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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

To Feed or Not to Feed. That is the Question.

I hate giving line readings.
Here's my mindset: When I cast a certain actor I do so because of a dozen different things: detected affinity/correctness for the role, the promise of them bringing something unusual and/or new to the part, physical appropriateness/gender (although I'm not a stickler on these points), and just plain old heat-of-the-moment WTF. (I go with instinct sometimes; it pays off more than it doesn't.)
So when I put YOU in the role, I do so because I think you are exactly who should be in it. I like who you are, what you say, how you say it, whatever discernible affinity you may show for the role in a short audition, and I balance that with whatever knowledge I have, if any, of your previous experience. If I've seen you before, it helps. If I've worked with you before, even better (usually).
So, with YOU in the role, I expect several things. I expect you to know the script backwards and forwards. I expect you to read it for continuity, wholeness, and grasp the scope of your character's (and other characters, too) journey. What would thrill me to no end is if you took the script and noted every single thing in it that pertained to your character. Honestly, I fully expect you to do the research. What I hope for is that you will unlock the script's mysteries on your own.
So. Line readings. Theoretically an actor should walk in having most, if not all of the answers. I say “should” and this depends on several things. Is the actor of an age to have the life experience needed to portray the role with truthfulness, or did some college professor decide to put the high school prom king and queen in “The Gin Game”? Does the actor have the specific knowledge of, say Jewish arc welders in Lithuania in the 1930s, needed to fully inform the character? Is it a Becket play?
I write this as a director. It is not my job to tell you how to do each and every line. That, dear actor, is your responsibility. You are the one who will portray Hamlet or whoever up on that stage and you need to have the story arc down solid.
I know this makes me sound as if I believe that all the responsibility of script work is on the actor. Not true in the least. While I do expect my actors to work, do the research, and come into the rehearsal ready to make it happen, experiment, and change my life forever with their brilliance, I fully realize there will be times that certain lines and beats will just be difficult to get. It happens a lot. And, while I loathe forcing the actor to do something not of his or her own invention and thereby limiting his or her ability to mold the part to fit his or her interpretation, I will do it when necessary.
As an actor of some limited ability, I have asked for line readings myself. Case in point: In David Mamet's American Buffalo, when Teach enters the junk shop for the first time he mutters “Fuckin' Ruthie” a number of times. We did the show 12 times, and each time I entered I tried it a different way. Not one of them felt right. The script made it clear what Teach's intent was, but I was never able to put down a reasonable interpretation to my satisfaction. My director left it to me to figure it out. (Bastard.)
When one of my actors asks me for a line reading, or I feel that their reading of a certain line is off the mark, I usually throw one of several requests at them:
“Try hitting the first noun in that line. It's her name and I think you need to accentuate how you feel about her right there”;
“Give the verb more inflection. It shows that you're shocked at the method Claudius used to accomplish his goals”;
“Which part of that line is the part with the real bite? The intro or the prepositional phrase? I think it might be the prep phrase, which shows the absurdity of the current situation.”
Giving the actor an explanation of the line's function is always better than saying “Do it this way: To/be/or NOT!!!!! to/be; ThatistheQUESSSSS...tion.”
And yet, for all my qualms of doing the actor's job for them, limiting the actor's ownership of a role, etc, I have from time to time seen line readings reveal the answer to actors who, only when they hear the line read with intent, are able to grasp the function and meaning of it.
In this case, the ends justify the means. What matters is a true and consistent portrayal of a part, and if lines have to be demonstrated, then so be it. I used to completely abhor line readings as cheating and taking the easy way out, but now I understand that not every project comes to fruition perfectly, and if the end result is what is best for the production and the audience believes the performance to be consistent and true, then I say do what needs to be done by opening night. Audience will never know the difference, anyway.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Its All Moot, Ya Know.

Okay, at the very first my reaction was “Really? What the hell is the point of asking, anyway?” Then I ruminated on it, cuddling the idea until it gained weight. Out of all the questions/subjects in human history, this is probably the thorniest. To wit: Do you think about death? And, if so, what are your thoughts? And how do you, as a playwright, treat your characters who die?
The question was asked by a playwright. God knows what spurred him on to dump this onto Facebook, but he did. And, of course, it being Facebook, folks responded. Mostly serious, nearly all earnest. I think there was one who responded with tongue mischievously planted within cheek.
I sound dismissive. I, like most self-aware, sentient beings, understand death to be inevitable. (It's actually the very last thing on my bucket list.) It's gonna happen. Only questions are when and how.
