I have recently decided to take on a theater project with what little free time I have. Among my many other interests, I have an MFA in theater and was a theater junkie for 15 years before coming to the social media and online community world 10 years ago; so this amounts to rekindling an affair with an old flame.
Since the process of making theater is as mysterious to some people as is the building of strong online communities, some folks have asked me to blog my experience. I will be playing the role of Jerry in "Squabbles" at the Centerstage theater in San Jose, opening in late November.
Here's a quick rundown of my actor process on this show so far...
1. Audtioning. Auditions are a first date--you're nervous, and you spend hours preparing and practicing saying the right things and fret over the right thing to wear. You try to be yourself, make a good impression and hope that no matter what you do, she'll like you enough to call you again.
Most actors hate auditions. You feel judged.
Me? I love 'em. If I don't have an acting job, I look at auditions as a brief opportunity to go play. My attitude towards auditioning is probably what my attitude towards dating was in my early 20's--I go have some fun and then forget about it.
2. Callbacks. She likes you! No matter what stupid things you did or said, she wants to see you again. Now it's time to really perform and show her how impressive you can be.
The actual callback is kind of like the first time you have sex as a teenager--in your mind, it's perfect, but in reality it's over too quickly and you're not sure of how good you were. Time to wait some more and hope you get another call.
3. The Offer. OMG...she likes you! She REALLY likes you! Uh oh...you were just out for some fun....some harmless flirting and now...now...now you're IN A RELATIONSHIP!
It's exciting, thrilling and scary all at the same time--you've just committed all of your free time to this person (the director) that you barely know! The joy of receiving the call "I'd like to offer you the role" is immediately followed by "oh my god, I hope I can measure up. What was it that they liked about me anyway?"
4. The First Reading of the Script. You run a hot bath... light some scented candles...pour a glass of wine...and put some soft music on--it's time for your first full reading of the script. Like your first sex act, you're almost always alone when it happens.
If Callbacks are like the first time, your first reading of the script is like the first time you understand what it is to make love--it's a very tender, special and magical act.
I always pick a quiet space where I can be alone for a first read, but you could do your first read of script on a crowded subway, in an airport, a noisy bar or a quiet room--it doesn't matter. When you're doing your first read, the ONLY thing you can focus on is the script and you shut out all other distractions.
The first read is holy. It forms the basis of your relationship with the play forever.
5. The first rehearsal. These are always a little awkward. You're meeting your fellow cast members for the first time, some of whom you may have worked with before and some you haven't.
This is my first production that I've done in San Jose, so I know NOBODY, which makes me feel like the new kid in school. Everyone is friendly, of course, and the theater is one of the few places where trust is assumed--theater folks don't take long to get to know each other.
First rehearsals are the same no matter what play you do or where you do it. The director talks a little bit about the play, says how talented this group of people is, you walk the stage and then you sit and read the full script as a company from start to finish.
You try not to 'act' in this reading--it's really just to get a sense of the ebb and flow of the play, listen to everyone's voices and put everything that happens in the play into a context and getting the core relationships down between all of the characters.
The reason you don't 'act' at this point, is that you're still open up for possibilities. The first few weeks of rehearsals are all about 'what ifs' and discovery.
It's the best part of the process, in my opinion.
And that brings me up to where I am in the process now--I've auditioned, gotten the role and have had the first rehearsal. The real fun...and work...begins now.
First week of rehearsals is completed, and boy do I have a lot of rust!
The first week of rehearsals for any show is almost always the same. You read the script, you talk about a few core character choices and generally, you get on your feet and block the play. If you're working on Shakespeare, this routine varies a bit--you spend the first week going thru the script quite carefully and discuss the words to make sure everyone understands what every word means.
'Blocking' is the process by which you make stage pictures. Who stands where and when. It's a part mechanical, part organic process. Sometimes the director has the entire play blocked out in his or her mind and gives you the blocking. Sometimes they say "go where you feel like going and follow your impulses." And sometimes it's a combination of the two.
There are pros and cons of each method. When the director gives you the blocking, it can mean that they've thought a great deal about how to tell the story of the play visually. And it saves time in rehearsal. The job of the actor is to then find the justification (or 'motivation') for the movements.
In the hands of a great director, this is very good. It's very freeing, and most directors of this type will allow you to change the blocking to something more organic after trying it out for a few times.
It can also be the sign of a manipulative director who treats actors like they are live puppets, and that's no good. The problem is that you won't know the difference until 4 weeks into rehearsal when it's too late to do anything about it besides suffer and look forward to the end of the run.
The second option--finding the blocking on your own--is the most time consuming. It can be very instructive--you might have cast mates with an impeccable sense of movement and timing to play off of...or you might wind up with people who over-analyze everything and you are constantly subject to their 37 thoughts on what they could do at any given moment.
Multiply that by 4-10 actors in a play and you can spend a LOT of time talking, and not very much time doing. Not that talking isn't valuable, but almost every play I've ever been in has not had enough time allotted to adequately rehearse, so rehearsal time is *precious*.
The middle way is the most common. The director has an idea of what she wants to see AND is smart enough to honor the actor's contribution. There *might* be a perfectly good reason why I'm playing an intimate moment with someone who is 12 feet away from me, and it's up to me to find it.
But it's also up to me to contribute that while this picture might look pretty from the audience, I'm disconnected from my fellow actor in an intimate moment and therefore it's not going to *feel* intimate.
Actors convey feelings, so when you hear an actor say something like "what's my motivation", it's because they are trying to summon up the right feeling.
