My sister Monica and her husband run a barbecue restaurant in Shelton, Washington, a very good one called Smoking Mo's, and she and I recently got to talking about TV cooking programs. She enjoys Restaurant Impossible and other shows that delve into hardcore restaurant management--skills that don't always have much to do with cooking, but which many avid home cooks overlook when considering an eatery of their own. My wife and I prefer the competition shows: Top Chef and, to a lesser degree, Chopped. None of us like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and you shouldn't, either.
My sister repeated something I've heard before, which is that one of the keys to operating a successful restaurant is consistency. Customers often respond to a plate of food by saying, "Have you tried adding this" or "I wonder if this salad might be better with that," but most customers order a dish with the expectation it'll taste exactly like the one they ordered before and remember fondly. There's no percentage in mut(il)ating a dish once you've hit on a winning formula. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
So when Ted Allen instructs a quartet of competitors to open their Chopped baskets ("You get...channeled whelks! Chickpeas! Galangal! And...Liquid Paper!"), their approach to cooking becomes all too clear. Some competitors whip up the same grub they serve everyday. "I know I can make a great risotto," one chef will say, "so I'm thinking I can put a little twist on it by adding Liquid Paper." In this context, however, the only twist is the new ingredient. The chef may not even have a clear idea what the addition of this unfamiliar ingredient will do to her dish, but she knows by God, at least that risotto will be good. Until it's not, which always seems to blow the losing chef's mind. "I wish the judges had had a fair chance of seeing what I can do." Well...they did. In fact, they saw exactly what you do, plus one contradictory ingredient.
Then there are chefs who can look at a basket of ingredients and think, "Okay, the galangal suggests northern Thai. I don't normally cook Isaan, but I bet if I steam some veggies I can turn this into a halfway decent nam phrik. The Liquid Paper's a curve ball, but its adhesive qualities might make it perfect for sticky rice. I should also throw in a bit of curry to counter that poisonous titanium dioxide aroma." The chef can "pre-taste" combinations of flavors in her head, and she understands the physics of food: the way heat affects meat and vegetables, for example, and the history and logic behind a number of regional cuisines. Such chefs tend to win high-end cooking competitions on TV. It doesn't mean they're better chefs, at least not in the context of a working, professional restaurant kitchen, because the modus operandi of a restaurant isn't the same as that of a TV cooking competition. It just means they're approaching food itself from a different and (I hesitate to say this, for reasons that'll be clearer soon) deeper point of view.
Side note: somebody recently told me she enjoys barbecue but prefers Mexican food. Um, I said, barbecue is Mexican food. Barbacoa's a Mexican word. "What's 'barbacoa?'" the person replied testily. "Who said anything about that? I just want carnitas." You mean pulled pork? "No," the person insisted. "Carnitas. Aren't you Mexican?"
So anyway, I thought of this difference in approaches last night as we struggled through a long rehearsal of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. My wife and I are both in the show, which runs September 12 - October 12 at Lakewood Playhouse. (Did you just hear a weird noise? It sounded sort of like..."Plug.") It's a locked-room mystery in which guests on a secluded isle meet their Maker one by one, even as they attempt to forestall their untimely demises by determining which of them is the killer. It's...silly. It's the closest thing one can get to Neil Simon's Murder By Death without actually getting that. Because it's ridiculous, I feel justified in going for broke with some of my character choices. Now there's a painful period of modulating that to fit the world of the show, a directorial issue which, by necessity, laps over onto me.
Anyway, we're all about 98% off-book, meaning we know our lines but can't rely on our cerebral cortices to release the right word every time. We know our blocking, we understand the play (as well as Christie's labyrinth of evidence can be understood), and we're starting to get used to 1940s props and actor-unfriendly furniture. This is the week or two during which a show grows up. If all goes as it should, it'll reach voting age around the time we hit tech week, at which time the director and crew must turn their nearly-full attention to matters of lighting, costume, sound, and set dressing. It's an awkward week, when adolescence induces growing pains.
