Final Dress Rehearsal

Final Dress Rehearsal—

One thing we all understand is the term “Dress Rehearsal”. It’s a Theatre term that had become a part of our everyday vocabulary. We all know what it means, or what it seems to mean, and that is the last rehearsal before opening, a rehearsal with all props, lighting, costumes, wigs, makeup, and music, but no audience. This is true, and yet this is only a part of the story. Final dress rehearsal is a test of all the physical aspects of the show. It is also a chance for each performer and crew member to get a sense of their journey from lights up to curtain down.

A case in point is two quick changes I must do in the first 5 minutes of the play. At the top of the show we have a “dumb show” that is, a scene that is acted out without words, and only with music underscoring the action. A traditional dumbshow was the silent and very brief acting out of the action of play, but in our case it is an introduction of all the characters in the play that we achieve by watching them walking on the streets of Venice in their costumes. My costume is big and lush and complicated and during my overture cross I get to show it off a bit, but the moment I am off stage a wardrobe tech is standing off stage waiting to remove the large coat, doublet, and hat and leave me in a nightshirt and breeches. I then climb a very high ships ladder and wait to have a scene with Iago and Roderigo. I play the scene on the roof of my “house” in Venice and when it is done I have 8 lines to back down the ships ladder, put on my coat and doublet, don my hat and hit the stage running. The wardrobe tech, Amanda, works smoothly and quickly and if I manage a brisk but safe trip down the ladder then I can make my entrance on time, but only just barely. Dress rehearsal was my last chance to practice this offstage move in performance conditions.

Off stage moments tie directly into moments onstage. If an offstage action goes pearshaped then a performer will hit the stage carrying that moment with them, often this can skew the progress of the storytelling. Dress rehearsal is as much about backstage as onstage.

Our final dress rehearsal was a big success. The way we have put the show together works. We even had the luxury of an invited audience, which allowed us to experience audience reactions for the first time. We got some unexpected laughs and some very profound silences from our small audience of friends. There was one woman who cackled loudly at all sorts of strange places. It’s important to know where folks will laugh because it is good practice to “hold” for laughs. That means to pause briefly until the laughter begins to subside before continuing a line. This is necessary so that the story’s clarity can be maintained. But it’s important not to anticipate a laugh and then be caught holding for a laugh that does not come. Every audience is different, what one finds funny the other might weep at.

Tonight we have our first public performance. We call it a preview because it is happening prior to our official press opening. Well that is all logistics. Tonight, we will have customers in the seats and they are expecting a good show. We will give it to them, and have a lot of fun doing it.

More to come

Tech: Putting on the Polish

Tech: Putting on the Polish

Tech rehearsal is likely a deep mystery to civilians. I say this because it is often a mystery to actors. The mystery lies in the long pauses in rehearsal when actors are asked, by a god-like voice over the public address system, to hold their positions while the lighting, sound, stage management and various other teams “build a cue”. During this time the lighting will flicker, muffled voices will be heard at various places around the theatre, Assistant stage managers and Props runners, wardrobe assistants, and other experts will scurry about and then after a few, and sometimes many, many minutes the amplified voice of the Production Stage Manager, who is perched high up in the audience space will intone, “please continue”.  As a young actor I dreaded technical rehearsal. I found it boring and pointless. I’ve learned much since. At any given moment in a modern theatrical production, while the players on stage are telling a story, an entirely different story, complete with cues, lights, choreography and precision timing is unfolding backstage. The crew backstage has positions they must assume and actions they must perform and are constantly on the move in time with the play onstage and under the direction of the Production Stage Manager. Technical rehearsal is the time that is spent putting together the parallel story that supports the onstage story.

For a big show like ours technical rehearsal takes a week. Of course, the more tech needed to tell a story, the longer the technical period must be. I don’t know this for a fact, but I would wager that the new Harry Potter show on Broadway went through a month of tech rehearsal. What many folks don’t know is that the crew will sometimes conduct technical rehearsals without the acting company present in order to hone their timing and coordination on actions that the onstage company are not involved in. The competence, and expertise of the crew has a direct effect on the quality of a show.

