I was honored to be invited to speak to the graduating class of 2013 on Sunday, May 19th at the beautiful Alex Theater in Glendale, California. The following were my remarks.
Thank you, Karen [Hensel], for those very kind remarks. The credits were accurate, but I wish that even a tenth of the nice things that you said about me were true. If your teaching is only a mere shadow of the acting ability you just displayed, then these students have indeed been in good hands. I also have to say that I am truly honored to be here to speak to you all today, current students, the distinguished faculty and staff of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and the gathered families and friends who have come to help us all celebrate you, the graduates, on this wonderful day. I am thrilled as well, because in 1932 my grandparents met and fell in love at the New York City campus of this institution. But as I stand here, I’m only left wondering, as I so often am when I’m on stage, who backed out? Who wasn’t available? But let’s move on to more important things.
We all know the saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Good advice, particularly for those of us in the dramatic arts. In a 2012 Wall Street Journal ranking of unemployment rates by occupation, actors were listed as number two, sandwiched in between “textile bleaching and dyeing machine operators and tenders” in the number one slot, and “boilermakers” in third place. The journal somehow has the employment rate for actors listed at 35.2 percent. I don’t know who they’re talking to. Using that statistic, we’d have to say that 64.8% of actors are working and having some measure of success. If we look at the Actors Equity Association statistic, which is, I think, a far more accurate number, we have a 90% unemployment rate. So that means that only 10% of actors are having any measure of success. “Wow,” you must be thinking, “this is a gloomy way to start off a commencement address. I thought it was going to be a little more inspirational than this.” Not what you expected at all, huh? Well, I’m here to tell you that I am undaunted by these numbers, and I think you should be as well. I think your chances of success in your chosen field are infinitely higher than 10%. I think they are infinitely higher than 64.8%. I think they are close to one hundred percent, and I’ll tell you why, but first, a little background.
As some of you may know, some of you may not, I grew up in a fairly successful theatrical family. My earliest memory of going to visit my dad at work is hanging out backstage at Broadway’s Booth Theater while he was performing in the hit comedy Luv, by Murray Schisgal. I remember after the show, being allowed to jump off the set of the Brooklyn Bridge into the waiting mattresses, just like my dad did in the show. Really cool. Decided right there and then that I wanted to become an actor. The rest of my childhood was spent on movie sets, and that’s where I learned what an actor’s life is really like. Sure, I learned a lot about craft, about story, about how the rhythms of the day go when you’re making a movie. But I also learned that being an actor is a financially secure career, where big job follows big job follows big job, and there is always enough to take care of your family, to send your kids to private school, to buy the new car that you want.
Then, when my older brother graduated high school just before I entered it, he came out to Los Angeles to pursue his own career, and again, I learned some valuable lessons. I learned that when you get to LA, you immediately start getting guest starring roles on shows like Barney Miller, Happy Days and Hawaii Five-O, and that within a couple of years, you land the lead in a television series. Yet for some reason, all of these incredible lessons about how easy it is to succeed in show business were lost on me. I ignored them all, went to college, went to law school, practiced law for five years, and was miserable. Then I finally gave in, accepted reality. I threw away my wild fantasy of making a living as a lawyer and decided to settle for the safety and security of an acting career. Boy, was I in for a surprise.
Actually, I can’t complain about the trajectory of my career. I’ve been truly blessed, starting out with showcases in New York City, moving up to smaller regional theaters, then to Off-Broadway, then Broadway, all the while slowly but steadily collecting film and television credits along the way. But what was happening inside my head was another story entirely. I knew, although I would never admit it, that if I wasn’t as successful as my older brother, then I had failed. The notion of actually attaining the heights of my father’s career, well, that didn’t even enter my mind, so I was in some sense guaranteed not to succeed. Finally, through enough therapy and self-examination, something I hope you’re taking part in as well, I started to grapple with the idea that I was perhaps holding myself up to a standard too high. Sure, I would tell people that I was satisfied in many ways with my career, which was the envy of many of my friends. I would tell folks that if my dad was a plumber or an accountant, I would already consider myself very successful. So why should I hold myself against the difficult standard of my father’s or my brother’s “success.” I would say all that, but it didn’t really penetrate.
One evening, in 2000, I was having dinner with my older brother, Adam. At the time he was in a very successful television series called Chicago Hope, and he had flown in to see me in the original production of Dinner With Friends. During dinner I mentioned, in one of those rare moments of candor that siblings sometimes have, that I struggled with jealousy over the success he was having. He looked at me and said, “I struggle with jealousy over the success that you’re having.” I couldn’t believe it. I was having the time of my life, mind you. Dinner With Friends was the toast of New York, and I had gotten a Drama Desk nomination, but I was making probably a fortieth of what he was making, and people in the restaurant were recognizing him, not me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’re in a play that just won the Pulitzer Prize. You’re working with one of the best playwrights and one of the best directors in America. I go to work each week and get handed a script, and I’ve got to do it, like it or not. Sometimes it’s a script that, if I wasn’t on the show, if they just offered it to me as a stand alone episode or film, I’d turn it down.” Hearing him say that was a shock to me, and it was the beginning of an ongoing journey to redefine for myself the meaning of “success.”
I knew a young woman who I had recommended for Austin Pendleton’s advanced scene study class at HB Studio in New York. When she was assigned her second scene, she worked with her partner several times, but always delayed putting the scene up. I finally pressed her on the point and asked her what the problem was. She told me her scene partner was terrible, wasn’t doing the scene the right way, and so she didn’t want to put it up, because Austin wouldn’t be able to see her best work, wouldn’t be able to evaluate her properly. I told her, in no uncertain terms, that she was making a big mistake. She was laboring under the illusion that when she got a Broadway show, or a role on a television series, that she was going to be working with brilliant actors. But that’s not always the case. The quality of your coworkers is never guaranteed. You might be working with some of the greats. But these days you’re also just as likely to be working with Snookie.
