Before I go into this post, let me get something out of the way. I fully support Awards, their Ceremony and what they represent. The Oscars, Obie’s, Tony’s, Drama Desk, SAG Awards, various other Guild and Society Awards, The Jeff’s in Chicago, and too many others to list…I support all of these 100%. I support them because of what they stand for, what they represent.
They bring us together as a community of Artist’s to celebrate our collective and individual talents and achievement’s.
Watching the Academy Awards last night I was reminded of something that I have always found troubling. The declaration by Critics that a Performer in the production they are reviewing, “takes home honors…”. It goes something like this “(insert Performer’s name here) takes home acting honors for this production”. Or in a musical, “(Insert Performer’s name here) takes home the honors for best vocal performance in this production”, or perhaps even one actor mentioned as “taking home honors for both acting and vocals in this production”. This is something I’ve seen occur in a large percentage of the reviews I have read over the years. It is, not only arrogant pen wielding on the part of the Critic to think they alone, have the right to bestow an “honor” on someone’s performance, it is also, to put it simply, insulting. It is detrimental to that ensemble, to the delicate balance of chemistry that exists in that dressing room. It is detrimental to the Theatre as a Body. A concept that Gordon Craig began teaching in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. This concept was propagated by other such Artists as, Bobby Jones, Max Reinhardt and Harold Clurman to name just a few.
Craig’s idea in a broad stroke was that the theatre itself should be thought of as a body. The Director being the head of the body, is responsible for the guidance of all the other faculties. The actor’s make up a portion of the body, the text/playwright another, the design team…even the audience. This is of course an excellent lesson to teach younger artists. They, as we all do at some time or another, struggle with an immature ego. We have all witnessed the derision that results between Technicians and Performers because of this. But the better lesson, the one we can learn as we examine the concept on a more advanced level is this…can the body function without an arm? A leg? Without it’s kidneys or an eye…the list goes on. The answer of course, is yes, it can. But its function is limited. So, too, the Theater as A Body is nothing more than the sum of its parts.
We often, even as trained, experienced professionals, lose sight of just how tremendous an impact our work makes on the work of our fellow collaborators. An example from a production very early in my career – a Set/Light Designer and a Costume Designer, were engaged throughout Technical Rehearsals in a battle of Wills. The color of the costumes combined with the color of the scenery had left the Lighting Designer in a difficult position. A simplified explanation of his challenge is that he was unable to use a filter of the proper color in order to maximize his ability to “pop” the actors/costumes off the stage. The actors would seem to fade into the background and the stage itself would actually appear to be nearly two dimensional. While that could be an interesting choice, it was not consistent with the vision for this particular production. The color palette for all three visual aspects of the design had no doubt been discussed in concept and production meetings throughout the process. Who screwed who here, is not the point of the story. The point of the story is this…the Lighting Designer was going to look incompetent, the impact of the Costume Designer’s work would be significantly reduced and the Actors (of whom I was one) were going to suffer, not only from the lack of developmental support to the their characters from the costumes, but also by the simple fact they would look like cardboard cut outs floating in front of the scenery. Who suffered most? The audience. What’s worst…they suffered, for the most part, unknowingly. The effectiveness of The Body was greatly impacted…all by the choice of a single color.
Now, an example of those reviews I initially mentioned, which will also show I am not just a disgruntled actor who never had such an “honor” bestowed on him by a Critic – I recall one of my first experiences as an actor in Chicago. I was playing a decent size role in a well known musical for a well known, award winning company on the North Side of the city. Unfortunately, this company is now defunct…and those events will no doubt be the subject of another blog post at a much later date. The show opened to a sold out house and a standing ovation. Not uncommon on opening night as the house is often heavily papered with family and friends…but, there are typically, several critics in attendance as well. This night was no different. This particular review was for a paper that is printed once a week…Wednesday. When I walked into the theatre on Thursday night I was greeted by three of my fellow actors. Two of which had larger roles than myself. The greeting was jovial as we all sipped our preshow coffee’s, tea’s or in the case of one actor, eating his preshow apple…
– “Hey Nich…Did you see your review?” –
I was floored. It was my third show in town and I had never even been mentioned in a review before, let alone had someone refer to it as “my review”. They handed me the paper saying, “Yeah, check it out”. I was, sure enough, mentioned throughout the review and declared the standout of an opening number that largely involved every member of the ensemble. Did it destroy our chemistry in the dressing room? No. Did it significantly damage any of the relationships within the ensemble? No. But I did receive my fair share of dirty looks around the dressing room that night and I feel we were quite lucky. I know not every dressing room culture has gone unscathed by such a review. Which actually leads me to one last point regarding this, and it also reinforces the foundation of this post…that theatre is merely the sum of it’s parts.
I was playing a large role in a World Premiere Musical. Again for a well known, award winning company on the North Side of Chicago. This company is still in existence, and thriving after some reorganization. The writer of this particular review declared, “None of the actors take home honor’s as directed by (insert the director’s name here)”. At the time, as an actor I thought…well, she let us off the hook and pinned it on him. I heard another actor say, “well at least she realized it was his fault and not ours”. That actor doesn’t work or live in Chicago anymore. Later in my career, as a Director, I thought back on that review and considered the possibilities for that Director’s response…Well, she let them off the hook and blamed me. Or – It’s not my fault they weren’t any good, I could only work with what I had.
Who’s fault was it that none of us were so lucky to have the “honor” bestowed upon us by that critic?
The Body’s fault.