Theatre: The Great Provoker?

•October 24, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I recently saw a professional production of David Mamet’s Oleanna at a regional theatre near my university.  I’ve read both Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo, but this was my first exposure to Mamet on the stage – and it was moving.  Perhaps I shouldn’t say moving, because if anything, the play stopped me dead in my tracks . . . and it made me angry.

The subtitle for the play is appropriately “a power play” and it was just that – a constant shifting of energy between just two characters for 90 minutes, with an inevitable explosion of frustration between them overwhelming the audience with a catharsis of violence and anger.  It was not traditional Mamet, at least not from what I have read: minimal strong language, vulgarities, or obscenity.  There was just a simmering, brooding resentment that seemed to be building in the characters for the entire duration of the play (and, it often seemed, within the audience as well).  Apparently, the original Broadway production suffered brawling fistfights between audience members in the lobby after the premiere.  How can a play, a work of fiction, do this to us?

I’ve known for a long time that the theatre can be a place of extreme provocation.  Just look at Brecht, or Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.  It even goes back to the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and some of the satyr plays of the Greeks.  As long as there has been a need for censorship in the theatre, there has been provocation.  But at the same time, I’ve probably more commonly associated theatre with a place of entertainment, maybe even enlightenment.  Provocation, I feel can be both.  Just look at Mel Brook’s The Producers.  Springtime for Hitler and Germany?  Brooks manages to accomplish much of his humor through almost, but not quite, deeply offending his audiences.

But then, is that really provocation?  I think my 21st century, Western notions of theatre can be very comfortable at times.  If its a comedy, it’s funny.  If it’s a drama, it’s “moving” (whatever that means).  To roughly paraphrase something I heard Anne Bogart say, “It is not the theatre that moves me, that I find so interesting, as the theatre that holds me motionless – that takes my breath away.”  Oleanna took my breath away, because it provoked me.  It made me angry.  Alright, so I didn’t get in a fist-fight in the lobby afterwards, but I was deeply concerned about the implications of what I had just seen – because I could see truth in it.  Perhaps this is why a play like Oleanna is more than just an “edgy comedy” or an “enlightened drama” – it takes us past a comedic edgy into a realistic edgy and instead of patting us over the head with a neat, little moral precept or enlightened solution, it throws deeply distressing problems in our face and then withholds any satisfactory answers to our questions.

Oleanna stopped me in my tracks, despite the play being nearly 20 years old, because I could see the relevance of the problems it was exposing.  And instead of trying to offer a solution to the problem (which I don’t necessarily think is the job of a playwright), Mamet frustrates us to the point of emotional anguish, to the point of an explosion, and then perhaps we realize the irony – we are not so different from the characters on that stage.  And unlike them, we are real.

Take Care of Yourself

•October 17, 2009 • Leave a Comment

This advice is just as much for me as for anyone else who happens to read this.

As humans, we have almost always lived in some state of danger or uncertainty.  Living in a country like the United States in the 21st century, however, it is easy to forget just how dangerous the world can be.  With cell phones, the internet, medical technology, transportation, abundant food, and a huge amount of instantaneous satisfaction, it can be VERY easy for me to forget just how quickly all of this can be taken away.  I am NOT invincible, even though sometimes I would like to think I am.  Accidents can happen, mistakes can occur.  I am blessed with a tremendous amount of control over my life and my future, but even then, money and privilege can not but CERTAINTY.  I do not know that I will wake up tomorrow, for certain.  I do not know that my dorm room might burn down, for certain.  I do not know that my friends or family might be killed in a car accident, for certain.  These are terrible things to think about, which is why I think death is such a taboo topic in our culture – it makes us feel uncomfortable.  But I think it is far better to acknowledge these possibilities rather than live in denial.  I’m not saying be morbid, I’m simply saying that we shouldn’t take our lives for granted.

Recently, I have been taking my life for granted.  I have been taking the opportunities given to me for granted.  I would even go so far as to say I have been squandering them.  Despite my privilege and opportunity, I have not taken care of myself or the blessings I have in this life.  Staying up late, very late, with no real reason other than I do not want to sleep; I think I am too good for sleep.  As a reaction against my narcolepsy, with the help of my new medication, I think part of me thought I was invincible, that sleep was no longer that important.  It was a big mistake.

