Driving Gloves? Seriously?

Hey, guy driving the black-with-blue-detail-on-the-doors-all-suped-up 2001 Toyota Celica? The driving gloves really necessary?  At rush hour on the 15 South?  Yeah, I know you’re wearing your Live Strong wristband.  But your car is going about 10 mph at it’s fastest in this kind of traffic.  I mean, I didn’t even see your face.  I just saw your hands on the steering wheel.  Wearing those black driving gloves.  See, I easily noticed them because we were going about 5 mph for most of our journey together, me about a half a car length behind you after I got off the 52 East.  You must have very soft, sensitive hands.  I’m not even sure you moved the steering wheel.  You couldn’t change lanes.  It was bumper to bumper.  I guess you just like wearing the gloves.  The look.  The feel.  The….what?  I don’t get it.  But then I’m not you.  I don’t wear driving gloves.  I think they’re pretentious.  You think they’re cool.  At least that’s the impression you gave.  ‘Cause you were wearing them.  In rush hour traffic.  That was at times at a standstill.  So….

It’s really not fair.  My assumption that you are some kind of person that I wouldn’t like. Someone who’s basically a dork.  A pretentious dork.  Actually, you are just pretentious. It’s an insult to dorks to even associate you with them.

But it’s weird the way one article of clothing can completely brand or label a person as a type.  A kind of character.

Shorts that are too short.  Pants worn high-waisted.  Or cut too high above the ankle.  Or too tight.  Or a shirt with an unidentifiable stain just below the collar.

Or a perfectly polished pair of dress shoes.  A crisp, freshly pressed dress shirt.  A carefully tailored suit jacket.

One seemingly minor detail can forever impact the way that others perceive you.  And so few actors seem to take advantage of this because so many of us, myself included, are more occupied with appearing attractive or cool or appealing.  We tend not to think about what might permit the audience the greatest opportunity to perceive your character in a way that suits the story best.  Or perhaps a way to deceive the audience in a way that suits the story best.

It has been said that clothes make the man.  I don’t know about the truth of that.  But I do know that the clothes we choose to wear create a perception in the eyes of others.

Feeling Ducky?

Walking the dogs with my wife the other day, there was a woman standing under the trees by the lake talking to the ducks.  Not talking to them as if they were ducks.  Talking to them like reunited high school BFFs.  Giggling and exploding with laughter as one of the mallards cracked a joke.  Walking behind as the ducks maneuvered toward the lake and offering ideas for what to do with the rest of the day.  In an unadulterated joyful fashion.

She was pure crazy.

As we walked by (me looking straight at the ground to avoid eye contact), my wife could sense my discomfort with the loon.  She immediately commented how uncomfortable people are with expressions of joy.  I offered that it’s not the joy that with which I was uncomfortable.  It was the crazy.

But she was right.  Because the woman was not exhibiting any kind of dangerous behavior.  Just different behavior.  Behavior that was openly and undauntedly expressive. Happy.  Joyful.  Giddy.  Effusive.

And there’s something not acceptable about expressing ourselves beyond the bounds of moderation.  Can’t laugh too loud in public.  Certainly can’t cry in the presence of others.  Anger is ugly and unbecoming.  And on an on.  Etc.  Blah blah blah.

I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this, but it strikes me that I think I know how I am feeling throughout the day. If you were to ask me, I’d tell you straight up.  I’m happy or sad or this or that.  But how can I really know when I have such limited practice expressing any feeling.  In the presence of somebody else.  In front of an audience, per say.  It’s like that dreaded feeling one gets in the audition.  “Holy crap!  There are people watching me!”

We only get better at anything with practice.  And lots of it.  But we don’t get a lot of practice with our feelings.  What we are actually feeling or the expression of that feeling.  And if we do manage to publicly (meaning in the presence of at least one other individual) exhibit what’s happening inside, we come off as crazy most of the time.  And who the hell wants to be thought of as crazy?  Crazy people get locked away or end up walking the streets of some city talking to invisible companions.

