What’s the Story (Revisited)?

Spoke with my Mom today.  We talked about everyday things.  Which might normally mean nothing in particular.  But every family has their stuff.  Their struggles.  Their small but poignant personal tragedies.  None of it matters in the grand scheme of things.  A speck in the vast cosmos of Creation.

She was in her thirties when she lost her oldest son.  He was 12, one month away from his 13th birthday.  It was July 4th when the “bomb in the brain” went off.  Something closely similar to an aneurysm.  A tangle of blood vessels waiting to burst.  He passed on four days later.

She, as well as her husband, was responsible to two other kids.  One 11, one 10.  No time to mourne excessively.  There was swimming practice to get to in the morning, softball and baseball practices to get to as well.  Camping trips and visits to the Jersey Shore.  Because normalcy had to be restored.  Bills had to be paid, challenges had to be met.  Life goes on, and the world doesn’t stop spinning.

So she gathered her deceased son’s belongings.  Memorabilia to be packed away.  His infant cup, his baptismal gown, his baseball uniform and glove, his baseball card collection.  On and on.  Amazing how much stuff we acquire over the course of even the shortest of lives.

It’s a confusing time.  Death.  All things are thrown into a different light.  But the world doesn’t stop spinning and life continues to move forward.  And in the rush of daily life things get less than the desired attention.  So some of her deceased son’s belongings got labeled as donation and were given to a local charity.  His infant cup and other personal effects.  Irreplaceable and momentary.  The little and only evidence that he was here.

So in a momentary lapse of attention, the precious items were gone.  And she was lost.  In grief.  An all too new grief.  Caused by her lack of attention.  Her brief moment of inattention.  She was inconsolable.  She was alone.  His death was not her fault, but her inattentiveness to his worldly possessions, his worldly reminders, was perhaps inexcusable.

Enter Mrs. Edgett.  She had suffered the loss of her own son, 8 years old, some time ago.  There was no one else that could understand.  Not even my mom’s own mother.  Who else could understand, who else could pass judgment, could excuse such inattentiveness, could recognize the new tragedy that had occurred.  (If you haven’t been through it, you haven’t been through it.  Yes, you can sympathize.  But, still, you haven’t been through it.  You just don’t know.)

A random, desperate phone call.  Mrs. Edgett wasted no time.  Unintelligible sobs told Mrs. Edgett that this was not a conversation that could take place over a wire.  She and my mother were not close friends.  They were members of a tragic sorority who understood an incommunicable experience.

So Mrs. Edgett hung up the phone.  Travelled immediately to my mother’s house.  Sat beside her.  And simply and gently stroked her back, stayed by her side, and let her know that she was not alone, that she was not to blame.

I only learned of this recently during a random phone call.  It’s amazing the stories we each have to tell.  More importantly, that we each have the opportunity to witness.  Once learned, to which we each have to testify.  To say, in the simplest of terms, that this did happen, that this did matter.  If not on a grand scale for all to view and validate, then on the precious personal level to receive, respect, and recall in a simple, small effort to affirm the heightened value of each human experience.

Down in ZombieLand?

I am from New Jersey.  Born and raised.  Therefore the title to this particular Blahg, the reason for the deep-seated need to connect myself through any manner whatsoever to the greatest man to ever rise from the swamps of Jersey (all due respect to Frank Sinatra and Jack Nicholson and even Danny DeVito)….Anyway, I recently attended a day of general auditions.  I arrived early to get an audition slot closer to the sun’s rising than to its setting, I then sought out a private corner of the surrounding area to go over my audition piece.  Run the text over and over in my head if only to pass the time until my 10am less-than-two-minute performance.  Huddled, hidden in a remote corner of a building, I began to notice figures, shadows, flashes of movement against the horizon.  Something was moving out there in the distance.  Amidst the foliage.  Gesticulating figures expressing inaudible passion.  Then more could be seen displaying aggressive sound and fury.  Humming, warbling, swooning in sound.  Posing committedly for an absent audience.  (Like something out of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.)  Like a bunch of artistically driven zombies traipsing their way hopefully toward a single moment of recognition that might bring them back to life and make the hungry days before seem worthwhile…..It was a frightening sight.  A bunch of people who willingly seemed to have left their minds.  Walking about aimlessly yet with an enigmatic inner purpose.  I always feel oddly embarrassed the moments leading up to the audition.  The waiting truly is the hardest part.  Trying to act like it’s all good, and I’m not nervous when really I’m a hot mess inside.  Oh god.  The need, the desire, the want.  What a frickin’ wide open place to live.  To unabashedly have the proverbial hand out.

Who, What, Where?

