Friday, July 3, 2015

Starting Over

I’ll be honest with you. I just abandoned another post when I realized, 500+ words in, that it just wasn’t working. If nothing else, I was in danger of saying some things that could easily be misunderstood and give too many wrong impressions.

So I decided to deal with something less controversial: namely, what the hell is wrong with audiences these days?

As an actor, I’m used to working with audiences that are up close and personal. My high school’s theatre was in the round, and the seats were thisclose to the stage, so I had early training in being aware of the audience while ignoring them. I mean, I’m always aware of them and their reactions, but I’m not concentrating on them. This has especially helpful in the last few shows I’ve done, that have either been on thrust stages or in interactive spaces. Believe me, we see everything, but learn to ignore it.

The musical I’ve been doing has been extremely (and rightfully) popular, and we’ve had only a few empty seats the entire run. One of my favorite parts of this show is my big number in the second act. I get to sing right to the audience and get in their faces in a positive way. And every night, I’m able to take inventory of who’s still with us, who’s checked out, and who’s asleep. (Literally.) One of the good things about the show is that we’ve gotten a wide variety of types of people. Having a number of different types in the audience pretty much guarantees that there’ll be plenty of varying reactions. Everyone is going to react to the show differently. I’ve found that I don’t like playing before large groups that have come to the show together (benefits are particularly bad in this regard). They’re all of the same mind, so if one of them finds something entertaining or funny, they all will, and will all react in the same way. That’s fine when they like a show, but when they don’t, it’s deadly. You can be doing everything right and well, and they just sit there like an oil painting. Take our last performance. We had a group of college students who couldn’t have been less interested in watching the show. They were dutiful, they applauded, took notes, and stayed until the end, but they were there only because they were supposed to be. Now, please note: I don’t fault them for being uninterested. Not everyone likes every show. (Goodness knows I’ve seen plenty I didn’t like.) 

Not quite this bad - but almost

What I can’t understand is why someone would either go to a show they really had no interest in seeing or why they’d stay. Well, I know in one sense; it’s something that my wife and I have dubbed “Obligation Theatre.” In most cases, I want to see something or I won’t make the effort to buy a ticket and leave the house. But, every so often, someone I know is doing a show, and despite my worst fears and expectations (“They’re/he/she doing that? <Rolls eyes>), I go and endure a couple hours of pain because I want to support a friend, even in the most perfunctory sense.

But, that aside, every actor has stories about audience members who misbehaved. Just tonight, in addition to the dullards at my own show, I heard reports from another show about audience members who used the set as a place to set their bags, who went into the lobby during the show to complain to the cast about the temperature in the theatre, then stood in their way when they were trying to make their entrances and a couple that argued in the parking lot at intermission because the husband had fallen asleep during the first act. (They left.) During our production, we’ve had a number of sleepers, and at least one woman who thought the emotional 11 o’clock number was the perfect time to check her phone, and another who was in such a rush to leave, she ran smack into one of the actors trying to make her curtain call. (And don’t even get me started on the audience members who use the curtain call as the perfect opportunity to rush out of the theatre as though the joint was on fire. Are they really going to save that much time?)

We’ve probably all dealt with cell phones going off or talkers or singers-along or eaters or texters or latecomers or the deathly ill, but I can’t imagine how these people have been so sheltered that they don’t comprehend that they can be heard or seen or smelled or detected; that they’ve developed some kind of force field of invisibility that prevents anyone else in the audience or cast from detecting them.

