Invalidpost 3: scolded

It’s the Tuesday before tech week, and we’ve had our first taste of the “bad cop”. I’ve been noticing the way Lillian lavishes praise on her actors. She’s been thoroughly “good cop”. With high-risk comedy like this it’s important that actors feel supported and affirmed. “It was brilliant!” or “You’re a genius!” go a long way towards helping an actor commit to a scary choice, and go even further. It’s not that it’s phony either. I think she is genuinely enthusiastic about the works she’s seeing us do. But she’s experienced, and she knows that it’s a way to cement the choices she thinks are working.

She has developed an unusually overt mother/son relationship with Jud, the young guest actor playing Cleante. They’ve worked together several times, and watching his comic gifts, it’s clear to see why. But it’s their relationship off-script that fascinates me. Lillian can be intimidating, but Jud teases her and she teases him back in away that softens the atmosphere in the room. In a way, their relationship offers a template for how best to work with her: playful, brave and intimate. It’s a perfect example of the “family paradigm” I describe in The Actor’s Way at play. Jud sings a comic operetta in the play, and I watched her softly lecture him during a break about how good his voice is, what a fool he is for not getting singing lessons and how far he’d go if he did.

But today after a run, the bad cop scolded us. She said we had taken a step backwards from the run last Saturday, but I couldn’t see any great difference, and neither could the other actors I checked in with. She seemed to think we were all dropping a lot of lines and made a crack about not caring how busy the rest of our lives were “with whatever else you’re doing, the kids or whatever. Make adjustments in your life to learn the lines so you can be in a play!” That stung, me being the only actor in the room with kids at home. But I bit my tongue. I know my lines and I sensed there was something else going on with her. Today was my first run with my dentist-created fake teeth, which fit great but aren’t nasty enough. No one beyond the fifth row will notice there’s anything particularly wrong with them. Lillian was peeved, and outraged that they cost $200. “I had a dentist in Berkeley make a set for $15!” I thought, how many years ago was that, and anyway, it was Berkeley. Maybe he wasn’t really a dentist, maybe he was just a guy with some good drugs who liked to mess around with teeth.

But the scolding continued. And we sat and took it. And I realized that I had been through this before. Something tends to happen to directors the week before tech which makes the bad cop come out. Part of it is dealing with the “sag” that Lillian warned us about, which is so obvious in comedy. None of it is particularly funny anymore, and she sensed it and it freaked her out. Not that it isn’t funny. It’s just that we’ve seen the bits a hundred times now. I think this probably did make us droop a bit as an ensemble, so the scold had its just cause.

But I’ve noticed that directors will take the cast down a notch or two before tech, in order to prepare for the inevitable lift into tech and previews. The scold gives us something to refer back to later: “look at how far you’ve come!” It’s also a way to galvanize attention in a moment in rehearsal when attention can slip quietly out the door like a cat. There’s no doubt that she got our attention, and no doubt that each of us squirmed a bit, and thought, is she talking about me? Did I truly suck just now? The scold raises hackles in an effective way, and makes actors acquire an “I’ll show her” determination which can really send a production into a new plane.

An hour after the scold, we were back to jokes, laughter and shouts of “brilliant!”. There was great relief, and I thought to myself, let’s keep it up here so we don’t get scolded again. Good directors are master manipulators, and that sounds like a horrible thing to say, but I mean it with the utmost respect. What else do you call it when you’re trying to get a room full of artists to do it the way think it should be done? When I am convinced you admire my skills, respect me as an artist and are an artist yourself, manipulate me for all I’m worth baby.

Lillian is also adept at seeing and pointing out her own mistakes. She will often begin a critical note with “It’s probably my fault darling, but . . .” She will axe routines she was drilling the day before when she sees that it’s getting in the way. And she accepts suggestions well. I apologized before offering a point of view on a scene I’m not in and she leapt in, “Don’t apologize. The play is everybody’s business. Actors are artists. I leave my ego for other things. The whole play is your business and my business. We’re in this together.”