Friday, September 25, 2015

Knowing When to Leave

My first directing teacher began our first class with his philosophy about the craft: “Directing is nothing more than teaching animals tricks.”

(One of my fellow students took that maxim a bit too literally and would throw M&Ms and other treats at his actors when they performed to his expectations. I have neither sunk – not risen – to that level yet.)

I don’t necessarily subscribe to this theory, though there’s some truth to it in that you’re trying to get people (who are, after all, animals) to do what you want them to.

In actuality, if I see directing as anything other than a collaboration, it’d be raising kids. (And let me hasten to add here that I don’t have kids of my own, so I can only speculate what it’s actually like.) You have a group of humans for whom you have to provide and safe and nurturing environment to ensure they have certain skills before you let them go to prosper or fail on their own.

Part of that process is knowing when to cut the cord and let them go out on their own. In reality, once the show opens, it belongs to the cast and the stage manager. (I used to use my opening night pep talk as an opportunity to verbally turn the show over to the SM. It was a formality, but I liked the ceremony of it.) Everyone has to color inside the lines the director has established, but his or her work is done. At this point, the director is, to quote Chekhov, “an unnecessary luxury … not even a luxury, but more like an unnecessary appendage—a sixth finger.” As an actor, it’s nice to see them, but (to stretch the parenting analogy to the breaking point) it’s like a divorced parent showing up. “Oh, it’s them.” As a director, you’re no longer part of the family, so while you can take part in some of the activities, the company has moved on without you (or in spite of you).

The director after opening night

For some directors, the process is simple. After opening night, they’re gone. You may see them again occasionally during the run or on closing night, but mom or dad has gone out for a pack of cigarettes and isn’t coming back. Others like to see at least part of every performance. (I have to admit, in all honesty, that I’ve fallen asleep at at least a couple of performances of my own shows, but still felt compelled to go). Backstage at my current show tonight (in which I’m acting), one actor mentioned he’d worked with a director who came to every performance, four or five nights a week for four or five weeks. That’s either dedication or desperation or obsession.

If I do go to one of my shows a lot, it’s either because I really like it (it happens) or I’m trying to learn from it (still trying to figure out why something works or doesn’t – though I can’t recall either re-directing something or giving real extensive notes once a show has opened) or I’m trying to figure out how I want to video it.

It took me a long time to get to that point, though. I guess that, having acted so long, I really wanted to stay part of the company even after I’d kicked the kids out of the nest. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I’d miss a performance. Even now, I still feel, if not guilty, then intensely curious as to how things are going. (Even as I admit that the reception will be pretty consistent night after night.)

All of this isn’t to say there’s no role for the director after opening. In open-end runs (as in Broadway), many directors go back every so often to make sure that, despite the best efforts of their stage managers, the shows are what they intended them to be. Even though when my wife and I go to New York, we generally fly non-stop, for some reason one year, our return flight went through Las Vegas. When we got to the terminal at JFK for the trip home, I noticed an old guy (even older than I) typing away furiously at his Blackberry (that’s how long ago this was). I kept watching him and watching him, and finally turned to my wife (who hadn’t noticed him; she’s not as much of a people-watcher as I am) and said, “That guy looks like Hal Prince.” I paused and suddenly realized it was Hal Prince, whom I was now determined to meet.

Between him checking his phone and asking the ground crew about the flight’s status, he was constantly occupied and I didn’t want to interrupt him. He finally took a break and I rushed up and introduced myself and thanked him for his work and told him how it had influenced me. He told me that was a nice way to start the day (it was, like, 8:00 am), we talked a little shop, and then parted. He, being in first class, was seated on the plane before we were, and as we filed past him, he and I exchanged pleasantries. I kept trying to figure out why he was going to Vegas when it hit me that he was probably going to check up on the production of Phantom of the Opera that was running there then. That’s dedication. (Of course, if I were making Phantom-director money, I’d be dedicated, too …)

My buddy Hal Prince

I mentioned in a previous post that I think a director’s main job is to get out of the way of the writer, but his or her second job is to get out of the way of the actors and realize that, once those lights come up on opening night, it’s time to realize that the kids have grown up and we need to start a new family. The old one will still be there, but they’re busy raising kids of their own.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Breaking the Rules About Breaking the Rules

A month or so ago, the proprietor of the San Francisco Theatre Pub blog gathered all the various and sundry personalities who give those pages their flavor in order to (more or less) create some guidelines and ground rules for the upcoming months.
Being the social butterfly I am, I had previous plans on that very day and was unable to make the gathering. When I received the minutes of the meeting, one of the suggestions for topics was “breaking the rules.”
The Theatre Pub bloggers meeting