An actor I once worked with had worked with another actor in the West End who had a unique way of dealing with latecomers, especially those who were down front. He’d stop the show, welcome them, make sure that they had programs and knew who everyone on stage was and what had happened thus far. Once he was sure they were well-informed, he’d ask for permission to start again. One can be pretty sure that these folks were never late for the theatre again. Similarly, in the days when people had to use cameras, rather than phones, to take photos at shows, when Katharine Hepburn would spot one of them, she’d stop the show, walk downstage, demand that the photographer stand and take all the photos he or she wanted because their needs were more important than those of anyone else in the theatre. When she was satisfied that the person had had their fill, she resumed the show. Laurence Fishburne once stopped a performance of The Lion in Winter when a phone went off. He stopped, looked at the audience with a lethal stare, and intoned “Tell them we’re busy.” I once saw Christopher Walken halt a cross from stage left to right when another phone went off. He stared at the audience in a Walkenesque way, with a look on his face that indicated his character couldn’t tell if he was hearing things or something was actually happening. When the phone stopped, he kind of shrugged and resumed the cross. Dennis O’Hare, in Take Me Out, was in the middle of a monologue when someone in the audience sneezed. Without missing a beat, he said “Bless you” and continued the speech. And we all know how Patti LuPone reacted to a photographer.

Don't screw with Patti

While all of those responses are admirable (to me, anyway), in almost every case when I’ve had to deal with a moment like these, I’ve made the choice to just ignore the interruption or sleeper or noise or smell, and I have to wonder why. We all know it’s happening, it’s disruptive and annoying, but we all suspend our disbelief and pretend it’s not happening or it’ll stop eventually.

I guess it’s just the easy way out or that we want to avoid confrontation or that it’s not worth the effort to break the illusion.

As I said at the beginning, this was a substitute for another post, so I’m not sure what my ultimate point is other than to complain and urge all of us – myself included – to stay awake, alert, and involved when we go see a show. Even the worst of shows has some value, even if only as an example of how bad something can be. If I could make it through The Lily’s Revenge without throttling someone, there’s nothing that can’t be endured.


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Shoulda Taken That Left Turn at Albuquerque





I'd have loved to have seen Bugs's Falstaff

As I’ve mentioned once or twice on these pages, I’m a director. In that role, I feel like I have two jobs. The first is to watch the actors, see what they’re doing, and tailor the action to their strengths (within the context of the script, of course). I’ve long found that if I try to get an actor to do something that isn’t organic to them, whatever it is isn’t going to work. If I can match the action to the actor, though, I find they can do anything.

My other job is to get the hell out of the writer’s way. When I read a script, I have to figure out both what it’s about (both on the surface and underneath) and the best way to get that message/story/metaphor/whatever across. Sometimes it’s by being big and bold, sometimes it’s getting tiny and intimate.

Now, this is not to say that there’s only one way to do any play. My Hamlet or Odd Couple or Sweeney Todd is going to be different from any other director’s, since we see different things in those plays that we’ll want to bring out. Even if I do something a second time, I’m going to do it differently from the way I did it the first time; different actors will bring out different values and moments and I’m an older and different person. The Long Day’s Journey I’d do now would be different from the one I did in 1997. (Though it would still be uncut.)

Even saying that, there may certainly be times where I’d want to deconstruct something or deliberately go against what’s on the page in order to make a statement about its values needing to be questioned or criticized. I have ideas about Chekhov that go against the way his plays are usually performed (though, ironically for this example, completely in line with what I think he intended), and in grad school, I devised a Brechtian deconstruction of You Can’t Take It with You (a play I really like) that highlighted and commented on its theatricality, artificiality, and place in the development of situation comedy.

So while there are obvious exceptions, most scripts intended for the commercial theatre—especially from a certain period—are pretty obvious as to what they’re about, and any attempts to screw around with them are foolhardy, pigheaded, and probably doomed to failure.

My own most notable experience here is when I directed The Fantasticks. I originally wanted to shake some of the rust and dust off of it; to lose some of its fussiness and make it more “relevant” to a modern audience. There was, I thought, a stodginess to it that needed to be lost. Anyone who’s directed the show knows that the licensor includes what is virtually an instruction manual the size of a phone book* on how to (more or less) recreate Word Baker’s 1960 production, right down to where to hang prop and costume pieces in the trunk. 

The instruction manual does not include Jerry Orbach. Dammit.

(*Note to younger readers: a “phone book**” was a thick volume that contained addresses and phone numbers for every person and business in a designated are.)

(**Note to even younger readers: a “book” was a bound collection of paper upon which was printed a made-up story or accounting of factual events.)

