Bottompost 7: virtues, fiascos and Oz
I tell my students: acting is the discovery of virtues. This is how I have attempted to move the locus of that study from the mind to . . . some other part of the self. It’s not that the mind isn’t involved: of course it is. But in the context of a liberal arts education and in our outcomes-obsessed world, in which we attempt to measure things that cannot be measured, my students often try to think themselves into their roles. I meet this tendency head-on during the first few weeks of class by telling them the following: there is no “right” and there is no “wrong” in acting, that acting is a total-body experience and that it is the discovery of virtues.
You cannot study your way into a virtue. Virtues are latent qualities that experience draws to the fore and then you realize – often in hindsight – that you are creative, for instance. They are often accompanied by feeling, that mushy realm avoided in most classrooms. This too is an adjustment for most of my students, who come to class expecting to be told in essence “shut up and listen.” I tell them laughter is not only permitted, but encouraged. Then we learn how to have fun safely, without ridicule or humiliation, and sometimes with our own folly. I tell my students acting teaches you about you, and that learning comes most profoundly through the discovery of virtues, discoveries you make about yourself inadvertently while you are acting. I have named four basic actor virtues: courage, empathy, creativity and faith.
My favorite roles are the ones which engage all four of those virtues equally, and so it was with Nick Bottom the weaver. Any comic role is act of courage. Bottom required that special courage needed to make an ass of oneself publicly (sorry). The empathy I felt was for him and for his friends, laboring in the love of art as so many of us do, and have done, over centuries. The creativity was discovered in the elaborate comic gags, bits, lazzi we generated (especially with Pyramus), and in the physicality of his donkey-transformation and meeting with Titania. The faith is the faith of all actors: that what we throw out in front of strangers night after night will be enough, will engender more smiles than frowns, will create more light. And, for me with Bottom, as he was a continuation of my love affair with this play specifically, and Shakespeare generally, there is the faith that he is not the last role, not the final bow, the faith that life goes on and that my unique little set of skills, qualities and quirks will be wanted, needed, again. That is the faith that keeps me from despair, now, as I begin to miss him.
Sunday night, after the final show, I came home to chaos. Somehow, the sink the washing machine drains into had collapsed during a wash – my wash as it so happens. The basement was flooded and the drain-sink-hose connection a confusion of wet, twisted plastic. Rugs, embedded with months of cat feet stains and God knows what else, lay soaked on the ground. And so, after my glittering final bow, and the evening fete we were offered at Marathon Grill by the Chairperson of The Board, me and my kids carried stinking, sodden rugs up out of the basement and lay them on the grass in the dark. I made a lame attempt at dealing with the standing water, then realized this was a job for professionals. I fretted about how much the plumber was going to cost the next day, and slunk upstairs to my bedroom, but not before talking my son down from a hysterical homework crisis. My life, it seems, is not impressed by my glittering bows or trendy soirees.
Susan was finishing her run of Master Builder, so it was me, Ella and Griffen (who couldn’t stop thanking me for helping him out his jam) all in the “big bed”. I was entirely wiped. I turned on the TV and voila: The Wizard of Oz, just at the scene when they arrive at Oz. Ella squealed in delight and Griffen even managed to pause in his work occasionally to take in the technicolor glory of it. We got Bert Lahr’s “Courage” song, we got the flying monkeys, we got the plan to save Dorothy and, of course, we got the melting witch. So: final show, fabulous party, basement fiasco and Oz. Guess what was the favorite part of my day? Laying in bed with Ella and Griff, and thinking about the genius of that movie, which I never fully appreciated until last night. The Scarecrow gets his brain, the Tin Man his heart and the Lion his courage, not from Oz, but by living through the extraordinary experiences of their lives. They discover these virtues, virtues they thought they lacked, inside themselves, right when the world needs them the most. They were there all along, they just needed to be called by something greater than themselves to be revealed, in this case, their love for Dorothy. Just like me and my students. Acting shows us that what we thought we lacked is there, if we will be patient, non-judgmental, and wait for the right moment for it to come out of hiding.
Will Kemp/Philip Henslow/Richard Burbage/Will Shakespeare/Ed Allyn >
Bert Lahr/Judy Garland/Ray Bolger/Jack Haley/Margret Hamilton >
Charlie DelMarcelle/Joey Liao/Charlotte Ford/Ben Lloyd/David Blatt . . .
My costume was hung on these curious hangers that are part of a Breast Cancer awareness campaign. I love them, and I love what they stand for: the best parts of ourselves, which art and adversity conjure forth.