Actor-Speak, or That Sucking Sound is Me
Tech and first rehearsal in the theater.
Here’s the thing: Director Trull is an honest man. He pretty much can’t help himself.
Here’s what I hate: Director Trull says I sucked today.* (For the record, he did not use these words. But he and I both know what he meant, because we both speak “actor.”)
Here’s what I really hate: Director Trull is right.
Everything was forced. Voice. Body. Mind. I was blocking the play and not allowing it to come through me. This is one of the real paradoxes of any type of performance work. It takes all sorts of effort to reach the point of performance, and then it takes a kind of letting go of effort to perform truthfully.
What I did today was not bad acting. It’s worse than that. It was dishonest and stylized acting. The kind of acting that calls attention to itself — and can kill a good play. And this is a good play.
Now the real work begins. The good news, I suppose, is that Director Trull will be honest with me about it. And if I cannot get it, the bad news is that Director Trull will be honest with me about it.
*An additional note on actor-speak: Director Trull said (again, in actor-speak) that I sucked today. If you are not an actor, it is important to know that actors will not hear these words as others might. In the acting brain, “today” generally translates as “in general” or “more than usual” or “period.” So that “You sucked today” is heard by the actor as “You suck in general” or “You suck more than usual” or “You suck. Period.” This is only true, by the way, when the word “today” is used to modify the word “suck.” When “today” is used in other contexts — like “I will pay the tab for you today” or “I will have sex with you today,” actors generally have no problem comprehending the more traditional meaning of the word.
Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell.
We attended Kitchen Dog Theater’s annual fundraising party, Hooch n’ Pooch, last night. Three hours in a room full of very smart and talented people. I could drop names, but in the interest of time will only say that any list of same would include Director Trull (and I mention that because we are now officially heading into Tech Week — not unlike what we knew in my fraternity life as Hell Week — and I really need to stay on his good side).
When the community of theater artists get together there are invariably three conversations going on. Two are spoken. One not so much.
Spoken conversation number one: I am designing or directing or acting in this or that play and it is going this way or the other way or both ways.
Spoken conversation number two: I have this new job or that new spouse or here is the picture of our new house and the kids are fine and by the way what’s up with the Mavs.
And then there is conversation number three — the one we’re having with ourselves: The car needs new brakes and the creditors are calling. We haven’t had sex for weeks and I’m afraid she hates me almost as much as she hates her job. She’s really sick and I’m really scared. I’m really sick and I’m really scared. I’m feeling old. I’m feeling fat. I f*&*$d up. I’m really f*#@*d. And so on. The places we really feel vulnerable because we really feel helpless or inadequate or incompetent or all of those at once. The face we have behind the face we wear — especially to a party.
In the Birdnow piece, Author Steele tells the story of a man that finds himself in conversation #3 in a very public way. To connect to that I’m going to have to ask myself what conversations I’d really rather keep to myself. What are the things I’m NOT saying? What is there about Barry I’d be terrified to share? And why.
Bob’s Big Question
Yesterday we were working through the section of the play where Bob describes being stuck and injured — his legs, in particular. This morning, the CNN website features a story about a woman being stuck and injured during this week’s tornados — her legs, especially.
In case you missed it, you can click on this photo to link to the story.
For me, it’s a reminder of the literal truth in the story Bob is telling. The injuries he describes are fictional, but they do not stretch truth.
More interesting — and important — than the injuries themselves is the way that this woman responds to them. Same with Bob.
Birdnow literally asks “Who is your greatest self?” but his story asks more: How are you hurt? Where are you “bleeding”? And what will you do about it?
Thinking of this actually reminds me of my mother — a woman who has certainly endured her share of tragedy. Her husband (my father) died at 29, leaving her with boys 6 months and 2 years old to support and raise on her own. Her second husband made the long, full descent to death by Alzheimer’s, and she faced all of the terrible decision-making and work that goes along with being the primary caregiver.
There is a moment Mom has always loved right at the end of Michel Ghelderode’s one-act play, The Women at the Tomb. The play is set in a house in Jerusalem where the disciples are gathering in the wake of the crucifixion. Crouched and silent in a corner is the most wounded of the living — Jesus’ mother. She says nothing as others rage and argue and panic around her. Finally, left alone, she stands and begins to sweep the floor.
