Tunapost 7: that’ll learn ya
1. It is a privilege to make people laugh. Usually the shine begins to tarnish on a show as I go along, till by the end of the run, I’m ready to move on. But with Tuna, I felt a swelling sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. I was deeply touched by what we shared with the audience each night. Some will say, shared what? Stupid silliness? Well, yes. I am reminded of the passionate lecture Lillian Groag gave us before we began rehearsing The Imaginary Invalid. It had to do with how comedy is not honored properly in this country, how it is a vital part of the dramatic literature of any great civilization, and how it is not only fun, but necessary. I am reminded of Antonio Fava, who has dedicated his life to stupid silliness, executed with marvelous courage and precision. I am reminded of William Shakespeare, who I suspect would hold A Midsummer Night’s Dream next to Othello and say “Equals”. But more than anything, I am aware of how comedy has healed my wounds, and how deeply committed I am to the notion that it heals the wounds of those who come to laugh.
2. Edmund Gwynne was right. Comedy is hard. This show drew on every skill I possess as an actor. It was demanding physically, vocally and mentally – the concentration required to get from A to Z each night was daunting. It took a full week of performances before I knew who I was becoming next from scene to scene. I wonder: should we begin by teaching our students comedy, and save dramatic realism for last? Comedy is such a demanding master that it obliterates the self-indulgence dramatic realism can provoke. Self-indulgent comedy isn’t funny, only embarrassing, and so kills itself except in the most egregious instances. And so I learned that the joy experienced as a result of Tuna was the result of hard work – on all of our parts, on stage and off.
3. I act to connect to people. There I was backstage, every night, watching the audience enter the little house from a choice hiding spot behind the middle door. More clearly than ever, I became aware of how important this ritual is form me. I need to see the people I am about play for. I want that relationship to feel as intimate as possible. I want it to be nearly familial. This clearly comes from my wounded beginnings as an actor, when acting for me was a dysfunctional replacement for family. That need is still alive, but in the light of my awareness, and subject to the transformations I have undergone in other ways, that need is now in service of the play, not my wound. Some play lend themselves to this audience/actor bond. Our production of Tuna was one of them. Played in a tiny theatre (80 seats), and directed to take advantage of that intimacy, John and I were in the audience’s laps by the second act, sometimes literally. My peeking was really the next to last step of my preparation. I was beginning to create that bond.
I needed that bond in Shrew, and peeked awkwardly from the upstage right and left curtains. Kate’s relationship with the audience began adversarial and ended intimate. I needed it during Crucible, when there was little chance for peeking, but I did so anyway, gently pulling open a seam between two great hanging blacks down right. I felt Hale channel the audience’s witness of the play’s atrocities.
It’s personal, acting is, for me. And I want it to be personal for you too, if you come to watch me.
4. Each character is a universe. Even towards the end of the run, after I had done it 32 times, I would reach the end of the breathless act one change into Pearl, which had me leaping around backstage in my underwear and jumping into her costume and wig in under ten seconds, and I would wonder, how can I possibly do this? Then I would be onstage, usually 12 inches away from someone in the front row, padded out the wazoo and clucking softly like a chicken. And I was Pearl. And I’m still not sure how it happened, every night, so fast.
Part of it must have something to do with rehearsal. I must have began the run with something Madi and I felt secure about. There was a foundation there I could trust. Part of it is what I call my “anchors” – very specific vocal and physical choices which I can execute technically and which don’t require any level of psychological “belief”. I had these for every character and they were absolutely essential: Pearl’s voice and posture with her cane; Leonard’s pace and voice (oppositional to Pearl and Bertha, so in act one sequence it went: Bertha-high/smooth, Leonard-low, Pearl-high/scratchy); Elmer’s twisted face and bad-motorcycle-accident gait; Bertha’s hips and fingers; Thurston in my nose; RR wobbly; Sheriff vocally close to me; Hank’s swagger and belly; Yippy, well, yippy. The one character which didn’t have any specific anchors, but was somehow a mosaic drawn from Elvis, Bill Clinton and The Farting Preacher from YouTube, was The Rev. Spikes.
But belief plays a part in it too. There could be no room for doubt that I was Pearl. The play requires an immediate leap into character, no second guessing, no regrets. So I was marvelously forced into the present with each new character. More and more, I believe it is this experience of being fused with time in the unfolding present which makes us hopelessly in love with acting.
5. Groping is essential. Only two or three of the nine characters I played came to me fully formed at the outset (Thurston, Pearl, and maybe Bertha, except that she had to pass through a bizarre Blanche duBois phase). The rest I had to grope for. This means I had to begin rehearsals not having a clue what these characters sounded or moved like. So I had to make an ass of myself trying a bunch of different things that didn’t work. The Rev. was originally much closer to what ended up being Leonard. Leonard sounded like a deranged talk-show host for a while. RR was more addict going cold-turkey then town drunk. But this is at the center of creativity – the permission to explore all the things that don’t work. This is how we learn. And it takes a skillful director to create a warm and welcoming environment for this kind of comic exploration, which makes you feel really, really vulnerable. Great students of acting are able to tolerate this vulnerability. Great teachers invite it and protect it.
6. Let the costume be your guide. Man, did I learn about working a costume with this show. Item A) Bertha’s ass padding. As soon as I put that costume on, I knew the first thing I had do on stage was bend over and show that ass to the audience. Which is just what I did. Item B) Hank’s tank top. It just begged to be adjusted grotesquely, and it was. Item C) Pearl’s cane. It created her physicality. Item D) Thurston’s hat. It led me to a subtle understanding of a Western man’s relationship to his own head. I know that’s a bizarre statement, but I’m sticking to it. Item E) Leonard’s chaw. I know, not really a costume piece, but a design feature which led to a cementing of his voice.
Anyway, thanks Tuna. I can’t find no place better, so I’m not movin’. Oh, and I just might see y’all next year . . . around Christmas time . . .