For an actor, one show really only closes when the next one begins. For me, that will be tonight with the first rehearsal for Ruth, the Vicki Cheatwood play being produced by Kitchen Dog Theater.
Psychologically, I warmed up for it last night by going to see a cast of actors I know in Next Fall (finishing its preview weekend at the Dallas Theater Center) and talking about their work — which was smart and profound and, as all actors know, ever in progress.
This is because while working on a role the work the actors are also forever working on themselves — exploring their own hearts and minds, their abilities to relax and to focus, and the ways that the relentless progress of their personal lives (earning a living, aging, having children, losing loved ones) constantly works on the lives they are living on stage.
Next Fall marks the moving on of Director Trull, who has left The Midwest Trilogy to play a man challenged to tell the truth about his own identity and vulnerability. I suspect Lee has had to ask himself some questions about his own identity — and about the places that desire and shame collide in his own life. Otherwise, his performance would not feel as honest and as unforced as it does. Something in his real life informs and fuels the life he is now living on stage. And vice versa.
In Next Fall. Second Thought Artistic Director Steven Walters has moved on to play a gay man. Steve dates women and sleeps with women (as far as I know), but I suspect that playing the role is teaching him something about how being gay really is like being Steve. That the “gay” is not something outside of himself but inside — and that it’s lessons are not about sexual identity but about the universal experiences of loving what you love and the universal challenge of trusting your loving impulses. ”What I’m saying, I guess, is to trust your feelings,” Bob Birdnow said, “because they can and should guide you.”
Terry Martin, artistic director of WaterTower Theatre and acting teacher/mentor to a number of Dallas actors (present company included), plays a middle-aged man confronted with the spectrum of fear and loss most of us cannot really understand until we are really middle-aged. (Sorry not to be more specific here, but I don’t want to give up anything about the play.) Working at the DTC, he is working free of the professional identity that complicates anything he does at WaterTower. This means that he is also “free” of whatever refuge or distraction that professional identity also generally provides for him. He is not Artistic Director Terry or Teacher Terry. He is, finally, just middle-aged Terry. I suspect the role is teaching him something about being middle-aged and about the relentlessness of the “letting go’s” that go along with that. And in requiring him to be so vulnerably middle-aged, it is requiring him to be vulnerably himself.
Watching these actors work — and listening to them talk about the work — invites the rest of us to honestly consider how these things are true about ourselves. The actors obtain the power to do this by preceding us and asking how these things are true about them, and then having the courage to channel the answers through the characters they must bring to life on the stage. The phrase “bring to life” is a good one because it feels close to what the actors really do. It is not infusing a fiction with life so much as it is bringing the fiction to the experience of their own lives. Somehow then the fiction and their lives — and ours — all get bigger.
Bob Birdnow made my life and the lives of his audiences bigger by demanding that we consider a question about our “greatest self.” And then, suddenly, it was time to mark the lesson and move on. After the last performance, I couldn’t get the lyrics from Stephen Sondheim’s Moments out of my head:
Let the moment go..
Don’t forget it for a moment, though.
Just remembering you had an ‘and,’ when you’re back to ‘or,’
Makes the ‘or’ mean more than it did before.
Now I understand—
And it’s time to leave the woods.
Let it go. Leave the woods. Move on.
Just keep moving on
Anything you do
Let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see…
Thanks, Bob. On to Ruth. More to see…
We close on Easter weekend — the holiest of weekends for millions around the world and in the extremely fundamental East Texas town where I was raised.
Bob Birdnow says, “Myself, I was raised pretty strict Catholic but had gone to Mass less and less over the years.” I was about to write something here like, “Myself, I was raised United Methodist (and, in a way, Southern Baptist, but that’s a long story) but had gone to church less and less over the years,” when it occurred to me that isn’t really true. I do go to church.
My church is the theater.
For me, the theater is what I was raised by my non-fundamental mother to believe the church should be: a place where all people and all questions are truly welcome. All the theater asks is that you respect the property and treat the people around you with dignity and respect.
