Well – I had hoped to make some posts earlier than this but the process has been so intense that the whirlwind of activity has made it almost impossible to get my head screwed on straight enough to string words together….unless they happened to be written in John Logan’s script for RED.
I still want to get into some thoughts about the process of emotion on stage – and humour – and several other issues that crossed my mind during the rehearsal process…but for now…with two performances on-line for today…I think I only have the bandwidth to share some observations from the last week or so. After today – I have two days off from the show. I hope to find the time to offer some more in-depth observations.
Some of these thoughts will be old-hat to practiced theatre-makers – but for those less proficient, I hope they have some resonance
1) Two-Handers are an surprisingly solitary process. One would think that there would be a real buddy-mentality that would set in, but that has not been my experience. This is the fourth two-person play that I have been in (Mass Appeal – Oleanna – The Guys – and now Red). There is little of the comradery or activity of a larger production. Not a lot of post-rehearsal drinks and laughs. The process is intense. The rehearsals are relentless. The homework required is overwhelming at times. Unlike larger shows, the requirement of being on-stage the entire time also means that one is rehearsing the entire time. After an 8 hour rehearsal of this kind I find that I am exhausted mentally and emotionally. After one particular day of rehearsal that involved two full run-throughs – plus a lot of working notes – I found that I spent the entire evening constantly on the verge of tears. Look at my kids – get misty eyed…a sad scene on tv – reach for the kleenex…..cello music – forget about it.
Even now that we are in the theatre and have gone through several performances, I’m still amazed at how quiet it is. There is almost no activity back-stage. I never see Caleb (who plays Ken) until he walks on-stage for our first meeting in the play. After curtain call – it takes me so long to get all the paint off me that I am usually the last one out of the theatre – so I have no contact with the company at that point either.
None of this is a complaint. The process is what it is. I am just observing.
2) There is no substitute for homework and knowing the text cold: Early in my work as a younger actor, I had a director rant at me saying, “I cannot rehearse this fucking play until you learn your fucking lines”. It’s very true. There is a lot that can be accomplished – perhaps some staging and table discussion…. But the real work of bringing a play to life cannot begin until the ‘text’ is a given. I have directed and worked with actors who seem incapable of learning lines until the last minute. First – they seem to have no concept of the growth potential that they lose out on by not having more rehearsals that are free of text issues. Second – it is incredibly selfish to hold the rest of the cast hostage to your shortcomings. The other actors need something concrete to respond to in order to facilitate their growth. They don’t have too much to work with if what they are looking at is an actor struggling to recall his lines.
Luckily – that was not in any way an issue with this current production. One of the reasons rehearsals could be so intensive was that the text was fairly secure from day 1.
3) Standing alone on a stage at the opening of a long tech rehearsal takes balls. I deal with many young actors who want the title roles. they want to be ‘the guy’ on stage. It’s not as easy as it looks. I’ve learned over the years that it takes a lot more than talent to carry a show. I have known untalented actors who could carry a show and I’ve known talented ones who couldn’t. It hits home for me at those times when – alone on stage – I realize that everyone is looking to me….expecting me to hit my mark…to remember countless adjustments being offered on the fly….to take it all in without question or comment. Playing a role in a play like this is a huge responsibility. It isn’t about the fun of it. It is about mastering a huge challenge. It takes just the right amount of ego to feel confident in mastering that challenge – yet feeling humble enough to submit willingly to the process and submit to the script, the director, the other actors, the designers and crew. It’s a fine balancing act. It also requires a certain leadership. Not the kind of leadership that involves telling others what to do. Rather it is the kind of leadership that involves being prepared and setting a tone.
4) For me: of all the skills – maintaining focus is the most important and the most challenging: A show like this requires 100% intense focus from curtain to curtain. For 90 minutes there are absolutely no breaks – not one opportunity to stop for breath. Even the scene changes are extremely choreographed ballets in which I need to complete several steps and am literally just hitting my mark as the next scene begins. Over the years I have noted that those times when actors get lost on stage – forgetting a line or missing an entrance or key piece of business – it isn’t that they have “forgotten”. It is that they lost focus. Some nagging thought crept in and for a split second they are not on stage in the moment. They are re-living a moment from earlier in the day. They are considering some other aspect of the production. They are wondering what that noise was back-stage – or questioning an audience response or lack of response.
I will admit – even in this production – there have been brief (and terrifying moments) when I have realized that my mind is elsewhere on stage. Or more specifically – my mind is not 100% focused on what is happening between me and Ken at that specific moment. I have caught myself wondering briefly about an upcoming costume change…or questioning the placement of a prop that I need to use shortly. The feeling is almost one of ‘waking up’ on stage. I am momentarily lost in a random thought and then – with a start – I have this feeling of “holy shit - what is happening? have I missed something?” It has never led to a problem as (fortunately) the mind can move at lightning speed in such circumstances and my lapse of attention may have only been for a fraction of a second. However – I will say it again – maintaining absolute 100% focus – being 100% in the moment – is the most challenging aspect of what I have to do in this production.
5) the best on-stage experiences are like jazz – it’s all improv within a strict structure: I recall being told that good acting is just talking and listening. Sounds simple – but it takes a lot of time and homework to get to that point. The biggest leap that I have watched young actors make is when they realize that acting is not about what they see themselves as doing. It is about paying close attention to what the others are doing on-stage and reacting honestly to that. Since what everyone else is doing will vary slightly from evening to evening – the responses will also vary slightly from evening to evening. The moments on-stage that I enjoy the most are those times when all the homework is secure…all the text is rock solid…every word and movement is connected to a specific thought and reaction. These are the times when I can just sit back into it and listen….and respond. No thought of what came before. No thought of what is to come. Everything happens within the framework of the script, the blocking, the interpretations set out by the director – but it is fresh and brand new every time……like good jazz.
6) I’m running out of time and need to go review my script for the upcoming matinee so here are a few specific and quick ones:
-Getting paint in your eye on stage is a pain in the ass
-Buttoning a shirt and putting on a belt – in the dark – in a hurry – is a very very difficult thing to do
-As a practical point – eating rice on stage is terrifying. Every night I have a split-second image of myself lying on-stage choking and turning blue in front of several hundred people
-Audiences laugh at the strangest things and it is extremely difficult to predict what they will find amusing – particularly in an intense production
-No one will give you an honest opinion in a theatre-lobby – but post-show social media can be the most uplifting or the most depressing
-No matter what people say about you after the show. No matter how much your ego swells….there is nothing quite like being left the job of plunging the toliet in the morning to bring one back down to earth. Being left with laundry to fold also is helpful on this point.
OK – now off the review my script before the matinee.