Last night I acted in a staged reading of one of Tom Rowan's plays, Burning Leaves. Foist of all: I have a lot of audience members from the night to be grateful for. It must have seemed like I was packing the house, which would be easy to do--it was easily the smallest "theatre" space I have ever worked in. It was akin to a return to the womb, and the play is not, as yet, a short one, so I owe big thanks to Friends Geoff, Natalia, Kate C., Sister Virginia and Fiancee Megan. Way to go, guys. Way. To. Go.
Not that the experience was in any way bad. The script is, in fact, excellent. My friends were very engaged by the story and the performances, and only had critique for the run time -- a quite forgivable fault in my opinion when it comes to an initial reading. This was evidently a reading aimed at giving Tom some perspective on his work in action; the crowd seemed intimate and friendly, and he has already got a literary agent representing him (she was in the front row, and what I wouldn't give to know her response). I felt fairly good about my work, though I had a bit of that familiar sensation wherein I think to myself, "Damn--that went so much better in rehearsal..." It's hard to get away from that, particularly in a performance that has such a brief and concentrated rehearsal period. I just try to remind myself that some things go worse, but others go better, and I just have to stay open to the possibility each time of having the most true and effective performance yet.
I had several reasons to meditate on the various distractions that can enter an actor's concentration during his or her work, even while the reading went along. Not that I wasn't kept busy: I think there were maybe ten pages out of over a hundred on which my character didn't have substantial dialogue. The distractions, though seemed to begin to gang up on me even prior to entering that (very small) room. I had dressed casually nice for the event, and was careful to keep myself that way through my work day, but at my hasty dinner I spilled grease on my pants. The chairs we sat in for the reading had arms (rehearsal did not), which felt limiting and inappropriate, somehow. And my friends, God bless them, all sat in one corner and were not shy about being themselves. Add to that the audience just being very visible and very close in general, and you have yourself many interesting choices for being taken out of character. Fortunately for me, the script is very effective, to the point at which I almost didn't need to manifest the emotions involved. They were just there, ready.
In some ways, being an actor can boil down to an exercise in determination and concentration. The funny thing is, we have to remain supple and open at the same time, to allow impulses in and unpredictable forces to affect us. My character in this reading, a former NYC actor who moves to a more suburban environment to teach, recalls a director he worked for telling him acting should be a "stripping away of layers" to his soul. Apart from this immediately reminding me of the onion scene from Peer Gynt, it also reminds me of how the actual craft of acting, at its best, seems to work. Never mind souls and Truth, and all. A really successful acting experience is all about shedding, rather than accumulating, layers of analysis and lines and decision and fear and, hell, everything. Even the concentration so necessary for doing an effective job has to eventually become unnecessary. We're aiming for an emptiness, a nothingness, of sorts, to become cyphers for . . . what? Maybe it is Truth (by which I mean something more than simple verisimilitude), or maybe it's some kind of human energy, continuous and interdependent. I can't say. All I can say is that my best memories of jobs well done are suspiciously blank. They're mostly just a knowing of having hit the sweet spot, and the collective details are as impossible to touch as a leaf turned to ashes on the wind.
This reading was no such sweet spot on my part, though it went well enough. It was, however, one of those experiences that reminds me that this work is worth the struggle, the concentration, all of it. Sometimes, it seems like a very good trade-off indeed.