You see, one of the problems that we are facing in the arts, in our society, at this point in time, is the cult of celebrity. Being rich and famous has become a goal in and of itself, and reality television and the like only reinforce this. Do you want to be on Broadway? The sad truth is that you’d have better odds of getting there by being on a reality show than by studying your craft. But at what price to your own self-respect? We have to guard against that trend, keep fighting the good fight, so that future generations of artists have examples, something to aspire to.
So given this somewhat sorry state of affairs, what do we do with the phrase, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Well, in one sense, as actors, we have to live by it. We have to keep auditioning, keep looking for work, constantly. That will never change. But the challenge that I would like to put to you today is to balance the “try, try again,” with something else: “If at first you don’t succeed, then examine your definition of success.”
What is “success?” One way of evaluating it is by external factors. Other factors are internal. On the external side, it’s clear that so many of us, from time to time, are going to have to find alternative ways of bringing in income. I would encourage you to do so in ways that fill your creative soul, even if they are not what you would be your first choice as an acting gig. I have a friend who is, I think, a brilliant actor. But the world has not yet recognized his talent with the kinds of roles he thinks he should be playing. He has looked on with a mixture of both curiosity and disdain at many of the jobs that I have taken, while he kept donning his waiter’s apron, waiting for something that was fitting for a man of his talents. He is still catering. So don’t fall into the trap of thinking that there is only one way that your creative hunger can be sated. Don’t say, “It’s acting, or nothing.” Creative endeavor will breed creative endeavor, and keeping those juices flowing keeps you better prepared for each opportunity that comes along. Act, teach acting, write a one woman or one man show and tell the stories of your life, direct. Above all, create! It is too easy to fall into the actor’s trap of waiting for someone else to give us a job so that we can be fulfilled. I beg you, don’t give anyone else that power over you.
Many of us are initially attracted to acting because of the charge we get from performing, the pleasure we feel at moving the emotions of others, the thrill of hearing the applause, the attention. For some, it’s a way to find a new kind of home, family, social group. Take the example of my son, He’s a different kind of kid, as I’m sure so many of you are. He doesn’t fit in to any one group. He’s on the Varsity Wrestling Team, but he’s also a writer and an artist. He’s a reader, and a cross-country runner. He’s into fantasy role-playing card games, and into girls, two things that I have tried to explain to him don’t really go together. Then suddenly, because of the insight of one teacher, he was pulled into the high school musical, and now at 15 has just had his first real theatrical experience playing The Man in the Chair in his high school’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone. This was a chance for him to really find himself in a new way, and now the fire has been ignited. I suspect that many of you found your way into the dramatic arts in a similar way. And all of that is great. It’s wonderful to finally find a place where you feel that you belong. But I would like to suggest something to you. The charge you get from performing, the thrill of the applause, even the deep relief and comfort you may feel at finally finding your place in the world … all of that is great. But in my experience, eventually it won’t be enough. All of those ways of evaluating success are centered on what working in our field will do for you. I want you to think about something else. I want you to think about what it can do for others.
Another way to look at “Success” is to break it down into three categories: There is Work, there’s Recognition, and there’s Livelihood. And for each of these, there is a dark side and a light side. Let’s look at work.
There is steady work, and there is work that feeds your soul. Steady work, the kind that you get from a hit television series, can bring incredible financial security. But be careful of this. Remember my conversation with my older brother, where he expressed disappointment at the quality of the scripts he was so often handed. Or my conversation with another friend, who had played the same character for ten years on a police procedural. For most of that time she was bored out of her mind, and now she confesses to me that she thinks she has forgotten how to act, and is terrified of auditioning.
The other kind of career, which may not bring in mountains of money but which pays off in other ways, comes from developing relationships with your peers who are up and coming, as you are. You can experience the wonder of working on new plays, independent films. It may not be for much money, but you can be working with the newest, the best, the brightest, out there on the cutting edge, without the worry of getting fired by the network or the studio if some bean-counter’s bottom line is not met.
Let’s look at recognition. There is fame, and there is the respect of your peers. As to fame, what the heck does that mean, other than getting a table at the hottest new restaurant without having to go on a waiting list? But the respect of your peers? Talk about a thrill. You might not be the one who is getting hounded for autographs, but when Helen Mirren or Anthony Hopkins wants to talk to you after they see you in a show because they were impressed with your work — that’s something that you will carry with you for the rest of your days.
Finally, there is livelihood. There are riches, and there is enough to get by. Again, that big house starts to feel pretty cold and empty if your heart is not filled by the work you do. Nothing beats going to bed at night tired and satisfied, knowing that what you did during the day fed your soul, and lightened the load that someone else was carrying.
Remember above all that we are tellers of stories, and that the stories we tell have the ability to profoundly affect the lives of others. I, for one, know all that I need to know about how things don’t work out. I think the rest of the world is suffering from the same malady. In my work, what I want to do is talk about other things. I think often of the list that William Faulkner enumerated in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, a list of the only subjects worthy of artistic endeavor: They are love and honor and pity and pride and courage and hope and compassion and sacrifice. As actors, we have the chance to to live in, and share with others, an imagined universe, an alternate universe, a universe where these are the qualities towards which we strive. My challenge to you today is to worry not about whether you are successful in a material way, but whether you are successful in your attempt to make that imagined, alternate universe a reality.
Break a leg on this quest, and congratulations.
Being a record of my journey as I undertake a new role that, unlike many others I have played, fills me with a sense of immense challenge and a promise of growth, both as an actor and a seeker.
Facebook status, February 11th, 2013: What an amazing first day of rehearsal for The Whale, at South Coast Rep. A wonderful director, incredible cast, great creative team, and an incredibly moving and ultimately inspiring play. So thrilled to be a part of this production.