By staying up late, by increasing my sleep debt to an inordinate amount, I literally made myself sick.  At first I thought it was just seasonal allergies, but I’ve realized over the past few weeks this is a yo-yo effect: if I get a decent amount of sleep for a night, I feel alright the next day, but since my sleep is never consistent, the sickness soon comes back.  I had terrible, chronic headaches.  A bad cough and painful sinuses.  My muscles felt weak and stiff, and I was feeling cold shivers.  It was getting to the point where I was even starting to feel dizzy when I got up, almost falling over if I exerted myself too much.  And this was entirely my own fault.

Yes, I could easily blame seasonal allergies, the flu season, the demands of college, but deep down inside I know that I am the instigator of the suffering with which I am now contending.  I have taken life for granted, to the extent that I am causing myself harm.  Nothing outside of me has done this, so I must take responsibility.

This is perhaps a sobering entry, maybe more so for me as I type it than for those few who I know read it.  But I am glad I am saying it, because it is encouraging me to be accountable.  And my life is improving.  I have been insisting I go to bed at a sensible time and after several nights of good sleep, the improvement in my overall health is very apparent.  The key is to make such behavior a CONSCIOUS habit, just like any form of actor training.  It must become a part of my daily ritual, the same as brushing my teeth or doing my stretches.

My advice to all: please, take care of yourself.  No one else can do this for you, and no one else can help you recover until you take the initiative yourself.  Whether you are an artist or not, you will reap the benefits of good health through this behavior, which will also help you tackle the challenges outside of yourself, over which you may have little or no control.

Take care of yourself.

A Life Led by Fear, Will Lose the Chance to Love

•October 13, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Once upon a time, a boy and his father went walking in the woods.  The boy loved this.  He loved the woods and he loved spending time with his father.  They would walk for hours, hand in hand, amidst the trees, crossing bridges over bubbling brooks, sometimes looking up to see the sun peering cheerfully through the thick forest’s hair.

One day, the boy and his father were enjoying one of their walks through the woods, but the cheerful sun had disappeared and quickly been replaced by glowering rain clouds and the the flash of untamed electricity.  The boy was scared and began to cry out in terror, but the father quickly took him in his arms and ran through the woods faster than the boy thought possible.  Under the shelter of a cave, they sought refuge while the storm thundered overhead.  The boy clung to his father, who comforted him greatly, but the fear still gripped his young body.

“Father?”

“Yes, my son.”

“Will you always be here for me?”

The father smiled with warm certainty.

“My son,” he said, “I will always be with you, even when I am no longer able to hold you in my arms.  Storms will come and fear will swell up in you, but if you remember love, you will never be without me.  One day, you will be able to give that love to another.”

The boy did not completely understand his father, but a feeling of complete reassurance wrapped itself firmly around him.  He was comforted, and his fear began to fade.

Suddenly, as if the sun’s familiar glow had never left the heavens, rays of light shone through the once cloudy sky, now replaced with a tapestry of celestial blue.  The boy and his father emerged back into the world, hand in hand once more.  Fear no longer divided the boy from the life he was learning to love, and as the Father grasped his tiny palm, he began to realize his potential for compassion.

Advice for the Actor

•October 8, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Some observations I have found helpful and am endeavoring to incorporate into my own art:

Believe in what you are doing!  If you do something with absolute commitment, you will be undeniably compelling and your charisma will be infectious.  Be fearless!  Seek the truth in all you do, risk everything, restrain only what is immoral.  Create art that is sprung from necessity, not from contrivance.  Open upwards and outwards, do not contain.  Share, do not be self-indulgent.  Find a community that nurtures you and challenges you.  Do not take no for answer, and do not stop at yes, but continue towards “and.”  Love the art you do, love the artist you are, and love the artists you work with and the audience for whom you perform.  Be bold, but don’t be distasteful.  Pornography is shocking, but nudity can be meaningful.  Baseless obscenity can disturb an audience, but the purposefully vulgar can move them.

