Archive for February, 2015

Before I get into it, I think I have to say a little something about “art.”  Maybe I should make that a capital letter A — writing, music, acting…for me, these have never been “entertainments.”  It would be like calling air or water entertainment.  No, when I was a confused teenager who had no idea how to cope with acne, lust, Catholicism, ridicule, lack of self-esteem and the whole jumble of tangled wires in my stomach that were more or less my unlabeled emotions, my salvation was music.  I listened to “Close to the Edge” or “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” and the vibrations of the music felt more like my own blood than anything else I encountered.  Somewhere in the depths of Baltimore I added Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, the darker episodes of Tchaikovsky.  And I learned to play “angry Mozart.”  I used the piano to let my emotions out.  I was adept with words, wrote a lot of poems, but they were mind games.  Music was the heart.  I would not have survived my teenage years without the piano.  Or Yes.

To paraphrase William Carlos Williams, men die every day for lack of what is found in the poem. Agreed.  Art, for me, is a sacrament.  It is the recognition and reminder of the holy in us, in life.  Comedy is not unholy — in fact, A Fish Called Wanda (for one example) celebrates our foibles, our desires, our self-image and it is fall-down funny.  Holy does not equal serious. But to celebrate what we are, as a race, the holy does have to embrace humanity.

I have to ask myself now, as if I were my own reader, “what does that mean, to embrace humanity?”  I recently watched (again) The Last Samurai. (Note of bias, Tom Cruise is not one of my favorite actors although I’ve loved his work in Magnolia, Tropic Thunder and Rain Man). I don’t remember the character’s name, though I watched the film less than a week ago (I remember Ratso Rizzo and I haven’t seen Midnight Cowboy in a decade).  It was decidedly a comic book film, a super-hero film, where the hero can face a Gatling gun that kills every Japanese samurai and leaves only Tom Cruise standing (well, kneeling).  Oh, he has flaws — he drinks, but only because he’s trying to push aside the memories of the cavalry abusing Native Americans (he carries a Native American man purse with him and draws pictures of the quiet Indian tribes).  He refuses to send unpolished troops into battle, and to prove his point, he asks one of them to fire at him.  He learns martial arts over the course of a few months.  And in the end, he sways the emperor to stand up and be his own man.  Right.  I understand that in the world of the film, we are dealing with a limited amount of time (maybe two hours), but very little in this film embraced what it means to be human, to have foibles, to be mortal.

I want to contrast this film to Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho Daiyo, but first I want to place it in my own chronology.  I came to acting late.  Oh, I piddled with it in college, got drawn into community theatre, dinner theatre and finally a better community theatre that ran out of Ocean County College.  I was in graduate school for my Master’s Degree in English when I had the dream.  No, not of being on stage.  It was January, I would graduate in May, and I suddenly knew, deep in my soul that I could care less about getting my Ph.D.  While my classmates were going crazy filling out applications, getting letters of recommendation, I needed to find another path.  I prayed.  Not to the Catholic god of my youth, or to Buddha, or any god in particular really.  Simply vocalizing to the universe — “I don’t want to do this (academics) anymore.  But I don’t know what I want to do instead. Show me.”

That night, I had a dream.  When I woke, I found myself face down in my pillow — an anomaly as I have a terror of suffocation — I even drive in mid-Winter with the window cracked.  I fold the pillow under my face when I sleep on my side.  No, you will not find me willingly face down in a pillow.  And yet, there I was.  In front of my face, there were two guys talking.  And it was funny.  So I got up, walked to the breakfast bar in the lodge where I roomed, and wrote it down.  In the end there was seven pages and I went to bed.  The next day, I expected nothing.  I’d done the basement thing where guys were hanging out partying and jammin’ — we recorded it, thinking it was the next incarnation of music, only to find out it was out of tune garbage the next day.  Only this time on the next day, those seven pages were funny.  So I put them in a folder and went back to finishing my Master’s Degree.

It never occurred to me at the time that the dream might be an answer to my call, the voice of “what’s next?” that I whispered to the universe.  But I spent the summer at the shore writing.  I did community theatre productions of “Cabaret” and “Educating Rita” — one as Cliff Bradshaw and the other as Frank (“Educating Rita” is a two-hander).   And I wrote.

I wrote into the Fall.  I recall one specific episode where I’d been writing for some twelve days straight without seeing anyone. I didn’t leave the house.  I got up, made coffee, lit a cigarette and started writing. (Yeah, I was still smoking in those days — no one who sees me running marathons can believe it).  By the way, despite the craze for Macs at grad school, I had still been working on the Mainframe.  So at the shore, I had a battered 1950s Smith Corona for my play.  Change one line, you had to re-type the page.  At one point, after those 12 days, I realized I had the jitters.  I drove to the Ocean County Mall, bought a coffee and sat on a planter bench for an hour watching people.  Once I knew that there were still people in the world, it was okay to go back to work. I wanted to re-write scenes along the way, but I made myself complete the draft first.  Once I was done and I read the meeting scene — between the ex-girlfriend/boyfriend — I thought, “she would never tell him that.”  So I rewrote it.  Then I read it again.  “God, would he really let on that he was that hurt?”  Version 3.  I rewrote that scene nine times before I thought it was anywhere near what two people would reveal about themselves in that vulnerable a position — and still reveal enough for the play to continue.

It took two years to write.  During that time, I went to work with my father in Virginia on the Catoctin Stud project.  I wrote for Berkley Books (promotional material).  I painted houses and worked construction.  All the while wondering what I was doing next.  And I continued to write.  When the play was done, I had some friends over to read it out loud.  They cracked up.  I told them it wasn’t a comedy.  They told me I wrote in a spit-take.  I told them that it was a serious play, but that every time I felt it was getting too heavy, I lightened it up a bit.  They laughed at me.

I bought a copy of the Dramatists Sourcebook and started submitting the play.  It was the finalist in quite a few competitions.  I remember getting an envelope back from New Dramatists.  I threw it on a shelf and crossed them off the list.  A week or so later, I decided to send that copy to another theatre, so I opened the envelope.  Someone else’s play was inside.  At first I thought, okay, they sent him mine and I got his — envelope mix up.  I’ll keep it and read.  It was pretty miserable — something about Jim Morrison, the Devil and Armageddon.  I called New Dramatists — I’d rather have my own play back — only to discover I’d made it onto the next round.  Short-listed for the L. Arnold Weissberger Award.  Yes, it was still open to the public in those days (now it’s strictly open to members).

Then I hedged my bets — I thought — what if I don’t win?  How can I parlay being on the list into an advantage?  And I started to apply to graduate schools — for playwriting.  However, there was a serious problem.  Every grad school I looked at required a minimum of two plays.  I had one.  I’d had an idea for a large scale production, so I started to slap scenes together.  I got the brochure from Yale and I read that all students would be required to take an “acting for non-actors” class.  And I felt the antenna on the back of my head rise up.  It was something I wanted to do.

Long and short — I didn’t win the L.Arnold Weissberger Award nor did I make it into grad school.  I had hoped to apply to seven, I applied to three.  Still, I remembered the antenna on my neck — and I thought — taking an acting class is something I can do for myself.  I contacted the Rita of my production of “Educating Rita” (she took acting classes in NYC) and asked her how to begin.  (to be continued)

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