The first day of rehearsal at South Coast Rep is always so exciting. It starts with a meet-and-greet in the Argyros Theater, where we will be performing. The artistic and managing directors welcome and introduce the playwright, cast, and creative team to the assembled staff at the theater, all of the many people in the different departments that make a huge organization like the Rep run. The director says a few words, and the designers, costume, set, and lighting, present their models and sketches, describing the concept for the show. Next, the cast retires to the rehearsal hall to elect an Equity deputy, sign contracts, and take care of other administrative business. Then a big crowd, all the folks from marketing, wardrobe, props, and other departments, gather to hear the first reading of the script. This reading is somewhat more a performance than part of the rehearsal process proper, to give those assembled a feel for the tone and energy of the play. After that read-through, there are many congratulations and declarations of what a great show this is going to be. Finally, all depart, except for the director, playwright, stage management team, and the actors, and we are left with the small group that will spend the next three weeks in this windowless basement space, getting to know this piece, and each other, intimately. We read the play again, without the pressure of an audience, stopping, discussing, beginning the process of dissection. At the end of the day, we join the rest of the theater staff again to relax at a social gathering on the patio in front of the theater, snacking, drinking soda, beer, or wine. The next day we return to begin our work in earnest.
Facebook Status, February 13, 2013: Ah, those wonderful first days of blocking a show, when you realize that you have completely forgotten how to act, and you know in your heart it will never come together. Thank God I’ve been through this enough to know that this is only a phase, a necessary part of the process, when we dismantle the whole thing so that we can put it back together, whole, complete, alive. What a great team we have on this journey.
The first week of rehearsal I am struggling through a big learning curve. I’m trying to track the downward spiral of my (Charlie’s) health, working on wheezing and shortness of breath, trying to figure out how to keep that going without hyperventilating or damaging my voice. How do I realistically represent someone who can’t get any breath, and still make sure that I am heard in a 336 seat two-tiered house? I’m trying to understand the symptoms of congestive heart failure, so that I can make my physical symptoms and limitations as specific as possible, rather than projecting a general portrait of someone who just feels lousy all the time. Where does it hurt? How much? When? The theater connects me to two doctors who give me some insights, but this presents an additional wrinkle. Some of what might be authentic has to be expanded or modified for dramatic purposes. What is realistic doesn’t always tell the story in the best way.
Facebook Status, February 14, 2013: This is exactly how I feel, every time the stage manager says, “Okay, let’s take ten.” (This post is linked to a video, illustrating the feeling.)
I am working in the prosthetic suit, which I refer to as my body, for half the rehearsal day period each day. That’s about 3 hours, or just about as long as the ice packs last in the cooling vest. Getting into the suit is an ordeal, but it’s getting a bit easier each day as we practice. The suit itself is such an amazing, intricate piece of design, it deserves another post all to itself, but that will have to wait until after the show opens, so that we don’t spoil the “reveal.” For now, suffice it to say that wearing the suit in rehearsal is exhausting, but necessary. The prosthetic becomes the obstacle through which I am struggling, instead of my having to pretend that there’s an obstacle. The first time I sit down on, and then try to get up from, the couch on the set, everyone watches. “Wow, that was fantastic,” they say. “It looked so realistic, like you were really struggling.”
“Really?” I reply. “Because I was just trying to get off the couch.” I love it when props and costumes do the work. I’m fundamentally lazy, and then I don’t actually have to “act.”
At the end of the first week, the cast comes over to the home of my friend Mitch Cohen, where I’m crashing during this production. We throw some steaks on the grill and have our first chance to relax and bond outside of rehearsal. Mitch is a former student of mine from the South Coast Rep conservatory. After he took my class, I coached him for an audition for a role that he really, really wanted to land. I’m happy to say he’s in rehearsal himself right now for a production of Brooklyn Boy at Newport Theater Arts Center. When I got The Whale, he told me I should stay with him to save myself the commute back and forth from LA, and also so we could spend time helping each other learn our lines. It’s good thing he made the offer, because this play is the most rigorous I have ever done. Staying with him gives me the luxury of focusing on a single-minded daily schedule, as follows:
The last day of our second week of rehearsal. I have been struggling to be off book enough to make it through this without holding my script for any of the scenes. The only one I am sure about is Thursday Afternoon, but that’s only because, although I am on stage, I’m asleep through the whole scene. Which is a good thing. It gives me a breather before the race to the end, which feels like kicking it out in a sprint at the end of a marathon.
Before the stumble-through, I talk to Martin about the plan for the next week. I am hoping to have the chance to do each scene a few times without the struggling for breath. I have been focusing on that so much that I feel that I haven’t fully explored some of the relationships and events enough. The cardiac and breathing problems are happening to Charlie, not something that he is himself trying to make happen. It is the other things in the scene that he is struggling to achieve, things that he wants from the other characters, and I feel that I have been losing track of those because my attention has been split. Martin agrees that we should to do that, but I also realize his wisdom in having me try to tackle the breathing from the beginning, before we take it out to work on the other elements. We need to feel confident that it’s going to work when we put it back in, and the other cast members have needed to see it, because my condition has such a strong impact on their own emotional life.
Acting always involves multitasking, but Charlie requires much more of me than usual. I feels like someone is saying, “Pat your head. Now rub your belly. Okay, now lift your left foot up and balance a plate on it. Now hop up and down on your right foot. Now sing “Una Furtiva Lagrima. Oooops, you’re not patting your head … okay good, but now you dropped the plate.” But we still have two weeks till the first performance. Plenty of time. I’ll get it.
We start the stumble-through, and it goes better than any of us thought it would, I suspect. That is until about twenty minutes before the end, when my hands start to tingle, then go numb, and I am totally lost, with no idea where I was in the story. This is not the normal “What’s my line” or “What happens next?” moment. I am completely disoriented. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I think I was experiencing something similar to what athletes call the “bonk.” We stop for a few minutes, I eat an orange, drink some water. The feeling returns to my fingers, my hands stop shaking so much, and I’m able to refocus and get through to the end.
The first stumble-through, as daunting as it is, is always such a rewarding experience. After pulling the text apart, it is so good to put the pieces back together, as rough as it might be, so that again we can get a sense of the arc of the whole show. For me, in this show, it has helped me to see how I have to pace myself, and also showed me that a lot of the progression of the physical symptoms, and the heightening of the emotional circumstances, will be easier to do when the scenes are stitched together and each element is occurring in context. It also helped us to figure out that there’s got to be plenty of Gatorade around, so that the audience doesn’t have to come back to the theater on another day, to catch the rest of the show.
For more information about this production of The Whale, visit the the South Coast Rep website, and please be sure to sign up for my newsletter.