Our director likes to sketch in the rough blocking and then since its a comedy, leave some of the creativity to us. So I might have to go from my piano in the living room into the kitchen and stay in the kitchen for a couple of pages of dialogue. It's up to ME though, to figure out what I'm doing in the kitchen and how I do it.
We call those types of things 'bits'. So the blocking might be "cross to the kitchen on this line, stay there until that line, and come up with some bit while you're in the kitchen that isn't too distracting."
It's boring if I'm just standing there doing nothing (unless I'm part of the conversation), but at the same time, I don't want to 'upstage' the other actors by doing something that takes the audience attention away from where it should be.
It's a fine line. You need to be *interesting* because you're on stage and someone is ALWAYS looking at you, but you can't be SO interesting that you draw attention away from what is going on in the play.
Anyway...we got the blocking done for all of the scenes that I am in, which is roughly half the play. Now comes the laborious part--memorizing lines. It's a truism that an actor cannot really play and really explore the role until s/he is 'off book'. (has their lines memorized)
Until you've got everything memorized, you're really going thru the motions, so most actors like to have a detailed rehearsal schedule so they can memorize certain scenes in time for rehearsal.
Everyone ALWAYS asks "how do you memorize all the lines?". I'm afraid I don't really have a great answer for it--there are several different methods different actors use and you have to do what works for you.
Some people memorize both their lines and their scene partner's lines. Some people tape all their lines and cue lines and talk along with the tape. Some people play word association games.
In my younger days, I had a near-photographic memory and could visualize the words as they were printed on the page, and memorizing was always easy. As I've gotten older (and this is a problem common with actors as they age), it becomes more difficult to memorize things word-perfect, exactly as they are written.
Sheer repetition works for me, developing muscle memory in the lips and the tongue. If you say something exactly the same way several hundred (or thousand) times, the mouth remembers the order of the words and how they were shaped without having to think about what you're saying.
There are monologues that I memorized years ago that I can't write out, but if I start to speak them, it will suddenly just flow. It's not brain memory, it's muscle memory.
So now I'm in that boring phase of rehearsal where I know where I'm supposed to go and stand, and I'm repeating my lines (I take 1-2 hours per day right now, although I could use MORE time) until they become reflective.
It's important NOT to memorize your lines with inflection--you want to form the words as neutrally as possible and not 'practice' how you are going to say them. You want to *discover* the words every night--the new inflections, nuances, and meanings, because most of us don't practice speeches in our every day conversation.
The art of the stage is to mirror life, so the words must flow as if you are thinking them up for the very first time....as if the conversations you are having on stage have never happened before. So you want the words to flow...
....but the feeling behind them to be created brand new every night. You can't do that if you practice inflections--the words will always come out the same. If you learn the words neutrally, then you can be more 'in the moment' with your scene partners in performance and that adds an edge of excitement and makes for more interesting viewing.
First week of rehearsals is also like the first week of school. You meet everyone and start to get a sense of how you are going to play with each other. Generally, I form quick relationships and without being a psycho about it, I try to have the relationship with the actor that I have with their character.
In this show, my main relationships are with my wife, my mother and my father-in-law. So even though we barely know each other right now, when we're on breaks, I'll go sit with Vera (who plays my wife) so we establish a bond of always being around each other, so we develop that casual connection with an easy physicality.
When I'm with Marie, my mother in the show, we talk a lot about our past experiences so we have a shared history. When I chat with Ray, my father-in-law, we're a little more superficial and casual because that's our relationship in the play.
Now, like I said, I don't go psycho over this, and not every actor does it this way. And for some, it's not even necessary--they can just act however the script says they should act towards the other characters. I don't have to fall in love with a leading lady if I'm doing that kind of show...but for me, at least, I have to find *something* about her to fall in love with. There are some emotions you just can't fake.
For me, though, I find that I can have many different kinds of relationships with people and thru the course of rehearsal, we will all generally get to know each other pretty well. But you can usually spot when 'chemistry' exists between people on stage or not and as an audience member, you would say "I didn't believe that they were really married" or something like that.
Everyone has boundaries, of course, but if Vera and I are supposed to be married, then there is a way that she would react to a welcome kiss, or a way you sit when you're on a couch together that helps tell the story of that relationship.
I remember playing John Proctor in The Crucible a few years ago, with an actress that I couldn't connect with who was playing my wife. It was very difficult in rehearsals--she had a very jealous boyfriend and while she was very good at playing the emotionally cold and distant scenes with me, she never felt comfortable being vulnerable and intimate with me on stage.
Many of my fellow cast members had worked several times with me before and could all see me trying to get close to her, and encouraged her that it was safe and to open herself up too, but her relationship with her boyfriend was affecting her work--she could never make the distinction that what we did in the rehearsal hall and on stage STAYS in the rehearsal hall and on stage...and the production suffered for it.
(for the record, in a 20+ years of being involved in theater, I have had an affair with a leading lady twice, and both times when I was in my early 20's and still in school. I learned the lesson early that carrying the relationship too far is bad both for the people involved and the production.)
It's pretty obvious to an audience when one person in a scene is really going for it, and the other is faking it. In the end, several of the cast members got upset with her for shutting down--there were some *electric* moments we had during rehearsals, but she wasn't a good enough actress to turn it on and off like a light switch, and wasn't comfortable enough living in the relationship during rehearsal hours.
So in the end, the big poignant moment at the end of the play--the denoument--was lost because we had never established the feeling of intimacy. The audience didn't care about the sacrifice that was made for love, because they never felt that we were IN love. Two and a half hours worth of work by 15 people on stage failed to have the impact that it could have, because one person (the boyfriend) wasn't comfortable with intimacy.