I’ve seen and performed Shakespeare plays in parks and outdoor spaces from Maine to Los Angeles. Some productions were better than others but none were mounted with the polish, professionalism and attention to detail that is applied to a summer production at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. A park show is produced using the finest equipment, the most accomplished designers, engineers and artisans, the most experienced management team and creative decision makers, and a cast of world class actors. Why? Because we are in New York City. People come to this town from all over the world and when they spend a day here, queued up to receive free tickets for Shakespeare in the Park, they are rewarded with a show that they will remember for a long time to come.

We are coming to the end of Tech Week. During that time we have been keeping sharp, running lines, going over blocking, using our time on stage to insure that the entire audience can see the action. Tomorrow night is final dress rehearsal. Then a day off, and then….first preview. What that means is, first public performance.

I can hardly wait.

On Stage: First Tech

On Stage: First Tech —

After a final run thru on Saturday we took two days of much needed rest. We took the time to recover from 6 days of demanding rehearsal and prep, and also to charge up our energy reserves for 6 long days of technical rehearsal, two of which are to be “ten for twelve” days. all the other days will commence at 2:00pm and end at midnight.

Last night was our first night on the Delacorte stage. We were slated to rehearse in the afternoon but rain kept us in our dressing rooms. After the dinner break the weather improved and we donned our costumes and wandered out onto that historic playing space. It felt so good to be back, looking out onto all those seats, 1800 of them, knowing that most or all will soon be filled with people from all over the world who have come to central park to experience a moment they have heard about, read about, and perhaps even dreamed of.

Dreams will be coming true on stage and off. There are several Delacorte veterans in the company and a host of first timers. All of us have dreamed of walking this stage. That is why we are here.

Our costumes, under the lights look fantastic. We’re all arrayed in silk, gold brocade, linen, polished wool, velvet, leather and fur. These days the fashion is to mount Shakespeare productions in just about any period BUT the Elizabethan. Our Othello has a definite, “old school” look to it. It’s a refreshing return to a somewhat ignored style.  The set is spare and grand, two rows of gothic arches fashioned to look like cut stone.  It’s a big set, that is clearly meant to contain big, beautiful and truthful storytelling. The scale of the set is such that we need our big sumptuous costumes in order to be seen by the audience.

Backstage as we waited for the weather to turn, we took to story telling and reminiscing. A number of colleagues have left us in the last year or two. That very afternoon a memorial was being held for the late, great Reg E. Cathey, who passed away earlier this year. Many of us wanted to go but could not due to rehearsal. Reg would have understood. We all understand that the work comes first and that no goodbye is forever. It’s likely we’ll see Reg, Tommy Derrah, Margaret Whitton, and a whole cast of longtime players on another stage, on another plane. We’ll tell more stories together, stories that don’t need to be heard, or seen, only felt.

We hit that stage with energy and zest and even though we were in new clothes, in a new space, being stopped and started and paused and restarted we elevated the telling of the story. Our nature is to play a space and this space demands our best playing, those empty seats were 1800 question marks behind a single question to which our company holds the answer. We were giddy with the power of that first night on stage. There is much work to do though. Many more discoveries to be made.

More to come.

The Big Run Thru

The Big Run Thru —

Just before a company takes a show to the Delacorte for technical rehearsals there is a run thru of the play for an invited audience of tech department heads, upper management and, of course, Oscar Eustis. Oscar is the Artistic Director of the Public Theatre. Oscar is a big, bearded garrulous man who is deeply committed to Theatre and who is blessed with a gift for getting others to buy in to his enthusiasm for putting on first rate shows. He was given a seat, dead center and provided with a script on a music stand that he might refer to and she leaned forward and gave our run-thru his full attention. He laughed at the funny parts, winced at the violent parts and made notes. The other department heads seemed totally caught up in the story and we all felt like it went really well.

This is not to say that we are in any way ready for an audience. No, no, no. What we have done is proved our concept and invited the technical department heads to look at what we are bringing to the Delacorte next week. What we are ready for at the moment, is technical rehearsals.

