Friday, February 5, 2010

On Giving Notes and Muhammad Ali...

Some time back I was watching an interview with Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali's trainer. Dundee was with Ali his entire career. He's a squat, little man with a glaring Brooklyn accent, exactly like a boxing trainer is supposed to look and sound. Right out of Central Casting.

So one of the questions asked was, "How did you train Muhammad Ali? With his ego and natural gifts, what could you tell him to make him better?" Dundee said early on he discovered he couldn't train Ali the way he trained other fighters. So what he did was this: if Ali were working in the ring and he wasn't doing something Dundee wanted him to do, say, throw the jab off the hook, Dundee would tell him in the corner between rounds, "I love the way you're throwing that jab off the hook. I've never seen another fighter do it so perfectly. It's a thing of beauty, watching you throw that jab immediately after the hook. I don't know how you do it, Muhammad." And then Ali, who was NOT throwing the jab off the hook, would get off the stool and go out and do exactly that. And more importantly, actually think it was his idea. Great insight from Dundee into working with this genius of a fighter.

It is a great thing for a director to know, too. Not that I employ it so shamelessly as Mr. Dundee. But sometimes its best to let the actor think he's come up with something on his own. As I've said before, I'm an actor first, a playwright second and a director third. I adore actors. They are the most fascinating, child-like, intelligent people I know; full of doubt and confidence all at once. And when they're at the top of their game, they are thoroughbreds. I have worked with so many directors that simply don't understand this.

So sometimes its necessary to use this backward sort of encouragement. "I love the way you're taking that tiny pause before the line in order to nail that laugh. Really nice moment for you." That's all that need be said. The next time through, you can be absolutely sure that tiny pause will be there.

This is not patronizing. Not in the least. I believe its making a point without the carnage of actually giving a note. Note-giving is a delicate thing. I used to work with this tin despot of a director down south that would give hours, HOURS, of notes...caustic, horrible notes that included personal attacks, long, weeping stories from his own childhood, a performance unto themselves, these note-giving sessions. I used to think, "Are we rehearsing a play or watching a one-man show?"

So, last night we threw off the sickliness of the night before and attacked the piece with renewed vigor. The play's lead actor, Chad Coe, came in rearing to go. He'd obviously done a lot of "processing" over the past 24 hours and was shockingly cleaner, sharper and more focused. His is the most difficult character in the play. I'm very careful with how I direct him because of that. Its just simply not a case of "you cross here and say the line." Its a tough-assed role to do. Glad he's doing it, in fact, and not me.

The other two principal actors in the play have their curious strengths and weaknesses, too. Nickella Moschetti, playing Eileen, is one of the most instinctive actors I've seen in many, many years. Frankly, I have no idea what her process is and I honestly don't care. I worked with another actress like her years ago named Katherine Kelly in Glass Menagerie. They seem to be incapable of being dishonest onstage. There is some governor in their internal engine that won't let them be fake. This can be daunting to another actor like myself who's just openly fake sometimes. Working with people like that makes me sigh and put my acting tricks away. Just tuck them all away in a bag somewhere. Cause if I'm not glaringly honest with her onstage, I come out looking very, very stilted and manipulative. Nickella makes me a better actor because of this. That's saying something.

J.R. Mangels is working on the other big role. I get J.R. I completely know where he's coming from. Like myself, he can sniff out a laugh line from about two miles away. And he knows, he KNOWS, he'll get the laugh, too. And like myself, sometimes he has to purposely NOT go for the laugh in order to serve the greater good, the play itself. He's a fun actor to watch.

So here we are, this little band of Charlie in the Boxes, at the exact halfway point of the rehearsal process. We open this thing on February 16, right around 8:00 at night. Eleven days, thirteen hours, or something like that. And I've gone from being a tad stressed and rather doubtful, to being full of optimism and rather sprightly.

Today we're adding the music and sound to the mix. Sort of like sprinkling some pepper into an already spicy chili. Should be fun.

See you tomorrow.