Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical science fiction.


Silent Sky‘s Closing Night

(Written September 16)

I have a lot to say tonight, on two different subjects. It was our closing performance of Silent Sky, and yes, I do tend to gush at moments like these. Je ne regrette rien, Gentle Reader.

Part 1: On Producing Silent Sky

Producing a show this big was a first for me. In eight years of college, I don't remember ever once hearing a lecture or reading a book about how to be an executive producer. I made it up as I went, tried to follow the film model when possible and remained determined to admit when I screwed things up. I learned a producer needs to trust her or his creative team to do the creative work the way they know best; your job as the producer is to smooth the path before them and make sure the flow of money and lines of communication remain unimpeded. I learned one may argue with doubters but never with the calendar. I learned the sincerest compliment is often a paycheck. And I learned, sometimes the hard way, a path toward success for Silent Sky.

I mention that because several people came up to me tonight and expressed sincere interest in porting our production to other spaces. As tempting as that may be, I gave them as soft a no as I could manage. It's not that I don't believe anyone else should produce Silent Sky — Oh, my, no, you most definitely should. It's so important for so many reasons that this singular script become part of our regional- and community-theater canon. But not our production. No, your Silent Sky needs to be local, and it needs to be offered from your heart, and it needs something very particular to this story.

I trusted my gut on this one, and I'm so glad I did. I knew this script needed a female director. Maybe not every year, maybe, but this year for sure. Then I went further, and in so doing, I learned something crucial about Silent Sky. Since you might produce it elsewhere, I will give you that lesson for free.

Silent Sky needs women. Great women. Brilliant women. Artistas, if you will.

What you want is to find a female director with enormous skill and a big heart. It doesn't matter if she's a science geek, but it'll be helpful if she's a sister. She needs to be able, as Deane Shellman did so gracefully for us, to convey complex ideas via magical images and sounds. Then, rally female designers to what is now that director's project. I don't mean one or two female designers. I don't mean a few. I mean your entire design staff should be women. Because to this day, even in our relatively liberal field, it's still all too common to see an all-male design staff but rare to see an all-female one. The latter should be and feel no more unusual than the former. As Gunderson points out in her script, "We need a model." We need everyone who does theater to see, and on a regular basis, that talent has no gender.

The rest will take care of itself. With much stress and little sleep, perhaps, but I promise you one day during tech week you'll look up and find yourself beyond the earth's gravity. It'll happen. Enjoy the view.

Part 2: The Meaning for Me

Directing and yes, producing, it turns out, are a lot of work, especially if you do those jobs correctly and with all your heart. And why would you do a job like that any other way? The object of the game is to find that charge of electricity you felt upon first hearing or reading that story and take a good look at it. Ease it out into the light. Name exactly what hooked you, then make that hook the focus of gravity for your own production. I can't and won't speak to what hooked Deane on this story. I can only tell you what captured me. Because just as Laughing Stock was my love letter to the theater that rescued me from loneliness, just as The Credeaux Canvas was my farewell to youth, my instigation of Silent Sky should tell you something about who I am on a very deep level.

Like the heroes of that story, I find a joy in learning I'm wrong about something. It's embarrassing, sure, but yesterday I didn't know what the truth was and now I know one thing it isn't! How amazing is that? Yesterday I imposed my wishful thinking on the world; today it told me its own truth — and entrusted me with the revelation! "You were perfectly wrong," Henrietta Leavitt announces, and her colleague cries, "I was!" — not with anger, nor resentment, but happily! That's part of what I find most persuasive about the scientific method over other ways of analyzing and interpreting the world. A good scientist understands it's better to know a less-than-optimal truth than to bank on vestigial fantasies. She knows graduating from the latter to the former is a moment worth celebrating rather than grieving.

Oh, and then there's that closing monologue. I fall in love with it every time I hear it. "A telescope named Hubble," says Leavitt, "with wings set for space, shows us how vast and beautiful it all is … Because wonder will always get us there — those of us who insist that there is much more beyond ourselves. And I do." And I choke back tears every night because Gentle Reader, that is my heart being spoken from that stage, by an actor who is not me, directed by an artist who felt that truth, too. And it means I'm not the only person who takes heart from that lesson. Lauren Gunderson does. Henrietta Swan Leavitt did. And I know from all the smiling, tear-streaked faces in the theater that our idealism has touched something in a hundred hearts each night at OLT. The audience members believe in that future; they just needed to be reminded of it. Hope is not lost, my friends. We may trip over our foolishness sometimes, we humans, but we do still have a calling. We are made of star stuff, Sagan reminds us, and there is something within us that looks up into the night sky and longs to go home there again.

Yesterday a machine made by earnest minds and begrudgingly rendered tax dollars met oblivion in the atmosphere of Saturn. Along the way, though, it sent us this photo.

Look at that pixel. It's the earth-moon system. It's you and me. It's everyone, in fact; all our stuff, all our art, all our music, all our wars, all our feelings, all our corpses, all our dreams. It's a stunning reminder of our fragility, our lifelong dependence on each other, and the ocean of silence and cold in which we swim. We are not merely a species. We owe each other and the universe — call it God if you like — more than that. We aren't just family. We are one. We are one tiny dot of desperate yearning but we are infinitely precious. Intelligence is the greatest thing the cosmos has yielded to date, and something tells me ours is not the gold standard for intelligence so it behooves us to get out there and mingle with our siblings. They have much to teach us, perhaps art and stories to share with us, and heaven knows we have much left to learn.

