27 July 2007

New Hampshire Log: Day Two—This Man’s Army

It’s fascinating to be reading Simon Callow’s Being an Actor during this process, and hear his (young) voice in frustration over the direction Joint Stock is taking. I often feel this way about our work in UnCommon Cause (formerly Joint Stock Theatre Alliance, a not-too-subtle nod to the original company), but I’m aware that these feelings have varying degrees of validity. (Which is good, because my expression of these feelings in this here ‘blog got me in a brief period of hot water with Laurie at the start of the summer.) Most of the time, any frustration I feel has to do with this: “Oh holy Hefeweizen! Can’t we just work on scenes and have directorial decisions applied to us and get the hell on with it?" Ah-ha-ha. No, Jeff. That sort of defeats the two years of patient, sensitive work we’ve already invested, don’t it? The whole point of this manner of work is that it challenges everyone involved to be truly involved, and that creates beautiful, nuanced effects you just can’t get from a three-week rehearsal period with an unalterable story and script.

It’s a little bit like Mr. Miagi’s training in The Karate Kid; you spend months painting and washing and seemingly suddenly you can deflect the blows of a superior opponent.

Or perhaps it’s a bit like boot camp. Monday was dominated by training in military ways and means, one of our new strengths being the presence of a former Marine in our current cast, in the form of actor Mike (Yes, yes—I will get his last name already!). In the morning Mike took me through my military paces, in part under the supervision of Tracey. It was reminiscent of many things I’ve experienced in my life: years of Boy Scouts (I had already made this connection in the character, and try to wear my Boy Scout belt to every rehearsal), marching band, martial arts and Suzuki training. The appreciation of discipline is a real help to me in this particular research. I have also always wanted to be a warrior in some sense (as much as violence goes against my personal philosophy) and can appreciate how American military training prepares one for this. We worked on the proper forms of standing at attention, at ease, basic marching and how a drill instructor or sergeant might put a soldier through his or her paces—that being the most fun for me, a chance to briefly test my efforts at conditioning thus far. I didn’t do so bad.

At the same time, it’s something I will never fully appreciate. Months of being ridden as hard as you can take, and harder, and the sense of accomplishment and belonging that arises from it. Mike spoke of a drill they would do in which someone would throw something to the ground and shout “grenade!” The training for this is to hit the deck with one’s feet pointing toward the grenade, presumably to reduce the potential damage to vital organs (though I can think of one vital organ I’d feel rather in danger from that angle). In every drill of this, if some guy were a foot or two away from the “grenade,” he’d actually fall on it. This soldier would be promptly punished with PT by the drill instructor, but the behavior wouldn’t change, and the reason is the platoon itself. As we have a line in the play saying: There is not one man in the armed forces I would not willingly die for. Imagine that commitment, that feeling.

Thereafter, Mike, Abby Royle and I drove out to Hanover for lunch and errands. My particular errand was to get the dreaded buzz cut. To my surprise, it bothered me from the first moments of rehearsal to have hair so contradictory to the character, and besides, it was becoming clear that the more filming of the multimedia aspect we could get done ahead of time, the better. The barber shop I found was the old-fashioned kind, and I was the only one there who didn’t know the barbers (barberettes?) themselves. When I got into the chair, however, it was the best experience I could have hoped for. I showed the woman a picture of Matt Maupin (in spite of our apparent complete difference of appearance) and she worked on my cut in painstaking detail. That may not have been necessary, of course—in boot camp it would just be 3–4 quick swipes of an electric razor. Nevertheless, it looks terribly authentic, and the reception I received from my peers upon returning was very encouraging. Whoops and flirtation as I approached the barn—made me feel all of twenty five again.

The latter part of rehearsal, our first evening one, was spent orchestrating more group movement scenes. Between that and military training, there’s little else I’ll have to do to remain in shape. To build a greater shape, however, I’m working between actual working moments to eat protein and hit the deck. I have my moments of checking in to make sure that the military mind-set isn’t overwhelming the character himself, but so far it isn’t a problem. That’s one definitive benefit of working on a show for as long as this one; the character is there already, and all else is layering.

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