Sunday, March 08, 2015

Artistic Friends, Dharma Friends

Several chapters into Bobby Lewis's memoir, Slings and Arrows, I find myself pondering artistic friendships. In the current chapter, Lewis recalls the origins of the Actors Studio, which arose from the values and the community of the Group Theatre, including a coterie of theatre practitioners who had worked together for a long time: Lewis, Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman, and others.

One of the unique attributes of live theatre is that the experience is social.

The same appears to be true of artistic growth in theatre. An individual's growth is nourished in social groups: the community of an acting class, an ensemble company, colleagues, etc.

Even seemingly lone visionaries, like Richard Foreman, have had community or at least co-conspirators.

One of the strengths of the acting company at Trinity Rep is that the core company has been working together for decades. Being part of such an ensemble has been the most painful loss of my post-Trinity years (Oskar Eustis "let me go" in 2000, and I returned for one last Christmas Carol in 2005).

There has been some talk lately about the prominence of British actors in contemporary films, leading some to speculate about a "crisis" in American acting. The crisis isn't particularly new and the thesis is not remarkable. Acting is a craft, and a period of intensive training, followed by a commitment to continue to challenge oneself and learn for the rest of one's practice, positions one to develop their skills and master the craft of acting. This commitment to training in the fundamentals is more typical among British actors than American actors, and while there are certainly plenty of American actors who respect the craft, the commitment of time and money required for a good training program in the United States is economically out of many people's reach. The conservatory where I trained, also at Trinity Rep, was absorbed into the theatre program at Brown University. I could never have afforded grad school at Brown. Most people can't.

So what do people do? Some invest in acting classes, casting workshops, and focus on building up their professional tools and getting jobs wherever they can. The danger is that one might end up investing more time and money getting their portfolios in order without learning the craft first. Landing a job is great, and you can land acting jobs even without mastering the craft, but landing a job and artistic accomplishment are different achievements. (I say that with a healthy respect for those who are landing jobs, and with some humility, for as often as I have been praised for my artistry, and even praised for my film and television auditions, I rarely book.)

The social experience is part of the training. Your artistic community, your friends and comrades, see you while you learn and grow, and vice versa. If they are good friends, they can give you constructive feedback without knocking you down and making you lose faith. (Some people like "tough love" and harsh words from their teachers, as a way to weed out the weak, but I've never favored the social Darwinist approach to artistic exploration.) Artistic friends inspire one another, compete a little bit, impress each other, grow old and learn new things together. They need not even be "friends" in other contexts, they are like what we call "dharma friends" in our zen centers - you may never hang out socially and chat, but you when you sit a few silent retreats with someone you get to know them through a deep-rooted human solidarity. That solidarity has nothing to do with liking somebody or "bonding" with them over things like sports or movies or politics, the things we chatter about.

I miss my Trinity friends. During my travels I've made efforts at planting the seeds for such that kind of community. I was part of the Company of Angels in Los Angeles. We weren't angels, but there were some talented people there, but most of the people there had individual goals at the time and we didn't gel as an ensemble, although I found a couple of long-lasting friendships there, including Chris Nelson, who remains a personal friend and artistic friend.

Chris and I tried another venture with Theatre Dojo, with a core of artist-teachers doing workshops in hopes of finding an ensemble. It didn't last long before people went off, again, in individual directions. Lately I've been using the Theatre Dojo imprimatur again but ironically it's currently centered on my own individual projects. My recent collaborations with musician Randy Granger and outreach to other artists is, again, an attempt to forge artistic friendships and collaborations.

Recently there is talk of a new ensemble theatre in Las Cruces, committed to performing Shakespeare, and I was invited by three other people in the community - people who have M.F.A.s and are practicing theatre, some of us also as teachers - to be part of the core group. There have been flickers elsewhere, too, of a cohort of people practicing theatre, a desire to find some way to train and grow, if not for financial reward at least for the enriching experience of artistic growth; and the social benefits to a community where there is live theatre of some quality.

It would be nice to see this develop. Stay tuned.

[Image: Me playing Tybalt, center, in Florence, Italy in 2012. On the left is Elia Cittadini, who played Paris - someone I really enjoyed getting to know, especially for his sharp criticisms of certain restaurants in Florence. Not a customer to piss off. He lives in Berlin lately. The prince, on the right, is played by Stephanie Taylor. Our personalities chafed a bit during that summer but our rough edges wore down and to this day we talk about finding a way to work together again. But she's in New York and I'm in New Mexico. Who knows.]

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