The following is an excerpt from Viola Spolin’s Theatre Games for Rehearsal:

All in the same playing space must be in waiting while the unfolding of the drama takes place.  Not waiting for* but in waiting*.  To wait for is past/future.  To stand in waiting is allowing the unknown  — the new, the unexpected, perhaps the art (life) moment to approach*. [*emphasis added]

This is the fundamental goal of Actors Approach.  To guide the actor, to assist the actor, to encourage the actor to wait actively in the moment of the story and in the moment of his or her partner’s behavior.  To actively await the approach of the moment.

What? Me Worry?!

I struggle all the time with every role in every play.  Never feeling like I am really in it.  Like I’m endlessly faking my way through the scene.  Which is really no big deal.  I mean, it’s only acting.  It’s not surgery.  But I end of feeling like such a liar.  And then I hate myself.  And that’s just a really bad day at work.

So then I begin to dread the next day of performance or rehearsal.  I don’t even want to look at the script because it only serves to remind me how lost I am in the role, in the play.  Then starts the worry.  About how awful things will go tomorrow, and the next day, and the next month and year, etc.  I unconsciously project myself into the future without even wishing to do so.  It’s like my brain, my imagination, is on fire.  Completely engrossed in this unstoppable juggernaut of who-knows-what.  I actually see myself in awful circumstances in just a few short months.  Alone.  Nobody knows me.  Can’t pay my bills.  Tossed out onto the street.  Embarrassed.  Ashamed.  A bleak future ahead.

And that’s the imagination at work!

The challenge is not getting the imagination to work.  The challenge is getting it to work at precisely the correct time.  At the scheduled time necessary for rehearsal and performance.  And in the precise way that will serve the story, the play, the scene.

Gut Check

It might go without saying, but it is a challenge to adequately describe any visual medium in words….A painting has an immediate effect as soon as its image is captured by the eye and processed by the brain.  The artist is manipulating materials like paint, clay, or video images to elicit these sensations. The deliberate and relatively slow act of reading and taking in each word is bypassed. [Visual and performance] Art goes straight for the gut.”

The quote above is from the introduction to The Artist’s Mentor edited by Ian Jackman. The last line is great and is worth repeating:  Art goes straight for the gut.

There was a basketball coach at my high school.  His name was Mr. Weidman.  (I probably spelled that incorrectly.)  Anyway, he was one of these really, really passionate coaches.  Unabashedly so.  It was unfamiliar to a bunch of teenage boys who were working 24/7 to be cool and aloof.  Removed and unaffected by anything and everything around them.

This wasn’t the case for Mr. Weidman.  He’d scream red-faced at his players in the locker room during half-time, “YOU GOTTA HAVE IT IN HERE!”  And he’d point right to his gut.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I wasn’t on the basketball team. But my best friend was. Still, this is not a first-hand account.)

It seemed so extreme at the time.  I mean, it was just a basketball game. In some small town in South Jersey!  But that kind of extremist point of view — there’s something noticeable about it.  More than noticeable.  There’s something compelling about it.  On the court or on the stage.

You gotta go for the gut.

And You Are……?

Speaking your mind, speaking one’s mind, expressing yourself as an artist or as a human being can be a dangerous thing.  Not dangerous in the sense of bodily harm (of
course, that too is a possible alternative!)  Dangerous in the sense that you put yourself
out there.  On the record.  For all to analyze and critique.  Criticize.  Even ridicule.

There’s a funny, odd dichotomy that exists among a group of actors.  At once inclusive and exclusive.   A motley band of brothers and a cruel clique of mean girls. Everyone wants their shot, their chance, their big break.  In that way we are all the same.  But God forbid you get your shot before I get mine.  Or even instead of me!  That’s when the daggers come out.

I am no different than anyone else.  I am certainly not on a soap box here, nor do
I deserve to be.  But I am so tired – perhaps of myself – of the endless criticism offered for each and every performance out there.  Each and every choice.  Each and every creative decision.

The thing of it is:  if you have such a great idea, such a better way of doing whatever it is you’re criticizing, then you would have done it already.  And if your excuse is that no one ever gave you a shot, gave you a chance – that’s no excuse or explanation.  You would have found a way to do it.

I admire the people who put themselves out there.  I am endlessly jealous of their courage, their joy, their creative fervor, their belief in themselves.  I am challenged day in and day out by their example to lay it all on the line, a take-no-prisoners approach to their own artistry.

So the next time you or I see a performance we don’t like or don’t agree with, let’s just keep it to ourselves.  It’s amazing how many truly creative and talented people I have known.  At least that’s what they told me.  They also told me how horrible some such other person or production was.

Those who can, do; those who can’t, don’t (and endlessly talk about how they would have done it better.)