Perhaps human civilization is always on the edge. It certainly is now.
Perhaps human civilization is always on the edge. It certainly is now.
For the past two months, I’ve been putting together an essay on the Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and was also chosen by the New York Times as one the best books of the year. This is the first time I’ve chosen to devote my writing energies to the task of unraveling issues raised by a work of fiction, so certainly I was strongly affected by it.
If you outright loved the work, you may be disconcerted by my questioning a key psychological and philosophical underpinning of the novel. If you haven’t read the book, I hope you’ll find enough description of it to be engaged by the argument I raise here.
If you’re a student of contemporary literature or psychology, I hope you’ll find the discussion useful, though of course you would be well advised not to cut and paste.
This is an early attempt at writing The Blue Tunnel science fiction story, now completed, as an audio/podcast.
Check out this new article I’ve added on the process of learning lines (from one who knows how hard it is!)
Ignatz leads Philip
Philip had decided to trust Ignatz, though he could not precisely say why. Just at the moment he’d had the thought, Philip and Ignatz came into the light and Philip was dazzled by what he saw. From the utter blackest of darkest night or outer space to dazzling brightness as though inside of an opal in late afternoon sun.
Late afternoon, yes, he thought, late afternoon. How had he managed to go so far in his life with no enduring attachment to anything? How? He blamed it on his early life in am unending series of traffic jams. Trapped. And too much of his life had been absorbed getting out of that traffic jam and into a life of his own.
All that in a moment as his eyes gazed on this dazzling brightness.
He was blind because he now could see everything, far, far more than he had ever seen. But so fleetingly. So fleetingly. It was as though he were inside the opal and all the light was radiating through him.
“Stand back,” Ignatz said. “Don’t come closer to the light.”
more to come soon, full book target is March 2016
Added an article today on the process of thinking through how to create an entirely new production of Dracula. So many interesting themes (morality and sexuality, religion vs. science, life and death) as well as serious acting challenges. If you’re curious about how an actor in a project of bringing Dracula to the stage in a very different way than it’s been presented in the multitude of cheesy productions that exist, take a look.
“Actors reveal their own character flaws not by what they display in the roles they portray, but by what they will not allow themselves to show.”
On playing antagonists: An actor’s thoughts on playing the “bad guy”
Theater is filled with characters who are far from nice people. Some are merely obnoxious fools, others terrifyingly violent, dangerous people. At times, dramatists pepper their villains with humor, while others reveal the cold horror of a remorseless psychopath. The depth of the antagonist also varies with the part: Some plays’ antagonists are paper thin, two-dimensional, cartoonish characters. This thinness is often intentional, signifying to both the actor playing the role and the audience that they are not expected to take the character’s evil nature too seriously. Other antagonists are complex personalities; the playwright clearly intends the actor to communicate multiple layers of the character. Antagonists of all types exist on stage because they exist in life. Sad to say, some very destructive personalities account for a great deal of the drama in life.
It’s been my pleasure to play a number of classic roles that touch on the dark side of human nature: the vile mistress (Madame) in a gender-bending version of Jean Genet’s The Maids; the megalomaniacal and violently anti-semitic Henry Ford in Camping with Henry and Tom; the murderous playwright Sidney Bruhl in Ira Levin’s Deathtrap; Scrooge in a Christmas Carol (a special case, since he, unlike the others, is able to find redemption in committing himself to atone for his miserable ways); and the hard-hearted boss who fires poor Willie Loman in Death of Salesman. I’m prompted to reflect on playing antagonists as I prepare to play the unloving and unlovable father in the upcoming the Vermont Theater Company’s production of Robert Anderson’s classic family drama, I Never Sang for My Father.
My “career” as playing characters that one loves to hate probably got off to its ill-fated start many years ago when I was in an off-off-Broadway political theater group. The artistic director asked the assembled company “who feels they could play a pompous asshole” and I raised my hand and landed the role of a nasty business manager who didn’t give a damn about irradiating his employees. But of all the antagonists I’ve played over the years, I learned the most when I played the corrupt union boss in Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty. I was hamming it up, chomping on a cigar and imagining myself as Lee J. Cobb in On the Waterfront. The director told me to bring my portrayal down several notches. I found making this nasty character more real, more natural, made me much more uncomfortable than my Lee J. Cobb imitation. To become more real, I had to get more in touch with and reveal more of my own malevolence. The director — still a very close personal friend — quoted his own teacher, the Tony Award-winning Lloyd Richards: “Actors reveal their own character flaws not by what they display in the roles they perform, but by what they will not allow themselves to show.” It was sage advice. It allowed me to feel I revealed my personal flaws by trying to cover them up (in this case by exaggerating) than by simply letting the character’s action speak for itself.
