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.

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