I'm happy to report that we don't have any such barriers with this cast. My stage wife is comfortable being physical and treating me the way she treats her real-life fiance, and my stage mom and I are bonding. It helps that we're both new to this acting company and the director, so we feel a little bit like outsiders and seek each other for support.
Just like the characters in the play.
Trust me, there is plenty of time to develop normal, healthy relationships with everyone in the play, but when you're thrown together in an unnatural situation for a short period of time and MUST produce something that will be seen by an audience, you use everything you can.
We're into our third week of rehearsals and tonight was the first night where I started to feel comfortable and a little freer to play. It was a good night.
Rehearsals are usually *energizing*--I get an adrenaline rush from working/playing/creating for three hours, but until tonight, I've been mostly coming home from rehearsals tired. It's been awhile since I've had to work an 8-10 hour day and then turn around and have the energy to give to a 3-4 hour rehearsal. But I've been getting on the elliptical in the mornings for the past 2 weeks, and gaining some stamina.
We've now blocked the entire play and run thru it enough times so I don't have to think as much about where I'm supposed to be at any given time on stage. I've been doing some homework on the script and the character is coming into better focus. Still very fuzzy, but clearer.
I picked this show to audition for as my first play in San Jose for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it's a comedy. In my mind, a comedy is in some ways easier for me to perform in than a drama, although the risks are higher.
If you're in a drama and you don't move people, well, people generally get the point of the play and the story can help carry the day.
If you're in a comedy though, and you're not very funny...well...that's just painful for actor and audience alike. Comedy requires a very delicate sense of timing, pitch and rhythm to work, AND...
...as an actor you can also get by more on 'technique' in a comedy than in a drama. You don't have to 'feel' a double-take or a physical bit like a spit take. You just need to know how to set a joke up, maintain energy and tension and then have a sense of timing to deliver.
Don't get me wrong--comedy is difficult to master. There is a reason why you generally see great comedic actors or great dramatic actors, but rarely find actors who can do both. An actor like Jim Carrey is a very rare breed--someone who can do outrageous slapstick comedy well AND handle dramatic roles with sensitivity and get you to feel great empathy for him.
Meryl Streep is another, of course. She's just brilliant in whatever she does.
This is a challenging play for me because my character is generally the 'straight' man--he doesn't have a lot of funny stuff given to him in the script--he's the one who sets up jokes for others or helps the plot along. So it's up to the actor playing the role (me) to fill in things that may or may not be in the script to create an interesting, three-dimensional character on stage.
Jerry is also described as a nice, affable sort of fellow--and I tend to play more intense, darker roles and have always struggled some with 'nice guy' roles. So this role asks me to stretch some in the type of role that I normally play, but at the same time, gives me something familiar to fall back on by playing a comedy.
I still have lots of drudge work to do---I need to give the character a real personal history and make choices about things like his relationship to space, time and movement. And I have to learn to play piano well enough to sound like a professional jingle writer. (my profession in the play)...and I need to learn lines.
I really can't do anything physical though until I've learned my lines and I don't have to carry my script around. But all this is feeling less like work and more like play.
You've got to do the work to *earn* the right to play. But once you've done the work...you get to pay hard. And for me...THAT'S the fun part. I've been starting slow with this play--slower than what I usually do--but I can feel myself getting back into the groove. I'm starting to feel like I'm visiting with an old friend that I haven't seen in awhile.
I got reminded of a lesson tonight in rehearsal--not every actor likes chaos.
Let me explain--every actor has his or her own process for how they develop their character. While there are many different 'methods' for an actor to take, there are two essential paths. An actor either carefully discovers and plans each move, emotion and reaction based on a detailed study of the script and delivers a consistent performance nightly; or they play more 'in the moment' where they have an outline of what the character will do, but react slightly differently to impulses and the genuine reactions they get from their scene partners every time they play.
I'm the second type--I like a little chaos and unpredictability on stage. It forces one to stay alert and on your toes and adds to the already heightened awareness one has on stage. Being on stage under white hot lights is kind of like walking on a high wire--and I like to up the stakes by being on the high wire, not only without a net, but also with a vat of boiling oil under the wire for good measure.
I discovered tonight, somewhat awkwardly, that my wife in the play is the first type, and it was a good reminder that rehearsals are a great place to get that kind of information, so you understand how to play with each other.
(which makes theater rehearsals akin to going to kindergarten, doesn't it? learning how to play with others?)
The moment itself was pretty funny at first and had everyone laughing...except my scene partner. There's a moment where she thinks she's pregnant but won't 'fess up to it, and I'm trying to get the information out of her, to no avail.
I try different tactics during the scene and since it's a comedy, the situation calls for me to try something a little more ridiculous (or desperate) with each successive attempt. So tonight, as a complete impulse, my last-ditch attempt to ascertain whether she is pregnant was to tap on her belly like I was checking a watermelon for ripeness. Totally impulsive in a little moment of madness.
The cast cracked up. The director cracked up. My scene partner swatted my hand away and pulled away in a huff, HIGHLY OFFENDED that I would so such a thing. A *perfect* in-character reaction, and the scene really came alive at that moment and gave me an entirely new path to take to try and get her to tell me if she was pregnant or not.
It was much fun, the kind of theater play that I really enjoy as an actor, and love to see as an audience.
After we finished the scene tho, my partner said very coldly, "please let me know next time you're going to do something like that." Very direct and no nonsense. I really HAD offended her.
It was a good reminder--in everything we do, we're in a constant negotiation on the rules of conduct, and that what works for me, might not work for you and if we are going to work (or play) with each other *successfully*, we need to communicate how we work, honor each other's process and come to some type of agreement.
There's no room for prima donnas. We're in this together, so I can't just keep pushing her buttons and doing crazy stuff in rehearsal all the time. I mean, I've got to work and play with this woman for the next 6 weeks, you know what I mean?
