Monday, April 25, 2011

Happy Birthday Week, William Shakespeare.

Today I am excited to be one of many bloggers from around the world that are involved in the Happy Birthday Shakespeare 2011 project. I hope you will click on that link in the coming days and read how the work of William Shakespeare has impacted the lives of those who populate the blogosphere. And you can start with me and my very own story.

Long before I became part of the theatre world as an actor, I had an eye for the dramatic, and an ear for the well constructed, poetic, or moving turn of phrase. I would spend inordinate amounts of time as a younger person replaying in my mind scenes from my daily life that had impacted me. An argument I happened to see break out in a store, or the interaction between two strangers as one helped the other with a door or a shopping cart. Occurrences that to most others would usually appear to be just part of the every day social fabric of a free society would often to me be for good or bad, microcosms of the human experience. The potentially mundane became noteworthy to me because of the humanity on display.

Of course, I didn't process it in quite those terms when I was a child. I knew only that sometimes a moment, a scene in the street, an encounter between two strangers in a bookstore, or a shouted conversation between two parties working unseen behind a counter at the super market seemed in some way more eternal when processed through my mind, than the same events would be to just about anyone else in all likelihood, including the "actors" in said scenes.

As I got older, the dissemination of things I had seen out in the world became a little more sophisticated. I'd wonder why any given party said what they said. How the sentence they used may have either begun or ended the scene I happened upon. And by high school I would often in my head "rewrite" the scenes, with alternate words, statements, or circumstances that I thought would have made things turn out in a more peaceable, interesting, helpful, or in the very least, dramatic fashion.

Knowing this, is there any wonder why I spend most of my time these days either writing or acting? You would think not, but for the longest time I only wrote casually, and I was not on the stage for the first time until college.

Yet before I got serious about either acting or writing, I was serious about the plays of William Shakespeare.

The first I read was the first that most people read. Romeo and Juliet, in the 9th grade. (Age 14 or so.) It was part of my English class, of course, and we read it out loud during class time, different students taking turns sputtering, fumbling, and hissing their way through their assigned character of the day. I was no different, at least at first. But I found myself going home and reading through speeches and scenes that we would be going over in class the following day. Reading them outloud over and over again until I could construct some semblance of speech, of conversation, and of course, of drama from what I was reading.

Not that it was being read 100% correctly yet, but I found myself wanting to sound like a person in a scene who was encountering other people experiencing something that was happening in a street in Venice. I was trying to make those scenes as real as the scenes from the streets of Frederick, Maryland where I lived, and grew up.

In the end I didn't care for Romeo and Juliet that much. I did not at the time see the hype of it. Nor would I even read it again until two years ago when I appeared in the piece as Friar Laurence. (During which time I developed a greater appreciation of the text than I had as a wee freshman.) \

Yet despite my lukewarm reaction to the overall arc of Romeo and Juliet after my first reading of same, I was already looking forward to future explorations of the world of Shakespeare. And that is because I was beginning to see in him another mind who could, and actually wanted to take even the simplest and briefest of scenes between two walk-on characters and turn it into a high flying and memorable journey through the English language. Like my high school self, the characters in Shakespeare, even the minor ones, strove to use language as their weapons. Their aphrodisiacs. Their calling cards. You may not like what they are saying, but you will love the way they are saying it. Even if you don't yet understand all of it. And in the process, the characters will be reflection of some near universal aspect of the human condition.

That use of language, turn of phrase, precisely timed come back, or searching monologue present throughout Shakespeare was the closest I had come to viewing people behave like they did in the re-imagined scenes from daily life that I played in the theatre of my brain. Every moment potent in some way, and usually thanks to language.

Later on in my freshman year, I enjoyed The Merchant of Venice far more than my first delving into Shakespeare. Language again of course, but to me a far more interesting plot. A court room even! It is hard to beat drama in the form of court rooms goings on.

And so it went throughout the years of my private high school education. Othello. Macbeth. I became one of the only students in my high school's history that actually chose Henry V from the long list of potential summer reading projects that were required. To this day in fact I am one of the few people I know that loves the history plays, though that is not surprising, given that they combine everything I have said about Shakespeare with my life long fascination with monarchy.

Then in 12th grade it was time. The moment I knew was coming for four years. Some dreaded it. Some didn't care. I myself realized it would be important, regardless. Because it was then that we read Hamlet. The play of plays. The one about which virtually anyone, anywhere of substance had commented at least once. The often quoted, borderline mystical piece that I already knew in the minds of many in the know transcended not only all of Shakespeare's other works, but perhaps all English works for the stage ever written.