Being a record of my journey as I undertake a new role that, unlike many others I have played, fills me with a sense of immense challenge and a promise of growth, both as an actor and a seeker.
I sit in a chair in the costume shop, and I suddenly find it a little hard to breath. I am almost overwhelmed with sadness, a feeling of isolation, and a distant sense of a deeply buried rage. I’ve come down to South Coast Rep for a fitting with Amy Hutto and Laurie Donati, who are designing and building what I am calling “my body.” I am calling it my body because, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I don’t want to call it by the more common industry name. I will inhabit it this body to become Charlie in The Whale. To call it by its common name would be to separate myself from myself. I want to be as integrated with this new body as I can possibly be for the next two months.
Laurie and Amy have done the preliminary work on the innermost layer of my body, which is made from Powernet, a spandex fabric which resembles a very thick, strong stocking material. It needs to have a snug fit so that it can anchor the rest of my body. Amy and Laurie are making sure it fits properly before they begin the extensive work of attaching the huge amount of necessary foam and padding. First I don a cotton onesie that covers me from just below the knees to just past my elbows. This can be washed between each performance, which will make life more pleasant, especially for anyone having to spend time near me. This body can only be washed once a week, since it will take two days to dry. On top of the onesie goes a specially designed vest worn by performers playing characters at theme parks in hot weather. It has four large pockets running top to bottom, two on the front and two on the back. The pockets hold large packs of a special gel. The packs are kept in the freezer between shows, and will go into the vest to keep me from overheating during performances. On top of the onesie and the vest goes the innermost layer of my body. Once I have it on, Laurie measures and pins. When that’s done, she and Amy ask if I want to try on a prosthetic suit that they made for another actor in a different play. It’s about a quarter of the size that my body will become, but they say it should give me a preliminary idea of what it will feel like. They help me into it, and I stand for a few moments, getting a sense of this new bulk and shape. Then the feelings begin to flood in. I sit, and hold back the tears.
There’s has been a flurry of other activity this past two weeks as we gear up to start rehearsal. There’s an audition session where I read with the actors called back for the roles of my daughter, my best friend, and my ex-wife. I am not part of the casting decision process, but the next day I speak with Joanne DeNaut, SCR casting director, to find out the results. The actors cast in each of the three roles were the ones that I would have chosen, so I’m feeling very confident about the team being assembled. In addition I have to keep up with my reading list, which is growing instead of getting smaller. Song of Myself has been added. I’m still working my way through Moby Dickalong with the rest of the material, and on some wild tangent I found myself reading The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Don’t ask me why. I also I found time to read the play again, start to finish, in one sitting, since that is how it is supposed to be experienced, all of a piece.
Another fascinating and crucial aspect of my transformation is being handled by Kevin Haney, the man responsible for turning Martin Short into Jiminy Glick, as well as many other projects. I met him at his lab last week, and his team spent two hours taking a life-cast of my head, neck, and shoulders for use in building my neck and facial prosthetics. We’re not going to reveal anything of the full transformation prior to the opening of the production, but without giving anything away I can include some photos here of that first day in the lab, and the resulting life-cast.
At the lab, they clothe me in a large garbage bag, shave my chest, shoulders and back, (yeah, middle-age is so attractive), put a bald cap on me, and slather all exposed skin with cholesterol, which will stop the casting material from sticking to me. Then they begin to trowel liquid goo over me from the top down, covering everything but my nostrils. Before beginning the process there was much concern that I might be claustrophobic, and they tell me that they’ll be checking in with me, that I have to give them a thumbs up or thumbs down. Apparently some people freak out when they’re encased in the quickly hardening goop. I assure them that I’m actually the opposite of claustrophobic. In fact, at one point in the operation, I cause some consternation to the team because I stop responding to their queries. The problem: I have fallen asleep.
When the team is done with the layers of goop, they cover it in quick-setting plaster bandages, the kind used to make a cast for a broken limb. It will act as a casement to hold the flimsy-floppy rubber mold when they use it to make the bust, or positive, that they will use to build the prosthetics. That’s when things get interesting. I thought plaster dries. But it doesn’t. It hardens as a result of a chemical reaction. And as everyone knows, chemical reactions generate heat. No one has told me this, and towards the end of the session it starts to heat up, very quickly, inside my cozy little head case. I start to wonder just how much and how quickly the heat will increase. But I trust Kevin and his cohorts, and before my brain is baked, they pull off the plaster cast, and cut off the rest of the mold. The whole thing takes two hours, with only about forty-five minutes in the dark.
The next day I return to the lab, and get to pose with my bust. It’s strange feeling, to look at this replica of me. At first I’m a little disoriented, thinking there’s something off with the image. Then I realize that I’m most used to seeing my reflection in the mirror. Now it’s reversed. Or not, depending on how you look at it. I’m back at the lab again a few days later to watch as Kevin sculpts layers and folds onto my life-cast, transforming it into an image of what my neck and face would look like with an additional 475 pounds on my frame. It is shocking to see, but also fascinating, and I return to the lab often over the next several days to watch as the process continues, and as his assistants work on other elements of the piece, experimenting with different materials under Kevin’s direction. Making a piece this realistic for a stage production is a challenge. We won’t be able to call “cut,” and have a team there for touchups, and so Kevin is experimenting with some new materials, to give the prosthetics the durability they will need for the run, while still having the enough flexibility for necessary movement and facial expression.
And now, after awaiting the day with much anticipation, rehearsals will start tomorrow. Never before have I had a role that required this degree of preparation even before rehearsals start. It has been in large part solitary work, and I am looking forward to the camaraderie of the rehearsal hall. My next report will be from the front, after we’ve started rehearsal, or as Uta Hagen liked to call it, die probe, from the German word for rehearsal, with its roots in probe, or attempt. That’s where we will push, poke and prod the text, playing with each other in order to discover the hidden meanings and undercurrents of the events and relationships. Like medical students dissecting a body in anatomy class, we will pull the play apart, so that we can learn its intricacies. But unlike medical students, when we are done with our work, we will put everything back together, breath new life into the text, and The Whale will come alive.
