In these pages, I have set out to imitate Quaker journals, recording my experiences and bringing my focus continually to my witness of God’s energy in my unfolding life. It is an act of exhibitionism, as were the early Quaker journals, exposing the inner lives of the authors in an unusual way for the period. I have found it necessary to draw a line of privacy around some issues, only hinting (for instance) at the strife I am experiencing with my family of origin, and using a kind of code to describe my ongoing recovery from alcoholism, out of deference to the traditions of the group which has saved my life. So looking back at the fall, what do I see?
Dear friends, imagine a bow-tie. Imagine it represents a time period, beginning at the left and going to the right. See how it begins broadly, then narrows and compresses at the knot, before expanding again. Now imagine that that the cloth on the left is muddy, grey and brown; imagine the knot is a rich golden yellow, and the expanding wing to the right an abstract mix of bright colors. That is the image of my fall up to this point. To the left is August and September, finding my way through the murky beginnings of rehearsal, and trying to articulate my goals for Revival. The knot represents the last two weeks of October, when I was in the thick of Jason, sending off job applications to universities and beginning the Meetings for Theatre. The bright colors swirl about me now, and seem to suggest patterns, but only fleetingly, like the work of the great Russian abstract artist Kandinsky.
Susan is acting in the holiday show at People’s Light, a rollicking English Panto of Jack and The Beanstalk. During the last weekend of Jason, I had dinner on Saturday in the green room of the Main Stage where she was in final tech. I had one of those exquisite moments of deep gratitude for my life, seeing myself in the middle of this beehive theatrical creativity. Mark, who plays the Dame in the Panto, was standing in the green room in work boots chatting with Chaz the stage manager, a vast tutu wrapped around his big belly and wearing a monstrous set of falsies contained by a girdle which, unfurled, might sail a fair schooner. He batted his false eyelashes at me and said in his resonant baritone, “Hey, Ben”. I am surrounded by extraordinary friends:
• Peter, who joined me briefly at dinner, played several nasty characters in Jason, and his wife Ceal, both company actors at the theatre and perhaps more than any others, role models for me and Susan. Ceal and Peter raised two adopted children while working for People’s Light (and many other local theatres). They are both multi-talented, Peter arranging music for his cello on his laptop in the dressing room, and Ceal, a gifted teacher and editor, who vetted early drafts of my book being published next spring, The Actor’s Way (though it was then called Letters to Alice). Ceal is an astonishing actor as well.
• Kathryn, wandering through and offering words of encouragement to the Panto actors, was the actress I played opposite of in two of the short plays I was in during 30Fest last summer. Kathryn was luminous as Kate, the main role in Donald Margulies’ play July 7th, 1994. I played her husband and we had a kind of actor-connection that no training can create. I am convinced that Kathryn and I are spiritually linked somehow, that we share a past life or something. Actors who work together frequently, who share their lives with each other, have a much better shot at experiencing something like this than the typical vagabond American actor. Kathryn is a playwright too– she wrote the Panto Susan is now in. Her husband is Christopher, who wrote and arranged the wonderful music that underscored most of Jason. I want him to teach Griffen to play the guitar.
• Scott, a young actor in the Panto, whose wife Molly gave birth to Eli their first-born the day after my visit. Scott and my wife and I share a guilty pleasure: the Fox TV series 24. He and Molly are two young actors who I see as following in this new paradigm I call the Citizen Actor. Ceal and Peter, me and Sooz, Scott and Molly – the lineage in action.
• And Susan, my wife, who met me in the green room that Saturday all dolled up in her silly ice cream parlor outfit (it has to do with the Panto – don’t ask – all I can say is, it works). I fell in love with her all over again. As she goes about her business as an actor, I can’t believe she’s the same woman I had breakfast with this morning, the same woman I witness mothering my children, the same woman I have lived with for ten years. It’s a great perq, marrying an actress: you feel like you’re having an affair with someone, but it turns out it’s your wife. Later, I watch her do things on stage I will never be able to do. She’s damn good – technically skilled and so full of joy in her work. She fills the theatre with it.