My scene partner was in no way 'wrong' or putting any kind of damper on my process--she was simply letting me know how she works and what she needs to be successful. It's not a matter of "my way is better than yours" or even "this is how I have to do my work."
It's all about how *we* work together. And not everyone likes chaos. The simple question "hey, can I try something new tonight and see how it goes?" on my part would have made the process a lot better for both of us.
The next time we ran the scene, I managed to find the impulse again, she knew it was coming and could instantly map her initial reaction and recreate it. And it was just as funny the second time.
The lesson, of course, is that sometimes, you just have to give up a little bit of yourself in order to find a greater success. And communication really doesn't have to be all that difficult with some simple politeness and good manners.
Well...that and... a little chaos can be inspirational even for those who don't like it.
Egads, it's been awhile since my last entry. I've been busy in rehearsals, and even though I'm always wide awake, full of energy and have lots to blog about after each rehearsal, I've really had to resist the urge.
My mom always said "if you can't say something nice about someone, then don't say anything at all." So I've had to bite my tongue (fingernails?) and not comment on the rehearsal process and my show.
It hasn't been going well. In fact, this is a train wreck that I can see coming in slow motion and unfortunately, I can't get off the train.
There's just too many things wrong with this show, and I don't want to seem like a whiner, but we open on Friday and if I don't vent now, I'll carry the poison around and it won't be helpful.
I've been around the theater a long time and have worked with all types of actors and directors, and I suppose if you stick around long enough, you eventually experience everything at least once.
Well, I've got a brand new theater experience out of this show.
I've never been ashamed of a show I've been in. Never felt so strongly that I DON'T want people to come see it, least of all see ME in it. Until now.
I'd prefer that no one come see this show. It's bad. Worse than I could possibly imagine a show could be....and it's not even laughably bad--it's *painfully* bad.
The lead actor doesn't know his lines, even though he's in 80% of the show. Doesn't know most of his cue lines, so you can't get any sense of timing because you never know if you're going to get your cue or not.
It's an ensemble show and a comedy, which means timing is EVERYTHING. A delay of a second or two in delivery is the difference between laughter or boredom. Cohesiveness is everything.
Old vaudeville performers like Bert Lahr would practice the same routine for years to get the split-second timing down necessary to make even the most mundane, corny jokes hilariously funny.
We have no cohesion. No trust. No chemistry. No timing.
The actress who plays my wife in the show spends most of her time in rehearsal texting when she's not on stage, or on her phone talking. She acts in a vacuum--doesn't matter what you do, she gives the exact same prepared response. Which is often good, mind you (she's very believable in the role and has a real talent for this type of script), but has no real connection with anyone on stage. Gets upset if you try something new or deliver a line with a different inflection than the night before.
The play is badly directed or not directed at all. Notes are comprised of "you said this line really well" or "louder, please" or "that's not working, can you do something else?". There hasn't been any moment-to-moment work in the play, breaking things down beat-by-beat, discussion of intentions, tactics or character.
I'm ineffective in the role (not sparing myself here either) and ineffective at helping make things better. Any creativity I've had has been sucked out long ago and left the building--no one plays along or reacts any differently to anything I might try. I go ridiculous and the reactions are the same. I go subtle and get the same reactions. I change tactics completely in a scene and nothing happens.
I could come on naked or speak in tongues and no one would react any differently.
Yet most of my cast mates will tell me after rehearsal that they really love watching me work and think I'm talented.
The director says "that was interesting", but doesn't give any clue as to good, appropriate, over the top, not enough or comment to the other actors in terms of actually connecting on stage. We're all in our own little world.
And I'm making mistakes that I don't normally make because MY concentration wanes. Once the ball starts being dropped by others, it gets dropped frequently, and I'm as guilty as anyone else.
I've tried talking with the actors individually about what we can do to improve. Tried talking with the director and asking for guidance, and suggesting things we might do to become a tighter ensemble. Tried getting the cast together as a group outside of rehearsals to at least run lines and pick up the cues...tried getting us together for drinks to vent/bond/connect/inhabit the same world.
Theater...like any other workplace...is all about the *team*. If one person fails, we ALL fail. One person out of sync will take everyone else out too--we are all interdependent.
I really can't wait for this play to be over, and I really don't want anyone to come see it, and I've NEVER felt that about a show before. Ever. I feel it is an insult to charge admission for this show.
I've had excellent training and mentors, and one thing that sticks in my mind right now is the notion of 'the Actor's Shame.'
The concept is that deep down inside, all actors feel a sense of shame about what we do--that we're never good enough, talented enough, believable enough, artistic enough...that even though we deliberately seek a spotlight to perform under, that we hold something of ourselves back in shame because we feel that WE aren't beautiful enough or worthy to looked at so closely.
The cure for this shame, according to my mentor, is to treat each performance with *love*...and all of the innocence we possessed when we were 5 years old making Valentines Day cards for our mom.
We didn't care how good the card was, if it was artistic enough, or beautiful enough--we made the card with love and gave it with love...and no matter how crappy the card may have actually been...it was received with love.
And *treasured* because of the love with which it was given.
So I'm struggling right now to find that love, because everything I see around me is so freakin BAD, that I am ashamed to be associated with it.
This is easily the WORST theatrical experience I have had (for so many reasons) in more than 20 years of making theater. Now, I normally keep a sense of humor about EVERYTHING, but I can't even find the humor in "this is sooooooo bad, it's funny."
Maybe that will come. For now...it's just painful. And so very disappointing. I need to find the love...and the innocence...and give this gift of a performance as if I were 5 years old and didn't care whether it was any good or not.
