25 April 2007

Critical Mass


"I have of late, though wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth. Foregone all custom of exercises, and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory. This most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave, o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire . . . why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours!"

Any errors in quotation are my fault, done from memory.

I wonder what kind of reviews Hamlet got in the days of its first revival. "Something's rotten in the state of Denmark, and mostly it has to do with the direction by Forsythe B. Fmythe . . .." A Lie of the Mind closes this week, and we got several reviews, but none by major players as far as I know. In fact, we had two from theatre websites, and three from weblogs. None from printed publications, as far as I've heard. And, of course, countless reviews from friends and enemies alike. On the whole, very positive reviews. The best of us got some excellent praise, and most of the harsher critique came of Shepard's script or staging and budget issues difficult to change.

However. How. Ever. I have never counted myself amongst "the best of us" in this show, and in fact had some trepidation early on that I may have been the weakest link--goodbye! The entire group is among the most supportive I have ever had the pleasure of working with, so I got by with my uncertainty and frustrations. Then came my reviews. "...vibrant, but relatively unadventurous..." "difficult time tapping into the vulnerability" "overdone frustration" "seems as though this cast often does all it can to ignore these cues and idle until a scene change frees them from their stasis" And of course a good deal of my friends had nothing but good things to say, and I thank them profoundly. I should thank the ones who have had more critical things to say, too . . . and I do. But these critical reviews have culminated for me, and I am left with questions I need answers to. At first I simply hated myself, and it showed in my performances, I'm ashamed to admit. So questions are welcome, even if doubt inspires them more than curiosity.

If I had to sum up the critical response to my work in this show, I suppose it would have something to do with being too mannered (a common blight of practicing so much physical theatre) yet at once a bit mild, or incapable of accessing that spark of passion so essential to Shepard. To put it bluntly, unbelievable and dull.

Owitch.

Okay, so . . . I'm going to assume from the get-go that I'm not the world's worst actor. That's a good place to start, as it circumvents the otherwise requisite removal of my own eyes with this letter opener, Oedipus-like. So: not the worst. I mean, I've been at this for some time now. Someone would have told me . . . and even if they wouldn't, I know I've worked with worse than me. That having been established, I have to tackle some cause-and-effect. This is tricky territory, as it is essentially excuse hunting. I need to be sure to slay all that what might delude me, and capture that reason most true.

Maybe I just don't relate to the play/Shepard in any kind of helpful way.
Tempting, but no. That excuses having to work extra hard to do a good job, not doing an actual bad one.
Maybe I'm sabotaged by my physical theatre practice.
Less tempting; and maybe I'm just kidding myself here, but it seems to me they should feed one another nicely, and it's not like I'm never in naturalistic plays. In the past year I've done two contemporary plays, dramatic and comic.
Maybe getting older is draining some of my capacity for creativity.
Some people are going to be up in arms over this one, I know already. Nevertheless, I find validity in it. It goes at different rates for different people, but wonder is generally a more precious commodity in older ages, and it takes wonder to be creative. Then again, I invented a whole routine out of getting out the backseat of Heather's car last weekend, so perhaps not.
Maybe being an actor is not what I need right now.

Huh. Could be something to that. At the risk of sounding fairly self-defeating, perhaps the reason I lack luster is that my needs are not being altogether met. I don't mean that in a blame-shifting sort of way; rather, I mean to take responsibility for diagnosing and then fulfilling my own needs. It is not something for which I am historically famous, this actor-heal-thyself behavior. All the more reason to take the idea seriously.

Of course, there is also the possibility that my work in A Lie of the Mind has been very good indeed, and simply lacked good, expressed opinion. It's possible. It's probable that I should just work to please myself--not to the deficit of the audience, but to a high personal standard of constant improvement. I try to do this. It's hard to adhere to, particularly in such a spectator/commentator sport, and especially when you've seen so many examples of actors who seem so blissfully ignorant of just how terrible their work is. The temptation there is to believe your negative feedback to be absolute in its truth, to accept the verdict that you are one of the failed and undeserving. Yet I continue to try to do good work. Why? The show must go on.

Also: The readiness is all.

15 comments:

Davey said...

