Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Performance Date: 06.11.10
Cort Theatre

Let’s get the celebrity stuff out of the way first. I saw Fences the weekend before the Tony’s with a friend who knows someone in the cast. After the show, we waited in the alley behind the stage door gate to say hello. There we were had a funny exchange with fellow backstage visitor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was not recognized by security and had to wait in the alley with us peons (he was cool about it), and were charmed by Denzel Washington who goofed with us while waiting for his cue to exit onto the barricaded street. Now, do you remember how once upon a blog I confessed that I find famous people (and Philip Seymour Hoffman in particular) shiny? Well allow me to update you: Philip Seymour Hoffman is still shiny, even up close and personal. Denzel has degrees of shininess – least shiny in person, next shiniest on stage, ultra-uber-ohmygod shiny two days later on television when I actually gasped and did a little involuntary seated-hop on my friend’s loveseat watching him on the Tony’s. I’m not proud of this last bit of information. Sometimes I think I was created in a lab by scientists.

Speaking of the Tony's...  Did Fences deserve to win Best Revival? Yes. Though View from the Bridge deserved it just as well. Did Denzel deserve Best Actor? Yes. And Liev would have deserved it too. Did Viola deserve Best Actress? Oh hell yes. Though I didn’t see any plays starring her fellow nominees. What do I think about Hollywood invading Broadway and taking all our jobs and prizes? Ah, interesting. If I became a famous movie star tomorrow, I would use my new celebrity status to enable my Broadway debut in a heartbeat. So I’m not going to say Hollywood should stay away just because I’m on the other side of it. But it is true that the commercialization of theater, and the resulting movie-and-TV-stars-on-stage phenomenon, has had a huge negative impact on my profession. There are simply fewer jobs for the non-famous, which trickles down to make competition at even the lowliest levels tougher than ever. That sucks big time. But whaddya gonna do? I don’t see the trend changing any time soon. So we will adapt. I don’t know how, nor how many careers will be abandoned in the meantime, but we will adapt. It’s the only way.

Finally, let's get to some Fences stuff. What I will remember:

-- Viola Davis’s body in a sudden, violent spasm as her character digests some devastating news. Oh my god, woman. Work. (For the uninitiated of my parents’ generation, “work” is a positive remark, derived from “work it” or “work it, girl,” commonly used in response to a person literally or metaphorically strutting one’s stuff on the catwalk.)

-- Chris Chalk’s kinetic leaping about the set as the adolescent Cory – an apt choice that, in addition to conveying his character’s youth, connected him physically to his surroundings and conveyed a sense of belonging to the home and yard around him.

-- Stephen McKinley Henderson anchoring the stage with grounded energy at the top of the show, when both Denzel and the applauding audience are forced to cope with the magnitude of Denzel’s stardom.

-- Finally Denzel Washington, who balanced an honest compassion for and honest judgment of his character, Troy Maxton, in Troy’s most unlikeable moments of the play. A less rigorous actor would be tempted to win the audience’s approval, either by evoking sympathy for Troy or subtly conveying a personal condemnation of him. Denzel does neither. His performance in those moments remains consistent with his portrayal elsewhere, and in this way he allows the complexity of August Wilson’s protagonist to shine through.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Everyday Rapture

Performance Date: 06.02.10
American Airlines Theatre

Everyday Rapture was completely up my alley.  I wanted to take Sherie Rene Scott home with me in my pocket.   A little pocket-sized, funny, utterly charming, sprite-like, adorable, self-deprecating, Broadway semi-star (her words) to pull out at work and put on my desk so she can sing Mister Rogers and Judy Garland songs and keep me company in my cubicle.  And then I can gaze upon her tiny sparkling eyes and her bouncy long hair, and make her tell me again about growing up half-Mennonite in Topeka and meeting a magician at the TKTS booth on her first trip to New York City.  And she can skip about the tiny stage I will make for her out of post-it notes and my paper clip caddy and her presence will remind me of four-leaf clovers and confetti.  It will be our little secret here in this grey office building in Midtown and my days here will pass like easy water flowing in a green-banked brook. 

Not that I’m writing my blog at work.

Everyday Rapture is an autobiographical one-woman musical that does indeed feature Mister Rogers, Judy Garland, four leaf clovers, and magic.  But it’s also an honest story about paradox, about struggling to move forward in life when your world view contains a vital contradiction that holds you in place – which, if you think about it, is probably something to which you can relate.  It’s one of those great, personal pieces of theater that works because the more specific someone gets in describing the truth of his or her life, the easier it is for someone listening to identify.  

Many times in the show, as she’s telling her life story, Sherie Rene Scott would have these moments where she looked like she was figuring something out.  A hesitation coupled with a puzzled frown.  A glance away followed by an intake of breath.  Those moments endeared her to me.  They made her story accessible to me.  Because in that hesitation and frown, in that glance away, I immediately recognized the quiet focus that comes over you when an important realization is just on the edge of your consciousness.  And in the intake of breath, I recognized the dawning of that realization.  I more than recognized these things.  I felt them.  I felt them with her.  And when that sort of thing happens, then this one woman’s specific, unique story of growing up half-Mennonite in Topeka lives in me for a moment.  It becomes my story, and the story of the person sitting next to me, and the story of the person sitting next to him.  Specific becomes universal.  Entertainment becomes personal.   