Right now...I care too much...and this show is not living up to my expectations or standards. For the first time ever, I am ashamed to be associated with a production.
Where is Alan Smithee when you need him?
(For those who don't know--Alan Smithee is the fictious name that Hollywood directors would list in the credits when they were associated with a film that they weren't particularly proud of--the type of film that if someone knew you directed or associated with, you wouldn't work for quite some time, if ever again.)
But alas, there are no Alan Smithees for actors, and it's my face the audience will see.
Oh well. I've got 3 days to somehow make it better.
There's probably a zen koan somewhere that goes to the effect of "in order to fill a vessel, you must empty it first."
What that means, of course, is that you can't put more stuff into a vessel that's already full. If I'm full of negative feelings about something, I don't have any room for goodness to live.
Yesterday's rehearsal blog entry was the beginning of emptying the vessel. I've got a lot of pent-up feelings on how the entire rehearsal process has been going, and emptying myself of some of those thoughts yesterday helped me see things with a new perspective today.
I think it was Ghandi that said "be the change in the world that you want to see." (I'm sure someone will Google that and discover that it was someone else, but it's late, I'm tired, and it's the words that count, not who said it first)
By emptying myself of some of the frustrations and fears of how the play is going, I'm better able to see how I can change *myself* in this show. And even if I only make it better for myself, that's a start.
It's all I can really do, is influence myself.
I was able to approach rehearsal tonight with a better, more playful state of mind. I did some extra homework on the script, to ensure that *I* won't be someone dropping the ball, regardless of what happens around me.
If a ball drops, then I pick it up and do what you're supposed to do with a ball--play with it. With someone else. (did you ever notice that ball sports almost always require someone else to play with you?)
We cut almost 20 minutes off the running time of the show, which is A LOT in one night. I played lighter, quicker...less burdened. We all did. We still have a ways to go (probably another 15 minutes of running time), but we moved out of the 'painfully bad' category.
The show can only get better from here.
So the lesson learned...be it a business problem, an artistic discovery or a personal relationship--one must get rid of the negative before the positive has room to breathe.
I still need to continue letting go of my expectations and be that 5 year old just having fun playing make-believe. I have a less public process for doing that than this blog, but it's work I know how to do.
I'm still emptying the vessel...but there is now more room for goodness to come in.
Okay, so it's not a miracle on the order of say, turning water into wine, but apparently we did manage make silk out of a sows ear with our play.
The combination of fear, positive energy from the audience, sheer repetition and a little magic/gift from the theater gods led us to a couple of pretty good shows this weekend.
As bad as we were on Wednesday and Thursday were, I wouldn't have thought it possible for us to have the kind of show we did on Friday. The audience was *electric*--filled mostly with actors, friends, family and ardent supporters of the Center Stage theater. Definitely lots of love in the air, and as an actor, you can really feel a connection with an audience (or not), ESPECIALLY with a comedy.
This was definitely a case where the performers were helped out by the audience, although, to our credit, as a cast we were a lot tighter with our cues so the show really 'popped' and came to life.
Sarah thought the show was very funny and really didn't understand why I had such reservations about the show--she describes herself as a tough audience, especially with comedies, and reports that she laughed out loud several times. I'll have her write a review for this blog to give y'all a relatively impartial review of the show.
Our second show was a typical second night show. BTW--here's a tip if you're not a regular theater patron: never see the second performance of a show. Inevitably, the energy level of the cast is a little low and the performance usually suffers a bit.
Almost every show opens with the final two weeks being a very hectic series of dress rehearsals, moving from the rehearsal hall to the actual set, tech rehearsals, previews and finally, Opening Night.
It's a mad dash to the finish line (Opening Night), even though it's really the *start* of the run. There's a lot of adrenaline on Opening Night, and there is usually something of a let-down for the second show. Add in that the second night audience is usually a 'regular' audience (ie: not stocked with family, friends and other well-wishers), so you have work a little harder to earn their energy.
Every audience wants you to do well--after all, they paid good money for a ticket, so they are going to give the performers the benefit of the doubt. But the second night audience is more judgmental than the Opening Night one, and for a comedy, they will laugh in different places and generally not be as enthusiastic as the first night crowd.
For the performers, this alters your sense of timing. It's natural (although a very bad habit to be avoided) to expect to get a laugh that you got on a particular line last night. So you build in a little pause after the 'funny' line--only you don't get the laugh.
So then, the actor panics a little, thinking "oh no, they laughed at this LAST night, why aren't they laughing tonight?" And then doubt creeps in...the actor starts to press to be funny...and of course...nothing is quite as UNfunny as someone TRYING to be funny...
...and thus starts a downward spiral. The actor tries to be funny, and the audience is less likely to find him(her) so.
And of course, the audience will then find some things funny on the second night that the Opening Night crowd didn't, which further alters the actor's timing.
The remedy for the actor, of course, is to always play 'in the moment', play their character's objectives in the scene, not expect laughs at any time, but be sensitive enough to the connection with the audience to adjust accordingly as needed.
In the professional theater world, this is less of an issue. Folks have more skills. In the amateur theater (such as this play), it's more of a problem.
Still, our second show went well. Not as spectacularly well as Opening, but the response from the audience was positive, there were lots of heartfelt laughs and folks were genuinely appreciative of the show.
As an actor...especially in a comedy....that's all you can ask for. I just want folks to laugh, have a good time and feel like going to the theater was worth the effort and that they would come back again.
And now...it's time for some well-deserved time off. I've been ill for the past 3 days with a flu or cold, and it's taken every bit of energy I've had to focus on the show. It's time to veg out for a few days, enjoy Thanksgiving and come back to the show next week.
