Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Lawyer Who Represents Himself Has a Fool For a Client

As I look at the stats for this here blog, I can see that my visitors now hover in the mid-two figures, so thanks for the interest! (And I’m not being sarcastic, believe it or not. It shows me that some of you are actually coming back.)

But one of those literally dozens of readers asked either last night or this morning (it’s not worth looking up), in regards to the callback thing discussed in our previous chapter, if I’d ever directed myself in a show.

The answer is, of course, “yes,” but it’s not that simple. It’s the kind of thing I can do; I just hate doing it. It’s too distracting. I can’t concentrate on all the aspects of the show at the same time I’m trying to concentrate on being in a scene. It’s usually a matter of my sitting in the house in costume, running on stage just before a scene, performing the scene (while trying to be aware of what the thing looks like and what tweaking it needs, if any), then running back into the house to watch what follows (rinse and repeat as needed …). And all of this doesn’t mention the awkward situation – for me, anyway – of giving notes to an actor you’re in a scene with. Yes, I know I’m supposed to do that, but it feels like a betrayal of the acting contract; that I should be concentrating on what the other actor is giving me in order to react to it (and vice versa), rather than thinking about how the scene is playing in context; whether we need to speed it up or slow it down; if the lights are right; did that sound cue come at the right time; can that actress make that quick change; and all of the other details it’s difficult to perceive when one is part of the scene rather than observing it. (I had an interesting insight from an actor I worked with a while back. I suppose we were discussing our careers one night in the dressing room. When I was talking about my directing, she said, “You’re a director? Of course! No wonder you’re always moving yourself to the right place on stage.” Not that our director was putting me in the wrong place; it was one of those shows where we were given pretty much a free hand to place ourselves on stage, and I guess my instincts kicked in – or something … So I guess I was at least blocking myself.)

Now, as an actor or a director, I’m not bad (all modesty aside). I have my weaknesses, of course, but I think my work is pretty good, but not good enough to do both at once. I have my doubts, actually, if anyone can do it. On film or television, sure; you can concentrate on one thing and then do the other, sequentially. (I mean, you can concentrate on the scene and then watch it to see if all the elements you want are there.) But on stage, I’ve got to do it all at once.

Now, you can see up there that I said it wasn’t simple. And by that, I meant that, with two exceptions, I’ve done it only when I was forced to by circumstances. The first of these was Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell.” Since that part of the script was carved out of “Man and Superman,” it’s generally been performed as a spoken-word concert for four actors. Many productions – such as the original directed by Charles Laughton and featuring himself, Cedric Hardwicke, Agnes Moorehead, and Charles Boyer – used actors standing behind music stands with some limited blocking. I saw my own production was a chance to work with three very good actors and have some fun. We all sat, each in a chair representative of our character, so I didn’t even have to worry about blocking the thing. (This was also the show where one night, after I’d been on stage for about five minutes, I realized my zipper was down, and there was no way for me to either zip it up gracefully or take a brief break off-stage. Even though “Don Juan” is a short play, I spent a very long evening arranging myself in the chair to keep the fly from gaping open – and, before you ask, yes, I was wearing underwear.) Being that it was, for all intents and purposes, a staged reading, I felt comfortable giving notes to my fellow actors (and we had only one rehearsal). The show turned out pretty well, even if an hour or so of Shaw espousing on morality may not have been the most gripping topic for a Pacifica audience. Other than the zipper, though, things went pretty well.

The other intentional self-casting was also at Pacifica. I was assigned the Christmas show one year, and since the board couldn’t make up minds about what show to do, they literally told me, “Pick something and we’ll do it.” Well, that’s not dangerous or anything; giving a director carte blanche like that. But I took my responsibility seriously and came down to two choices: Christopher Durang’s “Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge” and Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joe Masteroff’s “She Loves Me.” I went back and forth and back and forth and, finally, the board said “Do one this year and you can do the other one next year.”

With that in mind, I opted for the Durang, and we had a great time. (I’ll discuss it in more detail in a moment.) Comes the next year. Among the reasons I chose “She Loves Me” were that it’s just a perfect and lovely show – brilliantly written and absolutely touching – that the lead is a great role for my wife, and there was a scene between her character and a headwaiter that would be fun for us to do together. (The headwaiter calls for a florid and over-the–top actor, so I was a natural for it.) The problem with the production turned out to be that, in spite of my best efforts, I had just enough men audition to cover the main roles. I had no men for the chorus (not “no suitable men;” no men at all), and only three or four women, so even though I dug and dug and dug, I just couldn’t come up with any men, so I was the entire male chorus, playing one (and maybe two) small roles in addition to the headwaiter. My evenings in rehearsal were marathons of running back and forth between the house, the booth, and the stage, trying to figure out whether the show was working and what it looked like. Fortunately, the cast I did have was brilliant enough to overcome any holes and it was truly a lovely production (you can watch the tape – yes, the tape – if you like). We sold out most of the run, and there was even a man from the East Bay who absolutely loves the show and came over the bridge to see pretty much every performance. We eventually tried to comp him, but he refused, so we gave him an autographed poster. So that was an instance where I wanted to cast myself, but not to the extent it turned out to be.

Now, back to the Durang. Regular AHH (first use of the blog’s acronym, if you’re scoring at home) readers will remember I’m having a helluva time breaking down the cast for “The Farnsworth Invention,” some of which is due to my assumption that it’s going to be difficult to get men to audition. (And, seriously, what’s happened to all the male actors? I just don’t see them at auditions anymore. No wonder I’m getting cast these days …) Well, “Mrs. Bob” was no exception to this rule. I had enough for some of the male characters, but was once again forced to play some of the roles myself. While I had a good time – it was Durang, after all, and the parts (Jeffrey Skilling, the former CEO of Enron; a suicidal Dutchman named Edvar; and George Bailey – which allowed me to do a really bad impression of James Stewart) were funny – I spent a good portion of the rehearsal process running around the theatre, rather than concentrating on one job.

In the next few months, I’m probably doing a reading of one of my Chekhov translations. I thought that it might be fun to be in it – for about five seconds. But since I also plan on directing it (I have specific ideas about how Chekhov should be played) as well as tweaking the language to make it more personal, organic, and comfortable for the individual actors, I know that throwing acting into that mix (even if it I only a reading) is just a formula for, if not disaster, then certainly more than I need to add to my plate. For something like this, I prefer the role backstage to the one onstage.

So, to repeat my answer (now with added context!), I have directed myself. I can direct myself. I just don’t like to direct myself.

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