Always listen, speak when it is necessary, and remember that you are a part of a whole, not the whole part.  Art begins in life and carries onto the stage, so remember to keep that art in your life long after the final bow.  Always train.  Never, ever stop training.  The day you stop growing is the day your art dies.  If you are bored, search for the compelling.  If you are boring, believe more strongly in what you are doing.  But please, please: be fearless.  Carry your fearlessness wherever you go, whether you are acting on a stage, reading in your home, walking through town, or eating in a restaurant – be open to everything, but afraid of nothing, confident in who you are and what you can do, but always ready to change and grow.  If you do this, the profundity of your art will carry over to every area of your life, and individuals will watch you, whether you are performing Hamlet’s soliloquy or tying your shoelaces.

Stuck

•October 6, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Have you ever been stuck?  And I don’t mean wedged down a ravine, I mean in a place of indecision.  Of inner turmoil.  We can become entangled in the simplest of troubles.  The tiniest complications can easily become our nightmare, if we let them.  I believe we can work our way out of a state of being “stuck,” at least in the sense I’m talking about.  Sometimes there are obstacles in our life that will not go away and remain completely outside of our control.  But the way in which we encounter such challenges determines whether or not we get dragged down or fight long enough to escape the quicksand.

I don’t really have any particular situation in my mind right now.  I have experienced many in my past though, and I’m sure many more shall arrive.  This is part of my life experience, as it should be.  By living practically and with a certain degree of trained positivity, I can usually circumvent the pitfalls that show up in my path.  This doesn’t mean I gloss over a serious situation, it simply means that I try to find the redeeming elements, because they are what will see me through.  I have never encountered true suffering in my life, and I hope I never will, but odds are that new challenges will continue to present themselves.  By finding the light in the darkness, the humor in the chaos if you will, I am able to open up new opportunities that might otherwise have been shrouded by the illusion of futility.

I have suffered from depression in the past and currently take antidepressants.  That (coupled with what was at one point near-crippling social anxiety in addition to my Aspergers) has presented me with a fairly unique set of challenges during adolescence, a difficult time for anyone.  Each year I grow.  Situations that rattled me when I was 15 seem inconsequential now, and even moments of extreme confusion and pain from earlier in my college career no longer hold that authority of negativity over me.  Life is hard, but I learn to find the beauty and truth in its mysteries whilst enduring the pain it sometimes holds.

Perhaps, I should try and find a more grounded example.  This summer, I experienced the most challenging experience of my life training with the SITI Company in Saratoga Springs, New York.  It was an amazing experience and an honor to work with so many talented individuals, but at times it was terrifying and overwhelming.  I broke down and wept on more than one occasion.  I felt like I was lagging behind the other actors, unable to do the work to a sufficient standard, and failing to appease my own sense of “accomplishment.”  At one point, I sent a text message to a very close friend which simply read, “I am broken.”

But looking back on this experience now, and even at the time, I knew the incredible importance of what I was doing and realized that ultimately the process suited my best interests.  If there was no hardship, there would be no growth.  And I would be a bad actor and a pretty shallow individual if I never grew.  I feel this change in myself and am told by my professors and even some of my peers that they can sense it as well.  This change manifests in my academic and social life and I realize just how fortunate I am to have had such an experience at the age of 20.  And, in fairness to me and some of my difficulties training this summer, a couple of months ago I was diagnosed with narcolepsy. 🙂

It is good to have standards and goals, but they should not dominate one’s existence to the point of becoming barriers in their own right.  My perfectionism has often been my own worst enemy, but when I simply strive for personal excellence unimpeded by external pressures, I am usually my most successful.  In summary, I find this quote comforting:

When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.Winston Churchill

Be Fearless

•October 5, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The other night I was in a dance studio at my college.  A friend of mine within the performing arts department had kindly agreed to teach me some basic dance lessons.  I knew she was an excellent dancer, which was one thing, but the fact that we get along so well and sometimes see the world through shared eyes was an added bonus.  We were meeting for the dance lesson quite late because she had rehearsals immediately before that.  As I have told her, “Actors are lazy, dancers cannot be.”