Thanks to everyone who came to the show and laughed!
"Squabbles" San Jose Center Stage Theater Plays: Nov. 28,29,30, Dec. 4,5,6 Tickets: $15, $12 Students/Seniors
There is a Pay What You Can performance on Dec. 4.
I'll post links to any reviews that I come across, and have asked Sarah to write one for this blog. Now it's time to watch some football!
Sometimes, it's something to spend. Other times, it's something to kill. Having lots of time can get you into trouble, or could be just the thing you needed. Not having enough time can precipitate a disaster or could be the impetus for amazing acts of creativity.
Looking back over some of my entries regarding the show that I'm doing, I see that in just a scant two week period of time, my attitude has gone from one of embarassment of my association with the show to a calm acceptance of "it is what it is" to pride in how far we've come.
We're not ready for Broadway by any stretch of the imagination, but the show has really grown after just 5 performances. Having an audience has *really* played a big role in the development (read: improvement) of the show. They give us some energy to play off of, and inform us where some of the laughs are, and even in the places where they DON'T laugh, they give us good information to why something isn't working.
There have been a few reviews posted online that hint at the relationships between characters in the play, and these have really grown over time.
We're starting to gain more trust in each other on stage, and that really shows in our timing. We're able to allow each other 'moments', where we know that a pause is done on purpose and not because the actor is searching for the line. We've got more confidence in each other and in the audience to help us out.
We don't have to push so much--we can *allow* things to happen and know that the audience will follow along.
Which brings me around the concept of time...and social networking. (you knew I was going to get around to talking about work/social networking at some point in time, didn't you?)
Those of us who spend a lot of time online inevitably value SPEED and often need IMMEDIATE reaction to events. In my last blog entry, I wrote about the Motrin Mayhem, and one response to that post commented that some folks felt that Motrin didn't respond quickly enough to the unhappy masses.
Well, by my counting, Motrin responded within 72 hours of hearing of the controversy, and I think that's a pretty quick turnaround from first hearing of a problem to resolution.
Those of us who live online sort of forget that MOST of the population doesn't live the way that we do. We forget that not every email needs to be answered RIGHT NOW, every online argument doesn't have to be resolved tonight and that a bunch of people talking about something doesn't mean that something needs to be DONE.
Talk is healthy, disagreement is okay, and sometimes, giving something *time* to play itself out is a better choice than taking immediate action.
Wisdom is knowing when to take action, and when non-action is the best course of action.
I fear that in our 24/7, everybody-is-wired world, we are starting to miss out on that point, and we frequently OVERREACT over every little thing. We don't give things to grow...or die...of their own accord. We speed up the process and in doing so, we might be missing something very valuable in the process.
In my case, if I gave in to my *immediate* feelings a few weeks ago, I would have walked away from the show, forever staining my reputation as an actor in this area, and not only wasted 2 months worth of effort I already put into it, but I would have lost out on what has turned out to be a success story of overcoming long odds.
In the process, I would have hurt an organization that lives on the edge of financial success and caused them harm. And more importantly, I wouldn't have been able to participate sharing the gift of laughter with our audiences over the past two weeks.
The point is, the online world--and we are conditioning ourselves to move at internet speed in all facets of our lives--demands immediate reaction, and immediate reaction isn't always the best reaction.
What do you think?
Are we moving too fast? When should we move quickly...and when should we just slow down and let nature take its course?
I don't totally buy that, and would to have to choose the phrase came about because, well, let's face it, a rat DOES have a pretty small butt. So if you're going to give a metaphorical comparison about how little you care about something, a rat's ass is very tiny indeed.
I've never measured one, but I'd have to guess that it is less than 2 mm wide, which is pretty small. (note: further web research indicates that a rat's anus is indeed 1-2 mm in diameter. isn't it amazing that there are people who get paid to study such things?)
Fascinating stuff, to be sure, but I mention it in context...here's something I DO give rat's ass about. Or to put it into a metaphorical context, I care a whales intestine about this. (fyi--intestines in humans are roughly 2 times the length of said human's height. In a whale, the intestines are typically 5-6 times the length of the whale. in other words, to care a whales intestines means to care a LOT).
Our show tonight was very special...it was a pay-what-you-can performance, which often draws a lot of homeless people to the theater, or unemployed folks who don't have any money to spend. These are always my favorite performances, because these are people who cannot afford to go the theater, but there is a deep-seated *need* inside them to come be part of the experience. It's a chance for folks without money to be entertained, connect and to escape for just a little while.
The cast was brilliant tonight. The audience was energetic, enthusiastic and had a great time, and in turn, we were at our best too. Easily our best performance as a cast, and even though we've had appreciative audiences so far, tonight was by far the best house we had. It was a real high to play tonight.
And then it all came crashing down. Hard.
After the show, I got caught by several audience members who were congratulatory and wanted to talk about the play and share how much fun they had. I'm normally on my way home within 15 minutes after curtain, but tonight, I was there for almost 45 minutes chatting with audience. When I finally did go outside though, my fun night came to a grinding halt.
A middle-aged woman in well-worn clothes was sitting on the cement sidewalk outside the theater in a light jacket on a very cold night, sobbing and wailing. She had the kind of weathered face that you could tell made her look a lot older than her actual age.
She sat on the ground repeating over and over..."why did they take my stuff? Why did they take my stuff? WHY DID THEY TAKE MY STUFF?"
I didn't know who this woman was. But she looked me right in the eye, bawling, and begged me to answer "why did they take my stuff?"
Talk about a downer. My heart took a hit like a rock flying up and putting a chip in a windshield.