Having come pretty close to sharing a hot fudge sundae with Death on several occasions, I think I have a passing familiarity. When I was a kid, I had asthma bad enough to close my airways down far enough keep me in an oxygen tent for two weeks. The doctor who did my tonsils when I was five fucked it up big time and I was ambulanced back in to Lenox Hill Hospital toot-fucking-sweet to stem some kind of out of control infection. (Because of my childhood proclivity to contract all sorts of stupid medical ailments, Lenox Hill became my home away from home and I knew all of the nurses in pediatrics by name.)
I had five concussions by the time I was eleven. (And NO, it was not from physical abuse. I was a first-class klutz. I once fell off the damn doctor's exam table when I was five and landed square on the noggin. These are the days before litigation became as commonplace as therapy.)
Three bouts of pneumonia by the time I was eight. When I was nine I contracted viral meningitis. I was in hospitals so much I came to think of them as normal places for any kid to be. To this day I find them soothing and safe. My parents heard from doctors more than once not to plan on keeping the college fund open. Nurses, who kept me from being frightened, who stayed up with me and played games with me and made sure I was okay and sat with me when my Mom and Dad weren't there . . . they are the noblest humans on the planet; they are my goddesses of goddesses.
Moving on. I was almost decapitated on the number one train. My appendix burst right before the surgery. A giggling four year old girl tossed a live mortar at me one sunny day in Baghdad. My wife and I were hit by lightning in Quebec.
Any one of these could have led to a greasy end. How do I feel about death? Like I've cheated it a few times. Like there's a big bill accruing. Like whoever is eventually gonna collect is deliberately fucking with me.
So when someone asks how I feel about killing off my characters, I respond with curiosity. I mean, how should I feel?
I've expounded to those within earshot any number of times about being a playwright and playing God by creating virtual life forms on the page. Characters with feelings, pasts, motivations, fears, loves, etc, whatever resembles real soul-possessing humanity as closely as possible. Because that's what we do: we create viable souls. To me, in my head, my characters are real. They exist. In reality, they do not. Thank you, Dr. Phil, but I know the difference.
And should I have occasion to end their literary corporeal existence, I do so with what I hope is good reason. Death is, simply, a truthful functionality. They die because that is what is supposed to happen. All things die. They die because they are meant to. I can only hope they die at the right time and for the right reason.
To me, Death is not a convenient device, it is a logical end to a character. It is not used to be efficient, to remove a body from a stage, to lean down a production. It is used because that device of death for that character-soul is an integral part of the whole (plot). That death, as every death should, resonates throughout the work and creates ripples in the plot that others now have to deal with.
Again I come back to a topic all too familiar when dramaturging a work: what, as opposed to the playwright's own particular desires and wishes, serves the play itself? More than a few times I have had to seriously reflect on what I'm scribbling down: is it my wish as “a playwright with desire and ideas” that it should happen THIS WAY or is it the play itself's dictation that X should bite the big one? Most of the time I know, deep down, behind the initial surprise, that it's right because I have that feeling of logical completion. Only once have I been perturbed by the play telling me of the need for a character to shuffle off this mortal coil, and it took this path:
Discovery: Oh fuck. Really?
Denial: Oh, fuck no. Not you. Dude. I like you.
Anger: Fuck this shit!
Bargaining: Oh fuck, can I rewrite . . .?
Depression: Oh fuck. The rewrite's bullshit. I hate this writing thing. I'm no good. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!!!
Acceptance: Ohhhh . . . fuck!! Wait a minute . . . this works!!!
So I guess my answer to the question of how I think about my characters who are no more, who have ceased to be, whose metabolic processes are now yeah yeah yeah is simply:
This is your job. You are dead. Since you are dead in one of my plays, you'll probably still have lines. You'll have a really creepy makeup job. This is theatre, remember. Dead people on stage are pretty cool. Think about it: from Hamlet senior to the Woman in Black, you're the character who most likely lucked out, cuz you get to provide the spine chills and the bad dreams. You're dead, yes, but you're lucky.
The author Terry Pratchett passed away last week. I'd read all of his books at least twice each. His characterization of Death was the personification of the Grim Reaper: cloak, hood, skeleton, scythe. SPOKE IN ALL CAPS. Classic freaky anthropomorphication a la Dickens and many others. And yet this Death had a large part of humanity within him, although he didn't quite know it. He did his job ruthlessly and efficiently, yes. He took whomever was next on his list and cut them loose from life as we know it with dutiful precision. He was, for the vehicle that moved you on, rather non-threatening. He had a sense of humor. And a profound sense of sympathy.
What do I think about Death? I hope Pratchett was right.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Live a Little

You know the look. It's the look that people get when they’re processing what you've just said and they have come up against a huge disconnect in logic.
It's the look I get when I tell people that Ithaca Fringe Festival acts are selected by lottery.
It's kind of funny, actually. These good folks immediately have the concept of “What? You just let anybody in?” Then they weigh that against the prototypical no-miss business model that lives vaguely in their heads and there you go: cosmic stalemate. You can't equate letting “anybody” in with having a successful festival.