In the role for which I’m currently preparing, Tom Garrison in I Never Sang for My Father, I have to understand this unfortunate man. He is not a psychopath or murderer; he does not have terrible secrets buried in his past. But he is an unfortunate man and a very unfortunate man to have as one’s father. He is not unfortunate because of what has befallen him, though his life has not been easy, but unfortunate in the sense that he denies all that is human in himself and so is unable to feel, unable to relate to his son. Focused on his bitterness about his own childhood and concerned only with his own short-sighted self-interest, he forces his son to make an extremely painful choice.
There are many “traps” in playing a nasty, destructive character. The most obvious, as I’ve mentioned, is overplaying the part and thus turning character into caricature. Overacting is a way of saying: “This isn’t really me. I couldn’t be this awful.” It is a a mode of denial, of distancing oneself from one’s role. Exaggeration can work if the character is intentionally, often for humorous effect, over-the-top, but it seriously detracts from the sense of stark reality that makes drama effective. If the antagonist is not real, is a caricature of wretchedness and evil and not a three-dimensional human being, the role becomes farcical. Where this is appropriate and done adroitly it can be highly amusing. Where it is inappropriate or done sloppily, it’s simply bad acting.
Many of our finest actors are brilliantly gifted at playing antagonists with barely a muscle tensed or vocal chord raised shrilly. Glenn Close, Kevin Spacey, and Al Pacino come to mind immediately as actors who can communicate extraordinary violence without the slightest overt sign of their underlying violence. I will never forget George C. Scott’s chilling portrayal as the manager of “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) in The Hustler. Seeing this film in my teens, I loathed this man who destroys the lives of Newman and Piper Laurie. There was not a trace of the exaggeration that makes Scott’s General “Buck” Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove so hysterically funny. Less known but equally powerful is Ben Kingsley’s tough guy portrayal in Sexy Beast. There’s a scene in which all Kingsley does is to shave and, without betraying any direct emotion, he conveys an intensity of violence that is utterly chilling.
Since playing a role effectively requires seeing the world through the eyes of one’s character, it’s necessary for the actor have to have enough compassion for the character to evoke compassion in the audience. If not, the audience’s interest in the character’s fate wanes and a critical aspect of dramatic tension is lost.
But there are limits to this: the actor must not make the antagonist more decent or misunderstood than the character deserves to be. In so doing the actor can make a negative character so sympathetic to the audience that it turns the tables on the playwright’s intent. In preparing to play Tom Garrison, for example, I’ve found myself finding justifications for his coldness to his son and meanness to his wife. One begins to see the more decent characters as wrong about oneself, as not taking into account why the character is the way he or she is, of judging him too harshly.
Evoking compassion should not mean portraying a character’s destructive actions as acceptable. The despicable remains despicable, the self-serving remains self-serving, the hateful rejection of caring remains hateful. If the humanness and decency of the character is played too strongly, if an intensity of rage does not underlie the character’s actions, the drama falls apart. It’s another form of denial on the actor’s part.
The challenge, then, is to simply to be real. Far more than Scrooge, Bruhl or Ford, Tom Garrison is meant to be real, three-dimensional. He is a father whom many of us, including me, will recognize all too readily: a father so righteously angry, so self-absorbed and egotistical, so dedicated to his own narrow vision of himself and so oblivious to the needs of his own children that he destroys any possibility for intimacy. He wreaks havoc on the lives of those who depend on him most in their most crucial moments of need; In so doing, he destroys himself.
Though Tom is a man without compassion, his portrayal must be compassionate, but not sentimentalized. His character needs to evoke in audience the very feelings he denies in himself. The audience should care about him despite his own fatal character flaws, making his failure to act humanly to his wife, son and daughter all the more poignant. For that to happen, the character portrayal must be as real, as immediate, as possible. Tom’s inability to allow his own feelings to surface, his unwillingness to reach out to his son despite both their urgent needs to connect must evoke in the audience not only outrage and frustration, but also compassion and sorrow.
A challenge like this is one that appeals to anyone who’s serious about acting; yet it’s definitely torturous at times. It isn’t always fun to get in touch with how one felt about one’s own father’s inability to be consistently caring or to get in touch with those parts of oneself that are far less human than one would like to believe oneself to be. Suddenly you recoil in horror as you hear yourself say or do something that fits perfectly with the miserable character you’re playing on stage.