Turns out, she was one of our audience tonight. A homeless woman. She lives in her car and at some point during the show, someone broke into her car and took a few shopping bags that were in there.
Those shopping bags contained all of her clothes...a thrift-store wardrobe to be sure, but all she had. Her official documents. Some makeup. A few trinkets that are worthless to most folks, but priceless to her. A few pictures. A little jewelry box a dead friend had given her. A cell phone charger. Remnants of her life before she hit hard times and became homeless.
Nearly everything that was important to her was in those two bags.
The last vestiges of who she is. Her past. Her life. All she has left.
To a person who has nothing and is living out of her car, a $30 phone charger is vital. The phone is her lifeline, that charger is what keeps her able to function.
I can't get her cries out of my head.
"WHY DID THEY TAKE MY STUFF?"
I spent an hour or so looking thru dumpsters, in the yards around the theater, even checking out trash cans that line the streets waiting for morning pickup, hoping someone took the bags, rifled thru them, didn't see anything of value and then threw the bags in the nearest trash bin.
One kind soul took her home so she had a place to stay. Tonight. Because her blankets were gone too, and it's cold outside--you can't sleep in a metal car in the cold without blankets. But her warm clothes were in the bags.
She was in her nicest clothes to go to the theater tonight. Not her warm clothes. Her nicest...her fanciest...because she was going to the theater.
I feel responsible. She was in the theater tonight to see ME. To get some respite, some laughs, to find a bit of refuge from her harsh life. Instead, her life has become even worse.
She came to what she thought was a haven. An escape. A safe place.
If her car wasn't in this place at this time...and she wasn't away from it when she normally would have been inside...
...she wouldn't have lost everything that is important to her.
You really have to hear what that sounds like coming from another person if you haven't. The rawness. It's primal. To have little...and then to have your soul ripped out and be left with NOTHING.
WHY DID THEY TAKE MY STUFF?
So I'm starting a collection at the theater and among my friends. I can't get her jewelry box back, but we live in a land of wealth, and while I can't make her whole again, a couple hundred dollars will allow her to get some new clothes, blankets, replace the makeup, get her a charger and maybe restore some faith in her, that while maybe *some* humans are so crass as to steal from someone who has nothing...
...there are also people who care enough to reach out and help someone in a real time of need. Even if that person is a total stranger.
If you care to donate, contact me (Mark Williams) at my email address on Pay Palemail@example.com. Send money. I'll collect money in my account for her.
Heck you can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject line DONATION, and tell me that you want to donate a certain amount, and we'll figure out how to actually get the money from you and into her hands. I'll make sure she gets some help immediately, though.
I'm starting the fund with $100, and hope to raise another $200 or so by Saturday night when we close. Hey, more would be better--it's not like this woman has spare cash sitting around.
We live in a valley of wealth here. Please, if you care to donate maybe a latte's worth of cash...or lunch money for a day...or the price of a night at the movies...$5, $10 or $20 would go a long way to making a person in pain feel just a little bit better.
If you are a movie fan, December is probably the best time of the year, bringing in rash of really good films that are trying to make the deadline for major awards consideration. Over the next couple of weeks, you can look forward to seeing no fewer than 7 movies in the theaters that will have Oscar aspirations--The Wrestler, Benjamin Button, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, and Synecdoch, New York. That's quite a lineup.
December also brings Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations and with those come the fanning of Oscar talk for the late Heath Ledger.
Ledger, in case you've been under a rock somewhere, died tragically of an accidental drug overdose just before the release of his last film, Batman--The Dark Knight in which he plays the mercurial role of The Joker. There was Oscar buzz for his performance before his death, and popular sentiment runs high for him to win the award posthumously.
Well, I hate to rain on the parade, but frankly, it's not an Oscar-worthy performance.
Don't get me wrong--I'm part of the crowd that thinks Ledger was a very talented, intense actor. And he chews up every scene that he's in as the Joker. He took on an iconic role played brilliantly by Jack Nicholson--one of the all-time greats--and he made it his own. He's more the star of the movie than the title character, and certainly more memorable. Symbolically, his is the character who embodies the theme of the film. It's an outstanding performance.
But not, in my opinion, Oscar-worthy.
Why, you might ask?
Well, as an actor, I would say that Ledger fails to bring the one vital element to EVERY character--the one element that is the raison d'etre of the profession, in my opinion.
Humanity. And along with it, a certain degree of likability.
Ledger, as the Joker, is mercurial. Flamboyant. Outrageous. Memorable. Evil. Intelligent and an excellent foible for the Batman. The one thing he is not, however...is likable. As a human. As an audience member, I felt absolutely no sympathy or empathy for the character, and thus, he was not likeable. I can appreciate how diabolical the character is, but he never won me over to see the world from his point of view, never brough me deeply enough inside where I could take a look at the horrible acts and find a justification for them
I couldn't identify with the character, and thus, had no sympathy for him. He was simply vengeful and evil.
I might be splitting hairs here, because he IS, after all, a cartoon character and thus, a two-dimensional character. But the job of an actor is to take a character who is two dimensional (after all, a character is only words on a page of a script) and create a three dimensional person.
Now, let me say too, that I didn't think that Daniel Day-Lewis deserved the Oscar last year for No Country for Old Men. My choice was Javier Bardem, for the same reason I just mentioned. Day-Lewis was pure evil and greed without any redeeming qualities, while Bardem, in his role as a killer, at least had an ethic that a 'normal' person could understand and somewhat agree with.
Twisted, yes, but it's the *empathy* with the character's intention and world view that draws me in.
