Starting an Adventure

Starting rehearsals for a new show is always an exciting time. Working on a play brings people together in a unique way, in an intense work period, for a very short time. The other night the cast and production team gathered in a large room for a read-thru of the play. Up on a white board was written the show’s name, production dates and some other details.

One person pointed out, “Hey! We better get started. We close in exactly two months!”

He was right and I was surprised. Two months is nothing, and it feels like we have all the time in the world. Of course, this play was cast over eight months ago, and there have been a number of production meetings and marketing plans implemented, so it’s just the heart of it that will be a two-month adventure.

And that’s the exciting part. This is a smart, farcical, romantic comedy and I think we’re all excited by the great cast. There were plenty of laughs in that room, and one or two tough-not-to-break moments were already identified. I’m thrilled to be working the volume and levels of talent there too.

I’m sure a few weeks from now I’ll still think it’s hilarious and yet never even laugh. It’s a weird phenomenon that happens the closer you get to material, whether it’s comedy or drama—you can still be moved but not really express it.

What I’m not as clear about yet is what I’m doing for the next 4+ weeks of rehearsal.

For this production I’m the Assistant Director, a position I haven’t officially done in a while and one which can vary from director to director. I’m really there as a second set of eyes and ears, and I’m there to do whatever the director needs doing. I just don’t know what that is yet.

I’ve worked on shows as an actor where the A.D. was highly involved, occasionally working scenes in a room separate from the main rehearsal, and ones where this person was fairly invisible and never seemed to say or do anything. I’ve been the assistant to a few directors in the past where I was having conversations with him or her during rehearsals, acting as a sounding board and offering requested advice, or where I’ve taken notes in rehearsals only to share them afterwards.

We begin full rehearsals this week. I’m not a novice to the environment, but this time I have no idea of what I’m going to do.

Since this is a production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, I guess being ready for “an adventure” is right on target.

Being an Actor is Weird

Earlier this Fall I had a few auditions for a film. Theatre auditions can vary greatly in how they’re handled by the producer or director, but film auditions are a really mixed bag. Small rooms, large rooms, cameras or none, one-on-one interviews with the director or with a table full of writers, producers, P.A.s, someone’s grandfather, and a dog. I’d say these recent auditions fell somewhere in the middle—there were enough people there to show me they were serious about making this thing and they were all normal and polite enough to tell me I’d not regret working with them if they hired me.

I didn’t get the part.

That’s not why things can be weird. In fact, there was really nothing weird about this thing except that I was never told I didn’t get it. Generally speaking after a second or third audition an actor is typically notified (that is, at least when they’re representing themselves and not by an agent) and the last thing I was told was “You’ll be hearing from us by the weekend.”

That was over eight weeks ago.

The other day I came across something online that told me the name of the actor who got the part. He’s perfect for it, a much better a casting choice than I would’ve been (yes, I can manage some objectivity) and he’s a great actor. I can’t feel bad—they got the right guy. I’ve worked with him before and consider him a friend, so I had to send him a congratulatory and sarcastic note along the lines of “thanks for taking my part from me.”

Obviously it’s not the first part I haven’t got, wasn’t the last, and I don’t really fret about losing a role. That would be really self-destructive. It’s just the nature of the work. And that’s kind of the weird thing. Auditions are this ridiculous way of getting a job. You stand up in front of people to be judged, and frankly liked, and you have to have the right skills, the right talent, the right look. You could be too short, too young, too old, or even not look enough like someone else. Or too much. And even then, there’s this weird elusive thing about chemistry with another actor, usually a stranger.

As my friend said in his response DUDE! I’m sorry about taking your part. Isn’t acting weird? We do our thing and a bunch of other people get to decide if we work, where we work, when we work and what we work on.

He’s right. But of course, if that were the only thing it would be just like everything else. I mean, if I were a chemist and wanted to work for 3M it’s not like I could just show up one day and say, “Hey, I can do this. Where can I set up in the lab?” I’d still have to apply, interview and be chosen. But if we apply the rules of hiring actors to the process of hiring a chemist then the chemist also has to be the right gender, the right age, the right “type”, look like he could wear the right lab coat, and it would make a difference as to whether or not he showed up to the interview with a pocket protector.

Do chemists use pocket protectors? Probably. But I digress.

A couple days ago I had an audition for a commercial. I didn’t even have to speak, it was just walk and give the right attitude. There are no lines. You’d think just about anyone could do it. For that job I have a callback on Monday. Yes, there are callback auditions for that non-speaking ,5-seconds of film, job, because of the thirty guys they’ve seen they couldn’t just pick one.

My friend was right. Being an actor is weird. This isn’t news to me, but sometimes things happen that really bring it home.

I’m going to practice my attitude now.

Working and Invisible

Should effort equal outcome? Sometimes I wonder about that. It’s not like I want anything easy, and really anything worth anything shouldn’t be easy. The harder we work, the more we value something. And if that’s the case, then October was a gold mine.

