“Thank you for missing me.” (Jamie)

Alan Rickman has died and we’ve lost a great actor.

The first time I saw him was as Jamie, the recently deceased cello player, alongside Juliet Stevenson in the 1991 film Truly, Madly, Deeply. It’s a romantic, fanciful film, which is not my regular go-to kind of thing. It might’ve been then, it’s not now. I have a vague recollection of someone telling me that I “have to see it” because it’s “so good.” This kind of thing was said often in those days.

This was shortly after I’d finished up college and my acting training, so I was surrounded by actors, theatre and film buffs, etc. We were the kids who watched movies only to analyze the scripts and each acting choice. We’d see a movie because of a well-respected, serious actor carrying it, like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. We’d pull plotlines apart, and when we saw things we didn’t agree with we’d decide if the actor, director, writer or possibly editor were to blame, which for a movie like the controversial Last Temptation of Christ, meant long, complicated conversations. We went to see Dead Poets Society not only because of its sweeping coming of age story but also because Robin Williams, known mostly for comedy, was doing a serious movie. “How does that work?” we wondered. We saw things like Unbearable Lightness of Being because of the layered story and subtle, detailed acting. (Our acting teacher said we should go. She said it was some of the finest acting we’d see that year, and that it was “the best sex [she’d] ever had.” But I digress…)

Whether or not I was initially thrilled to see this film or why I went is a moot point, because I recall getting hooked on the story early on and then being completely enthralled by the performances. Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson were incredible together. Their connection was so raw, so natural and true, I was astonished. I felt that the characters were so complete, and his (and her) work was so finely detailed, that together they nearly defined passion itself and that somehow I understood, from watching that movie, just what it was like to love someone.

Maybe I was young, naive, hopeful and looking for love myself. Maybe Anthony Minghella nailed it with his first major directing job, and that’s what I was supposed to receive. Either way, Rickman’s performance left a mark on me. He was immediately elevated in my mind to one of those great actors whose work I admire, and that performance ranks up there among memorable moments on screen and on stage I’ve had the pleasure to witness. Every time I saw him in anything else I always remembered, and often remarked, that the first time I saw him was in Truly, Madly, Deeply. If the person to whom I was expounding Rickman’s accomplishment wasn’t familiar with the movie, I felt  sorry for them. More often than not, it seemed, they hadn’t seen it or heard of it.

An article online this morning included clips of some of his best work, and thankfully they did include this movie. I knew I shouldn’t have watched it, especially first thing in the morning when I’m most vulnerable. Fortunately, only my dogs witnessed the running tears. Such a great scene.

While some mourn the passing of Severus Snape, I mourn the loss of an amazing talent. We were fortunate to have him.

Truly.

The Quick Pace of Time

The last few months flew by and my schedule was unbelievably hectic. This is why it would be so nice to not have a day-job when rehearsing a show. I likely had the easiest job on the production, and miraculously could turn it off at night (as opposed to taking a couple hours to wind down after a rehearsal), and yet still there was no extra time or spare brain space. We opened over a week ago and I’ve perhaps just now caught up with myself.

A few of the things I wish I had written about here include:

  • I love watching actors work
  • I’m constantly amazed at the limber imagination of some artists
  • Directing a play is sometimes like making a clay sculpture – push a little here, pull a bit there, and see what you have.

All that work is being followed by a relatively short run. It’ll all be over before we even realize it.

Life’s Too Short for Disappointments

Recently a colleague and friend made a public announcement that he was quitting the theatre. It came as a surprise to hear, partly because people rarely make such an announcement, and instead they simply drift away until one day someone says, “What ever happened to Joe?”

It was also surprising because Joe (as I’ll call him in this case) seems to work fairly often, had expanded in to directing, and is well respected for his talent, hard work and likable personality, making him valuable in any project.

The reasons he talked about included things that felt rather painful, to him and to several others who read it. Primarily it was disappointment, frustration. I interpreted it as being that every time things seemed to be looking up, as if his star were rising (so to speak) it would suddenly stop. Momentum couldn’t be obtained, and/or there was a level he felt he couldn’t crack. Mostly, he stated, he had disappointed himself.