There are definitely times when I’ve tired of being being the toxic character in a play, the antagonist that every other character hates and that the audience hates too. When I played a noxious Henry Ford, I began to feel that the other actors were seeing me as though I really were the power-hungry, egomaniacal, anti-semitic person I was playing, And after you’re cast in several such roles, you do begin to wonder what it is about your personality that makes you seem so appropriate to play miserable SOBs!
In the end, though,the pleasure of effectively creating a believable character on stage is worth the agony of getting inside the skin of a very unpleasant person. The world is not made up solely of nice men and women. Hardly. How dull and unreal theater would be if only decent folks were personified there. Where would Macbeth be without Lady Macbeth or Othello without Iago? Would King Lear’s loving daughter Cordelia shine for us if it not for her loathsome sisters? What would Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe be if George and Martha were just a kindly professor and his affectionate wife? Even Cinderella needs her evil step-mother and step-sisters in order to make her a heroine. Betrayal, egotism, hate, envy — the full panoply of inhumanity is as much human nature, sadly, as caring and love. If we are to appreciate the good, we must also understand evil.
All that’s easy enough to say, of course. Now comes the hard part: Actually doing it effectively on stage! It’s been highly rewarding to develop the role. If you’re able to come see the show, I hope you’ll find I’ve at least partially achieved my goal of making the character three-dimensional.
I wonder if many people who watch plays but don’t act in them realize how much of “the rehearsal process” is devoted to learning lines. As actors most of us are are gluttons: We want the juicy parts and that usually means the ones with many lines to learn.So we’re victims, as usual, of our own egos and have only ourselves to blame. I once hear that Michael Caine, when asked how he decided whether to accept a role, said he looked at the first and last page of the script. If his character spoke on those, he took the part.
Everyone has different methods. For a lucky few, learning lines comes easily. I had a co-lead in a show who had no idea of his many lines in the whole second act of the show in one rehearsal and came back the next night being damn near perfect. I can’t imagine how he did it. He even look well rested.
For others it’s everything from a long, arduous struggle to a complete nightmare.. In the process, of course, you think about your character. The lines inform you, they mold you, they make you who you are as a character in a play. But it always come back to knowing when you’ve got to say what and a bit of when and what you’re supposed to do.
The hope is always that you’ll get beyond this, that lines will become so well engrained that you’ll no longer have to think of them. There’s a famous quote by Glenda Jackson: “The whole essence of learning lines is to forget them so you can make them sound like you thought of them that instant.” A worthy goal, to be sure. Meanwhile, it’s time to run through one’s stack of 3×5 cards with cues on one side and your lines on the other and hope those memory engrams have begun to stick in your mind a little better than the last time you ran through the stack.
As an actor who tries to feel what the character is feeling to give the lines the right meaning and one who tries to avoid the trap of solidifying a particular “line reading” at the expense of spontaneity and responsiveness to one’s fellow actors, I hate to admit how much of my actual “emotion” on stage is stark, unadulterated fear of forgetting my lines. I’ve done it enough times to know that the lines will come, but also enough to know that things will, sometimes, go wrong.
But whether you’re murdering your lover in a violent rage or making a silly joke in a moment of frivolity, you’re also praying to god remember what you’re supposed to say or do next.
There’s more than one way to lose your mind while on stage. Here are a few of my personal favorites:
The first is simply not spending enough time learning them. How much time is “enough time”? Well, that depends on the person learning the lines. That person knows how fast he or she learns and knows how many hours, days, weeks ahead opening night is. Sometimes there a flaw in the calculation. Sometimes one’s over-confident or under-committed. Occasionally I’ve run into actors who actually don’t feel it’s necessary to learn their lines until the show opens. Not only is this nearly always a recipe for disaster, it deprives the other actors of a safety net in case they lose their way. But sometimes it’s just that real life intervenes in a way that’s unexpected. It happens.
Line Crisis #1: The most common disaster is having no idea what you’re supposed to say next. Everyone has seen an actor go blank. I’ve seen one of the most accomplished actors in the business lose her mind right after her opening line. There is a particular look of terror in an actor’s eyes at that moment. What am I supposed to say next? I have no idea! What did I say just now? No, no that won’t help! Will this eternity ever end? No, that’s why they call it eternity!
One time another actor could not remember a line during a rehearsal. I teased the actor, because the line was the title of the play. The gods of theater quickly took revenge on me for my teasing. In the middle of a performance before a full house, I went completely blank. I was holding a gun on my lover who was supposed to be frozen in terror. Nothing he could say to help me. When that endless moment of what I’ve heard called “going into the white room” was over, the word I was supposed to say was, of course, the title of the play. Lesson #722: Never taunt another actor — your turn will come all to soon!
