I’ve held off on publishing this blog post until the secret of my “cameo” appearances (alongside my wife) in Dog & Pony’s production of A KILLING GAME was out. I’m really glad, finally, to get a few things off my chest.
Almost immediately after I agreed to appear in the scene, which (as an ensemble member) I adapted from the original Ionesco play, I started feeling low-level but quite real performance anxiety. This may perhaps not be surprising, given that I’m a person who generally spends much more time in front of a laptop than in front of an audience… but the fact of the matter is that I speak in front of people all the time. I give creative talks, I sit on panels, I make all kinds of presentations. And I really like it all, too. I mean… sure, I get nervous, but I practice as much as I need to, and as soon as I get out on stage, the adrenalin kicks in and I’m fine.
But this is acting. It’s different. It’s much, much harder. How do I know? Because this isn’t actually my first time doing it. About twenty years ago I played Lennox in a production of MACBETH at the Cockpit-in-Court Summer Theatre, then followed that up with a turn as Governor Bellingham in Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of A SCARLET LETTER at the Fells Point Corner Theatre. Both of those runs were incredibly demanding to me, emotionally and physically. Doing them gave me tremendous appreciation for the immense skill required of an actor… and helped me figure out that while I liked it, I just wasn’t ever going to act full-time. Better to let professionals handle most of the dirty work.
Most, that is, but not all. In a lot of ways, the role I’m playing here is exactly the sort of thing I’m quite happy to do. It’s a very limited number of performances and rehearsals, and a very short turn on stage, and a scene (this is perhaps most important) that I actually wrote. Plus, the stakes are lower in LOTS of ways. As an un-billed cameo, my performance seems likely to come as a modestly pleasant surprise to people, rather than anything to which any expectations are attached. In addition, no one is expecting me to do anything more than competent work, really. The nature of the ensemble means that everyone’s doing a little bit of something they’re only moderately used to doing. Good enough, in this case, was more than good enough.
Having said all of that: I thought it might be worth sharing a bit of my thought process as I move through rehearsal: just to see how an ill-equipped playwright thinks about the challenge of acting. So what follows is a diary (in dated bullet points) of the entire experience.
- 10/15 — First rehearsal is now 25 days away. Still haven’t started learning lines, which seems like an odd thing, since I actually wrote the lines. Somehow, knowing and memorizing seem to be different things. I wonder how long most actors take to get off book for a three-and-a-half page scene?
- 10/16 — Great conversation on Twitter about how to memorize lines. I’m tempted to follow the advice of a few people and record the scene with my wife, then go on long walks listening to the recording and reciting along with it.
- 10/25 — Ran lines with Maura. Boy, she’s putting me to shame.
- 10/30 — Realized that when we were asked for our availability, Maura and I accidentally offered… well, I won’t say which nights exactly, but some prime real estate during the run. Entirely because those were the nights we thought we could get babysitters. I suppose if you’re taking a risk, better to take it big and in front of many people as possible.
- 10/31 — Ran lines with Maura. Somehow, though we haven’t worked on the scene in six days, she’s gotten better! How does she do that? I made her promise to run lines with me and work on the scene every night until we get in front of people… which is now only eight days away.
- 11/1 — Ran lines with Maura. It’s really an incredible brain-melt to analyze lines *you* wrote to figure out how to make them manifest. I actually asked Maura, three or four times, “What does this line mean?” Felt a little bit insane.
- 11/3 — Ran lines in the car with Maura while Porter babbled happily to himself in the back seat. You can rehearse everywhere! This is fun.
- 11/4 — Almost by accident, ran the scene with Rachel Grossman tonight at rehearsal, neither of us off book. Actually, to be clear… I held the script (on my iPad) in my hands, even though I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have needed it. (Or not much.) It’s a strange comfort, yet it also ruins the quality of one’s work. It’s almost like using a noose as a lifeline.
- 11/9 — Ran lines with Maura several times over the past few days. Still feels really inert and awkward. She’s being very patient with me, though, and encouraging. I married well.
- 11/10, morning — Maura and I popped down to Source for our first actual rehearsal with Colin (Bills, our terrific director). Boy, did that feel miserable. The space was oddly-shaped, which meant I didn’t feel right about exploring it physically, and every move I made just seemed to feel… false. I think it all felt worse to me — much worse — than it did to Maura and Colin, though. During the drive home, however, Maura and I ran the lines again once — after she gave me a crash course in one or two things I wasn’t getting — and it felt REALLY good.
