Saturday, August 02, 2014

Long Run Fatigue

At this writing, we have completed 54 performances of Unto These Hills if I count correctly, with 13 to go.

The last time I had a run this long was probably my last show as an Equity actor, when I played Bob Cratchit at Trinity Rep in 2005.  Since then, when I work at all, it's at smaller theatres with much shorter runs. Every performance is precious and rare. Long runs don't feel like that. Since May 31, we have been performing six nights a week, and we continue through August 16. For many members of this cast, many of them undergraduates in theatre programs here or there, these 67 shows are their first experience with a long run.

And for some actors, 67 shows isn't even a long run. Just ask Broadway actors, or actors in touring companies. They'd call 67 shows an interlude.

Be it 67 shows or 670, we have to deal with the familiarity and the fatigue of repetition, the conundrum of doing the same show as rehearsed while experiencing each moment fresh as new. This is a problem that turns some actors away from live theatre and toward the camera. (Besides the money, that is.) I've heard actors I really admire, who gravitated away from theatre toward film work, complain about the repetition in live theatre.

One way actors keep it fresh for themselves is by pulling small pranks on each other. Audiences might be amazed by how much goes on, even onstage. To a degree this is actually healthy, as long as everyone understands the golden rule, which is that the audience must never catch on to the mischief. The scene must remain intact. But if actors are in a little bit of danger of laughing, it keeps us alive, listening, breathing. I would never wish to sabotage a scene partner outright, but I'll vary what I'm doing, surprise them, tease them a little. It's fun and keeps us from becoming automatons, lifelessly repeating the same lines the same way, with no semblance of life or passion.

Another way is to keep going back to scenework. Even within the confines of the scripted lines and blocking, there might be new discoveries, a way to use a line more clearly, a gesture, a point of contact with another actor, something in our use of breath, moments we hadn't noticed or heard before.

Besides new discoveries, there is an art to re-discovering things, noticing them again as for the first time. For this, I find cham soen (zen meditation, also known by the Japanese term zazen) helpful. Generally I don't like to talk about meditation in terms of practical benefit  - "if you sit zen, you get this and that" - but this is a rare exception. For the actor's discipline it happens to be tremendously useful, a way to gather ones energy, release the crap on the surface consciousness, bring our attention and our breath together, and wake up listening throughout our senses.  Leaving aside the broader discussion about our vow to practice, it happens to provide tangible benefits to how we do this particular job. (I've also found useful ways to merge chanting zen with vocal warmups, but that will be for another entry, maybe.)

In formal zen, there is a lot of repetition, and a lot of opportunity to practice repetition as not-repetition, to experience it freshly again without forgetting or pretending or "knowing" what comes next. Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say, "Just do it," which is very concise yet the sense here is much deeper than it may sound. Similarly, my acting teacher used to say, "Just say it," but that means something more realized than the sentence might suggest.  (But dear god, please don't ponder that. Just do it. Ha ha.)

Anyway, it's a useful way to wake up and live the piece we've rehearsed again, top to bottom.

It's a practice and we have just about a dozen tries left. The following morning, I'll be on the road back to New Mexico. On the weekend of August 22, Randy Granger and I will be performing An Iliad in Albuquerque.

[Image: dress rehearsal from Unto These Hills, back in May. Your correspondent is on the far left (of course) playing Yonaguska.  Photo by Wylder Cooper.]

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