— From EF —
Extreme age can blur, or it can sharpen like a laser’s blade. We just spent an afternoon in the presence of the latter, a man of titanic intellect born in 1919 and as vitally creative as ever. We met when CB was at Stanford in the mid-sixties, drifted out of touch for a few years, then reconnected and are still deep in the friendship.
We had planned to bring a performance of Lear to his living room in LA, since his health no longer permits him to leave his house. (The production was deliberately designed to be performable as a house concert, but frankly I can’t imagine anyone else who would want it in their living room.) Unfortunately, the task of moving furniture and inviting friends and staying up late in the evening became too daunting a prospect, so we made him a DVD and paid an afternoon visit.
He’s still battling with Gertrude Stein, whose huge collection of papers became his albatross years ago. The Making of Americans is 548 pages, and his annotated version tops 1000 — now nearly ready for publication. A collection of his lectures on theatre history is about to hit the web. And now he’s re-edited and expanded his book of actor’s monologues, 500 of them, with synopsis and annotation for each. Words fail me.
Mentor. Friend. Advocate. Role model. If the multiverse is kind, we will visit again.
— Fool —
Starting out to be a Fool, you have to make choices. Not so easy. There’s the question of what sells, and that changes as often as a baby’s diapers.
There’s a matter of playing the cards you’re dealt: are you funny-looking? smart-mouthed? double-jointed? nuts? And the design: you can make yourself look goofy, comb all your hair straight up, cross your eyes and dangle your tongue, or do makeup like a circus clown, bald wig and red rubber nose. What they never tell you at Fool School is that you have to stick on your nose with spirit gum and then clean it out every night. When I talk about cleaning out my nose, people look at me funny.
The hardest thing to decide is what kind of Fool you are. A wise Fool? A sacred Fool? A bitter Fool? A simpleton or insult comic or halfwit? I never decided, which is why you never heard of me. There’s this thing called branding.
I thought that was what cowboys did to cows, but it’s what publicists do to people. The supermarket needs to know what shelf to stick you on. They’ve only got so many shelves.
I tried. I went through a whole list: King of Comedy. Top Monkey in the Barrelful. Shamanic Chortler. Nicky Numbnose. Sammy Snuffle. Boomer Kapoop. But nothing fit. I guess I get shelved with the leftovers
The good side is that you don’t have to worry about going out of fashion. Never being in it.
— From CB —
King Lear at the San Diego Puppetry Festival: the response was fulsome. Best after-show comment was from an elderly man with a cane who kept hobbling back to shake hands and hug: “You are magicians.” After shows in our studio and the San Francisco gallery space for seating of 30 max, it was very useful to play in a larger house — seats only about 100, so hardly “large” but still requiring a different attunement. Every physical space is like playing with a new third partner: brings out new elements in the performance. Same is true of the audience. Perhaps that’s what keeps a production fresh when it’s had 50, 100, or 600 performances — like a tennis player who has the same rules, the same range of tactics, but always the changing challenges of court surface and opponent. In doubles play, your opponents are as much your partners as your partner is.
This is an element lacking in schools of acting. You can train physical and vocal skills; you can follow a certain discipline of analyzing text, evoking emotions, responding to the other actors. But the craft of sensing the space, finding your light, adapting to that night’s specific audience and making the tiny instinctive adjustments, as fine and multifaceted as lovemaking — I don’t know if that can be taught, or if a mentor can only describe, like Marco Polo, the country he’s explored, the path where he began his journey, and say, “Keep going east and maybe you’ll find it.”
I rarely see a live performance that’s truly alive. Partly, that may be due to the influence of film acting, where the camera and the film editor craft the focus and the audience’s perception, and it’s the actor’s task to deliver raw material with no trace of “acting.” Sometimes it’s due to the “professionalism” of “freezing” the production (like Lenin’s corpse), allowing no changes once it’s opened, been reviewed, and the director’s flown off to create his or her next product. Sometimes, it’s training methods that emphasize an inner process, aiming for an actor with the focus of a pedestrian crossing the street with his eyes on his smartphone.
To my mind, the “fourth wall” — the concept that we’re simply observing the life on the stage as if through a neighbor’s window — is the enemy of live theatre. Certainly, in naturalistic theatre the character’s behavior must be shaped by this dynamic, but the actor’s consciousness is something distinct, an “outside eye” on the shape of the whole event. Now that direct to-the-audience speeches have pervaded theatre, one would expect a change, but on the contrary, in most such moments even in solo shows, the actors point themselves audience-ward and erect the same barrier. Contrast those moments to the performance of a good professional storyteller, who’s had to perform in countless circumstances. He learns that presence is everything, that every audience has its own expectations, rhythms, and quirks of conception. There’s a difference between nudity and nakedness. Nudity is something seen through the neighbor’s window; nakedness is being in there with your neighbor.