During the talk-backs for Jason, we frequently heard comments from adults, who would begin with a phrase like, “We’ve seen you all in a bunch of plays here, and I’ve got to ask . . . “. Many theatres are afraid of employing the same actors over and over, fearing that audiences will get tired of the same faces in different costumes. But my experience at People’s Light, and in Philadelphia theatre generally, is just the opposite. Audiences love recognizing the actors from one play to another, and marveling at the transformation. It is an actor-audience connection over time that creates a comforting continuity for the audience, and it is instructional in the best possible way about the art of acting. It says, acting is about transformation. It also says, these are our artists, yours (the audience’s) and mine (the theatre’s). They are cultural assets that we are investing in. You are watching that investment grow over time. They are not only set dressing for the plays you see. They are people just like you in careers that matter.
I call this relationship “audience-actor bonding”. People’s Light, being one of only a few American theatres with an ensemble of returning actors, has built a strong subscriber base not only on the quality of its shows, but on this relationship. I think it could do more to build on that relationship marketing-wise, but I digress. It’s the same relationship that drives television. We rush home as much to spend an hour with Jack Bauer and his fellow anti-terrorism agents, as we do to see what happens in that episode of 24. Seinfeld is great example of a TV show that was built on this actor-audience relationship, since it openly proclaimed itself to be about “nothing”. My connection to Lost has as much to do with the actors I see week after week, as it does with the exotic locale and great writing. For me, it has mostly to do with actors.
Friends, in most TV and film, we aren’t watching characters, at least not in the same sense as they are brought to life in, say, Jason and the Golden Fleece, in which the actors playing the extreme characters (like me) were attempting to disappear. In most TV and film, the actors chosen are the ones that most resemble the characters. So there is very little character transformation at all. Seinfeld is again an extreme example of this, in which the main “character” is in essence the actor himself. Same with Everyone Loves Raymond. It’s small step to the dramatic series from that extreme. I would wager that if I had coffee with the actor I wrote about earlier, Terry O’Quinn, who plays Locke on Lost, I would be struck by how much alike he is to his character. We don’t fall in love with the characters in film and TV. We fall in love with the actors.
The current list of Hollywood actors we witness in various combinations in movie after movie perform a very similar function on a larger scale. I am soothed by the notion that I am going to see Jim Carrey, or Jodie Foster in a movie, as much as I am entertained (or not) by the movies themselves. There is a kind of mass-cultural glue created by the community of A-List actors that binds us all together as one great American audience. In some strange way, Jim and Jodie become the conduit through which I connect to people I will never meet, but if I did, I could say “Did you see the Jim Carrey movie?” and we would have a common thread with which to begin a relationship. With the success of film series like The Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter, Hollywood has realized the potential for long term actor-audience relationship. I couldn’t wait to see The Return of the King, and watch Viggo kick some Orc-ish ass. (That series actually does contain some radical character acting though, notably John Rys-Davies as Gimli and Ian MacKellen as Gandolf. I did not look forward to watching Ian. He had rightfully vanished. But Gandolf will forever have a face like his when I read those books again, so affected was I by Ian’s performance.) Yesterday I saw Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I had read with my son the summer before, and thought – my God, I’m watching these young actors grow up on the screen right in front of me.
Why does the theatre tend to shy away from this audience-actor bonding? I think it stems in part from an inferiority complex we have in relation to film and TV. We in the theatre tend to think of ourselves as the poor stepchild, and film and TV as the favored sons and daughters. Hmmmm . . . interesting that I chose that metaphor. I think we in the theatre feel that since we can’t come close to the locations we are transported to in film and television, that we have to stimulate our audiences in other ways, partly by parading an ever-changing cast of actors I front of them. The other reason we don’t build the audience-actor bond is that it’s very hard to find actors willing to commit to the theatre, remain relatively impoverished, and say farewell to the dream of fame – the narcotic bought and sold mostly in New York and L.A. The citizen – actors I’m surrounded by in Philadelphia are unusual in America. They have chosen to stay in one place, whereas most are driven to restlessly move up what ever phantom ladder they are sold.
