Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Keep this...discard that...make something new.

A full run of Act I today.  It's easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of text I have to memorize in this play.  I've been chopping it down to segments so as not to panic.  Today, Rob Arbogast, who plays Roman in the piece, is coming over to work lines most of the morning and afternoon.

Victor Warren, the endlessly inventive director of the play, and I have leapt over our disagreements about the overall tone of the piece.  It's been an odd rehearsal process at times.  Not because of any lack of talent involved in the process, God knows there's a ton of that, but mostly because of conflicting ways of seeing the play itself.  I believe all of that is behind us.  Truth is, the two visions, mine and Victor's, have made the play stronger probably.

Victor is very much an actor's director.  Like myself, he likes to aim toward a tech-heavy finished product.  He can't help it.  The play isn't complete in his mind until the other minor characters of sound and music and lighting are included.  I understand completely where he's coming from.  Every now and again in rehearsal, he'll skip up to the booth and give us a sneak preview of the sound we'll be using.  The play comes even more alive when he does this.

He's working very closely with my friend, Kyle Puccia, who's designing the sound scape for the piece.  Between the two of them, they've come up with some wonderful ambient sound and music for the play.  The general source of our discussions have come from our diverse thoughts on how "realistic" the play should be.  Victor has always been inclined to believe we can make some rather liberal choices concerning this.   I've been leaning toward a purer approach to the text.  There is no right or wrong regarding this, only opinions.  We're meeting somewhere in the middle and I really think the play is better because of it.  Victor's concept has, from day one, been that the leading character of Sam Dean, the character I'm playing, is telling this story as he sees it 'in his head.'  I very much like that idea, but it's difficult to 'play' as an actor.  It's kind of like being asked to play 'Catholic.'  It's not a tangible thing I can do.  So I think, understandably, this is where my concerns come from.

Something he's doing, which sets my mind at ease considerably, is moving the play along.  Like me, he has a strong aversion to 'dead space' on stage.  That is to say, he won't allow any massive 'pauses' to take place.  It is the single most damaging culprit to this piece in productions past.  Because it is episodic, many directors have resorted to the dreaded 'black outs' between scenes.  This is death to the play.  Completely destroys any thru-line we've worked for.  Victor hates them.  So do I.  As I mentioned before, the New York production was just full of them.  Big, gaping holes in the play as the actors ambled to their places between scenes.  Scenery being shifted about in the darkness making loud, rumbling, leviathan sounds as the audience waits for something next to happen.  Just awful.  Victor will have none of that, thank goodness.  Instead, he does something really great.  He ties the scenes together using sound, sometimes even overlapping the sound of one scene into the next in an almost cinematic fashion.  It works perfectly.  In the stage directions in the script itself I write, "Light and sound are to be used liberally and with great imagination to shepherd the audience from one scene to another."  This is precisely what Victor is doing and quite ingeniously I might add.

I'm very lucky to have him helming this delicate piece.  Being a very fine actor himself, he understands completely how to talk to actors.  He conjures up images to illustrate his suggestions.  And that's what he gives when directing, too...suggestions.  Even though we all understand that he's not "suggesting" at all, he has the wonderful ability as a director to make them SEEM like suggestions.  I once read an interesting thing about Elia Kazan.  Apparently, Kazan always approached actors in the midst of rehearsal privately when giving notes.  That is to say, he would pull the actor aside and sort of whisper his ideas and then sit back down and watch.  No one ever knew what he was saying to the other actors, bringing a mystery to the playing of it.

I have a handful of favorite directors I've worked with over the years.  My friend and long-time collaborator Jeff Wood is probably my favorite.  Jeff brought, in addition to being a really good director, a blazing intellect to the job.  I always got the idea that Jeff was two or three steps ahead of me as a director.  He gave the impression of seeing the big picture as opposed to the small picture which the actor need only concern himself with.  And, like Victor, Jeff always used the phrase, "let's try this."  The one thing Jeff and I developed over time was an intangible trust in what the other was doing.  I was completely secure in the knowledge that he had a vision of what the final product would look like and Jeff, after our first few outings together, never questioned whether I could act something or not.  He always assumed I was carefully weeding my performance, picking things up, looking at them, keeping some, discarding others.  I only remember one instance when I had trouble doing something Jeff asked me to do.  We were doing a play called Golden Eggs and I had to back up slowly, bump into a chair, and sort of fling it off in a specific direction with only one foot.  Jeff had something in mind and I just couldn't do what he wanted.  I don't think I ever quite nailed what he was after in that play.  The difference between Jeff and Victor in this regard, comes from the fact that Victor is an actor himself.  Consequently he sees, in his mind's eye, how HE would do something.  This can, most of the time, be a great boon to the direction, because he can easier explain his idea.  Jeff, on the other hand, is the one exception to my hard and fast rule of "people who don't act should not direct."  One of my lifelong pet peeves is taking direction from someone who hasn't been onstage himself.  Although I believe early in his career Jeff did some acting, apparently he was quite bad at it.  Our mutual friend, John Bader, tells me Jeff may have been the worst actor he ever saw.  I'm actually glad about that.  Because the acting world's loss was the directing world's gain.  Jeff may or may not have been the worst actor, but he was an amazing director.  I only wish he weren't in Colorado these days so we could collaborate again.

I have no doubt whatsoever Victor Warren will receive some well-deserved accolades for directing Praying Small.  He's taken on a monumental task.  And he's doing it extraordinarily well.  He's turning out to be the perfect choice to mount this very personal piece of writing for me.  And finally, perhaps Victor's strongest asset (among many strong assets) is a deep, deep kindness and gentleness in his approach to directing.  His rehearsals are a joy to work.  Always a great sense of humor and an almost zen-like sense of patience.  This is no small thing.  In the final analysis, I really couldn't be happier about all this.  He's taking a bunch of sentences and thoughts and elliptical phrases and ideas and paragraphs and turning it all into a fascinating story to be told.  He's making something that has never existed before.  The mark of a very fine director.  The mark of a real artist.

See you tomorrow.