Sunday, March 12, 2006

Mea Culpa, Take III

I'd like to clarify something. I've never believed--or said--that just BEING in Portland makes actors worse, or that by living in Portland, one is per se not a serious actor. Far from it.

But, I do think that too many Portland actors unwittingly collude in producing a local acting style that obscures talent and makes truly engaging performances more rare than they ought to be. There is a lot of 'pushing' on Portland stages--and not a little yelling--which feels like a local mannerism, to me. When an actor who has worked a lot elsewhere performs in a cast made up of mostly locally-trained and locally-experienced actors, this insistent pushing is most visible (one, small company from which I see this kind of pushing much less often, is Defunkt.)

I've heard many experienced, local theater people attribute the less satisfying acting in Portland to weak directing, a point on which we'd all probably agree, for the most part. I've also heard, many times, blame put on the unavailability of good training, locally. Everyone gets a little Stanislavsky and Uta Hagen--that is, they know what a "beat" is--but too few work to develop their physical and vocal instruments. Again and again, I go to shows in which I strain to understand the actors through poor diction, fuzzy and weak vocal production, and insistent physical habits--e.g., there's a lot of 'turtle acting' out there, people sticking their necks way out in front of their bodies, arms stiff at the sides (again, I'm as guilty as the rest.) Some dedicated voice work and a few dance classes would go a long way, for many of us.

I also believe Portland actors would be well served by seeing more theater in other cities, regardless of the quality of local work. NYC is a $250 round trip air fare on Jet Blue and you can get a room at the Westside Y for $65. Not cheap, but doable, particularly in small groups. Seattle is just up the road. Chicago, Minneapolis, Louisville, are all cities to which Portland actors should be making occasional junkets, one way or another. I ran into a Portland director at the Humana Festival in Louisville, last year. She didn't disagree with me on this point.

I'm not particularly worried about the best of Portland theater, although I still feel not a little frustration, at many ART and PCS productions. At the top of the heap, we certainly have some fine actors, even if they do tend to get over exposed by being cast so often in the most visible productions (my 'willingness to disbelieve' gets frayed, when I see the same actors again and again, a problem familiar to anyone who has seen a lot of repertory theater. I was quite fond of the company at The American Rep, in Cambridge, MA, during the eighties, but even they grew tiresome, in time.)

The smaller theaters worry me more. Melissa is right to be thankful for having many community theaters at which actors can get on stage (see her comments below), in the first place (I'm one of them.) And she's right that bad acting is a world-wide epidemic, not a local phenomenon. But, it's the less satisfying work being done at smaller theaters which costs us audiences, in the long run. Recently, I've skipped seeing several shows because I felt burned this fall and winter after spending $15-$25 to see a lot of work that made me wish I were home, watching HBO. I just got fatigued. Truthfully. Has that not happened to you?

Hopefully, this post is more useful than my earlier pot shots. I mean to voice notions that help raise the bar for our work. By doing so, I show Portland actors the respect they deserve by taking them seriously, by expecting their best.

Again, with fondness for all gypsies,



Signore Direttore said...

Well said, David. Saves me from clarifying some thoughts, though since I'm here:
It all comes back to the good being the enemy of the great.
Doing something out of love is wonderful.
Doing something mediocre and shrugging one's shoulders at any suggestion of improvement is deplorable. (Especially at the ticket prices you mention!)


paulmonster said...

Yes, I've seen plenty of work that wasn't great, that wasn't really worth the exorbitant prices. You're right to spotlight the need for training right now. I would venture to add that this dialogue right here is a crucial piece of that training.

As a theatre-goer, the weather-guage I've developed in seeing theatre--of any stripe, in any city--are the honest questions: does this make me want to see/do more theatre? And then, Why?

Seen from this context, all but the crappiest works have something useful to contribute to my own work, and I am relieved of the sturm und drang of stumptown's inferiority and wannabe complexes. It's a conscious choice I must make as an audience member, to see past the dross (and sometimes there's a hell of a lot of dross), to find the worthwhile. But the choice is a crucial one, and, in the meantime, the worthwhile has a funny way of asserting itself all on its own, given the barest of chances.

This formula can be a cop-out without well-wrought standards in place, standards that should be specific only to each individual. In essence, my standards are the theatre-goer's equivalent of "Innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." And, to be sure, there's a lot of work out there that doesn't even pass that muster.

But, armed with this formula, as an audience member I'm finally liberated from the onerous task of being the resident apologist for my colleagues onstage. And then I can start paying attention to the real work at hand.

I applaud your courage in assaying this prickly and sensitive subject. This is an important dialogue for all of us.

cadillac-funky goodness,