Sounds like broken dreams to me. But even more so since the point of blame seems to be inward. He said he disappointed himself. He didn’t use the word “fail” in any sense but that’s certainly what it sounded like he was describing. He failed, and it was his own fault.
actorquitsI found the post heartbreaking. On one selfish hand, it meant I would not likely ever work with or see him work again. (So now I’m disappointed.) On the other less-selfish hand, it makes me sad that the dream or goal he had set for himself was either unattainable or simply missed by his efforts.

Working in theatre is not something someone does for long unless they really want to do it – and he’d been at it for at least fifteen years. I find it sad that someone would want something like that, work so hard, and ultimately feel as if the only choice were to throw in the towel.

I had an acting teacher in college who used to tell us all that being an actor is one of the hardest choices, because the work is unsteady, unreliable, intermittent, and it’s a path full of rejection, most of which has nothing to do with the actor’s talent or passion. He would say we should allow ourselves to think about quitting once a year. Think long and hard, really wallow in it, get it out of our systems…..and then if we still wanted to do it we had to put those thoughts aside, don’t think about them, and get back to work.

I can relate to much of what Joe stated. If I took a hard look at myself and my career, and compare it to what I thought would be my path when I first started, I could only come to the conclusion that I too have missed the mark, that I’ve failed somehow. I’m not completely off—but it’s just different. And yet the truth is, goals and dreams change, and morph. I have certain expectations of myself and my work, and I’m disappointed when I don’t meet them. But if I had never changed my perception of what a theatre career could look and feel like, as I experienced actually working in it and thereby learning, then I too might have had to call it quits.

I don’t mean to sound critical or harsh towards Joe. I haven’t had an in depth conversation about this, so my analysis could all be wrong. Truthfully, if the work was not fulfilling, if the constant struggle was taking the joy out of it, then he’s right to move on. I hope for him what I hope for all my friends, whether they’re theatre artists or otherwise: That he find work and a calling that fulfills him, that brings out the best in him, and that satisfies him.

After all, we only get one life. No one should waste time being unhappy. .

Another Opening

How is it that one day you say things such as, “There’s plenty of time yet…” and the next thing you know it’s opening night? How does this happen? And why is it that most often when we get to opening I always think, “If we only had one more week….”?

And while I’m asking questions, let me ask this: Why is it that when we move in to the space, doing full-run after full-run, a whole new type of opportunities and options and choices make themselves visible to me and others?

The last few days of rehearsals have been, for me, full of new thoughts, ideas….things I’d like to explore further, avenues I’d like to go down for a while.

bbBut suddenly it’s opening night, and while I’m not afraid to try something new in front of an audience or during a run, it’s doing so at a much greater risk it seems. Even last night as we tried a new idea that had been brought up on the previous evening, it totally threw everyone on stage and in the room. Perhaps it was in a good way, because it was funny and meant to be humorous, unfortunately, most of us broke character.

We’re doing it again tonight, but I suspect adrenaline will be high enough, especially that early in the play, that we’ll keep it together.

Opening is always a little bit exciting, and a little bit scary. This production has had no previews, so we have no real idea how an audience will respond. And while it’s a drama (a rather intense one at that, which includes violence and torture) there are points of broad humor to break the tension.

But does it work? Will an audience take to it? Will they take from it, what we think it’s all about?

I can’t be sure. But, one the other hand, can’t these questions be asked of most any play’s opening night?

Don’t Stop Working

We’re almost to tech. There’s so much work that’s happened in the past two weeks it feels like both a sprint and a marathon.

There’s an actor in the cast who I’ve admired for longer than I’ve known him. The first time I worked with him I secretly hoped to learn something about his process, because he’s so talented and so interesting on stage. I watched him work, I watched him try different things, and then one day—BOOM. He seemed to be there, miles from where he had just been. I didn’t know how it happened. I didn’t learned a thing, and he makes it look so easy.

At last night’s run-through there was a flash of a moment where I realized he just did that again.

