Up-post 1: up close and personal

Showman/Shaman When is a role too close?

I’m rehearing Walter Griffin in Bristol Riverside Theater’s production of Up, by Bridget Carpenter. It’s a relatively new play, having had only three or four productions since 2006, and no, it’s not related to the Pixar movie, though it shares some of the imagery. Its inspiration is the story of Larry Walters, who, in 1982, took off from his home in Southern California riding in a lawn chair attached to a huge bunch of weather balloons.

In the play, Carpenter imagines a family unit composed of me (Walter), wife Helen and son Mikey. It’s sixteen years since the flight and Walter has spent those years doing a variety of odd jobs and relentlessly trying to create an idea or event that matched the balloon flight, which got him national attention, landed him on the Letterman show and stoked an extended fifteen minutes of fame. Helen works for the post office. Mikey is in his sophomore year of high school. The play charts the few months around Walter making the promise that he will abandon his creative leadings and get a “real” job. As Walter and Helen navigate the marital stress this transition produces, Mikey gets involved with a pregnant sixteen year old and her eccentric, Tarot-reading aunt. And I almost forgot (how could I?). Walter has a fixation: Philippe Petit, the legendary wire-walker, subject of the documentary Man On Wire, who walked between the Twin Towers in New York in 1975. Petit appears to Walter (and briefly to his son) during the course of the play, walking on a wire and urging him to follow his dreams.

The themes explored in the play revolve around the tension between being called to a leading or vision, and having real-world obligations, like bills to pay and a family to care for. What happens to us when we define our lives and livelihood by choices which do not acknowledge monetary gain as most important? Is it noble or irresponsible to dedicate ourselves to a principal, a vision of living, even when it throws us and those we love into financial instability, and even chaos? What does it mean to be a father? Is it about providing the things that money acquires, or is more important to teach our children the value of integrity, even when that integrity is viewed by most of the world as odd, eccentric, weird.

Consider now the bare essentials of my life – semi employed actor/teacher/Quaker and married father of two – and the question which opens this blog post may make more sense. In many ways, it’s a gift. I very rarely have to wonder, “how would I behave in this situation?” I behaved that way yesterday. But it’s also challenging. Is my exploration of the character clouded by my own history with the very issues he struggles with? Am I missing things that are essentially “Walter” because I assume my own reactions fit so symmetrically? Then there’s the nagging reality of Larry Walters’ end. Six years after making the actual balloon flight, he walked into the woods and shot himself in the heart. And how does his fictional alter-ego fare in this play? Well . . . you’ll just have to come see it and find out, won’t you?

We are in tech now, and we have our first preview and opening next week. This is our third week of rehearsal – two weeks and tech. The way theaters are shrinking rehearsal periods to save money, pretty soon I’ll sign a contract, have a costume fitting, learn the lines and arrive at tech. A part of me says – cool, this is how Shakespeare’s men did it right? I have felt at times that lengthy rehearsal periods – four weeks and tech – can lead to a kind of deadening effect, when the cast loses the ability to discover the play. It can lead to directors making work for actors and production personnel because, well, there’s really nothing left to do. Don’t get me wrong – I’ll take the weeks of employment. But there’s something about a short process which is bracing, forces us to make strong committed choices and not to question ourselves, to be organized and prepared. And, if skillfully directed and absent any train wrecks, the production can “crest” right as opening night rolls around, when discoveries are still fresh and the excitement is genuine. I won’t jinx us by making any predictions.

It’s been great to work with a new director and new group of actors. It’s been extraordinary to watch Kyle, our wire-walking actor, learn the wire we have strung ten feet over the stage and forty feet across. He turned to me conspiratorially recently and said, “Actually, my specialty is juggling.” Watching him brave the wire, I am brought into relation with the central image in Bridget Carpenter’s play: the tightrope walk all creative people do, driven slightly mad as as they follow a dream in a world driven by a commercial engine. And watching Kyle’s lithe body make cat-like adjustments, taking in his placid and intense concentration as we act together, him on the wire and me on the stage, I am reminded: the artist’s life is itself a work of art.

Up-post 1: Up, close and personal. Originally published Thursday, March 11, 2010