Last night I attended the first dress rehearsal for Marywood University's A Midwinter Night's Dream, something for which I specifically returned to town early. It was gaffe-ful, naturally, but I expected much worse, given the students' generalized anxiety about the progress of their rehearsals when I led them in a workshop last week. I should learn: Actors in general, and young actors in particular, are given to anxiety about any show. It's how we channel what to most people seems like unaccountably constant enthusiasm. We have to channel it somehow, lest we drive others crazy with it (as if our anxiety didn't risk that) or, more dangerous, make them jealous. Most people rarely get to experience the kind of unapologetic joy that actors with an opportunity to perform do. Most people, it must be said, feel a need to beat down that seemingly selfish celebration.
I may seem a bit cynical with that last, but I swear to you that I'm feeling very open and grateful. Last night's performance put me in mind of some of my earliest experiences in theatre. First of all, I was in about two college productions per year after my freshman one, and was reminded of how that environment is so unique for theatre. Secondly, Midsummers was one of my first high school productions. I played Philostrate, a fun but generally thankless role. As I watched a rather Annie-Hall-like Philostrate ply her few lines last night, I was reminded of the beautiful feather they gave me for a quill pen when I played the role, and how the director tried as delicately as possible to direct me to play him, shall we say, as weightless of sole as possible. In brief, I was reminded of the times when theatre was a different kind of adventure for me, when my priorities were all wrong for supposed good work, when I knew little and (perhaps more dangerously) thought I knew more. Thankfully, the Marywood players are far more self-aware than I was a decade or so ago, and their show is well-constructed and a refreshing venue for seeing young actors working with great sincerity and no small amount of artistry.
I'm also writing to you, Dear Reader, from the office of the Electric Theatre Company. Directly over the computer I'm using (the one usually reserved for the tiresome business of juggling money to make sure types like me get paid) is a corkboard, and pinned to this corkboard is a quote from Simon Callow. I read Callow's memoir, Being An Actor, and enjoyed it. Friend Patrick gave it to me as a 30th birthday gift, and nearly as he did, another friend commented on Callow as a self-important git. Uncouth, to be sure, but the drinks were flowing quite liberally even that early in the evening (as evidenced by the gallery on my Facebook page) and I leave this as the friend's excuse. Whether or not it's true, it colored my reading of the book a bit. I rolled it about as a question in my own mind, and have left it largely unanswered. The book didn't offend me, was interesting, and at times even inspired me, so who am I to judge? The corkboard quote from Callow is from another book, The Road to Xanadu:
"The loss of excitement is the beginning of professionalism. The thrill of standing on stage, of receiving an audience's attention and admiration, the release of becoming someone other than yourself; all these stimuli are transient and superficial. They must be replaced by something more deeply rooted which takes as its starting point the audience's experience rather than your own."
I'm still reeling a bit from a troublesome note given to me by one of my directors on The Very Nearly Perfect Comedy of Romeo & Juliet (see 2/16/09). Two things I can hardly abide are being accused of selfishness and being instructed to relax. The first is because I'm perpetually paranoid about seeming self-centered simply because I want things for myself, the second is because telling me to relax is possibly the most futile, self-defeating exercises in which to engage me. To me, it's a little like telling someone to jump, than berating them for coming back down without your instruction. I admit that one of my character flaws is in how easily frustrated I am, and how quickly I can lose my sense of perspective -- and I try to take responsibility for these attributes as best I can. But tell me to "relax" too many times, and I will remorselessly rip your ears off. And I'll still go off and try to be more perfect for you. I'm in a long process of learning how to fend for myself when it's necessary, something that comes more naturally to some, and I'd like the world at large to recognize that my default state is to do everything I do for it, for them, for anyone but myself.
This is getting a little too self-important/self-flagellating for me, and my reasoning rather a lot cyclical at that. But I've needed to vent, so that was pretty effectively accomplished with the above. The real question I am trying to come to grips with is, where do I draw the line between "good" work, and the work I want to do? Another way to ask it is, what are my standards for myself in my work, and how do I maintain those in the face of adversity? We all have to be open to criticism, but we also can not afford to take all criticism at face value, lest we be stymied completely. There is no perfection, of course. Make that your goal at your own peril. So how do we define the best we can do, from moment to moment? I just advised a whole theatre department to have a sense of personal direction in their work, and now I'm questioning my own. It's necessary work. It's also a pain in my ass.
My quick-and-dirty answer (or, my jumping-off-point for re-exploring this question) is to say that in my perfect world, the audience and the actor meet on an equal plane of thrills, tears and laughter. Perhaps this is why I want so much to take the director's chair for a bit, to gain some better perspective on this possibility. Maybe it's impossible. I won't know until I try. And in the meantime, I have had to decide that the note I received was simply a misperception. It felt like a good show. It didn't feel I was showing off, nor in danger of doing so. It felt like the audience and my fellow actors and I were meeting on a level playing field, and each upping the other's emotional investment. I felt like an adult choosing to make that compact with the audience, and I felt like a kid, playing without knowing what to expect next. What else could an actor ask for?