An Actor Doing Nothing
I took an acting workshop with Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill a number of years ago and one of the first things she did was went around the room and asked us all to think of a performance that amazed us. She wanted a theater performance. This was, after all, a class with the Artistic Director of Capital Repertory Theatre who has directed over 100 plays and musicals in that now-shuttered, beloved and cursed Market Theatre at 111 North Pearl.
Later, she asked what we remembered of those performances that amazed us. Mine was John Malkovich in his 1982 New York debut as Lee in “True West.” There were many things I remember about that performance. It was insinuating, silly, taunting and especially dangerous but the first image in my mind’s eye is the lights coming up morning on the cheery suburban kitchen set with birds tweeting and him standing by the sink with the window behind him staring distractedly off into the middle distance, drinking a tallboy and scratching and playing with his balls (!) for what seemed like…minutes. It was disturbing and funny and gross and…you had no idea what he was going to do next! The rest of the play was set up with this opening image (directed by his co-star Gary Sinise), the audience was titillated, repulsed and fascinated… and you were immediately hooked.
The rest of the class gave their favorites and many of them contained specific moments from the performances they cherished. Very few people mentioned speeches or feelings that the actors had gone through but almost everyone mentioned something an actor did in the role. Maggie’s point was that we remember what a performer does, the action they take, their activity and tactic in getting what they want. Actors act. They do something. I’ve asked this question of my classes numerous times and it usually works out that 90% of fantastic performances remembered mention an action.
Well, after two weeks of social distancing: I am stuck. Two of my shows have been canceled and another is on the brink. No class. No reviews. No day job. I am doing not much. I am at odds with how to contribute to a blog celebrating Capital Region theater when there is no theater going on and there is no prospect of getting back onstage or in the audience anytime soon. Perhaps I should take inventory and see what’s in the cupboard to see what I need to stock up on.
First and foremost, I am an actor. From the moment when my high school director of my first show “Carnival” called me out in front of the cast and praised my preparedness and imagination trying something new in every rehearsal, saying “This is an actor!” Honestly, I was just looking for fresh laughs and reactions every day, that’s why I always came in with new business. I have branched out into other things but all because I was an actor and mostly because I wanted to grow a more hospitable environment for unsatisfied actors like myself.
I started teaching because I wanted others to make the most of the myriad opportunities, especially the most worthwhile ones available in the Capital Region. I wanted to teach not only how an actor takes tactics to get their objective but how to be a member of a community. That the best place to learn how to act if you’re not onstage or in a rehearsal room was in the audience. That you needed to attend unto others as you would have them attend unto you. Over 25 of my students came to see “Ben Butler” at Curtain Call Theatre and a few of them are now directing, creating opportunities for others. Before everything went to hell I had past and present students involved in over a dozen shows preparing to go up.
I wanted to build and grow a community that supported and created opportunities for everyone so I started directing where I could select shows that had inclusive casting like “Grand Concourse,” “An Inspector Calls,” “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” and “Men on Boats.” I’ve directed a dozen plays in the last five years but those four plays alone had roles for 25 women and 22 actors of color.
I also felt that I could sell more tickets being in the director’s chair than being on the boards. As a director, I had no reservations as I had as an actor about selling the shit out of a show and pursuing every publicity outlet available. I chose shows that were vitally important to me so I had no problem writing 1,000 words about why a particular show moved me ineffably and email it to 1,000 of my closest friends.
There wasn’t enough being written about the great work going on Capital Region stages so I started reviewing. I easily overcame my reservations of many years after hearing a beloved theater maligned and plunged headfirst into this endeavor with zeal. I wanted to celebrate and highlight the exceptional work that was happening every weekend night and convince you and your friends to buy a ticket. I wanted to tell the community that I see and value their work and I want them to keep growing and pushing our theater to be more daring, adventurous, supportive and inclusive. I’ve probably written 100 reviews since starting last July. A good friend told me he caught one of three performances of Confetti Stage’s “The Mountaintop” because he found out about it because of my review. If for nothing else, my 100 volunteer reviews were worth it to get one other soul to witness Angelique Powell in this play.
And now? STUCK! I don’t want to write a round-up of streaming sources or virtual play readings or reminiscences, things that might be seen as necessary in this time of isolation but that just draw us away from the live theater. My mission is to create impactful work with a community that celebrates and values challenging, inclusive theater. How do I avoid self-aggrandizing opinion pieces like this one and be of service to the community? How do we go on and take action to move theater forward when everything is in a state of stasis?