Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.

27Aug/140

Kitchen Confidential

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.

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24Feb/144

Another Juror #3

I'm pretty sure I was in high school when I first saw Sidney Lumet's 1957 film version of 12 Angry Men, the Reginald Rose teleplay that debuted on CBS's Studio One. In that justly lauded script, a jury must decide whether a New York City teenager is guilty of murdering his father. Not only is there a direct eyewitness, but another nearby resident heard a cry of, "I'm going to kill you!" followed by the thump of a body on the floor. That same "earwitness," an old man in the apartment below the murder, reported seeing the accused flee the building. As if that isn't enough to convict the kid, there's a mountain of circumstantial evidence including a rare switch knife found in the father's chest. Only one juror remains unpersuaded, the idealistic Juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda in Lumet's film). He's opposed by the blatantly racist Juror #10, coldly rational Juror #4, and pugnacious Juror #3. As Rose's story progresses, we learn details about each juror--especially #3--that may have colored their initial opinions. I fell in love with the movie instantly. It spoke to my growing suspicion that not everything in the world is as clear-cut as it seems, and that justice is a largely subjective abstraction.

My favorite performance in the film wasn't Fonda's, though. He's fine, of course, but the standout for me was a fella named Lee J. Cobb, the burly old crab who played Juror #3. Except he wasn't that old! I learn from Wikipedia that Cobb was just about my age when he appeared in the movie. It was shot a few years after Cobb was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, for which he reluctantly named names. (Read his Wikipedia page. You undoubtedly would've done the same in his circumstances.) Cobb is ferocious in 12 Angry Men. His amazing career stretched for over four decades, and this was among his most praiseworthy efforts. I thought, "Here's an actor I can get behind, committed and fierce. He uses his size to his advantage. There's nothing comic about it. Cross your eyes at him funny, and he's likely to take your head off." And then I thought, "Someday I'd love to play that role myself." I kinda knew it'd happen, someday anyway, and that premonition both excited and terrified me.

So that was thirty years ago. Director Vicki Webb has now cast me as Juror #3 in Lakewood Playhouse's production of the stage adaptation. To be honest, I don't think I even auditioned for that role, assuming I'd be lucky to get anything in a town full of talented actors. But once I reread the script, I realized I was in for a challenge. In some ways, it wouldn't be fun. My method being what it is (a personalized variation on the Meisner technique, if you're into that sort of shop talk), I wind up feeling a lot of what the character feels, and what Juror #3 feels most of all is frustration. It's important to walk into every rehearsal, then every performance, convinced that this time, that sanctimonious Juror #8 is gonna see the error of his ways and get with the program. And then, damn it all, he never does! Night after night, against inconceivable odds, that ol' deus descends in his machina yet again and hands Juror #8 the laurel, leaving Juror #3 in the cold. At play's end, our unwitting antagonist is in an awful place--alone, exposed, devastated. And yes, to some degree at least, I do feel that, night after night. It's psychotic, I grant you, but I do. It can make for a mopey drive home. Having now played similar roles in Oleanna and Hamlet, and at the plaintive request of my wife (who has to live with me after those drives), I'll be retiring my antagonist suit for a while after closing this show. So if you want to see me succeed at epic-failing, you'd better act fast!

The lines in this show are incredibly difficult to memorize. They repeat each other in slightly varied wording, switch intentions in mid-sentence, and skip around from topic to topic like a game of drunken hopscotch. Our cast still hasn't squeezed them all into a run, let alone delivered them in the proper order (though we do manage to hide our mistakes from most observers, a skill which shouldn't be valued lightly). As we slogged through our last few tech rehearsals, I honestly wasn't sure we'd have the time we needed to pull it all together. We were altering the show in significant ways the night before preview. I'm a proud man in some ways, so I hate for people to pay good money to come see me in a disaster. Ergo, despite the exhortations of good people at Lakewood Playhouse, I didn't do much to remind people opening weekend was upon us. By the time I knew we had a deserving production, I'd run out of the time needed to pimp it.