Last night I looked through a telescope at the Andromeda Galaxy. I gazed across two and a half million light-years of intergalactic space at the waltz of a trillion stars. I imagined them accompanied by all their associated worlds. Most were barren, of course, others spattered with life so primitive it could barely be said to deserve the title. Yet I find it impossible to believe I wasn't also looking at civilizations — starfaring species, perhaps, living and dying on the whims of supernovae and calling to each other dimly across the night. We will never meet those species. Their families and ours will have passed long before our galaxies collide four billion years from now; our sun will, in fact, be in the process of puffing itself up for a turgid, crimson swan song. All of that knowledge, all our music and art and beauty and emotions, will have come and gone long before that collision. So will theirs. Life is precious. Intelligence is a gift. Like all beautiful gifts, it comes with a responsibility to cherish and protect it.

The trick, I think, is not to waste energy seeing God as other earthlings do. We have a valueless tendency to lasso God down to our level, make him fallible and petty and vindictive like ourselves. It's a shame we ever feel that drive to domesticate the ineffable. No, I think the path forward is to see the earth as God does: a pixel in the whirlwind, a sputtering spark in a vast, frozen darkness, an embryo of life in the worthy throes of struggling to be born.

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3 Impossible Questions

Given that it's mentioned in the Fishnapped! program, I believe I can safely announce this now: A play I'm in the latter stages of writing, called 3 Impossible Questions, will be the fourth play in Olympia Family Theater's next mainstage season. It adapts fables from all over the Islamic world and introduces Western audiences to a beloved figure in many of those countries: Mullah Nasreddin. Nasreddin is a sort of wiseacre imam who teaches via riddles and paradox. I compare him to Bugs Bunny in American popular entertainment. For folks who think of Muslims as humorless, especially with respect to questioning Islamic beliefs and traditions, his popularity will come as a shock; but he appears in comic books, TV cartoon shows and bedtime stories all over the world.

I've had a wonderful time getting to know Mullah Nasreddin (as I also spend time with the congregants at the Islamic Center of Olympia), and I look forward to helping introduce him to you. This show will be directed by Ted Ryle, and it's my debut as a full-length, professional playwright. (I've had short plays produced in four states.) Look for exact dates and audition notices as we get closer to Questions' early-2018 run, insha'Allah.

Incidentally, my Muslim friends know I'm agnostic and are absolutely fine with it. One of them, in fact, likes to introduce me to other congregants at the mosque as "Christian...who isn't one."

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It's been a while, hasn't it? Well, I've been busy. My contract with MightyPlay ended when we delivered a bundle of developmental math games, so I'm looking for big-boy jobs. (I have irons in the fire, as they say.) Compiling an application for any of those can take days. More than anything, I've been concentrating on The Credeaux Canvas, a Keith Bunin dramedy I'm directing for Theater Artists Olympia in the Midnight Sun Performance Space. Producing this play has been a dream of mine since I first heard L.A. Theatre Works' audio production four years ago. I must've flirted with every theater company within an hour's radius about it. They all admired the script, but a 22-minute nude scene in Act I dissuaded most. Not so TAO. They see themselves as the company that produces shows others are too conservative to try. It was a perfect fit.

I cast the play in November, anticipating it would take our four actors months to memorize their lines and prepare for rehearsals. The casting process wasn't easy. As often seems to happen in our smallish but bohemian city, I had several people audition who did absolutely nothing wrong, but who simply didn't fit the emerging recipe. It's heartbreaking for them and me. My loyalty has to be to the show I've envisioned. First read-through was a clubby get-together with celebratory port (Quinta das Carvalhas--"It's my family label!"). In early months, actors Alayna Chamberland (Amelia) and Christopher Rocco (Winston) spent a lot of time psychologically bracing themselves for the adventure of disrobing before an audience of friends, peers and strangers. I can tell you from having done it myself (Angels in America, 1996) that it takes a superhuman level of intestinal fortitude. I can also tell you that stage manager Vanessa Postil helped provide a safe place for thespian heroics, and we passed the dreaded first "Naked Night" three nights early.

I did an interview with Molly Gilmore of the Olympian newspaper yesterday, and she asked the question we knew we'd hear from many: did they have to get naked? Is it essential to the play? And the answer, it turns out, is yes. Not for any story reason, though the nudity makes perfectly logical sense within the context of the play--as it does in Angels, Wit, and so many other modern plays. In fact, I could argue it belongs in some Greek and Shakespeare (King Lear, Act III, Scene 4, for example). Set aside for a moment the fact that human beings get naked sometimes, and such coy evasions as TV's "L-shaped sheet" only threaten credulity. Set aside also the ubiquity of nudity on cable, which makes nakedness an element of professional actor employment. Look instead at the relationship it creates between a character and an audience. What I've learned through several examples is when an actor exposes him- or herself before an audience, each audience member becomes complicit. The psychological side effect is a feeling of protectiveness toward that actor. I feel it strongly as a director. And as we watch the characters of Amelia and Winston fall for each other, giving all of themselves to each other, we cannot help but fall in love with them. And the scene must go on as long as it does. When actors get naked in a production like Hair, in which the nudity lasts less than half a minute, it's something of a special effect. In Credeaux, we spend the first minute feeling terribly uncomfortable, the second minute adjusting, and the next twenty appreciating these characters' vulnerability and beauty.

