Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The play is up and running: Cause Célèbre

Kathryn Browning (L) as Stella and Roberta Chaves as Edith in Cause Célèbre
Well, it's a wild ride, I must say.  Remember the comedy "Noises Off?"  I can now relate totally!  Technical glitches the first three performances, especially opening night when the lights were cut in the middle of two scenes. Saturday night I blanked on a line (arrggghhh!!!) and made a rather awkward recovery.  At the Sunday matinee a doorbell announcing my entrance failed to ring, leaving actress Roberta Chaves ad-libbing lines like, "Hmm, I wonder where Stella could be?" until the technician discovered the problem just as we were about to make a loud door-knocking noise (the bell was unplugged.)

But after three performances I think it's beginning to settle down.  The blocking is now set and the stage manager has things under control.  Members of the cast - all highly experienced in theatre - have been wonderful.  Just delightful people.  So supportive of each other.  And the reviews coming in are encouraging.

I think this play was exactly right for me. I have a decent-sized role (six costume changes!), but the venue is not so huge as to leave me feeling unbearably anxious. I've learned to trust my improvisation instincts and found that I can get laughs. (I've never thought of myself as someone cut out for comedy, so will now have to amend that.) I've learned the joy of telling a story straight through, start to finish, to create in my mind a four-walled room on stage that I can comfortably move about in, and to boom it out and cheat to the boundary mics in a theatre space with acoustics that are less than ideal.

And I look fabulous in hats!
The cast takes a bow.

Winston Churchill said that success isn't final and failure isn't fatal.  That's as good a motto as any for an actor, and something to remember when the doorbell fails to ring. (Hah!) I'm looking forward to taking on another play later in the year in a bigger theatre.  But for now I have eight more performances of Cause Célèbre  and I'm having a grand time!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Hardworking actors

Actors are among the hardest working people on earth and the most hardworking actors are those who appear in community theater.  Their day jobs are by and large real careers and not just something to fill in the gaps, and yet they show up evenings and weekends for rehearsals, use up scarce personal leave on performance days, and somehow between jobs, rehearsals, and commuting, try to feed families, do laundry, tidy the house, walk the dog and - oh most precious commodity - sleep.  If they have a spouse who pitches in at home, as I do, they consider themselves blessed.  If they don't, I don't know how they cope.

Four days before we open with Cause Célèbre and the schedule is brutal. Spent the weekend loading in, reading lines as an ensemble, and doing cue-to-cue with the stage manager and sound and lighting crew.  I feel confident I've got the lines down and can now totally focus on characterization.  A few cast members (with far more lines) are still a bit ragged, but they're pros and I know will have it by opening night.  The pressure is intense. Tomorrow we begin dress rehearsals, which for me means three 19-hour days at a dead run.  The one benefit: I'm too exhausted to be nervous.

Genesius of Rome is the patron saint of actors, lawyers, barristers, clowns, comedians, converts, dancers, epileptics, musicians, printers, stenographers, and torture victims (aha!). Actors, at one point or another in their careers, can relate to every one of those roles I'm sure.  I am grateful for a wonderfully supportive cast who have been generous in sharing their experience with this film actress who is about to step in front of a theater audience for the first time.  Between a good saint and a good cast, everything should be okay. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Acting on moral convictions

There aren’t many careers where you may be asked to simulate sexual intercourse, portray a rapist (murderer, Nazi, Klansman, pedophile, you name the character), or appear nude on stage before a thousand people, night after night.  Working as an actor can test your values, and each of us has to decide for ourselves where to draw the line between art and paycheck.

Last week the issue came up in an online acting forum and it set off a spirited debate between those who think that actors starting out can’t afford to turn down work (and that to do so would spell the end to their career) and those who think you should refuse any role (or scene) that makes you feel uncomfortable, because you have to live with yourself.

I’m in the latter camp. We turn down roles for all sorts of reasons – moral, religious, political, "doesn’t do anything for my career." I've turned down roles where my character was simply intended to ridicule people of a certain religion, or to play straight to another character's off-color jokes. There may be consequences to turning down a role (or balking at a director’s bright idea); there are with most decisions. But on the flip side, nobody gets a pass because they were “only following orders” from the director, or reasoning that “if I didn’t do it, someone else would.”  Do something over the line and it may come back to bite you.

It all comes down to integrity, weighing the opportunity to appear in a film, play, commercial, etc. against your personal beliefs, however they manifest themselves. Sometimes you can have the objectionable scene changed. In the end, your real choice is that you have to be you.

Actor, writer and producer Paul A. Rose, Jr. (13/30 Productions and Starlight Productions) has collected anecdotes over the years that make that point.  Here are some of those he shared in the forum:

Patrick McGoohan, a Catholic, turned down a chance to play James Bond (before it was offered to Sean Connery) because he didn't want to play a womanizer.  He went on to play a similarly spy-themed character, John Drake (who was never seen to even kiss a woman), in three different series, at one point being the highest paid actor in the UK.

Jackson Rathbone, who's just getting started in his career (Jasper Hale in the Twilight films) has played characters who are morally questionable, but turned down roles that he found, "morally reprehensible."

Jim Caviezel, a Christian, asked the director of Angel Eyes, one of his first big roles, if they could change the sex scene in the movie to simply him kissing Jennifer Lopez, because he felt uncomfortable with it and thought the scene was unnecessary.  The director agreed.

Doug Jones, a Christian, has portrayed several popular characters, usually under heavy makeup, including Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films and the Faun in Pan's Labyrinth.  His most memorable role, though is as zombie Billy Butcherson in Hocus Pocus.  In his most famous scene, confronting the witches and defending the children, he had one line - calling Bette Midler a "Bitch." He did that take, then asked the director if he could try something different.  If you've seen the film, you know his improved diatribe, with no profanity, was the take that survived.  (An illustration of the business adage: Don’t bring me a problem, bring me a solution.)

Last year, Neal McDonough (Band of Brothers, Desperate Housewives) was fired from the ABC drama Scoundrels, because he refused to do sex scenes with Virginia Madsen.  A Catholic and family man, he's turned down many roles or requested parts be rewritten to accommodate his refusal to do scenes that even hint of sexual intercourse.  And Scoundrels? It lasted just 8 episodes.

Paul Rose adds: Hollywood - despite some complaints from folks in “the flyover states” - is really, for the most part, conviction neutral.  Your faith (or lack thereof) or moral convictions (or lack thereof), can gain you some jobs and lose you some others, but 85-90 percent of the decisions made to cast you or not cast you are due to concerns, valid or not, that have nothing to do with your faith, your moral convictions, or even your politics.

Well put.