21 May 2008

Baby Elephant Walk

Last Sunday I participated in a reading of The Elephant Song, by Nicolas Billon, at The Workshop Theatre Company. It was a one-day affair, in which we had four hours to rehearse, and performed it for a public audience only once, shortly thereafter. Daryl Boling, with whom I have worked severally as both director and actor (A Lie of the Mind, Good, Center of Gravity) directed the reading, and I was joined on stage by two actors with whom I had never before worked: David Ian Lee and Letty Ferrer. The reading went well, I think. The work was very different from anything I have done recently.

The Elephant Song is a taut, quite literally psychological drama, sort of a mix of Equus and Doubt. The main action involves the director of several sanitariums (Lee) interviewing a patient in one of them in order to ascertain the whereabouts of one of his doctors. A nurse who is more familiar with the patient (Ferrer) intervenes regularly to make certain everything's progressing smoothly. And the patient, naturally, is an incredibly intelligent, incredibly disturbed little boy of 23 (bless Daryl's heart -- he's always seen me as a "young seeming" sort). Throughout this short piece -- we ran it in 90 uninterrupted minutes -- the patient makes the doctor jump through hoops as he ultimately gets what he wants, which naturally turns out to be something no one else had been able to guess.

So after months of not working, then more months of doing comedy and physical theatre, I dropped suddenly into performing an intense all-text drama, the likes of which I had not attempted since A Lie of the Mind (see just about the entire month of April 2007 for my feelings on how I did in that play). Like many men, I worried about my ability to perform -- my ability to worry being my strongest, most at-hand ability. The script was daunting. The character could so easily vacillate between overwrought pain and irritating manipulation; in another word, extremes. I also tend to balk at characters who experience extremes of emotion. I know that must seem odd for an actor, but I mean to say that there are those who can summon great, sincere emotion from the ether, but I am not among them. I generally need a fully developed character, and to explore that character at some length, otherwise I feel fake. Usually.

I believe I was pretty successful at this reading, however. I owe a great deal of any success to Daryl's sensitivity and communication skills, and the receptiveness of my fellow actors, and all mistakes were my own, naturally. As I often experience, the second run (sans audience) was much better than the final product for me. I felt most connected to the moment then, and didn't have to push in any scenes. There is a prolonged section of monologue for the character in which he talks about where his obsession comes from, then a short time after tells the story of his mother's death. It's intense; a real chance to go too far or accidentally not put enough of yourself in. I wish our audience could have seen the pitch I hit in rehearsal. I was fine in performance, I think. But it could have been amazing.

I love acting in drama, and I don't have as many ready opportunities for it. I don't suppose anyone does exactly, now-a-days, what with what shows are more easily marketed and sell more tickets. But in particular, I don't because I can get typed pretty obviously as "crazy physical-theatre dude" or "clown-loving goof." With good reason, and I love those aspects of my performance opportunities. Still, I yearn for drama -- even tragedy -- for its complex simplicity, its sincerity and particular catharsis. Working on The Elephant Song, even for such a short while, scratched that itch a bit.

Which is good. Because I've got nothing but clown headed my way for the next two months.


Davey said...

So, I wanted to know why this one day reading happened. Was it to help the director prepare for something? Or one of the other actors? Was it for the benifit of the audience, who have some kind of paper to write on it? I guess I don't quite understand staged readings.

If its just for arts sake, cool. But if there was more fo a reason, I missed it.

Jeff Wills said...

Well (and "good question" points to you, Davey Cruz), I believe the original intention was simply to increase exposure for the play and playwright. However, he's doing just fine on his own, and we didn't have a huge turn-out. Readings often go this way. I was pretty much in it for the experience of working with Daryl again for a little bit. He's a good one.