Wednesday, February 22, 2012

It's About Respect.

When you get down to it, performing theatre, like so many other things, is about respect. The best productions are small, short lived communities, and communities are founded upon respect. That isn't always to say you must love everyone else, and enjoy the company of all theatre people. That's silly, of course. But if we remain honest to why we're in a show, and give respect where it is due, the theatre can be a crucible for not only culture and art, but dignity and perhaps for a special few, spiritual enlightenment.

So where does your respect lie, and how is it shown in a production?

-We need to respect our responsibilities in a production. Cast, crew, director. It doesn't matter what your job is. Respect it. Be dependable. Do your work. Show enthusiasm for what you are creating. Be on time. Go beyond your obligations. This is respecting your position in a production.

-Respect the others in the production. That should be obvious. Yet we often fail in this one. Not by intentionally showing specific disrespect for others, but by forgetting that there are others. By believing that we are the only aspect of the production to which we owe anything. If you come in late for rehearsals, leave your props all over the place, make yourself unavailable to help others out when needed, and other such things, you are being just as disrespectful. It doesn't matter how good you believe yourself to be, you are never the only concern, or even the most important concern in a production. So don't act like it. There are others involved in making this show possible. Help them do their job when you can, and treat them as they deserve.

-Respect the venue. Theatre is anywhere people invoke characters to tell a story. You may never find yourself performing in a large, posh, high capacity theatre. It may be a small black box, a school auditorium, or a converted storefront. How easy to conclude that a venue is unworthy of your respect as an actor. Track mud into the green room, (if there even is a green room). Leave your trash laying around. The place is just a little dump, right? Someone will come along and pick it up, and after all, you can't be bothered. You have your own problems, and this isn't Broadway.

Yet you are here. And others are here. Nobody put a gun to you head and forced you to be in a show. So if being in one is that important to you, consider the fact that performing is an art, as well as a responsibility. To some, a sacred responsibility. Not because anybody involved is superior to the world, but because decent human beings have opted to give of their time and energy so that others can lay down money to be transported somewhere else by your efforts. And it's been that way for for a few thousand years. Perhaps that alone makes any theatre venue worthy of your respect.

You don't have to feel this way about theatre, but if you don't, you are free to go do something else. While you are there, show respect for the craft itself by treating the any venue with respect.

-Respect the audience. I often say that the audience is the unseen character in any production. They come in all types. And sometimes there are cold audiences, and audiences that are asleep. Sometimes the cast will be barely bigger than the audience. Some audiences will never laugh at the comedy, and barely clap at the end of the show. And that can be obnoxious, I won't lie to you. But still, they are an audience, and in most cases a paying audience, and they deserve your best any given night. Unless they are heckling, (which no actor should tolerate), we mustn't pick and choose which audiences will get our best and which will not.

Nor should we try to trick them, or milk them for more. They will give what they feel moved to give. That isn't always as much as we, the actors, want, but it is beyond our control. Don't mug, or overact to try to get them to respond more than they are. Just perform, and receive what they offer.

-Respect the script. As a writer myself, I understand somewhat how testy playwrights can get about every aspect of their scripts. They want them performed exactly a certain way, down to every teardrop shed. Yet as an actor, I feel playwrights sometimes get too testy about their scripts. I like scripts that allow for broad interpretations of a play, instead of those who try to direct the production from the page. Most playwrights disagree.

Yet following lock-step every nuance that a playwright is demanding of the actor still does not show de facto respect for the script. Respect for a script, rather, has to do with internalizing it, and making every effort to understand the intentions of the piece. That means viewing the entire arc of the story, and not just your lines. That means seeking to understand the bits you don't follow. Don't try to blow it over, or hide it as you perform, but actually dig into the material to find what you can find. In a good script the answer is usually there somewhere. Contrary to popular playwright belief you are not a mindless drone on stage. But you do at least need to read a map. The script is your map. Don't rewrite the show. (Which is much different than interpreting.)

-Respect the director. This can be one of the most difficult, because directors often come down with a God complex. You don't have to look far in this blog to realize I am very much against autocratic theatre direction. Leave that to the movies where it belongs. Taken too far, someone barking orders and rude comments at performers doesn't deserve respect. No more than people in other positions that treat colleagues poorly deserve it.