Perhaps this is why we are so attracted to performers.  To the art of performance.  At its best, it is pure expression.  Which is to say it’s purely out there on the edge.

Pure crazy.

Got Gut?

“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 editted by Ian Jackman.  The last line is great and is worth repeating:  Art goes straight for the gut.

There used to be a basketball coach at my high school.  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.

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 The Hell Is Robert Henri?

Find out!

I highly recommend the book The Art Spirit by Robert Henri compiled by Margery A. Ayerson.  It was recommended to me by my Mom!

True Story:

My Mom and I were talking on the phone.  She and my Dad were preparing to meet with a contractor due to property damages from Super Storm Sandy.  She mentioned the book.  Said it was a must for my wife Jessica and me.  Jessica and I were in my
mother-in-law’s home.  While speaking on the phone with my Mom, I turned around towards the bookshelf behind me.  There, on top shelf, the second from the top of a stack of eight books, lay The Art Spirit by Robert Henri.

Disclaimer:  My mother-in-law was a painter.  (She sadly passed away two weeks ago after a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer.)  More accurately, she was an artist.
In so many ways.  Her house is a respite from the chaos of the world.  Her backyard a fortress of tranquility.  The artwork that adorns the walls of her house the soft strokes and gentle hues of water color.  So it really is no surprise perhaps that Pat would have the book my Mom suggested.

However, the book is years out of print.  If I am correct (and that’s a big IF), the last and first paperback printing was back in 1984.  According to mathematics, that’s 28 years ago.

Also, my Mom was a primary school teacher and not a specialist in the arts as my mother-in-law Pat was.  How my Mom all of a sudden suggested this uniquely inspiring book on painting (and all artistic endeavors) is beyond my imagination.

Except now I do now recall that recently my Mom took up the study of water color.  And, based upon samples of her work that she sent to Pat, she is quite good.  She
seems to have an intrinsic understanding and instinctive touch.

So now it seems that things have come full circle?  No, not really, just a curious coincidence.  My Mom takes up water color painting (which happens to be a specialty of my mother-in-law), reads the book The Art Spirit by Robert Henri (which happens to be on my mother-in-law’s bookshelf), she mentions it to me while in a phone discussion, I turn around during the same conversation and look directly at that very same title The
Art Spirit
printed on the binding of the first book upon which I lay my eyes on the top shelf…. Oh yeah.  The book is out of print.

Private investigators and police detectives say there is no such thing as coincidence.  I don’t care what you believe.   You are entitled to your own opinion.  But your certainly should do yourself the favor of finding and reading a copy of The Art Spirit.

“Know what the old masters did.  Know how they composed their pictures, but do not fall into the conventions they established. These conventions were right for them, and they are wonderful.  They made their language.  You make yours.  They can help you.  All the past can help you.”

Excerpt from The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Is that a Coffee Pot on the counter or are you just happy to see me?

I came home.  I was tired, a little spent from the day.  Not from the day per se.  Just from the driving, the constant driving that is the definition of living in Southern California.  There’s no romance to it these days.  Drought.  Heat — excessive heat.  Okay, nothing like what’s going on in other parts of the country.  But this is So Cal.  We have no ability to roll with the changes.  We are trained to meet life with a Wal-Mart mentality — a comfortably climate-controlled environment and every item on its proper shelf.  (Except between midnight and 6am.  Have you ever been?  It’s a disaster.  What the hell was Sam thinking?!  I’ve spent the best years of my life on two days in particular at a Wal-Mart nearby between those specific hours.  Never again.)

Anyway, I got home.  My wife was in the kitchen.  The cats and the dog were there too.  Hugs and kisses all around.  And my wife just staring at me.  Not creepy or anything.  Just something that I would notice — because I live with her, I know her habits, her behaviors.  But I let it slide.  I was tired.  I was hot.  I was sweaty.  I was thoroughly unappealing.  But something was weird.  She just kept staring.  Waiting, it seemed.  For what?  I had no clue.  I had some groceries, some cat litter, some other various sundries to deposit in their proper places.  So I did what needed to be done or attempted to do so when it caught my eye.  There on the counter.  I had been in the house for more than 10 minutes and had been standing right next to it.  The Gift!

