Archive for Acting

Making it Personal

At the beginning of April, Padraig and a new student, Bridgette, set to work on the one act play “Specter” by Don Nigro.

Not all scenes transition from the table quickly, but Bridgette and Padraig very quickly tapped into the event of the scene. Finding the event of the scene is necessary before any scene can be staged with a set.

Part of their early success is built into the circumstances of the play: A young woman seeks shelter from a rainstorm in the car of a man who has found himself stuck on a muddy bank. The chemistry of the scene is a useful hook for any actor.

The second part of their success comes from the work of the actors themselves. Bridgette brings to class with herself a sharp set of instincts and a preexisting way of working, what Cay sometimes likes to call the “tool bag”, and Padraig’s work in class recently has seemed to gain in depth with every new assignment.

The scene hit a road bump in week two. On stage they had built a basic set using chairs to create the interior of a car wrecked against a muddy bank during a rainstorm. But this time around the work, which the previous week had been alive feeling was for some reason now reading as flat.

“Alright guys I’m going to stop you,” said Cay early into the second read of their scene. “I feel like there’s a lot of sitting up there and talking and not a lot happening…what are you working for?”

“I’m working for not being too upset with him and just attempting to get comfortable,” Bridgette replied.

“Right. The problem is that both of those are performance notes. We’re missing some of the elements of the circumstance. For example, I don’t believe the car crash. I don’t believe the fight with the boyfriend. I don’t believe that you’re wet. In the past when people have worked on this scene I encourage them to spend one rehearsal wet…it’s a difference experience sitting next to someone who is wet. You don’t have to do that in class, but you get the point right? Pick one of the circumstances and work to make that true. Otherwise, if I’m a director watching this scene I’m feeling frustrated because I’m basically paying you to work on your lines. Can you guys start again?”

Bridgette and Padraig in Don Nigro’s one act play “Specter”

The partners each indicate that they do want to take another shot at the scene.

The second time around there was a freedom to the work, spontaneity and a sense of play granted by each of the scene partners allowing themselves to truly take in the person sitting next to them and respond truthfully. Jokes that a moment before had felt lifeless now were eliciting laughter from a classroom of people who had heard them already.

“Did you find anything?” asked Cay, and both of them nodded their heads in reply.

“I definitely think so,” said Bridgette “it’s a weird scene because there’s no physical life.”

“It’s true, there’s no movement,” Cay answered, turning her attention to Padraig “I feel like you were finding some things.”

“I think so. I felt more free…it was more fun.”

“Finding a place to come from within yourself is when you start to put your DNA in this. Bridgette, I see you hitting on it, but I’m not sure you even know how you are. I want you to start becoming aware of it so that you can feel it” at which point she snapped her fingers for emphasis.

“THAT was more truthful. THAT was more truthful!” Cay continued, snapping each time to lend emphasis to the word truthful and indicate the physical sensation of hooking into a personalization. “Does that make sense?”

“Sure,” Bridgette answered “and we talked about that being part of what I want to work on.”

“Exactly” replied Cay. “You need to slow down a little bit. Right now you’re working about a million miles a minute.”

Bridgette took a moment to think, and then nodded her head and offered up as an explanation, “I think part of the problem is that I don’t believe her when she says that she had a fight with her boyfriend.”

“And that’s where personalizing is going to be helpful. When you get that…”Cay snapped her fingers one more time to drive the point home “truth you need to explore that and ask, who makes me feel this way? Who stimulates me in this way? You need to make some decisions about that for yourself.”

Relieved of Perfection

Part of the joy of being an artist in Cay’s studio is finding that you are “deliciously relieved of perfection.” These are not my words. I appropriated them from Sheilagh during the advanced class last Monday night. They are fitting though in that they sum up the experience of being in class week after week, putting up work for peers who feel more like family in front of a teacher who is also a friend.

It is true that occasionally Cay will instruct you that you should be “feeling her foot placed firmly on your rear” pushing your work a little deeper, stretching your limits a little further. Perfection though is never the goal. The goal is good work; on fortunate occasions the result is great work.

There is a phrase that Fred often uses during Drill class on Friday’s. It goes something like, “always strive to achieve greatness, and if you can even come close then that is a success.” Cay’s studio is a place in which actors get to pursue greatness while enjoying the freedom to try something new, to not be afraid of making mistakes.

Sheliagh’s insight came after the first rehearsal of her scene last Monday. The comment set the stage appropriately for several incidents of “imperfection” throughout the night, including a nosebleed and an overturned water bottle onto a table with two laptops.

The laptops survived, and the nosebleed put Jack and Kieran’s staging of one of the final scene between what might be the American dramatic tradition’s most famous brothers from “Long Day’s Journey into Night” on pause only momentarily.

Kieran and Jack in “Long Day’s Journey into Night”

In her scene from Donald Margulies’ play “Time Stands Still”, Sheilagh is called upon to portray Sarah, a world-renowned photographer recovering in her home from a recent brush with death in the form of a roadside bomb. It picks up in the middle of a conversation with her ex’s new significantly younger lover, Mandy, played by Caroline.

“How did you feel?” asked Cay when their first run was finished.

They are sitting together on the couch, Caroline wearing a flowing, flattering dress and her partner sporting a head wrap and an arm in a sling, both allusions to her injuries, looking every bit the world traveler.

“I felt okay…a little bit stilted” replied Caroline, which Sheilagh followed up confirming that she also felt stiff.

“My feeling is that each of you is working a bit alone tonight,” said Cay “so that the event of the scene becomes about your memories rather than about what’s happening between you.”

