Adventures with Tevye

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with a legendary character. He has many noble qualities: he works hard, he’s loyal to his family and his community, and he has a deep respect for knowledge and scholarship. When faced with a series of crises in his life, he reacts with wisdom and courage. He’s a good man. I like him; he’s a little crazy, but I like him.

I’m playing Tevye the Dairyman in an upcoming production of Fiddler on the Roof with the St. Clair Theatre Guild. It’s a role I’ve wanted to play at least since high school, and probably earlier, because I know I’ve been listening to the music since I was seven or eight. The music is wonderful, haunting and beautiful, and it’s a joy to get to sing the songs even in rehearsal.

I saw an interview with Harvey Fierstein (whose birthday is today), who played Tevye on Broadway a few years ago. I’ve heard Tevye described as an “everyman,” an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances. Fierstein disagreed with this, arguing that if Tevye were merely an ordinary man, he wouldn’t have had the strength and ability to react and change as his traditions were challenged by his daughters and by the world around him. I agree. And it makes theatrical sense as well, because we don’t go to the theatre to watch ordinary people do ordinary things, but rather to experience the lives of amazing individuals in larger-than-life situations.

Tevye is a devout man, but his relationship with God isn’t rigid, but instead is rather playful and informal. He believes that God is able to control things, but Tevye isn’t afraid to talk back to this all-powerful being. He believes in the power of tradition to hold his family and his village together, but is also flexible enough to see when a tradition no longer serves its purpose and needs to change.

But even Tevye’s open-mindedness has its limits. There is a line in the sand that even he can’t cross. And the moments where he struggles with these decisions are among the most challenging I’ve played as an actor. The emotions that I’m feeling as I react to my three oldest “daughters” are as raw and real as anything I’ve experienced on stage. (It helps, of course, that all three of them: Ellie Wentzel, Ciara Adams and Tyler Nevison, are wonderful actors in their own right.)

It’s easy to see stage musicals as something light and silly. Fiddler has always been much more than that, and I think its universal, lasting appeal to performers and audiences is the result of this realistic emotional depth. I’ve certainly enjoyed getting to know Tevye well. Like most memorable characters, I imagine he’ll be sticking around with me far after our final performance on Saturday night.

The St. Clair Theatre Guild presents Fiddler on the Roof this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 12-14, 2014, at East China Performing Arts Center, 1585 Meisner Road in East China Township. More information is available on the Guild’s website.

No rules. Just create.

I came across this post by independent playwright David Rush today. He describes how the “rules” he’d been taught about playwriting turned out to be more of an obstacle than a help, so he finally starting “drifting” as he wrote, trusting his instincts and inspiration as he writes.

I followed the rules carefully, outlining and filling in and making charts and graphs. And so forth. It would take me, on the average, several months to actually chart all this stuff out. […] My imagination ran riot and I invented all sorts of wonderful stuff. Interesting characters, bold adventures, climactic scenes. […] And then I sat down to write. And it all dried up.

no_rulesI think the “rules” of acting can have a similar effect of stifling the freedom to create a full, vibrant character. I’ve worked with many actors who are trying to “follow the rules” they were taught in acting school or college. But art isn’t about rules, but about creation. I’ve pointed out before that there are as many “styles” of acting as there are actors. We need to be free to create in our own ways. Ultimately, the deadlines of a production do dictate that certain “rules” be followed: learn your lines being the most important, of course. But within the rehearsal process, we need to create an environment where the freedom to try anything, to break rules, and to create in our own way, is respected.

I have never gone back to the old method of charting and graphing and filling in the spaces. I have continued to write without a road map. I continue to drift. And playwriting continues to be fun, as each new writing day is always a surprise and an adventure. To be honest, sometimes it doesn’t work and I drift until I sink. But when it does work, it’s great.

Indeed.

Read David’s complete post at independentplaywrights.com.

The other side of the coin. A degree in acting.

Yesterday, I wrote a lengthy post about studying the humanities. Today, let’s puncture a myth, though.

A few years ago, I was in a production of the musical 1776 that included several young actors who were in high school or college. One of these young men (the show has a lot of men – they were the Founding Fathers, after all), who I shall call Oscar (because nobody his age is called Oscar any more), was studying at a local state university. He was a year away from graduation, and was very excited about getting his degree and starting his career. One night, during a break in rehearsal, I asked him what he was studying.

He seemed surprised. “Acting,” he told me.

I was surprised. I had been acting and directing for a few years at that point, and Oscar was the worst actor I’d ever seen. He still is. Nobody else is close. His line readings were wooden, he had no physicality at all (the fact that his character sat motionless in a chair for most of the show was fortuitous blocking indeed), and he absolutely could not look anyone in the eye. The director, the other actors, no one. Ever.

I recovered, though, and asked my follow up: “What are you planning on doing?”

Same answer, of course. “Acting,” Oscar told me proudly, “I’m going to be an actor. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. And once I have my bachelor’s degree in acting, I’ll be an actor.