Ghostly shadows from “And Things in the Walls”

It all started with a mad dash to produce and direct a show. I went from having almost nothing on my plate to possibly too much, although truthfully when “the day-job is getting in the way” I am usually rather happy with the state of affairs at that moment. I gathered a talented cast, found a space, arranged for costumes, set pieces, rehearsed and ran from sun up to sun down and then some.

If you’ve read my creed or know me or have worked with me it would come as no surprise that I would never want to put out bad or weak or lackluster work. (Perhaps this blog aside.) I’d cancel a production (if possible) before showing crap. I guess plan B would be what a friend told me today—direct under a pseudonym.

“Me? No, that wasn’t me! I was out of town during that show. Never even heard of it. Was it really that bad?…..”

This, however, did not occur in October.

Despite the haphazard puzzle of rehearsals, working around five actors with busy schedules (not to mention my own conflicts,) hoping actors would memorize (much less embody) the dense and long material, somehow it all came together, and in the end was more than satisfying.

Here we were doing a show about…well, mostly madness, I’d say. In one portion of the show, an adaptation of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, we watch as a charming, smart woman slowly loses her marbles. I loved how the audience laughed, and then laughed a little less, and then watched in silence, fascinated by both the story and the actress’s delicate and detailed performance.

Nothing’s more satisfying as a director than sitting in the back of the theater and watching the audience watch the play.

Afterwards, one person told me, “You have a really good cast.”

“I know.”, I said.

“No. I mean your direction was good, but…..you have a really good cast.”

Didn’t see all my direction? All my adaptation? That’s ok. I wanted you to listen to and experience the stories, well told. If I’m invisible as the director then that’s fine by me.

A lot of work went in to perhaps too few performances, but that’s the nature of the form, and all that work was worth it.

A Chilly Night at the Theater

As Samuel Pepys often said, “To the theatre….” and that’s where I was last night. And I have to write about it here so as to catalogue it, in its way, in a Pepys way, I guess, for the tremendous experience it was.

First a little self-disclosure: I’m going to gush about an actor, and I should make it known that I’ve seen his work for years and have loved it, and have had the pleasure of working with him—in fact, his work on my show was what made my work so good—and I like to call him a friend. So, I’m biased.

I’m also opinionated about things, so I hope in the end I’m being fair.

Also, I’d like to say, this isn’t a review. I just want to write about my experience.

So….”To the theatre….” I went last night. A Tuesday. It was pay-what-you-can night, a night usually attended by theatre-folk, and there were plenty in the house. There were plenty of civilians too. The place was absolutely packed.

Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty is about the first female actresses in England (Margarat “Peg” Hughes and Nell Gwyn, the King’s girlfriend) and one of the last actors who was known for playing the women’s parts, Edward Kynaston. Walking Shadow’s production was just as I expected from the talented team that runs it and the talented people they have work for them on stage and off. The show was entertaining, enlightening, touching, funny, tragic and uplifting all while being beautiful to look at.

Yes, I’d say that’s about right.

So to keep from being a review, let me move on to what it was that struck me so powerfully last night.

There’s a moment in the play when Kynaston, whose career has been ended by the decree that women must play women’s parts, is auditioning for a theatre to play a man’s role. He begins a monologue, gets a few lines in and stops.

He starts over. He gets a few lines in, a bit further, and he stops.

His body, his mind, his voice…all the tools he’s used for years as an actor are suddenly betraying him. He finds his hands and arms making soft, woman-like gestures. He struggles with it, tries to control it. It controls him. It’s as if he suddenly doesn’t know how to act, and it’s the only thing he’s really ever known. He becomes lost.

The thing is, Wade Vaughn‘s work has always been incredible. He’s an extremely smart, hard-working and thorough actor. I’ve worked with few people who have his steadfast determination to find the truth. And Wade as Kynaston may be the best I’ve seen him. Watching that scene, I was enraptured by this man Kynaston, and because it’s how I watch actors act, I was even more enthralled by Wade. The depth, detail and wholeness with which he was working, his powerful focus, the layers of character that were coming to the forefront at that moment, were astounding.

I literally got chills watching him. It was that good.

Now…was it really that good? Was I just being pulled in to the play and the story and the characters? (I mean, after all it’s a play about theatre people, I’m bound to be interested.) Was I just proud and happy to see friends doing such good work, and Wade in particular?

Maybe.

Does it matter?

No.

It was effective. It worked. I felt deeply sorry for this character, who frankly otherwise had been, at times, an arrogant bully. But we felt for his human side, his pain, his struggle. In him we saw a moment that could be for any of us: If suddenly I discover that how I define myself can no longer exist, what happens to me? Who am I? What do I then do?

If finding layers of questions—more questions than answers, in a moment created by an actor on stage such as this—if that doesn’t make for good theatre, for good acting….then I don’t know what can. So I feel confident I wasn’t just in the right mood at the right time in the right place to be impressed. That was some amazing work.

