“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.

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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.

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.

My low-key Fringe

The 2013 Minnesota Fringe Festival is half over, and so far….I’ve seen only three shows.

This isn’t so much by design or choice, as it is by circumstance. Sometimes life gets in the way of art.

Or, in the way of what could be, should be, oh-I-wish-to-God-it-were, art.

Two of the three that I’ve seen have been fascinating, inventive and fun rides. The third one….not so much. Could’ve been. But wasn’t.

It’s not important which is which.

And I write that not because I don’t want to write a “review” or critique the work or am afraid to criticize. I write that because it’s not important. That’s part of the Fringe experience. People try things, and sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t.

But…nothing has been a waste of time.

I was having a great chat the other day over lunch with a couple of talented Fringe artists that are also just observers this year. We agreed that in performing and writing, either do it well or get the F out of the way.

We were more eloquent than that.

Fringe tests my patience with mediocrity. Sometimes it makes me feel like I’m a know-it-all, or a snob. But really….no. I’m just an audience member. One who happens to know a thing or two, but truthfully I’m just audience member this time.

And everyone’s experience of a show is valid.

I want to be charmed. I want to be pulled in to a story. I want to the world to disappear as I travel the road alongside the characters and storytellers and the pictures on stage.

Fringe festivals give us the chance to experience such a wide range of shows and performers. I only wish I could make it more a priority.

Tonight I’m off to see my fourth show, which is highly anticipated.

This may turn out to be the year I see the least, and in some ways that’s disappointing. Which only puts the pressure on to spend those few hours the best way I can.

After all….that’s part of the beauty and magic of live performance. See it when it happens, or never see it all.

A New Piece of Living Theatre

Over the past couple weeks I’ve done something that I realize I truly haven’t done for a long time. Along with five others I’ve been a part of creating, virtually from scratch, a short piece of theatre. We’ve taken an historic event, gathered raw materials from researching news articles and first person accounts, and without writing a fictitious line of our own built a 15-minute, dynamic, multi-faceted scene.

It’s ensemble built, and although we relied heavily on a structure and input proposed by a single member of the group—who was the person who brought us together—it’s probably some of the most team-oriented creation I’ve done since my days in an improv class. The members were open to hearing each other’s ideas for new things as well as criticism of one’s own, and the whole thing took on a sense of the old “yes, and…” attitude. We agreed on what we liked and what we didn’t, for the most part. And we listened to and respected each other’s contribution.

In about a half-dozen sessions, we discussed the story at great length, deliberated ideas big and small, threw together a list of elements, concepts and materials, put it up on its feet and began physicalizing the world of this story and then edited and shaped….and there it was. A new piece of living theatre.

What I can’t be sure of is whether it’s any good. We feel confident it’s at least compelling. Interesting. Engaging for an audience. We don’t expect the viewers to get every little detail or element. As someone smartly said in one early gathering, ultimately we’re not here to tell the whole story, we’re here to create a piece of theatre. An interpretation of a tale. A presentation that is enchanting, and makes the audience members want to know more.

The whole (short process, filled with quick choices) is not only a test of our skills, but is a testament to the ability (or shortcomings, perhaps) of each of us as theatre artists.

There are few people I’ve worked with long enough to think that I could possibly create something like this, so quickly, together. And the interesting thing here is that I’ve never worked with any of these people before. In fact, I think only one person in the group is familiar with any of my work, and that’s likely only a limited knowledge.

As part of Sandbox Theatre’s Summer Suitcase, a compilation of short pieces (for which all the set, costumes and props must fit inside a suitcase) this is a very short run, of a short piece. But it will be the third performance this year I’ve done with a new-to-me company, which helps to make this an exciting year. And even more, again this time, it’s with a company whose work I’ve admired and supported in the past, but had yet to work with and am happy to have the opportunity to do so.

This is some of the unique, experimental, putting-the-skills-I-have-to-work, kind of stuff I sometimes long for and rarely get an opportunity to do.

In a few days we’ll put it in front of an audience and see if it’s theatre.

Excited, and Perhaps Anxious.

I shouldn’t be writing this. I should be doing other things but I can’t really focus right now because I have a show opening tonight. Typically when I’m acting in a show I take that day off from the day-job as part of a recovery from tech/dress/preview kind of thing, but also because I know my mind can’t focus on anything else for too long.

