Friday, July 14, 2006

My Physical Instrument

A few days before the closing performances of a show I recently did, one of the cast members saw fit to let his cast mates know that he has been listening to their performances, and so took it on himself to make notes for all of us, offering to email each of us the "corrections" to our work, in time for us to incorporate them for our final two performances, "better late than never," as he said. I drafted several emails in response to him, deleting each one, as I swallowed my fury and frustration, since I realized that reacting with heat would be unhelpful. Needless to say, no one else in the cast much appreciated his "help," either; not at the point when we'd finally become comfortable on stage and deserved to enjoy the hard work we'd put into this show, for better or for worse.

My reaction to my colleague interests me most in how it effected me PHYSICALLY. It was like a dart in the side of the neck. A kind of tranquilizer, which I almost felt literally (and I MEAN literally) numb my tongue, vocal aparatus, and breath support system, down to my diaphram. I could feel myself physically recoil at anticipating going back out on stage with someone whom I knew was looking at me not only critically (we all look at each other critically) but as a superior being, looking down on my work, and not engaging with me as my scene partner. I imagined myself on stage looking at myself, my tongue bunched up in an uncooperative, protective knot, my throat tight, my breath high in my chest, in reaction to this guy's poor timing. My body and voice--my instrument--registered the judgement.

My reaction ALSO made me confront the effect I have had on other actors when I have behaved as badly as this particular colleague. Once, during the run of this show, I commented unfavorably to one actor about another actor's performance, it got back to the actor I was talking about, and s/he felt as angry and hurt as I did, at this incident, above. And recently, on this blog, I criticized harshly friends and colleagues in another production across town DURING their run. My comments hurt them and I apologized, but I didn't fully empathize with them until this week. I get it now. Having had a hard little lesson in tact, I hope to find both rhetorical and substantive means to continue honestly discussing local peformance with the goal of helping FREE performers to do their best work, rather than numbing them.


La Foi said...

Criticism can be healthy, but only if it's sought out. I can't believe this dude would "offer" it, as a gift. Criticism is not a gift, it is a tool, best used in the hands of critics, teachers and trusted friends. Since he is none of these, his offer sounds highly inappropriate to me. And, like much casual criticism, based more on his own insecurity than on anything else.

SamA said...

I heard about this. I understand all your emotions and the reaction of another cast member of yours (also not very happy) but as I read the reply above I do see some value to the situation. Theater and art, like life, isn't pretty. Critcisim can be helpful and healthy but it's root is to express an audience members opinion. Yes, even your fellow actors are audience in one way or another. You ask for criticism every time you perform in public. Everyone has a right to yell "Shut up you stink" at actors in the park (it's happened to me a number of times) and the lesson I learned and the gift I got from it (besides some great stories) is the ability to focus among tremendous distraction and to have confidence in the face of opposition. In a theater an audience can sit and sit and not laugh or applaude and you want to hear anything. Everybody is not going to like what you do as an actor. Everyone has an opinion about what great acting is. People will say I don't know much about art but I know what I like. But people have no qualms about telling you what great acting is supposed to be and most of their opinons are different. What you and my other friend can gleen from this experience is that experienced, intelligent people can have no clue as to their own abilities and gifts and that a quick, no thanks I'm good will take care of him as quick as anything else and if he persists I'll look at your notes for me when you get your lines right. You need to stand up for your self and your work. Everything can be improved upon. My basic response when I was a younger actor was I know, I'm working on that. I was amazed that directors had so few notes for me. Be your own worst critic, and David I think you are, and remeber to hear the good about what you do as clearly as you hear the negative.
Sorry to ramble on, but one more point. If an actor is taking such copious notes about all his fellow actors, my advice would be that he needs to focus more on what he is doing. Break a leg and we'll see you again tonight. Party of 6.

David Loftus said...

I think part of what Sam is saying is that you can't change, or sometimes even have an effect on, what other people do, so you have to concentrate on what you can do. Responding with anger would have been, as you intuited, a very negative attempt at the former. When you encounter such actors, probably the only thing to do is the minimum necessary to get through the rest of the production -- courteously and professionally -- and pray like hell to whatever gods you can scare up that you never get cast in another show with that person again.

David said...

Dude, this is a small town.

paulmonster said...

See, I've always found that overwhelming violence solves all sorts of problems, particularly ones like these. Just ask yourself, "What would Mr. T do?"

SamA said...

or Mr. McB?

brooney said...

Although I haven't visited in a while, I wanted to add one little comment to this string.
Having received the same offer, I wanted to be sure it was understood by your readers what the offer was.
The actor offered notes on our treatment of the verse - I don't believe any acting notes or character notes were implied - simply the rhythms of speech. Also, this actor has studied verse quite extensively and probably is considered by some to be more "expert" than others, and the director did set the actor up to feel that he was a sort of "verse coach" for the cast.
Granted, the offer came at a very inappropriate time, and the tenor of the email was a bit "holier than thou".
In the end, I had asked for my "verse notes" and they were never forthcoming! I actually was quite interested in finding out how a verse purist viewed my treatment of the Bard's words - curiosity killed the ego, eh?