Sunday, January 2, 2011

"It's time to stop being afraid..."

I was talking to a close friend yesterday about Adding Machine (we go back into rehearsals today). I was yammering on about the songs, the memorization process, the transitions, a couple of my frustrations, etc. And he said something quite perceptive. He said, "Yeah, well, all of that is fine and good, but it's time to make it your own now." I thought for a moment I'd misheard him. "What?" I asked. He said, "Any good actor can memorize this stuff, although it's clearly very complicated. But the reason I go to see you perform is to see what you do with it. It sounds to me like you're being really polite and trying to give the directors what they want to see and hear."

It gave me huge pause.

He's right, of course. It's really the reason I act. I remember a while back when I was living in New York going to see Ian McKellen do Richard III. I have seen a lot of Dicky 3s in my life. A lot. It's such an enormously complicated play on a political level...all those references to family ties, former royalty, warring factions, Yorkists and Lancastrians. Most remember it solely for the central character, the humpback king, and not all of that other falderal. It is tantamount to doing a play about Nixon and Watergate about four hundred years from gets very detailed about who is who and I'm sure it would be terribly difficult to follow.

So I go to see Sir Ian do it at BAM. The whole thing is done in NAZI garb, not terribly origninal but quite fitting. Apparently someone had taken the time to tell McKellen the same thing. His Richard was far different and far superior to any I'd seen. The story was just as complicated and difficult to decipher for the uninitiated, but Sir Ian, in the middle of it, had a whole new take on absolute evil. Unlike Olivier's Richard, McKellen didn't concern himself with playing a 'bad guy.' He played it with true eccentricity and tons of charm. It brought to mind Gary Oldman in his best bad guy film roles, very charming and almost impossible not to watch. Clearly, Sir Ian was not the least bit interested in what people 'expected' to see.

Another time was watching Stephen Lang do the role of Colonel Jessop (the role Jack Nicholson did in the film) onstage. It was so terribly different than what I'd expected. Brilliant and razor's edge performance. I later read that Lang (a singularly eccentric man in real life, I can say from personal experience) spent hours and hours watching the alpha gorilla at the Brooklyn Zoo in preparation. And that's exactly how he played it. Utterly riveting.

So during the six weeks of rehearsal we've had for Adding Machine I often found myself saying to myself, 'I have a great idea here, something out of the guess I'll wait a while to try it.' I'm a little surprised at myself. I suppose there are two reasons I haven't been following my instincts. One is because of the tension in rehearsals. Early on we had a bit of a revolt from a few of the ensemble and I simply didn't want to make more waves. Not like me at all. The other is because the music, the actual score, is so precise and our brilliant musical director so dedicated to encouraging us learn it perfectly (as he should, that's his job and he does it beautifully) that I've been leery of taking any liberties with it. But after my buddy said that to me yesterday I realized he was right. No one walks away from a play thinking, "I loved the perfect counting in bar 58 and 59 in that song." No. They walk away saying, "I loved that moment when..." As I do so often, I remind myself that this business is not about the artist, it's about the audience. No one gives a shit how I feel as a character. It's entirely about what THEY feel. After all, I didn't shell out 30 bucks for the ticket, they did.

Many years ago I saw the late and wonderful actor Raul Julia do Quixote in Man of La Mancha on Broadway. Many don't remember that Julia was a fine singer, too. Anyway, I came away a little underwhelmed. I'd long admired Mr. Julia as an actor. And I've actually done Quixote myself. He did a very professional job with it. But he took no liberties. There was not one moment in the play when I thought, 'Wow. I didn't expect THAT." It was a flawless rendition of what's on the page. Exactly what's on the page. And it bored me.

So starting today, I enter some serious negotiations with this role. Trying things, making second and third choices, find the unexpected, playing with the pace and rhythm (not with the music, but the dialogue), unafraid to be eccentric for eccentricity's sake.

Now, to be fair, I haven't done a lot of that yet simply because learning what is on the page itself has been so difficult. It's tough stuff.

I also remember some years back seeing an actor do a lightweight little comedy called Charley's Aunt in Chicago. Even in that simple piece of theatre I was sort of appalled at this actor making no choices whatsoever that weren't inherent in the writing. In fact, I very clearly remember saying to the girl I saw it with, "That's not acting, it's memorizing." To paraphrase Truman Capote.

In essence, it's time to start playing. It's time to start exploring the unpredictable. It's time to forget what past Mr. Zero's have done. It's time to give less weight to what's on the page and more to what's fascinating. Any actor can memorize a part regardless of how tough it is to do so...Hamlet comes to mind. I have seen dozens of very fine, experienced, highly reputed actors play that role from Kevin Kline to Daniel Day Lewis. But the best Hamlet I ever encountered was a 17 year old high school actor in Roanoke, Virginia, of all places. The young man's name was John Beard (odd that I remember that) and I had just done a new play with him at Mill Mountain Theater. I stuck around to do another play there and one morning John called me and invited me to an 'assembly' in which the play would be done in truncated form. I was dreading it. But I went to see him in the role and of course the production was laughably horrible. But John, right smack in the middle of it, as Hamlet, was electrifying. Absolutely wonderful. He played it with such rage and borderline pathology that I couldn't take my eyes off him. Later he told me, "This Shakespeare guy really knew how to write." I smiled. That's it. That's absolutely it. Play the role, in fact EVERY role, as though no one has ever done it before. He instinctively knew at 17 what it took me nearly a decade to learn.

So I have a new perspective going into rehearsal today. Not to say there will be any earth shattering changes. There won't be. But it's the idea of looking at the play from a different angle that will make it interesting to me now.

My buddy (a very fine actor himself) was right. It's not the role, it's the actor. The role will take care of itself. The actor needs to do the same.

Years back I did a play with the incomparable Elaine Stritch in New York. One day, late in rehearsal, Elaine finally had the text in her pocket, she had at last memorized the play. She said, quietly, almost under her breath one day, "It's time to stop being afraid. It's time to make THEM afraid." I think, although I'm not sure, she was referring to the audience. I have always remembered that comment. She was, of course, unimaginably wonderful in the role.

See you tomorrow.