Friday, April 23, 2010

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare.

I despise memorization.  The actor's life would be a perfect life if not for all of the memorization.  I'm reading a biography on Sir Anthony Hopkins right now and I was pleased to discover that he, too, had a great deal of trouble memorizing lines.  He hated it.  And, of course, Brando is legendary for not being able to memorize lines.

A couple of months ago I wrote and directed a piece called From the East to the West.  I remember we did our first read-thru at the theatre and then a couple of days later started blocking.  I was astonished when a couple of the young actors came in halfway off book already.  How the hell do they do that?

Olivier always espoused coming in to rehearsal off book.  And he did just that throughout most of his career apparently.  Even the big ones; Lear, Hamlet, Tyrone, Big Daddy, Othello.  I'm not sure if the layman can understand just how much damned work that is.  Nonetheless, I took my cue from Lord Larry and have done it many times.  I came in off book for Give 'Em Hell, Harry, which is a two and half hour one person show about Harry Truman.  Then again, I had nearly five months to prepare for that one.  Olivier's point, and it is certainly valid, is that the real work doesn't start until the books are gone.  Until the book is put aside the play still belongs to the playwright.  Once the book is gone, the actor takes possession of the play.

I once did a production of Lost in Yonkers (did that show five times) at Chicago's Forum Theatre.  I'd already done it twice, once at Arkansas Rep and once at The Asolo.  Unbeknownst to me, however, all of the other actors had done it elsewhere, too.  It was an all-star cast, Marji Bank, Paula Scrafano, a couple of others, and when the first table read-thru came along and the director yapped a bit about his "concept" of the play (fucking directors...don't get me started), we started the initial read-thru - common practice in the theatre.  But this time, all of us just sat there with our scripts closed in front of us and started the play.  Not one of us opened the book.  It was amazing.  An entire cast letter-perfect on day one.  And we still had three and half weeks to play.

Another time when I was doing The Chairman in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I noticed a note from the playwright in the script.  Rupert Holmes had written, "At some point during the run The Chairman WILL go up on his lines.  We suggest a handsomely bound manuscript onstage at all times for just such an occasion."  It's a huge role with a bunch of fat monologues.  Sure enough, about three weeks into the run, I went up.  Thank God for that "handsomely bound manuscript."

I was once doing a supporting role in one of my own plays, Praying Small, in Chicago.  There is a quick scene involving the lead character, Sam, and a lesbian lawyer.  The woman originally playing the role had to step out for a weekend due to a family death.  So the director brought in this really pretty young actress to do the role for a few days.  The scene was blocked in such a way that the lesbian lawyer had only to sit there and say her lines.  This new actress was really casual and assured back in the dressing room.  We didn't even run through the quick scene beforehand because it was so easy.  So the scene arrives and the young actress steps to the chair in the segue and the lights come up.  The actor playing Sam turns to her and delivers the first line.  Nothing.  She just stares at him.  Scared to death.  He tries to cover, adlibs a bit, seeks a way to give her the line without actually saying it himself.  Nothing.  More terrified staring.  Finally he just moves to the end of the scene, sort of does a wrap-up of what happened in the scene and moves to the next one.  The young actress, who has not uttered a single word, confidently gets up and exits.  Backstage we all look at her horrified.  She sits and says, "Well, that could have gone better."  She was replaced the next night.

Years ago I was cast as Lt. Schrank in West Side Story.  Good little role.  I've always contended that if I were to go on another national tour, that would be the perfect role to do.  Rake in your 2200 bucks a week and hardly do anything.  Anyway, in that production the kid playing Riff was not really an actor.  He was a dancer.  And whenever he delivered his lines, when he was finished with his sentence, under his breath, barely audible, he would say, "Your turn."  Funniest damn thing I've ever seen.  He did this IN FRONT of an audience.  The first time he said it to me, I actually stopped for a second and said, "Excuse me?"  Unbelievably he repeated it, a little louder, "Your turn."  And remember, folks, this was a big-time, Equity show.  Oy.

My favorite is a story told me by a friend of mine named Mitch Kantor who was doing Richard III at Riverside Shakespeare in New York.  Mitch wasn't playing the hunchback, I forget what role he was doing, but anyway, as most actors know, the play starts with a very famous line from The Bard.  Richard enters at the curtain and says "Now is the winter of our discontent."  So, curtain up, out hobbles Richard, stares at the audience chillingly, and says, "Now is the summer...(pause).  I'll come in again."  And walks off stage.  Curtain drops.  A couple of seconds.  Curtain up.  Richard hobbles out again.  "Now is the WINTER of our discontent."

Since it's Shakespeare's birthday I'll recount another story told me by my buddy, Bob Koch, who was doing the famous Julius Caesar in the park with Martin Sheen, Al Pacino and Ed Begley Jr.  The director had a great idea of getting a ton of senators during the Caesar murder scene.  Just like the Romans did it, Jr. Senators and Sr. Senators.  So he went to the Equity lounge in mid-town where, back in those days, you could find a whole gaggle of old actors who date back to the vaudevillian age.  Ancient guys who would sit around all day in the lounge gossiping and drinking coffee and smoking and talking about "the good, old days."  They were really funny guys.  Telling stories about doing the "circuit" in the Catskills and whatnot.  I used to sit with them now and then and play gin rummy and listen to the stories.  Anyway, Joe Papp hired every one of them for the play.  They only had the one scene and no lines.  Most of them were in their eighties.  So the big death scene with Ed Begley comes along on opening night.  The senators close in on Caesar.  Deathly silence in the house.  Finally they fall on him, stabbing him repeatedly with daggers hidden in their robes.  Caesar goes down, blood packets have burst and he's covered in red.  They all start to step backwards, shocked by the audacity of what they've just done to the Emperor of Rome.  At that exact moment a phone starts to ring backstage.  Very loud.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Goes on forever.  Everyone can hear it, audience and actors alike.  Finally, one of the eighty year old, ex-vaudevillian actors can't resist and says in a loud stage whisper, "What if it's for Caesar?"

Learning lines.  Ah, there's the rub.  I hate it.

See you tomorrow.