I had done about 30 minutes of stretching before entering the dance studio, but continued with additional warm-ups when she arrived.  I have minimal dance experience and training, certainly not in a traditional setting, and my coordination has not always been where I want it to be in the past.  I grew up a clumsy and awkward child.  I had unusually long legs, even for someone as tall as me, and a very small upper body.  I was hopelessly bad at almost every sport, but I had always prided myself on being faster than almost all the other kids I knew at sprinting.  By the time I was a junior in high school and had developed an interest in acting (and at the advice of one of my closest mentors), I took up weightlifting in an attempt to not only increase my confidence but also my physique.  It did wonders.  By now, 4 years on, I am still 6′ 2″ but rather than being 160 lbs, I am 190 lbs and far more confident in my figure (although at times, years of bad body image still manage to trick me into seeing something different in the mirror than what is really there).  I also take pride in stretching and flexibility, endeavoring to be limber as well as strong and defined.

Thanks to my training in Suzuki and Viewpoints with the SITI Company this summer, I found a new elegance in my movement that perhaps had always been there, I just had not realized.  I had unlocked it, somehow, like Michelangelo freeing David from the marble, but now I needed to continue to refine it.  To train.  I needed technique, I needed training, I needed diligence and patience and commitment, but most of all I needed to destroy any fear of failure, because fear of failure is what prevents an actor from sharing the truth of the moment on stage.  I needed to be fearless.

Tadashi Suzuki’s rigorous training method gave me the discipline of mind and body I needed, Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints gave me the playfulness and capacity to work with the ensemble, Ellen Lauren gave my voice and breath the groundedness to find truth which came from my body and not my overactive nerve endings, but it was Barney O’Hanlon who gave me fearlessness. Barney’s movement class terrified me.  I felt out of place, like a clumsy dodo trying to be an elegant swallow.  My left foot wanted to go where my right foot should be.  And then Barney said something to us that struck a revelation in me (that is a bit unfair, because he said MANY things that had this effect): “Dance is simply conscious movement.”  Suddenly, instead of worrying about how pretty I was, whether or not I looked ridiculous (which at times, I am sure I did), I just dove into his class with every ounce of my creative being.  And I reaped the rewards.  By the end of the training program, Barney told me personally: “You have come a long way since the first week.  You have found the connectedness in your body.  You’ve loosened up.  It shows.”

So in that dance lesson with my friend, after we had warmed up and she had gone through some basics with me, I danced.  Nothing in particular, nothing written down in any codified book on Ballet or Modern or Jazz or Tap.  I simply danced.  At first I held back.  I realized this after about 5 minutes.  I told her.  I began again.  And when I finally forgot she was in the room, to the point where I was barely conscious where my foot or arm or neck would move next in space or time, it was then that I became fully conscious.  I became fearless.  My dance was for me, it was for the expression of me and my place in this universe, my pains and sorrows and frustrations and joys and discoveries and bliss.  It was a living, breathing experience of experimentation that was never sure where one moment ended and another began.  It was uncertain, and it was exciting!  I was having fun, and I wasn’t letting anything stop me.

At the end of the dance, I slowly, slowly lowered myself to the ground as if laying myself down in a holy bow to the gods of dance and theatre.  They didn’t need to respond.  No one did.  I was simply finding my way back down to the earth, down to where life was created, the nurturing mother that absorbed all the fear that been lingering for so many years in my trembling bones.  It was liberating and it was invigorating.  I breathed deep heavy sighs.  I knew I had been no Baryshnikov, but I FELT like Baryshnikov.

My friend was silent for a long time, as was I.  Finally, she said this to me: “You were completely fearless in your dancing.  Many dancers with far more technique than you can’t do that.”  And I took that as one of the greatest compliments I have received in regards to my art.  Because no performer can hold onto himself on the stage.  I do not mean he should throw himself at the audience either – he should share himself with the audience and with the stage like a man shares his lunch with a friend or a stranger in need.  He should not withhold his spirit, nor should he hurl his spirit indiscriminately into the audience.  He should breathe each breath with honesty, and move each muscle with the intent of sharing the realization of life.

I knew that night that technique did not matter.  It is a necessary and useful thing, which requires many years of diligent, brutal focus and labor.  But this can be acquired through effort.  Fearlessness cannot be acquired in such a way.  It can only be received by letting go.  I am learning to let go.  And the rest shall fall into place.

The Enchantment of the Stage

•October 1, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Happy October!