And that's the role of an actor--to portray humanity in such a way that we understand more deeply about people for having watched the actor's performance. It's easy to play pure evil, badness or greed. It's FAR more difficult to play an evil character and to create some understanding and empathy for that character in spite of their evilness.
THAT is what an Oscar-worthy performance is about.
Of the films that I've seen this year and the actors who are nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category that Ledger is nominated in both Golden Globes and SAG Awards, my choices for Best Supporting Actor are (in order) Robert Downey Jr., Josh Brolin, Tom Cruise and Ralph Fiennes ahead of Ledger.
Fiennes, in particular, gives a master class in playing a character in The Duchess who by all accounts, is a bastard and someone you shouldn't like as an audience. Almost every single thing he does throughout the film is an unlikeable action, and yet, by the end of the film, his is forgiveable. Not *excuseable* for his actions, but forgiveable.
I don't find any such forgiveness for Ledger's Joker.
The hands down winner for best ACTING performance, deserves to go to Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder. Not only does he do the *unimaginable* by playing an Australian actor playing an African-American actor in a film-within-a-film, he is believable in both roles, and shows a remarkable sensitivity in finding the right 'tone' to doing a role in blackface makeup that is both hilarious and spot-on. He manages to tackle the most offensive racial stereotype possible and carry it off with skill, class and the right sense of humor. This is one of the most gifted actors taking on a role that could have been a total disaster on so many levels. It is simply an amazing acting performance, and more of a challenge than Ledger's Joker character. If Ledger fails with his role, people just say that Nicholson was a better Joker.
If Downey fails in HIS role, race riots break out. It's a riskier performance and he carries it of brillaintly.
I also want to give props to Tom Cruise for his role in Tropic Thunder as well. If you haven't seen the movie yet, I'm not going to spoil it. Suffice it to say even though I knew he was in the movie, it wasn't until the very end that I figured out which part he played. I was mesmerized by the character he played, and had no idea it was Cruise for most of the movie. Great stuff.
So, there you have it--while Ledger is/was a very gifted actor, I'm hoping that he doesn't get the sympathy vote for a posthumous Oscar. Not because I don't think he deserves it...but because others deserve it more.
What do you think? Do you give it to the dead guy because he was 'close enough' and will never get another chance to win one? Or do you honor the living and give it to the best performance of the year?
I'm currently entering into final preparations for performing in the musical Guilty Pleasures in Lake Tahoe, Aug. 12-16.
Now, I'm definitely out of my element when it comes to musicals. As an actor, I love doing dramas and comedies. I've sung in shows before, but I'm more of a 'character voice', which really means, as a singer...I'm a hell of an actor. I can act the role well enough that the audience doesn't really care how well I sing.
In this role, however, I get to sing a sweet love song with a woman who quite simply has one of the best voices in Lake Tahoe. This makes me very, very nervous--I love listening to Sharon sing and as her partner, I don't want her song to not go well because I'm weak.
Nothing pulls an audience out of a moment like hearing Sharon singing beautifully one verse, and then listening to a frog croak in the next verse.
So I've been working very diligently on my vocal technique and singing the song, and I have to say that it's been going well in rehearsals.
And then last night, I had a breakthrough that was pretty profound.
There is one particular place in the song where I have problems finding my note and that one spot has been giving me fits. I miss the note half the time, which makes me cringe and it takes me the rest of the verse to get back on key.
Last night, I decided to forget about singing the song and that one particular trouble-spot, and focus more on *performing* the song. Really listening to the words, being moved by the music and letting go to *feel* it and express myself via song.
Really, just trusting the vocal work that I had done without thinking about it.
It went so well, that my song partner got totally caught up in what we were doing and feeling the song, that at one point, she forgot to sing! She was caught up in being in the moment and not thinking about what she was supposed to say next. I was actually kind of happy that she was so into our connection that she lost herself.
Now, that wouldn't fly in performance, of course, but that's not the point. Sharon is a total pro and now that we discovered a deeper connection in the song, she will take that and soar once the show opens.
That's what rehearsals are for, after all. Finding new connections and deeper meaning. And sometimes, when you make a new discovery, your mind just goes blank, it's so powerful.
The trouble-spot went by effortlessly and on-key, and I was on the next verse before I even realized I had just passed the spot that I usually worry about.
The joy of performance is not that you forget that you're under intense spotlights and many people have paid hard-earned money to watch you--you take all of that into consideration. You feel that pressure to perform and be worthy.
But you ignore the distraction of all those external fears and pressure and focus more sharply on just doing what you know how to do.
You lose yourself and become what you are doing.
What's really interesting...and pertinent...is the lesson that in order to perform well, you must trust what you know, trust your training, trust your experience...and then just let it all go and enjoy doing what you are doing.
I stopped thinking about singing my song, my cues, my notes...and just sang...and let the song move me.
I write this as a response to my own blog post regarding 5 Things Not To Do in growing a community. There are many good tips out there on Do's and Dont's that provide a solid background on how to develop communities, and I highly recommend that you read them.
But at a certain point, I'd also like to suggest that you STOP reading 'how to' articles, and trust what you already know.
We ALL belong to communities in our daily lives, be those the local PTA, an HOA, a church, professional association, running club, Scouts organization or what have you. We all belong to *something*.
We KNOW how to develop those types of communities in our daily lives, we know what gets us involved and contributing in those communities or what keeps us on the sidelines.
So if you're in the business of developing online communities using social media, at some point, you'll want to trust that you've done your homework and just lose yourself in the performance of *being* with your community. Forget about whether you're doing everything right...or not...
...and be human. Be a part of your online community the way you are in your real-world communities and lose yourself in performance. Just go with what's actually happening and 'be'. It's a magical feeling.
What do you think--have you ever lost yourself in performance?