Being a record of my journey as I undertake a new role that, unlike many others I have played, fills me with a sense of immense challenge and a promise of growth, both as an actor and a seeker.
My friend Ramsey Moore sits across the table from me with tears streaming down his face. I have just given him a detailed plot summary of The Whale, and clearly it has hit home.
“That’s the trajectory,” he says. “That’s how it happens.” He’s talking about the long-term, self-induced, life-threatening weight gain of my character, the 600 pound Charlie, and he is speaking from experience. When I met Ramsey 7 months ago, he was tipping the the scale at 475 pounds, down from 575. Now at 390, he is well on his way to a more complete recovery from the obesity that threatened his life.
As soon as I took on the role of Charlie, I wanted to contact Ramsey to ask if he would spend time with me. Would he speak frankly about the physical and emotional challenges posed by the weight, and what the journey was like getting there? I also wanted time to just observe what it was like for him to move through the world, which feels so different to him, and poses such different challenges for him than for the rest of us. It took me a couple of weeks to work up the courage to make the call. I was worried that the request would be offensive, too personal. But Ramsey is an accomplished actor and stand up. In our social time together in the past I have come to see that he is dedicated to the craft of acting, and so I thought he would take my request in the spirit with which it was intended: I wanted insight, so that I could portray Charlie with honesty and understanding, honoring the challenges he faces. Ramsey, it turns out, was thrilled to be asked, and we quickly set up an appointment to meet.
At lunch, after telling him more about the plot of the play, I got out my black and white marbled composition book. It has “The Whale” written on the cover, and it has been my constant companion for the past few weeks, and will remain so throughout these weeks of preparation, as well as rehearsal and performance. I have a few questions to start us off, beginning with one that arose in the explorations of the movement of obese people with my children, when we watched videos together: Why is the gait somewhat stiff-legged? I hazarded a guess, and Ramsey confirmed it, but then he went on to an incredible description of the emotional realities that accompany the physical. Then the floodgates were opened, and Ramsey spoke on and on, and I was given a sharply focused lens into this world that I had never bothered to take a look at.
I am not going to talk right now about the details of the many things that I learned in my discussion with Ramsey. I will save that for a wrap-up article after our production closes. This is in order to preserve the power of what he shared for use in the show. One of the things that I have learned, and it has been a long, slow lesson for me, is that as you build the internal life of your character, (which simply starts to feel like your own if you are working correctly), it is crucial to keep that internal life private. More experienced actors that I respect told me this many times in the earlier days of developing my craft, but it took me a long time to believe it, and a longer time to start practicing it. The problem is that speaking of the private, unspoken fears and desires of your character diffuses the power of the internal cues, triggers and currents that you discover. It limits their impact upon you as you work. So it is best not to speak of the gems that you uncover in your digging until you don’t need them anymore. This is hard to do in the midst of what is sometimes lonely work, harder to do amidst the camaraderie of rehearsal, when you so often want to shout “Eureka.” Actors in general love to talk about themselves, and their process, as they are working. Train yourself to avoid this.
My time with Ramsey is a welcome relief from the slow, solitary work that I have been doing the past week, continuing to read Moby Dick, Under The Banner of Heaven, and other articles that I have been finding. I was also pointed in an interesting direction by my younger brother, Jed. I was describing to him a moment in the play when I reveal my true appearance to someone with whom I have only had a relationship on-line. He told me about the series Catfish, which runs on MTV, and mentioned an episode where a couple fall in love on-line, concealing their identities from each other, and the subsequent revelations as the deceptions are pierced. I watched it in my office, otherwise known as Starbucks, and I had my own turn to cry in public. You can watch it here: Catfish, Episode 6. Again, inspiration from an unlikely place.
After our long lunch and discussion, Ramsey and I are feeling pretty somber. Tracing the downward emotional and physical spiral that Ramsey went through, and how it is reflected in the story of Charlie, has taken an emotional toll on both of us. We decide to lift our spirits with some mindless entertainment. We catch a showing of an action movie, ‘cause nothing lightens the mood like a comic book of a film with two-dimensional characters, some car chases and explosions. But I’m grateful that I have a friend in Ramsey, and that he is so willing to share his story, his experience, and his heart. He will be a crucial part of bringing Charlie to life.
You can get more information about Ramsey, as well as watch video of his work and stand-up on his website, at ramseymoore.com. For more information about this production of The Whale, visit the the South Coast Rep website, and please be sure to sign up for the my newsletter.
So there I was, spending the holidays at my father’s house, joined by my children, and also feeling the pressure of the amount of work that I have to do to prepare for this role. I get precious little time with Sam and Abby, and I was loath to cut into that time, so I tried to find a way that I could do my work and include my children in the process in a way that would be interesting and fun for them. What I hit upon was the idea of all three of us watching online videos of people who suffer from obesity, and then discussing and exploring the ways that they move. Sam and Abby were great. They gave focused attention as they watched these men and women struggle to walk, to go up and down stairs, to sit and stand from seated positions. We all spent some time exploring that movement ourselves, and they pointed out many details, offering helpful suggestions and criticism. We found a way to turn it into play for all of us, and I got valuable work done with their help. (I want to point out that play is such a crucial part of what we do. There is a real need to reconnect with our creative child as we create a character, and kids can be a window into, and an inspiration towards, unselfconscious play — witness this dance that my daughter choreographed for the two of us over our holiday, where you can also see how my beard has started to come in.)
Some have suggested that I not worry too much about the movement of the character, pointing out that I will be wearing a very heavy prosthetic suit. My thinking, however, is that it would be a mistake to let the suit do all the work. Certainly it will help. But without exploring the issues these people face, I will simply be moving the way a healthy 175 pound man moves while wearing a prosthetic that weighs somewhere around 50 or 60 pounds. I need to incorporate many other elements. I don’t know all the questions that need to be asked around this issue, but I do know that I need to ask what do my hips, knees, ankles feel like? Why is the gait somewhat stiff legged? I am assuming right now that it is because the musculature can’t support the weight if the knee is bent. These are the issues I need to start exploring, and I know that these details are crucial to a portrait that will have depth and honesty.