In my own defense, I will say I’ve saved a fellow actor or two when their own mind went bye-bye. Once I was a stage manger standing at a doorway entrance to a cafe scene when one of the actors went so blank and with such obvious terror that all the other actors were frozen in place, unable to speak. We might still be in that cafe now, years later, except that there was a woman playing a waitress standing next to me and I told her to go out and ask if anyone wanted more coffee. She objected, but went out. A moment later, everyone unfroze and the play went on. This pause was long enough that I imagine the audience did realize something was seriously wrong, but no one died, life went on.
Line Crisis #2: A variant an the first is less agonizing in the moment, but perhaps even worse in retrospect: You think you’ve finished, you’ve said what you have to say; you’re convinced it’s the other actor who’s gone blank. But you’re wrong. You’re supposed to say something else, something that’s almost impossible to move forward from if you don’t say it. In the play, I’m doing now, for instance, I’m supposed to have a bad cough. My cough is a cue for a whole dialogue that in which my son tells me I should “get that cough looked into.” If I don’t cough, what’s he supposed to do?
Sometimes you realize that the yawning gap in the action is because you haven’t given a crucial cue line and sometimes the line or action comes right to you and you try not to let your embarrassment screw things up even worse. But sometimes, now that you know it’s all on you, you still don’t know what you’re supposed to say. See Line Crisis #1 amplified by the fact that time has passed elapsed before you realized what the hell was going on.
Line Crisis #3. You know the line, but the sequence of words it get mixed up in your head a bit, so you’re afraid you could spit out utter gibberish. Actually, not too serious. Audience’s are generally reasonably forgiving about a garbled line or two as long as everyone keeps their cool and doesn’t break character. The danger is that the garbled line will throw you off and lead you back to Line Crisis #1.
Line Crisis #4. The fatal leap: You skip a line to another point in the script and other actors have no choice but to follow you. There are two varieties, large and small:
4a. Small: A stumble, maybe noticeable, maybe not; maybe throws off the other actor, maybe not; Only a line or two skipped in reality, no harm to flow or information to the audience.
4b. Big: You and the other actors are now in completely different moment in the play than you should be. A major chunk has been skipped, very likely containing material critical to the play making any sense.
I will never forget the time this happened. A three character play, all of us on stage the whole time, other than very brief moments stepping into the wings pretending to do something. A sound cue wasn’t played, a line was dropped, another line was mangled, and then, the fatal leap: I spoke a line and did an action that belonged later in the act. Not a little bit later, fifteen minutes later! A crucial part of the story would be lost if we didn’t retrieve that section of the play. All three of us looked in horror at each other. We all knew what had happened but had no choice to go merrily forward from cue to line to cue to line. After a few minutes, a tiny window of opportunity opened and we went back to the missed portion of the act. The same thought crossed all our minds simultaneously: What would happen when we got back to the place we’d jumped to? Amazingly, without any of us being precisely sure how, we got back to that spot and smoothly jumped ahead to the closing lines of the act. The director, the stage manager, and my wife (who had run lines with me endlessly) cancelled any heart stress tests they might have ordered, because they figured they’d survived this, but first-time viewers of the play I talked to afterwards had no idea that something had gone wrong!
Line Crisis #5: The sometimes-fatal false fatal leap: You (or another character) didn’t skip a line, but you think you did. In the non-fatal variety, nothing bad happens, you just go on. In the more serious variety, thinking you’ve missed a line discombobulates you enough that a Line Crisis #1 through #4 rears its ugly head.
I think these are most of them. There are probably others that I just haven’t had the misery to experience for myself. Or perhaps they were so horrible I’ve repressed them.
You might ask, given the potential for the disaster, why does anyone do this? Perhaps it’s like parachuting or bungee jumping, the adrenal rush of the fear makes one feel more alive. Or perhaps it’s just so enjoyable when it all does work, when an audience is moved, or thrilled, or laughs aloud, or cries, or thinks a thought they didn’t think before. It feels so good that it’s just plain worth it.
On stage, one rides the surfboard of the lines whether one has good balance or not, and says a silent prayer every nanosecond that the flow of memory to mouth keeps flowing, hoping that the sense of being out there on your own personal tightrope will only add to the drama and so add to the pleasure of both actor and audience alike.
Read on: Effective Methods for Learning Lines
Coming up on a year of “running” the Hooker-Dunham Theater and Gallery, a moment of reflection on it. I can’t “sum up” the experience because each piece of it has been and continues to be unique.