I mean... what if... what if... the acts suck?
Good question. I could regale you with tales of horror-stricken audienceship as I ingested a musical based on Arthur Miller's The Crucible. (It must have sounded good on paper.) Or a tale of mind-numbing boredom at yet another interminable interpretive dance performance that must have been choreographed by a four-year-old whose main theme was “I have a load in my pants. And it's on fire.”
These things happen. I can say, based on the number of fringe festival shows I've seen, that the percentage of “did-NOT-suck” to “mind-blowingly brilliant” shows far outweighs the number of craptastic crimes against theatrical humanity. I've rarely been disappointed at a fringe show.
Bear in mind the mitigating factors: fringe shows are usually cheap (Ithaca Fringe $10/pop, cheaper if you buy multishow passes); short (about an hour); and plentiful (the Edinburgh Fringe, granddaddy of them all, has some 12 billion; we have eight this year). So what if you attend something as off-mainstream as Hemorrhoids Through the Ages? You at least have a helluva story to tell later. (Honestly, what would you rather listen to, the story that starts with “This show was so good,” or “OMG you cannot believe how bad... how horrifically godawful this show was...”?)
But,” these folks ask, “you don't at least choose which ones to pick from?” Nope. I don't. I'm the producing artistic director (yes, a three-word title), and even though I wield supreme executive power over this festival, I do NOT jury the entries. Why should I?
They struggle with this, doubting that we'll have a decent lineup. I get it. It's scary when you think of business plans and success. I'm not saying I don't wish fervently for every show chosen to be brilliant and to sell out, but I have to go with the essence of the fringe itself. I have to go with taking chances. I'm probably my own worst enemy. I don't ask “Is it any good?” I ask “Should I see this?”
I'm a playwright. I send my work out to prospective theatres and contests frequently. 99% of the time I never get a response. .05% of the time I get the usual rejection: “It was the toughest choice of our lives, but after sacrificing half of our children and reading their entrails in the dust,” (I'm paraphrasing) “we eventually went with the sock-puppet version of Dick Cheney's Puberty...” I am no stranger to rejection.
So, when I first envisioned the Ithaca Fringe Festival, I fully intended to vet the submissions and throw out the obvious crap. Then, when I attended the US Association of Fringe Festivals conference in Portland, Maine, I was waylaid after dinner by three representatives of three different fringe festival organizations who impressed upon me the very nature of a “fringe.”
Look,” one said, “the idea of a fringe is anything but safety.”
Absolutely correct,” another fringe rep concurred, “this is not comfy seats and Appletinis. This is the shit, the good stuff the real theatres can't gamble on even though they may want to and thereby won't invest in.”
Exactly,” said the third. “You are performing a goodly artistic service by refusing to deny struggling artists a chance to have their work shown to the world. You know how many artists out there will never get a chance to be heard, to be seen, to express the fruits of their souls?”
Besides,” they said (yes, all three in perfect three-part harmony), “who are you to be the be-all and end-all of artistic taste? What makes you qualified to say what's good and what ain't?”
I had to admit, later on as I surveyed their arguments, they had a very valid point. How many times had I walked out of a theatre performance with more than a few complaints: The plot made no sense; the show was redeemed only by stellar acting; the ending was a feel-good copout that betrayed everything that had come before it. Or the show raised a series of important and timely social issues and did not fully or legitimately explore them. The show had no characters I cared about. The show did not say anything. On and on.
And yet . . . others liked these shows. Liked them enough to produce them for three weeks, five nights a week, in a 99-seat house. So maybe I have a twisted sense of artistic value. I loathe almost anything Hollywood produces, thinking it high fructose corn syrup for the mind. I do have high standards, and I expect all playwrights and producers to as well. Yes, I fully admit my opinion is not everyone’s. You'd be amazed what Perennial Favorites I think are crap. I think most “classic plays” taught in high schools and colleges should be frozen and time-locked until 2246. Bring in the new stuff, start working with the plays that reflect what's going on these days. Be contemporary, be relevant. Be dangerous.
A fringe festival is where some of the best the new stuff shows up. The experimental . . . offbeat . . . non-formulaic. A fringe is where theatrical adventure comes into its own, where what's left of America's theatre scene finds spiritual and intellectual rejuvenation. It takes chances, as it should.
So no. We don't vet. We don't judge. We take your (small) application fees, throw your scripts into a revolving hopper, and pick. This year we'll pick eight. I don't know how good they will be. But I’ll wager most of them will be terrific. And I hope you come out and see them, support the creative arts, and have some fun. And don't worry if the acts aren't the best thing since Phantom. Ask yourself if they are acts you should see.