(OK, this got a lot longer than I expected, but I'm not toning it down. It may sound a little pompus, but so it goes...No editing, I just sat down and wrote it, so it's as true as it gets...)

You have forgotten one of the big ones my friend. You are turning 30. Not just "getting older may be sapping my creativity", but 30. If my experience is anything like normal, then the weeks/months leading up to this big event will be filled with every sign that things aren't working out. You may fall flat on your face at an audition, fight with a S.O. or friends. You will doubt yourself, your choices, and your craft. Your friends will rally 'round and tell you that you are the best you that you can be. You will ignore them and lie in your bed at night alone thinking/crying/wailing/breathing/screaming
just wanting someone to tell you it will be ok, and knowing that no one can tell you that but you.
You might even get arrested. ;-P

And then,when you wake up, and you are thirty... Well, I don't want to spoil it. But I expect at least a one act off Broadway outta you. Maybe more. I guess it depends on how far you reach.

There are a lot of light bulbs up there that need changing Mac. The brightest light bulb that needs changing is the furthest away from the ladder. This is a fact. Will you change the light bulb right above the ladder? It will work, and you will be illuminated. I promise you it will work. But that last bulb out there needs changing too. How far will you reach?

Jeff Wills said...

Thanks for the perspective, old friend. I need to know, though: is it okay to do pratfalls with the ladder? I mean, if eventually I get the lightbulbs changed and everything?

Davey said...

So you want to know if it's okay to do pratfalls with the ladder. You mean subvert the fact that the light bulb is supposed to be farthest away by doing pratfalls until the ladder is closer. Hell dude, everyone does things their way, otherwise you're not being true to you. Wolverine would just jump, regardless of how far away or what was under him. John would most likely get someone else to do it for him. Now don't take this the wrong way, but what's the most significant factor when it comes to Batman defeating foes who should be superior to him? He cheats! You know I don't mean that in a bad way, I mean he thinks outside the box. He always comes up with a plan no one would ever think of. Kryptonite ring, use one stretchy guy to catch another... So, you want to know if you can "walk" the ladder closer using pratfalls and such? Bats, I wouldn't expect anything less.
Hey, and then you'll still have the ladder nearby to help Wolvie down!

Adam said...

Hey there mister! I'll have none of this self doubt business. Reflection, fine. But not doubt. I point you to time, right after I began to pepper you with questions about the fate of the characters, mainly your's, and that strange woman approached us.

You remember. She started to gush about how awesome you were, and wished that someone who was someone could see your performance. But then she couldn't tell you ger name.

Strange, indeed. But I took that as a good sign. And so should you.

For more pep talks on this, or any other topic, please contact Adam Lash. No job is too big, no fee is too big :) (name that movie)

Jeff Wills said...

Ghostbusters. Thanks, Adam. Davey, your penchant for superhero(TM) metaphor is unparalleled. And if I had a magnetic grapple I wouldn't even need that damn ladder.

walkinhomefromthethriftstore said...

I kind of agree with the 30 thing. Also tho', what's the last acting class you took? Found any new mentors? Learned any new exercises? Splurged on tickets to a show that might be very inspiring to future work?
I get the feeling from your post that you feel like you should already be there, and the end of the line as the best you can be, but you're still in the middle of it and can always get better.

Jeff Wills said...

I can't deny that I'd like to be the best I can be, and every show is a lesson. Still and all, it burns. Maybe it's just turning 30, but I feel as though I should in fact be farther along than I am. Not done, or ultimate, but maybe slightly penultimate? Just a lil'?

Nat said...

If my past two shows have taught me anything, it's Fuck Reviews. That shitty Midsummer got stellar reviews, and Learned Ladies, which I though was some of my best work in NY, didn't get a single word written about it, even online, save in your blog (thanks, by the way). So fuck those dudes. Does that sound familiar? That is because it is truth!

Melissa Riker said...

Thirty is JUST THE BEGINNING
Fuck all those snot nosed children running around with angst up their hindquarters thinking that 20 is the place to be. Sorry. Just ain't so my friendzzzz.
I know these thoughts are a bit out of character sounding.
BUT
THIS is IT Jeff.
Take the lessons & apply them to ART.
Then apply it LIFE.
Grab the freakin' light bulb and change it.
Swing from it.
Put a new color in.
Hang from your toes.
DON'T second guess it.