Mom likes the complete story this tells. Sitting and grieving. And then the courageous doing. She knows the immense effort it can take to do something as simple as standing and taking the broom in hand. And she appreciates and believes in it.
This has always been my mother’s response to trouble, and is the way she has always responded to my own trouble. An interested and sympathetic ear, and then the question: Well, Son, what are you going to do about it?
The Line Police (or, Keeping My Pants On)
Director Trull has decided that the proper way to approach the play is to assume that every choice Author Steele made was deliberate and somehow important to the playing of the piece.
This means that commas and periods and ellipses (and the absence of same) all mean something. That if Author Steele wrote “the” instead of “that” or “I have” instead of “I’ve” it is as important as the choice of “B flat” instead of “B” would be in a piece of music.
It’s an approach not unlike the one the learned folks at Shakespeare & Company (trainers of actors all over the world, including our local festival artists) take to performance interpretation of the work of Author Shakespeare. It means one thing if a period occurs in the middle of a line of verse and quite another if it occurs at the end of the line. Playing Shakespeare begins with playing the original punctuation the way that it occurs in the most original form we have for most of the plays — the First Folio.
And I thought I had the thing memorized.
Rehearsal One revealed how wrong I was. I had SOMETHING memorized. I was playing SOMETHING. The question is — by Director Trull’s standards — was it really the play that Author Steele wrote? Or was it an imperfect facsimile that began with Author Steele’s script but was not necessarily (entirely) true to it? To apply the musical analogy: Is there an essential melody that was somehow perverted by the notes that I altered and added along the way?
Time will tell — assuming I can ever learn to really speak the thing the way that it’s (or should I say “it was”) written in the first place. Rehearsals now consist largely of me speaking to the Committee of Line Police (Director Trull, Assistant Director Miranda, Stage Manager Ruth) and hoping I can put together a sentence or two before I’m interrupted or a hand shoots up. This can be intimidating and frustrating, not to mention a little frightening. I mean, I THOUGHT I knew the damned thing.
I keep thinking of Geoffrey Rush’s character in the movie, Shine, who became so consumed with learning the notes of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd piano concerto that he forgot to put his pants on when he went to retrieve the mail.
This I know: As tolerant and open-minded as my neighbors are, wandering the neighborhood pantless will not fly.
Conversation(s) with Director Trull
Director Trull: Last summer, we never really found the rhythm of the piece.
Outer Barry: (Smiling.) I know exactly what you mean.
Inner Barry: (Fretting.) What??? Never found the rhythm of the piece? What if you change it and people don’t LIKE you as much? What does Director “I’m an Equity Actor and You’re Not and I Get a Paycheck from DTC and You Don’t and I’m Young and Smart and You’re Old and Dumb and I’m Tall and You’re Short and I Have Hair and You Don’t” Trull know anyway?
Inner Barry loves to hear himself talk. He thinks he is smarter than Director Trull because he thinks he is smarter than everybody. And he tells me constantly that he is the only one that REALLY loves and cares about me. All the others just want to USE me. I try not to invite him to rehearsals but he almost always shows up, yammering on. I need to shut him up so that I can hear the play - and Director Trull.
This will not be easy. Biographers say that Eleanora Duse used to sit for hours, waiting for Inner Eleanora to wear herself out so that Outer Eleanora could do the play without her.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were some sort of collective psychological day care for actors’ inner egos? Some place I could send Inner Barry to play with all the Inner Eleanoras of the world while I did the play without him?
I’m thinking today that I’d be willing to pay for that. A lot.
The Actor’s Mind
We began work on Birdnow again yesterday and I was really looking forward to it. But here’s the thing. The first time around I learned the lines during a week sitting with my scantily-clad wife on a beach in Mexico. So…as the rigors of self-reflection and self-honesty are the stuff that performance is made of (once you know the lines, that is) I have to ask myself: Am I really looking forward to doing the piece itself? Or is my anticipation really driven by a subconscious association with sitting on a Mexican beach with my scantily-clad wife? This, I think, was the question consuming me in the photo that Lee Trull posted from the first day of rehearsal.
More line work today, and then dinner with my (probably fully clothed) wife.
And so it begins…