For me and for other actors, the theater is also our larger community — like the church was for my grandparents. When there is birth or death or marriage or illness, it is the community that organizes to provide material and emotional and spiritual support. When you attend a play in Dallas — especially one that features local actors and designers and directors — you are almost never watching a group of strangers who have simply gotten together to put on a show. You are watching a kind of deeper community at work. And somehow, that informs and deepens the work they do.
For actors, the relationship between stage life and real life can be mysterious and, sometimes, striking. In the next play I will do, for instance, I play a man who dies at the end of the first act, ending a long and loving and playful marriage. The woman that wrote the play recently lost her husband to cancer, ending a long and loving and playful marriage.
Was the writing of the play actually the work of some deeper knowing? A preparation of sorts? And the making of a play now the translation of her experience into ritual — which is how religion teaches and reminds about the sacred?
In that scene, I die in the arms of a younger man. The actor playing that younger man is Clay Wheeler, who in real life is currently in a pretty serious relationship with my daughter. If their relationship lasts, then odds are good that Clay will witness my real death.
Was the casting of the play directed by some deeper and greater intelligence? Instead of reality translating into ritual, is ritual preparing us for some later reality?
And if so, what will Barry be remembering or rehearsing as Bob Birdnow on stage tonight?
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” says Hamlet. ”I’m no scientist,” says Bob Birdnow. ”All’s I know is it happens.”
It happens. Maybe all we can really know about any of it is that we are all in something together. A play. A life. And whatever the “something” is, it’s the “together” that gets us through it. More than that, actually. It’s the “together” that teaches us how to love it.
We’ll be worshipping and celebrating all of that with the characters of The Midwest Trilogy tonight and tomorrow night at Second Thought Theatre. All people and all questions are truly welcome. All we ask is that you respect the property and treat the people around you with dignity and respect.
Services start at 8.
Clothes Make the Bob
Costume designers win awards for the way their costumes look. I’d like to see an award for the way their costumes feel, too. I’d nominate Bob’s designer, Andie Day, for both. And in any argument about the second award – the one about the value of the design to the work of the actor – I’d be passionate.
The putting on of costumes is a critical — sometimes pivotal — part of any actor’s process. This is because the right clothes will change the way an actor feels on the inside just as much as they alter the way he looks on the outside. There is literally a way in which the work of putting on the costume becomes the work of putting on the role.
For me, this happens every night. With Bob, as with almost every other role I’ve done, I find I’ve evolved a very particular ritual around how I dress – both the order of things I put on and the way I put them on. Somehow it helps me gradually distance myself from whatever has dominated Barry’s day to the mindset that needs to rule Bob’s night.
I start with the t-shirt.
True confession: Bob wears a wife beater. I’m not sure what this means or why it needs to be confessed, but we actually had a choice between the more conventional tee and a wife beater. The costumer left it up to me, and I chose the wife beater. I can’t explain it, but then I do not pretend to understand everything about the mind of Bob. But I warm up my body and voice in Bob’s wife beater tee.
When I get back to the dressing room, I remove and fold my pants and put on Bob’s plaid shirt and brown socks. (The image you are now having of a middle-aged man in a dressing room in his shirt, briefs and socks is accurate. Sorry.) Then I sit and begin to prepare Bob’s bad leg – a process that involves using an ace bandage and a very particular arrangement of safety pins to bind a ruler like a splint along my left knee. I put the socks on first because it helps to stick one end of the ruler in my left sock to keep it stable.
With the leg secure, I slip on Bob’s pant and belt and then his shoes. I always put the right shoe on first, because it helps me raise myself enough to slip my now-stiff left leg into the other shoe. Most actors could, by the way, devote an entire blog entry to the importance and the effect of shoes alone. There is often something cathartic about understanding the way a character’s feet connect to the earth.