And a good director is your colleague. You work together to put on a good show. You have your scenes and your lines to worry about, but they have the entire show, on stage and off, to tend to. They have to gather things together in a coherent whole. This doesn't afford them the right to establish a dictatorship, but it does mean their job is difficult in a different way than yours is, and you should remember that. If you have a problem, approach them in private, like a civilized human being. Avoid the temptation to confront them while rehearsing. It's a challenge sometimes, but you'll be better off for it, and most directors will appreciate it.

-Respect props and costumes. Yes, there are so many fun objects in a theatre. But it isn't your stuff, and quite often, it takes a long time and/or a lot of money to secure such things for a collection. Don't eat in your costume, and don't play around with props. If you ruin something, the whole theatre suffers. Don't be that person.

-Most importantly, respect yourself. Whatever your skill level, whatever show you are in, whether you make any money or not, respect yourself. When you are in a show you are involved in a tradition that is in some ways part of the bedrock foundation of Western culture. That isn't to say you ought to feel self-important, or ponder the complexities of this statement every time you are in a show. But if you stop and think about it once in a while, it's at least kind of cool, isn't it?

Think of all the others that have done it before you, just on the stage you are on today. Then multiply that by all the stages over time. Lots of people have done what you are doing in this show. Don't let people tell you it's pathetic, a waste of time, or simply, "playing dress up". It's none of those things, if you don't want it to be. It's art, and when you do it, you're an artist, worthy of your own respect.

Monday, February 06, 2012

In A Show, But Not On Stage

I'd like to talk about the blocks of time I spend in the theatre when I'm in a show but which doesn't involve my time on stage. It can be broken down roughly into several different type of time and in an ideal production, this is what they feel like.

There is the time between my arrival at the theatre itself, and when I start getting into costume. I'm always one of the first actors to arrive at the theatre during a show. Mainly because I consider it my obligation to respect call. Plus I loathe rushing. But it also gives me a chance to take in what I call the "duty-free" excitement of a performance night. It's an early enough time to anticipate the start of that evening's show without needing to take care of responsibilities, feeling nervous. Just pure positive energy.

During such times I lay on the couch, kibitz a bit with others in the show, and just take it all in. 

I also like to walk around on stage a bit, in front of the not-yet-open house. Some nights I can actually sense the future. As though the audience that has yet to arrive physically is already present on some level out in the seats. I love that time. 

Not all actors care about this time, or even want it. (They invariably arrive about 10 minutes before their first entrance. Every damn night.) But I do want this time. There is a particular quality of freedom and fun in the atmosphere of a theatre say, 90 minutes to an hour before curtain which is not quite replicated at any other time. Not even intermission.

Later comes pre-show costume time. I've gotten into costume. The taste of the earlier time is still there, but things start to get a bit more "serious" if you will. I love walking around and even playing around a bit in costume, because it helps bring my character into focus. It also serves as a reminder that it's just about "time to eat". I like to get comfortable with wearing the costume for maybe 20 minutes or so without the need to focus just yet. The plane may be out on the tarmac, but hasn't begun the take-off sequence just yet. So I look at myself in the mirror more than needed. Adjust a tie, straighten a sleeve, tie a shoe. Conversation starts to drift more towards the show itself.

The 15 minute mark is when I truly want to get serious in most cases. In an ideal world, I can find a place to be by myself as much as I need to, and pace. I listen to music, go over lines, try to go inward to prepare. Any given venue in which I perform may not be conducive to all of my preferences for this time, but I try to create them as best I can. At least on opening night. I have spoken of this time before here on the blog and elsewhere. My senses are heightened somewhat. I say much less. I try to melt into the significance of what I am doing. Of course, if I don't make my first entrance until a half hour into the show, this is a little different, but I attempt nonetheless to attain these moments before I go on.

Backstage, pre-first entrance. Whenever I make my first entrance, by the time I'm standing back stage, I'm basically 100% focused on the task at hand. Listening for cues. Possibly rehearsing my first line or two. Trying to determine the nature of the audience. I do have a bit of an eccentricity which shows up from time to time at these moments, though. When I know my entrance is soon, but not eminent, I sometimes will fixate on the smallest, most insignificant thing in my visual range. A tiny hole in the curtain. An obscure piece of gaffer's tape on the floor from a previous show, who's purpose is by then long forgotten. A stray thread in the pocket of my costume. I don't know exactly why this happens sometimes, and I have never allowed it to distract me away from my duties. But it happens, and I'd elaborate if I could. But I can't.

Backstage, after my first entrance is a bit of a different creature. The intense focus, concentration, and commitment to my character and the job at hand are all still very much intact. I would venture to surmise that more mistakes in plays happen because somebody was screwing around while backstage than for any other reason. So I don't. 