When I got this manual, my first reaction was to sniff “Well, I’m not going to do it that way! My production will be my own!” But the more I looked at the script in conjunction with the manual, the more I realized that to make massive changes just for the sake of making changes was an exercise in hubris. There’s a reason the show has played so well for more than half a century. There probably really is a right way and a wrong way to do it, and I opted for the “right” way. It told the story in the way the authors intended. (This isn’t to say we didn’t tweak things or fit it to the actors; but we didn’t stray far from what was on the page.) The results were one of my proudest productions and fondest theatrical memories. It was a beautiful and touching production (if I say so myself), and I never regretted not having deconstructed it just because I could.

What brings this up? Well, we recently saw a production at one of the major houses in town of a show that could be considered a modern classic of sorts. (The production shall go nameless to protect the innocent.) From the moment it started, though, I knew we were in trouble. In the apparent name of shaking things up, the director (with a number of impressive credits nationally) had decided to put his or her stamp on it, despite anything intended by the creators. The changes weren’t done in the name of deconstruction or postmodernism or commenting on the text; they seemed done just because this director either knew better how to tell the story than the people who created it or was just tired of the “old” ways of doing it.

Let me hasten to add here (in case I haven’t made it clear) that I don’t expect directors, designers, or actors to do exactly what was done in the original production of something (if it’s, as in this case, a revival). Each company and production should be unique and bring a flavor or their own to the mix, while (as I mentioned last time) “coloring inside the lines.”

But this production was just a series of wrong-headed moves that kept denying or contradicting the script and its plot points, both major and minor; not for the purpose of commenting on them, but seemingly just for the hell of it. That the poor thinking extended to a good portion of the casting, as well, will go mostly uncommented on. (And, of course, that almost the entire cast was imported from out of town was inexcusable. There are literally dozens of local actors who could have played any of the roles with equal, if not greater, dexterity.)

One actor reminded me of no one so much as Jerry Colonna (seen in the video below). (To again offer clarification to younger readers, Colonna was a comedian in the 1940s known mainly for his big eyes and bigger moustache. Subtlety was not his calling card.) This isn’t necessarily a problem. I’m a fan of Colonna and his brand of overplaying, but for this role, it was like casting Elmer Fudd as Cyrano. It was almost as though the director, when faced with a choice of what to do in any moment, opted for the wrong one, just to see what would happen, then didn’t explore the alternative.

Preferable.

Certain of my friends will no doubt comment that “Well, you don’t like anything.” I’ll (as always) deny that, but some of the very friends who would say that shared these opinions of the production, so it wasn’t just me.

But, of course, at the end of the evening, the audience leapt to its feet to provide a seemingly sincere and hearty standing ovation, so what do I know? Ya pays yer money, and ya takes her cherce. Although in cases like this, I’m reminded of the late humorist Robert Benchley’s assessment of the utterly inexplicable popularity of the execrable Abie’s Irish Rose in the ‘20s: “This is why democracy can never be a success.”




Thursday, June 4, 2015

Performance Anxiety

Last Saturday, I went to the San Francisco Silent Movie Festival to see The Donovan Affair, a 1929 movie that was both silent and not. “How is this possible?,” I hear you not asking. The answer is simple. The Donovan Affair was the first talking picture directed by Frank Capra (he of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life fame). While the film itself is intact (unlike so many movies from that period), the problem is that, in the 75 years since it was made, the soundtrack has vanished.

Considering it’s a movie about a murder investigation with an incredibly complicated plot (a ne’er-do-well is murdered when the lights are turned out during a birthday party – a stunt that is repeated twice, leading to both a second murder and the apprehension of the murderer), without dialogue, any viewer of the film is going to be stymied. Being that sound was recent to the movies in 1929, Capra and company packed it to the gills with talk, especially during the scenes where the lights are turned out and all the viewer sees is a black screen.

"The Donovan Affair"


Bruce Goldstein, the legendary programmer at New York’s Film Forum, wanted to show The Donovan Affair as part of a Capra retrospective and hit upon the idea of taking the script and having a cast live-dub the movie in real time. The problem was that, not only has the screenplay also been lost to the mists of time, so has the script to the stage play the movie was based on.


