Monday, May 17, 2010
In the first incarnation of Praying Small way back in 2004, I stepped into the role of Greg, the AA sponsor in the play. It's a fun role. Lots of juicy lines to say. Since then a whole slew of actors have tackled it. The latest to do so is the subtle but very crisp actor Brad Blaisdell, pictured above. An absolute joy to work with, Brad is.
I first saw Brad as the dead father in PROOF, the beautiful revival produced by and starring the talented Teal Sherer in NoHo Ace's second space several months ago. I hadn't really met Brad yet. Well, we'd met but I didn't know who he was or anything about his work. Like a lot of people I had seen several productions of PROOF and was not expecting anything too terribly different from this particular remounting of it. I was pleasantly surprised. Teal herself was playing the lead role and turned in a haunting performance. Everyone else involved was top-notch, too. And in the role of the dead father, the role Sir Anthony Hopkins played in the film, was Brad. Two things come to mind from that night aside from the fact that he was really, really good in the role. One was that if I shut my eyes and just listened to the play, Brad has a rhythm and timbre to his voice that is uncannily reminiscent of Jeff Bridges. The other is that I turned to Angie during the performance and whispered, "He'd be perfect for Greg." Now here it is six months later and Brad is playing Greg in Praying Small. I'm delighted.
It's a funny story how I came to play Greg in that Chicago production. I had been out of town doing another gig while they were rehearsing the play there. When I returned the play was up and running. I came to see the production - a simple, pared down, uber economical production that I liked very much, adhering to the original concept of simplicity - and was struck by the actor playing Greg's inability to stop, well, tapping his feet. Although he was not bad as an actor, he had a nervous twitch which manifested itself in foot-tapping. Every time he was onstage it sounded like a Fred Astaire musical. It wasn't just a few toe taps now and then, it was an onslaught of toe tapping. I spoke to the director afterwards and was told that no matter what was said, what note was given, he was apparently incapable of not doing it. I said, "Well, um, it can't go on. It's incredibly intrusive. Why don't I do the role for a bit until we can find a Greg that doesn't do that?" So we did. The actor was dismissed and I came in the next day and learned the role in about twelve hours. The following week many of the critics came but the theatre hadn't gotten around to changing the program. The accolades I received in print were blushingly nice and consequently the reviews all came out mentioning what a wonderful performance this other actor was giving. Truth is I really didn't mind. Sort of amused me, even though the theatre fired off a bunch of corrections saying there was a mistake and that I was playing the role.
It's a great role. One of those characters that gets to dispense lots of wisdom and bon mots throughout the play. And now Brad is doing it and doing it beautifully. We have a tremendous amount of fun together while rehearsing our scenes. The director of the play, Victor Warren, and Brad go back a ways and have a relaxed rapport with each other which always helps any rehearsal process.
Another thing I like about working with Brad is his complete lack of ego. Like myself, he fully realizes that no matter how he gets to the end result, the role will be completely his and his alone. He has been in this business way too long and with way too much success to worry about how he gets there. Consequently, he has no compunctions about asking me how I did it way back when. If he likes something I did, he just takes it. That's the way it should be. I've never understood actors who are afraid to steal. And he's never threatened by the idea that it may not be his. He completely understands that at the end of the day the program will say, "Greg is being played by Brad Blaisdell," not "Greg is being played by Brad Blaisdell with helpful suggestions by Clif Morts, John Doe, Sally Smith and Congnolia Breckenridge." As an old buddy of mine used to say, "Good actors steal, bad ones borrow."
I always steal when I work. I have no problem whatsoever looking at a film or whatever of someone else doing the role I'm doing. If I like something and steal it, whatever that is will be filtered through me anyway, so it will come out as something completely different. Another thing I always do when preparing for something that has been done before is go back and read the reviews. Not that I particularly care if they're good or not. No, I do that because every now and then I can glean something from the review that will help me find the character. Case in point: some years back I was doing the role of Roat, the sociopathic killer in the play Wait Until Dark. As is my habit, I started finding old reviews of previous productions, trying to find something I could steal. I was reading through the old clippings of the original Broadway production starring Robert Duvall as the killer when I noticed something interesting. The New Yorker had written a review of the piece and there was mention of how eerie it was when Duvall had casually put on a plastic butcher's smock before commencing his attack upon the helpless blind girl in the latter half of the play. This is not in the play. It was something Duvall, the actor, came up with. Needless to say, I immediately stole it.
Sometimes it's something much smaller than that. Sometimes it is simply a stance, a particular way of carrying oneself onstage. Or perhaps a slightly eccentric way of walking. For instance, the last time I did Arthur in Camelot, a surprisingly well written piece for the three lead actors in it, I imagined Peter O'Toole as Arthur in my mind. How might he have done it? So I incorporated O'Toole's trademark pigeon-toed walk into the character among other things. Something like that can catch fire in an actor's mind and color the entire performance.
Stealing from other actors. I'm astonished when actors are afraid to do it. As though someone will notice. As though someone in the audience will say to themselves, "Why, I remember seeing Joe Blow do that in an entirely different play in an entirely different state in an entirely different context nearly twenty years ago." Steal away, I say. Steal to your heart's delight.
I can't even begin to count the number of things I've stolen from Brando. And I'm not talking about the trademark mumbling or slouching or scratching. That's bush league stealing. No, I'm talking about stealing his remarkable ability to physicalize a role. The astounding choices he would make in the way the character moves or turns or watches. Watch him in Julius Caesar or Mutiny on the Bounty. This is no slouching, mumbling Brando. This is an actor in complete control of every inch of his body and voice. Slouching and mumbling indeed. Try and imagine DeNiro or Pacino or someone of that ilk playing either of those roles. The wonderful thing about Brando that most actors don't get is that he became famous by playing Stanley Kowalski and Terry Mallow in Streetcar and Waterfront, but they were just the tip of the iceberg. Over his career he demonstrated that he was perhaps the most versatile film actor of the twentieth century with the possible exception of Meryl Streep.
Anyway, I digress.
Brad Blaisdell as Greg in Praying Small. A performance I promise you will be a powerhouse. A performance I'm finding a great deal of joy in already. The bottom line is that it's just downright fun watching him find this character in rehearsal every day. And that's what rehearsal should be: fun. After all, they're called "plays."
See you tomorrow.