High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Insomniac mutterings on "Chosen" and the end of an era

Ok, I absolutely cannot sleep. Apparently my catharsis of pity and fear still needs me to be its bitch for a while, 'cause I'm crying my fool head off.

I am not an Actor. I require and charge each and every one of you to kill me painfully and violently if I ever begin a sentence in with "As an Actor . . . " or anything akin to it. I have done some acting in the past, most of it bad, some of it, I hope, approaching mediocre.

A friend asked me recently how I approach acting. I had literally no idea. I'm not too worried about that, as we're talking a dozen college shows or so, and I was able to draw analogies from what James described: Sarah is an actor who can switch it on and off; James himself is method and needs to live the role to make it work.

Most of the time, it was on/off with me, but the times that I knew I was closing in on mediocre, it was like an out-of-body experience. I'd leave the stage with no sense of how I'd gotten there, whether I'd utterly blown my lines, nothing.

So the real problem with that is, as William Goldman bemoaned when talking about writing the Princess Bride (the one work of his he claims to like), I have no idea how I did it, so it was not as if I could become a better actor by trying to retrace the road to my limited success.

I'm about to embark on a tale that I know many of you have sat through more than once, and I apologize for my Abe Simpson-like ways. This is, unfortunately, one time when I want to journal more than to be live. One of the most difficult roles I ever played was Anna in Pinter's Old Times. I could say that Pinter is difficult to do, I could say that the director wasn't very good (she wasn't; she thought cigarette moments were a good proxy for intimacy), I could blame it on the Mormon, but the fact of the matter was that I just wasn't groking a good 50% of my role, which is pretty bad juju when you're in a cast of three.

The basic premise is that Anna goes to visit her old friend and (almost certainly) former lover, Kate, and Kate's husband Deeley. Wackiness ensues. Wackiness laden with Pinterian pauses, but wackiness to be sure. When Kate was around, things were easy enough. Wow the girl. Get the girl. Keep the boy from getting the girl. No problem, that's something I could do even while my lap was on fire. Perhaps especially while my lap was on fire.

But at the beginning of the second act, Anna and Deeley are left alone and there's sexual tension and violence and loathing and wanting everywhere. We could not get it right. It sucked mightily every single time we ran it. On one memorable occasion, the director had us play it as an acting exercise in which Deeley was trying to physically touch Anna, and I had to keep him from doing so without resorting to overt violence. We finished, I knew it was crap, he knew it was crap. We were both frustrated and we turned to the director with the look of children who had threatened to vomit up liver if forced to swallow it and were now prepared to deliver on it, and the director said, quite calmly, "No, that was date rape. Shall we try it again?"

The first 10 minutes of Wrecked, Episode 6.10 of Buffy, if I'd ever had delusions of being an actor, they were gloriously beaten out of me, and I wouldn't have had it any other way. Method, on/off, writing, directing, whatever. It was all there. I was, and remain, chastened and bowed by the best "morning after" scene in visual art.

I've also done some directing and in the course of it discovered why it's pretty much crack to a certain kind of person --- the kind I happen to be. It's like Live-Action Role Playing with literary analysis. You can toss things around in your head, and you have pet people who can play them out and see if you're talking shit or not. And if it happens that you are, in fact, talking shit, there is no inconvenient text to document it, just an endless series of blank slates stretching out before you.

Double bonus (or heroin + crack, depending on your point of view and whether or not it's tech week), of course, is that directing is, ideally, seminar, not lecture. Analysis through conversation is, to me, infinitely more satisfying than analysis by dictate (I'm a born pull media gal). Your pet people are sapient, not Fisher Price people. Feedback on shit talking is both actively given and passively observed --- the director can see that the actors cannot make this work and the actors can illuminate where the analysis is falling apart or how it can be made to work with further exploration. It's this kind of pull that moves both director and actor beyond the limitations of the text. I've directed well-written text pretty badly, and I've had some of the truest, most fulfilling moments for me and for actors alike when making something out of a truly nothing text. Like I said. Crack.

Anyhow, what's this got to do with Joss, Buffy, and why the hell I'm currently watching the sun rise over beautiful Lake Michigan? I'm afraid my unspoiled lovelies overseas need to avert their eyes now.

The Scene. The core four and what may be the final moments together for the characters and what are, assuredly, the final moments together for the actors. No potentials, no lovers, no rivals, no planning, no preparation, no last-minute arrangments. This. Is. It. This is the time for goodbyes.

How the hell do you write that absolutely necessary scene into the middle of an apocalypse? How the hell do you direct it so that it doesn't suck massively? Go, Go, Gadget Beckett. Jesus H. Christ, the clouds broke, and my guts opened. Opened as a consumer of the art, not currently caring what I'm being fattened up for; I want these four to have their group hug and to say all the things they've left unsaid, even if, literarily speaking, that imprints the kiss of death upon them, I craved it at that point. Opened as one who has aspired to create, on however small and gimpy a scale, and realizes just how much they suck and will always suck because this is how it should be done and it would never have occured to my pea brain to do it.

I know I'm a freak. I've never in my life cried at nature, but the first glimpse of Chicago from the Skyway, with the rustbelt all around me chokes me up everytime. I could die a happy woman if I never saw another of Monet's freakin' waterlilies, but just thinking of four people standing on a darkened set has me weeping for the beauty of it, and this is only partly the fact that the sun's up now, and the antihistamines kicked in a good long while ago. Good god, that's a lot of shake.