But my experience in Jason has led me to believe that it is imperative that we actively foster the Citizen Actor paradigm. We need to give actors hope that there is a meaningful and valuable life for us right where we choose to live. Once free of the crushing obsession to become the next Jim Carrey or Jodie Foster, we can be free become the actors we were meant to become, and to enjoy the work of Hollywood, feeling bound to movie actors as fellow craftsmen, part of the wide fraternity, and sorority, of actors. In the Rooms, we might call adopting the Citizen Actor paradigm being “right size” – we let go of an inflated, false self and live in the world as we actually are. This is a concept which has nation-wide implications. I think of all the children entrapped in ghettos, brainwashed by media into believing that their only hope is to become a star of some kind. Our culture instructs us that there is no middle-ground, You either command the attention of millions or you are a failure. Our work in Jason, at People’s Light and in other theatres in the Philadelphia area is a way to say, no – I am just as common, and just as precious, as any who come to see me perform.
Inos’ last gag was to almost sit in the lap of an audience member sitting stage left, then turn and see that person, shriek in horror, and scamper off. At one of the last performances of Jason, I really landed on the kid in that particular seat. When I turned around to see who I had sat on, I remember this young boy looking at me with a strangely empty stare. Usually the kids (I almost never sat on an adult) would have these wide-eyed expressions of delight and surprise, but I remember this kid looking bored, and slightly hostile. Later in the dressing room, Ahren, who played Orpheus, said “”Good for you for squashing that little brat”.
“Why?” I asked, “Did he throw something at you?”
“No. “ Ahren replied. “He was playing a portable Playstation during the entire show”.
I remembered noticing that boy during the talk-back, staring into his lap, jabbing at a piece of plastic with the same vacant look he had given me in performance. Leaving aside the appalling fact that he was at the play with an adult who was ostensibly responsible for him, who allowed him to sit in the front row and choose his toy over us, and who should have her parenting license revoked, he represents yet another reason why theatre is so important.
The New York Times recently published a disturbing article documenting the progress of a lonely young boy from computer enthusiast to child pornography business person, using his body as bait for on-line pedophiles. Through this boy, the reporter uncovered a large network of children who were in the same business, receiving gifts from pedophiles in exchange for disrobing, and worse, in front of computer cameras. These children were frequently lured into live encounters with the pedophiles, and suffered the horrible consequences. I believe our children are in danger from childhoods of increasing isolation, in which the opportunity to gather in groups, to be witnessed by the communities they live in, and to feel what it is to bound in common experience, is under siege. The principal siege gun is the computer, aided by the vast array of other electronic equipment which allow us to live singular lives, taking care of the kinds of business we used to have do through live human beings. Children used to be members of neighborhoods, and played on the streets on the stoops with other kids, and were cared for the parents of those kids. And yes, some were preyed upon by pedophiles there too. But my point is this: the poor boy in the article is on record as saying that essential reason for his becoming a sexual object was that he craved attention. Like so many, he confused the desire of the sick people he encountered online with actual love, which was something he needed more of in his actual life. Coming to the theatre repels the loneliness bombarding our children. It used to be so much more common. All the more reason to celebrate when a group of artists commits to the spiritual exchange the theatre offers.
I believe we are sustained by the mere experience of breathing together in the same room, and this experience, which is spiritual (spirit, inspire, from the same root word meaning breath) is increased exponentially when that breath becomes rapid from excitement, or bursts into laughter, or dissolves into tears, as it frequently did this summer during July 7th, 1994 – both on stage and in the audience. In fact, I believe we are healed by this shared experience. I write in The Actor’s Way about Stanislavsky’s Rays – the spiritual energy he describes which moves from actor to actor. But they are not just for the actor. They are for the audience as well. So, in being an actor, I take part in healing some of the people in my community. I hope by sitting in that little boy’s lap, I loosened the grip of his little electronic prison. The actor-audience bond brings me back to my shamanistic lineage, and I embrace it. I am an agent of spiritual transformation.