Friday, December 17, 2010

'Pretty isn't beautiful, Georgie...'

'Pretty isn't beautiful, Georgie. Pretty is what changes. What the eye arranges, is what is beautiful.' Those are my favorite lyrics of any musical I've ever seen or done. It's from Sunday in the Park with George. Sondheim, of course.

I am torn sometimes about this acting thing that I do. Sometimes I think it's just a ridiculously childish occupation for an adult. Brando claims to have felt that way after about 1965 or so. "Just not a suitably mature livelihood," was his direct quote. Yesterday I was scouting around online and reading a number of reviews from various productions of this play I'm doing, Adding Machine. And I ran across a couple of interviews with actors that have played the role I'm doing, Mr. Zero.

As is the norm in this sort of publicity-driven business, the actors all got very high-falutin' about it, talking about their rather lofty approach to allegedly 'doing' the character. As constant readers of this blog might suspect, I'm usually just amused by that kind of drivel. However, having said that, I read something interesting from an actor that played the role somewhere in Florida last year. He said something along the lines of, "This guy (the character of Mr. Zero) is a complete asshole, but it's not his fault. My father drove a bus for forty years, got out of bed at 5am everyday to do a job he hated so that his children might have food and shelter. I think of that every night before I do the play."

I thought about that a lot yesterday before I headed into rehearsal.

For many years now, I've subscribed to the idea that acting is not about the actor. This idea found a foothold in my thinking many years ago when I first read J.D. Salinger's exceptional short novel, Franny and Zooey (not coincidentally, the name of my dogs). In that piece of writing Salinger says that all performance, regardless of the medium, is all about 'the fat lady.' That is to say, the audience.

It was further reinforced by my teacher of note, Michael Moriarty, in the late eighties in New York, who taught a very anti-method approach to the craft. The moment acting becomes intellectually masturbatory, it becomes, in my mind anyway, rather silly and self-indulgent. I'm always mildly amused when I hear actors drone on about 'their character.'

It is impossible to play 'metaphor' or 'allegory' or 'symbolism.' All we can do is play the next moment as honestly as we can. I, nor anyone for that matter, cannot 'act' the plight of the common man, or the rise and fall of civilization or anything remotely like that.

Is the actor's performance any more 'layered' or 'deep' if he conjures up images of lofty philosophizing while in the midst of his work? I don't think so. And yet. And yet. Sometimes one gets hold of a role that begs for it. Consequently, once the nuts and bolts of the performance are mastered, I don't see any harm in going deeper, if the piece allows it. That's what I was thinking about yesterday after reading these interviews.

Of course, I haven't mastered the nuts and bolts of the performance yet so it's all moot anyway at this point. But, I suspect, I soon will. And at that juncture of the rehearsal process, I think I'll start exploring an area of performance I've not allowed myself for a long time. That is to say, the very dangerous area I call the 'what does it all mean' area.

There's a lot in this piece of writing. A lot. Last night I listened as the musical director and the director had a very civil conversation about the propulsion of the pointing out the desired effect of clarity in the music, the other saying none of that would matter anyway if the audience lost the thread of plot and theme. Both were right. Ultimately none of it had or has anything to do with me. The most I can contribute is to play the next moment before me honestly and with sincere intention. And, of course, in such a manner that the audience can hear me and understand me. Mamet talks about this in his two wry, sarcastic and wise books on acting.

I think it's a perfectly legitimate conversation for the musical director and the director to have, and frankly, I was pleased they were having it. And again, in the final analysis, it has absolutely nothing to do with my work on the piece. Thankfully, both are very, very good at what they do, so the conversation never got past the theoretical.

As I've told my students many times over the years, theatre is not a democracy as much as we'd like to dress it up and pretend it is. At its best it is a single and powerful vision. This may not apply to film, but it most certainly does to stage. The problem with this, just like any other profession be it plumbing or ballet or steering a boat, is that sometimes the person helming the ship is a moron. That is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the case of this ship, however. Thank God. I have been on that ship many times and it is not pleasant.

In this case, much to my delight, everyone involved in the steering of this particular ship is very good at it. This makes me feel safe as an actor. Trust is so terribly important. Without it the final product becomes disjointed and muddy. I can say without reservation that in this singular instance I have complete trust in our respective directors.

I say all of this to make a point. When everyone involved in a production is expertly taking care of his or her bidness...well, it's just an indescribable pleasure to work on a project of this sort. All I have to do is the next right thing, the next interesting moment, the next fascination bit of business, the next clear thought. Even though we, the actors, may be light years away from what we're trying to achieve, we can all rest easy that we are, like that insurance company, in 'good hands.'

A much needed day off today. Kind of. I'll still drag the script and score out and start working in a bit. I'll still think about it all day. I'll still let everything we've done up to this point percolate. And I'll still think about what I, personally, can do in my own small way to make this project 'beautiful' and not 'pretty.'

See you tomorrow.