I've also said all along that every character, Jamie (Mark Alford) and Tess (Amanda Stevens) included, gets naked in this show. They may not take their clothes off, but Jamie has a moment that is among the most difficult for an actor to achieve. It takes absolute weakness, and that is something even the best actors find themselves resisting. Amanda must play a character older and less respected than herself. I think Amelia's nakedest moment on stage is not the Act I nude scene, but her fragility deep in Act II. All four actors immersed themselves in a new-to-them acting approach, the technique devised by esteemed teacher Sanford Meisner. 'Acting,' he said (though no one quite agrees on his phrasing), 'is living truthfully under the given imaginary circumstances.' In other words, when you attend The Credeaux Canvas, you won't be seeing professional "stage liars" impersonating human behavior for your enjoyment, as valuable as that is in all our lives. Instead, for this show, you'll see four people who've accepted the circumstances in the room, fictional though they may have been to start with, and then interact with each other in real time. The emotions get very intense--exhausting even. When they fight, they FIGHT. When they love, they fall in LOVE. When they get hurt, they fall APART. And we live all that with them. The result is two hours of operatic emotion on a level that envelops us in its obvious, unforced reality. I think you'll find it to be a singular experience.

My work as an acting teacher on this show is finished, for all intents and purposes. This week adds set details courtesy of stage designer Matthew Moeller and props artist Hally Phillips, plus original artwork by Owen Cummings. The music is set. Vanessa is knocking herself out trying to make the most artful use of new LED lights donated by TAO board members. (Thanks, guys!) And I watch every night with a smile on my face and a tear in my eye, because there is something so amazing about watching humans be humans, purely and with no barriers or apologies. I should also note that there's a pretty darn suspenseful art heist plot, as Winston and Jamie try to convince Tess that a portrait of Amelia was actually painted by early 20th-century Fauvist Jean-Paul Credeaux. Will she be convinced? If so, it would rescue them from soul-crushing East Village McJobs. If not, it could land them in jail for five years. And of course Jamie's relationship with Amelia hangs in the balance.

So that's the emotional feast we've prepared for you. I offer it to you with enormous pride--pride in these four actors, pride in TAO's courage and sensitivity, and pride in our stewardship of Bunin's amazing script. I hope you'll see fit to buy tickets as soon as possible. We're in a small house of only about 40 seats, and for only eight shows. I know the show deserves to sell out. I think once word gets out, some nights will. I don't want you to miss your opportunity to see it. I can tell you for a fact that if you miss TAO's production, you won't see it anywhere else soon.

I'm doing something for this show that I haven't done for any show I've directed since college: I'm attending every single performance. I love it that much. I want to be there when you discover it. From beginning to end this has been an experience I'll look back on with great fondness for decades to come.


It also gives me great pleasure to announce that I'll be playing the role of rage-addicted Anthony in TAO's next production, 7 Ways to Get There by Bryan Willis and Dwayne J. Clark. It's a great script, and I have an opportunity to work with actors I love plus some new folks I've admired from offstage. I expect it to be an absolute lark.

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Ten Things I Know About Acting

Today is my 47th birthday: no big deal, except it marks the start of my fifth decade in theatre. It also marks opening night for Theater Artists Olympia's production of Tartuffe, in which I play Orgon and my wife is Dorine. Next month, I'll help guide actors through the grinder of Olympia Audition League generals, a summer event that recruits actors for productions all over the South Sound. Ergo, this seems an appropriate time to offer a list of ten guidelines for less experienced actors. Feel free to disagree; actors are good at that. But this is how I feel about our craft at this moment, informed by my particular series of influences, mentors and experiences.

1. Focus. If you want to get better at acting, you have to take it seriously. I know it's called "play," but it's work, too. Actors who believe differently tend to cause problems for castmates. As you prepare for an audition or read-through, look up difficult words, including proper nouns. Treat rehearsals as if your reputation depends upon your behavior there, because it does. Learn your lines as quickly as possible. Use the hour before a performance to get control of your body and mind. Leave the grab-ass and hijinks to dilettantes who will never get better. Avoid "theatre games" before a performance. I know they're fun, but rare is the show that benefits from tossing an imaginary ball around when you should be spending time concentrating on your lines and performance. In an audition, taking a moment to center yourself, breathe, and focus on your monologue will prevent the dreaded "Oops, can I start again?" (Don't start again, by the way. The damage is already done. Just take another breath, correct the problem, and move forward. Directors are impressed by calm recoveries.)

2. Imagine. Explore your range. Get to know all kinds of people, then ask yourself how you might go about portraying them. True, actors get shoved into types, but types are at least preferable to ruts. Why contribute to your own typecasting by playing the same performance note every time? A cold-reading audition or callback is a wonderful opportunity to show off your range, as it's an open invitation to play almost any character in the script. Use that!

3. Know thy instrument. You don't have to be in perfect shape. You don't have to be gorgeous. You don't have to sing like an opera star. You do have to be realistic about your body, voice and features, and keep track of the range of things they can actually do. If you're an alto, the soprano piece "No One Is Alone" from Into the Woods is a poor choice for an audition no matter how much you enjoy it or even love singing it. In other words, don't audition with a song unless you're 100% confident you can hit all its notes on your worst day. Keep track of what your face is doing; a surprising number of actors smile as they're performing tragic monologues, and that's just creepy.

4. Stand normally. Find a full-body mirror and watch yourself standing silently. See how your hands hang at your sides? Notice how you're standing perpendicular to the ground? Yeah. That's a good place to start. I can't tell you how many times I've watched auditioners sway from side to side like a metronome or flail their arms about like they were miming semaphore signals. I also roll my eyes when auditioners choose monologues that require them to act like they're talking on phones--which they usually represent by holding empty fists up to their ears. Don't they realize how silly that looks? Avoid monologues with phones. I mean that, okay? Just be present. Take a breath. It's all good. There isn't a person in that audition room who wants you to fail. They need you to be great just as much as, or perhaps even more than, you need them to admire your work. This is your house. Enjoy it.

5. Gobble life. Travel. Read a lot. Skinny dip. See great movies. Fall in love. Have an enviable sex life. Imbibe the world. Pay attention to people's accents, gestures, and expressions. Explore the many ways people signal they're in love or about to throw a punch. Generally speaking, it's easier to recall what you've experienced and reproduce it than invent a life experience on the spot.

