Archive for May, 2014|Monthly archive page

May 30, 2014 — Opening Night

In Be(com)ing Nixon on May 30, 2014 at 6:59 pm

I want to begin today with a short discussion of nerves. Wednesday night felt like a disaster for me. Looked at objectively, of course it was simply that I missed a couple of lines felt out of sorts and not quite in character for the whole rehearsal. But for me it was a meltdown.
It is my sincere belief that every actor who is at all conscious of what he is doing gets nervous at some point during the process. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. First of all, nervousness is an honest and natural response to stress and to risk. Every performance carries some risk, of course; some possibility of “failure,” however the individual might define that. And effective performances aren’t created without some stress. The actor needs to find that point of balance between the self and the character. The more challenging a character is to find; or where the character-self has significant differences from the actor-self; or when an actor is breaking new personal ground, trying a new kind of role, for instance, then the more stressful the process will be. The actor who claims to be unaffected by this stress is, I think, usually giving a less honest performance.
This is partly because of the second point about nervousness. When a person feels nervous, or afraid, the body responds in predictable ways to those feelings. This response is popularly known as the fight-or-flight response. In acting, I call it the technique-dependent/dynamic-engagement response. In either case, it can strengthen a performance by using the physical and emotional responses to the nervousness to generate power in the performance. In the first case, technique-dependent, the actor deals with the nervousness by focusing on proven techniques using the actor’s tools – body, voice, costume, makeup, stage presence – so that the anxiety is overcome. In the second case, dynamic-engagement, the actor channels the nervous energy into the character he has developed; live theater requires a certain largeness of effort to reach across the proscenium, out into the audience and all the way to the back of the hall, and pouring all that that adrenalin and breath and physical tension into the character can give a performance enormous energy and power. Most actors will do a little of both.
But not all actors experience nervousness at the same point in the process or with the same intensity. It’s important, therefore, that the actor should understand his own process and his own experience of anxiety. My usual pattern is to feel very confident and focused during nervous by dress rehearsal, then I start to worry that it will hit me during the run of the show, which really makes me anxious. In any case, my backstage behavior will usually signal a shift in my anxiety level. For instance, I very much enjoy a significant amount of joking around backstage during rehearsals; so if we get to tech week run-throughs and I stop making puns or my humor gets a little strained, and I seem to be pacing a lot more and checking my script every few minutes to be sure of my cues or my lines, then you can be pretty sure that I am reaching my point of greatest anxiety. If I have a night when I am telling everyone how terribly I am screwing things up (just in case they’ve not noticed) then I am probably reaching critical nervous mass and will be fine by the next evening.
That was Wednesday night. It started earlier in the week. Monday I kept going over the same lines backstage; the places where I was suddenly most concerned about making a mistake. By Tuesday night I was forgetting the same five or six lines repeatedly, so I focused especially hard on those and immediately messed up three others. Wednesday, performing completely without a net (no script, no asking for lines), I dropped all the lines I had been worried about and a half-dozen others. I think I shortened the show by at least five minutes simply by leaving out lines and skipping around and putting lines in the wrong places. Okay, it wasn’t actually that bad, but I felt that bad. Backstage, I was telling anyone who would listen, or not, all about exactly how I was screwing up ad how awful it was. It is a testament to the quality of this cast that nobody else was worried and they stepped in as necessary to keep things moving and help me out.
Last night was dress rehearsal. I met with Ben Lawver, who plays Frost, before the call time, and went over key scenes just to run the lines. We did what is called a speed reading, running through certain exchanges rapidly without strong characterization. It went fine. Dress rehearsal came, and the show ran very well. Everyone had their characters in place, lines flowed, the pace was excellent, and we set ourselves up for a strong opening night performance. This is how it’s supposed to happen.
Creating the character of Richard Nixon has been an exciting journey for me. The complexity of the character’s emotional and intellectual life, and his motivations; and the physical manifestation of all those things; have forced me to approach this role in ways that are different for me. My personal involvement with the historic reality on which the play is based gave me biases, for want of a better word, that I had to either overcome or reconcile with the character. Objectively, I think that it can be said that this play is almost more about Frost than about Nixon. But it is the personality of Nixon that gives the drama its center. He is, both historically and dramatically, oversized. That largeness of character is what made his fall from grace a tragedy in the classical sense, and what makes Frost’s quest to do what no other journalist or politician or courtroom had been able to do – get Richard Nixon to admit his guilt – such an uncertain and perilous task.
I think that I have created a character for Nixon that is both larger than life and all too human. I am fortunate to be working with a cast of this quality. Ben Lawver’s Frost seems the shallow showman at first, but finds the seriousness and dogged persistence he needs to expose the human being hiding inside the political façade. Bill Corriveau’s Jim Reston tells his side of the story with a passion that is ultimately tempered with new understanding and compassion. Tom Moody plays a Jack Brennan whose loyalty leads him to protect Nixon even from himself. He is a big man, with a big heart and a fierce devotion, telling Nixon’s side of the story with a passionate defensiveness, whose most difficult duty is to finally let go. David Smith’s portrayal of John Birt and Chris Ruta’s Bob Zelnick balance nicely as the cooler heads in the room as Frost’s team plots their strategy.
I also want to give a shout out to Emily John and Brandon Grant, who play multiple roles with grace and remarkable ease. Never neglect the importance of the characters who stand in the background, have only a few lines, and serve to move a scene or two so that the story happening between the major characters has depth and breadth. Also, a young woman named, whose last name I am ashamed to say I have not yet learned, has taken on the task of understudying a role so that she can fill in for one performance. And I especially want to say how much we all appreciate the hard work of John Loux, who developed strikingly different characterizations for the agent, Swifty Lazar, and the newsman, Mike Wallace, but will be unable to continue in the role. The rest of us worked off his energy in important scenes in the play, and the importance of his contribution cannot be understated.
Carl Mercier has assembled a strong cast and crew for this challenging and exciting drama; and the open, simple, dramatically stark set provides just the right backdrop and environment for the action of the play. I will write more entries as the show goes through the next three weekends. But for now, I invite all of you to get your tickets, gather some friends, and come to see Frost/Nixon.