So now here we are in the hiatus between first and second weekend. Adam McKinney, subbing for me as critic for the Weekly Volcano, says the script is thematically "outdated." He's not wrong. I feel Rose could've made the same points as well if not better by, for example, cutting Juror #10's big speech in half. Like McKinney, I find Juror #3's motivations 'too pat.' Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor says she saw the film in college and it drove her toward the law, but she also admits the jury's behavior would demand a judgment of mistrial in any true homicide case. The play isn't perfect, Gentle Reader. It's just great.

I can tell you for a fact, we've given everything we had to make this show as relevant as humanly possible. Our director and I insisted from day one that every character should reveal both noble and lamentable traits. I made it my personal crusade to inject humor and humanity into an admittedly obnoxious, often set-chomping role. Now it's your turn to, as the show's ominous tag line would have it, "judge the jurors." Yikes.

I'm proud of what my new friends and I have brought to our 12 Angry Men. I hope you get a chance to see it. If not, add the movie to your Netflix queue. Perhaps you, too, will find yourself thinking deep thoughts about justice and equality under the law. Oh, and hey! If you wouldn't mind, spare some sympathy for poor, cranky Juror #3. He's doing the absolute best he can.

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24May/123

The Game Is Afoot!

I had a different update planned for today, but that new stuff will just have to wait because I'm too excited about something else. I finally get to direct the amazing Sherlock's Last Case by Charles Marowitz! I owe my sincerest thanks to Lakewood Playhouse, where the show will run from September 14 to October 14. The auditions, however, are scheduled for less than four weeks away. Ack! I want the number of great actors who show up to be overwhelming. I want to lose sleep over the many great competitors vying for a handful of roles. And what terrific roles they are! There's not a throwaway character in the bunch. Check 'em out:

Dr. John H. Watson, M.D.:

Watson is close to Holmes’s age, athletic, and has a strong build, thick neck, small mustache, and square face. In no way should we think of poor, bumbling Nigel Bruce. Remember, Watson is only foolish compared to Holmes—but so are we.

Sherlock Holmes:

From A Study in Scarlet: “In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing…and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and derision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.” He’s said to have black hair, gray eyes, thin lips, a strident voice, and a “cat-like sense of personal cleanliness.” He’s in his 40s but needn’t look any particular age. Bearing is more important than looks here, though we do have certain expectations. The character should remind us more of House, MD than of Tony Stark.

* The actor playing Holmes will also play a Holmes lookalike, using slight makeup and vocal changes.

Mrs. Hudson:

Conan Doyle never gives her a first name. Also, he never says whether she’s older or younger than Holmes.

Liza:

Holmes tells her, “You have the brightest, most intense and exciting eyes I have ever seen in a woman.” She’s a pale, attractive strawberry blonde. (By the way, I'm not opposed to wigs and makeup, though these physical traits are referred to in the play.)

*Liza” will be revealed as actress Bertha Walmsley, who also plays a young man. Range is critical here! Plan to read for that male role as well.

Inspector G. Lestrade:

Holmes describes Lestrade as “the pick of a bad lot,” meaning Scotland Yard, and “absolutely devoid of reason” but “tenacious as a bulldog.” He’s "a little sallow rat-faced, dark-eyed fellow" (A Study in Scarlet), "a lean, ferret-like man, furtive and sly-looking" (“The Boscombe Valley Mystery”).

Holmes, Watson, and Liza have educated London accents. Lestrade’s accent might be a bit rougher around the edges, but certainly not Cockney. Mrs. Hudson is said to be Scots, but that doesn’t necessarily demand a Scottish accent.

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If I were staging this play for the Cross Timbers Theatre Company in Ada, Oklahoma, I know already who'd play these roles. There were only so many good actors in town! But this is the Pacific Northwest, where I meet an amazing new actor each week. Oh, Lakewood Playhouse, I can't wait to be exhausted by how magnificent you are.

It begins!

And I still have something awesome in the works for tomorrow...

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