Monday, May 31, 2010

Back to Rehearsal...

It has been a week or so since I've blogged.  Several reasons for that, mostly health issues.  The lesser gods of sabotage have invaded lately and are, for whatever reason, doing their best to keep this play from proceeding normally.  Judging from some of the extended moments we've had in rehearsal, I honestly believe we're onto something rather extraordinary here.

A few days back we had what is known in the theatre as a "designer run through."  This is when the designers of the show are brought in to see the product for the first time: the sound guy, the lights guy, the costumer, the set designer, the publicist, the marketing guy, etc.  Ours was, like most designer run throughs, both rough and exciting all at once.  There were moments of extreme train wreckage and others of unexpected quality.  But mostly the run through is for the people doing the off stage work.

It was about this time that my precarious health issues started to emerge.  The 'silent killer' was having its way with me again.  The blood sugar was going nuts, fluctuating like a dot com stock in the eighties.  My stomach was doing a number on me as well.  The result of all this was a complete physical breakdown on Saturday.

I'm better today, but still far from a hundred percent.  I have often remarked to Angela how surprising all of this stuff is.  My entire life I've been healthier than anyone could possibly hope to be.  Aside from a few bumps in the road, I've had the constitution of a Missouri mule.  Which is fortunate considering I used to drink like there was no tomorrow.  When all else failed in my life, my health always held out.  So now all of this fragility is completely unexpected.  And not only that but I'm ill-equipped to deal with it.  I've had no practice.

Anyway, enough whining.  After canceling both rehearsal for PS and the one-acts on Saturday, I'm reasonably strong enough to get back on the horse.  The canceling of the rehearsal was hard.  Missing the final night of the one-acts was not.  I learned a valuable lesson from that ordeal (and I can only think of it as an 'ordeal').  That lesson is that I have the right to say No.  All artists have that right.  Never again (unless there's a lot of money involved) will I allow myself to participate in sub-standard work.  I won't dwell on this, but suffice to say that as actors sometimes all we have is our work, what we do, how we do it, what we choose to lend our talents to.  To let ourselves be seen in anything but the most flattering of lights is sheer lunacy.  I am long past the point of doing something on stage just to do it.  Life is way, way too short to do bad work.  And that's all I have to say about that.

So today I'm back in the saddle for a short rehearsal.  The PR/Marketing machine has leapt into high gear and the reservation lines, I'm told, are burning up.  Good.  If I'm gonna crash and burn I want to crash and burn in a spectacular way.  I want to do it in front of a packed house.  I want to explode in a glory of noble effort rather than muddle through and be seen as just one more inept pawn in a night of inept pawns.

There are moments in Praying Small that have caught me off guard.  One was a sentence in the latter portion of the second act during the run through.  I have a line about my character's inability to believe in God.  The other night while saying it, a burst of emotion welled up in me.  I'm not sure, even now, why.  But suddenly I had trouble getting the words out.  I have been here before.  I know these dark tunnels and murky hallways.  I have navigated them in plays past.  They no longer frighten me.

Another was a scene in which my character, on the road to recovery, encounters his former best friend and drinking buddy, Roman, in a dusty, dim, dank, dive bar.  How's that for alliteration?  Roman, quite unexpectedly, breaks down and begins to weep in the middle of a sentence.  Rob Arbogast, a true and honest actor of the highest calibre, has chosen this is not in the script.  Even though I had seen Rob play this beat before I was surprised by it.  The sadness was palpable.  The waste and destruction of the disease of addiction was laid open for a brief second for all to see.  As a substance abuse counselor for many years in Chicago I have seen this moment in real life many times.  I remember a young man speaking to a room full of recovering addicts one night.  He was telling of his new life, of his new hope and aspirations since he had managed to stop doing drugs; he was reveling in his belief in the future.  Suddenly, without warning, he bent at the waist and dropped to his knees.  Tears cascaded down his face.  He said, almost inaudibly, "I have no one who cares that I'm getting better."  I, who had seen this disease cripple and maim and savage its way through countless lives, couldn't catch my breath.  I sat paralyzed in my seat and watched helplessly.  It is a moment that has stayed with me for many years.  I say that to say this: the exact same thing happened when Rob began to silently cry onstage the other night.  I was immobile with empathy.

There are a number of moments like this one in Praying Small, moments of such honesty that even I, the playwright, find myself struck dumb by them.  I have never, as a professional actor of decades, been terribly concerned with how I felt onstage at any given moment.  I believe that whatever catharsis takes place for the actor is "gravy," as my old mentor and friend, Michael Moriarty, used to say.  If we end up having a night of exceptional depth of feeling, well, that's just jiffy.  Very nice.  But it's not what this is about.  Never has been, never will be.  Frankly, no one gives a shit how we feel about something at any particular time.  And by 'we,' I mean we as actors.  All that matters is what the anonymous lady sitting in the third row feels that paid twenty five bucks to be told a story.  Incidentally, this is what the book, Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger, is partially about.  Art is not for the artist.  Art is for the masses.  Art for the artist is masturbation.

However, having said that, it's really nice to have moments like that.  It can make a whole career suddenly worthwhile.  It tangibly lends credence to what we do and why we do it.  Robert Duvall once said that if an actor had half a dozen truly honest moments in his entire career, he was above the curve.  Couldn't agree more.

So we've been given a 'sneak preview' into what this play can be at its finest.  We were allowed fleeting glimpses into a evening of possibilities.  And I, for one, was awed.

I've never done this role before.  I know, in my head, how I WANTED it done.  But I've never seen it.  I'm in a position now that amuses me: the position of putting up or shutting up.  I'll be perfectly honest...I'm not sure I'm a good enough actor anymore for the role.  I used to be, I know that.  But there is a decade of rust on me.  Years of built up corrosion around my talent.  I have, in some ways, become that which I despise most: a commentator on the work of others.  I am the eunuch at the orgy.  It's a place where old actors go for refuge. I don't want to be there.  It's a dead place.

So, Gentle Reader, once more unto the breach today.  Even stooped and wounded with this fucked up diabetes I relish the battle.  Hemingway, in one of a hundred ways he predicted his suicide through his writing, once wrote he would far rather die as a lion in the wild, pierced with a hundred arrows, than live to a ripe, old age in a zoo in Spokane.  Although a tad overdramatized, I feel the same way about this play.  I'd rather strive for sublimity through this piece than drizzle into obscurity with another.  I may fail at this role, the play itself may fail, but not from lack of ambition.  At least, as Teddy Roosevelt so magnificently wrote a century ago, we're in the arena.  At least we're out there trying.  The only failure that will come from this production, as I see it, is not trying in the first place.

And finally, as often happens in our business, there will be an aspect of 'pearls before swine' to our efforts.  I re-learned that particular soul-crushing lesson the first time From the East to the West was viewed in rehearsal by someone who's opinion I valued.  We can't simply assume everyone will see the importance of what we're doing.  Some will simply see a play about a guy that used to drink.  Others will see a play about a guy who spends time in the very pits of Hell itself and miraculously and against all odds, finds a road less traveled and stumbles blindly out.  Some will simply see a play about an amoral guy that whines too much.  Others will see a play about a guy finding solace in the least expected place in the world - inside himself.  Some will simply see a play with lots of gnashing of teeth.  Others will see a play about redemption itself.

See you tomorrow.