Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Back at it...

Back in the late eighties I studied with the brilliant actor/writer/pianist/composer, Michael Moriarty for several years. Right up until Michael started doing Law and Order, in fact. After that he no longer had time to teach. Which was a shame because Michael was a very gifted and gentle teacher. Not to mention a brilliant actor. One of the reasons Michael was so good as a teacher, I think, is because he had been there himself, under fire, on the front line of artistic combat, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Many times. And what's more, he has a shelf full of Tony's and Emmy's to prove it.

So over the time I worked with Michael I got a lot of opportunities to pick his brain, listen to stories and anectdotes. Michael has worked with everyone from Katherine Hepburn to Tennessee Williams to Robert DeNiro to Jack Nicholson to Meryl Streep. He has wonderful memories of them all and is a great storyteller.

One of the stories I remember him recounting to me one night was about doing 'Bang the Drum Slowly' with DeNiro. He said there was a scene, I believe it was set in a public bathroom in the film, where DeNiro's character had to vomit into a toilet while Michael was standing outside the stall. Michael's character could hear it all happening. For those who don't know the film, the DeNiro character is dying from some disease (never actually named). Both play big league baseball players.

In any event, DeNiro wanted, as was his usual approach in those days, absolute realism. So when it came time to shoot that scene he came in with one of those long, iced tea spoons. And just before every take of him throwing up, he would jam the spoon into the back of his throat to instigate his gag reflex. Over and over. Quite a few takes to get just the right one, Michael recalled. And, as he stood there watching this he thought to himself, 'I'm just not that serious about all this. It's only a movie, for Pete's sake.'

Another time, years back, I was doing the wonderful Lanford Wilson play, Fifth of July. I'd done it once before way back in college and was doing it again in an off-broadway revival at Circle-in-the-Square in New York. Wilson himself was on hand for a good part of the rehearsal period and actually wrote some new dialogue for our production. Marshall Mason was directing again.

In the play, two of the characters come very close to a fist fight. One is holding some gardening shears and uses them as a weapon to ward off the other character. It's a great moment and very tense. Anyway, during one late rehearsal, the moment got out of hand quite unexpectedly and the two actors actually threw some punches before the rest of us could get between them. Their relationship off-stage was never the same which was sad because they had been friends. In the aftermath of this little incident I remember thinking the same thing Michael had thought in that bathroom years before...'I'm just not that serious about all this.' Certainly not serious enough to lose control of myself and throw a punch in rehearsal. Not only does that violate nearly every acting instinct I have, it's just plain counter-productive. What is to be gained from something like that?

A moment like that comes from the passion of the artist. I honestly don't think these two guys (I've long since lost touch with both) had any sort of anger against each other, they just got lost in the moment.

Trying to churn out a perfect product is a myth that we who work on the stage chase relentlessly. And, I might add, without success. But we can't help ourselves. We're too passionate about it. And we'd certainly never do anything less than our very best.

That moment in Fifth of July never worked again because the actors wouldn't let themselves go that far again. They were both quietly ashamed of it. They later apologized and went out for drinks together and laughed about it, but the damage was done. There was an unhealthy tension between them for the rest of the run. It was an intangible thing, but there.

I love artists. People who are not only passionate about what they do, be it painting or acting or music or sculpting or dancing, but also good at it. I adore that passion. I thrive on it. It inspires me.

I recently played the lead role in one of my own plays. It was a tremendously difficult process. Egos ran rampant, my own included. A loggerhead was reached, of sorts, between myself (not only the actor but the playwright) and the director. We disagreed vehemently on our respective visions of the play. In the end we had a tremendously successful product, but it was really tough getting there. I sincerely regret some of the arguments we had about the play. In the final analysis, it didn't matter. The material soared anyway.

I was reminded of the passion of the artist last night as I stood aside and watched all of these unbelievably talented artists doing what they do best. I felt and feel terribly fortunate to be involved. There's nothing quite like the feeling of knowing the material is as good as the work. It's the same feeling I get every time I've worked on a piece of Shakespeare. There is a genius there that we all find ourselves trying to match. Everyone wants perfection. And that's how it should be.

I can't even begin to relay to you, Gentle Reader, the jaw-dropping talent involved in this piece: Ron Sossi, Alan Patrick Kenny, Kelly Lester, Rob Herring, Christine Horn, just to name the principals. The ensemble is every bit as extraordinary. During one of the breaks last night, I was listening to our musical director (Alan) and one of our ensemble members (Travis Leland) casually sing through some music from another show. I was stunned. These guys are just so, so good at what they do. Even when they're just playing around.

Back at it today. Music is out, script is out, pouring over it first thing in the morning. As a playwright I know how volatile the process of creating can be. And as an actor I know how very much it means to try and do justice to a good piece of writing. And I recognize and appreciate the fine line between passion and frustration. On one hand it makes for some sleepless nights. On the other hand it makes for a truly indescribable feeling of accomplishment. And the journey, bumps and all, is a beautiful and worthwhile thing.

See you tomorrow.