“Well,” thought I, “that’s fodder for material.” (Okay, I didn’t think that all, but go with me; it’s part of the convention.)
As I started thinking about it, though, I realized that I don’t have a lot of material in that area. (Even considering my recent series of posts about breaking and entering and attempted arson.) As an actor, I do what my director asks. (Even if I don’t necessarily agree with it.) As a director, I do my darnedest to what I think the writer is asking. As a writer, I’m long-winded, but try to be linear.
My recent rehearsals have kept me from seeing any plays, so I can’t even use that to draw on. (I can’t even remember the last show I saw.) But, even if I had seen something, propriety and common sense (and decency) would keep me from giving all but the most fulsome praise to it. (This applies only to the written word, I might add. There are things I’ll tell you in person that I just won’t commit to the Internet where it could potentially come back to bit me in the ass. I mean, it may still come back to bite me, but at least I won’t be leaving it out where just anyone can stumble across it.)
There have been a few things that have occurred lately and that I’ve read recently that cry for comment and shooting down, but about which I feel like I can’t comment because I’ll hurt feelings or say something even more stupid than usual.
Hence, as much as I want to break those rules – in saying things that I firmly believe about certain people events, or things – I’m going to break the rules about breaking the rules and not talk about them.
It’s especially frustrating because I’ve been reading some jaw-droppingly stupid stuff – not Kim Davis stupid, but it’s close enough that (to misquote another dope) “I can see it from my house”) – that almost cry for being taken down, but I can’t go there. (Suffice it to say that there are people whom I read online – and especially on Facebook – who need to realize that not everything they think, say, or write is either profound, comedy gold, or even vaguely interesting. (On those identities, I will be as silent as the tomb – and suffice it to say, yes, I do include myself in that category.)
As I write this, I’ve been seeing television commercials for both The Lion King and Phantom of the Opera and finding myself appalled that people actually pay good money to see those shows and others like them.
I’m suddenly reminded of Robert Benchley. (I’ll pause when you click on that link.) For those who don’t know him, Benchley was a writer who flourished in the first half of the last century. He started writing short humorous pieces in the late 1910s, became the drama critic for the original Life Magazine (which was a humor publication that bore no relationship to the later photojournalism weekly), eventually moving over to the same slot at The New Yorker, before – through a series of circumstances – becoming a beloved character actor in the 30s and 40s. (He died in 1945 at the age of only 56.) No less an expert on humor than James Thurber said that “one of the greatest fears of the humorous writer is that he has spent three weeks writing something done faster and better by Benchley in 1919.”
Mister Benchley, please
As the critic for Life, one of Mr. Benchley’s duties was to write capsule blurbs for the plays on Broadway, one of which was Anne Nichols’s Abie’s Irish Rose, a stupid comedy about a Jewish boy who falls in love with an Irish Catholic girl. That’s about as complicated and funny as the show got, but it was inexplicably popular, loggng 2.327 performances over more than five years (in an era when a run of six months was a smash and that of a year was a blockbuster.) Its run is still the 29th-longest in Broadway history – and #3 for plays.
Critics hated Abie; I mean HATED it. They reacted in ways that make my own dislikes seem mild. Mr. Benchley may have hated it more than anyone, though, so he used those capsules to eviscerate the show, two of which sum up my feelings about Phantom and Lion King (among many, many others): “Where do people come from who keep this going? You don’t see them out in the daytime” and “People laugh at this every night, which explains why democracy can never be a success.”

So, as much as I’d like to emulate Mr. Benchley (or “Sweet Old Bob,” as his friends called him) and speak truth to power (or the powerless, as the case may be … ), there are some particular rules I’m afraid I just don’t have enough gumption to break.

On the Internet, that is. Like I said, ask me in person – or, better yet, buy me a drink – and I’ll spill the beans like Niagara on steroids.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Burnin’ Down the House – Part III

Okay, so after two long digressions, we’re finally (almost) here.

Come with me back to Thursday, December 14, 1978. To appreciate my actions, you have to realize that I’ve been reading Superman comics since I was three. I taught myself to read with them, so when the prospect of a serious big-screen Superman movie presented itself, there was no way I was going to miss it. Now, remember, we’d finally the summer blockbuster era, so I expected long lines. While nowadays, a movie like that would open with a midnight show kicking off opening day, the first show then then was scheduled for something like 8:00 am Friday morning. Anticipating those long lines, I drove up to Hollywood, expecting to sit or stand in line at the Chinese Theatre all night.

