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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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!
Another Week Gone —
It has been another hectic and productive week for the Othello Company. We have sketched out staging for the whole play and are now ready for the next phase of the rehearsal process. We call it “working through”.
We have our blocking and we are learning our lines and getting our ideas in order. Now it is time to go through the play, moment by moment, to flesh out the sketches of movement, gesture and speech that we have created and add color and tone and shading. This is a process that never really ends. For painters and sculptors there comes a moment when the piece is finished and it is given to the gallery or to the museum to be shown to the public. For a theatre piece it is different. For our company every rehearsal and every performance is an opportunity to discover something new about the story, our characters, and our particular production.
There is a story about Alfred Lund and Lynn Fontaine the great American theatre couple, on closing night of a play they were doing together, spending an hour in dressing room discussing a moment that they would likely never perform again. I like this story and hope it is true. It speaks to the true passion of a serious actor, the passion for story, for clarity, and for truth. There is no substitute for a well told story. No amount of fancy technology, can make a poor story better, but it can enhance a good story. We saw that with Troilus and Cressida in the Park in 2016. The sound design was high tech and amazing and created a context for our version of the Trojan Wars that was heart stopping.
Othello is a different production altogether. We are telling the story with people and words, ideas and emotions. We are doing good strong well reasoned Shakespeare. It’s the kind of production that made me fall in love with our friend William. I’m happy and proud to be a part of it.
So on Monday we begin going through the story, adjusting the blocking, honing our ideas about the text, deepening the emotional investment we are making in the story, and smoothing out the arc that stretches from first moment to last. We will be at this job from now until the lights come down on the last performance.
Somewhere down the line, some of us will be working together again on another story, and we’ll remember the decisions we made about how we told the story of Othello. Some of us will talk about our process with our students. Others will set down their memories on paper in whatever books or blogs we are writing. This is how Theatre is taught, and how it thrives and survives.
Today my colleague Peter Jay Fernandez and I were recalling the last time we worked together. It was a production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII in the Park in the ’90’s. He reminded me that the role of Cardinal Woolsey was played by the great character actor Josef Sommer. Joe Sommer had the air of an aristocrat and he could bring it to bear with great effect when the story called for it. I quickly realized that, Josef Sommer is a perfect model for the character of Brabantio for the moment just before he learns of the marriage of Desdemona and Othello. This is an idea I will be testing during the work through.
There are exciting times coming.
My Model for Manhood —
His name was Cruz Garcia Perez. He was tall and dark and beautiful and fearsome and funny and powerful and insecure. He had been a cowboy, a miner, a boxer, a longshoreman, a soldier, a husband and my father.
He was full of love and anger and joy and sadness. I never really understood him, but I always loved him anyway…well…not always. There were stretches of estrangement between us. There were silences, misunderstandings. At the end, when he was thin and weak and in pain, we settled on love.
I was working for the New York Shakespeare Festival on a production of The Tempest on Broadway when I got a call from my mom and dad. They were both on the phone, and Mom was prompting Dad to “tell him”. I knew something big was coming. Mom never bossed Dad around, at least not directly.
He hemmed and hawed and finally let me know that he had gastric cancer and that the “silly doctors” told him he had only 6 months to live. He then rushed to tell me that he was going to “prove them wrong” and that he felt good. I told him I was going to quit the show and come home and he told me not to do that, and that he wanted to come and see me in my Broadway debut.
We closed the call. I cried. I cried harder than I can remember. I wept and sobbed and moaned and keened through the night and then went to rehearsal in a raw state. I told the production stage manager what was going on and she let me know that the company was in my corner and that if I had to leave the show to see my Dad it would all work out.
After that call he and I spoke every day. Sometimes we talked about life, sometimes sports sometimes nothing at all. But we talked every day. I arranged tickets and a flight and a hotel for my folks for the opening of The Tempest, but Dad began failing much faster than the doctor had predicted and he let me know that he was afraid to make the trip because he didn’t want to die in a hotel far from home.
