Scorched-post 7: previews

Showman/Shaman It always happens around previews. We get notes which attempt to adjust a choice we have come to love, or rely on in some way. It happened to me in Imaginary Invalid and Crucible. It happened recently in Scorched. In this case, it had to do with the last scene of the play, which I am in. And this too is frequent: that the adjustments directors make to the ends of plays at the 11th hour are the ones the actors will resist the most. That’s because they are adjusting the target, the thing you are aiming at when the curtain rises, your destination. Often, it represents the culmination of an intense psychological journey. Sometimes it is a dazzling comic turn, the punchline of punchlines. But in its adjustment, the entire arc of a character can be shifted. And days before opening, that can feel awful.

Without getting into things too deeply, this adjustment had to do with an emotional reaction I had been having in this scene. The emotion was genuine – not something contrived. As a human being, I was moved and it spilled over. But it seems that it was “releasing the catharsis” too soon. It was, in a way, robbing the actual end of the play of its power. Fair enough. But the substitute direction seemed cold and aloof, and I felt bereft of the end of the story of Alphonse and the twins, a sub-story to be sure, but an important one, as it defines the emotional opening up of Janine and Simon, and the near “adoption” of them by Alphonse.

I fought for a middle ground during notes, and it was tense. Mostly it was tense because there is a lot to do. I also suspect that Blanka worried I was attached to crying – a common trait among actors, since it is often held as the badge of honor, the sign of great emotional depth. It’s the “triple lutz” of acting – separating the true artists from the amateurs, at least to some. But frankly, not to me. In this, I am aligned with Mamet, who says essentially, if the plays needs you to cry, what matters is that the audience thinks you’re crying. Whether you actually are or not is irrelevant. And nothing is more irritating than an actor overly involved in his own feelings. It’s emotional masturbation. In this case, the crying wasn’t something I was making happen, it was happening to me, which is what Stanislavsky says about feelings: they happen to you. I felt there was room to make this a part of Alphonse, who is emotional throughout (he begins the play by bursting into tears). But perhaps I was selfish. As actors do, I was seeing the play only though Alphonse’s eyes. But the alternative felt to me like turning him into a mailman, or a telegraph boy: cold and functional. Anyway, the middle ground was reached yesterday: no tears but a simple and effective resolution which shows them as connected, maybe even (gasp!) affectionate, when they begin so splintered apart.

In directors’ defense, it is often only during previews that the light bulb goes on, about what a specific scene needs, or that adjustment you couldn’t quite put your finger on. It’s only during previews that directors can see the thing from start to finish in front of an audience. It is often the audience that is the source of the last minute adjustment. So there are valid competing dynamics: the actors need to hold on to what has been working, what has felt agreed-upon; and the director’s acquisition of so much new insight ands information that comes with running the thing over and over, and hearing the audience respond. It can be a combative, but here it wasn’t. As in my observation of the difficult scene, we spoke our piece with integrity and passion and then stood back to allow space for the other. We worked from the faith of a common purpose and shared values. We were graceful with one another, and we showed each other respect. May it be so for all of you during previews.

Scorched-post 7: previews, originally published Friday, February 27, 2009