She continues onto a discussion about the nature of their relationship and the effect that Sheilagh’s injuries have on her ability to move around in the scene. Cay makes the point that Sheilagh seems to be imbuing the movement with more difficulty than she might actually need to, especially since the circumstances of the scene dictated that the injuries had been sustained several weeks before.

“I guess I thought the physical and emotional damage was less healed than it actually might be,” said Sheilagh.

“When you are working on a role with a lot of damage, often it starts large and then you cut it back, Cay pointed out. “Also, the natural process of rehearsal ages it in a way.”

Cay leaves it to the scene partner to decided whether or not they think they would benefit from putting the scene up again or to take it home and sit with the notes until next week, and Sheilagh says that they would like to give it another shot.

“Since we are deliciously relieved of perfection in this room.”

Sheilagh and Caroline in “Time Stands Still”

During the second run the scene partners apply their notes with success. Caroline puts her attention on Sheilagh, who dials back her emotional and physical wounds, allowing the scene to take place between rather than around them. In the final moment of the piece, the Sarah tells the story of her fixer, the person who she shared her life with in a warzone who vanished after the explosion.

“He was an engineering student—before it all went to hell. Taught himself American English by reading A Farewell to Arms over and over again. Carried it with him wherever he went. That and the Koran. He had a wife. Who was killed. And two little girls. Also killed. About a year into the war. A mortar attack on their apartment building whle he was at school. He was a lovely, lovely man. Funny. And he loved America. Loved it. Everything about it. Television.”

“What was his name?” Caroline asks.

“His name was Tariq.” Sheilagh replies.

“Okay, give me that last beat one more time, but this time Sheilagh, offer the name to her as if it is a gift” Cay instructs without pausing the scene.

They take the scene back a moment, and then at Caroline’s cue Sheilagh repeats the line.

“His name,” she says with a pause, taking Cay’s direction and imbuing the next part of the line with the emotional weight of a long lost friend “was Tariq.”

The Preperation: Using an incomplete ‘as if’

“I know only moments, and lifetimes that are as moments. It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them too.”

Cate Blanchett, speaking to an attentive class of second graders, is saying these words. They are not her words, and this audience is not her true target. The words are a part of a manifesto written by Jean-Luc Godard on filmmaking. The audience is actually the fifty or so people gathered in canvas chairs, perched on wooden benches, or standing cross armed and listening attentively as Cate-made-teacher is projected onto a large screen delivering a Swiss director’s denouncement of narrative along side 12 other versions of herself in the Julian Rosefeldt show “Manifesto” at the Park Avenue Armory.

That quote came to me while sitting in class on Tuesday, listening to Cay discuss the danger of an incomplete use of “as if” during a preperation. Emily was onstage with Geraldine having just finished up their first run through for the day of a scene from “The Glass Menagerie”

“How do you know when you can’t use something?” Emily asks.

“My experience is that it’s a case by case call,” Cay replies. “Some people say seven years, but I think there are sometimes preparation’s that are fresh that you can use and something things that are ancient that you can’t go near.”

This territory seems both familiar and important for my own work. I remember my scene study class in Los Angeles when Chris Fields used to talk about the same subject. Attempting to prepare using an as if that was too fresh was a no go in his class. More than once I have found myself neck deep in a scene only to realize that whatever I had been working with was actually hindering rather than helping.

Sure, it doesn’t FEEL that way in the moment. It feels good, actually, to use a fresh experience over one that has been processed and integrated. The emotion in a fresh memory is so raw and visceral, so easy to access. But that’s the trap. A preparation that is being used by an actor must also be capable of growing and changing with the experience of the moment.

It seems to me that it’s about perspective more than anything. Distance from a memory allows a level of contextualizing to take place that isn’t possible when the memory is fresh. There is a clarity that comes once time has passed between the occurrence of an event that could be eventually become an as if for a preparation and the attempt to work it into something  usable.

If an actor uses an as if that is extracted from a fresh memory that they haven’t fully processed yet, then the actor risks allowing the preparation to overpower what is actually happening on stage.

“What you’re looking to do is to extract the essence.” Cay goes on to explain, “You don’t want to live in that preparation. You’re trying to turn it into something that can be extracted and plugged into the scene to give you a place to come from.”

The most recent example of this happening in my own work was during my last scene, also from the Glass Menagerie. When we began the process of working on the piece I felt as if I had tapped into something really powerful early. It came off of one of my scene partner’s lines—the line struck me in such a profound way, reminded me so deeply of a fight I had once had, that I felt there was no other memory that I could possibly use.

That feeling should have probably been a red flag. Instead of helping me to dig into the scene the memory that I was using actually set off a fight or flight response in my body which shut me down both from connecting to my partner, and ultimately, from my desire to continue working on the piece.

It did not feel good walking out of class that day. I felt that I had failed both my scene partner and myself.

Distance though, being the great provider of perspective that it is, has been helpful. I don’t think it was anyone’s fault really. I’ve learned this lesson before, but I had been out of class for so long that when my instinct led me astray, my training was slow to kick in and warn me “hey, something’s not working here.” There was a lesson to be learned, and if there is a safe place and time to learn a lesson, it is on Tuesday afternoon in a room full of friends and collaborators who have each also have plenty of learning moments in Cay’s class.

Actors go to class, actors go to class, actors go to class.

Stay focused

In the wake of the election earlier this month, I found myself asking the same question everyone seemed to be asking. What now? At my survival gig as a bartender I instituted a loose rule in the final few weeks leading up to Nov. 7th that his name was banned from conversation. This was an effort to escape the media storm, the endless barrage of news stories that choked up my news feeds, costing me hours of my time spent in anxiety inducing binge reading sessions.

That rule fell quickly in the week following the confirmation that our next four years in this country would be shaped by a man who has never held elected office. My regulars gathered at almost nightly that week, the need to be around others driving them from their homes and into the bar stools, and on everyone’s lips was that same question. What do we do now?