Well, imagine my surprise to get to Hollywood and find – no lines. I had three choices: drive back home and come back extra early the next morning, sit on Hollywood Boulevard all night by myself, or pull off to a residential street and spend the night sleeping in my car. Being young and stupid, I chose the last, waking every couple of hours to drive by the theatre and make sure that a line wasn’t forming. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.)

It was about this crowded.

The sun rose around 7 a.m., so I decided enough was enough and drove to the theatre, parked in the lot behind the Max Factor building across the street (soon to play a major part in this narrative), and bought my ticket. Long story short (too late!): I loved the movie then and still do. Sure, it has plot holes and problems a-plenty, but the strengths – and Christopher Reeve’s performance – outweigh the weaknesses.

Fast forward to what must be Sunday, January 7th. My sister is home for the holiday. I’ve caught a cold and don’t feel great, but she decides she wants to see Superman. I don’t feel well enough to drive (and despite what a lousy driver my sister has always been, when you go somewhere with her, she drives), so she gets behind the wheel, I get in the passenger seat, and up the freeway to Hollywood we fly.

Now, my sister being who she was, she decides that the best way to handle not only the drive, but the movie as well, is to smoke a joint on the way there. I, being sick, pass (and never really did like smoking dope; it mainly gave me a sore throat). We get to the theatre, park in the Max Factor lot, buy tickets for the last show of the evening (10 p.m.?), and see the movie. We have a great time, leave the theatre, and head for the car.

This is where the fun starts.

We get to the car, and, in her altered state, she can’t find the keys. We look in the car, and, because of the darkness of the garage, can’t really see inside, but can tell they’re not in the ignition. After a discussion of a few moments, she thinks she might have dropped them on the floor of the theatre. We go back to the Chinese, and find that, in the time it’s taken to walk across Hollywood Blvd. twice and discuss losing the keys, the theatre’s been locked up as tight as a nun’s knees. The staff had disappeared like they’d been abducted by a UFO.
 Crickets, tumbleweeds, and us

We marched back to the car. Still no sign of the keys. Back to the theatre. We started pounding on doors, hoping that, despite the way it looked, someone might be there. No answer.

I got the idea to start prowling around, hopeful that maybe there might be some way inside. In those days, the Chinese was, more or less, a free-standing building, with parking lots on both sides, so the auditorium doors were right out in the open. (In the decades since, those areas have been developed and there are buildings on both sides.) I tried a couple of the exterior doors, and lo and behold, one was ajar and we were able to slip into the lobby.

It was mostly dark inside, but illuminated enough that we could find our way around. The auditorium itself, though, was as black as Dick Cheney’s heart. I wondered if there was any way to turn on the house lights, so poking around behind the concessions stand, I found a circuit breaker box. I started flipping switches, hoping that one of them might illuminate the theatre, but nothing happened. Lobby lights went on and off, and I have no doubt the front of the building lit up like a pinball machine, but nothing in the auditorium. (I ended up figuring the house lights must have been controlled from the projection booth.)

What to do? We knew – or, at least, suspected – that those keys were in the house somewhere. I was suddenly hit with an idea. I knew generally where we’d sat, and would know specifically because there’d been a sticky Coke patch on the floor. Since we hadn’t thought to bring a flashlight, there was only one solution.

Taking my sister’s lighter (remember the joint?), I found a giveaway newspaper in the lobby, trod gingerly into the auditorium, using the poor illumination the lighter provided. When I got to the approximate location of our seats, I rolled up the newspaper and lit it like a torch. Like an angry villager, I waved it around until I found the Coke slick and verified that the keys weren’t there.

Did you look -there-?

By this time, the flames were getting pretty close to my hand, so I blew out the torch, dropped it, and stamped it out to the best of my ability. Resignedly, we left the theatre and figured that, since the keys were nowhere else, they had to be in the car.

In the forecourt of the Chinese were payphones, so we called AAA and told them that we were locked out of the car. We were told that a tow truck would be there presently, and, in one of those once-in-a-lifetime miracles, not only was a truck there in less than five minutes, it was followed almost immediately by a second truck.

We explained the situation to the driver, met him across the street at the garage, and with a flick of his wrist and his slim jim, the car door was opened, and, lo and behold, the keys were there on the floor of the driver’s side where my sister had dropped them.

We got in the car, started it, and drove away into the night. The entire trip home, though, I insisted on keeping the radio on KFWB, the all-news station, because I fully expected to hear a breaking news bulletin that the Chinese Theatre was engulfed in flames and that arson was suspected.

Obviously, it didn’t.

But that, at long last, is the story of how I nearly burned down Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.