22 November 2008

Burnt Foliage

I know that you've been fervently checking in on Odin's Aviary to find out how this week's adventure in last-minute original work turned out for our intrepid hero. Hourly, nay -- minute-ly, you direct your browser this way, hoping for some whiff of report on last night's show, the final follow-up to this week's chain of entries charting the development of my earth-shattering new work: Whoopsie Daisy. Well, I've news indeed, and thanks for tuning in: I'm not going to write about Blueprint yet. It consists of two performances, we've had one, and I'll tell all after the last opportunity everyone has to see it for themselves, this Sunday evening. It's my Aviary. I can do whatever the hell I want.

Plus, I'd be surprised if anyone reads any 'blogs on purpose over the weekend. Apart from yours truly, that is.

I do hope my readership will return to this entry on Monday, however, because I'm here to finally write a bit about another big event in my work this week; specifically, the closing performance of my second staged reading of Burning Leaves. I wrote briefly about having the first of two readings of this play on Monday, before the incipient madness of my creative process for Whoopsie Daisy had taken root. Thereafter, I've been understandably preoccupied, but that isn't indicative of any shortage of effect that Burning Leaves had on me. Rather, I wanted to get the other piece of work on its feet so I could turn my full energy to evaluating my latest experience with Tom Rowan's play; may it not be the last.
The second and final presentation took place under strenuous conditions for me, and I don't just mean its coincidence with my other process this week. It wasn't until 9:00 pm Wednesday, which was an altogether long day anyway, with a full day of work, then a rapid introductory rehearsal for Blueprint on the upper west, a dinner with friends, and finally the night was freezing and the theatre wasn't all that much better. So there felt like a lot to overcome; which isn't necessarily a bad thing for us actors, but there's always some question about whether that obstacle will add to the performance, or override it. All-in-all, I was actually more satisfied with the climax in the second performance, but prior to that I felt a bit flat. It piqued my desire to work on the play under a longer rehearsal process. My character, Matt, has a such a complex inner landscape at the point in his life with which the play concerns itself, there was very little chance of my getting a credible handle on it for a reading. Unless, I suppose, we do six or seven more of them.

There was a very interesting range of ages and experience in our cast, and I was a bit preoccupied by it throughout the process. I suppose that has as much to do with my recent rites of passage as with my comrades-in-arms. In addition to Tom and Gaye-Taylor Upchurch, my fellow collaborators for this process included Kevin Confoy, Abigail Gampel, Allison Goldberg,
Hana Kalinski, and Alexander Paul Nifong. I was a little thrown at first, to be honest, by the sheer impression of youth Alex gave as the high school boy with whom Matt becomes involved. It's completely appropriate to the age of the character, but it also made me rather automatically a little more defensive in performance. In my previous experience, the actor playing his character, Jesse, brought a sense of control and intention to it that allowed me to accept with more ease the depth of affection Matt might develop for him. With Alex's Jesse, at first, I worried about what was to be made of my character falling for someone so obviously naive. We found a balance through rehearsal, but that balance really paid, off, I thought, in Wednesday night's performance. I can't say what caused it (which is a little frustrating) but I thought Alex gave a very grounded, nuanced and intentional performance of Jesse that night, one which pulled the whole thing together for me in a lovely way. His work was good throughout, but Wednesday it was great.

There was much discussion of acting "technique" during this process, and more than a little breathless excitement over this and that from the younger actors of our cozy tribe, all of which I found to be very interesting and, speaking frankly, a little funny. Not to say anything against these actors! Indeed, they were an inspiring reminder of how great it is to do what we do. What was funny to me was how distant from such discussions I have become; I don't think of it that way anymore. (I'll leave it to you, Gentle Reader, to determine if that's progress, or simply laziness.) Funny, too, was this kind of subtext or suggestion beneath the questions that there was some kind of answer to the question: Just what process makes for the best performance? When asked by the woman reading stage directions (she asked me twice, for unknown reasons) what technique I used, I answered that I use whatever works best moment-to-moment in the story, then mentioned that I found a lot of usefulness in Meisner work. I couldn't be sure how satisfied she was with this answer. There is, in my opinion, no concrete answer to the question. There is only good craft, well-applied -- a thousand paths to the same summit.

Plus, we're not all that freaking important. Actors are often, at their greatest moments, cyphers. It may seem like a somewhat hollow occupation, but I don't think so. I feel it's one of the most transcendent roles a human being can fulfill.

Tom has written a great line for Jesse, who is just starting a study of acting: "The words hurt, if you really say them." It's a moment of discovery for the character that we not only get to witness, but participate in, as we've just watched him connect emotionally with a text he's performing. This is what Burning Leaves is for me, one of those stories that I connect with, wherein the words hurt (and make me laugh, and make me think). I'm not remembering a long-lost love when I fight through the tears, nor am I imagining some other scenario, nor am I using psychological gesture. When I'm doing it well (not "right": well), I'm saying the words, and letting them work on me. I'm also feeling my audience's presence and allowing that to work on me, and I'm listening to my body, and my fellow actors, and my imagination, and its all just funneling through me. Is that easy? Hell no. Do you need to train for it, and use technique? Hell yes. But leave Stanislavski and Meisner and Hagen in the rehearsal room. On stage, you're not there for them, nor even for your craft, but for everyone who happens to be in that room, in that willing community of surrender and imagination.

Bleyargh. What am I doing up here? Where'd this soapbox come from?

So obviously
I'm a little biased, but I think Tom Rowan's play deserves to have a hell of a long life. I hope he gets it produced soon, and have some ideas about spreading the word of it in my little way. Is this simply because I identify with it personally? Sure, but what other criteria shall we use for theatre? I'll leave the promotion of existential drama and Shepard plays to others (there are certainly enough of them to support it all). For my money, a heartfelt story that's clearly expressed is worth a dozen Bogart deconstructions. (At least.) This was a tremendous experience, and I hope to work on it again with the same people, theoretical discussions and all.

Give us a grant. A big one. That is all.


Nat said...

I check this blog on the weekends. Mostly, I just scan for my name and any fart jokes. I gotta say, Jeff--and there's no easy way to put this--there's been a sad lack of fart jokes in the past few months.

What up with that?

Jeff Wills said...

Nat Cassidy: Pfft!