As for me, I was feeling fairly good a couple days ago. I had found new tiny details of discovery in many places, and felt I had fleshed out my work. But between last night and tonight I think I’ve discovered that once it becomes comfortable—read as: I know what I’m doing here, I can stop working—I suddenly feel very two dimension. I find myself making easy choices, obvious thoughts, occasionally getting distracted, and then….I realize I’m thinking about that, so clearly I’m not listening to the others on stage and my work has become crap.

This is not good. This, however, is fixable.

Goals. Risks. Reaction. Listening.

I just need to put it back together. It’s all there.

In other news – the boots the costumer has given me are awesome!

Next up is tech.

Listening and Discovery in the Rehearsal Room

At this afternoon’s rehearsal I discovered we’re at one of my favorite points in the process, a point where we know some things but not everything. A point where we truly start discovering.

Today was a stumble-through: the first full run of the show after blocking and some basic scene work. Everyone is still carrying their script, no one is certain of much of what they’re doing. And, perhaps the real key, we’re getting to the point where we know some of the lines.

And that’s where the fun comes in.

I no longer have my face buried in the script, following along with everyone’s lines. Instead I’m watching the other actors, whether they’re talking to me or not, so I’m starting to be actively involved in the scene. This is a play we almost never leave the stage, and can go several pages before we have any lines or specific action to attend to, so there are stretches of just listening. I could peek ahead, and know what I was doing next, making a mental note of my cues, and I could be ready for them. But during those stretches I was able to explore, investigate the listening aspect, and try to discover how I might need to respond to what’s happening or what it is that causes me to finally say or do something. I love this stuff.

This is the part of the process where reaction and purpose are truly defined, and the more specific the better. It can never be rushed. Every reaction and beat needs to be justified and filled, and it needs to lead to the next beat.

Eventually when the right choices are made, we’ll move on to the refining and polishing, but this—this part right here—is where the real core work is done. The start and stop work throughs over the next several days are going to be a blast.

Take Note

Every idea started from a blank piece of paper.

Every idea started from a blank piece of paper.

As I write this, I’m making a cup of coffee. Not something I typically do at 5 pm, but today’s different. Today I get to start rehearsals for my next play.

(Hurray!)

I’m kind of stuck in my ways when it comes to rehearsing a play, and one of those ways is coffee. Maybe not every night, but several during the week, getting a jolt of caffeine an hour or so before rehearsals is crucial.

Also important are several other quirks that I “must” follow:

  • I will carry my script with me everywhere I go, from today through closing night. Even if I never look at it.
  • I will always bring a large bottle of water to rehearsal. (And snacks, ‘cuz, you know…..acting works up an appetite.)
  • I will choose the color, or colors, of my highlighter very carefully for highlighting my lines.
  • I will score my scenes with great detail, using a system combined from various sources and developed over many years.
  • I will only score my script in pencil.
  • I will take notes from the director in a shorthand no one else could likely decipher

But this time, for this play, I’m going to break one of my patterns. 

While some actors don’t really write down their notes (don’t ask me why) I write notes each day. In a notebook, not the script. Typically for every new play I start with a new small notebook. Only on a few rare instances have I ripped everything out of a previously used notebook, and used the remainder. Choosing the size and look of the notebook is often done with great consideration of the play and role at hand.

Yes, I know this sounds odd, but I’m a bit of a tactile person—so weight, look, feel, etc. are all important to me. The practicality and feel of the notebook, the pen, the script in my hand—whether it’s bound or loose-leafed—these are all players in the experience. And while there may not be a right or wrong way these choices are always made.

This time I’m going to experiment and it could be risky. While I’ll still use a small notebook for taking notes from the director, I’m also going to use my iPad (and the Moleskine app) to write down all my other notes, thoughts, doodling, scratching ideas, etc., throughout rehearsal. I can pull in pictures and links and tie things together more easily. 

I’m not sure how this is going to impact my work, and I can’t be sure I won’t abandon the idea after the first week, but I’m hoping it’s going to shake things up for me in my process in some way. Help to learn, grow and expand my process.

Isn’t that what it’s really about anyway?