Taking Mercy Killers to the Edinburgh Fringe was a last minute idea. I wanted to keep the show going and had been to the Fringe as a kid with the Columbus Children''s Theater. It was a truly formative experience, and I always wanted to go back.
I called Tom Oppenheim, my director and the artistic director of Stella Adler Studio of Acting and the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater, to see if the Lab would be interested in partnering with me to take the show to the Fringe.
For those who have never been, the Edinburgh Fringe is the largest performing arts festival in the world. There were around 3,000 different groups this past summer- dance troupes, avant-garde theater, circus acts, comedians, music novelty acts, college groups presenting classical theater and musicals- anything you can imagine and then some. Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, replete with winding old world streets with a flair for Celtic hospitality and merriment. The whole city gets into the act (although many locals do vacate the city and sublet their apartments). Any building that can conceivably convert itself into a theater does so during the festival- churches, pubs, masonic lodges, swimming pools, libraries.
And tourists descend upon the city to gorge themselves on the cultural banquet. The real aesthetes organizing their days with ruthless efficiency- seeing 7 or 8 different shows a day- venues open as early as ten am and shows are still going until three or four in the morning. Trying to distinguish your act amidst this artistic onslaught is a real challenge. Every day the main drag, The Royal Mile, is full of performers handing out flyers, doing bits from their shows- every kind of gimmick is employed in a kind of mindboggling Darwinian display to get TEN people into the theater. And while all this is going on, you also have to DO the show.
Thankfully, I had terrific company to get me off the ground. Tom and his wife, Nina (Director of cultural programming at Stella Adler Studio), along with their infant son, Gabriel, joined me for the first week and a half of the Fringe, to help me try to get some butts in the seats, get programs made, take care of the thousand little unforeseen details, and most importantly, to help keep me sane and in good spirits, which was a God send, because after the first week of the Fringe, there was certainly no sign we were going to be a success!
In some of those early days we had 5 paying audience members and were trying to paper the house so that the reviewers wouldn''t feel lonely. In Edinburgh, a really good review in the List or the Scotsman can be critical for getting people into the theater.
Having Tom, Nina, and Gabriel really helped keep things in perspective. Especially, Gabriel. You can learn a lot from a six month old about Art, about keeping your work fresh, about seeing things for the first time. During one of our discussions with Tom, I had an insight. I told him I needed a personal goal for the run. Something beyond getting an audience, or reviews, or awards, or any of that. Here I had the opportunity to do the play 26 days in a row, in a place where nobody knew me, where really, there was nothing at stake. And so, I told Tom that my goal for the run was to become a real actor. For many years on the road, I had begun to feel very facile about my work. That more and more, I was just "performing." That a combination of the way we rehearse plays, the struggle to survive, the grind of being on the road had taken its toll, and if I really examined myself and my work, I had become more of a "performer" than an actor.
And so, I set the goal for myself, that I would keep exploring and committing 100% to the work, and that by the end of the Fringe, like Pinocchio, I would become Real. And so, I invested deeply in my own preparation everyday. Tom and I engaged in an ongoing conversation about the play, about acting, about Art. I dug in deep, and miraculously about ten days into the run, I realized that I had become, in fact, a real actor.
Please note that I did not say "a great actor" I didn''t even say "a good actor," just a more modest milestone of being "a real actor." Which for me means actually being in the moment with the circumstances of the play, and allowing the life to emerge from your imagination as opposed to hitting certain marks or presenting a polished performance. There is a kind of spontaneous precision that occurs when you really abandon your preconceptions and allow the character''s needs and life to determine what happens in the moment. Anyway, I realized after five fully invested performances that I had turned an internal corner. I was never going to just phone this work in. I couldn't. It had become too personal, my guts were in it. "Tom kept saying, just remember you have someone's life in your hands." And that was it, I had "Joe''s" life in my hands, what he had to say was so much more important than me. And I wanted to lend all of myself to sharing his story. And somehow by lending him my body, mind and soul for an hour, my nose has begun to return to its normal shape. Knock on wood.
Most of us who work in the theater live very modest lives and it is these little personal triumphs which make up for all the hardships. I keep a little rock with me backstage to keep reminding myself of this lesson. It has a quote from Martin Luther King chiseled into it. It says "Not everyone can be famous, but everyone can be Great through Service. For Service is Greatness. "
After a couple weeks, the show really caught fire in Edinburgh. The conversations with Tom and my own continued efforts took the piece to another level, and pretty soon there was a bit of a buzz around the theater. Positive reviews began to roll in. The Scotsman kept coming back, sending all of their critics. Which was a challenge- to keep focused. I don''t always read reviews, but when you are also co producer of the play, you need to stay abreast of everything. Anyway after an excruciating number of visits, the Scotsman finally gave the show 5 stars. I later learned they have a policy that if one of their reviewers thinks the show deserves it, they all have to come and agree, so it''s a very rigorous process. Later that same week we found out the show was going to be honored with a Fringe First Award. And for a couple weeks, I walked in the Clouds.
From the Scotsman
"There''s a marvellous and mysterious kind of alchemy at work in author and actor Michael Milligan''s mesmerising, harrowing indictment of US healthcare. Not only is it theatre distilled to its most basic essentials - one ordinary individual telling his story, as if to an invisible interrogator, his only props a table and chair - but it''s unambiguously specific in its objectives: to attack a system responsible for more than 60 per cent of US personal bankruptcies, within which most of those driven to this last resort had health insurance when their medical problems began.
It''s also patently fuelled by profound outrage, and yet all these elements are so skillfully and meticulously controlled, in both the writing and performance, so thoroughly transmuted in service of storytelling, drama and characterisation, that the effect is gripping first and foremost on a painfully human level, even as Milligan simultaneously delves beneath the foreground issues to the personal and national philosophies underlying the debate Stateside."