May 26, 2014: Stepping Back to Forge Ahead

In Be(com)ing Nixon on May 26, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Tech week in community theatre is the week leading up to opening night. The set is completed, the costumes are finished, sound and lights and all the other parts of the production that do not involve actors learning lines and developing characters are finalized. Some actors, directors, designers and tech support people call it Hell Week; but for me it has always been the most exciting week of the production thus far. This is the week when it all comes together . . . or doesn’t. This is the week when all the energies of the cast and crew have to be put toward making the former happen. This is the time when trusting the process becomes especially important. And this is the time when actors begin to be on their own to polish the edges of their performances as the director’s focus shifts to the technical details of the show.

It has, for as long as can remember, been my feeling that tech week is the sprint at the end of the long race. The goal is to hit my stride so that the energy and the level of performance on opening night give me enough momentum to carry me through that first weekend. After that I need to settle into a sustainable rhythm for the remainder of the performances. In order to get there, I have to go back to the basics. I have to get as clear an understanding as possible of where I am right now and what I need to do to get ready for the first performance. I need to ask myself several key questions. What am I doing now that is working pretty well? Where do I still feel awkward or insincere or off-key? If I am repeatedly having trouble with certain lines, why are they giving me trouble; since the character is speaking them, why can’t I? What parts of my performance need to be adjusted to accommodate last minute changes to the set; the reality of costumes and make-up, and the need to make costume changes; to the addition of more specific lighting, specific props, and special effects; and to the continuing development of the other actors’ characters?

I was realizing the other night that parts of my performance were feeling stale to me, that I was losing some of the freshness of my character. Part of this was physical. In developing the character of Nixon as something that was neither caricature nor historically accurate representation, I had found a fairly natural, comfortable and respectful character. The Nixon characteristics of rhythm and speech patterns and small body movements had settled into a way of being that I could live within to find the fictional Nixon’s motivations and emotions, actions and responses. But I was finding it hard to call up that physicality quickly. Nixon is a complex character, not a stereotype or stock, and I felt I was taking too long to work into the character. I was having to start early to walk and talk Nixon so that he would be there when I came on stage for the first scene. Then I remembered that this is where I need to be at the start of tech week. I need to be willing to start, not really at the beginning, but back a few steps, and work one day at a time toward performance.