By 12th grade I was more used to the language. Starting to anticipate the devices used by the Bard. I could actually on occasion read a smaller Shakespearean passage as though I were performing it. (This was years before I was an actor, keep in mind.) So the confusion and question and frustrations of reading the plays of the Statfordian had mostly vanished by now, and it was all about reading the story of Hamlet.

And what a story it was. The impact of Hamlet on my mind cannot be overestimated. Because while up until that point Shakespeare had created drama, characters, and speeches in a manner that gave birth to the type of drama I created in my mind, Hamlet was something even more profound; Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, was me. Fatherless. Intellectual to the point of paralysis at times. Surrounded by people who barely understood him, and a few who wanted him out of their lives. Denied what was his.

So for the first time, Shakespeare went from being familiar, to being personal. I was the only person in the Honors English class that seemed to think by the end of the semester that Hamlet was noble. A hero in a sense. A genius in others. Years and eight readings of Hamlet later, I am still one of the few people I know who raises Hamlet himself to such a lofty position of esteem. And I don't care. All the scholars in the world can write their essays as to why Hamlet is not noble in the end, and it won't change a thing for me. The same can be said on my views on the other plays, unpopular as they sometimes may be.

That is because I see Shakespeare's works as something more than a treatise. Something too masterful to be ignored, but too visceral to be dissected into oblivion. The works of Shakespeare manage to recreate the human condition with virtually every line.

Poetic elevation of the mundane into the realm of angels, as well as acerbic reduction of the momentous and ceremonial down to the bawdy levels of the "common" man. And the universal human drama that plays out as a result. This is what Shakespeare did for me from the first moment. This is what he does for me when I perform him on stage. This is what he continues to do for me to this very day. And there is no reason to believe he will ever cease to reflect the dramatics of the world I see in my mind. And he shall always do it through the use of the English language.

Happy birthday indeed to the Bard of all bards.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mama, I Want to Sing.

A little bit. I was just going through some of my theater records last night, and realized that it happens to be six years this very month since I had a lead in a musical. And 5 whole years since I have even been in the chorus of one.

Years ago it was my practice to try out for at least one musical a year or so. And I usually got in.Maybe because men are hard to come by in community theatre, but also because I do sing reasonably well. People in the know have told me so.

All of these musicals were at one theatre. But due to some nasty personal issues with the management, I don't audition for shows at the place anymore in recent years. And the theatre I spend most of my time in now doesn't generally do musicals. (Though they are planning to do one next year.)

I won't go back to that first theatre I mentioned until the horrible management changes. But I do think it is time for me to enter the world of the musical again for another brief stay.

Some people only do musicals, and some never do them. Obviously I fall into neither camp, but I can sympathize with those who never do them. Even if you sing well and enjoy doing so, musicals are so much extra work, what with musical rehearsals and dance rehearsals, and in most cases the feeling of having more than one director. (Director, musical director and choreographer.) They are a more stressful type of production for everyone under the best of circumstances.

Not to mention I hate musical auditions, musical rehearsals, I cannot harmonize, and I can't read music. It would seem to disqualify me. Not to mention that 90% of directors make the horrible mistake of casting great singers who cannot act, as opposed to good actors who can sing, or be taught to do so with practice. When I am in a musical character and acting remain at the top of my priorities, which means when I sing, I do so in character. And when my role is large enough for at least one solo, and everything else goes just right, musicals can provide a certain type of satisfaction that a straight show cannot. They can get old after a while, which is why I only do them periodically, but lately I have missed some of the unique qualities they offer to me.

Even with my long hiatus, I won't try out for just any musical. I prefer some depth to the story. I'd rather not just be in the chorus. (Too much work for too little high.) The less dancing that is required, the better. (Loyal blog readers know of my ineptitude with dance.) And I find that usually big scale musicals are the most fun. (Though one of the biggest and most satisfying roles I ever had in a musical was in this small, more intimate show.)

So, for the first time in a while, I will be perusing the local musical offerings, and pondering in the back of my mind eight bars of music I could learn how to sing, without needing to read them on the page. And if I decide on going for it, you, loyal blog readers, will be among the first to know.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Novel Ideas

Literally. For though this blog is not about my writing adventures, I did think it was particularly appropriate to mention this piece of writing news here on my acting blog.

For you see, loyal blog readers, for the last 15 months, or thereabouts, I have been writing the rough draft of a novel that takes place inside a community theatre production. And by the next time you read a post from me on Always Off Book, it will at long last be completed! It is exciting and hard to believe news all at the same time.

My story revolves as I said around a community theatre production of a fictitious play. It has it's ups and downs, this production. Until really weird encounters begin to take place. And maybe some messages from above are being delivered to certain people. So it's theatre, it's magic, it's passion. Actually theatre is nothing without a lot of passion and a little magic, as I have been recently reminded. It's also about redemption, in a way, which is often a thread in the good stories.