I’m currently sitting in my dorm room, and I had honestly only just finished typing “Happy October!” when I looked out my window and saw a guy running (very fast) across a field with a girl clinging to his back.  Some others were chasing along after them, barely able to control their laughter.  A completely silly moment, which maybe nobody else saw or cared about.  But I saw it.  And it made me smile.

What I love about the stage is, it is never static and it is always present.  What is a stage?  What are the definitions?  Does it have to be indoors or can it be outdoors?  Does it have to be a performance, or could it be a seminar, classroom discussion, church or religious festival, a concert, a practice hall, a parent/teacher meeting?  What is a stage, and who are the players?  Who’s who?  Is a man at a checkout and a woman purchasing something from a store a “stage relationship?”  If a student raises her hand to contribute something to class, might not the teacher say, “Julia, take the stage”?  And at church, when I was a young boy, there was something about the pulpit and the preacher and how he interacted with the congregation that made me feel like a stage had been created . . . as if theatre was occurring.  Even in some of Jesus’ parables in the New Testament, I discerned this sense of an audience and a speaker and a text, with the boundaries of this imaginary stage slowly forming in my mind.

The stage, even though we may not always acknowledge it, is constantly present in our lives.  In human relationships and interactions, there is always some form of a stage.  Someone is speaking.  Someone is listening.  Something is being said.  Something is being heard.  Sometimes this all seems to blend together, and not always quite so neatly as a tightly rehearsed stage production.  But I believe there is always something there.

As human beings, we like to think we are valuable.  We like to imagine that we have something meaningful to contribute to the world around us.  We like to be valued.  We like to be needed.  When individuals “take the stage” in life, whether or not they are in an actual theatre, it gives a sense of significance.  Even if it is for just 20 seconds in a business meeting, we feel the change in ourselves and in others when the focus shifts and suddenly WE are the center of attention.  Admittedly, we don’t always have something to say, nor do we always say it at the right time.  As Oscar Wilde says in his typically brilliant but cynical fashion, “The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.”

And yet, if I am able to dismiss judgment for a moment and look at the world through the eyes of a child who is only just discovering its awe and splendor, I find myself enchanted.  We’ve all heard Shakespeare’s famous line so many times now that it seems cliche (so cliche that Oscar Wilde parodied it over a century ago), but what if there is some truth there which deserves re-examining?

“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.”

I think there is a reason this saying has become a cliche: because it is true.

And looking at the world through this lens, even if only from time to time, I begin to find enchantment.  I can’t discern where the stage begins, where or if it ends, or who’s playing what, but it doesn’t matter.  Because when life happens in such a way that we feel a brief glimpse of dizzy excitement, a moment of uncertainty rewarded with blissful surprise, we are experiencing the enchantment of the stage.  Just as I find a good play captivating, I find moments in my own life equally satisfying because (if only for a moment) everyone has remembered their lines, they’ve said them at the right time and with meaning, and the audience is applauding our efforts.

I have long been a fan of Jeff Lynne and the Electric Light Orchestra (perhaps more commonly known to some simply as ELO).  I sometimes think I should have been born in a different era, because a feeling of utter joy fills my entire being and washes over any worries or concern when I hear their music.  I sometimes experience the same feelings with much of the music of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, despite some of my favorites being considered “cheesy” or “dated” by many people in my generation.  It was through reading up about Jeff Lynne and his associated acts that I discovered “the Voice” – Roy Orbison.

Watch the video below of Roy Orbison singing “Only the Lonely”, and experience a moment of what I would consider “the enchantment of the stage:”

Just looking at Roy, before he starts singing, I am not particularly struck.  He is an ordinary looking man with a calm, almost introverted, stage presence.  And then, at the 0:25 second marker there is a moment which I could watch over and over and over again – myself and everyone in that room are waiting to hear what comes out of this unassuming man’s mouth and then, right on the money, a presence of such assured warmth and beauty fills the room.  The effect is so profound, even the individuals watching the performance live burst into applause and praise.  And this feeling is still tangible for me now, watching a recording over 25 years old!  I can’t help but find enchantment in that.

The next time you are with a group of friends or even amidst complete strangers, ask yourself this – are we on stage?  Who’s performing and what do they have to say?  If it’s you, don’t miss your cue.