Sometimes I think it's good to let go of a play for a little while. That's what I did yesterday. My beautiful and empathetic girlfriend, Angie, encouraged me not to think of it for a day. Of course, it didn't work. My mind was whirling all day. But one good thing came from it; I figured out the last moment of the piece, something that was giving me fits.
Also, I have always been able to compartmentalize what is bothering me throughout my life. I get restless, irritable and discontent sometimes, particularly when I have a new play going up. I've been restless, irritable and discontent for a week or so now. But I couldn't put my finger on it until yesterday. My philosophy has always been, "Find out what's really bothering you and fix it. Don't wallow in it, just fix it." Problem is, until yesterday, I didn't really know what was bothering me. During the football game yesterday, I figured it out. (Saints! Yes!) The lines. I still don't have the damn lines.
So today, I'm in "fix it" mode.
Today, I attack the lines with renewed vigor. It is the old actor's nightmare (so perfectly described in Christopher Durang's one-act). If I don't have the lines down perfectly, I'm off balance. Insecure. Searching.
I have visions of what might happen if I'm still flailing about on opening night.
There are some very famous stories in the theatre about this. One is with Olivier. Although it is not so much about lines as it is false cues. It seems during a performance of a Noel Coward piece, Olivier was opposite a young actor when the phone rang on stage, completely at the wrong time. They both froze for an instant. Finally, Olivier picked it up, said hello, listened for a second, and then handed the phone to the terrified, young actor and said, "It's for you."
Another one of my favorites was during the famous Julius Caeser that was done in the park with Pacino, Sheen and Hermann. New York production. Apparently someone had neglected to turn the phone off backstage during one of the performances. Ed Hermann himself told me this story. The director, months earlier, had had the brilliant idea of casting both "senior" senators and "junior" senators in the assassination scene (when the senate rises up and brutally stabs to death poor Caeser). So he had gone to the Equity Lounge in NYC (I've been there many times) and simply shouted out, "Anyone in here over 60 wanna be in a play?" Now back in those days, at any given time, one could find a dozen or so old Borscht Belt actors, probably hadn't worked in years, hanging around, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, gossiping. They all leapt at the opportunity. Now, remember, these were guys that still remembered Vaudeville. So here they are, all dressed in togas, doing the very slow and menacing scene in which Caesar is riddled with knives. As they back away from the body after stabbing him repeatedly, fake blood everywhere, silence on the stage as they begin to realize what they've just done, the phone starts ringing very loudly backstage. There is a beat as they all process this. Finally one of the old guys, in a loud stage whisper, with perfect timing, in a Bronx accent, says, "What if it's for Caesar?"
I directed myself some years back in an odd, little play called Redwood Curtain, up in Rochester, NY. I was directing and acting in the piece. As usual, as opening night loomed closer, I was still dragging the script around with me. I was petrified of putting it down. One of the actors in the show came to me at one point and said, "You know, you walk around here telling everyone what to do, how to proceed, marking your lines, giving notes, and every so often you put the script down and act and it scares the living shit out of all of us." A backhanded compliment, to be sure.
So today is all about lines. Saying them, walking around, saying them again.
In the play, there is a moment when Harry (the role I'm playing) has to fall to his hands and knees because of the overwhelming emotion of the moment. It is a very dramatic beat. So, I'm an old guy now, somedays older than others, and I'm not fluid and comfortable about falling on stage (after all, at my age I could break a hip and have to push that little button on my wrist band and say, "I've fallen and I can't get up"). So there I am in my backyard practicing falling down. My dog Zooey was out with me that day. She was terribly disconcerted by all this. I'd say my line and then fall to the ground, over and over. Fortunately, we have an enclosed backyard, so no one can see in. I can only imagine what the neighbors might have thought.
I remember, years ago in NY, I had a buddy in to visit me for a few days. He was not an actor, not in the theatre, in fact he was an architect. I had an audition that I simply had to go to. So he went along with me. As we walked in, hundreds of actors were sitting around, staring straight ahead, and seemingly talking to themselves. To me, of course, I didn't think anything of it. They were simply saying their lines. But afterwards, my buddy said to me, "I felt like I was in an asylum."
I have a hundred weird audition stories, like any actor, and someday I'll recount a few. It is an odd time for the actor, full of tension and ego and insecurity. Of course, strange things happen.
But today...today I memorize. And memorize. And memorize. It just has to be done. No getting around it. Repetition is the soul of art.
See you tomorrow.