It all felt so very unlikely, so impossible to imagine a future in which our president would be him. If this were an eighteen hundred’s melodrama then in the 5th act a messenger would come riding in with a letter stating that a previously unknown wealthy relative had died and suddenly there would be enough money to save the family farm, happily ever after. But I hate melodramas, and he is our President elect. It seems unlikely that there is a last minute reprieve coming.

There isn’t much more about the situation I can say that hasn’t already been said by people smarter and more qualified than I am, so instead I’ll leave you with the words of my friend Steve Cannon, writer, poet, activist, and hell of a cool guy. Steve is 81 years old and has been without his eyesight since 1989. Once, I asked him what it was like to lose his vision so late in life. He replied that he was pretty bummed out…for about a month. But then he realized that he was hardly the first person to lose his vision, and that if everyone else managed to get by, then he certainly could.

Suffice to say, for an old blind guy Steve has seen some shit.

I called him the day after the election, and true to form, he was ready with these words of encouragement.

“Stay focused. This is not the time to roll over and die. Now we get to fight twice as hard.”

Back in class the following Tuesday we hardly talked about the events that had transpired. It didn’t seem worth it; all of the complaining in the world wasn’t going to change anything. The world might have felt like it ended, but here we were, all of us gathered in the same place, doing the same thing that we do every Tuesday afternoon. Geraldine and Migina wrapped up their run through of a scene from Annie Baker’s new play “John” and, when finished, Geraldine turned to Cay.

“This is the hardest damn thing I’ve ever done in this class,” she complained.

Cay laughed and replied, “That’s what you said about the Shaw. Why is this scene in the play?”

“We talked about that…” Migina answered. “We realized that this is the only scene without [my boyfriend] Elias. The scene for me is a breath of fresh air, and I think she’s realizing that she’s not boring, that someone is taking an interest in her.”

“And if this scene wasn’t in the play, what would happen?” Cay asked.

“Well, I wouldn’t break up with Elias.”

“Exactly. You give her strength that she didn’t expect. Even those who don’t appear to have it have strength. Which Elias doesn’t see, right?”

“Right” Migina agreed.

“He types them out. So if this scene wasn’t in the play, it would make it much harder to do what you need to do.”

Migina and Geraldine in Annie Baker's "John"

Migina and Geraldine in Annie Baker’s “John”

I recently came to a similar realization in my own life. Two weeks ago my live in girlfriend and I called it quits, marking the end second major relationship in my adult life.  Currently I am in the peaks and valleys phase, that awful land of highs and lows and lows and highs. A few things are getting me through this phase. Friends, family, and of course, art. A trip to the Guggenheim for an Agnes Martin retrospective left me floating for a full day. The Kerry James Marshall exhibition “Mastery” provided me a sense of much needed perspective in a time of both personal and national strife. I recently found a study that said reading fiction makes you a more empathetic person. The next day I went out and bought “Best Short Stories of 2016” edited by Junot Diaz and devoured it over the course of a week or so.

Back in class, Cay asked Geraldine what she felt her character got from the scene.

“Companionship…someone taking an interest” Geraldine replied.

“Right,” said Cay before putting her focus on Migina again. “You know how there are some people who you only spend a short amount of time with, peripherally, who for whatever reason make you feel valued? You can drop the social mask and be yourself.”

“It’s a breath of fresh air.”

“Exactly. And often it’s the people who you suspect the least. You just get dropped off here, I don’t think it was a pleasant drop off. And you expect to go upstairs but instead you stay down here and you get curious. And that curiosity is such a powerfully human thing.”

Curiosity.

Artists come from all walks of life, but the common denominator seems to be that everyone who has ever taken up the cause is curious. If there is a through line that can be drawn from the Greeks to the Guggenheim, I think it would be done using a pen made of the stuff.

Annie Baker must have been curious when she wrote this play. Cay pointed out during this discussion that that what makes Baker is great playwright is that she frequently explores the characters that exist on the fringe of narrative. Geraldine’s character, an aging bed and breakfast owner operator living near Gettysburg, would in most plays be a peripheral character at best. In this scene though the character is integral to the plot, to the realization in Migina’s character that her relationship is over.

Maybe I am projecting my own experience onto the play, but it seems to me that Annie Baker is also interested in empathy as a theme. At a point in their talk Geraldine’s character tells a story about having run into an old coworker at the grocery store. The coworker was a doctor in a hospital where her character worked as an assistant during a low point in her life, mostly scrubbing out bedpans. The doctor had always been cold to her, but when she saw him in the grocery story he asked how she had been since leaving the job. Geraldine’s character gets to tell him that she is happily married and running a bed and breakfast with her husband.

“That,” she says “was a very nice moment in my life.”

Cay asked Geraldine why her character feels the need to tell that story.

“Well, it’s my way of saying my life got better, and yours will too” she replied.

Art has value, whether people want to acknowledge it or not. I felt that deeply during the last class, a class that I didn’t want to come to the day after moving my things out of another New York City apartment and trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces of my life yet again. But Steve’s advice echoed my head, and Agnes Martin building a career despite a life long battle with schizophrenia reminded me that people have gotten through more difficult experiences than the ones that I’m dealing with, and class has always been a way for me to get in touch with those two most human things, curiosity and empathy. So I got up and I got showered and I made my way over to the studio because like Steve says, now is not the time to roll over and die. Stay focused.

 

 

Impostor Syndrome

I have become a creature of the left brain.

My days are filled with emails, scheduling, phone meetings, and compulsively checking my inbox to see if we have gotten anymore contributions on the fundraising page.

