Thursday, January 6, 2011

Getting close. Getting ever so close.

We trudged through the first third of the play last night without stopping. Well, sort of without stopping. Actually, we stopped a lot. But the point is, theoretically, we could have done the first third of the play without stopping.

I came home utterly exhausted, constantly re-doing certain moments in my head that could have been better, clearer, more interesting. I've reached the point now where I'm always applying my own personal litmus test to each moment I'm onstage, which is, if I were in the audience, would I find this moment fascinating? If this were a TV show, would I find the clicker and move on to something else? Or would I stay on this channel and see what happens next?

There is a song, of sorts, early in the show that's more like precise, timed, perfectly counted dialogue. It's enormously difficult, thank you Mr. Schmidt. Actually, my part in the song/exercise is relatively simple compared to the others, but I'm still screwing it up. What's more, I don't know how to fix it. This is the thing that drives me batshit: I don't know how to do it better.

Stuff like this keeps me up at nights. Almost every conceivable obstacle I encounter onstage while I'm doing a role is usually not something I concern myself with too much. That is to say, if the director puts me behind a pole to say my lines, I'll find a way to make the pole work for me. I'll find a way to make the pole interesting. But if it's just me, standing naked onstage, figuratively speaking, without the slightest idea when to say my line, well, that's an altogether different scenario.

Stuff that doesn't bother me is interpretive stuff. Even if I'm given a direct order, as it were, to say a line or shade a thought differently from what I envisioned, well, that's just the way the game's played. Doesn't bother me. And I'm certainly not one of those actors that simply waits until an audience is present to do it another way. That's just being unprofessional. Not to say any of that is happening in this play. It's not. The two problems that stretch out before me are 1) memorization (which will happen, so there's nothing I can do about it) and 2) counting. Yes, counting. Getting to the point that I can sing this stuff at the drop of a hat without thinking about it. Making it second nature. Making it so much a part of me that I don't have to waste time and energy on the execution part of it.

Frankly, it's been a long while since I encountered problem number 2.

On the other hand, after so many years of doing this, I can sense when something is going to work. And there are dozens of moments, maybe more, in the first twenty minutes alone that are breathtaking.

One is the opening number. At some point in every piece we, the actors and creative team, find ourselves through sheer repetition, unable to remember how shockingly good something is. I've seen this happen before. And then opening night rolls around and we're all somewhat dismayed at the reaction to something. Well, in this piece, my co-star, Kelly Lester, has to sing an impossible solo number right out of the gate. It really is sort of stunning. She soars to improbable heights vocally and then a measure later grunts and growls and screams like a keening peasant. A few seconds later, once again, she's singing up and down the scale like Beverly Sills. It's a funny, gruff, moving, empathy-filled number and Kelly attacks it like a pro. The thing is, we've seen her do it so much. We're no longer awed by the work. But it will be dazzling. It's astonishingly good stuff. And months ago, the first time she did it for us all in the confines of our little, cramped, claustrophobic rehearsal space, we ourselves were dazzled and awed. It's important we remember this.

There are lots of segments in the play like this. Rob Herring and Christine Horn both have the same sort of jaw-dropping moments. I don't really hand out compliments too often, but the truth is these guys are as good as it gets. I simply can't imagine two actors more suited to these roles.

It would be easy to start negatively reinforcing the execution of this piece at this point. This is the time when tempers become frayed, expectations heightened, demands become critical. Of course, our director, Ron Sossi, has been in this business a long, long time. He's been here many times before. He's learned, I'm sure, over the years that the whip never works with creative actor types. This is the precise moment in a play that one must fight one's initial instinct. That is to say, rather than despair over near-perfection, one must delight in how close we are to the goal, the finished process, the mountain top within view. In short, more than any other time in the rehearsal process, now is the time for nurturing. For unsolicited pats on the back.

I once had a long talk with one of the finest stage directors in the universe in my opinion, Mike Nichols, about this very thing. His entire directing approach is based on positive reinforcement. And he says it's something he learned from Elia Kazan, also not a bad director to say the least.

Personally, I saw this particularly gentle approach while working with the brilliant actor and acting teacher Michael Moriarty. Michael's way to get more from an actor in class was very surpentine. Following a piece of work he would start with a long explanation of what he found wonderful. And then, almost as an afterthought, he would steer the actor toward the areas that weren't so wonderful and offer intensely specific ways to improve. One always walked away from one of Michael's classes thinking he or she was just a hair away from brilliance and that it was most definitely within reach.

It's a tricky thing, this working with actors business. Fortunately for those of us involved with this particular piece, Adding Machine, the creative team is tremendously positive. Our music director and our director all but leap with joy when a specific piece of work is nailed. I love that about them. As odd as it may sound, it's not terribly common in professional theatre.

Off to an audition today for a video game. Yes, a video game. Something about two planets fighting each other. Or two planets quibbling over the sun. Or maybe it's two planets trying to lose weight. I don't know. All I know is I have the lines in front of me and for a few minutes this afternoon I'll take the idea of playing a talking planet very seriously.

As an old buddy of mine used to say, " wanna be an actor, huh?"

See you tomorrow.