Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Any seasoned actor knows that to find the character you need to find the shoes. Shoes affect balance, posture and how we move. Most of the time they literally are what connects us to the world. Think of all the different shoes you own and their specific functions. Now, imagine you live concurrently in every historic period and society on every continent for the past 2000 plus years. That’s a lot of different shoes and functions. If you are on a stage but want the audience to imagine you’re on a glacier, or boat or beach or battlefield or golf course, how you physically relate to the space helps tell that story. Shoes also act as signifiers of status, profession, health, and of course style.
Last winter I visited Ollie in Toronto when he was touring as The Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Talk about crazy shoes for a wild character! Toronto has many tourist attractions but the most quirky and fascinating by far is the Bata Shoe Museum: a highly entertaining, informative, provocative and even slightly disturbing look at our feet and what we do with them. I highly recommend it!
Now, I imagined Louis de Rougemont barefoot for the entire show, maybe because he’s in a bathing suit at the end or maybe because I thought about a lone castaway on a one-palm-tree island in a New Yorker cartoon. But Costume Designer Connie Furr and Matthew are very excited by the idea of swashbuckler boots. I’ve worn swashbucklers before: once as Captain Hook and once to portray a Dutch ancestor making nice with the Natives on a hometown parade float. I believe my very Irish friend Tom played the Mohawk. Anyway, my swashbucklers for Shipwrecked! have been ordered and I eagerly await their arrival. It will fundamentally affect everything I’m doing so they can’t arrive too soon.
Meanwhile, extreme hair, like a shaved head (The King and I) or a powdered wig (Amadeus) can also affect how you balance or move. However, most men’s hairstyles are fundamentally ignorable from the inside. We look in the mirror and project ourselves as our own observers and make judgments about what our appearance says about us to the world. Obviously, it’s another choice indicative of character that we make every day and, of course, for the stage. Plus on stage there is an added injunction to keep your hair out of your eyes. Here’s a typical backstage scene: it’s dress rehearsal in the men’s dressing room and a bunch of guys are discussing, sharing, comparing and rating various hair products: gels, waxes, sprays and pomades. No one is functioning from his comfort zone here. It’s a level of social interaction that’s pretty unfamiliar to men, regardless of sexual orientation. The kind of conversation that we imagine women have in Ladies Rooms but men just don’t do well.
Louis de Rougement however is a special case, being an actual historic figure (see photo). Once I got a hold of his picture, I hung it up where I could look at it as if in a mirror at my own reflection. I think I look a bit like him naturally and by internalizing whatever I can from that picture, I truly believe a little alchemical magic happens. To help, I took the picture to Sasa, the real magician who cuts my hair in New York. She enjoys a challenge and experimented with several different gels and techniques, diligently washing my hair between attempts. We did an initial trial in October, then another in December. So, thanks to Sasa, I can avoid the last minute hair product debate.
Finally there’s the beard. I’ve never grown a moustache so long that I carry my morning coffee with me until lunchtime. In the 19thC they had moustache mugs that included a bridge to keep liquid off the lip. In the 21stC we are less advanced and I have stained almost every article of clothing I own with my own drips and spatters. Finally, you couldn’t see my mouth anymore and I had to trim it. See correlating injunction above about keeping one’s hair out of one’s eyes when on stage.
Friday, January 8, 2010
Spend January in Arizona instead of Vermont? Where do I sign? Not that that was my first thought when Matthew asked me to play Louis de Rougemont in Shipwrecked!, but it was my second. My first thought was, ‘How serendipitous.’ To understand why I must digress…
I hadn’t acted since Stones In His Pockets, which Ollie (Oliver Wadsworth) and I did at Actors Theatre and then again at The Adirondack Theatre Festival in 2003. Though I’ve been directing a lot, particularly while on sabbatical from Bennington College, which is when I did The Busy World Is Hushed at Actors Theatre.
Then a year ago I decided to attempt to reactivate my acting muscles. One of my students, a fine young actor named Max Wolkowitz, and I set out to find a two-hander that we could rehearse on our own and put up with minimal production support. We chose A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet. I directed it and Max, with his considerably younger brain, was able to be “on book” for rehearsals, meaning he knew all the lines. All we needed to add for performances was an usher.
I played an old master thespian full of unsolicited advice and he played an eager young talented actor who benefits from my tutelage but then needs to graduate from the dysfunctional aspects of the relationship. Basically we played ourselves and with such brilliant casting the show went very well. Max did indeed graduate from Bennington and I got my actor muscles up and working again.
Soon afterward I auditioned for a venerable old summer stock theater in Dorset, Vermont. I was cast in two shows, a George S. Kaufman comedy and an Agatha Christie murder mystery. These were fun old warhorses for which I provided the exact identical function: curtain up on the old character guy involved in some activity (scribbling in a ledger, reading a newspaper), another character enters and we engage in a conversation that consists entirely of exposition. Once I’ve mentioned all the main characters by name and enough background information so the audience will recognize them, I leave the stage. This being summer stock it meant learning lines quickly and rehearsing play #2 during the day while performing play #1 at night. It was a blast. The company was filled with talented folks on every level and we laughed a lot.
Come August I’m feeling like an actor again. I shave off the handlebar moustache and goatee that served all three projects and I’m back teaching when Matthew calls with the amazing opportunity to do Shipwrecked! Ollie goes on-line, downloads a picture of the real Louis de Rougemont and I start growing my beard back the next day.