I cancelled the plans and a week or so after we opened I got a call from my sister. It was time for me to come home and see Dad. The end was approaching. The Production Stage manager (the amazing Bonnie Panson) swung into action and in a matter of hours I was on a plane heading west to say goodbye to my father.
He and I spend 4 days together, talking, napping, telling stories, asking and answering questions, apologizing, forgiving. I once again asked him if I should stay till the end. He insisted that I return to the show because he wanted me to fulfill my destiny. I went back. The show went on. Our daily phone calls continued.
The last time we spoke he sounded kinda loopy. He had gone on morphine to overcome the pain. He was rambling and from time to time seemed to forget who he was talking with. At the end of the conversation I said “I love you Dad!” and his response was “I love you Mijo, I love you so much, I love you”. I was dressed as a king, talking on a payphone, wiping tears from my eyes, and noting the 15 minute call.
At three AM that my sister called. Cruz was gone. It was peaceful.
At his funeral my eulogy was quite short.
He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
Happy Birthday Cruz. I miss you.
The Food of Love —
Shakespeare plays almost always have songs in them. Even Hamlet features a little ditty that the gravedigger serenades the dead with as he goes about his grisly work. In Othello there is a tavern scene where Lieutenant Cassio has one too many and some singing is called for as a way of facilitating the Cassio’s boozing. This scene takes place after I finish the role of Brabantio, so naturally Ruben asked me if I would be game to take part in the singing and drinking at the “Tavern in Cyprus”. My answer was yes but with one proviso – I must be allowed to wear an eye patch. Ruben agreed and I am going to be carousing with Cassio, Iago, Montano and a brace of Cyprus gallants. I can hardly wait. In hindsight it seemed Ruben agreed pretty quickly. He probably knew that if he didn’t I might start lobbying for a peg leg and a hook to round out my buccaneer ensemble.
Of course we had to rehearse our two brief songs and that turned out to be a fun and sweet moment as we gathered round the piano and learned our parts. Ruben was sitting next to the Music Director Derek Weiland taught us our parts. Ruben’s smile got bigger and bigger as we put the parts together and began blending our voices. Two other cast members picked up guitars and played along, improvising as we get into the swing of it. One of the reasons I love working in Theatre is that there are so many people with multiple talents. Every actor is often a singer and dancer as well. and there are always musicians around. I suppose that is why parties for and with show people are always so, so, much, much fun In a half hour we went from zero to a really good little musical interlude.
With business done, the guitars still out and everyone feeling musical we were almost obliged to have an impromptu jam session, and jam we did. When Ruben produced a harmonica things took a decidedly bluesy turn and Flor De Liz Perez starting belting out some “Iago Blues”
As our friend Willy Shakes says “If music be the food of love, play on”. Well I’ve just sat down at the feast and I plan to eat my fill. And I’m going to see about getting Ruben to green-light a peg-leg and a hook.
More to come.
Nuts and Bolts —
To the untrained eye, good direction and skilled acting appears effortless. So much so that the story and characters come to the fore and command the attention of the audience. But to tell a story with clarity and precision and the appearance of effortlessness requires skill, experience, attention to detail and a dash of talent.
A case in point. When someone speaks how do you know they are speaking? There are several clues that help us, their mouth is moving, their voice has a sound and is coming from their direction. If it someone familiar to us we can recognize their voice. There are subtler clues like small gestures that accompany speech, a nod of the head, a shrug, an upturned palm, assorted facial tics.
Now if that person is 50 feet away and standing with other people the clues diminish to sound and direction since the visuals are no longer as pronounced. But how about when 10 people are standing 50 away and they are all wearing microphones thus making all their voices come from the same source? This is a practical acting problem that comes up when we play large venues. To solve it we rely on human nature.
Human beings have spent most of our time on earth as food for Apex predators. It wasn’t till we started using tools that took a tenuous place at the top of the food chain. Therefore natural selection favored humans who’s vision is sensitive to motion, like the subtle movements of a big cat preparing to spring, or the trembling of vegetation set off by whatever it is that might be hunting us. We are hard wired to quickly put our eyes on what is moving so that we might determine if it’s a threat and get ready to flee.
