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…