I’m getting excited all over again to explore this character, to focus on what makes him tick. I’m starting to feel the trickle of adrenalin that will build to a rush by Friday. Nixon is a great character. He is never really comfortable in his surroundings, but is always extremely aware of them. He needs to be in control of his environment, and that need for control is both  exhilarating and exhausting for him. When he feels that control slipping away he digs in and fights back. When feels that he has the control he needs then he becomes somewhat careless, but he can also be cutting, dismissive and vulgar. It can be hard to tell when something he says or does is deliberate and calculated and when it is unguarded and spontaneous. It’s important not to diffuse or ignore this complexity, these contradictions. A Nixon who is all calculation would be a cartoon, one who is all random would be a fool; neither would be honest or believable.

This week is also about figuring out the last nuances of my character’s relationship to the other characters he interacts with on stage. John Loux has the unenviable task, as do several other actors, of jumping from one character to another as he plays several different people, half of them representing actual persons. His portrayal of the agent Shifty Lazar requires him to be the successful but abrasive hustler. When he is dealing with Nixon he is more interested in the hustle than in the President. As Nixon, I need to decide whether I am fully aware of the hustle even as I cooperate with it for my own ends. I only interact briefly with Bill Corriveau’s Jim Reston, the impassionate journalist out to give Nixon the trial he never had. Bill’s energy, the power he brings to Reston, even as the character comes to recognize his own vulnerability to the prestige and status that comes with the Presidency is important in understanding what happens as the drama unfolds. In our brief exchange, Nixon is warm and respectful, disarming. It is always necessary to consider where the politician leaves off and the genuinely charming Nixon comes to the fore. Is Nixon really pleased to make the acquaintance of Reston, who represents the mass of liberal journalists he later dismisses as “sons of whores?” And how does this Nixon feel about characters such as his valet, Manolo, whom he seems to genuinely like and respect but also seems not to really notice all that much?

Two other characters require greater care. Tom Moody’s Brennan genuinely admires Nixon; and is very defensive of him. He is perhaps the only character in the play who sees both the public Nixon, with his real strengths; and the private Nixon with his all his demons. And he loves both of them. Their scenes together should be some of the most powerful and revealing of the play. When Nixon is with Brennan he feels safe enough to say who he really is. And Nixon’s scenes with David Frost are, of course, central to resolving the core conflict of the play. Ben Lawver’s Frost treads carefully the line between the shallow showman whom nobody takes seriously as he pursues the elusive Nixon and the driven personality who eventually confronts the former President about his accountability in the Watergate scandal. Nixon underestimates Frost at first; but without a growing sense of real warmth and empathy between the two men the play will seem contrived and dishonest.

And it is important this week to avoid getting too distracted. This is the time when I need to find the triggers that will help me focus on what’s important. Carl Mercier has given his actors great freedom to find their characters without only a nudge here and there to move them in the direction of a unified ensemble performance. As he puts the finishing touches on the technical aspects of the show, we need to go with the flow, staying true to our own characters as they inhabit the changing landscape of the production. I need to understand the larger picture so I can find my place in it.

So now it begins. The first phase of rehearsals is over. This is both an extension of that work and a something new. The energy is different, the tasks are different, and the goal is sight. We open on Friday. Now the fun really starts.

May 19, 2014 – Starting to Feel the Pulse

In Be(com)ing Nixon on May 19, 2014 at 7:11 pm

In every production cycle there is a point the actor needs to reach where he can begin to feel as though the role (and the whole production) is starting to come together. For me, this happens when I finally get about 90% of my lines solidly in my head. At that point I am, for all intents and purposes, “off book.” I can get through an entire rehearsal, a full run-through of the play, and only have to ask four or five times for a line.