I mumbled good luck to him and walked away, wondering how he’d made it to his senior year at a credible university without anyone telling him to reconsider his career choice. There was, to put it mildly, no way he would ever be a professional actor. Hell, he’d have trouble getting cast in amateur theater. (And I run into him now and then, and he’s done only a few plays since, in very small roles, none of them professional.)

So, potential actors, if you’re on your way to a bachelor’s degree in acting or performance, please know that in the cold, cruel world that awaits you, very few people with the power to cast you professionally will care. What they care about is skill, about work ethic, about passion… and whether you look the part and don’t have a funny-sounding voice. There are so many factors, and only rarely will your sheepskin from State U. matter.

Why bother then? Well, here’s why: Going to college to study anything — including theater — means you’ll be with dozens, even hundreds, of like-minded students, with whom you can share your ideas and your passion. There will be facilities, such as stages and black boxes and costume shops and workshops with tools and resources you don’t have and that are expensive to buy or rent yourself. There will be teachers, like me, who love theater and love sharing the joy of creating theater with students like you. And unless you’re planning on doing just one-person productions and turn the lights on yourself, it does help to have a lot of people around to make up a cast and crew.

Just don’t confuse the end result, your college degree, with a license to be an actor. You’re still going to have to prove yourself, over and over again, and the fact that you have a degree itself won’t be a big difference maker. But the work you did to get it will.

Needs and actions (do something about it)

Candy jar by J. Yung (Some rights reserved - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)Acting is doing. Onstage, I make choices that give my character something to do. What are his needs? What does he want? How will he get it? By doing something.

This isn’t any different than real life. Let’s say you want something. It can be big and abstract, like happiness or security; or it can be small and specific, like a candy bar. How do I get it? I could ask for it, using just the sound of my voice (dialogue) and maybe a little body language (physicality). “I want a candy bar,” I ask. If I’m successful, I can move on to the next thing on my list. But that’s not usually enough. Often we have to do something ourselves to get what we want. I may search my house for one. If I find some candy and it’s not mine (ooh! someone left one in the freezer and frozen candy bars are awesome!), I have to negotiate with its owner or maybe just steal it. If there isn’t any candy in the house, I may have to find some money and my car keys and go get one at the store. When I get there, I have dozens of choices: milk or dark chocolate, with nuts or without, caramel/nougat/crisped rice? Maybe I’ll change my mind and get some cookies instead. Or how about a beer? Faced with options, what I really want may change.

Our characters deserve the same chance to want things, to overcome obstacles to get them, to change their minds if new options are available. Don’t just say the words. Know what your character wants — all the time — and you’ll start to make the move from just someone reading lines to an actor doing things.

Actor or mimic?

Other actors before me have played the same roles, memorized and delivered the same words, yet the character I create will always be mine – my interpretation, my artistic decisions – because I’m different from them and it’s simply not possible for me to be the same character. If I try to copy someone else’s interpretation, it’s not acting… it’s mimicry. Would you rather be an actor or a mimic?

Life begins at audition

Photo by Swamibu. Some rights reserved (CC BY-NU 2.0).My life as an actor begins again every time I audition. It’s my rebirth. If I’m good enough, if I’m what the director wants, I get a chance to take a character off the black and white pages of a script and turn him into a real, flesh-and-blood human again, with all of the shades of gray that come with that transformation. Amazing.

Many, if not most, actors hate auditions. They’re terrifying, they’re humiliating, and they carry the very real possibility of rejection. We hate being rejected. Did they hate me because I’m too tall, too short, too skinny, too fat, or is it my voice, my eye color, my age? Or is the director just casting her friends (or lovers)? Maybe that guy got the part because he once did the director a favor or because he’s a major donor or is related to someone who might donate to the theater company. And maybe I need better headshots, a different resumé format.

Who knows? Not you. That’s not your problem, it’s the director’s. Most of the time, the director’s too busy to hate anyone, but he does have to find a cast and I wasn’t what he needed that day. I do know that I don’t get 100 percent of the roles I don’t audition for. If I do audition, though, at least I’ve got a shot. I don’t make a living as an actor – very few of us do – so when I go into an audition I have nothing to lose. If I get a part, great! If not, I’ve left with exactly what I came in with. Except I have one more audition experience under my belt, and even if I wasn’t cast, I may have left a positive impression anyway, which means next time….

It’s so much easier not to try. But not trying means not doing.

Today’s writing music: “Song For My Father” by Stanley Jordan, “These Foolish Things” by Chet Baker, “Ecos” by Strunz & Farah, “Desde Mi Giralda” by El Niño de Pura.

Happy New Year!

Hey! It's Twenty-Twelve!

Happy 2012! May this year be filled with great theater, films and art… and may you be someone who’s creating that art as well as enjoying it.

I’ve been wanting to write down my thoughts about theater and acting for some time, so this year I’m going to write a “thing-a-day” to impose some discipline and get myself going. The posts may be long (article length) or short (perhaps a quote I like or a random thought), but there will be one every day this year. I’ll also be linking to inspiring and thoughtful articles and blogs written by others who I enjoy reading. So by the end of 2012, I’ll have 366 things about theater on this blog. Which should be a good thing, I think. Hopefully, you’ll find a few of these “things” useful.

Let’s get started….