I put Bob’s watch on my right wrist, something that it is particularly helpful because it is different. In real life, I always wear my watch on my left wrist. Also, I have a pact with myself that whenever in the process I first think about Bob’s glasses I will stop whatever I am doing, take my everyday glasses off and put Bob’s in my shirt pocket. One of my Birdnow nightmares involves accidentally going on stage in the wrong glasses. Another involves going onstage without any glasses at all.
Then I wait.
At five minutes before my entrance, an emissary from the stage manager appears to help me immobilize an arm and put on Bob’s corduroy sportcoat. I’m then left alone to put on Bob’s glasses and focus before going downstairs and making his entrance.
There is something particularly important about these last three things.
Somehow, when my arm is immobilized whatever wants to intrude on my concentration recedes and the monologue feels more accessible to me.
The glasses matter because they literally finish the costume and mark the end of the dressing “ritual.”
When I say “focus,” I mean that I pause at the mirror and deliberately look into my own eyes. This is adapted from the focusing ritual that Kitchen Dog Theater casts always complete just before going on stage – looking into each other eyes until all feel connected. It is not rushed. They take as much time as it takes, and I’m always grateful for the support and reassurance I feel from the other actors around me. It’s like they’re saying, “I’m here and you can trust me. I’ve got your back. Let’s do this.”
It is the one thing left to do once everyone is dressed and ready.
When you’re the only actor in the show, you have to look into your own eyes for those things. I stand and wait and look until my own eyes say, “I’m here and you can trust me. I’ve got your back.”
I am dressed and — thanks in large part to that and to the work of the designer that conceived it all — I am ready.
“Let’s do this.”
My mom was at the show on Thursday night. Eric Steele’s parents were there, with family friends. And Chris LaBove’s. My daughter, Barrett, and her squeeze, Clay Wheeler, were there, too. In fact, if it hadn’t been for family and friends, I think we would have had an audience of three.
I’m not complaining. These people all listened with such love and attention. Parents doing what parents do. Showing up, especially when the rest of the world is otherwise engaged.
As a parent, you know your children will sometimes get an attention they deserve and sometimes not — and that the world will move around them in ways that mostly have little to do with them. This can be one of the hardest and greatest lessons of working in the theater. Sometimes the work is seen and sometimes not so much. Faced with this, those that stay in do so because there is simply a deeper, unexplainable calling at work that nurtures of itself — something that perseveres even when attention is in exile.
For a parent, showing up is a sacred and precious responsibility — and I am not overstating this. As a parent you show up because you want your children to know that, whether anyone else notices or not, the ways that they pour their love into their lives matters. It sheds light, even if they cannot always know where or how that light will fall.
And when your children have the courage to cast their light into a sea of strange faces — or a near-empty room — you are there to be the face they can count on to receive that light and reflect it back to them as joy. You are there to be the face that gives courage for the next time and the next time and for all the times that will stretch into their future beyond you.
I want my children to forever be able to close their eyes and conjure my face in the crowd — watching with the love and intensity and the pride of the parents we had on Thursday night.
When I know they can do that, I’ll know that they know the truth and depth of my love for them.
And I’ll know that all will be well with them, whether there are five people in the house or five hundred.
Acting is like…
There is a way that acting is always like whatever you happen to be doing at the time.
For instance, yesterday I was polishing an old brass bed and so I was thinking that acting is like polishing that bed.
For one thing, I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought I’d just pull a little Brasso out of the cabinet, wipe the thing down and be done. Thirty minutes. Tops. So I put the solution on a rag and wiped — AND THE RAG TURNED BLACK BUT THE BED LOOKED THE SAME. (All caps should be translated as the beginning stage of panic — the moment when the brass polisher — or actor —begins to realize that this will not be nearly as simple or easy as he thought.)
My first reaction was, naturally, “There has to be an easier way.” And so I stopped rubbing and spent the next hour or two (in this order) going to Home Depot, consulting the internet, and going to the grocery store. By the time I was done, I had four bottles of Brasso, two bottles of toilet bowl cleaner (you can consult the internet yourself if you want an explanation of this), a package of 24 shop terrycloth shop towels, heavy rubber gloves and four boxes of steel wool. Actors will recognize this stage. You begin the work and nothing seems to be happening, and so you stop the work and go looking around for inspiration, hoping for something that will ease and speed your journey to the heart of things.