The total experience is overwhelming. So many hopes and fears pass through a theater. (It is, after all, designed for drama and human comedy!)
As manager, I have seen people at the beginning of their lives in theater or poetry or music or art (or burlesque, for that matter) come through and try their wings. And I’ve seen people who have been around for a long time try new things. That’s all pretty exciting.
It seems like most everyone who comes through here feels they got their money’s worth and then some.
So if I the nuisances remain minimal and folks, including me, come in and enjoy themselves, then I’ll be very happy continuing the experiment.
As we pass from the first to the second week of our three week run of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I’ve decided to post the notes I write as I think through the evolution of Scrooge in the play. If you’re curious: Dickens’ Christmas Carol “beats”.
Added a short essay on the difference between community theater that’s fun for the cast and community theater that strongly affects its audience.
With Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde concluding its two-week run this weekend (Oct. 30 to Nov. 1), a few thoughts about community theater in general and this show in particular. (I’ve been both blogging and writing articles about the production as it’s developed. If you’re curious about the process of thinking that went into developing an entirely new adaptation and production of the piece you may want to take a look at them: Blog entries and Essays).
I have been and remain a lifetime proponent of “amateur” artistic efforts as well as of the value of a sense of community (see “Creativity and the Adult Amateur” and “Dreaming of Community”). Putting my perspective as simply as possible: High-quality amateur work, whether in theater, dance, painting, performance art, etc. etc., can be utterly enchanting and mind-opening to its audience as well as a major source of creative expression. Likewise, an intense and valid community experience, that is, one that provides a shared intimacy, compassion, and commitment without being contaminated by ulterior or destructive motives can deeply enrich the lives of all involved.
The adjectives in these definitions are not accidental: When amateur work is not high-quality, evincing a lack of care and workmanship, indifference to the quality of the creative effort, it is worse than useless: it can be boring and painful. Similarly, when “community” amounts to little more than “hooray for our side” or a broad but very thin social interconnectedness, it is meaningless at best and, at worst, a deceptive substitute for soul-satisfying shared experience.
When one approaches a new effort that combines amateur creative effort with a community spirit, sometimes one is shocked by both sides of the equation. I have found myself awed by the creativity and by the shared sense of commitment. Yet, I’ve also been amazed at the gaps in the mutual commitment to each other and to one’s audience that sometimes pop up. I’m not painting myself as a paragon of virtues here, I’ve been guilty many times of being less than a good partner in a shared project. But it would be ridiculously pollyanna-ish not to mention that this occurs all too frequently and that it’s a reason why some people will studiously avoid non-profession work of any kind — not that seasoned professionals don’t sometimes bring so little new excitement that their work is often a dreary repetition of past success.
But at its best, amateur or mixed professional/non-professional (in community theater, Actors Equity and non-Equity members often perform together), can be thrilling. It is not for me to say whether our current production of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fulfills that aspiration. I can only say that we have tried to do something different here. We’ve taken a story known to some extent by everyone in western culture and given it several new twists. We’ve drawn attention away from a myopic focus on Jekyll/Hyde and shifted it to those perplexed and dismayed. We’ve reversed the classic detective whodunit paradigm (Robert Louis Stevenson’s story is frequently credited with being one the first of the detective genre): Here everyone in the theater except the “detective” (in this case, Dr. Jekyll’s lawyer) knows that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person. The play is retold from the lawyer’s (Mr. Utterson) perspective: And that makes it all the more of a nightmare.
Stevenson’s story actually began as a nightmare that was so vivid to him that he wrote the story in three feverish days. (After a friend critiqued it, Stevenson threw the original story in the fire, and re-wrote the current version in three more feverish days!) We — the director, stage manager, scenic designer and cast — have worked as a group to think through all the alternatives of how we could tell the story most effectively. Simplicity and transparency are hallmarks of what we’ve come up with, making maximum use of the black box theater that is the Hooker-Dunham using a single but imposing set piece: the door through which all pass and are, in one way or another, transformed. We’ve done our best to keep a sense of humor alive as well, knowing that we must compete with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird’s brilliant renditions of the Jekyll and Hyde tale.
As the director, Josh Moyse, tells us in his program notes, this is an invented play, in part theater, in part performance art, that is our little troupe’s first venture at the material, but very possibly not our last. Personally, I’m very proud to have been involved in the project and proud to host it at the Hooker-Dunham, a wonderful space in which to experiment. As I write this, it’s 1 PM with a 7:30 curtain beginning our second/final weekend. Hope you’ve had or will have the opportunity to share in the experience.