What’s interesting to me is that while those moments of realization were absolutely magical to me as an audience member, as an actor I also recognized them as technique.  In fact, I’m willing to bet that Sherie Rene Scott has those exact same moments of realization, with those exact expressions and movements, every evening, in every performance, at exactly the same points in the show.  Which doesn’t mean she’s faking it, by the way.  When you’re good – meaning you know exactly what you’re doing and you have strong access to your emotions – you can replicate a physical gesture day in, day out and honest emotion will come to you every (or nearly every) time.  Maybe not at 100% intensity, but it will come.

I think what I might be talking about here – both with my reaction to Sherie Rene Scott and with the ability to replicate moments of emotion on stage – is empathy.  The physical mechanics of empathy.  As in, you see in my face and body a pattern.  Your body subconsciously mirrors that pattern and recognizes it as one associated with a certain emotion.  You then feel that emotion.  So, by looking at me, you can know what I’m feeling.  (I don't know if that's exactly how it works but it sounds plausible, yes?)  So, in this way, I look at Sherie Rene Scott’s frown, glance, and breath and empathize her feeling of discovery.  And Sherie Rene Scott, looking back at some former moment in her life, mirrors the frown, glance, and breath of that moment, and she too experiences that feeling of discovery.  She empathizes with some past image of herself. 

Is that what acting is?  Empathizing with some past or imagined image of yourself?  Hm.  Well it’s an incomplete picture, to say the least.  But it’s a notion I like nonetheless.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Three Sisters Come and Go

Performance Date: 05.19.10

I am writing this near out of my mind with sleeplessness and jetlag, so I beg your pardon if I am a tad incoherent. I had a really fun and restful time at home in SF for Memorial Day, but our flight was delayed coming back to NYC last night and I’m running on fumes. I used to bounce back easier than this.

I wanted to see Three Sisters Come and Go because the description on TDF sounded very similar to an idea my friends Gwynne, Leslie and I have long considered for a future collaboration; namely, to use Chekhov’s Three Sisters as a point of departure for an original piece for three actresses. In the case of TheaterLab, they also added Samuel Beckett’s Come and Go into the mix.

This in itself makes me think of the notion people sometimes have of, Hey they stole my idea, to which the proper response is usually, Nah, they didn’t. I’m a big believer, effectively if not literally, in the collective unconscious. We all share the same world with the same data in it, so it can’t be much of a stretch for the same idea to arise independently and simultaneously in multiple locations. And in this instance, conceiving an original piece for three women based on Three Sisters isn’t all that unusual an idea to begin with.

Perhaps the idea is not unusual, but that doesn’t make it unworthy. I love reimaginings, reconfigurations, and retellings. And from here my brain splits in three directions:

1)    I love reimaginings, reconfigurations, and retellings. And I especially love when several people reimagine, reconfigure, and retell the same material, much as I love when TV food competitions instruct chefs to cook a meal of their own devising out of the exact same list of ingredients. The fun is in seeing what different individuals will do with the same stuff, and the fascination is in learning who those individuals are, or wish to be, through the choices they make.

[Sound of needle scratching off the record…]

2)    I love reimaginings, reconfigurations, and retellings. And in this day and age, it seems I should add “remixes” and “mash-ups” to that list of words, but for some reason I hesitate to do so. I guess because, to my mind, remixes and mash-ups are less artful forms that rely too heavily on juxtaposition to make their new contributions. (That probably offends some great mash-up artist out there, and I welcome him/her to make a rebuttal.) Juxtaposition – even unconscious or random juxtapositions – can be brilliantly effective, but I feel they work best as a spice not as the main dish.

[Sound of needle scratching off the record…]

3)    I love reimaginings, reconfigurations, and retellings. It is a very human act. We are constantly absorbing narratives from others and emitting them anew as our own. My favorite example of this is when I tell a long, funny story from my life and then close with the sincere realization that it actually happened to my sister. Less trivially, absorbing and emitting narratives is probably how we learn to feel less alone (by connecting ourselves to something larger, or to someone else) as well as more unique (by differentiating ourselves from the existing narrative by adding our own particular spin).

And now, in an effort to find some cohesion for these splintered thoughts and my jet-lagged brain, I’ll return to Three Sisters Come and Go. I enjoyed witnessing what these particular artists contributed to the narratives of Olga, Irina, and Masha, particularly because my own brain has spent so much time considering what I would contribute myself. The juxtapositions of “theirs” and “mine” probably fed the creative process for my future collaboration much more than seeing the Chekhov again would have done. I wonder if, in this way, we are all co-authors of some bigger collaboration, to which Chekhov and TheaterLab and, someday Gwynne, Leslie, and Anna, are all contributing a draft. Perhaps that’s what collective unconscious truly is – the all-encompassing narrative of human existence.  We can all tap into it because we all absorb and emit it on a daily basis. Whoa. That got really deep just there. Brilliance or jet-lag? You decide.