6. Listen. The best actors are reactors. They pay attention to fellow actors and respond as seems fitting. It seldom matters what technique you use, so long as dialogue becomes conversation, but that can't happen if you're listening for a single cue word or contemplating the hottie in the front row. Often when an actor goes up on his or her lines, the previous dialogue included a question that demanded the very line that's gone missing as its answer.

7. Show respect. Sometimes that means showing respect for yourself. You do yourself no favors by performing loaded, letting yourself get treated like a worthless commodity, or snapping at directors or fellow actors. I'm not saying one should always be a doormat. I'm also not claiming a perfect track record myself when it comes to treating people fairly or politely. But by showing respect for everyone in the building, from the greenest cast or crew member all the way up to the artistic director, an actor establishes his or her professional identity. When I direct, I'd much rather cast a green actor who plays by the rules than a superstar who amps up a scene by attacking his fellow actors or takes physical liberties backstage. We're all in this together, folks. Let's play by the rules. They exist because they work.

8. Laugh. Pretending to be someone else is inherently ridiculous. We're grown adults, yet we put on bizarre costumes and recite rhyming couplets and fall in and out of love as drama dictates. That's what kids do. It's a craft, yes, and an art form as worthy as any. It's also what children do without breaking a sweat, so enjoy it as they do. Watch a kid playing army or Star Wars. Kids know how to play and take things seriously at the same time. Let that kid be your role model.

9. Learn. There's not an actor on earth who can't add to his or her tool chest. Every critic is right, from a certain point of view at least, whether he or she is panning you or praising you. A critic's (or audience member's) experience of your work is partly subjective, partly influenced by your mastery of craft, partly in the hands of other cast and crew members--not to mention the whims of fate. Your director is right about your work, too, even if/when he or she is being an absolute moron, because that's the way a moronic person perceived your performance. That, in theatre parlance, is how your work "read." Take it in, let it simmer a while, and extract whatever value you can from people's responses to what you do. A bad review's not the end of the world, no matter how much a thumbs-down might sting. But assuming you have nothing left to learn is the end of your progression as an actor. So why stop now when you've come so far?

10. Keep theatre holy. Look, I get that this sounds totally woo-woo, but the stage is my church. A grad professor described it as a "liminal space," a defined area in which the rules of surrounding culture are permitted (or encouraged) to change. I love my wife, but if a play calls for me to love another character while I'm in that liminal space, then I have, grab, and fully enjoy the obligation to do that. If my character's in conflict with another, I give myself the liberty to scream and cry and demand the very gods strike my enemy down on the spot. That, my friends, is why theatre is cathartic for actors even as it is for an audience. But remember: when you go back across the edge of that liminal space on your way to the dressing room, those rules have to change back. You have to let that love, anger, libido, power, you name it, slip away. In short, you have to go back to being you. It's the only way to keep sane in this business of show; and besides, it'll soon be time to reboot for your next grand theatrical adventure.

Break a leg!

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The picture below was taken by Gretchen Phillips at Charlie's Bar & Grill in Olympia after Laughing Stock's opening night. It includes much of the cast and crew of our show, plus friends and family. There's Amanda, for example, checking her phone after four failed attempts at taking the picture.

Laughing Stock Opening Night

Laughing Stock Opening Night

[Pictured from left to right: Rick Pearlstein, K.C. Beadle, Tom Sanders (standing), Phil Folan, Anthony Neff, Jess Allan, audience member Louise Morgan, David Phillips, Conner Engelking (sitting behind us), Hannah Eklund, audience member Jen Leonard, Abby Wells, Christian Carvajal, Amanda Stevens, George Dougherty, Heather Cantrell (blouse), Hally Phillips (green fingernails)]

Something about that photo nagged at me. It seemed familiar to me somehow, as did much of the experience of putting this show together. Suddenly it dawned on me: it reminded me of the picture below, taken almost 22 years earlier.

Opening night for The Boys Next Door at ECU, spring of 1993

Opening night for The Boys Next Door at ECU, spring of 1993

[Pictured from left to right: unknown, Paul Dowell, Angie Reynolds, Dorya Garrett (Huser), Cheryl Beck (Carvajal)]

That photo was taken by, I think, my mom, the night we opened The Boys Next Door at ECU. I didn't know it then, but the blonde with the red-eye at lower right would soon be my sister-in-law. (She also played the adorable "Sheila" in Boys.) The Boys Next Door was the first full-length show I ever directed, and, like this new show, Laughing Stock, it was a smash hit right out of the gate. Both featured huge laughs that set up more sentimental moments. Both benefited from friendships I made in the five years before while introducing me to talented strangers. I set both shows in 1993. And when all is said and done, I'll have enormous pride in both.

Laughing Stock sold out its entire opening weekend. That never happens in theatre, at OLT or anywhere else. Tickets are selling fast for the remainder of our four-week run. I love my cast and crew; we've been through a lot together. Being involved with Laughing Stock, a show I consider theirs as much as mine, has filled me with a sense of grateful accomplishment and joy matched by few other recent career developments. If you live anywhere close, I do hope you'll make plans to see it. I'll be there Saturday and probably at least one more time during the course of the run. For ticket information, please visit OLT's website or call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006. This show is turning into something of a phenomenon. I'd hate for you to miss it, not for my own aggrandizement at this point, but because I know how much you'll enjoy it. It takes me back to a place and time when I came into ECU's drama department thinking the only thing that mattered was self-expression...then came out five years later with a new lifelong family. This show represents my family album. Perhaps it's yours, too.