A brand new coffee maker.  (I am am, I eagerly confess, a caffeine enthusiast.)  A kind of fancy one by our standards.  It was a brilliant crimson red!  (Our previous one, which had broken down two days before, was a standard innocuous white.)  But this new one was whatever the opposite of innocuous is..  It was the color of a femme fatale’s finger nails.

But still it took me 10 minutes to notice.

So often I am seemingly hyper-aware.  I know everything that is going on, know where everything is, what’s out of place, what’s new or strange, etc.  But that’s crap.  I always forget that we rarely notice right away what is new and different.  Because we are consumed with some other very important activity at the time that we enter a room.  We have our own ambition, our own goal, our own mission.  We come into the room to get something done and often to the exclusion of anything new that might be noticed.  That new thing has to strike us, has to arrest our attention.  The surprise.  All too often I know exactly where I am going on stage rather than knowing where I wish to go and dealing with the new circumstance that is the surprise.

Who? Me?

I think that one of the hardest things to do is to speak your mind.  Which is kind of ironic — seemingly false but true — when you live in the United States of America.  After all, one of the founding principles is freedom of speech.  But to speak one’s mind is dangerous.  In addition to the fact that you might upset or offend or be viewed as odd or stupid, you also immediately become vulnerable.  Because you have dared to reveal yourself.  To reveal something that you believe.  Some secret desire or hope that you you held dear for quite some time that may now be judged, criticized, ridiculed….FYI, I tend to view things from a glass half empty kind of way.

This kind of daring is the quality that makes a performance dangerous, scary, thrilling, and watchable.  Because something is immediately at risk.  Something personal is at stake.  If it isn’t personal, it isn’t worth it.  It isn’t fun to perform.  It isn’t fun to watch.

Do You Doubt It?

It’s important undoubtedly to determine what your character is going for, trying for, attempting to do in each scene.  The all-essential objective.  The mission.  The want the need that thing I must have cannot leave the room without and am fighting for.

But it’s just as useful and necessary and important to consider the doubts and uncertainties that plague a character and persist throughout the story.  Doubts provide the possibility for failure in a scene, provide obstacles throughout the action of the play, and make the character’s journey much more interesting, much more inspiring.

Everyone suffers at some time from the point of view, “Who am I to get what I desire?”  We question that we deserve to succeed, that we have the ability — the skill and talent.  If we consider that doubt is a big part of a character’s journey, it can excite our imaginations and our personal responses to the circumstances of the story and propel us into action.  It can provide the actor with his or her own idiosyncratic hook into the story.

The Real World?

Actors can become obsessed with the desire to appear “natural” or “real”.  They can become enveloped in this quest.  Trapped.  Things they do, responses they have are all determined by what someone else – the audience – will believe.  Or, even worse, what the audience will accept.

“Natural” or “real” (although quite different terms artistically) have, for the most part, come to describe behavior that looks like something that might be witnessed in the real world.  At the coffee shop.  In a bar.  In the park.  At the beach.  In any standard, normal everyday environment. 

But plays don’t take place in any standard, normal every day environment.  Plays take place in the world of the play.  Sounds like double-speak.  Or just plain BS.  But a play is a heightened event.  Most stories are.  Whether on the stage, on the screen, or on the page.  We read, listen to, and watch stories because something out of the ordinary, non-standard, and abnormal is very likely to take place.  It could be as magical as falling down a rabbit hole.  Or it could be as sublime as falling in love.  It is the atypical event that hooks us:  the listener, the reader, the spectator.

And it is usually the atypical responses of the actor that intrigue and hook us as well.  These responses, based upon the world of the play, can free the actor from the obsession to appear natural or real.  The better question or concern for the actor is, given the world of the play, Do I Believe What I Am Doing?  If the actor believes, the audience will believe as well.