01 August 2007


My favorite joke to tell is a knock-knock joke. So, pretty much automatically, you know that it's inane and probably not reliably funny. So why should it be my favorite?

Last night I had my first New York rehearsal for As Far As We Know since returning from our New Hampshire (NOT Vermont) week-long workshop. It was just my person, Kelly's and Laurie's all in a tiny rehearsal studio working through the two scenes in the play (for the moment) that are simply Nicole and Jake, sister and brother. They are memory scenes for Nic, with elements of hallucination or nightmare, and one of them we've been doing in one form or another almost the entire time we've had a playwright on board. It is affectionately referred to as "1-2-3 In a Car."

For a while there--in particular over the last workshop period--it was entitled simply "1-2-3." That's because it was restructured and taken out from inside the car to being set partially underneath it, as Jake works on the vehicle. Yesterday, minutes before rehearsal, I printed a revised script that had been emailed to us, one and all, to discover that the scene had been largely restored to its former state.

"Damn," thought I.

It's incredibly awkward, you see, performing pantomimed driving. There's a reason mimes don't speak. That reason being, all mimes have their vocal cords personally removed by Marcel Marceau.

No seriously though, pantomime takes enormous concentration (I sometimes wonder if mimes haven't indeed had their sweat glands removed) and I think it's an especially talented person who can convincingly drive an imaginary car whilst truthfully playing a scene. Hence: "Damn," thought I. And the first part of rehearsal was just as I might have expected with a scene so well-worn, with a layer of additional pretense applied: Halting and stilted, with a dusty sensation in my throat. "Damn," thought I, "will the hoped-for acting rehearsals all be as dry for me?"

And then, remarkably, we all started working together as actors and a director. I had somehow forgotten how good it felt. Sure, we did some revision of the script along the way (prerogative of the UnCommon Cause) but it was more internal, within the scene and without too much time spent (re)hashing out the play as a whole. In sum, we found the emotional truth of a scene that has existed for almost two years, and did so within the confines of a tiny room and a fairly standard rehearsal process. I was so uplifted by the experience that when I left rehearsal at 10:00, I felt as though I was leaving a performance, full of juice to run another four hours or so (and I did stay up past my bedtime reading old drafts of a werewolf story I may never finish).

In his Being An Actor, Simon Callow asserts that the most comparable experience a non-actor has to performing is the act of telling a joke. In a joke, so the theory goes, all the considerations of structure, performance and communication are present, in a very concentrated form. Personally, I dread telling jokes, especially to people who don't know me very well. It seems to me the expectation is just too much, that I'll never encapsulate my experience of hearing the joke sufficiently to make it worth people's time. Occasionally I'm wrong about this outcome, but for the most part it's another one of those skills most people assume actors (especially comic actors) naturally possess, right up there with impersonations and dance, and that I am sadly lacking.

So. My favorite joke to tell?

Who's there?
A mime.
A mime who?
. . .

Never mind that I find reversal of expectation, silence and surreality (is SO a word) incredibly funny; this joke leaves off all that junk I feel horribly self-conscious about and, usually, somewhat disappointed by. No applause, no critiques, no climax or denouement. In fact, no feedback of any kind, as I've robbed the listener of even the moment before the promised catharsis. I love the rehearsal. I love the problem-solving and private victories. To hell with the punchline, I usually say.

Yet I'm excited, this time, to put all our work on The Torture Project/As Far As We Know up in front of you all.

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