Opening night of The Boys Next Door at ECU, 1993

Opening night of The Boys Next Door at ECU, 1993

Note the shirt I'm wearing in these ECU photos. The night of first read-through on Laughing Stock, I decided to wear a shirt I owned in 1993. I dug this one out of a drawer and put it on. I believe it's the only such garment I still own. Imagine my surprise when I realized, just last that week, that I wore it to The Boys Next Door all those many years ago. Our lives carry echoes. Those peak moments follow us down through the years.

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All In

When directing for community theatre, it's often a given that one will wear numerous hats. That has certainly been the case with Laughing Stock at Olympia Little Theatre. Of course, I don't mean to give the impression that I'm doing it all alone. No, fourteen actors and four hardcore crew members have been busting their butts from the start. We benefit from the years of labor that went into compiling OLT's shop, and then we borrowed from another. But when there's literally not a single aspect of the show that hasn't had my input at some point, it's hard not to take special pride in it. It's also impossible for me not to worry, though intellectually I know we're in good shape. I just feel incredibly invested, and that increases my anxiety level. If something goes wrong, no matter what or which department, I know I'll be partly to blame.

We've reached the last three rehearsals, when I step back and let the stage management team of K.C. Beadle and Phil Folan take the reins. Assuming actors get their lines out correctly, always a trick given an accelerated rehearsal period, we'll be in good shape. People who've seen the show have laughed throughout, often convulsively. It's sentimental in all the right places and really takes me back to a time in my life when I first figured out what I was capable of being. I'm reminded of people who taught me how to be whatever approximation of grown-up behavior I've achieved. At this point, especially after generating a binder full of promotional material, "The Playhouse" in Charles Morey's script is very real to me. I've started accidentally referring to the cast by their character names, even in casual conversation. I know what the place smells like, how the light comes through in summer, what the walls might say first if they could talk. It reminds me of 1993, when I was younger and braver and cooler than I am now but had no idea any of those qualities applied to me.

In the past few weeks, we've exhausted ourselves to the point of shaking. We've left literal blood, sweat and tears on the boards at OLT. In a month it'll all be gone and we'll move on to other projects. So why do we do it? What drives us to kill ourselves for ephemera? We do it so both we and you can laugh. We do it to tell and enjoy a good story. We do it because your inexpensive ticket helps keep OLT's lights on for season 76, but more importantly, because coming together to share adventures and emotions is what makes community an actual thing. And my God, this is an emotional show. I feel safe in saying it's crawled inside all of us. We can feel we've made something special. And part of what we've made, an important part, is the coming together of "another little temporary family." And that, Gentle Reader, has been the story of my life, over and over again.

Aw, sniffle. Look, never mind all that. You're immune to such maudlin sentimentality. Just know this show is really, really funny. It's been hysterically funny from the first read-through on. That's to Morey's credit, but also to actors who've given life to his words and, I promise you, augmented them. And while it won't happen every night, some nights the guy laughing loudest in the audience will probably be me. That's my right. It's okay to laugh at family.

Laughing Stock
Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave. NE
For tickets call (360) 786-9484

A funny and affectionate look at the magic that lies at the heart of the theatrical world. When "The Playhouse," a rustic New England summer theatre, schedules a repertory season of Charley's Aunt, Dracula and Hamlet, predictably, confusion ensues. Follow the well-intentioned but over-matched company from outrageous auditions to ego-driven rehearsals through opening nights gone disastrously awry, to the elation of a great play well-told and the comic and nostalgic final night of the season.


7:55pm: 3/27, 3/28, 4/2, 4/3, 4/4, 4/9, 4/10, 4/11, 4/16, 4/17, 4/18;
1:55pm: 4/12, 4/19

"Good theatre hurts."

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A Straight Meditation on National Themes, Part 1

Unless you're an actor, it's probable you know nothing about Tony Kushner's landmark 1993 play Angels in America (though you may have caught the HBO miniseries version). Angels sounds like the kind of show you'd find at a Baptist theme park. It is not. Theatre folk revere this multiple Tony winner, but it's both arduous to stage and off-putting to elderly, conservative audiences, so most companies shy away from producing it. Oh! I should also mention it's divided into two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, each of which is three hours long. That's a long sit, especially when characters are rambling on about government and "power to the people." So why do we in the acting and directing games adore it so much?

A key element of the play is gay Americans' struggle for acceptance in the 1980s, as a viral plague ravaged their community while amplifying the phobias of heterosexuals. I've told the story before of how a visit to a drag club, and a list of names read there of the recently deceased, won me over once and for all to the side of righteousness--meaning I am a straight ally. That night in, I think, 1991 was a game-changer for me. It put the lie to everything I'd been told about homosexuality by my Christian elders while injecting harsh reality and urgency into the AIDS crisis. Five years later, I found myself playing Louis in an SIU-C production of Angels in America, Part 1. I auditioned in hopes of earning the part of Roy Cohn, a thinly fictionalized incarnation of the very real attorney at the heart of the Red Scare and marginalization of gay citizens. Cohn died of what he called "liver cancer," in actuality HIV, in 1986. Instead I got Louis, who has many more lines and is openly gay and is also kind of a bastard himself, in that he begins an affair even as his longtime boyfriend disintegrates from HIV infection.

We heterosexual folks who love theatre spend our lives working side by side with gay men and lesbians. We love them as family. They're part of us. So when we hear about legislators, to this very day, working overtime to curry favor with Fox News viewers by yanking hard-won rights away from those we love, it destroys us on a gut level. We embrace Angels in America because it articulates, in so many ways, a cause we view as embedded in our cells. Its characters demand equality, from God and other humans, as opponents close ranks around them. This play is the Marseillaise to our war: "C'est nous qu'on ose méditer de rendre à l'antique esclavage! Aux armes, citoyens!"

