Monday, June 7, 2010

Whistling Past the Graveyard.

A night of fitful sleep.  Tossing and turning with the play on constant fast forward and rewind in my head.  Finally just said to hell with it and got up and started the coffee.

Still so much to be done with this thing.  The ever-patient Angela ran lines with me for the entire evening.  There are still three monologues giving me fits.  I'll tackle them again this morning before going in and finishing up the tech.  I honestly don't remember the last time I've had such a hard time with a show.

Acting, and I mean real acting, is not something one can simply stop doing for a few years and then pick up as though nothing happened.  I am always appalled when, say, an athlete reaches the end of his career and decides to become an actor.  That's sort of how I feel these days.  I've taken a lot of time off, years in fact, and am now picking up as though I'd never quit.  I've spent the past few years simply teaching in Chicago, not actually doing. Consequently, layers of rust and corrosion have developed.  I find myself second-guessing myself, which I never would have done a few years ago.  I have often told students that ninety percent of the game is sometimes simple confidence.

I feel a bit like Ali when he was forced to take three and half years off because of his refusal to step forward for the draft.  To come back and fight on the level he was fighting was unheard of.  Yet he did it.  And then to not only come back after that forced lay-off, but to fight the most ferocious fighter around, Joe Frazier, was, in the opinion of most, sheer lunacy.  I feel like playing Sam Dean in Praying Small is my personal Joe Frazier.

I remember a quote of his after that fight in 1971 in Madison Square Garden, dubbed 'The Fight of the Century.'  Ali, of course, always supremely confident, gave a rare glimpse into his private world, his unseen personal courage.  He said a few weeks after that fight, which was brutal and long and which Ali ended up losing in a very close decision over 15 rounds, "After the first round I began to fight from memory.  And I knew it wouldn't be enough that night."  He knew he wasn't ready after the long lay-off.  But he gathered his considerable personal resources and fought anyway.  And reluctantly, ever so reluctantly, he unwrapped perhaps his greatest gift for all to see that night: his ability to take a punch.  No one had any idea Ali could take a punch.  Why should they?  He'd never had to take one, really.  He was too fast to hit up to that point.

I feel like that today.  Slower than I'd been a few years ago.  Looking around for something other than my usual array of tricks I've depended on for many years as an actor.  Knowing full well that this role will not be satisfied with them.

Sorry.  Insomnia makes me a bit over dramatic.

On a positive note, I got my new glasses yesterday.  Cool ones, if I don't say so myself.  So for the first time in long time, certainly since this evil 'silent killer' was diagnosed, I can actually see.  That's a very good thing.  I'd sort of forgotten what things looked like in focus.

After finishing the blog, it's back at the script.  There are three spots now where I get hung up.  It's my own damn fault, really.  As a playwright, I've written three monster monologues.  Hard as hell to memorize, much less act.  And now the rooster has come home to roost.

I have never bought into the idea that plays simply 'come together.'  That's always seemed terribly high school to me.  Personally, I've always preferred to see work ready to go a week or so before opening.  The last few days should be spent fine-tuning, not desperately grasping for coherence.  I have a new-found respect for all of the Sam Deans that have come before me.

In Olivier's book, On Acting, he talks about a tremendous onset of self-doubt that suddenly and unexpectedly plagued him when he turned fifty.  Not only was he beset with an inexplicable case of stage fright, he actually questioned his ability to act on the stage anymore.  This was about the time he was doing the landmark role of Archie in The Entertainer, one of his more glorious interpretations for the stage.  He even went so far as to ask the other actors on stage with him to not look him in the eye because it shattered his already shaky self-confidence.

In the twentieth century there were two actors on the stage that vied for immortality as the greatest actor of that century: Olivier and Brando.  Most considered Brando the more talented of the two.  But Brando, as time proved, was the lesser of the pair because he was lazy.  He didn't have the stamina and work ethic that Olivier did.  Even Olivier himself admitted Brando was far and away more talented than he was.  Upon seeing him in Streetcar in New York, Olivier wrote to his friend, the great director, Tyrone Guthrie, "...this young pup is the real thing.  He is electric."  But, as we all know now, Brando drifted from the stage and never did the great roles he was destined for.  The world never saw Brando's Hamlet or his Willy Loman or his James Tyrone or his King Lear.  We saw snatches of what might have been from his film work, yes, but we never saw him pit himself and his gargantuan talent against the real thing.  Olivier, on the other hand, tackled them all eventually.  In fact, after doing Julius Caesar with Brando, Sir John Geilgud, Olivier's greatest stage rival, begged him to do Hamlet on the London stage.  Brando allegedly replied, "I'm just not that serious about it, John."  And there you have it in a nutshell.  He really wasn't that serious about it.

Another time the great John Houseman recounts a story of running into Brando in the late seventies in New York.  Quite accidentally crossed paths with him while walking up Fifth Avenue.  He said that after a bit of small talk he suddenly blurted out, "Marlon, please consider doing King Lear on stage.  I'll direct it.  It will be the greatest stage comeback in history."  He said Brando fell silent for a bit and stared off into the distance.  After a few seconds his eyes focused again and he looked at Houseman and said, "I just did the whole thing in my head.  It was magnificent.  But that's the closest I'll ever come to acting on the stage again."

My mentor, Michael Moriarty, played, for a while anyway, the role of T. Lawrence Shannon, the fallen priest, in Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana.  It's a massive role, full of angst and drama.  In fact, my close friend, Brad Greenquist, was in that production.  It was playing out of town and about to make its way to Broadway when Michael dropped out of the show.  Years later I asked him why.  He said that he realized that he was of an age where it was no longer important to him to drag himself through an
emotional Armageddon every night.  He said that kind of deep and troubling self-examination was a game for the young.

All of these stories and more come to mind as I gear up for the final few rehearsals of Praying Small.  Self-doubt seeping in.  Confidence shaken on a daily basis.  Struggling for the next word in a monologue.  Trying to find the exact pitch and timbre of a scene.  Knowing the line is exact and unforgiving and that I can't cross it.  My calculations as an actor have to be impossibly precise.  Daunting and frightening.

I am always amused and critical of actors that think once they've memorized a role and have the blocking securely in their heads and the broad brush strokes of a character flailing about on stage,  they think that's enough.  Enough?  Good Lord, that's precisely when the real work begins.  It is not enough to simply say the lines and be charming.  Any actor can do that, and most do.  No, that is but the beginning.  That is when the choices have to be made.  That is when the unknown variables are introduced to the equation.  That is when the good actor veers off from the serviceable one.

We have an audience on Wednesday night.  Invited, to be sure, and most probably sympathetic, but still hot butts in the seats.  Thursday, the same.  And on Friday we face the full house and the critics.

I'm about to go up and over the trenches and charge directly into the Maginot Line.  There's nothing left but to do it.  Nearly a decade of teaching acting, and now it's time to practice what I preach.  This early morning I'm whistling as loud as I can as I stroll unconvincingly confident past this foggy graveyard called Praying Small.

See you tomorrow.