This time I’m not acting, but I am producer and director so it’s almost all I’ve breathed for the past month or so. Now it’s virtually out of my hands. I have to trust that the actors and board op will do what I know they can and plan to do. I can only sit back.

It’s been a crazy busy month. (Technically I opened and closed a whole other show I directed earlier this week–another experience that deserves some bit of write up here.) Twice in the past couple weeks I’ve had conversations with people (who don’t work in theatre) about theatre and what I am or have been working on, etc. etc. Both times the person made comments regarding how excited and fulfilling for me it sounded, made some remark such as they “could see something in [my] eyes when I talked about this stuff.”

I love the work I do, feel lucky to get to do it, and find it satisfying.

Between the projects and the day-job, I’ve probably been working about 70 hours/week for the past several weeks. I should be exhausted. (And truly, I think I am.) But I’m energized. Elated. Ready for things. My mind is engaged and I’m thinking on my feet, making decisions and choices more easily and with more certainty.

Side story example: At the day-job yesterday I discovered I was expected to present some materials during a staff-wide meeting, and the meeting had already started and my presentation was in less than five minutes.Yes, I panicked. And then I quickly gathered the info I needed, made quick decisions about what to say and how to say it…and then presented. I don’t think I said more than one “uh” in the whole thing — which I say all the time anyway. And I’m certain no one who wasn’t already in the know about my last minute prep could tell anything was amiss.

But still, today is different. It’s the day people are going to pay money to see the work we’ve done. I’m not nervous, just excited. Perhaps anxious. It’s hard to let go, to stop thinking about the show and how to improve it and what’s working and not working and what if this or that or I wonder…….

My mind’s on overdrive, but I might sleep well tonight.

Fun and French, in a Cold Read

I spent the past two nights getting together with large groups of actors and reading aloud a couple plays. It was an informal gathering put together to explore these scripts as possible candidates for production. We were all assigned multiple parts, had some drinks and snacks, sat in a circle and dug in.

The first night’s play included numerous dialects, some singing and some foreign language. (This was a cold read for most of us, so there was some foreign language faking going on.) Last night’s was much tamer in that regard.

The fun of it, of course, was the discovery and the challenge. Other than the title and the authors’ names, I wasn’t familiar with either script, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Cold readings can be difficult – having to make quick choices, on the spot, about intention, attitude, relationships, character, all only based on what’s in front of you at the moment, not knowing where anything’s going.

Some times that’s a good thing. Some times you choose incorrectly.

After the readings we discussed it all – what we liked, what we didn’t, how produce-able it might be, what kind of audience it might garner, whether it’s right for this company and their audience, etc….. Lots and lots of opinions were thrown out, but there was also much agreement, and good discussion within the group. The conversation was cordial, professional and productive. There were no egos, no arguments and nothing personal.

(I’m not surprised by any of that behavior, I’m only reminded that I see it so little elsewhere.)

I learned a couple things through this exercise.

I learned I can’t always think on my feet well enough to sound clear and smart at the same time in group discussions. (I feel I usually can, but these couple night’s challenged that notion.) Life might move too fast for me, and I like to consider and explore materials when reading them. Or perhaps my mind moves too quickly, jumping to ideas, and I inadvertently skim things I shouldn’t. Or maybe I’m not as bright as I think. No…that’s not it.

Also, I learned, or re-learned, that I have a pretty solid skill of doing some accents, and many I can just toss out, on the fly, without thinking about them. While this includes a few British, Irish, Italian, Russian, Chicago, New York, ranges of Southern US and perhaps a few others, it does not include French. I don’t know why, but I can’t just jump into a French accent unless I’m improvising dialogue. On night one I had to read a character with a “slight French accent” and I started trying one, but as soon as I heard it fluctuate to some Eastern European (probably to a country that no longer exists) I gave up. I couldn’t read and accent at the same time.

But mostly I learned that this kind of thing should happen more often. At any given time I probably know several dozen actors who could be available on a Tuesday night to get together to read a script. Even if people aren’t right for the part, it doesn’t matter. Hearing a script out loud is how scripts are supposed to be heard. Hearing actors put some life (even incomplete, or slightly off-the-mark-in-a-cold-reading life) into the playwright’s words is illuminating. And getting together to practice, discuss and enjoy the process isn’t so bad either.

Every time an opportunity like this comes up I wonder why it doesn’t happen more often. Perhaps it’s time it does.