Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My big peeve!

If we have had any lengthy conversations about the theatre lately (and especially musical comedy), then you have already heard my rant - if not, well, I thought I would put it all down in an effort to "let it all go."

Over the past several years, agents, some casting directors, and yes, even some directors I have worked with, have begun a frightening mantra that seems to be a trend these days.  It is simply this:  "You're too big; that's too much.  It needs to be smaller, more intimate...more REAL!"  

Excuse me, did you just use the word REAL in a sentence that refers to me on the stage in a musical about fish?  So why this shift in today's theatre from what was always something more than...outside of...and yes, "LARGER than life," to small, motionless, deadpan and real?

I will tell you my thoughts...of course.  It is film and tv acting and the technology of film and television trickling down like Reagan's economics into the world of the theatre.  And let me make this clear.  We are not talking about a 20 seat theatre with two actors in an intimate moment - but even if we were, I would still argue that theatre is by nature, presentational and isn't it the audience who has paid to see the performances and characters that we have created? If, as actors, we are just doing the work for ourselves and our directors, being as REAL as possible, I believe that is a disservice to paying audiences everywhere - they may not always understand, but if they don't see it because we are speaking upstage all the time and don't hear it because we are whispering, then they CAN'T understand it.  Ultimately however, I am talking about musical comedy, big characters, and to use my example above, sometimes we are talking about FISH in big theatres! And yet the response is the same, over and over again from a great number of industry in today's market.  Now, I get the agent thing.  They are looking for actors that can BE small and more refined with voice and gesture because their commission is in television, commercial and film NOT the theatre. If you can't bring it down for camera work where the close-up is right on your face and the boom mic 5 inches from your head, it ain't gonna fly.  I get that.  But musical comedy?  Really? Come on folks.  What is up with that?  This idea that only small and intimate is truthful is just nuts - ever watch the sitcom Alice?  Those are some big characters but I believe every minute of it because it is rooted in truth.

Now if this was just about me, you might say, "well, you are Mr. Vaudeville...maybe your time has passed." But in discussing this with a multitude of trained, experienced and frustrated actors lately, it appears that it has become the new text for a lot of industry folks and I have seen and heard examples of it outside of myself.

The days of the fourth wall, exaggerated expression, vocal projection, (what is now called "indicating"),  three-quarters front...those days, of you know...acting, seem to be over for a great many who hold the creative authority on many projects.  Or, at the very least, they are using this mantra as a lazy and unspecific way of communicating to actors -  "we don't want to work with, use, or hire you, and we don't have the time to be more specific."  I wish the latter were true, but I fear, having spoken to younger actors, and directors, that the training is moving in that direction and most say, it is a direct reflection of film and tv and techniques developed for that style of acting.  More intimate, more real, less concerned with the audience and what they will see (after all they should be able to hear it since everyone is wearing mics!).

This, I will tell you, is not only extremely annoying, it is disheartening.  I have three stories and then I will draw this diatribe to a conclusion.  

The first took place a couple weeks ago when I had the good fortune to see MARY STUART on Broadway.  At intermission the group I was with (which included two actresses - one of whom has been in the biz as a professional longer than I) asked if I was enjoying it.  "I am so frustrated right now," I said.  There were looks of dismay and confusion.  To which I said, "It is so brilliant, so amazing, and this is exactly what acting and theatre should be, and yet today, so many with the power-at-hand would think this "too big...too much...over the top acting."  And it immediately began a conversation about the mantra and the bullshit that is now being preached in classes and auditions and rehearsals.  All of you industry folks...go see it and take note:  THOSE are some larger than life, indicating, big-ass performances that are rooted in character work and certainly not intimate or small and most are heralding the work as brilliant! Now industry folks would NEVER say anything negative against two amazing and heralded actresses from London, but deep down, they know, that if an actor came into a class or an audition, and did a monologue from that show, like it was done in the production, they would say, "STOP!  That is way too big, it's not real...why did you indicate with your hand over your head the clouds rolling by?"  I could go on and on but I won't!

The second, is something that happened to me in an audition recently, and while I did my best to follow the requests of the casting director and follow him over any cliff, at the end, I was left hurt, frustrated and completely convinced that there will be less and less work for character actors as the days go by if people continue this ridiculous movement of REAL.  But I digress. The story is this:  I went in to audition for FINDING NEMO, THE MUSICAL.  I won't name names...if you want to know, it isn't that hard to find.  In any case, I walked in, and the accompanist, who seemed to be involved as musical advisor or director, wanted to make sure I knew the music I had prepared from the show.  He played it once, quietly and I was ready to go to my mark in the center of the room.  He stopped me and said, "Wait!  Don't you want to sing it thru with me to make sure you have it?"  I was like, "Sure, that would be great!  I didn't realize we had the time."  We proceeded and he got a glow on his face.  When I finished he said, "Man you have this and it sounds GREAT!  Let's do it!"  I was feeling really confident because I had seen tape on the show and I felt really perfect for Marlin and I knew the music well and had prepared the sides.  I sang the shit out of the music and the casting director said, "Well, it's clear that you can sing it, but you need to be able to act it."  Now I thought I WAS acting it, but clearly he was not happy.  He gave me adjustments which I followed and I sang it again.  He was still not happy.  We began to go over the sides and he stopped me, saying things like, "That's too are indicating...what do you think Marlin is really feeling? need to make it real."  REALLY?  REAL?  I would be playing a clown-fish, and actually I would be holding a rod, that has a puppet fish on the end and moving around the stage primarily presenting my character using my voice and my hands to control the puppet's face and body!!!! REAL? REALLY?  But, I didn't say a word, I just tried to give him what he wanted.  Then he decided he needed to "get in the space with me."  He was Nemo now and I was to keep his attention.  I chased his ass all around the room, had to hold the door to keep him from leaving - it was ridiculous.  The musical director got up and went to the window with discomfort as clearly he knew that the casting director was trying to make a fool of me, and when I left the room, there was a roar of laughter.  Now, in the end, upon reflection, I believe this had NOTHING to do with me being too big.  The casting director was pissed that I had gotten the audition in a "roundabout" way and was gonna make me pay for that.  But my point is, he used that same damn mantra as if telling  me the truth would be too much work, and worse, he didn't consider me when I would have been f'n AMAZING for Marlin.