This hump arises in every cycle of rehearsals, but I'm struck by a particular complication in this production. When I was in high school and undergraduate college, I developed the idea that an actor spends the first week or two creating a character, then the remainder of the rehearsal process perfecting the ability to repeat a judiciously composed set of line readings (i.e., specific inflections of dialogue) night after night. I believe I was encouraged to do so by most of my instructors and directors. I was like that line cook who makes delicious spaghetti bolognese or salmon en croûte a dozen times a night, six nights a week, fifty weeks a year. I made pretty good spaghetti at ECU, if I do say so myself, and what opening-night audiences saw was the spitting image of the performance I gave on the night we closed. I got cast pretty consistently, won acting awards, and generally felt good about the skills I was able to bring to the table.
Now, I don't want to belabor this, because one of my grad-school theatre professors told me acting was pretty much the most boring thing one could talk about. I think James Lipton and his producers might disagree, but yes, the subject can start to feel too inside-baseball. I do, however, want to explain that most of my grad-school actor training was in the Meisner method, as developed and taught by director and coach Sanford Meisner in the 20th century. Like the Stanislavski method, it relies on given circumstances and empathetic identification to craft a character, but then it's much looser within each moment as the story progresses. Line readings can diverge considerably from performance to performance, informed by differing line readings from other Meisner-trained actors on stage. This was the approach used by most of the cast of the last show I was in, Lakewood Playhouse's 12 Angry Men, and if used properly it can invigorate a production like no other technique I know. The audience feels it's seeing intense conversation, not the pristine delivery of mentally prerecorded dialogue. In my critical opinion, it makes for a more dynamic, involving show, but of course I would say that because I paid thousands of dollars to learn that technique.
The Meisner method creates chefs who, metaphorically speaking, know the physics of food. They can think in the moment and respond to subtle inflections, nuances--perhaps even the mood of the audience. That bizarro mystery ingredient in their Chopped baskets might throw them, but only for a moment. The method I learned in high school, consistent reproduction of memorized inflections, is like that reliable Amazon of a line cook. Both the innovator and the replicator have great knife skills. They make wonderful food. After a great deal of bitching and moaning and refusing to change, I was finally won over to the position, however, that Meisner acting is better, meaning real-er, or at least that I preferred it enough to switch over. I take my acting seriously, perhaps indefensibly so, and I want to make the finals of Top Chef against competitors who are really, really good.
What's happening on this show is that most of the cast is taking the consistency approach. The director approved of this for weeks, and rightly so because his cast was on task. We were doing our homework, bringing accent or back story improvements to every rehearsal, and moving off-book weeks earlier than usual. Now it's clear, however, that we're hearing the same performances night after night after night. "I SHOULD like you to know I have seen through your TREACHery, Doctor ARMstrong," an actor will emote. "Okay, good," the director responds, clearly stifling a wince, "but I think maybe this time, it's important to remember that your character is making a direct accusation of Armstrong in particular. Also, he's boasting about being the one who may have solved this big mystery. So, you know, play with that." The actor will nod appreciatively: yes, yes, very good. I see exactly what you mean. I can work with that. Thank you. Then, next rehearsal: "I SHOULD like you to know I have seen through your TREACHery, Doctor ARMstong," only two decibels louder.
Now, if I'm being honest (and not merely biased toward my own approach), I cannot say for sure either technique is truly "better acting" than the other, because both produce terrific spaghetti. The problem occurs when actors of both types try to work together in rehearsal. The techniques are at cross purposes, because we Meisner actors can't respond as urgently to pristine line readings that sound like they came out of an MP3 player, and consistency actors turn into robots when their line readings don't apply to new dynamics. The result is a bunch of histrionic Meisner actors intensely beseeching confused Audio-Animatronic figures. It's a mess, one you'd never confuse for an actual conversation.
At this stage of the game, I'm unsure our director will be able to nudge one group of actors into embracing or even reluctantly adopting the methodology of the other. But speaking as a director myself, blending styles and approaches into a self-consistent whole is one of the more difficult, esoteric, and ultimately rewarding aspects of the job, so I remain optimistic. Things can shape up tout suite in the week before an audience sees a production. And don't get me wrong, a play can include both styles and work well enough. A restaurant can usually handle one kitchen Edison without crashing and burning. But the next time you go to a play (or, for that matter, watch a narrative show on TV), try the shoes of a critic on for at least a few minutes. See if you can figure out which type of kitchen technique its actors prefer. You may be surprised to learn how easy it can be to tell the difference.