Excitedly, I went back to work on the bed, applying my new solution and imagining the shiny and beautiful result. And the rag turned black and the bed still looked the same! I put more solution on the cloth and rubbed longer and harder — I mean I rubbed really hard — and this time the rag turned black and the bed looked a little less black — but still a long way from anything you’d recognize as brass. Now, this might sound like progress to you, but to the brass polisher it sounds like, “Oh my god, this is going to be a lot harder than I thought and it’s going to take forever — and I don’t have forever!” The equivalent actor’s voice is, “Ok, maybe I finally got that one little bit sort of right, but it’s not there yet and what then am I going to do about the rest of the damned thing?”
If you have worked with Director Trull, this is when you recall his speech about acting being blue collar work. The real stuff is not in your head but in your body. And you find the real stuff by getting out of your head and on your feet and doing the thing over and over and over and over. Sort of like you polish a bed by rubbing and rubbing and rubbing and rubbing. Acting and bed polishing are blue collar work.
That’s not to say that the time in your head doesn’t pay off. At some point, it occurred to me to put the Brasso on the steel wool, which was something I’d bought as a result of my research. That actually did make it a little easier to remove the tarnish. It was still hard work, but parts of the bed did begin to look like brass again. The sweat was not optional, but there was hope too.
Likewise, in the middle of the hard work of rehearsing something from the head work — the “table work,” actors call it — may suddenly and unexpectedly cause everything to make sense in a new way. But it happens later, when you’re sweating and on your feet. Not at the table.
Instead of wiping for thirty minutes, I rubbed and rubbed and rubbed for four hours, stopping not because the bed was perfectly polished — far from it — but because I’d run out of time. This is really what “opening night” means to actors. It is not the night that the play is ready to be perfectly played. It is the night that they have run out of time and so the play has to be imperfectly played, shiny in some spots and still needing elbow grease in others.
You don’t have to look closely at my bed to see it’s exactly the same with bed polishing. I rubbed and rubbed and rubbed and then I ran out of time.
And so acting is like whatever the actor happens to be doing at the time. For me, yesterday acting was like polishing a brass bed. My wife, who has been really sick this week, finally scored some antibiotics yesterday — and so I’m hopeful that soon acting will be like having sex.
It’s still a kind of bed work, I suppose, and I figure there’s a way the stuff about rubbing and rubbing and rubbing might still apply. I’ll just need to reconsider the business about stopping because you run out of time.
Let me think…
Mark Daves, husband of Dallas playwright Vicki Cheatwood, passed away this morning.
Tonight’s performance of Bob Birdnow’s Remarkable Tale of Human Endurance and the Transcendence of Self is offered in gratitude for Mark and Vicki, whose courage and commitment have reminded all of us in the Dallas theater community that the most important thing we do as actors or writers or directors or anything else in this world is take care of each other.
Bloody Bob Birdnow
Sometimes we find ourselves connected to roles in strange and unexpected ways.
I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that Bob Birdnow has some choices to make about sharp objects and throat cutting.
This is a photograph of my great-grandfather, who killed himself by slitting his own throat with a straight razor.
So it’s a dilemma that’s, literally, in my blood.
The Kindness of Actors
No blog day before yesterday because I was too frustrated and embarrassed and — maybe — scared.
This was our last rehearsal before previews and an audience. At some point in the narrative I realized I had skipped a part of the story. I stopped and announced that I was going to start again. In the hall, I was discussing the restart with Stage Manager Ruth. There was no judgement or concern in her eyes. Just “Where do you want me to start?” Even though she had to go to work extremely early the next morning and I was making a choice that would keep her even later than usual.
Lee (Director Trull) asked us to move the conversation to the dressing room. I went to the dressing room to collect my thoughts. Shortly after, Lee came in and shut the door.