Tech Week is when the emphasis is placed on lighting, sound, stagecraft, costumes, music, transitions, props and all of the other aspects that make our story into a full scale theatrical event. It is a long and demanding process. We will be at the Theatre from 2:00PM to Midnight all week. The crew will have even longer hours. Experienced actors know that there will be hours and hours of waiting as the various tech departments craft the show moment by moment and will use this time to study lines, write, read, rehearse on the side.

Tomorrow is our last day in the rehearsal space. We will have a run thru of the show and notes and at the end of the day we will crack a few bottles of wine toast a very good week of rehearsals. Then we take two days off and on Tuesday we begin rehearsing onstage at the Delacorte Theatre.

We are primed and ready.

The Crew

The Crew —

Monday night after rehearsal I hopped on a Citibike and chugged up to the Delacorte Theatre for a very special occasion. The Othello company had been invited to the Crew Barbecue. This was the moment when all the artisans, crafters, builders and engineers who make Summer Shakespeare in the Park possible, gather and eat and drink. For some it’s a moment of relaxation as they look toward completing the first stage set of the season. For others it’s a chance to get acquainted or re-acquainted with the team who will run the show that will happen on that enormous and beautifully crafted set.

For folks like me who get to privilege of playing on that set in that venue, it’s a chance to begin saying “thank you” to the cadre of smart, talented, dedicated people who audience members often never see or sometimes glimpse. My thank you began before I even arrived when I stopped off at a liquor store for a bottle of Jameson to offer my beloved coworkers upon my arrival.

When you go to a movie and the credits roll, if one stays to watch they will see hundreds of names scroll by. Those folks did fantastic work on that film months ago. Many are already working on another film. On a show like ours the crew is present, in the Theatre every night. The crew is first to arrive, last to leave. Wardrobe runners are cleaning, repairing and prepping costumes, as well as tending to the laundry that is generated by a large cast playing an outdoor venue. The sound crew is testing and maintaining the mixing board, amplifiers, computers and body microphone systems that are crucial for creating the best possible audience experience. The lighting crew is keeping the lights on and keeping up with the wear and tear that plagues a light system that is exposed to the elements. The props team maintains the props that are used throughout the show. Every “message sent from Cyprus” or “taper guarding ‘gainst the gloom” is a prop that must be crafted into existence, catalogued, stored maintained and set out on prop tables strategically placed near the many entrances to the stage. Many props must be replaced nightly and some props are so important to the show that the story cannot go on without them. Where would our show be if Desdemona’s handkerchief were not carefully placed and ready for her when she needs it? The electrical system in the Delacorte is vast and rather intimidating, that is to anyone but the skilled crew that keeps it running. Stage management is at the center of this enterprise. The production stage manager is the boss of the show and all of the department heads will coordinate with the PSM on any issue show related. The Stage Manager is on the stage itself and in constant contact with the PSM who runs the show from the Booth at the top of the seating area. Assistant stage managers are stationed at key points around the stage passing on communications from the SM and PSM and making sure that all goes smoothly throughout the show. They do this in a very hands on way, helping to move set pieces, clear props and furniture away or to entrances, helping actors get sorted out prior to going on. They must be alert and aware at all times. There are other teams at work who have a big part in making the Delacorte experience great. The front of house crew is the team who greets the audience and helps them find their seats. The concessions team is there selling snacks and souvenirs, and of course there are the actors, putting on a play.

A further note on props. Twice in my career I have been caught on stage without a crucial prop. Both times it was my own fault. Once, in a production of Twelfth Night, while playing Malvolio, I went on stage for the climactic scene where confront Olivia with a letter that I thought was from her… without the letter. She and I have speeches, in verse, referring to the letter, the nature of the handwriting. But we had no letter to refer to. We got through the scene, it wasn’t pretty. Another time in a production of Romeo and Juliet, I was playing the noble County Paris, and was entering the tomb where Juliet, whom I believed to be dead, lay and where I would be attacked by Romeo and, after a brief swordfight, killed. I’m sure you have already guessed that I forgot to take my sword with me. I spotted my mistake and in a very clumsy improvisation, left my attendant alone on stage holding a torch while I sprinted back to the tiring house to retrieve my blade. The show went on, and to this very day I still get teased about that gaffe from time to time.

