Tuna Christmas

Showman Shaman I don’t think I’ll be able to chronicle my third journey back to Tuna the way I did my second go round, last year’s Greater Tuna Walnut Street Theatre. Life’s been a bit hectic – at times like staring into an open fire hydrant, as a Friend suggested. This year, with A Tuna Christmas, I’m back at the same theatre with the same acting partner, director, stage manager and designers. What with teaching, parenting and – occasionally – writing, there hasn’t been time to jot.

It also feels like familiar territory; all the observations about character acting, comedy and quick changes still apply but have already been noticed in last years entries. I have some new characters this year: Inita (a slutty, pot-head waitress), Ike (super stupid cameo), and Phoebe (off-stage midget puppet voice). Gone are the Sheriff and The Rev. Spikes (who I mourn). R.R. has a much bigger role, and Bertha has apparently been taking extension classes, because she makes jokes about Hitler’s Lebensraum policy and corrects Vera on Christmas carol lyrics. The play as written feels flabby, lacking the leanness of Greater. It’s like the boys from Austin were trying to recreate the hit they had on their hands, and so looked for every available opportunity to for a quick change or a red-neck joke. We have cut bits here and there. Now, in tech, we are (again) enjoying the glorious absurdity of it all.

Bertha is also much more sympathetic, and the “spine” of the piece is her attempting to salvage an enjoyable Christmas through a series of insults, embarrassments and frustrations. There’s even a love story connected to her. Madi has chosen to mine any available pathos – a tall order in a script which trades comically on men dressed as fat women. And yet, if we can pull it off, if we can get a handkerchief or two out by the curtain, it would be quite an accomplishment.

It’s been interesting to notice the shift in the actor/director dynamic. It’s occurred to me that when a cast returns to the same play, or nearly the same play, with the same director, the director’s role diminishes and the actors’ authority increases. John and I are “experts” (for lack of a better term) of our roles from last year, and need less help in developing characters. Madi is left to stage us, direct traffic, polish timing and think about the big picture – which she does well. Still – there have been rough spots when the old “director is always right” paradigm gets challenged, or (from another point of view) actors become directors themselves in certain moments and the director feels she wrest the position back from them. Both John and I have had some tense moments with Madi, as she struggles to maintain her authority and he and I assert our own.

My wife came home in tears recently because of the same dynamic at work in the Christmas Panto she does every year at People’s Light, with many of the same actors returning. She (rightfully I think) knows the Panto process and product as much as anyone involved in it, and she felt wounded by the strained dynamic between her and the director, and overwhelmed by her own sense of knowing – deeply – that and aesthetic issue was being mishandled.

The problem is not with actors, directors or with any particular individuals. The problem is with the paradigm, which is too deeply invested in the accrual of decision-making power. That we fret and spat over who gets to make what decision, or who gets credit for which good idea, is evidence that our creative process in the theatre has been infected by a sickness in our popular culture. We are in love with judgment, and addicted to the rendering of it publicly. We live in a “culture of contention” as John Patrick Shanley has noted. The ability to feel that one is “right”, or “in charge” of something, or of other people, is a kind of obsession for many of us; an obsession stoked by the heroes of pop culture: the Jack Bauers of the world who take command and vanquish those who get in the way. It’s a terrible paradigm to apply to a sensitive, collaborative art form like the theatre, but I feel it creeping in all the time.

Add to this the tendency of theatre artists themselves (myself included) to work out personal agendas and deficiencies through their roles in the theatre-making paradigm, and you have the potential for a lot of tension if the conditions are right. I have long contended that many directors are as in love with the control they wield as they are with the event they help create. Power, authority and the ability to render judgments and have others act upon them are intoxications. And when they compensate for the powerlessness many theatre artists feel in the rest of their lives, we cling to them jealously. So when an actor says, I think I have a better idea, the resistance she faces is many times as much about the need to retain authority as it is about the idea in question. We all want to be Jack Bauer, but in rehearsal, only the director can play that role.

I have documented all the ways actors act out on these personal agendas in other pages – like my book The Actor’s Way. They are numerous. But it has been my experience that inspecting actors’ motives, or evaluating actors’ psyches are common back stage games, whereas directors’ motives seldom fall under the same scrutiny. This is because directors retain power in the conventional paradigm, and questioning their motives is an act of subordination (subordination: beneath the order of things). Questioning an actor’s motives is par for the course.

I remember hearing Anne Bogart give a lecture once, in which she said the worst moment in rehearsal for her is when an actor asks, “Is that how you want it”? She said, that’s when I know I’ve failed with that actor. I think that’s too steep a judgment to pass on oneself. But there is a way to be liberated form the need to be in control, to be right, to pass judgments. It’s to notice when you feel your own hackles going up – for me, a sign that what’s going on has passed beyond aesthetic considerations and entered a personal realm. And there’s a way to investigate one’s own motives, always better than having others investigate them for you. And there’s a way to move towards a theatre-making which de-emphasizes the judgment of one person.

Today, in tech, we found our way back to the rollicking give and take which is the hallmark of effective collaboration, and which has been the default mode for the three of us in Tuna. A kind of excitement, focus and humor gathered around a rehearsal focused on precision and timing. We threw out a character choice and started over. We nailed several entrances. We ran act one. Now it’s dinner. And I’m looking forward to running the sucker when we get back, and then getting notes from Madi afterwards. Tuna Xmas Saturday, November 22, 2008