But if I'm being honest, even as the justice of our cause swelled my chest, I was uncomfortable rehearsing as Louis. I'd never kissed a man before, and I'd certainly never mimed sexual activity with my pants down before hundreds of people. The play is still shocking to conservative audiences, but man; in 1996, in Bible-belt southern Illinois, patrons' outrage--yes, I know the word outrage is vastly overused, but I stand by it here--nearly set the room on fire. I had to confront and get over my own hangups and prejudices, then face the collective displeasure of six hundred people a night. There were letters to the editor. People were assigned to walk actors to their cars. It was crazy. And I know it changed at least one life...mine.

Fast-forward 22 years to tomorrow at 7:55 p.m., when I'll walk on stage, finally, as Roy Cohn in an Olympia Little Theatre production of Angels in America directed by Nic Olson. We're presenting Millennium Approaches this first week, then Perestroika the second. It's a staged reading, meaning we actors will have books in our hands, but I think even OLT was surprised by the level to which this staged reading has been produced. It's fully blocked, costumed, lit, and sound-designed. There's a rudimentary set, complete with levels and special effects. To facilitate fight, love, and sex scenes, we've memorized certain pages. We studied Aramaic, French, Hebrew and medical jargon. No one gets naked, but we would've if asked. At the risk of implied condescension, I can't imagine how OLT could've asked for or gotten a smarter, more dedicated, talented cast. Kudos, for example, to Austin Lang, who's playing Louis; he's made choices I wish I'd been clever enough to make at SIU. I think what audience members get from this show is 85-90% of a fully-staged production, and remember, that's over six hours of theatre. Not too shabby!

If, that is, we get an audience. I haven't made too big a deal of the show up till now, because frankly, some of my readers won't want to see it. If, for example, you oppose gay marriage, this show isn't for you. Gay marriage wasn't a remote possibility when Angels was written, but the absolute rightness of it underlies every word. If the sight of two men kissing gives you the squeams, then, again, this show isn't for you. I suspect the 21st century won't be, either. If you can't abide swearing--I say words in this I wouldn't call my worst enemy--or seeing me play a horrible person--absolutely the worst I've ever played, by the time Perestroika gets through--then please stay home. Save your eight bucks a night. I mean, maybe this'd be a great learning experience for you, but frankly, you seem like the kind of person who avoids those. Not my problem. If you love to be challenged, however, to be wildly entertained by the hugest of emotional arcs at the climax of the Eschaton itself, then I damn sure know what you should put on your calendar.

It's different doing this show now, not just because I'm playing Roy instead of Louis. The world has changed in so many wonderful ways over the last two decades, some of which allowed it to mature in ways that helped it catch up with the play. My friends helped make some of that happen. One of our professors at ECU, Mary Bishop (now Bishop-Baldwin), was a driving force in legalizing gay marriage in Oklahoma. The cool theatre senior who lived next door is now a different sex altogether, which makes her one of three transgendered people on my Facebook friends list. Again: not part of our collective reality in 1996. Each day, the fight for equality is taking place in everyone's neighborhood, on TV and in social media, and the good guys and gals are finally winning. On the theatre side, no more do we see open homophobia in newspaper reviews. Actors are expected to be fully comfortable performing gay characters, including same-sex physical contact. It's part of our lives now. And y'know, once that period of uncertainty and yes, discomfort, passed, it freed people like me to understand that Angels in America has a much bigger theme than even the securing of equal rights for all our fellow Americans. It's about what it means to be a country itself. What is the point of all this? What are we trying to accomplish? How do we move ahead, and toward what, when we haven't decided what our guiding principles are? No, God isn't dead, but He also isn't president. He doesn't tell us which legislation to pass. The books He allegedly wrote seem decreasingly relevant to our daily lives, not because we're all fallen sinners, but because they predate modern science or humanistic ethics (or, in the case of the Torah at least, Euclidean geometry). In other words, while God continues His two-thousand-year history as a deadbeat dad, how and, as significant, why do we conduct our civilization? Those are vast questions. In some ways, six hours of drama isn't enough to scratch the surface, but Kushner's attempt at doing so is comparable to Shakespeare's meditations on the human condition in Hamlet. It doesn't get any bigger or better.

So that's the outline. I'll have more to say about our experiences with Angels, and in more of an anecdotal fashion, next week. In the meantime, wish us broken legs. Let us know what you think of our show. It'll be interesting, for both us and you.

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Happier Trails

I'd already resolved to find ways to lessen my life's anxieties when, about two weeks ago, the crown on one of my molars exploded in my mouth. I'm sure the popcorn I was eating at the time was a factor, but the crown was less than two years old and I hadn't bitten down on a kernel. When my dentist took a look, he said, "Holy smokes, dude, what're you stressing about? Have you been gnashing your teeth? You're grinding away the enamel. It looks like you're carving Mount Rushmore in there." He asked me politely if I'd consider a night guard. I was embarrassed; I didn't know how to tell him I did most of that damage during the day.

Like most people, I have occasional concerns over money, but the biggest source of my stress has been an element of my night job. I'm proud to say I've been a critic, columnist, and occasional feature writer for The Weekly Volcano for over five years now. That's part of the reason I get to call myself a professional writer, a fact that brings considerable happiness. I like and respect my editor/publisher/boss, I've been known to enjoy the occasional perquisite, and I've had the amazing joy of helping draw attention to dozens of worthwhile productions. I've written something like 180 theatre reviews. I'm no Clive Barnes, but yeah, it adds up.

