An Idea or a Notion…

Recently I have been traveling across the eastern half of the United States, meeting with various theatrical minds, students, their teachers and practictioners in residence at some of the more respected Theatrical training programs. One of the more interesting and beneficial conversations, up to this point, was with a man who is not only Faculty in the Carnegie-Melon Drama Dept, but also has a lengthy resume of professional experience.

Primarily it was a discussion regarding the work of the Director, but as the Director sits atop the body as it’s head, the conversation encompassed nearly every aspect of the Theatre. We were discussing a certain play and my ideas regarding its significance, the themes at work etc and my vision for production. I produced a sketch of the set for the play and proceeded to explain the various elements, why the ground plan was laid out as it was, this character’s space in this place and another character’s space in that, what the spacial relationship defined between the two etc. When that portion of the discussion was over, and the gentleman had genuinely and politely praised the work, I felt obligated to tell him something regarding the development of the sketch/vision.

I only understood the design, after I had sketched it. There was nothing conscious in its development. I read the play, as I always do in an initial reading, just to get a sense of it, purely for enjoyment really. Then I read it again, this time with an open mind to whatever the playwright’s work evoked within me, emotionally, visually, spiritually or otherwise. There is no set order to these things, sometimes several of them come together in one sitting, other times it takes a reading with each one specifically in mind for anything at all to be sort of conjured up. In the instance of this play, and as I told this gentleman, upon reading the play a second time a clear physical world for the play existed in my mind. I quickly sketched it before it could slip away, no doubt to never be brought up again with the same visceral and organic vitality as the original. Days later I looked back at the sketch. This time I could see, clearly, the meaning of every character’s space. Why I had placed it where I did. What the intangible significance was of specific elements, the imagery I was attempting to create for the audience with suggestive elements rather than literal ones. This is the way it usually was for me and it was something I longed to understand.

With a smile and a nod the gentleman said to me, I am not surprised by this at all. Do you know the difference between a Notion and an Idea? I responded by saying, well I would think I do, but tell me… …a Notion is just what you had when you made this sketch. Something unfounded, a “wouldn’t it be cool if”…when you came back to it later and could support it, could back it up as not just being cool, but being meaningful and effective, a truth…then it became an Idea. Not all of our Notions become Ideas. Some of them are really nothing more than, wouldn’t it be cool if… …because, while it might be cool…if it can’t be supported, proven as doing service to the telling of the story, then it would also be ineffective or even detrimental to the piece.

This conversation has been rattling around in my brain for the better part of two months…and it has impacted a great deal of the small projects or developmental work I’ve been a part of since then. I find myself even more liberated than I was before. Open and available to every Notion that presents itself. Not bothering to judge them in the instant I have them, as being good or bad, right or wrong. Simply allowing myself to “have the Notion”, perhaps make a note of it. Then come back to it later, test it against the text or other elements of the work to determine if it was merely a Notion…or if it could in fact be fully developed into an Idea.

Notions keep us interested, searching, longing…hungry. Developing them into Ideas, that keeps us sharp, teaches us to be appropriately critical and makes your work as an Artist effective to your Audience. There will no doubt be further posts exploring this concept of Idea vs. Notion. As it has caused me to have a rather large notion regarding its meaning on a grander scale. I am excited to find out if it’s merely that…a notion…or in fact…an Idea.

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The Nobility of Acting

While I forever preach the teachings of Gordon Craig and Robert Edmond Jones and Harold Clurman…the concept that the Theatre exists as A Body…I also believe the profession of the Actor, to be one set apart from all the rest.  A profession that requires the Valiant quality I speak of so often, to be present in such a large quantity that I would even go so far as to call the profession of Acting – a Noble one.

The Actor speaks a truth that the majority of us never experience in any sense.  A small percentage of us know it in our hearts, a slightly smaller percentage speak it in our minds and the smallest percentage of all, will at times, let it slip from their lips.  But the Actor, to fulfill his duty to The Body, to truly be effective in his art, must speak the truth from deep within, and speak it with every fiber of his being.  The truth must come in his delivery of the text, an unaffected, organic, visceral and emotionally vital evocation.  The truth must come from his posture as it must support his character and say something to us about him, without hammering away at our skulls about it.  It must be in his movement as he walks his staging for the 147th time on opening night…not as though it were by rote.  It must be in his gesture as it supports his delivery of the text and aids in his relationship with the rest of the world of the play…without indication.  The truth must come from his eyes and bore into the eyes of his scene partners…his fellow Actors, who’s truth should be boring back at him.  We should witness a collective truth on the stage, summoned by this group of Actors, this ensemble of Truth Tellers, and put on display before us so that we might allow our own hearts to have that truth embedded within them.  We should carry however large or small a piece of their work as we can, out of the theatre with us.  Then the truth can live on.  The truth the Playwright put on paper.  The truth the Director so carefully coaxed from the Actor. The truth that exists only in that special world of the play as constructed by the team of Designers.

We may well study to be Directors or Designers or Stage Managers or any of another dozen specific professions of the Theatre…and while each requires a certain set of indelible talents, it is my experience that the Actor is the most truly born to their profession.  Training is still necessary.  Technique is not something we are born with, it must be learned.  But I have found the other professions to be less dependent on something you are “born with” than that of the Actor.  Perhaps that is because their work requires, in order to stand on a stage emotionally bare, metaphysically naked, a level of courage…a Valiant quality all their own, to which one cannot be brought.  One cannot be handed that quality in a classroom or discern that quality from something read in a book, not in the amount it is required to be truly effective as an Actor.  In my opinion, and experience, there is no other profession that requires such a large amount of such an intangible quality as the work of the Actor.  Why do you think so many of us begin as actors, only to take up residence in other portions of the Body?  Because we lack what is truly necessary to be truly effective.  We see a large number of great Actors cross over into other segments of the Theatre with great success, usually while they continue to perform .  But it is rare to see an Artist begin in another area of the Theatre, only to later take on the task of the Actor with any reasonable impact.

There is nothing at all wrong with this.  The Body needs all of its parts.  ALL of them to be truly effective.  But let us not forget, at the end of the day, the Actor is on the front line, the Actor is in the Infantry of the Theatre.  The Actor my very well be the Heart of the Theatre…as we must always remember the Audience is it’s life blood.

…Taking Home Honors

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.

Gordon Craig

Gordon Craig

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.