On a more humorous note, I received an email from a composer friend, the estimable Michael Roth, who will be working on The Whale. Michael and I have worked together a couple of times, most notably on Dinner With Friends, and now he had this to say: “… my first challenge for the show, far less formidable than yours, but a challenge nonetheless, was to find gay porn sounds for your laptop. Well, a boy has to do what a boy has to do, so to speak. So I have the sounds, ain’t they something, and if it would be useful to you to have an endless loop of it to just play and play over and over again all the time (while reading MOBY DICK for example, as I recall it’s a long book), just let me know — consider it a slightly belated Hanukah gift/early xmas gift. Just wanted to let you know I was thinking of you in my own unique way.”
Ah, the things you never thought you’d be listening to. I got together with Michael a few days after hearing from him, and we went to a movie (the new Bond film — get your mind out of the gutter). Afterwards we went back to his studio, where he played me the two tracks he had selected, as well as a third he had created by mixing the first two together. After all the kidding around, I did ask him to burn me a CD of the three tracks. I need to spend some time listening to them, and I’ll explain why.
I happen to be straight. I have had the opportunity a couple of times to play someone of a different sexual orientation than my own, and it has not been difficult to make the adjustment. Playing Charles Busch’s boyfriend in hisYou Should Be So Lucky, or the confirmed bachelor Uncle Paul in A. R. Gurney’s Indian Blood did not require huge leaps. But I do have to admit that playing a scene in which I am listening to, and aroused by, a sexual soundtrack that will have only male voices, grunts, groans and slaps — that will require some extra focus and substitution for me. We are attracted to and aroused by the things we are attracted to and aroused by, and I do not pass judgment on whatever that might be, for myself or anyone else. But to find ways of being aroused by the things that don’t normally engender that response, that is where the work comes in. Having the audio tracks ahead of time, listening to them and allowing myself to acclimate to them will help me make that substitution. This is a curios profession. You get to do many things you never thought you’d get to do.
"Desire for an idea is like bait. When you’re fishing, you have to have patience. You bait your hook, and then you wait. The desire is the bait that pulls those fish in—those ideas.
The beautiful thing is that when you catch one fish that you love, even if it’s a little fish—a fragment of an idea—that fish will draw in other fish, and they’ll hook onto it. Then you’re on your way. Soon there are more and more and more fragments, and the whole thing emerges. But it starts with desire."
David Lynch, from his book, Catching the Big Fish. True in art, and in life, as well.
“And stop shaving. It will soften the lines around your jaw, give more of an impression of weight.”
Just what I wanted to hear. It’s December 20th, a couple of days after I take on the role of Charlie in The Whale. I have stopped by the office of Martin Bensen, one of the founding artistic directors of SCR. Martin will be helming our ship as we navigate this play.
I am not averse to growing a beard for a role. I had to grow one several years ago, to portray Matt Friedman in Talley’s Folly, and as I look at this photofrom the production I actually think I looked pretty good with it. But I also realize that Charlie, the character I am preparing to play now, doesn’t really care about his appearance, so that means no trimming or edging. I’ll just have to let it grow ragged, particularly down my neck, which it seems will be the most difficult part to deal with when trying to make me look extremely overweight. So I just have to start letting myself look like crap and keep it going for the next few months. Great.
Aside from the facial hair, Martin and I discuss the prosthetics that will be used to put another 425 pounds on my frame. This prosthetic suit has a common name in industry parlance, but I will refrain from using it here. It strikes me as disrespectful not only to those who suffer from this condition, but to the character I am to be playing as well, and I think it is of paramount importance to always come to our characters with respect, kindness, and even love, if we can muster it.
Some have advised me to ask that the prosthetic suit be made as light as possible, but I am of a different mindset. As I tell my students, I don’t want to have to do a lot of acting when I am on stage. If we do our work correctly, then at the time of actual performance, we don’t have to do any work at all. The better our preparation, the more we are able to walk out on stage and simply “be.” To that end, the suit will help me with the physicality of the role, not merely in terms of how I look in it, but in how it restricts and affects my movement. The good news from Martin is that ice packs will be incorporated into the suit. That should help, as I’m told it can get pretty toasty in there. Finally, Martin lets me know that we’ll be dying my hair, and probably my beard as well, as it is coming in almost completely white now, despite my tender years.
Aside from the physical realities that have to be planned for well ahead of time, there is a mountain of source material with which I have to start acquainting myself. To that end, Martin and I stroll over to the office of my old friend Kelly Miller, the Literary Manager at SCR, who will be dramaturg for this production. Kelly has compiled a list of source materials for me, including interviews and articles on the playwright and his own influences. She also suggests Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer, an examination of the origins and evolution of the Mormon Church. For my part, I have already started to read Moby Dick, which figures prominently in Charlie’s interior world, diverting myself along the way with The Book of Jonah and 1 Kings 16-22, which deals with the biblical Ahab. I’m also working my way through The Book of Job, as well as putting some time in with The Book of Mormon. All of this reading will put me in touch with the history, references, knowledge, and themes that work their way through Charlie’s mind, both consciously and subconsciously.
In addition to connecting myself to Charlie’s inner life, I have to figure out how to approach the physicality of the role. I can’t simply say that the prosthetic suit will do all of the work on that front. It will certainly affect how I move, but it will not, I am sure, do the job of making me move exactly like a man suffering from the challenges that Charlie is facing. It will make me move like a man wearing a heavy, binding prosthetic device. I have to start learning about obesity and congestive heart failure, as well as attendant side effects. How will I move? How does it feel to breath? To eat? I’m trolling the internet for information and video (Kelly already sent me some links to a show called “My 600 Pound Life,” on TBS), and reading up on information from the CDC and other sites.
These weeks of research are for me among the most exciting of a new role. They are one of the reasons I chose the profession. The luxury of having a job that requires the exploration of new topics, new fields, the ever changing landscape of our work as we go from role to role, that is one of the greatest rewards of this career. And right now I have the joy of being in the thick of it.
The Whale will be performed at South Coast Repertory from March 10th through March 31st, 2013. Information and tickets are can be found following this link.