Art would die a slow and ugly death if we all listened to the self effacing & depressing whispers of the evil angel on our earlobe.

I say all of this with love and respect.
But not much in the way of sympathy toward a fabulous actor and man who is growing into himself more and more as an artist and beautiful refelective human. I just don't see much to sympathize with. ;-)
30 can only be better then stupid old 29.
And all of these things I say to you, I say to myself almost everyday.
Love.

Jeff Wills said...

Nat, you deserved groupies for your performance in Learned Ladies. Sadly, I couldn't hang on you and a champagne bottle at the same time. Kick you in the face, yes. Effectively groupyize, no.

Melissa, you're the kind of dear that people mean when they started addressing letters that way. Let's go be superheroes.

Patrick said...

Okay... quietly resisting the urge to turn into a puma and eat your liver, or just jump up and down on you until you're bleeding through every orifice... Yes, reviews are tricky terrain. We know they're simply one person's opinion, and if we don't know anything about that person (her likes and dislikes, experience, education, general knowledge re: theatre etc.) we don't know how to gauge her reactions... but none of that stops the sting we get from her criticism, or worse, her ignoring us all together.
Oh so very much to say on this particular entry, and indeed all the LotM entries, but for now, here's some unsolicited advice. Don't play for the audience. Don't play for yourself. Connect with your scene partners. The answers to all your questions is in the eyes of the other characters. Don't worry about being Frankie, just go out there and fight his battles.
Then, the next thing you must do is reward yourself for having done this work. And I mean with some concrete action or physical thing. A new book, new music, clothes, preferably not something perishable, but if you really must, maybe a bottle of wine, SOMETHING to commemorate how hard you worked on this play, how much it meant to you, what kinds of discoveries you've made because of it, just the fact that you got to do it at all... give yourself a present. I'm not talking metaphorical. I'm not talking "good for me" presents like a gym membership or a class (unless you truly would enjoy either of those), I mean a reward. I will bug the shit out of you until you do it. Just ask Melissa. I'm so not kidding, and I will NOT be put off. I don't want to hear word ONE about lack of funds, no one said anything about it being expensive, hell, you could probably do something for free. Just do it, you'll save yourself so much grief. That is until I beat you to death with my walker. Too old... god I just want to kick you until you're dead...

Jeff Wills said...

Believing in oneself isn't always easy, but sometimes it can also be incredibly complicated on top of all that. No, reviewers don't know everything, but when a great variety of them approach some kind of common opinion, it becomes difficult ... possibly even foolhardy ... to ignore. Your acting advice is very good, Patrick, and I can see I've lost sight of it in all this. Seems I could do with a bit more belief all around. Trust the Gods, trust yourself.

I bought myself a CD. It's really good.

And as for the age thing ... I SAID IT WAS RELATIVE! My feeling old doesn't have anything to do with my actual years, though the impending birthday does keep it in the fore of my mind. So defang, puma! I mean you no harm. There may even be a salt lick in it for you...

Patrick said...

Yeah yeah, it's all relative yadda yadda yadda, I'm still not letting you indulge this one. My taking it personally was an act though, as I'm sure you realize. I, like many of Irish descent, speak fluent Hyperbole. (I'd rather DIE than exaggerate!)
Glad you got the CD. Glad it's good. I'm still having to hound Melissa, and truth be told, I wasn't sure I had the stamina to deal with two of you at once. Not at my age...

Jeff Wills said...

Oh yeah. Yeah, you have to be careful. Hanging your entire body weight from your toes is fine, and so is effectively summoning the spirit of a bull calf into your body, but watch out for lambasting me and Melissa. We'll break you. Like unleavened bread, we'll break you.

Melissa Riker said...

;-)
One must learn not to fight a war on two fronts dear Patrick.
Good job for buying the CD Jeff...
I haven't yet -
Although I have been watching movies.
Like "Stranger Than Fiction"
I loved it.
I will get my just rewards.
I promise Patrick.