Scorched-post 4: on difficult actors and others


– I watched actors and a director work on a difficult scene, in which the main actor and the director were at odds. What was interesting to me was that there was no acrimony. There was no judgment or blame. It seemed to me, playing a dead person in the scene, that this kind of agonizingly slow debate was assumed to be a part of the process by all involved, and that all parties recognized others’ rights to their points of view. No one was invested in being right, or exercising power, or having their way. I witnessed a genuine struggle over something difficult between two wonderful theatre artists.

I reflected on the term “difficult actor”. I realized that in some other circumstance, at some other theater, with some other director, this actor would be labeled “difficult”. This label would have been hung around her neck behind her back, and passed along as petty gossip, the way one whispers that so and so is an asshole or has a tendency to drink too much. And then, unbeknownst to her, she might arrive at an audition with a label hanging from her neck – “I am an asshole” – a label that she doesn’t even know is there. A label someone hung on her, because she – an actor – couldn’t leave a difficult scene unexamined, couldn’t silence her own point of view, couldn’t numb her own passion for the play. And because she doesn’t know it’s there, she can’t address it, can’t get rid of it. It will take others working with her to hear of this label, and say, actually she’s wonderful.

I found myself in this position years ago, feeling very strongly about a pivotal scene in a play I cared deeply about. Somehow, the exchange went awry and then, some people spread the gossip that I was an asshole. Because this is really what “difficult actor” means. It was the beginning of my separation from that theatre. So I feel personally about this. Watching this investigation unfold (because that’s what it is and always should be: an investigation of theatre between two or more artists), I marveled at the lack of anxiety, even as I felt the frustration rise. The frustration wasn’t between people, it was with the work, which was hard. In my case all those years ago, it became about the people involved. And to those in charge, what was difficult wasn’t the scene anymore. It became me. How much easier it is gossip that someone’s an asshole, than to have the courage to work on something difficult. How much more more honest it might have been if someone had shouted, “Ben, stop being an asshole!” Then, at least, I might have had an opportunity to refute the charge, to defend myself by naming what I though was difficult. But this is the insidious nature of the label “difficult actor”. It is never attached to the actor in his presence, always behind his back, and thus belies the cowardice of the people doing the labeling.

In this case, a few days ago, after about 30 minutes of work, I raised my hand from my deceased position. I was called on. I offered an observation. It was useful. Here again, the willingness of the director to invite input from all quarters proved decisive. I didn’t “solve” the problem, but I was able to cast a new light on a relationship on stage, and it allowed those in the debate to unlock from each other for bit, take a breath, and see it from a new angle.

–  I begin a scene telling a long and not terribly good joke about how I was kicked out of my office for the day. As staged, the three of us were upstage in an imaginary corridor of light. I said, I feel trapped, I want to move and have nowhere to go. We talked about for a bit and one of the other actors had the idea of me leading them around the stage and arriving in the corridor of light, before going out to my “backyard”. Blanka said, okay you can try it, but I can tell you we won’t do it, because we have just seen these other characters do something just like that. I thought, jeez, then why bother? But we bothered, and I led them around the stage, pausing now and then to emphasize a point. We got to the end of the speech and we stopped, looking at Blanka. She said, okay, we do it that way.

–  Why do we joke around so much in between scenes? Is it because we are so happy to be working together? Is it because we are a right jolly lot? Is it because we have a neurotic need to prove to other actors that we’re charming and funny?

I think all of those may be true in different cases to different extents. But I also think something else is going on, something deeper and more mysterious. I think we are bonding to each other. I notice how we joke with each other, crack each other up, tell appallingly tasteless jokes, then reset on a dime and are acting fiercely with each other, screaming, pleading, berating, consoling, crying. I think these two events are deeply connected. We joke with each other and say, I am reaching inside you now, and tickling you. And we say, I am letting you reach inside me and tickle me. And we say, huh, so this is what it’s like inside you, being connected to you, sharing feelings with you. And we say, yes, it’s safe, it’s okay, we’re friends. And we say, now we can go there, to all those other amazing and occasionally frightening places.

Scorched-post 4: on difficult actors and others, originally published Saturday, February 14, 2009