So if those 10 people, 50 feet away wearing body mikes are actors playing a play on a big outdoor stage you will notice something subtle and wonderful. One of those players will start to move just a moment before they begin to speak. The other nine will keep very still while that line is being spoken. When the line is finished that actor stops moving and the next speaker makes a movement that slightly precedes the utterance of the next line. And on it goes and your eyes bounce from player to player despite the fact that their voices are all coming from the same black box above the stage and you do not realize that you witnessing a stage technique because you are caught up in the story. That is some of the nuts and bolts of acting on stage. When it’s done right, the audience doesn’t even know it.
While I don’t know for sure, I’m willing to bet that this technique was used by ancient greek actors who played large venues and who also wore masks. Magicians rely on the same human trait to get audiences to look, not at the trick, but away from the mechanics behind the trick.
Players with a lot of experience employ this technique naturally and almost without thinking. At our last rehearsal the younger players got a chance to practice and hone their ability to be still and quiet and to move and speak at the same time.
The reverse of this technique can be very effective as well. And that is to have a lot of movement on stage save for one player who keeps very still. The audience’s eye will scan the chaotic movements, dismiss them, and eventually land on the stillness. In stillness lies potential for movement. In a few seconds every eye in the theatre will be on that one, motionless player, waiting.
More to come.
A Full And Proper Kit —
We have finally rounded out our company. A group of non equity acting students, and graduates have arrived to do the important work of peopling the stage. In Shakespeare this is crucial work because every story has kings and queens who must be bowed to, wars to be fought, feasts to be danced at, street fights to be fought, shouted about, and put down and, of course murders to be done.
My old acting teacher, Philip Meister, used to tell us that the success of any production of Julius Caesar depends on the host of players who listen to and react to Mark Antony’s oration. You can have the best actor in the world speaking that speech, but if the “rabble” is not on the ball, the speech will fail and take the rest of the play with it.
Another thing about the profession of acting is that the most important lessons are taught via mentorship, example and on-the-job training. These days we all go to acting school, but the real “schooling” happens when you get your first assignments and you get to watch the more experienced players ply their craft. For me it was players like Margaret Whitton, Kevin Kline, Jean Stapleton, Peter Riegert, Richard Riehle, Ruth Maleczech and Brian Murray who I sat and watched rehearse while I waited to carry my torch onto and off of the stage. It was a wonderful education.
Now it’s up to the veterans to set the example and pass on the knowledge that the youngsters need in order to have long and fruitful careers of their own
We’re all together now and the stage pictures are starting to come into focus. Henceforth every minute of rehearsal will be a priceless jewel to be jealously guarded.
More to come.
Pedaling About —
I promised myself that I would keep active and in-shape for Othello. Some of that impulse comes from my personal phobia of ever being “the problem”. It’s interesting to note that for me the actor’s nightmare is not the typical “I-realized-I-was-on-stage-and-I-didn’t-know-my-lines” dream. My nightmare is one where I am injured and everyone in the company is waiting for me to heal so that the show can continue, or sometimes, that I am injured and no one believes it and everyone is waiting for me to stop faking so the show can continue.
As a young actor that horrible dream was never more than that…a dream. But now that the “carousel of time” has spun like a top I have to be diligent about staying fit to fend off injury and fatigue. So every morning starts with Yoga, a light breakfast and then I climb on a Citi Bike to commute to and from Rehearsal.
