Jasonpost 4: talkback

Jason and the Golden Fleece rolls along. We have just crossed the half-way point in our run. When I arrived at People’s Light, I was skeptical about the family theatre thing, and I even though I said the opposite, I felt, deep inside, that it wasn’t “serious” enough for a highly developed artist like me. But I am finding my experience with Jason to be very meaningful. The change is in me.
One of my rituals is peeking through a seam in flat which covers a stage-left entrance. I love to watch the children watching. I love to see their guileless, wide open receptivity, their open appreciation of magic, their complete giving over of their experience into our care. Even the middle-schoolers, who are so often tormented by the just-appearing concerns of being cool, sit with mouths open as Pelius comes quite close to stabbing the hero early in the first act.

When I enter as Phineus, I fall in his weakness, and had a worry early on that this would create a great laugh from the kids, who, as we know, can find humor in the misfortune of others (don’t we all from time to time?) I love the absence of that laugh, the way I feel them gathered around me both in fear of this ghostly old man, and in concern for his feebleness. And of course, I love the laughter I hear as I perform Inos, the swamp creature, who has become a consistent favorite among the ten and under crowd who see the play. There is something very child-like about Inos, and that, combined with his outrageous appearance and absurd behavior make him irresistible to children. I love that.

We have “talk backs” after each performance of Jason. This is unheard of in modern theatre, in which talk backs – fora in which the audience meet the artists – happen at most once a week, usually once a run. But it is an example of People’s Light’s commitment to its community, and especially to the children who come to the plays, that we do this after every show in the family series. It’s not required of the actors, but no one in the cast has missed one yet.

I have felt ambivalent about this feature of the family series too, worrying that it dispels the magic of the experience they have just witnessed. And in my ideal theatre, I might have the talkbacks in the lobby perhaps, except our lobby can’t hold everyone. But I have grown very fond of these actor-audience encounters. Certainly, there is an ego thrill to be on the receiving end of compliments from the audience you have just performed for. But I have also felt quite clearly that I am changing these children’s lives in very important way. When one considers the assault arts education is under in our culture, and the few opportunities most children have to see live theatre, I feel we are participating not only in an act of community bonding, but also in a ritual meant to assist in the survival of our very art form.

Recently, we had a talk back in which Inos was practically the sole topic. It’s not always this way. Sometimes it’s the Argonauts, or the boat, or Medea. But this night it was Inos. The kids wanted to know about the walk, about the noises I make. So I led the group in an “Inos master class”, demonstrating the movement I developed for the creature, getting a kid up on stage to join me, and then leading everyone in making Inos noises. That night, driving out of the parking lot, I passed three girls with a Dad, the girls chasing each other as Inos. They caught sight of me as I passed and squealed with excitement. I gave them a beaming thumbs up. I thanked God for my career, Hollywood by damned.

At another talk back, an adult asked “Why did you want to be actors?” Sometimes we get these dumbfounding questions, and usually the actor leading the talk back will toss it to someone else. That night, Peter tossed it to me. To my surprise, I answered honestly: “Well, I’m a recovering narcissist and ego maniac, “ I began, as I felt my dear actor friends around me freeze. “I was also incredibly insecure, “ I continued ‘and I needed more attention than everyone else to compensate. I found out I had a knack for acting, and that everyone lavished praise on me for it, so it was natural fit. Later, I went to New York to become famous. I really had no clearer goal than to have a version of Tom Cruise’s career.“ This was when Michael, who plays Jason, dissolved into hysterical laughter. I shot him a comically dirty look. Then I went on. “When it slowly dawned on me that the Tom Cruise career wasn’t looking likely, I crashed and burned. If I had a version of Tom Cruise’s career, I might have seen a lot of things, but I never would have seen those three girls running like Inos in the parking lot. We mustn’t desecrate our blessings by ignoring them in favor of ones that only live in our diseased fantasies. By the way, I’d still drop everything to by in a movie with Tom (I think). But I’m okay about it not happening. That’s huge progress for an actor like me.

Then I came to Philly to do a show, and was astonished to meet actors like Peter D. here, who were staying in one place, raising families and doing really interesting work. To make a long story short, I decided that’s what I wanted. And that’s what I have today. It’s a huge blessing”. The poor woman who asked the question had a deer in the headlights look, and several actors on stage were just staring at me with mouths open. It’s interesting to notice what happens in the theatre when you tell the truth.

Jason has not been reviewed, and will not be. I think the theatre has elected not to chance the impact a bad review might have, and instead relies on word of mouth and it’s own advertising efforts, which have been compromised by a fiscal crisis the theatre has been working through this year. I have a similar relationship to reviews that I have with alcohol: they render me powerless. I know they’re bad for me, but I can’t stop looking for them, reading them, feeling puffed up by the good ones and outraged by the bad ones. I have developed a reputation in town as an actor who will take on a critic: a reputation I worry has left a bad taste in some mouths, both inside and outside the theaters. I wish there was a recovery program for review junkies.

But I have come to realize that I am not alone. By and large, it’s the theater professionals who care the most about the reviews. The theatre aficionados (and I am fortunate to live in metropolitan area with a large audience of them) will generally see what they want to see, regardless of what the papers say. It’s a sad but true commentary on the state of criticism in this country that People’s Light is so sure that a production likeJason and The Golden Fleece will be misunderstood by critics that it declines to invite critics to see it. It is a wise choice. I have not met a critic yet who values nor understands the goals of theatre for families. In the pecking order of the theatre, theatre for families lurks just below fluffy musicals in terms of the respect it gets. But it is a testament to the investment People’s Light has made in its community that it can mount a production like Jason, make a little money on it and never have it reviewed. Perhaps this is the wave of the future: theatres and their communities rendering the judgments of critics irrelevant. There’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.