- 11/10, evening — Maura and I did the scene at Arena Stage in front of a “test” audience of, oh, 85 or so. (That’s part of the dog & pony process; the company is devoted to audience integration, so working with real people during development is critical. We still don’t open for 2.5 more weeks…) IT FELT SPECTACULAR. That’s not to say that it WAS any good, mind you… but a few others seemed to think we kicked butt, too. And the most amazing thing to me: I didn’t really feel nervous. I waited for my queue, walked out, started performing, and something about being in the room with all of those people… it just felt right.
- 11/11 — Note from Colin telling us how much he enjoyed what we did and talking about what we’ll work on during our next rehearsal. So excited to make this thing even better. Because I know it CAN be better.
- 11/17 — Our first “real” rehearsal, in the space. We ran the scene in chunks, working individual moments, and ran it all the way through a few times, too… while Porter played in the next room with our fellow ensemble-mates. I felt… cautiously okay. Enough that the huge break we’re about to take feels like it isn’t the worst thing in the entire world.
- 11/21 — We ran lines while baking pies and making sausage stuffing for Thanksgiving… then realized, given the fact that family was coming, that we might not have another chance to run them until we open. Yikes!
- 11/26 — And just like that, it’s time for the invited dress rehearsal… though the way audience engagement works, we’ve really been in front of several audiences by now already. My excitement is palpable nonetheless… as are my nerves. It’s not that I’m anxious about performing, or not only that; I’m also quite worried about Maura, who is wrestling with a pretty bad flu/fever. At this point, I don’t even know if she’ll be able to go on.
- 11/26 (later) — Holy cow, we did it! Maura rallied late in the afternoon, and we drove down to the theater, and we just pushed through. She was a superstar! I, however, was… so-so. (Or was I? I keep hearing a great many positive reactions. How in the heck do actors *ever* get objective assessments of their work?) I was distracted by the fact that the performance was being photographed (by my friend Colin Hovde) — the speed of his rapid-fire shutter, I think, made me pick up the pace — and by a bit of the first-time jitters. The bottom line: I think I did fine, but I could have done (and will do) much better the next time around… which, happily, is soon!
- 11/28 — Wow, that was different. We slowed the whole pace down immensely for the first ticketed performance, and it felt… well, it was a bit harder to stay connected. We might have to throttle forward a bit in places on Saturday… which, in fact, we were instructed to do when we got notes. Speaking of which.. notes! For some reason, it felt like the easiest criticism I’ve ever received; my ego handled it very well. Though I may have been helped somewhat by the fact that my cast-mate Jessica Lefkow had just whispered to me that she’d overheard a man in the audience saying how much my performance meant to him. Now… let me tell you something: I never expected to achieve anything like that, period. I would have been perfectly happy to just not fuck up. The fact that even one person was moved? I’ll seriously carry that with me for a long time.
- 12/1 — I think… maybe… we nailed it. I’m not sure, and I’m *very* reluctant to toot my own horn here, and (truth be told) it felt *really* awkward while we were doing it… but the reactions we got from others afterward, even over the next couple of days, suggested that perhaps, maybe, possibly… we nailed it. I really don’t know what to do with myself now. I’m glad it wasn’t our last performance (don’t ask for spoilers about when we might be performing again, because I’m not about to offer them) — because I want to try to see whether it happened to be a fluke — but I almost wish it was, so I could go out on what seems like a high note. And I can’t wait to do it again….
So… I think I’ll probably have a bit more to say about this subject in the future. I think I’m in the process of completely reinventing my own understanding of what acting really requires, and how to write FOR ACTORS, and what being an actor working on a new play might be like… but I’m going to wait to think about those things more before I try to pontificate publicly. I think it’s very clear: I have a lot to learn.
I’ll close, then, by saying thank you to Colin and Rachel for the opportunity, which I hope I’ve repaid with my most earnest effort and at least a yeoman’s job… and also by offering a virtual round of applause for the more seasoned performers I shared the stage with: Jon Reynolds, Jessica Lefkow, J. Argyl Plath, Sean Ellis, Genna Davidson, Yasmin Tuazon, and Maura Suilebhan, plus a few other cameo performers whose presence in the cast I won’t spoil. You all have my deepest — and now far more well-informed — admiration.