Well, what is there to say but that we are in the thick of it all for The Two Gentlemen of Verona (beginning April 17)…there is a mess to making things and right about now I feel like I’m in the eye of the mess. So much so that it’s hard to see where the mess starts and where I begin. Of course, the last week of rehearsal before tech is almost always a tough place to be in the process, but still I find myself praying to the Gods of patience and forbearance.
I find I almost always end up at this place in rehearsal where it seems like all is lost and I start searching for reasons why I didn’t go into any other profession in the world than this one…because it just drives me bonkers. I run circles around myself and drive myself completely crazy trying to uncover some sort of truth at the bottom of the well. Fortunately, the fact that what I do is really quite fun most of the time doesn’t let me fall down the well too far.
And yet…let me indulge with you for a bit what it’s like to be in the midst of some of this muckity-muck so that when we finally get to meet each other at the Folger Theatre we can have a laugh about it all.
It’s hard for me sometimes to remember that acting is about the storytelling. I feel this terrible burden of responsibility to truly experience what the character is experiencing in their moments of grief and joy, and when I try to achieve that in rehearsal I never quite grasp the actual thing and it leaves me feeling frustrated. It’s a vicious cycle that is a result of how much I love the theater and I love actors. I become so awed by the work of great actors that I think they must be just flinging themselves into the abyss of experience each night, which is somewhat true, but the name of the boat they travel in each night is called craft. A course is charted and you are the captain of your ship. I have to re-learn this celestial navigation each friggin’ time though.
And thus, I HATE this part of rehearsal where you invariably feel like a complete and utter failure. The shadow of that HATE is of course LOVE…and these things often travel in pairs. The anger and frustration that often comes up when in the process of making a show is merely a result of the desire to make something beautiful. There is a method to the madness of banging one’s head against the proverbial wall. How we navigate this temporary madness as a group will probably reveal what type of show we create.
Fortunately there are 6 wonderful people working alongside me and we are all struggling together. I am new to Fiasco Theater, but they’ve been through this struggle before and have come out on the other end time and time again with something they are proud of. That helps me stay grounded and maintain faith in the dark times of the creative process.
Also, we’ve put our hearts and minds into this play and we are just beginning to see the fruits of our labors. Thus far what we have discovered is that the play demands us to move through it with great attention, thought by thought. That is true for any Shakespeare play of course, but with “Two Gents” it’s doubly true. The moment we get ahead of it and start serving a plot or an emotion, the story actually disappears. Shakespeare reminds us of this all the time, but this play in particular we are tracking the evolution of an argument that begins in the very first scene between Valentine and Proteus and concludes in the very last scene with the same two friends. The story of two gents therefore is the thoughts. It is comprised and built line by line, idea by idea, until the thoughts compile themselves and reveal to us the story. Each thought is a step that actually manifests the next step…and if we don’t observe this as a hard and fast truth, then the entire thing falls apart. It’s a tightrope walk that requires enormous diligence and patience.
In all honesty, I am an actor whose tendency is to indulge in the emotional experience of my character at times. Therefore the adherence to thought-building can be a maddening restraint. Ultimately, this is the only choice though and it is why working on Shakespeare is an infinite adventure. I am continually challenged as an actor to not rely on the portraying of emotion. To just stand and speak without laving over the thought with an emotion is still something I find hard to do. To be more clear, to not shape the emotion of the line in advance but to ride the thought of it each time. That’s a radical leap that I see many of my fellow actors do and it astounds me. It’s startling when an actor does this, because the audience all of a sudden pricks up their ears and listens in a different way.
Every actor who encounters Shakespeare’s plays navigates this conundrum differently throughout their career. For me, it’s a battlefield. The plays hit me on an emotional level more than an intellectual one, and acting in these poetic texts pushes me at times to a place where I must express those emotions or they will implode. That’s good to a certain extent, but also debilitating. The play isn’t about me, but the emotions that are coming up are about me. They are triggered by the profundity of Shakespeare’s words, but that doesn’t always mean they are right for the play, so I then must allow the process of sifting to begin so that by the time we open my character and the thoughts they are having and how they function in the story are primary. But it is also about how I bring myself to the room each night and weave my own emotional life and responsiveness with the characters. This is acting 101 and yet I find that it hasn’t ever become easy. It’s difficult each damn time.
There are such different ways of working on this stuff and I still don’t know what’s best for me. Each rehearsal process I plunge myself into the emotional heart of the play and insert my own life into the story and more often than not end up in this same place 3 weeks in. I spend hours just doing technical work with the language and then I spend hours trying to imagine what it would be like to experience all the things the character experiences…and sometimes it all bottlenecks and you end up feeling confused and stifled. It’s a tenuous and trepidatious path to walk, and the more I do it the more I encounter the terror of not knowing if it’s going to come together. I think it’s also the case that the more I do it and the older I get the more I demand of the experience. I’m 35 and have been working professionally for about 6 years now and I’m wanting to learn and grow so much through each of these experiences. I feel a responsibility to let myself be changed by these plays, and to let the audience witness that change. These great roles of Shakespeare provide the opportunity to create on a large scale; for actors they are our sandcastles before the tide washes it away. For a moment we get to glimpse the sight of something beautiful and know ourselves a little more as a result of what we’ve made.
It’s embarrassing to admit these challenges, but it’s a truth I grapple with each time. The elucidation and illumination of thought through language is a balance to be struck. The balance is between felt portrayal and clear speech. Inspiration comes in through thought and out through language. Sometimes in rehearsal there are moments when all this comes together. I get to have a glimpse of what it really means to be alive in these texts. When that happens it’s buoyant and wonderful. I release into a world of thought, imagery and emotion that is so rich and generous. I become a passenger aboard something so much more beautiful than I’d even imagined it to be, and the most simple of verse lines opens up a treasure trove to delight in. When you get a taste of that with these plays, anything less sometimes feels like a failure. It’s important I remind myself that life works like this as well. Life is full of so many challenges from day to day, but there are moments when the universe conspires to make music within and about you, and I recognize in the moment that I am listening to the music and I am the music, and for a moment I am witness to my own grace.