“What’s going on?”, he asked.
To appreciate what happened next you need to understand that when an actor is having trouble his radar is up for any signal at all that others have given up on him. It can be a look in the eye or the simplest turn of phrase. And it can be debilitating, intended or not.
It can be especially debilitating, I suppose (“suppose,” because this is new territory for me) when you are the old man in a tribe of younger men. The old lion in a pride of young ones. You can’t procreate. You can’t run as fast or throw a spear as far as you used to. And now you can’t remember your lines. Somewhere deep in your bones you feel the end of your usefulness and your eventual exile. That’s why, when you are the old man in a tribe of younger men, the last thing you want is to appear weak or in any way needy. When you’re younger and you show those things, it is just a matter of learning something you didn’t know or figuring how to get something you don’t have. When you’re older, it is a matter of survival.
Lee and I talked. He turned out the light and asked me to begin the narrative, then turned it on as I continued to the end. We talked some more. He asked amazingly good and penetrating questions. I really cannot do justice to the depth of thought and fearless candor he brings to the conversation. And it deserves to be acknowledged. What he did not do — and this also deserves acknowledgment — was tell me in word or in look that he had any doubts about my ability to do what needed to be done.
What he also did not do was tell me that important people in his professional life would be at the next evening’s performance. He had things at stake, too, but he did not for a minute make that my burden or concern. He will say (I know, because later I asked him) that it was not anything he did out of concern for me but because he just had no anxiety about how things would go. For me, it was an act of empathy and kindness. Oh, I get that I’m his (only) actor and he has to be careful about adding to any anxiety he thinks I have. Still, it was a choice that many directors of any age would not have had the control or wisdom to make. We were about to have an audience — an important one in some respects — and we had not managed a full runthru of the show.
Lee left. I checked my phone and there was a message — a series of messages, actually — from Eric (Author Steele), who had been in the audience the last couple of nights. Nothing at all about the rehearsals. Just saying how much he loved watching the show and and couldn’t wait to have a house for it. Couldn’t wait for others to see me do what he was seeing. Nothing like “It’ll be ok. Don’t worry.” It was, he was saying, already ok. More than ok.
Still in costume, I walked out and bumped into Steven Walters and Chris Lebove, artistic directors of the Company. Steven had done a highly acclaimed one-man show last season and began the conversation with “If it makes you feel any better, the night I opened I somehow skipped to page 35 within the first few minutes of the show and spent the next few minutes somehow working my way back.” This is sometimes the way that men take care of and encourage each other. We stand close, look each other in the eye, and tell war stories. We don’t deny or minimize the fight but speak to it. I was there. I did what I had to do and I have the scars and the wisdom to show for it. And now I am here and I am thriving. And so will you.
A few minutes later I was standing on the stage still in costume and contemplating whether to begin from the beginning and work through on my own. Rob (Producer McCollum) came through and without hesitating said, “I’m kicking you out because no one is worried about this. Go get dressed.” Then he came and stood close and let me talk for a minute and then told me to get out again. This is another way that men take care of each other. We stand close, look each other in the eye and really listen. Then we get on with the business at hand, because the proper energy is action. There is a time to linger and a time to move on.
The house was 2/3 full for our first preview.
Frank Mosley (one of the stars of the Midwest Trilogy film, Cork’s Cattlebaron) is an actor I do not know well personally. But he always takes the time to send me a note when he sees my work, letting me know he enjoyed and appreciated it. This is one other way that actors take care of each other. We take the time to remind other actors that they may not know us but we are here and watching, we know what they are facing, and we love them for facing it. Frank was sitting on the back row, but he was watching with an energy and a love — not for me but for the effort, which is holy to actors — that filled the room and filled me, too.
