Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Actor's Role

Being part-time faculty at Columbia College, there aren't too many perks. So, you have to grab them where you can. One thing that's encouraged is to take your classes to theater productions and events that happen during your class time. Sometimes that's cool, sometimes it's grueling and, sometimes, like yesterday, it's a pleasure.

I got to sit in the same room with Olympia Dukakis, Nora Dunn, Carmen Roman and Kate Buddeke. Carmen and Kate are established veteran actresses on the Chicago scene. Olympia is in town directing Carmen in a play called Botanic Garden at Victory Gardens and Nora is directing Kate in Augusta at the American Theater Company. Albert Williams, arts editor of The Reader, organized the event. He noticed that two prominent ladies were in town directing two shows close to opening and rightly thought it would be a great idea to get them in a room together to see what they had to say. And he was right.

The most surprising thing they had to say was about the current state of theater across the country and how the actor has been reduced to just a prop. There's very little collaboration between actors and a few of them were even in shows where they were told not to talk to the director. Obviously, this is true about most film and television productions. They are huge machines with looming deadlines and expanding budgets. They need for you to come in with your lines down and to be able to hit your mark and deliver the goods. But in theater? I thought that was supposed to be different.

It's most prominent in New York on Broadway. Which does make sense. Most of the shows on Broadway are producer-driven and market-driven affairs. They are pre-produced to death and by the time the actor arrives for work, they really are reduced to "stand there and do this" type of direction. But they also found this at smaller theaters and at regional theaters across the country. That, I am sure, is a money thing. Theater companies have to figure out how to do the best job possible on the tightest budget. It's cost prohibitive to bring name actors in during the pre-production stage. Rehearsal periods are shortened to save bucks. Sets are built and dressed without the inclusion of an actor's input because that kind of luxury would take money. I'm not arguing against their point. I can just understand how it has become the way that it is.

The ladies were there to promote a culture where actors are allowed to do their jobs. Where they are allowed and encouraged to come in with thoughts and opinions about their characters and ideas about what works and what doesn't work about the story or the set.

Many directors would perceive this as trouble. No one wants to work with an actor who is difficult. As a writer and a director, I get concerned about an actor who wants to change the script. The script I'm already 100 percent happy with or I wouldn't be directing it. But most of the actors I have worked with are smart. Their ideas actually improve the story. As a writer, I also don't want an actor who wants to change everything, but I tend to know when something's not clicking and have had my butt saved on more than one occassion by an actor with a better idea.

I loved what Olympia, Nora, Kate and Carmen had to say. As a director, it's important to surround yourself with people - actors, designers and crew - who want to work together. Whose instincts you trust. Some artists will want to change things just to put their stamp on it. I think, to foster the culture the actresses want, it's up to the director to cast well. Or cast, period. Many directors don't get to cast their own shows.

Some tidbits from the discussion...

- Actors are collaborators in a show, not competitors. Olympia discussed a period in her development where she didn't care about the other actors. She was focused on having her moment on stage. The kind of moment that led to the next job. Her competitiveness worked career-wise, but she got to a point where she stopped caring about the work. As she put it, "If you're too busy trying to win, you forget to play."

- Take "Is this what you want?" out of your vocabulary. An actor's job isn't to be focused on giving the director what he or she wants, it's to serve the show.

- Take "That's not how I work" out of your vocabulary. It's limiting and isolating. Actors grow and change. How you work will change with it. Try new things. Experiment.

- As a director, you can be the top of the pyramid, which is the current model, or you can be the eye of a hurricane. The calm in the chaos and fury that pulls everything together.

Overall, I think Nora Dunn had the definitive statement on the whole process. "You're not there to please the audience, you're trying to engage them."


Go vote. It's not just the presidential primaries on the ballot. But in regards to the presidential primary, if you're not sure who to vote for, READ THIS from Adam Felber.


Sounds like the snowball is rolling on this. I have had people who are fans of this blog tell me they are going to do this and are spreading the word. Good job, everyone! On Tuesday, March 4th bloggers and fans of bloggers around the world are invited to do a Cyber Shout - "Impeach Bush Now!" Join us, won't you?


Yesterday, I asked...

"Legislators in Mississippi are introducing a bill that would make it illegal for restaurants to serve whom?"

50% said "Illegal Aliens"
- What? They can work there but not eat there?

10% said "Flag-wearing Confederates"
- The south shall rise, again. For seconds from the buffet.

No one said "Suspected Terrorists"

40% got it right with "Obese People"

According to The Smoking Gun, Mississippi legislators introduced a bill that would make it illegal for state-licensed restaurants to serve obese patrons. The bill, which is likely dead on arrival, proposes that the state's Department of Health establish weight criteria after consultation with Mississippi's Council on Obesity. It does not detail what penalties an eatery would face if its grub was served to someone with an excessive body mass index. I recommend they be forced to feed the patron until this happens...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I would have ever singled Nora Dunn out as being one of my inspirations--but her advice is excellent and is making me feel better (as a writer) especially her declaration that "you're not there to please the audience, you're trying to engage them."

I needed to shift my perspective so that I could stop staring at my work with a slack jaw and bloodshot eyes--and that's just the statement to do it. Thanks for posting it!