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.