I remember years ago sitting in a class on entrepreneurship being taught all of the ways to fundraise for your dream project. To my twenty year old brain the idea that anyone would trust me with their money seemed absurd. Now I watch the donations trickle in daily, in increments as low as ten dollars and as high as three hundred. People are sending ME money, to stage a play with MY friends, one that came out of MY head…don’t they know who I am? I have trouble getting to the subway in the morning without having to go back for my keys, my phone, or my wallet. Sometimes I make it all the way to the city before I realize the mistake.

It is happening though. All of my doubt and anxiety aside, we have a play. We have a venue. We have money in the bank. On a run a few weeks back, I expressed my fear around this first attempt at staging my own work to my running partner. “I think everyone who doesn’t suffer from a personality disorder or severe narcism deals with a certain amount of impostor syndrome,” he replied. With those words he hit the nail on the head.

What gives me the right to do this, I keep wondering?

Last Thursday I took the night off of emails to go watch two dear friends perform a mix of music and poetry in a local venue. I didn’t want to stay for long; I had come off of a long work day and was looking at a busy weekend. Somewhere in the evening though I lost track of that desire. The warmth of the space and of the people who filled it, of the creativity being showcased, worked its fingers into my core. All of the left brain worry around the production melted away, the stress of the survival job that I have to balance vanished with the sound of string instruments and applause. Oh yes, I thought. This is why we do it.

I stayed for over two hours.

This time a few weeks from now we will be finished with the play. People will have come to see it. Some people will like it, some will not. But if sitting in those seats watching something that has been built by a collaboration of myself and artists whom I love and respect causes someone to ask a question they have never asked before, or to leave behind some anxiety that has been eating away at their days, or inspires them to go out and create their own work in a world that needs art now more than ever, then (I think) it will all have been worth it.

"The King is Dead" poster

 

Tap Dancing Elephant Seals and a Student Blogger invade Monday Night

There is a power that comes from knowing what it feels like to be truthful and vulnerable onstage. Conversely, there is a sense of frustration that goes along with that power when an actor can sense that they are not as truthful and vulnerable as they are capable of being. Both Kieran and Ana of the Monday night class are of this tribe, as are many of the students who work with Cay. Recently I got together with a friend who has been taking an acting intensive at a different studio. The instructor at this studio worked through aggressive pursuit of the truth, often stopping scenes before the first lines of dialogue had been spoken. The friend recounted stories of being told to describe deeply personal events in front of the class, of being asked to strip naked, of moment after moment of being forced to step out of his comfort zone. Is this crazy, he wanted to know?  Should he be concerned?

Caitlin and Kaija in the first scene of the night from "All That Intimacy"

Caitlin and Kaija in the first scene of the night from “All That Intimacy”

The Monday night class at the beginning of this month featured two guests. The first was myself, sitting in the back row, scratching away on the pages of my notebook.

The second guest took the form of a repetitive stomping sound upstairs, which may or may not have been a cross fit class designed for elephant seals.

“There’s a BUNCH of them!” Kieran muttered at the ceiling, before charging out of the room to fulfill his duties as class monitor by asking the elephant seals to tread a little bit lighter.

(This was one of many excellent quotes by Kieran on Monday night. Highlights include “Does anyone know how to break a heartburn pill in half?” before class began, and “Maybe there was a strong gust of wind?” in reference to his [slightly] tardy scene partner.)

Magic happens when an actor takes an environmental distraction that is out of their control and turns it into a circumstance that feeds their scene. It takes a disciplined type of artist to not become flustered, and during Alex and Geoff’s “Blue Surge” scene the drumming would have been a distraction if not for a well timed glance up by Geoff during a particularly tense moment. With an upwards flick of his eyes our little studio is suddenly believable as the squalid apartment of Geoff’s character stuck in a dead end policing job.

Alex and Geoff rehearsing "Blue Surge"

Alex and Geoff rehearsing “Blue Surge”

Kieran’s own scene was from “Belleville”, a play that I hold near to my heart after my own work on it with Migina last year. Their scene comes from the end of the play, an epic sequence that begins with the revelation of a lie and ends in a suicide. It is in Cay’s own words, a monster of a scene, and after a pair of starts and stops in the rehearsal process he and Ana (who did not get blown away by a strong gust of wind) manage to get through the whole piece. They are both visibly frustrated when they finish.

Kieran in "Belleville"

Kieran in “Belleville”

Cay offers Ana the chance to speak first.

Ana: I feel disconnected…like okay, I don’t know what’s happening here, and I don’t want to swallow the whole chunk…

Cay: Well, what I’m seeing is that you are working off the moment without any inner objects in place. Sometimes working off the moment is is enough. But this play is a massive role, and this is a dramatic moment, and I think it would be difficult to get enough from just the scene.

Ana: I’m still looking for the feeling of…

She takes a moment and uses her hands to indicate the whole room, her partner, herself.

Cay: Well I don’t think you have to look for feeling, I think you have to look for a stimulus.

Ana: What’s the difference between stimulus and a feeling?

Cay: A stimulus causes a feeling.

Ana: My fear is that the stimulus won’t always be there.

Cay: When you find the feeling does it always stay?

Ana: Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.

Cay: What I’m saying is with a feeling you’ll recognize that the engine is going, the the feeling is there and now it’s time to act. You want to get something that has a handle that you can pick up and return to. Those things can be phrases, a piece of music, a moment of physicalization…

She pauses for a second to think.

Cay (cont’d): Have you ever been hung over? What is the dominate physical response?

Ana: It’s in my…

Her hands find the top of her head, and then move to massage her stomach.

Cay: Okay, that is what you’re working for here. The desire to eat, to lay down, the pain in your upper back.