To sum up. You can put on a play in your living room without a crew, but to put on a SHOW, you need the help of many, dedicated experts.

Oh, and to any actors out there reading this, before every entrance check your fly and check your props!

More to come.

The Word: Backtracking

The Word: Backtracking

At our run through yesterday, our director invited us to test the limits of our passion, to forget about meter and scansion and poetry and to put our focus on the humanity of the story.

I took his note to heart as did most of the company and we tore through the play with spirit and volume and emotion and intensity that had us setting a time record for the telling of the story. I must confess that I bruised my voice a bit in my part of the narrative. I pulled out all the stops and challenged all my choices against the highest level of passion. And the decisions I’ve made stood the test. But I found that there were moments that were run together, ideas that were forced to stretch over too many words. I realized that I must go back to the text and find more ideas, more details in the painting of the part of the narrative I tell.

When I got home after rehearsal I took a look at the text and set my intention. I would dial back the passion and seek out the moments the live between the moments I had already discovered. Like any good actor/yoga student, I sent my intention for the next day’s rehearsal. Not long after that I received my rehearsal schedule and found that I was slated for a 45 minute session with our voice coach Julie Congress. Julie is a crucial part of our team. She works with us not only on vocal issues, but also on our nuts and bolts choices on how to actually speak the lines we are given. There is not a classical actor on the planet that does not rely on the skill and expertise of a voice coach. The work they do on our behalf is indispensable, and when done well, invisible.

I arrived at my voice session with Julie and her first question was, “What do you want to work on?”. In an instant I told her that I wanted today’s rehearsal to be about ideas over passion. I know and understand the passion and now I want to meld the words and the passion together. She smiled her wide, bright, smile inducing smile and said, “Great!! Let’s get to work!”

We went through my part word by word, idea by idea, sans emotion and in a dispassionate manner, finding the extra ideas that I knew I were missing. We talked about where to breathe and which ideas to play up more than others. We began to modulate my performance at a level of detail that you don’t get at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. (Sorry Idahoans, but I know that Julie has never worked with you).

She gave me a very interesting exercise. She handed me a paper and pencil and asked me to sketch what I saw out the window as I spoke my lines. I had never done that exercise before and dived into it head first. It lead me to all manner of new choices and ideas about my role. And in the end, I had a pretty fair sketch of the building across the street from the rehearsal hall. Yes Julie is young enough to be my daughter, but her wisdom in the realm of voice coaching has me sitting at her feet, eager to learn. Please note, that Julie teaches at the Stella Adler Conservatory. My teacher Mario Siletti was a student of Stella Adler and later was the head of faculty at that august institution. When I was a student at the National Shakespeare Company conservatory, a fellow student named Angela Vitale went on to become a teacher at Adler. Even though Julie and I had never met, we had been trained in the same way and spoke the same language. That our session would be fruitful was a fait accompli.

Needless to say today’s rehearsal was a success for me. I was more at home in my role than I have been to date and I made flood of discoveries that represented a true leap forward in my progress in this role. Tomorrow is about solidifying what I’ve learned and preparing for the next step.

Sometimes we have to step back in order to move forward. Well today, 2 steps back earned me 5 steps forward. I’m not at performance level yet, but the path is clear and the momentum is there.

I was not alone in this leap forward. The entire company, especially Corey Stoll and Alison Wright, took the work to a new height today. They did it not with sound and fury but with intellect and insight. I am so proud to be playing with this company.

Tomorrow we do a runthru for Oscar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theatre. Our Director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson gave us the best advice possible for this event, “Stick to your process! Keep doing your work. Don’t worry about Oscar.”

I love you Oscar, and I hope you enjoy where we are at tomorrow. No doubt we’ll be much further along come the night.

more to come.

Passion

Passion —

Students at the National Shakespeare Company Conservatory had two master teachers. Philip Meister, whom I’ve written about earlier and the great Mario Siletti. Philip taught acting technique and Mario taught Shakespeare and classical technique. As time went on it became clear that they were both teaching the same thing, but from different points of view. They did have two different definitions of acting. Philip told us that acting was “reacting to stimuli both real and imagined”. Mario  taught us that acting was “the passionate conveyance of an idea”.