Like Ishmael himself, in Moby Dick, I have of late been going through a time of dark humour. It is fitting, therefore, that a daunting voyage has been laid before me. On December 3rd of this year, I received an email from my friend Joanne DeNaut, the casting director at South Coast Rep, containing the following message, somewhat cryptic: “Do you know the play The Whale, by Sam Hunter? I am going to send it to you and I think you should give it a serious read. I’m just saying … (and this is just between me and you). XO, Jo.”
I did not know the play, but I knew that it was on the Rep’s spring schedule, and so my heart immediately set to thumpin’. The prospect of a job is always exciting to me, even before I know much about it. I was already familiar with, and a fan of, both the playwright and his writing, having performed two readings of one of his earlier plays, for theatre companies in New York. Now it appeared I was going to be offered the lead in the West Coast premier of his new play, which was just finishing up a successful run at Playwrights Horizons.
I read the play in one sitting, something I recommend to my students. (See SCENE STUDY STEPS: A Primer for the Amateur and the Pro.) When I came to the end, my impressions were hazy. Certain plays lay themselves open to me almost completely upon first reading. This is not to say that they are simple or shallow. Certainly no one would say such a thing of Dinner With Friends, for example. But if the mind of the playwright is exceedingly simpatico with my own pertaining to the subject matter, the undercurrents of the play are often readily apparent to me. Not so with The Whale. Considering the plot and the main character that I would be playing, it seemed on first read that it should be depressing. Yet for some reason I felt a dense layer of hope lurking in its depths, under some distant thermocline. I was glad for that, as hope is a quality I much prize in work I undertake. I also knew that I could not begin to understand the play at all other than by going through the process of working on it. Even then, perhaps, my understanding would be only partial, as a four week rehearsal process coupled with a three week run does not allow for the deepest exploration of all aspects of such a rich and detailed work as this. And so, armed with the knowledge that the journey would be to some extent incomplete, despite my very best efforts, I immediately called Joanne and told her that I was in. I would be their whale.
Charlie, the character I will be playing, is an on-line teacher of expository writing. The play deals with loss, failure, death, the search for redemption. Moby Dick, The Book of Jonah, Mormonism, homosexuality, estrangement from parents, lovers, and children are explored. On some of these themes and topics I have a multitude of experience, on others a dearth, and so I will be doing much reading and research.
Another of the challenges of the piece is that Charlie weighs in at 600 pounds and suffers from congestive heart failure. In future entries in this diary I will detail how the matters of weight and physical infirmity are to be handled, both by myself with exploration of the physicality and movement, and with photos of the work of the creative team giving support in the way of prosthetics.
For now, I am sitting in Starbucks, reading Moby Dick. I’ve never read it before. I have written a paper on it, at least one, in high school, and perhaps another in college. Listening carefully to lectures and skimming always served me well enough. Now as an actor, assaying a new role, my work ethic is different. Having finally settled on the path that I truly want to follow, I will be more assiduous in my efforts. I hope this diary will prove instructive, as well as inspiring, to my students, and to such others as have an interest in the actor’s craft. I will also note that the style of future entries will not attempt to imitate, however poorly, that of the great Melville, whose words I am now enjoying for the first time.
The Whale will be performed at South Coast Repertory from March 10th through March 31st, 2013. Information and tickets are can be found following this link.
A PRIMER FOR THE AMATEUR AND THE PRO.
Part 2: The First Rehearsal, and Beyond.
You’re taking a scene study class, and getting together with your scene partner to rehearse for the first time. Where do you begin? I am assuming that you have already read the play, at least once. (No small assumption when dealing with people taking a scene study class for the first time; see Part 1 of this article.) You have already done some of your own preliminary homework, thinking about your character’s circumstances, the relationship between the characters in the scene, what your character wants from the other character. You have not memorized the scene, for reasons that will be touched on elsewhere. And now you are showing up at the home of another actor, someone who may be a relative stranger to you, who may have more or less experience than you. How do you proceed?
First, some matters of etiquette. If you are the guest, arrive on time. If you are the host, offer something to drink, water, coffee, or tea. If you need to straighten up, be sure you do so before your partner shows up. You should plan on rehearsing for a specific period of time. I recommend an hour and a half, two hours at the most. Anything more than that in a single session gives, I believe, diminishing returns. You should start working as soon as you get together. Don’t socialize and waste time. You can do that afterwards, if you both want to. But make sure that when you have rehearsed for the allotted time, you are ready to leave, in case your partner has things to do.
Next, just sit together and read the scene. Read it once or twice before you engage in any discussion about it. Read it very simply, with no acting allowed. By this I mean pay attention to meaning and syntax, but don’t put any spin on the words themselves, express no point of view, convey no subtext. Let’s take for example a simple circumstance: A man is asking his wife, “What time are you coming home for dinner?” If we have no preconceived notion of what is really going on in the scene (and we shouldn’t, yet), then you will simply ask the question. It is a simple question, and it calls for a simple response: the time that the wife will be coming home for dinner. Ask the question as a request for that simple information. Later, as you explore the scene, you may have discovered, or decide to try out, different underlying questions that are really being asked with those words. For instance, “What time are you coming home for dinner?” can be read to mean “I know you already told me, but I wasn’t paying attention. What time did you say you were coming home again?” Read another way, it means “You’re always late.” Read yet another way, it means “Are you coming home for dinner? Are you ever coming home again?”
After you have read the scene a couple of times, you can begin to discuss things with your partner. But it is important to note that there are some things the two of you should discuss, and other things that you might want to keep private. First, let’s look at what should be discussed and agreed upon between you.
You need to determine and agree as to when the scene takes place: What is the year, the season, the month? It may be necessary to determine the actual date or the day of the week, if that is something that would have significance. Friday and Saturday night are different than Sunday. Characters in a scene that takes place on November 21st, 1963 live in a very different world than those in a scene in March of 1964, even if the events of November 22nd are never discussed. Other elements of time are important: The hour of the day, how long it has been since you have seen each other.
What is the relationship between the characters? Is it familial, or are you just friends, co-workers? Are you strangers? If friends, how long have you known each? How did you meet, and where?