Finally, (I am sure you are all grateful to see that word if you are even still reading) is an experience that has now happened to me the last three times I have performed in a large venue. I have had a multitude of audience come up to me after performances and say, "You were the only actor I could understand."  Now, in each of those situations we were all on mics, but being on a mic, doesn't mean you can be understood.  You still have to enunciate and project.  You still have to hit the back wall.  You still need to act and be something MORE than real. 

At the end of the day, I am not sure I can be what the industry needs me to be since i am already larger than life in my real life!  Maybe I have passed my time...maybe I was born too late.  The one saving grace, is that thankfully, there still are some casting directors AND a good number of directors who seem to understand and believe as I do, that theatre, especially musical comedy, is, to quote a good friend and director, "faster, louder, funnier!"



  1. Hey P -- appropos of your being "born too late", you should check out this fellow, Travis Stewart, writer and performance artist under the name "Trav S.D." -- stages his own vaudeville revivals and the like, in hopes of keeping those "broader" aspects of theater alive:

  2. There are too many things one can say here.. Here are some benefits to "acting" over "being real" (by the way: there's no such thing as "being real", either on stage or on camera-- more on that later). If you act, rather than "being real", "giving in to the moment" or other such crap:

    - You don't do the entire show facing upstage (as you said, Patrick), and so the audience gets to see you.

    - You don't whisper the entire time, so that the audience gets to hear you.

    - You make sure to inunciate more than one would in everyday life, and so the audience gets to understand you.

    - You remember your blocking from one night to the next, so that you don't throw your scene partners.

    - You remember your blocking from one night to the next because, hopefully, that particular piece of blocking is, actually, good-- better, in fact, than many other options-- so it makes for a good show. (Note: in these last two points I'm not implying that improvisation is no good.)

    - You are not in danger of hurting yourself or someone else by getting carried away by emotion in, say, a very violent or heart-wrenching scene.

    ... and so on.

    Now, this deception about "real":

    - If it's on stage, it ain't real. You have rehearsed it, someone selected you to play it, you have memorized it, someone wrote it, people paid to see it, they are (usually) sitting and watching you perform it, and so on and so forth. Um... what of all this is "real"-- in the sense of it being everyday? It's real enough, of course, but only as an artistic event, not as an everyday event!

    - If it's on camera, it ain't real, either! MTV's "The Real World" was not real. Is it that common that a bunch of folks of way above average looks get to spend weeks in a way above average pad? Today's "reality" shows ain't real, either (whether they're any good is a subject for a different rant:) These aren't "real" people up there. They're simply people without training as performers. However, who do you think gets selected for, say, "Wipeout": the guy who's average looking, of average intelligence, not loud, not a flashy dresser, and so on, or the guy who is willing to make a fool of himself by, let's say, wearing something ridiculous, or putting on a ridiculous persona (yelling too much, or talking too much trash, or whatever), and so on? Movies and TV shows ain't real, for many of the reasons I mentioned in the previous point about the stage.

    - The subject matter of plays or movies usually is not real-- at least in the sense that it's not average. It may be real in the sense that it may happen in real life, but it's definitely selected and uncommon. Let's say that out or 1,000,000 people on any given day, 900,000 went to work, 90,000 cleaned their house, 999 read a book/watched a movie or tv, and one committed mass murder; which story is more likely to get selected for presentation on stage or screen?

    Now, how about this: when you go to the doctor, do you want someone who has an MD, or someone off the street, a regular guy or gal like you? When you have someone do your taxes, do you want someone with financial education and knowledge of the tax law, or, again, someone off the street? If you answer not "someone off the street", then why are we treating acting differently? Why are we putting more and more "real" people on stage and on screen, or are we asking the professionals to act like "real" people? Let's imagine this conversation with your oncologist:

    You: Hi Dr. Stevens. So, what do you think?

    Dr: Well, you may have anaplastic large cell lymphoma. We did notice abundant cytoplasm, which is a strong indicator, but to make sure, we need to...

    You: Wow, wow: hold on! I don't get any of that. Can you do it again, but more real? Imagine you're my friend Sally, the nanny.

    Dr: Um, you have a booboo. We'll try to, you know, like... zap it.

  3. An example from architecture: the columns of the Parthenon look straight and parallel to one another. And yet they're not quite that! I'm not sure I understand exactly (and I certainly can't explain adequately) the effect, but it's something like this: the Ancient Greeks designed and built the columns in a non-straight, non-parallel manner so that they will appear straight and parallel. (Roughly, the columns bulge gradually as they rise, so the top is fatter than the bottom) So, what looks "real" in the final product is actually very artfully and "non-realistically" crafted. If I, a "real guy" as far as architecture is concerned, had designed the thing, I would have made all lines straight, and the temple would have looked crooked or off somehow.

  4. Thanks DB...I know you and I shared a lot about this thru emails and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts here.