Getting off book allows me to do a number of important things, the first of which is begin to integrate the more subtle physical characteristics of the character with what the character is saying. Without a book in my hands, I can gesture more naturally; I can relate to other characters and the stage environment without looking down at the book repeatedly, thus breaking the character’s natural focus; and I can sit down and stand up without worrying about where my book is at any particular moment. The fact of this may seem obvious, but the impact on my process always seems profound. I am always amazed at how much more of the set I am interacting with, at how much I discover about the character through the addition of subtle movement and gesture, after I begin work without the net that the script provides.

The character of Richard Nixon benefits from this greater freedom. Watching the historic Nixon on tape, I am often struck by his small non-verbal behaviors. People of my generation are familiar with the popular images of Nixon looking out from under his bushy eyebrows, the “shifty” eyes glaring defensively, the bulldog shake of his jowls, and the hunched shoulders. These are, of course, exaggerations; but the actions are, in fact, all there in subtler, more natural form. Nixon had a habit in thought or concentration of pressing his lips together and clenching his teeth, for example; an expression that is especially interesting when he is smiling at the same time, or seeming to, often at odd or inappropriate moments. I had started to think about where I might be able to use this expression, but was having some difficulty finding the right moments. In the rehearsal the other night, with the book out of my way, I suddenly realized that I was finding those places naturally.

Part of the reason for this discovery of character that comes so quickly once lines are learned, I think, is that the character is able to think in a more natural way about what he is saying. In the real world, there is a thought process involved in all our actions and expressions. Sometimes we may take more time with that process than at other times, but it’s always there. One of the actor’s most important tasks is to find that process in the character, so that words are being created, not just recited. To help maintain their suspension of disbelief (the “agreement” that what is happening on the stage is real), the audience needs to see that the characters are engaged with their own words and actions. We all know it’s just a play, but we don’t want to be reminded of the fact by an actor who seems to be saying the lines and running through the blocking, rather than a character who is speaking his own words and moving through his own space. Nixon is a character who is always thinking about what he is saying. He is constantly trying to assess the impact of his words on his audience; always considering the political, public aspects of what he is saying; and it is when he loses this control that he gets into trouble.

Getting off book and finding the more natural flow of a character and a scene can be especially important in moments of humor or of casual conversation. Too many actors feel the need to attack humor, to get a laugh at the expense of character; or to toss off casual moments at the expense of the character insights such moments can create. Those who were close to Richard Nixon often talked about his sense of humor. He was sometimes described as a very funny guy. The general public rarely saw this side of him. In public his humor was more often than not awkward, just missing the mark, even embarrassing. Getting comfortable with the character’s words helps me to find the casual and humorous nuances of his thoughts. The stage Nixon has to move quickly, sometimes within a single scene or in the transition from one short scene to the next, from controlled public figure to oddly charming host to uncomfortable raconteur to angry, defensive, wounded figure. Finding those shifts in the character requires me to be thinking and responding in the moment to my own words and actions and to everything going on around me. It is one of the scariest, most exhilarating parts of the acting process. I feel as though I have really found my character when I catch my character being natural and real, rather than forced or rehearsed.

For those of you who are following these journals, I invite you to watch for such moments for all the characters on stage. They will almost always be the most satisfying, most engaging, most moving moments of a play. I hope they happen so often that you can only later realize what has happened. I hope that when you leave the theatre, you have been so engaged in the characters and their words and actions that it never occurs to you to wonder how the actors remembered all those lines; because learning the lines is just the beginning; it’s after the lines are learned that things start to get really interesting.

Making the Clothes Make the Man

In Be(com)ing Nixon on May 14, 2014 at 3:31 pm

May 14, 2014


The only four things you actually need to do theatre are an actor, some words and/or actions for the actor to perform, a place to conduct the performance, and an audience. All the rest of what theatre does are supposed to enhance the effect of these four things. Sound effects and enhancement, lighting, costuming, make-up, set, props are all adjunct to the four fundamental parts of the theatrical performance.

That said, theater is nearly impossible to do without at least some of those things. Unless the actor is naked, then what ever he is wearing is a costume (and even nudity is a kind of costume); and that costume affects everything else, including the actor’s sense of character, her relationship to and use of the performance space, and the audience’s response to the performance. The same is true of all the other aspects of theatre. In other words, live theatre is a system of interconnected parts. If you make a change in one part, then you create change in all the others.