Since I’m in the midst of rehearsing a Shakespeare play, I want to talk about Mario’s approach and about passion. William Shakespeare was writing for an audience who was no stranger to death, to violence, disease, torture, slavery, war, starvation. Life for the typical Elizabethan was a struggle. It was a life of extremes. Mario explained to us that the people of Shakespeare’s England, in their culture, their social mores their day to day conduct, had more in common with the Sicilians of today than the British. And when those people had something they wanted to say, is was likely they said it with real conviction. They were also fascinated with language, especially spoken language. Many were illiterate so they would go to the theatre to hear great stories conveyed with well spoken words. No doubt they demanded real conviction, authenticity and passion from their actors.

As an American actor I’ve read about the Method, and about emotional truth in our acting. I’ve witnessed many of my colleagues examining their own emotional lives in search for a connection to the life of the character. I’ve practiced this internal search on many occasions, especially for film work where one must be very, very subtle. However Shakespeare was always meant to be played on an outdoor stage, for a raucous audience, sans lights, effects, costumes. It that time and place, Theatre was an actor on a stage in his own clothes speaking. And if he wasn’t speaking with power, with confidence and, most of all, with passion. He might very likely be chased off the stage.

“Cleave your partner’s skull with the passion and power of your idea!” Mario would exhort us again and again that, when speaking Shakespeare you must be crystal clear in your ideas and utterly passionate in the speaking of them.  Passion does not always translate to volume or speed or emotional intensity. Passion is the flame under the pot, the steam in the pipes, the sparkplug in the engine. In modern acting parlance it might be called the “motivation” or the character’s “objective”, but for me those are intellectual conceits that do not really get to the heart of what passion is for an actor and what it does for a performance.

It might be fair to say that “passion” , like pornography, is something you know when you see it, but that is a little to glib for me. I once read an essay by Federico Garcia Lorca called Theory and Play of the Duende . Lorca’s essay describes the nature of “Duende” a Spanish term that describes a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity in Art and performance (particularly Flamenco song, dance and music). I found Lorca’s essay to describe perfectly, what I have always understood to be the passionate conveyance of an idea. I can’t do a better job of describing Duende than Lorca, so I won’t try. You really should read the essay. But I will say this, Passion, Duende, Truth whatever you want to call it, is something that cannot be faked.

And that is what I’m working on in Othello. As Brabantio I am completely outraged and incensed by the sudden marriage of Desdemona and Othello. It is a fact in the play that it is their unlikely match that brings on my early demise. This bit of the story really is a matter of life and death. I have to live up to that and in a way that is clear and as filled with passion as I can make it. That means that the lines must come without any sort of impediment. Passionate speech is not thoughtful speech. Speech that is genuine comes off the tongue, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “trippingly”. Right now I’m on the cusp of being able to speak my words with passion, and to have the ideas they carry from from me directly. When all of that is place then the final struggle will be to passionately convey those ideas into the minds and hearts of the audience.

More to come.

Choices: The Questions

Choices: The Questions

My teacher, Philip Meister, gave us a list of questions that we were to ask ourselves as we rehearsed each scene we studied. The questions were designed to spur investigation and force us to make choices about character, story, relationships, motivations, actions, reactions, and the journey from first entrance to last exit. Here are the questions as I remember them:

  • Who am I?
  • Where am I?
  • What do I want?
  • What am I doing?
  • Where am I coming from?
  • Where am I going?
  • What will I find when I get there?

The idea was that if you could answer these questions about your character in a scene then you had done enough foundational work to be able to rehearse. Rehearsal is  the crucible where the choices we make in response to these questions are purified and the dross and useless matter burned away.