Where does the scene take place, and how should you set up the space? If the location in the story is under the control of one of the characters in the scene, then that person should have more say about how to set it up. For example, if you’re doing a scene from The Rose Tattoo, by Tennessee Williams, the actor playing Serafina should have more weight in deciding how the set is laid out, after paying due deference to what is in the script. If, however, you are doing a scene from Talley’s Folly, by Lanford Wilson, you should discuss the set up and agree to it with your partner. That’s a location that is not under the control of either character. After you have discussed this, set up your space as best you can in the living room you are in, or wherever it is that you are rehearsing. Do your best to come up with a layout and set that you will be able to replicate using what is available in the class space. You want to be able to transfer your work into the class as easily as possible, and not be in a situation where you are saying, “Well, when we rehearsed it, the door was over there.” Keeping these things in mind when you set up will allow you to focus on the work, and not the logistics. The same should be kept in mind as you determine what, if any, activities you need to be doing in the scene. If the scene requires you to be ironing, as in Tennessee William’s The Magic Tower, work with an iron, ironing board, and shirt in your rehearsals, and then bring them to class. Whether the activities are dictated by the scene, or are activities you have chosen yourself, make sure you have all your props so that you can actually do them, rather than faking it.
Next, you want to divide the scene into beats. Beats in a scene are not clearly defined, so this may take some discussion between you and your partner. With a little practice, you’ll get the hang of finding them. They are the small energy shifts in a scene. A husband and wife enter the kitchen and are making breakfast, exchanging small talk. Then the wife says, “I didn’t hear you come in last night. You must have been very late.” If the play is about the husband’s suspected infidelity, such an exchange will shift the energy of the scene, and there you have the end of your first beat. You will find that dividing the scene into these beats gives you a deeper understanding of what is going on underneath the surface for you.
Next, you want to select a manageable portion of the scene to present in class. This will vary from class to class, depending on how many students there are, and how much time the teacher has to devote to each pair of partners. Initially, you might want to do only three to four pages. Don’t feel it is necessary to do the whole scene. Remember, you’re not there to entertain, but to learn. If the scene is really bearing fruit for you and your partner, you can always work on more of it later. To start, you want to simply spend your energy diving as deeply as you can into a small portion of the scene, really fleshing it out, exploring all facets of it. You will get much more benefit out of it that way then if you do a more shallow presentation of the whole scene.
Now that you have your set, and you’ve selected how much of the scene you’re going to put up, start playing with it. Script in hand, dive in. Get up on your feet, or stay seated, if that’s how you are at the beginning of the scene, and start reading. Start putting action into the scene. Find the activities that you would be engaged in and do them, until something compels you to stop. If you’re supposed to be making salad dressing or putting on a tie, getting undressed or ironing, do so. But never say to yourself, “Boy, I’ve been sitting here a long time. I should get up and do something interesting.” Move, but don’t move until you are moved to. Have an activity to do, but only if it is something that furthers the exploration of the character, and his or her needs and desires.
Test different approaches to the scene. Don’t worry about the right way to do it. Probe it. Try it one time as if you both hate each other, and then another as if you love each other, then as if one of you hates and the other … you get the idea. Try going through it once where neither of you can say a line without finding a way to physically touch the other character, in as justified a way as possible. It might be that none of these approaches is the right one, but each of them will teach you something. For instance, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, George and Martha may be at each other’s throats, it may seem to all the world that they hate each other. But how much more interesting, truthful, real it will be if there are other colors and layers underneath, if there is love underneath, fueling the rage over unfulfilled needs.
Note: A good guide to use as you continue the rehearsal process is Uta Hagen’s list of six steps, set forth on page 134 of her text, A Challenge for the Actor. Examine these questions as you approach the text, and return to them between your rehearsals to confirm, challenge and deepen your discoveries.
Now, as to memorization: This is often the first thing about which theatergoers ask an actor: “How do you learn all of those lines?” and it’s something that many beginning students worry about excessively. Don’t. First, the necessary repetition during rehearsal will take care of much of the learning. But more than that, as you rehearse, test, probe, and explore the scene, you will begin to connect with the needs and wants of your character. Your inner thoughts will start to take shape. You will begin to build what is underneath the dialogue, and then the next line will be that much easier for you to learn and remember, because your desires will be leading you there. Moreover, since you have not slavishly learned your lines by rote, you will not be tied to meanings that you have assigned to them arbitrarily, and you will be more free in your explorations. Then, as you arrive at the meanings that work for you, in the moment, the lines will be learned.
A question I frequently encounter is, “What shape should the scene be in before we put it up in class?” There are differing views on this, and some teachers are happy to work with students when very little work has been done on the scene, guiding them along as if they were engaged in some sort of rehearsal process. I will do this, as well, if by chance there is not much work going up in class that particular week, or if there are students who need a demonstration of techniques for approaching the work. But this is not how I prefer to work, and I think it is a waste of the resources of a good class. The metaphor I use when discussing the issue with students is this: Suppose we were in a carpentry class, and the assignment was to build a table. You go home, get to work with your tools, and at the next class you present me with a beautiful table top, and four finely turned legs. I’m going to look at that and say, “Great. You have a tabletop and four legs. Now, go home, and attach the legs to the table.” The student will then say, “Well, I know that, but what else?” My response: “What else? Nothing else. I don’t know if you know how the proper way to attach the legs to the table, or if after you do, the table will stand after I put a heavy book down on it. And that’s what I need to know.”
Likewise with a scene. The teacher doesn’t know what is in your head, where you’re planning to arrive after all your work and exploration. Neither do you. Only after you have done that work on your own can we really dive more deeply into the scene. Only then can we see if the choices you have made will support the weight of the character’s needs and desires. So work as hard as you can on it. Get it in the best possible shape. Prepare if as if you were going to be appearing on Broadway, or on a live television broadcast. Only then can a skilled teacher take you further than your own imaginings, talents, and skills. That is what you want — to grow beyond the limits of your current vision.
Thoughts on craft and the creative drive.
Like what you read? Subscribe to my newsletter.