And I have been amused at how often the same muscles of imagination or flexed when writing as when acting. Being a writer doesn't make you an actor and vice-verca, don't get me wrong. I am just one of the people crazy enough to be both. But the process of delving into a character, giving them nuance and habits, finding ways to reveal their inner workings and their history without spelling everything out for everyone. It may be like comparing arena football with the NFL, but the similarities between acting and writing are undeniable. Only in writing, you are in fact performing every character, and not just one. And usually at the same time.

And of course an author acts as director, set designer, costume person, and so on.

So it has been a very interesting, frustrating, but rewarding and at times even eye opening experience, honing my writing craft while drawing on my knowledge of my theatre adventures and passions.

And not just the knowledge, but the feelings and emotions and thoughts of various kinds of actors in the midst of a rehearsal and a show. If in the end this novel manages to adequately describe to a third party how it sometimes feels to be involved in theatre, my job will be half done already.

Tonight I will write the final chapter, and that too will be familiar to actors; something into which a lot of emotion and time have been poured will be suddenly over. Though of course unlike the stage that is just the first step. There is second revisions. And third revisions. Not to mention the long road to publication. But first things first, and nothing will ever feel quite so visceral as the creation of a first draft, where you breath new life into a story, ex nihilo. And as I said, that aspect comes to an end tonight, and I thought I would share that with you, my loyal blog readers of Always Off Book.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

My Latest ShowBiz Radio Post

This week in my column over at, I mention the importance of getting centered as an actor.

We all have different ways of doing this, and I don't advocate one specific method, though I do advocate one specific aspect of getting centered before a show: time alone.

I don't think it is that radical of me to suggest that one cannot get totally centered while talking to or carrying on with other people. Even if you do this before you get centered as part of your routine, taking some time alone in a private corner of the venue to wash away distracting thoughts come highly recommended by me.

Read for yourself.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Only the Lonely

A one-person show, or perhaps more accurately in this context, a "monodrama", is something I have wanted to try on stage for a while. Scores of examples abound, from Chekov's one-act, On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco, to the full length Give 'Em Hell, Harry! by Samuel Gallu. There are also collections such as Neil LaBute's Bash, which consists of several one acts, some of which have only one character.

I even have a few ideas in my own head for this type of show.

I have never attended such a presentation, and I don't know if it would be better to see one before trying it myself, or seeing it first before watching one. Certainly performing one myself would forever instill in me a greater appreciation for any one else who took it on.

Understand that it isn't ego which feed my desire to appear on stage alone. Nor is it a disdain for other actors. A performance of this variety would be twice as hard in some ways as any other show. Not just because all of the lines go to one person, and that person has no recourse from other actors should the stumble. But also because 100% of the time must the attention of the audience is completely on you.

In a standard show, a person has some break not only from their lines, but from the symbolic spotlight. If they are in the background for a scene, they of course should always be in character, because someone at some point could be looking at them. Yet even so the majority of the attention, expectations, and scrutiny are on others who at the time are the focus of the scene.

One doesn't get such a break with a one person show.

It's the same for an audience. Any variety in the experience must come from one actor, and the parts of the story he is telling at any given time. It is a delicate balance in a one person show to prevent the audience from being bored with you. For if they are tired of the one person in the show for even a moment, the entire production has failed.

This type of play does have its advantages, however, not the least of which is the great challenge to one's skills as an actor. If one can pull of such a show, that says a great deal about one's talents. And one will come out of the experience a stronger actor, almost no matter what happens.

Plus, 100% of the pacing and control would be in a single actor's hands. No adjustments to the decisions, mistakes or presence of another actor (of whatever talents) would have to be made during the course of the show or a scene. If I were the star of a one man show, I would only have to answer to me. Despite the extra "dangers" and work of such a situation, that freedom does hold a certain appeal for me, I must confess.

Without any figures and studies to back it up, my observation has been that community theatres rarely if ever produce such shows. Could it be that companies fear the talent pools are too small in a community to find an amateur with the chops to pull it off? Or do the think that patrons of a community theatre expect a more traditional, or at least larger experience than can be offered by a one person show? My guess is that both these fears, and others explain the lack of monodramas at the community level.

Yet I hold out hope that one day I shall be cast in a local theatre's one show experiment, should anybody offer it. Or perhaps I can commit such a show to memory, and seek a chance to do a special presentation outside of a theatre's season. The same is possible if I write my own and pitch it. It would be more difficult to get the chance where I am, on the community level, but I don't count it out.

Have you ever performed in a one person show? Have you even seen one at the community level? If so I'd like to hear you stories.