At this point, Cay tells us a story about one of the few times she has ever been truly hung over. She tells it somewhat regularly in class, so I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me sharing some minor details here, including the punch line which is that after spending hours on a couch in a hangover hole she finally pulled her faculties together enough to find who the tiny voice in her apartment crying “Help. help.” for the last few hours had been. The answer was herself.

In response, Ana relates a personal story about the experience of being hung over during a particularly difficult day. One detail sticks out in particular, a trash can, and after she finishes her story, Cay has the class trash can moved so that it is next to her on the couch.

Cay: Okay. Look at the trash can. Does it give you anything?

Ana: It makes me really sad. Because I remember the funeral.

She begins massaging her stomach with her open hands.

Ana (cont’d): I have something but I don’t know what it means yet.

Cay: You don’t need to know what it means yet, you need to know that it gives you something.

IMG_0881

“Belleville” second rehearsal

Ana in "Belleville"

Ana in “Belleville”

Kieran and Ana’s begin the scene again, this time with a new level depth that had been missing previously. Not that their scene had lacked it entirely. I sometimes compare the process of discovery in Cay’s class to wood working; the use of a physical object for stimulus was a planer shaving off another layer of warped surface to reveal the healthy, raw grain below.

Cay asks Ana how this rehearsal felt compared to the last rehearsal.

Ana: It’s the same thing every time, Cay. I’m like here, and then I’m all over here, and then I’m like “okay Ana, let’s calm down and listen to the nice lady…” I was afraid to go there one hundred percent. Most of my life right now is auditioning, so I’m used to tying things to people and memory.

Cay laughs at this.

Cay: The nice lady does know what she’s talking about sometimes. When you looked at the wastebasket it seemed to give you something. What I was trying to give you was that there could be stimulus outside of yourself, and if you find a stimulus that can get you there it will be more reliable than simply looking for a feeling. The stimulus can take you to the people and memories.

To return to the question I posed at the top of this piece, is there a difference between the teacher that my friend is now studying with and what the teachers at the Caymichael Patten studio are doing? Is one better than the other?

For whatever my opinion is worth, no, it’s not crazy, and neither way is more or less correct. Acting defies decryption at every turn, in the same way that painting and music and all other art forms do. You can not understand because you can not crawl into the head of the individual performer.

Again, for whatever my opinion is worth, a good acting teacher will tell you at first meeting that acting can not be taught. It can be rehearsed, it can be experienced, you can try at it and fail at it and try again and succeed.

With rare exceptions, a piece of woods will not turn itself into a chair. It requires a carpenter to guide it, to shape and smooth it, to apply layers of lacquer or wax as a sealant.

One of the other moments that caught my attention on Monday night came from the very first scene from the play “All This Intimacy”. Caitlin and Kaija played two sisters, one seeking the other’s blessing for her impending wedding. After the first run Cay poses a question to Kaija about what her character wants out of the scene.

Cay: You want something. What do you want? You want her blessing you tell her straight out. You want your family to be there for you.

Kaija: Unless you don’t.

Cay: Unless you don’t. But why would you as an actor lower your stakes like that?

It is easy to imagine, in a different class setting, a teacher yelling the words “RAISE YOUR STAKES!” at an actor who isn’t quite invested enough in their character’s needs. It is easy to imagine because I have been in those classes. They are using different tools in the pursuit of the same result: artists who know how to behave truthfully under imaginary circumstances. When I last spoke to Cay she told me Ana had recently booked a role on a pilot. I was not surprised.

The teacher the friend in the story at the top was describing is the woodworker who prefers the mallet and the belt sander. Cay’s tools are the hand planer and the carving knife. Each will get the job done, in time.

Thoughts on “Hamilton” and why you should have seen “An Octoroon”

Last week I wrote that I had been offered an opportunity to see “Hamilton” and that it was “exactly as good as they say it is.”

Well, because I have had some time to process the experience, and because I am, for better or for worse, me, I’ve been rethinking that line.

In college I was offered the opportunity to teach a class on whether or not art is subjective by one of my professors. I took him up on the challenge, probably because I was a know it all, and also probably because there was a girl in the class who I had a massive thing for. If memory serves, my brief tenure as a Theatre History teacher was lackluster to say the least. I remember very little of what I talked about and I remember quite bit of what it felt like to have sweat creeping like cold fingers down my back as I stood in front of a class of my peers, many of whom were at least as smart (if not more so) as I was, including the girl who I had a massive thing for who would go on to do an MFA at a prestigious West Coast school.

What I am trying to say in a round about way is that I believe art IS subjective, but I believe great art is, on some level, objective. While I can’t tell you whether or not Hamilton is the best thing to hit the stage since the stone age, I can tell you what I actually think about the show as opposed to copping out with “it’s as good as they say it is”. In the grand scheme of things this little blog might not be a huge soap box on which to stand, but it is my soap box, so I’ll stand on it.

Hamilton is a good show, but if I understand anything about Theatre History, it is not a great show. Yes, it primarily utilizes actors of color in non traditional roles, and thank god it does.  Back in my World of Warcraft days there was a weapon called the “Unstoppable Force”, a comically large war hammer shaped like a wild boar. Christopher Jackson’s powerhouse George Washington probably could have gotten away with carrying it. Thomas Jefferson has never been as funny or relatable as he is in the hands of Daveed Diggs. And of course, Lin-Manuel (who for my money actually was one of the weaker voices, though only noticeable in the company he keeps) lent the title role a character arch so strong that it was not difficult to believe he aged 30 years from the time he took the stage to that time he took the fatal bullet in the final act.

Pictured: The Unstoppable force in the hands of what may or may not be the first President of the United States of America.

Pictured: The Unstoppable force in the hands of what may or may not be the first President of the United States of America.