A started this regimen on my first day here and have continued. On my first commute home from rehearsal I was sideswiped by a shiny white Mercedes. I heard him and felt him and instinctively dodged to my right while putting out my left hand to fend him off. My hand found his passenger side rear view mirror and folded it against the car as we both lurched to a stop. I could not see the driver through the tinted windows and considered unfolding the mirror for the driver and then opted to leave it as an act of gentle revenge. I pedaled away unscathed. The very next morning I was chugging down 9th avenue on my way to rehearsal when a black BMW bore down on me as I was weaving through stopped traffic. I saw him coming and knew instantly that we would likely collide so I kicked my right leg up so that his grill might hit the bike instead of my knee, swerved to the left and started looking for a place to fall. The Beemer stopped just inches from me, my pant leg taking some dust off his hood, and my trajectory took me onto the sidewalk and past an elderly gent who witnessed the entire near-collision in slack jawed wonder. I got both feet on the pedals and the bike back on the road and realized I was laughing through the entire event. And through both of these encounters I was biking without a helmet. The production stage manager was not pleased when he learned of this practice and I was encouraged to get a some headgear for my daily rides. A castmate also offered this advice, “you might think you look funny in a helmet, but you’ll look funnier in a diaper”.
Paragon sporting goods is only a couple of blocks from the rehearsal hall and I stopped in. A very intense looking woman with jet black hair, and many tattoos on both her veiny, muscled arms greeted me, commended me on my decision to purchase a “brain bucket” and even suggested a particular brand and model. I was on the street 5 minutes later wearing my new helmet. The ride home was uneventful save for one amusing moment. I was cruising west on 15th street following behind another Citi Biker, a young man with long hair that was blowing in the breeze. He was taking up a lot of the road and forcing cars behind him to slow for him. A van along side me was crawling to that bikers pace and the woman driving was grousing loudly enough for me to hear her through the open passenger window. “…he’s not even wearing a helmet! What an asshole!”
And the upshot of all this pedaling? Last week the costume shop supervisor was in to take Desdemona’s measurements and spotted me during a break. She smiled, ambled over and greeted me with “Hey you look smaller since the last time you were here. We’re going to have to take your measurements again!”
Music to my ears.
When I was 13 years old I started reading the works of Shakespeare. The stories of Kings and Fools and Faeries and madmen and knights and thieves and banished dukes and motherless daughters captured me, enthralled me, took me prisoner. And I was fascinated with Shakespearean actors as well, especially the “Big Three” Olivier, Richardson and Gielgud.
I read all the books and looked at all the pictures. I became a student of a woman who had acted with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at Ashland. I learned about scansion and how to analyze Shakespeare texts. All I wanted was to be a Shakespearean actor, a professional. In my imagination I would be working in London, playing with the RSC. But somehow I knew that would never happen. You have to be a Brit to play Shakespeare on stage in London.
Then I learned about Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival. I found out about the Delacorte Theatre, and how the first play performed there was Merchant of Venice with the great movie star George C. Scott playing Shylock. Up to that time I only knew George C. Scott from movies like Patton and The Hustler. More research led me to learning how actors in New York did film for money and theatre for artistic fulfilment. I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to live my life like that.
I became an actor. I studied in New York to be a classical actor. I eventually went to work for Mr. Papp. I even got to do Shakespeare in Central Park. In the movie Patton, George C. Scott uttered the following line:
I am going to be allowed to fulfil my destiny! His will be done.
All I ever wanted to be is an actor, not a movie star, not a director, not even a leading player. My ultimate goal has always and ever been to be a player on a stage, somewhere, anywhere, hopefully New York, speaking lines of Shakespeare for an audience and hoisting a glass to my colleagues in the wee hours after the curtain comes down.
I got there, I made it. Then I lost it. The moment slipped away and I found myself in front of a camera in and around Los Angeles, supporting a family, raising a son, and telling stories to an audience once removed. Life took a lot of turns since then and now, I’m back.
I am, once again, a player in a company, telling Shakespeare stories to an audience who is eager to hear, to learn, to enjoy. I won’t let my destiny slip away from me again. I won’t be rich. I won’t be famous. But I will be happy and fulfilled every time I step on stage, in New York, or LA, or Hartford, or Santa Cruz, or Pasadena, Sierra Madre.
Be happy for me all my friends. I’m fulfilling my destiny, and I still have time to enjoy it.
We finished our first week of rehearsals for Othello today. Our production stage manager treated us to wine and gluten free chocolate cake. We toasted our company and laughed as our director told stories about rehearals and performances and colleagues gone by.
More to come.