I spent my formative years in a college town where the only newspaper critic, a guy I'll call Dick, wrote his reviews under a pen name. He did so largely because he was also the president and de facto monarch of that town's only community theater. Conflict of interest? What conflict of interest? This smarmy bastard went so far as to review shows he himself directed, referring to himself once as a "visionary." Lord almighty. I have to tell you, that still burns. Years later, I sought my job at the Volcano after another local critic reviewed a show he hadn't even seen. So believe me when I say I've thought a fair amount about why criticism is necessary, how it can go wrong, and why it's important to remain as objective as humanly possible. And that, because heaven knows it wasn't for riches or fame, was the main reason I clung to my ideals in the face of considerable opposition.

Y'know what, though? Enough is enough. The truth is I feel horrible each time I have to pan a show, more so if my friends are in its cast, crew, or production staff. It feels as if I'm delivering a death notice. I can't sleep. I get hate mail, not to mention an awkward reception upon showing up at parties. My more cutting remarks get quoted back to me; never once, not that I can recall, has anyone ever quoted a compliment. And the funniest thing is I feel almost as much stress when I turn in positive reviews. I pore over Facebook, obsessively waiting for someone to notice I've been a sweet guy this time around. I can't take the roller coaster anymore. So with that, I've decided to take what I call an open-ended sabbatical from theatre criticism. My editor was kind enough to grant this request and offered to increase my word count in other areas. Let me say again: this was my idea, not his or anyone else's, and it's been a long time coming. I've been pondering my exit strategy for years. My editor has been nothing but supportive, even as certain theaters clamored for retribution.

Usually when a critic steps down or away, he or she uses an essay like this to say what an honor and pleasure it's been serving the theater community. As I said before, sometimes it has been an enormous pleasure. There are folks I could name who've been lovely even after I panned some of their efforts. They know demanding critics oblige us to become better artists. That's been true in my case. I still remember the first review I got from ol' Dickie. I appeared in a Broadway revue (almost certainly produced sans royalty payments, but that wasn't my concern at the time) in which my solo was "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof. Dick wrote--keep in mind, I was 24 at the time--that I was "a dead ringer for Topol but could show more enthusiasm in the role." Topol was Chaim Topol, the burly actor who played Tevye in the movie, when he was 36 but looked a decade older. And the worst thing about that review, which I can still quote from memory? The son of a bitch was right. I was half-assing it on stage. I did have Topol's physicality but none of his dance moves. I remember the reviewer who told me to my face that I'd added nothing to a show I directed that wasn't in the script. I could lay out numerous logistical reasons why that had to be the case, but it was the truth nonetheless. I was guilty as charged. I was guilty when a grad committee member bashed my understanding of blocking actors in the round. I was guilty the many, many times professors told me I was growing too full of myself. And it hurt. Oh, man, did it hurt. But in the long run, I grew as a person and a performer. I'm still growing with the help of objective audience members and readers. That isn't something that stops just because we get a few tricks and years under our belts. We can't say, "Listen, I've done a hundred shows" and expect that to absolve us from working on our craft.

Yes, it has been a pleasure being a theater critic. Sometimes. On the other hand, it's also been a pain in the keister. If it was, in fact, an honor, there were times when that honor felt more like a dreaded obligation. The truth of the matter is certain theater practitioners are laboring under the delusion that critics work for them, not for the critics' editors and readers. Of course we do serve the theater community as a whole--but constant promotion is not the only way to support the arts. That's what publicists do, and it's easy to tell they work for theater companies because theater companies sign their paychecks. Now, it is true theaters give critics pairs of comp tickets, and that ain't nothin', especially when shows are expected to sell out--not that most opening weekends are full. But what troupes are buying when they hand out those tickets is an impartial authority who'll tell them the truth. Audiences won't do that. Audiences lie, as they say in Oklahoma, like a big dog. Audience members walk right up to theater managers, time after time after time, and say, "That's the best show I've ever seen." They give exuberant standing ovations to shows that are mediocre at best. They lie because social etiquette demands it, especially in our highbrow, artsy circle. Furthermore, audience members aren't usually theater authorities (a few major exceptions notwithstanding). It's why banal musical revues sell better than smart, intense dramas. It's why 40-year-old Neil Simon scripts, charming as they are, sell better than newer, edgier texts with more relevant jokes. I wasn't brought in to act like your average audience member. Theaters already have audience members for that.

As actors and directors, usually under assumed names I could see right through, blogged or commented in angry rebuttals of my critiques, I did my best to maintain the rhetorical high ground. I labored to consider their complaints, no matter how inelegantly or insultingly phrased, and mine them for valid concerns. There were times when my colleagues were right. I was too glib when I wrote that puff piece about local burlesque. I was new on the job and made obvious rookie mistakes. I committed typos and even significant factual errors. I held theaters and theatre practitioners to the highest standards I'd seen them achieve in the past, a policy that make sense but didn't always square with the vicissitudes of theatrical budgets and schedules. I wrote negative comments as jokes sometimes, a practice that casual readers of the Volcano loved but which caused even mild rebukes to land like sledgehammers. For all that, mea culpa. I apologize. This is not an easy job, especially if one is doing one's best to do it honestly and fairly, and I'm not without blame in its execution. Besides, if you're one of those people whose feelings I hurt, I know it doesn't matter a whit to you why it happened. You just think I'm a jerk. I could invite you to chat up my wife sometime about how it all went down, but that'd put too much unnecessary stress and responsibility on her.