I have some favorite moments I’ve experienced watching plays. I think that moment of Kynaston looking at his hands with wonder, fear and pain, will stick with me a long time.

Congratulations on the lovely work.

Compleat Female Stage Beauty continues at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage thru June 2.

Early Rehearsals

We’re nearing the end of week two of rehearsal for a production of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene. It’s a monster of a show, mostly due to the variety of the variables: 20+ actors, 3 children, a dog, 60+ characters and over a half dozen dialects.

We open in three weeks.

This undertaking could be a setting for disaster were it not for the wealth of talent involved. The creative team—director and designers—have a track record of great successes, a few particularly noted for making art out of massive productions. The cast is chock full of quick witted, creative, playful and eager actors ready to take on the challenge of creating this world.

And not just creating it, but making it come to life with its broad, sometimes stereotyped characters. Make it come to life with deep roots, accessible people, and relative to an audience 80 years after its debut.

Many of these people (onstage and off) I have had the pleasure of working with in the past, in some form or another and every one of them I looked forward to working with again. And many of the others I’ve wanted to work with because of what I’ve seen from them onstage at other times. Frankly, I’m honored to be in amongst these people.

Much of what was focused on in the first week were dialect choices and blocking. Seriously, it’s like blocking rush hour traffic at times. I’m very well acquainted with the director and his work so I was confident it would all work out. Meticulous is how I would describe it. We spent about an hour blocking approximately three pages. (To be fair, just those three pages needed that.)

I’d never witnessed a blocking rehearsal get a round of applause until then.

Blocking is one thing though. As long as I make the right notes, and can read my writing when we next come to that scene, I should be OK. Dialects aren’t quite the challenge for me that they can be for some actors, and fortunately I’m doing a couple in this show that I’ve done before. Still, it takes reviewing and reminding, and a detailed look at my lines.

Then you have to say it out loud, so there’s that.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • I can’t speak with an Irish accent if I’m reading dialogue written phonetically in another dialect. (Thank you Mr. Rice, but I’ve made a character choice, the director supports it and I need to help distinguish my two characters.)
  • I’m once again appreciating some of the classroom acting exercises of a college teacher where I learned not to be distracted by an actor speaking a different accent than me. Thank you Jean.
  • I still haven’t completely lost my Chicago “A” sound and it slips in too easily. I’m becoming paranoid it’s following me.

Next up: Fleshing it all out.

Rhyme or Reason

Auditioning is the bane of an actor’s existence. Or so many actors will tell you. It can be a humbling experience, where an actor can find himself doing odd things (possibly over and over, in different ways) all in the goal of being liked enough (essentially) to be cast, aka hired for a job that will likely last either hours, days or possibly months, and in few other professions does one have to put themselves out there for such personal judgement and dismissal, and certainly for so little financial reward.

I fondly recall auditioning for Best Buy’s “Idea Box” (something they had for a while – a blue box for customers to write and deposit suggestions) and I was up for the part of the mascot. (I’m not kidding.) A blue, foam box that didn’t even speak. I didn’t get it.

I also didn’t get the part a few weeks ago when the director paid no attention at all to me at the callback for a commercial.

I didn’t get the part a few months back on a film I really wanted. Then later they came back to me, offering me the other part in the film, playing against the guy who got “my” part. I ended up liking it better that way. So that time I didn’t get cast and I did get cast.

You act your little heart out and sometimes you’re hardly noticed. Sometimes you’re noticed and you still don’t get the job.

In most things, there is no rhyme or reason to casting.

Earlier this week I went to a callback for a play, and it was a very different experience. I guess first off, it’s a play and not a commercial. Sure, there’s that. (Of course, I was once called back for a play and wasn’t really noticed because they meant to call someone else. Perhaps I’ll tell that another time. I digress.) This time, not only was it a lot fun, and not only did I just play around a bit and try to have fun with it, but I didn’t feel like I had to lay myself bare to be loved or noticed.

First off when I arrived I noticed there were more than a few faces I’d have expected to see there, and this was a good thing. The lobby was overflowing with talent, and (strangely, or not) most of that talent I hadn’t actually worked with before. And a few of them I couldn’t wait to work with. This puts me in a good mood, as I feel I’m in good company.

Next, when I get a chance to go in and read a scene, there were three auditors and only a slight tinge of nervousness on my part, which lasted the briefest of moments. I’ve known those three faces for anywhere from about fifteen to twenty…some years. I’ve acted with all three. I’ve directed all three. I’ve produced alongside two of them with three different companies on many projects, and I’ve been directed by one of them on numerous productions.

If that tinge of nervousness didn’t immediately disappear I’d have a real problem.

So why was it there at all?

It was an audition. It was a test.

test (n): an event or situation that reveals the strength or quality of someone or something by putting them under strain

Failure is always a possibility.

Yes, that sounds negative, but I know enough to like to be real about it.

I’m looking forward to working with all that talent.