They seem like simple questions at first. One might answer them simply, with a word or two. Yet, they are open ended and, most importantly, they are composed in the first person present tense. The exercise is to answer these questions from the subjective point of view. When one cleaves to this idea, then the answers actually change from scene to scene and sometimes from moment to moment within the scene as new information becomes known to the you as your character.  In class we were called upon to talk about our characters in the first person when discussing our work. Instead of saying something like, “My character enters from stage left and walks about the set,” we might say, after investigating a scene using our questions, something about the scene like, “I come into my sister Maria’s bedroom from the bathroom where I had been hiding, and begin searching for the keys that I must have in order to get into my mother’s safe deposit box at the bank tomorrow”.

I began studying back in 1981 and to this day I use the questions and the first person present tense perspective in all my work. Over the years I’ve learned how to shift my perspective from the subjective to the objective and back in a seamless way that makes communication with various directors much more easy and efficient. In the years that I’ve been a working actor I’ve made it my practice to hit the rehearsal stage with my own ideas about character, movement, and the nature of the moment, rather than waiting for a director. What often happens is that the director will allow me to keep most of what I have chosen and offer adjustments and alternatives that ease the bulk of my work into their vision of the play. And in those not infrequent cases when a director has no clear vision for a scene, then I’m safe in the work I’ve done and able to build upon it.

Working with Ruben Santiago-Hudson is an ideal experience in that, in his heart he is an actor. Ruben will allow an actor to do their job and will only step in when it is necessary to maintain the integrity of the moment, the scene, the play. Of course this way of working assumes that the actor’s in the company are going to use this freedom and exercise their creativity and intellects to craft the moments, movements, gestures and relationships. That is where casting becomes crucial.

Bottom line, the questions my teacher challenged us to answer have served me well as a tool for understanding a scene, a story and a character and for making me a useful collaborator for a special corps of directors who expect actors to do their work without asking permission.

Yesterday was our first “stumble-thru” of the play. It was long, too long, and it was full of silences that must be squeezed out. Most of all it was filled with truth, and honesty and humanity. That’s  what you get when you put together a company of professionals and set them to work on good piece of dramatic literature.

More to come.

Choices: The Why of it

Choices: The Why of it

So I come off the rehearsal floor after another work through and I feel like I’m starting to “own” my time on stage, but only just starting. Feelings I have about the play, about the character, about the part of the narrative I occupy, are starting to coalesce into ideas and those ideas will be the basis of concrete actions that might be played.

Perhaps he sensed that I was ripe for a brief chat about character and action because our Shakespeare scholar and dramaturg, James Shapiro approached me and asked me a simple question: “Why don’t you want Roderigo or Othello to have your daughter?” In an instant, the feeling I had about this very question crystallized into a brief and very compelling answer, “because I want her all to myself”. I can cite three lines from Othello that support this idea, and the idea itself does not get in the way of the overall arc of the story.

  • “How got she out?”
  • “And what’s to come of my despised time is naught but bitterness”
  • “…for your escape would teach me tyranny to hang clogs upon them”

Two of these lines suggest that I was keeping Desdemona with me like a treasure under lock and key. The other suggests to me that I fear my old age (my despised time) will be bitter and filled with regret without Desdemona there by my side.

This idea is also good for me as Brabantio because it heightens the level of loss and betrayal that I (and by extension the audience) experience in the play. It also leads us away from the archetypical “angry Italian father” and toward “Powerful Brabantio, who is terrified of dying without his beloved daughter Desdemona holding his hand”.  So I want her all to myself, she is a jewel, she is the only person left from the marriage and family that I built and that somehow slipped away from me. She looks just like her mother, whom I loved and hated and loved some more and lost in such a way that I would never have her back. She is my final link to a family that no longer exists, to a love I can never have back. To a time that was sweet.

We see a lot of this kind of relationship in the Shakespeare canon. Shylock loses his daughter Jessica when she runs off with Lorenzo. Prospero loses Miranda when she falls in love with Sebastian. Lear loses Regan and Goneril to their ambition and greed, and his third daughter Cordelia, the one who really loved him, is murdered. Polonuis loses the the obedience of Ophelia to Hamlet. It’s clear that the Father/Daughter relationship is something the Shakespeare thought about often. And there are a lot of motherless daughters in Shakespeare. Rosalind, Bianca, Beatrice, Helena, Hermia and Imogen are just a few of them.