But there are legitimate gaps.

Where are the strong female roles in a play that is supposed to be one of the most progressive to hit Broadway in years? There are two powerful females. Renee Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo are excellent women’s voices in a stage overflowing with men. But Goldsberry is limited to two songs. Miss Sue, who plays Eliza Hamilton, is far and away the most emotionally affecting actor on the stage…in the few number’s where she has the opportunity to be.

I know the counter argument to this point would be that a play doesn’t have to take on ever social justice issue of it’s time in one fell swoop. Indeed, to do so would be to invite a failure of it’s own kind, that of generalization over specificity. But I think Hamilton had a shot at being more than just an entertaining and educational musical featuring actors of color, and it missed its chance. I wonder what the voice of Martha Washington would have sounded like camping with the troops at Valley Forge. Could the many letters of Abagail Adams have been included somewhere? There certainly was quite a bit dedicated to the Continental Congress, and most historians agree that her husband’s political philosophy was strongly based on his communications with her.

To bolster my point, I’d like to write about a different production.

Last year, my birthday present to myself was a ticket for the Theatre for a New Audience’s production of “An Octoroon”. For anyone who did not catch it, Octoroon was an adaptation by Brendan Jacob-Jenkins of a melodrama written in the 1850’s by the same title. The play featured some of the most clever dialogue I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing delivered by a masterful ensemble, powerful imagery (including a ship that “explodes” on stage in a shower of white foam balls, covering the first 6 rows of audience), and music by a string quartet seated just to stage right of the action. Ben Brantley’s review describes the production more eloquently than I will ever be able to. For me, Jacob-Jenkin’s adaptation can be summed up in 3 words: Fire on stage.

Hamilton is an objectively good show, but I think Octoroon was an objectively great show. Great in the sense that nobody in that audience walked out and did not feel a seismic shift in their perception. When I encounter people who saw that production their eyes light up as if I were describing a long lost lover. “Oh, you understand!” the conversations seem to say.

What I will admit is that Hamilton is a musical that is one hundred percent accessible. A person who has never sat through a live production in their life could walk off the street and find themselves wildly entertained. Octoroon on the other hand is a much more formidable beast. It required an active audience, one that is not willing to be spoon fed but is hungry to feed themselves on the mental nourishment that it offers. The ultimate irony? One ticket to an Octoroon ran me $40. Hamilton is selling for upwards of $600.

Yes, Hamilton is providing a venue in which young artists can see a cast that is not loaded with white male actors playing parts written for white male actors. It is easy to imagine a ten year old Alexander Hamilton sitting in those seats and being inspired by what he is witnessing. But Hamilton the poor, orphaned immigrant would  have to get in line behind people who can afford to pay for a single ticket what some people are paying for a month’s rent in my neighborhood.

If I were told that I would only get to be a part of one major production in my life, and the choice were between these two plays, I know which one I would choose. That, for this actor at least, answers the question of which is the greater play.

All my friends are getting married or written up by the Times, and I’m just over here scoring tickets to Hamilton

My classmates are blooming. Fitting for an unseasonably warm winter.

One is racking up frequent flyer miles on regional theatre gigs, another is all over my television trying to sell me prescription drugs, the third is swinging in an Off-Broadway production that was was written by a the fourth (who is also starring in it); their production received rave reviews from Ben Brantley over the weekend. Our singer just took off to tour for her new album, and the final two just polished off a few scenes from “Gruesome Playground Injuries” that I would have paid good money to watch a full mounting of. In other news, I scored tickets to “Hamilton” at my work over the weekend. For the record, it’s exactly as good as they say it is. So maybe bar tending isn’t so bad after all.

 

Migina and Sean in "Gruesome Playground Injuries"

Migina and Sean in “Gruesome Playground Injuries”

I remember a director of mine saying that this career gets really fun once you start seeing your friends names in the New York Times. My first taste this wasn’t the Times, it was the New Yorker, and it was a blurb less than a paragraph long that lauded praise on a friend in a small production. I carried the copy around with me for a week.

Now I see the names of friends in print almost weekly. The LA Times, the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Village Voice, Playbill and Backstage…familiar monikers displayed in size 12, Broadstreet font.

A few weeks back I went to the “Greater New York” exhibition at Moma PS1. They are displaying a piece by the artist Glenn Ligon entitled “Housing in New York: A brief history 1960-2007”. The piece is made up of a series of essays about the various apartments the artist has occupied, beginning with his birth in 1960. I am pulled now to the final two lines of the last essay, which read:

I was born here in New York, and like many other New Yorkers I lack imagination: the idea of living somewhere else has never occurred to me. Indeed, to live in New York is to have lived everywhere.

-Glenn Ligon

I think the same thing could be said about being an actor on the New York stage. Hellenistic Greece had its day, Elizabethan England saw the birth of the Globe, and for better or for worse, this is the anointed city of modern theatre. One could easily make the leap and replace the words “live” and “lived” in Mr. Ligon’s essay with the words “create” and “created”. To take the stage in a play in this city is to invite the eyes of the world upon yourself and your work; to take the stage in this city is to invite the eyes of history upon yourself and your work.

“Waiting for Guffman” portrayed a group of attention craving, small town community theatre performers hoping that their production will be picked up and carried to Broadway by a big name producer. While Christopher Guest’s mocumentary can easily be dismissed as a satire of the actor ego, I believe there is a larger message to be gleaned; art made for the sake of recognition will leave its creator disappointed every time.  Truly great art comes from a pure place, a place that does not require laurels and acclaim.