Finally, Drew Wall was sitting house left, in front of everyone else. If anyone associated with the show has earned the right to skip a performance of this show it is Drew. He saw most of the rehearsals last summer, most of the FIT performances and has seen a number of the rehearsals this time around. But there he was, making eye contact and listening with the kind of attention that any actor would recognize as more than observance. It was the kind of attention that great actors give to each other on stage. The kind of attention that says, “I’m in this with you and I’ve got your back.” It is Connection, and every actor knows that it is also an experience of profound generosity. It is one of the things that keeps actors coming back again and again, playing for sometimes small houses and almost no money. It is one of the things that keeps me — the oldest guy in the room — coming back.
I am serious about the fear of admitting need and weakness, and this is not an easy entry to write — especially with performances and audiences ahead of all of us. But I have committed here to write about process, and any description of process would be somehow dishonest without this chapter in the story. I say audiences ahead of “us” deliberately because theater is always a collaborative act, no matter how many actors are on stage. Factually collaborative, sure — someone built the sets and designed the sound and is working the lights as well as speaking the words on stage. But more important than that it is emotionally collaborative. Every play you see has a back story of people taking care of each other. Sometimes profoundly.
I have been profoundly cared for this week. Reminded that I am never alone and that my weakness and need are not death sentences. Weakness and need are human, no matter what your age, and there is help waiting in the hearts and the eyes of the tribe around me. I only need to keep my own heart and eyes open enough to let it in and to let it help.
I am so grateful to be an actor. And I am so grateful for the actors — and for the help — that is around me.
What To Remember When You Can’t Remember, or A Story in Two Parts
Part One: When You Can’t Remember
I went up in rehearsal tonight. With only one rehearsal left before our first preview. I did not just forget a line. I lost my place in the story. I stood in silence a long time and waited for the story to come back to me.
It felt terrifying and then humiliating. I was flaming out in the presence of people I respect and care about. People who are trusting me to get it right. I was pissed and wanted to do it all again.
Director Trull asked if I trusted him.
Then he asked me to get out of costume, take notes and go home.
Part Two: What To Remember
I came home to emails that reminded me that I have friends with real problems. Life and death problems. In comparison, my anxieties about this particular rehearsal and this play really do not qualify. They do not even belong in the same conversation.
I do not mean this to trivialize or excuse my mistakes tonight. They were, for me, difficult reminders that a certain kind of failure is always a real and unpredictable possibility. There is a real risk of letting myself down, and worse, letting down people who are trusting me with their own hard work.
But my friends’ struggles remind me that the real gift of the work — and what I personally value most about my time in the theater — is the time we have with each other. When all is said and done, it is not so much the plays we will miss and remember. It’s the people. And my world is full of caring and supportive people.
Getting it right is important, but it is not what’s most important.
As Bob Birdnow might say: ”I suppose I should remember that one.”
This is a true story about the way the universe messes with the actor’s head.
First, some background:
When actors are having a tough time with a role — basically when their inner actor begins to scream “I-will-never-really-get-this” — they begin to make lists of other actors they are certain would get it and know exactly what to do with it. Generally, actors keep these lists to themselves because 1) they are absolutely certain they are right and 2) they desperately hope no one else sees this light as clearly as they have.
So…yesterday I was making my list of Better Bobs — actors I’m certain would find the honesty and authenticity that seemed to be eluding me: James Crawford, Christie Vela (I’m not kidding about this) and, top of the list, Matthew Gray — an actor (and human being, by the way) who always comes to the work with an open heart and a voice from his belly. I always root for Matt, because he always seems like the kind of guy the world could use more of. Matt could kill all of his friends — excepting me, of course — and I would be just fine with it.
So I walk into the theater last night after my butchery of Bob on Sunday and guess who is standing in the Bob spot on stage? In the flesh. The big-hearted, big-voiced man himself. Matthew “Better Bob” Gray.
This is a true story.
It’s also true that Mercury is in retrograde, by the way. and the Village Witch on Facebook is warning against doing anything that involves getting out of the house for the next several weeks.
My actor’s head is spinning. Should I stay home? Should audiences? And why isn’t Matthew staying home?
What can it all mean?