Again, I did my best to take the high road. Sometimes, that road is downright exhausting. I didn't take this job because I'm made of impermeable stone. I know it's popular to paint critics as self-important jerkwads who sit around compiling lists of all-purpose insults, but I've met a fair number of critics now and I have never met that critic. What I have met are theatre geeks who adore the art form and know how effing great it can be. It's not only I who spends months looking forward to writing his or her annual "best of local theatre" awards column. I doubt I'm the only critic who spends twice as long writing a negative review as he or she takes writing a positive one. And boy, do I understand the temptation to soft-pedal or obfuscate or downright perjure oneself to avoid writing unflattering reviews. I enjoy being liked as much as the next guy. Trouble is, I also have this insane OCD aspect to my personality, and it demands that if I intend to fulfill this job, I have no other choice but to do it as I know it's supposed be done. And if you think it's the job of a reviewer to avoid talking smack about artists' work, then check out Richard Roeper's review of Night at the Museum 3. With the passing of Roger Ebert, Roeper's probably the best-known critic in America. Folks like them were my role models, not hometown Dick that I was telling you about earlier.

Anyway, this may be my last chance to write about this stuff, possibly ever, so allow me to debunk a few common responses. Here's a list of reasons people claim I reviewed their work negatively.

1. He's just mean.

I do have a mean side. I admit that, and not without shame. I often laugh at mean jokes and have been known to express such myself. I'm an easy laugh, an easy cry, and equal parts romantic and cynic. Of course, I could say much the same about you, more than likely. I suspect a truly mean person would derive some pleasure from hurting other artists' feelings. I do not.

2. He plays favorites.

Ask director Pug Bujeaud about that sometime. Ask Chris Serface or John Munn. Ask them how being my friends shielded them from negative reviews. Or, for that matter, peruse this year's Carvy awards list, in which I gave justly-deserved recognition to folks who were cursing my name at the time.

3. He should be more supportive of theatre.

That's like saying the only way of being supportive of theatre is to suck up to everyone who makes it. Come on. You know better than that. If I agreed with that idea, I'd be doing a disservice to all the teachers and directors who were hard on me over the years, then reveled as I got better and prospered in the arts. They were being supportive. They supported me with honesty, at times brutal honesty. I needed that. You know artists need that. Without it, we're too lazy and self-defensive and we allow ourselves (and our art form) to stagnate.

4. He doesn't know what he's talking about.

See, there you go insulting my teachers again. I guess you're entitled to your opinion, but I can promise you I did not find my degrees or résumé at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.

5. He wanted to hate that show.

As I've said a million times, I never want to hate any show. I value my time too much for that. It's more fun seeing great shows and extolling them in print.

6. He expected to hate that show.

Maybe. Do you expect to love every film playing at your local cineplex? Is it possible you're more drawn to comedies, for example, than to torture-porn horror films? Do you suspect the next Transformers epic might be less than a classic of its form? I grant you no one's fully objective about anything; I concede I'm more drawn to edgy dramas than to camp. But please, give me this if nothing else: I'm open to having my mind changed. The play I named show of the year in 2014 was a camp homegrown musical. The play I expected to love most, it turned out, underwhelmed me. I reviewed the show I saw, not the show I expected to see. Make it good, and you were probably in the clear no matter how I felt driving into the parking lot.

7. He's biased on behalf of certain theaters, especially the ones that cast him or hire him as a director.

That's an easy assessment to make if you've never cast or hired me. If, on the other hand, you have, then you remember the pans I've given Capital Playhouse, Lakewood Playhouse, OFT, OLT, and TAO over the years. You may ponder how seriously you'd take my remarks if I never did theatre anywhere.

8. He thinks he's better than us.

It depends. I do think I'm better than certain other people, at least at certain things. There are actors and other theatre folk I know are better than me. Almost anyone alive is a better dancer. That doesn't mean I can't recognize an ill-rehearsed or sloppily choreographed dance number when I see one. I'm fairly confident in the caliber of my training as an actor and director, and I'm fond of my own writing. That's kinda what led me to applying for the job, right? Would you rather I thought I was worse?

9. He doesn't know the troubles we were up against, nor how hard we worked.

On the contrary, I assume you performed Herculean labors and were up against the world, because I'm an actor and director. I know how much sacrifice and effort it takes to put on a lousy show, let alone a terrific one. Sometimes, though, love just ain't enough, my friends. We've all been in that show we beat our heads against but could never lock down. It happens to the best of us. Y'know who doesn't know what you were up against? The audience, and they mostly don't care. They paid their money; now they want terrific entertainment. They deserve really good entertainment and whoa, I'm asking for the moon here, they benefit from theatre that makes them think and rewards good taste. That's your job, no matter how things went south.

So yeah, those are explanations people give, to themselves and others, as a way of offloading the blame for their hurt feelings onto me and other critics. I submit to you, however, that there's another reason some shows get panned, and it's a simple one that invokes Occam's razor. Are you ready? Here it is:

Sometimes shows just aren't that good. Now, it doesn't mean people weren't trying. It doesn't mean people aren't talented. It means that's how the cookie crumbles at times. I've been in clunkers, too. And sometimes, we balk at negative reviews because, as I did above, we suspect they have something of a point.

I do feel better getting this off my chest. But y'know what'll make me feel even better than that? Using my freer time to create new art of my own. I'll be directing a backstage comedy called Laughing Stock this spring, and I'm also very happy to announce I've been cast as Roy Cohn in Angels in America (Parts 1 and 2) at Olympia Little Theatre, opening February 19. I look forward to critics' reviews. If I deserve to be panned, then I will be. The responsibility is on me to earn critics' respect, not on critics to pat my head no matter how the show goes. After one more review, for Cirque du Soleil's Kurios, I'll hang my theatre critic's hat up until such time as I feel happier doing the job. And if that bit of news gives you a warm feeling of gloatiness inside, then I hope you'll keep that to yourself.

Oh! And if I should happen to come strolling into your restaurant, all bets are off.

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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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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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