I have a friend who drags a piano from another friend’s SoHo loft down to the West 4th street station to busk for money. Should you find yourself at said loft around 6pm most nights of the week you will hear him say “time to go to work” before loading several hundred pounds worth of wood and keys onto a trolly and pushing it down the cobblestone street to the nearest elevator entrance. His music is transcendent, his salary dependent on the fickle moods of passing commuters. Fortunately for his wallet, it is difficult to stay ambivalent once one has heard the melodies his skilled fingers coax out of a beat up Wurlitzer spinet.

My friends are out there making art. Some are being recognized for it, some are not, but either way it is an honor to say that I know people who are creating great work.

 

Identity Crisis

I worry that my expiration date for working in the food industry might be close at hand. “Two lattes for the Princesses,” my coworker, let us call her B, mutters and we both laugh.

“Two Princess lattes coming up,” I reply, and moments later feel the familiar weight of guilt come to rest across my shoulders like a yolk. On the inside of my left wrist I have a tattoo of the Lewis scale molecular model for water, H2O inked with letters, lines, and dots. The tattoo is an homage to the David Foster Wallace essay “This is Water,” a piece that encourages a reactive mindfulness in human interactions. Wallace offers an alternative to anger in the form of more compassion for those moments when people frustrate or hurt us because we do not and can not comprehend the circumstances of their life.

Princess number 1 and I got off on the wrong foot over the summer when, during our first interaction at the restaurant where I work, I handed her a coffee and she insisted that nobody ever charged her for her drinks. Now, I’ve given out a lot of free coffee in my day, but it will be a cold day in hell when I do so because someone insists they “never have to pay.” Logically I can recognize that the mature response to B.’s comment would have been not continuing to stoke the flame, but in that moment it felt good to diffuse my frustration with a coworker.

It’s getting harder for me these days to grit my teeth and bear it. Direct conflicts are becoming more common, including an hour before the Princesses walked in when a woman pointed to a table we were holding for one of the big shots who dines weekly at our little spot.  On the table was a large piece of paper with the word reserved exclaimed in capital letters and bold print, underlined for good measure , and still she had to grab my arm to ask “Is this one reserved?”

So poorly masked was my astonishment that she actually asked if I thought hers was a  dumb question, and so thin is my patience that I actually replied in the affirmative. “I want to believe that you are a thinking, feeling human being, but you’re making it very difficult.” To her credit, she took my insult with more dignity than I would have mustered under similar circumstances, choosing a different table nearby, one sans reserved sign.

The NPR show Studio 360 aired this interview today with the actor Michael Ian Black about his career path, and two quotes stood out to me. The first was this:

“My mom was Hell-bent on me getting some kind of vocational career that I could fall back on and I was like, ‘No, because that’s what I’ll end up doing. I don’t want to teach theater at a high school. I want to be an actor.”

Relatable in so many ways. I really do enjoy bar tending. There is a rush you get from being slammed for hours on end, from the conversation, from the perfect night when you walk out the door with a fat wad of cash in your pocket and your head still buzzing from the music and enter the relative silence of a city sidewalk at four in the morning. It’s a sense of ownership that is not unlike stepping off stage knowing that you did the work. By the same token, there will be no tears shed on this end on the night that I polish my final glass. My hands are scarred from cuts and my hearing is likely permanently damaged from blaring speakers; my blood is in the bars that have supported me through this phase of my life.

Over Holiday break from the studio, I spent time in Florida with my girlfriend’s family. Half way through our Christmas dinner (Italians, the lot of them — think industrial amounts of ziti) one of her Great Aunt’s friends leaned across the table. “So Tim, what do you do in the city?”

My answer, so practiced : “I’m an actor and a writer but bartend to support myself.”

“Hmmm,” he leaned in closer. “I understand. Your time is coming.”

My time is coming. I wanted to fire back with indignation, the righteous zeal of a person who finds value in all three of the primary ways that I spend my time, but I couldn’t because truthfully, he was correct. I’m getting tired.

Who knows, this could all be a phase. I keep reminding me that any way I spend my time might eventually have value. My first gig out of college was a project for a mentor of mine who was directing at USC. They needed a fight choreographer/movement coach for a play about World of Warcraft. My teen years spent playing various RPG’s plus my undergrad stage combat classes were being called up for action! Combine those things with a high school stint as a competitive fencer, and suddenly I was the most uniquely qualified movement coach in Los Angeles,. Everything happens for a reason, I keep telling myself. Everything happens for a reason.

A few months ago I saw a copy of that play on the shelves at the Drama Book Shop. The playwrights name typed out in fresh ink on the cover, which was a beautiful shade of Tangerine orange (I’ll always be a sucker for the pallets of Sam French.) I leafed through its pages, reading the familiar dialogue, remembering sitting side by side with the playwright during the process, watching her change lines on the fly to better suit the stage action, lines with were now codified in my hands. I could see where our little production had stood in the path of this play making it to these shelves, and even though my name was not in those pages, my blood was in the project as well, a little thumbprint left over the course of three weeks worth of rehearsals in the USC drama building.

What would have been the better move in the situation with the woman who asked about the reserved sign? I’m not sure if I know the answer. The tattoo just up the arm from my water molecule reads, in an homage to another mentor of mine, “To thine own self be true.” I truly want to treat every person I encounter with dignity and respect. I also truly sometimes want to (figuratively) strangle people who ask dumb questions about reserved signs.

Back at the restaurant, I call B. over to me and tell her about my interaction. “Do you think I’ll get in trouble?” I ask, the people pleaser in me cowering. “No fucking way. It was a stupid question” she replies.

If you didn’t listen to that interview above, I’ll save you the last two minutes. The interviewer asks if it might not be better to have a back up plan; after all, not everyone who is working for a career as an artist makes it, right? In response, Black tells him that out of all his friends who stuck with their passions through the good and the bad, the vast majority of them are now doing something that is artistically fulfilling. “Wouldn’t you say the same?” he asks. The interviewer concedes that he would.

