Sunday, July 17, 2011

That Way There Be Dragons.

Sometimes I think it helpful to step back for a second and look at things. A blog, by its very nature, is somewhat egocentric, I think, so I thought I'd try and take a clear-eyed view of things for a second. It is easy in this town to lose sight of the strides forward one makes and just as easy to self-flagellate and get frustrated. I had a conversation with a young actor yesterday and he was very concerned with the lack of what he perceived to be his 'inability to get noticed.'

I guess it is important to be 'noticed,' although I'm not altogether sure what getting 'noticed' means. Does it mean people with greenlighting (a term I often hear in LA) abilities see you? People with the wherewithal to snatch you from obscurity and place you in a spotlight like a latter day version of what's-her-name being discovered in Schwabb's drugstore sipping a malted? I don't know. In fact, I'm not even sure what a 'malted' is.

But I do know this. Some people exude, simply radiate, good 'energy' and others, well, don't. When I first got to LA, I got involved, somewhat accidentally, with a couple of people who ran a 'pay to act' theatre company. In the end, it all worked out quite nicely for me because I got a much needed chance to get my writing seen in LA which otherwise would have been a bit more difficult. LA is like NYC in that many are of the mind that if you didn't do it in didn't do it. Nothing to get all sassy about, it just is. So best to embrace that rather than resent it.

So I got involved with this 'pay to act' company and immediately got a false impression of the artistic climate of Los Angeles. It was (and I imagine still is) a rather creepy and autocratic way to get things done and seen. The theatre company was tied up in a strange way with religion, a skewed kind of religion, but religion nonetheless. And the more loyal one was to the religion, the more apt one was to become a mover and shaker in the theatre wing of this 'pay to act' company. Of course, I had no other experience to compare it to in Los Angeles, so I thought, well, maybe this is how it's done. It IS LA, after all. That was over a year ago, though, and the other night I had dinner with my buddy, Joe, who has been in LA for about 20 years, slugging it out in the trenches of theatre and film, and he said, "You know, I was a little scared for you at first 'cause you got involved with those guys and everyone knows they're not 'quite right.'" My friend, Joe, is diplomatic.

Now, I've always held organized religion, ANY religion, in the lowest possible esteem. I see virtually nothing positive about it. It is, in my view, simply a way to widen the gap between 'us' and 'them.' A way to fill a lack of self worth through a mob mentality of exclusion. All religion, even the wacky kind often glorified in Los Angeles, fits snuggly into the clinical definition of a cult. And there I was, in the very midst of it, seconds away from purchasing my ticket to Guyana. Now, of course, I'm being sarcastic, but you get my drift. Religion and theatre are, by their very nature, enemies.

So it took me awhile but I managed to grasp a low-hanging branch and pull myself out of that spiritual quicksand. Now I look back at it and shudder with the knowledge of my own ignorance.

And I harbor no animosity toward the experience. Maybe a little amused at my own naivety, but no animosity.

It was unfortunate that that was my introduction into the performing world of Los Angeles, but ultimately a good thing, I think. Because after that everything else seemed simply glorious.

The thing is, and I was thinking on this after my conversation with the young actor yesterday, ultimately the truth wins out. The metaphorical cream always rises to the top. All great truths are simple, as Tolstoy wrote.

It is best to see the signs and heed them, I told him. See the signs the mind posts, the signs saying, 'That way there be dragons.' In other words, best to rely on the instincts and good judgement one learns in life before one gets to this skewed world of Los Angeles. In the end, regardless of what one might hear, weird is still weird. But it is easy not to think something is weird if enough people tell you it is not. And even though I tried very hard to think of that first theatre experience as 'not weird' I couldn't silence the small voice inside that kept demanding that it was. And of course, it was. I was just too eager to think it wasn't. I wanted to be 'part of something.' I wanted to 'fit in.' I wanted, very badly, to think someone else's opinion held more gravity than my own. And that, always, always, always, is simply not the case and never will be; my opinion may be unpopular, but it is ultimately mine and mine alone. So, incredibly, the suggestion I 'join the church' so that I might be able to be a part of the theatre did not at the time so odd to me. Astonishingly, I almost did it.

But, as I said, it's a year later now and I've moved on to working with actual artists, people doing work for the sake of excellence, aiming toward telling new and soul-searching stories because the story deserves to be told and not because the story prepetuates the 'message' of the church.

Even today I still chuckle at the sheer lunacy of that.

So my advice to this talented young actor was to say simply 'beware.' Trust your instincts. Recognize the shams before you. They may be dressed up as opportunities, but in the end, LA is no different from anywhere else in the world - weird is still weird. Listen to that small voice inside telling you, 'this is not quite right', there is something akimbo about all of this. My work onstage and in front of a camera should not be tied in any way to someone's psuedo-spiritual journey. If it is, the work immediately ceases to be pure and becomes, in the truest sense of the word, propaganda.

Beware. That way there be dragons. Trust yourself. Trust your instincts. All great truths are simple.

These truisms are just as valid in Los Angeles as they are in Detroit or Chicago or Louisville or Dallas or New York or Mokane, Missouri.

As the play I'm doing now, The Interlopers, illustrates, all subjects are on the table and there is only one rule - redempton. Redemption in all its myriad meanings. Singular redemption, social redemption, inner redemption, moral redemption, pureness of quest, work for work's sake, truth for truth's sake, redemption inside the story itself. And, much like the founding fathers of this country understood, church and state cannot mix for one will eventually suffer and die, theatre and church also cannot mix, for one will swallow the other and the work will, inevitably, become tainted. The one thing theatre can never allow itself to do is preach to the choir. Otherwise it, too, becomes just another Wednesday night PTA meeting, another breakfast with The Rotary Club, another Sunday School class with a narrow agenda. It is the beginning of the death of creativity. And, most horrifying, it is the end of original thought.

The theatre should exist unto itself, never bowing to those intent upon using it as a newsletter, a sermon, an outlet to propagate pre-esisting, premeditated philosophy. The theatre is the great question, not the great answer. And if it ever strives to be otherwise, well, that way, indeed, there be dragons.

See you tomorrow.

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