While some of the dialogue could be intuited though lip reading, there are plenty of scenes with off-stage characters, actors with their backs to the camera, and the aforementioned blacked-out scenes. After a long, long search, Goldstein located a transcript in the by-then-defunct New York State Film Censorship Board’s archives that, while incomplete and obviously wrong in some places, was complete enough to allow him to proceed. The film was presented to great acclaim, and Goldstein had repeated the stunt a few times (I saw it at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2013), the most recent being the screening at the Castro, where, once again, a cast of live actors, a sound-effects man, and a pianist did the work.


The whole experience is great fun. The actors are skilled enough to tread the fine line of playing things deadpan while simultaneously being just over the top enough to acknowledge both the absurdity of the plot and the peculiarities of early sound film acting. (There are few things on the planet with less animation to them than Wheeler Oakman in The Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature. Coincidentally, Oakman appears in Donovan.)

This isn't a still; it's Oakman's actual performance

And that, at long last, brings me to this week’s topic: the ways in which we’re influenced by the performances of actors who have preceded us. Now, as good as Donovan’s modern-day cast was (and they were very good, indeed), they had to approximate – if not outright duplicate -- the rhythms, cadences, and acting styles of their 1929 equivalents. If they did anything else – commenting on the performances, mocking them, sending them up – the whole thing would fall apart. The joke would be good for about 15 minutes before it stopped being funny. It’s the commitment of the voice actors to emulating the originals that makes it work at all.


All that said, it can’t help but be a little frustrating for those voice actors. Rather than having the freedom to pause a little here or emphasize or downplay something a little more, if they’re going to be faithful to the lip movements and actions of the original cast, they have to color within the lines, so to speak. There’s a certain creativity that is sparked for me (maybe even a freedom) when being restricted as to what I can do in a case like that. I don’t want to say I like directing with a small budget (because having an impressive physical production is nice), but when I’m forced to come up with a theatrical equivalent for something we just can’t afford, that’s when the creativity really starts.


I’m also reminded of this because of my current show, Grey Gardens, which I’ll mention again that you really should see (and that tickets are almost gone – even for our recently-announced extension). Anyone who is a fan of musical theatre has collected more than a few cast albums and listened to them over and over until the songs – and, more importantly, the performances of those songs – get locked into our brains. While this provides entertainment, it also provides a template that’s hard to break out of. Not that there’s only “one way” to perform a number (any more than there’s only “one way” to perform Hamlet or Hedda Gabler or Oscar Madison), but we get those voices and rhythms in our heads and it’s sometimes tough to break away. That said, anyone doing The Music Man, My Fair Lady, or Sweeney Todd is going to labor in the shadows of Robert Preston, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, and Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou or George Hearn.


Contrary to accusations, I do not have my lines written on my hand

I should note here that this is really a condition that’s more applicable to musicals than plays; the number of original casts of non-musical plays that have been immortalized on record (or even film) and listened to repeated times is miniscule. And the nature of musical theatre, with numbers written to be performed at certain tempos in more or less the same timespan as the originals kind of limits the options for later performers. I’m currently singing more or less the same notes John McMartin did in more or less the same tempos and times. I’m not duplicating what he did, but I’m working in a pretty tight structure.

Yes, we all want– and need – to bring our own unique qualities to the roles we play, but the originals are always lurking in the backs of our heads somewhere. Even if we specifically decide to not do what was done of the original cast album, that very reaction is a response. “I’m not going to sing ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right out of My Hair’ like Mary Martin; I’m just not.” That very denial of the template is an acknowledgment of it. Am I saying it’s impossible to bring fresh takes to old roles? Of course not. If that were the case, all you’d need to do is put a CD player on stage and save the expense of hiring actors. There are scores of brilliant Evitas and Roses and John Adamses every year doing things Patti LuPone and Ethel Merman and William Daniels never thought of. But, even if we’re working on original material, we’re either working within the frameworks that our predecessors have established or from the people and things we’re observed in our lives, and it’s that unique synthesis that brings new life to even the most tired and familiar material.