This weekend was good at the bar. Saturday was slammed, lining my pockets, and Sunday was dead so I had plenty of time to finish a friend’s book that I’m helping edit and work on my lines for class on Tuesday. “Not the worst life in the world” I tell myself, and it’s true. While printing a headshot and resume for an audition at Kinkos today I watched a man in a business suit frantically fielding phone calls in a telephone meeting. Over my dead body.

My smug sense of artistic self righteousness was quickly repaved with indignation at the $115 parking ticket I managed to wrangle in front of a No Standing sign at the audition location. In moments like these a good plan B would look awfully tempting.

Thank god I don’t have one.

Scar Tissue

Sometimes loss seems to seep it’s way into our lives more heavily than others. The reaper is always there, of course, his shadowy figure looming on the fringe of our awareness, but occasionally his presence becomes palpable.

When I started this post Sunday night, reports were just coming out of Paris about yet another series of gun and bomb attacks, and as I finished it the next morning we knew 136 people lost their lives to senseless violence, including the 8 attackers.

We are actors. I think it’s safe to say we possess a strong understanding of a wide spectrum of emotions as they relate to our own human experience, including frustration, anger, even hatred.

I don’t understand the mindset of someone who takes a human life. That goes doubly so for someone who does so in the name of “religion”.

On the macrocosmic level, around the world today people are asking the question “What about Beirut? What about Palestine? What about the displaced victims of the Syrian revolution, or the one million people who have lost their lives since the start of the U.S. occupation in Iraq?

On the microcosmic level, I have a dear friend whose mother is dealing with the final phases of terminal cancer. A director I worked with over the summer lost her father last week. My own family is processing the upcoming second anniversary of my Aunt’s suicide. And most recently Fred, Cay’s loyal companion, our long time unofficial studio mascot, the undisputed King of the Upper West Side, finally left us earlier this week.

How do we survive an injury? How do we ensure we heal stronger than before? If there is a definite answer to that question, I don’t know it. Part of the recipe seems to be time. Part seems to be determination to overcome that injury. Part seems to be surrounding ourselves by the people who love us, the passions that fuel us. Art seems to play a part, as is eluded to in Cay’s own blog. And part seems to just be a function of nature’s own healing process, the processes that knit skin back to skin, bone to bone.

In one of the many New York Times’ articles about the bombing, a young French man told the story of how he, along with a group of his friends, has committed himself to meeting once a week for a beer at the café across the street from where one of the attacks took place. It was reminiscent for me of another Time’s piece, this one about a day in the life of Tim Gunn, who after the September 11th attacks began drinking Manhattan cocktails in the Twin Towers’ memory, a tradition that he keeps to this day.

My personal vow in the wake of my aunt’s death was to spend the anniversary each year reading through my journals. Last year, on that day, I woke up early and hauled my moleskins to my neighborhood coffee shop. What I found in their pages was evidence that, given enough time, healing does happen. My entries in the months after were almost exclusively about her. I watched as the Tim of the year before first struggled with sadness, and then terrible anger, and then more sadness, and so on and so forth, until eventually the entries about Margo began to get fewer and further between…until they diminished to almost nothing. Many times in those pages I had written that I had found peace, only to turn around the next day and rail at the unfairness of such a senseless death. The reality was the peace came after I stopped writing about it.

This is what Cay said last week after Sean and Migina’s second read through of their new scene from “Gruesome Playground Injuries”.

“Scar tissue is the strongest tissue the body can make – if you survive the injury then the scar left behind is much more resilient than the tissue which it replaces.”

I don’t know why the lessons from class sometimes seem to mirror the happenings of the world outside our little studio door. Perhaps it is an example of our human tendency to apply narrative to our own circumstances in order to understand them better, or maybe it’s something greater than that…and maybe it’s not terribly important to know either way. Maybe it’s enough that it exists.

These are the things that I do know: The gaping hole at Ground Zero that I first saw through the eyes of a visiting fourteen-year-old once contained only earth movers and rubble, and now at twenty-seven, less than five miles from where I write this, it is the site of a memorial that receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. I know that during the two years I lived in Japan, my favorite spot to sit and write was on the steps of a river bank in Peace Park, a stones throw away from the gutted Atomic Bomb dome that stands as a memorial to the destruction reaped on Hiroshima in August of 1945. How unlikely it would have seemed then that two generations later I would be put in charge of a class of kindergartners in a country that my grandfather went to war with. I know that, sometime this week, a group of friends will meet in a café in Paris and clink glasses in homage to living a life without fear. Being human, I’m sure some of them will be afraid, but I know they will do it anyway. I know that tonight, somewhere on the Upper West Side, Tim Gunn changed into a monogrammed bathrobe and mixed two ounces of whisky, a half ounce of sweet vermouth, and a few dashes of bitters into a cocktail that is as much of an acquired taste as its city namesake. I know that in a few short weeks I will be setting an early alarm and hauling my load of moleskins to the coffee shop. I know that I will find more evidence of my own healing in those pages.

Finally, I know that I will miss Fred’s presence in class and our snow day walks together. We often joked that Fred’s suffering was great. What an awful life for a dog, to be lovingly doted on by class after class of gushing, over emotional actors week after week? How did he survive the abuse? The reality is Fred was suffering by the illness that racked his body, yet when Cay would ask “do you want to go see your friends?” the mighty King would still manage to make his way to the studio. He would still lie silently at our feet during each scene, the most attentive audience anyone could ever ask for. This post is for you, big guy. Thank you for your presence; you brought us so much joy and light. You will be missed.