Two weeks ago I cut off my ponytail, which had become fairly long over the past year, and one week ago I dyed my remaining hair (what there is of it) dark brown. I did these things to help me develop my stage character for Richard Nixon. One feels different with long gray hair than with shorter, darker hair. I have more often worn my hair fairly short than fairly long, so that wasn’t much of an adjustment; but I have been gray for more than ten years, so the brown hair was a bit of a shock. I still have to make a mental adjustment every time I look in a mirror. That also means, however, I am temporarily somewhat estranged from the person I see in the mirror, which allows me to connect that mirror person to the character rather than to my grayer self. It is Richard Nixon who is dark-haired.

It is important for me as an actor to begin this process of physical transformation, which includes adjustments to my way of speaking, my way of moving and my clothing on the stage as soon as possible in the process, so that I am comfortable with the character I have donned well before I first have to perform for an audience.

We still have a little more than two weeks before opening night, but last night I finally got a chance to do most of the show without my glasses. This required that I get as close as possible to “off-book” with my lines, because I can no longer read the small print in the script without magnification. Since the character I am playing does not wear glasses, the change was more than just cosmetic. My eyes and my facial expressions have always been two of my most important acting tools. Without glasses, my eye movements change, I orient my head to a conversation differently, and the audience can see more of my facial movements – eyebrows, forehead, nose, eyelids, even the expressive lines around and beneath the eyes. I also, perhaps surprisingly, found myself more conscious of other aspects of my face: my mouth, cheekbones, and the planes of my face. The historic Nixon has been broadly caricatured for his jowls, scowls and “beady” eyes. The more naturalistic portrayal and use of these features is enhanced when the glasses go away.

I also wore, for the first time, a jacket and tie during the rehearsal. Even though this wasn’t the costume I will ultimately wear for the performance, but an approximation, the effect was noticeable. I had to use my hands differently, stand differently, move with a little more formality and stiffness, and sit differently. I also became more conscious of the implications of costume changes and adjustments. There is, for instance, a very quick change necessary toward the end of the show from Nixon’s iconic blue suit into “golf attire” that I hadn’t really thought about before. The change signals more than just a change in scene and costume, it happens following a significant shift in the character himself. Changing clothes is a good way to help the actor shift into the character requirements for the new scene. An even smaller costume change earlier in the play allows for a more subtle shift in the character. Removing the jacket and tie for a short scene in which Nixon is slightly inebriated helps me to find the right nuance. One never wants to play inebriation too broadly outside of slapstick, but finding the right balance in a dramatic scene in which the character is not falling down drunk, but just somewhat loosened of his usual inhibitions can be tricky. Getting Nixon out of his coat and tie also gets him out of his more formal stiffness and reserve. He becomes more vulnerable and more open.

A lot of these kinds of changes can’t really happen until we get closer to performance. It’s simply not practical to do character make-up for every rehearsal or to start wearing performance costumes before tech week; but part of the process of developing a character for the stage is making choices about how the character looks both to himself and to the world.

A Solemn Ceremonial Prayer

In A God of Infinite Possibility on May 6, 2014 at 4:35 pm

The Supreme Court of the United States has just ruled, on a 5-4 split vote, that sectarian prayer at town hall meetings is allowed because, essentially, it is traditional, it has a ceremonial value and its purpose is to enhance the solemnity of the occasion.
So, I would like, therefor, to ask the following questions.

Where, exactly does the Constitution establish “tradition” as a constitutional standard? This is especially troubling, because nearly all of the justices seemed to agree that the traditional nature of the practice was part of why it was allowed before legislative sessions in a 1983 decision. But tradition isn’t a constitutional argument. Tradition is the argument of those who want to continue to do something they really shouldn’t be doing. And what constitutes a tradition? The long-established, traditional and formal motto on the Great Seal of the United States was “E Pluribus Unum” until it was changed in 1954. If a suggestion were made to return to the original, would tradition now favor “In God We Trust”? Moreover, the tradition argument has been rejected in other instances, such as the argument that state houses in the South should be able to fly the Confederate Battle Flag. And arguments about “traditional” marriage are being routinely rejected by the courts in same-sex marriage suits. Any time I hear someone arguing about tradition in a constitutional issue, I would ask them where in the Constitution they find that.