James asked me a few other questions in his Socratic way that sought to challenge this choice. My answers satisfied me that I was on the right track. The choices we make as actors lead to the actions we play on stage and every choice can inform other choices and actions and when all the choices made and all the actions decided upon  we have a narrative, or more simply, a play. The odd and counterintuitive thing about a play as opposed to life is that, in order for an audience to sit and engage in a fictional narrative, it must, must, must be plausible. The choices and actions must come from a place of sense and reality and human understanding. If not, then that delicate state of acceptance, that suspension of disbelief that the audience agrees to in exchange for our story is shattered. However, life itself is rarely like that. People on the stage of the our everyday life to things that are, strange, out of character, unexpected, and just plain nuts. Unfortunately we have no choice but to accept that it’s been done and move on. Life isn’t really a narrative, it just seems that way. And a narrative isn’t really life, it’s just what we would like life to be.

That said, we’re getting ready to take our choices and actions onto the Delacorte stage and give them a real workout.

Stay tuned!

Us and Them

Us and Them —

It is an article of faith among our tribe that there are two kinds of people, “Theatre Folk” and “Civilians”. We inhabit the same plane of existence, and exist in different worlds. It’s an us and them mindset not unlike Muggles and Wizards or Mutants and Humans. One group is both blessed and cursed with special powers, the other rather ordinary and it’s the ordinary group that holds all the power and is secretly wants to crush the “specials”.  My first talent agent, the late, great Lewis Chambers told me it was his intent to write a book about life in the theatre. He had the title picked out and it was a doozy:

“Will You Want Clean Sheets, or are you Theatre Folk?”

He claimed it was a question that was asked by certain New England innkeepers in the 18th century. I’ve never heard another reference to this question, but it sure tickled me for it’s close embrace with silly and somber. Theatre folk are the people who stay up all night reading, and talking. Theatre folk the ones who are having more fun, more sex, more adventures more laughs, more drinks… or at least is seems that way. And maybe that is why the Civilians love us and hate us, and buy tickets to see us perform and dismiss our profession as “silly”.

The practice of the profession of Theatre Artist is to take on a life of 6 day work weeks, low pay, family disruption, grueling travel, long nights, and endless stretches of unemployment. There’s more but this list alone would have any civilian asking “why do you want to be in Theatre?”  I was asked that very question by Brooks Brothered, wire framed, goateed Civilian during a post show Q&A while on tour back in the early ’80’s. I instantly answered with a question of my own, “why did you grow that beard?”. The audience broke into laughter and to his credit so too did Mr. Goatee.

The great abstract painter Kaye Freeman can’t really say why she paints. She just gets up every morning, goes to the studio and paints. Once, while working on a film, a western, I heard someone ask one of the wranglers, a leathery, camel smoker in a well worn Stetson, why he became a cowboy. He offered 5 seconds of appearing to think about an answer and then replied, “Well I’m too lazy to work and too nervous to steal”. I took that answer as my own for a long time whenever the questions of why came up. Nowadays I don’t even bother.

“Why” is not really the question. “How” might be interesting. “How long” even more so. A very good question is “What would you be if couldn’t be” and can get an all night convo going.  For the record, if I couldn’t be an actor, I would become a scientist, or a travel writer, or maybe a sommelier. I could not bear to spend my time trading stocks, or selling, or managing human resources.

But here is, to my mind, the real question, the core question that I now ask of all my Civilian friends, “Why AREN’T you in the Theatre?” When did you stop playing pretend games? What caused you to give up on being a fireman, or an astronaut, or a jet pilot, or a movie star? Why do you pay to sit in a seat and watch us when you could come up on the stage and join the fun? Talent is not required to join our club, just ask any Theatre Critic. All we ask is that you show up for rehearsals and performance on time, play nice with others and keep a positive attitude.

The questions above aren’t rhetorical. I really want to know. If anyone would care to offer an answer send it to miguel@mpactor.com.

I’m back in rehearsal tomorrow.

Special Note: Today is my son Alexander’s 30’th birthday. He grew up around Theatre Folk and turned out just fine. Happy Birthday Alex!

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