, Equity theatre down on beautiful Sanibel Island, Florida, called Pirate Playhouse. Yeah, I know, really dumb name for a theatre. I had two days to learn it and get in front of an audience. I was in rehearsal for something like twenty hours in two days. Which was a good thing. The bad thing was the director didn't believe in "marking" it, so he made me play it full-out for those two days. By the time I was in front of the audience I had virtually no voice left. This is the problem with directors that have never been actors - they don't understand what it takes to do the actual work. This guy certainly didn't. He'd never been on stage in his life.

It is a sorrowful thing, but somewhere in the early twentieth century the theatre in this country began to be run by directors and not actors. For centuries, here and in England, the theatre was run by actors. "Actor/Managers" they were called. Nowadays, nearly every major theatre in the United States is run by a director; more often than not, a director who has never acted a day in his or her life. Pity. What this means in the over-simplified, final analysis is that now most theatre in this country is about blocking rather than acting. It is singularly responsible, in my opinion, for a butt-load of bad theatre.

My next put-in rehearsal was a few years later for an innocuous little British farce called Run For Your Wife. I never got this play. Really dumb little show. But audiences LOVE this thing. They devour it. The first time I did it, the play itself ran an hour and forty minutes. On opening night it ran two hours and fifteen minutes...the added time was because we had to HOLD FOR LAUGHS. That means that the actor has to wait a bit because the laughter is so loud, he has to "hold." Fortunate for this put-in rehearsal, I already knew the lines.

So the put-in rehearsal is nothing new to me. I like to work fast anyway.

One final note about this business of directors running the theatre these days. It's natural, of course. The director runs the rehearsal process, so, by proxy, he runs the theatre itself eventually. I don't like it and I think it churns out bad work, but that's beside the point. A lot of theaters around the country call themselves "actors theatres" including the famous one in Louisville. Not surprisingly, however, that theatre is run by directors. Go figure. The exception to this rule for a long time was Chicago's prestigious Steppenwolf. Actors completely ran that thing: Sinise, Jeff Perry, Terry Kinny, Malkovich, John Mahoney, Laurie Metcalf, a few others. But now even that artistic giant is in danger of being over run by the renegade ego of the director.

NoHo Arts Center, where I work as the playwright-in-residence, is run by an actor. This is one of the things that drew me to it. An actor makes the final decisions. As it should be. His name is James Mellon, and, like myself, even though he does a lot of other things - direct, write, produce, sing, etc. - he is an actor first. To the layman this might sound like a small and possibly unimportant distinction. To me it is a huge slab of encouragement. It is tantamount to a soldier running the army that has actually been in a battle as opposed to a civilian running the army that has only watched movies about battle.

Controversial? No, I really don't think so. Just common sense.

See you tomorrow.