How does one give a purely “ceremonial” sectarian prayer? This includes at least two separate concerns. First, the definition of prayer is an appeal to a deity. This assumes, does it not, the existence of a deity. Belief in a deity is, also by definition, a defining characteristic of a religion. There was, apparently, some small effort on the part of the Greece, NY, Town Council to solicit prayers from a variety of religious representatives and they even said that they would welcome an atheist who wished to give the prayer; but the overwhelming majority of prayers have been Christian and many have made a point of proclaiming the existence of God and Jesus as defined by Christianity. Now quite apart from the idea that an atheist prayer is something of an oxymoron, how can any prayer be purely ceremonial? Do those clergy, or others, who deliver the prayer recognize that this particular prayer has no religious value in this particular instance? Are there special prayers that are only ceremonial? Do the people praying cross their fingers behind their backs so God will know they’re just kidding this time? Let’s be honest here. No sincere believer ever says a prayer to God only for the ceremonial value it holds.
Let us imagine for a moment, though, that the Town Council in your home town is genuinely interested in having a fully diverse and representative group of people deliver prayers on a rotating basis at the beginning of meetings. They do a thorough outreach to every belief system in the town and secure a Catholic priest, a Baptist, a Methodist, a Congregationalist, an Evangelical Free Bible Congregation, a Rabbi, an Imam, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Baha’i, a Wiccan, a Deist, an Agnostic, and an Atheist. Would the townspeople who might be willing to sit quietly while being led in a prayer asking the blessings of Allah or Shiva, or Goddess, or Baha’u’llah? Would they feel satisfied if the prayer leader specifically invoked Jesus as the one true path, and be able to contain themselves if the prayer specifically denied Jesus’ existence? And if we assume that all are willing to be equally affirmed or offended in their turns, is anything really valuable achieved thereby? Which leads to the next question.

How does any of this contribute to the ”solemnity” of the occasion? Town meetings and legislative sessions are, after all, functions of government. Those chosen to serve as representatives to these bodies are supposed to conduct the business of government. Is this not itself a solemn enough responsibility? What exactly does a prayer add to that? If I am elected to represent a body of citizens who have entrusted me to take care of their business, should I not already be approaching that work in a solemn manner? Am I not most often asked, upon election, to take a solemn oath to that effect? And can we honestly say that that is the purpose in mind when a clergyman gives such a prayer? Does the minister ask only that God make this occasion more solemn? Does any prayer which asks for a special degree of divine grace or blessing really just address the “solemnity” of the moment; or is it doing more than that, asking more than that? Is it, in fact, offering the subtle or not-so-subtle argument that a deity exists and the blessing of the deity is somehow part of and necessary to the work of the government; and is this not a de facto establishment of a religious component to the proceedings?

Might I make a suggestion? If your town is asking that something be done before town meeting to solemnize the occasion in a ceremonial fashion, why not make it a secular ceremony as befits the work at hand. Why not something like this:
As we prepare to commence the work of this Council (legislature, governmental body, etc.) let us all take a moment to individually and personally commit to the solemn and sacred task ahead. May the members of the council, whose duty it is represent the needs, desires and interests of the people they serve, be deliberate, reasonable, fair and sober in their deliberations and their actions. May those gathered here to observe or participate in this meeting as citizens remember that the work of this body is to serve the whole community and accept that there will be times when their personal petitions will not be granted. And may all present be willing to listen, to be respectful of one another, to be civil in their discourse, and to be mindful that the work of governing is a process that transcends the decisions of one day.

I don’t pretend that this is a perfect text. I’m certain that a group of fair-minded citizens could devise something appropriate for their own community. But isn’t this closer to what we should be ceremonially solemnizing at the beginning of a government meeting in a democracy that seeks keep separate the function and responsibilities of churches and the state?

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