However, depending on the nature of the entrance, it is ever so slightly looser backstage than the first time I am about to enter. I'm not usually one of those people that remain 100% in-character during all of my time in the building, so one can catch glimpses of the "real" me if my entrance is anymore than a minute away or so. And though I realize it is generally forbidden, you might catch me make the occasional (and very quiet) remark on what is happening on stage, or out in the audience. But only to fellow actors for whom I have a high degree of respect and trust. People I know will not abuse the ability to secretly trade whispered commentary during the briefest of backstage exchanges. 

During these times, I feel a particular bond with the other person. Observations under these conditions are among the most pithy, insightful, or in some cases, witty in the entire experience, because they require timing, brevity and near-silence. It takes a special kind of actor not to annoy me with saying something backstage. If I don't respect you, I won't say much, or anything to you backstage.

The green room. I've already discussed what happens in the green room before a show. Yet there's almost always time in the green room between scenes. Time during which I am still on my toes, listening for the next cue, but also a bit more at ease. A great relief descends upon me after a long and/or intense scene comes to an end, and I step for the first time into the protected atmosphere of the green room. It's almost like the Bat Cave. Commissioner Gordon will call again at some point, but for now you can take off the mask. As long as you don't leave it too far away. 

The nature of this time is split in a way. When you first come out of a scene and enter a green room, you relax a bit as you see the empty chair waiting for you, and other actors/crew engaged in (hopefully quiet) conversation. Life, you see, has continued in the so called real world as you performed. It's easy to forget sometimes that it does, and coming back to the green room, with its mess, its chairs, its actors eating in costume when they aren't supposed to, keeps one grounded. And part of me is sometimes relieved when I see fellow actors about to leave the green room and prepare to enter. They are just building up to what I am coming down from. It's not quite "better you than me", but a close cousin. (Now that I think of it though, in any given show...)

Of course, the roles reverse in short time, and I am the one going over the next scene in the corner, waiting for a cue, as others come ambling into the room, 85% of the time with a heavy sigh. (This stuff is hard to do well, loyal blog readers.)

One amusing side effect of this ever changing greenroom populace is how conversations can be put on hold in an instant, only to be resumed 15, 20, 30 or more minutes later. More than once I have been in the green room talking with an actor, only to have them stop, run out, do their scene, and return to me, (if I am in the green room at the time) and begin with, "anyway, like I was saying..."

Intermission is as much for the actors as it is for the audience. A time to rest, yes. But also to fix that lump in your sock you haven't had enough time to fix during the show. To get that drink. Inform that techie that there is a stray nail rolling around on the stage that somebody needs to get. To asses the audience with other actors. To asses the performance with other actors. To engage with the one you have the small crush on. Whatever. The point being that for me, unless there is a highly emotional opening to Act II of which I am a part, I don't let intermission be about business. Costume/ make-up changes of course, but I'm not in character, I'm not pacing, I'm not meditating. I'm not loafing or totally goofing off either, because Act II energy drops are quite common in the type of theatre I do. I am still cognizant of being in a show. I just don't obsess over it as I often do at other times.

Afterward. Sometimes you are just relieved a performance is over. Usually you are simply tired. Once in a while you are pumped that a show went so well, and that the audience was so giving. Once in an even smaller while, you go out and feel the high of being praised by the audience personally, as you meet them and chat with them. (People rarely approach me, however, even when I go out to the lobby. So I now do that far less often than I used to.) With the exception of opening night and closing afternoon, the end of an evening of theatre for me is somewhat like the feeling of music that is far too loud being shut suddenly off; your ears are ringing more so from the instant end of all of it than they were from the noise itself.

When I'm lucky I'm in a show with people who sometimes like to go grab a bite after the show, in which case, clean up and post-show time has its own energy. But usually everyone just wants to go home, and it's a bit like 10:00AM on December 26th. I find myself sometimes wishing that everyone felt the same energy arc as I did, and want to at least go out for a drink. Yet, if they don't they don't, and I face the long commute home feeling as though I have left a party that was just getting started when the hosts threw everyone out. (This feeling is at it's worst for me after the first matinee is over. After a long tech week and the opening weekend, almost everybody want to get the hell home as soon as possible.)

I feel that at least a third of the "being in a show" experience lies in these non-performing moments. While it's true that an actor is there to perform, and should at all times prioritize his performance duties, (which I do), the best theatre memories I have from my career all had one thing in common; the time off stage contributed to the excellence of my time on it.