A Critic Strides the Boards: A Personal Tale
One complaint that often arises about theater critics is, what right do they have to comment on something in which they have no experience?
Prior to Broadwayworld, I had freelanced for the now defunct Baltimore Examiner newspaper writing, among other things, critiques of local performances, from Center Stage to the Vagabond Players and a variety of community theaters in between.
But still, that doesn't really qualify as "experience." Experience in REVIEWING, yes, but not in the world of drama itself.
So when I received word that the Fells Point Corner Theater (FPCT) was holding open auditions for "non-paid, non-Equity" actors for their "10x10" playwrights' competition, I thought, to quote Woody Harrelson's character in ZOMBIELAND, "It's time to nut up, or shutup."
For you see, I've long harbored an interest in acting...I like to review theater, go figure. Anyway, for reasons which will remain the stuff of confidential psychotherapy sessions, I had delayed any foray into the dramatic arts, but feeling confident and being a ham so huge, I'm the envy of Smithfield Foods, I decided to try out.
It wasn't easy. First, I was battling yet another cold/flu/creeping crud outbreak. Then there's the fact that I've always found any trip to FPCT daunting as parking can be, well, non-existent. I've never had to park so far from the theater that I needed to hire a team of armed sherpas to make the journey from car to stage, but the thought has crossed my mind. Luckily, FPCT has a system where, for $5, you can procure a parking pass for a very convenient nearby lot. But I digress...
I auditioned for several parts, but ultimately wound up landing two, one as "Man" in Pat Montley's "Rachel Carson Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and as "Ronald" in Jody Nusholtz's "Saving Mrs. Goldfarb."
Immediately I learned something about the challenges actors face-that of demonstrating RANGE...and I don't mean a Viking gas convection model.
In "Rachel Carson," I was, essentially, the Devil...though that was an exploration in and of itself as my director, Miriam Bazensky, myself and my "co-stars" (not to sound too grand), debated on whether Man was the Devil or just Death. ..which was another turn on the learning curve, the discovery of character and the give-and-take between actor, director and playwright. We all ultimately decided "Man" was indeed the Devil...afterall, the title is a bit of a giveaway. But I'm digressing again...
In "Goldfarb," I came to find what, if I dare say it, might have been most challenging of any of the roles performed in the series, with the possible exception of Kate Shoemaker's one-woman performance in "Thin Air." While in "Rachel Carson," I was free to revel in the all-too-appealing-to-a-Scorpio role of a malevolent, uberpowerful, supernatural being, in "Goldfarb," it was a Monty Python moment-time for something completely different.
Described as a "gay, Jewish, 30something man," I was faced with three things I am not. Trying to read between the lines of dialogue (not to mention the fear and excitement that comes with my character's opening page-and-half monologue), it took time for me to finally strike upon what I thought Ronald was all about-a flamboyantly gay Curly-a-la-The-Three-Stooges.
Our "Goldfarb" director, Da'Minique Williams, worked feverishly to get us to "keep our energy up," putting myself and my fellow thespians through a variety of acting exercises designed to get us moving and to keep us...well, silly. My particular favorite was where we attempted to read our lines but in different characters and settings , ranging from a dentist's office to monkeys in a zoo to snooty rich people. Da'Minique envisioned our play as a kind of live-action cartoon, and so pushed for us to be over the top. Since I'd be the first actor on stage for "Goldfarb," a lot of responsibility for keeping that energy up rested on my novice shoulders. Oy veh.
Once I was chosen for my two roles, about three weeks worth of rehearsals began. It was in this process I gained a deeper appreciation of what actors must face as they delve their roles, determine what feels good and right to them versus the director's interpretation versus the playwright's vision.
Fortunately, I was "born to play the Devil," as my girlfriend quipped; "Satan is always a gentleman," is my motto, so I channeled the suave-debonair elements of my own character in molding this creature which I decided was really no more than a slick salesman, hard pressed to make deal-in this case, for Ms. Carson's soul.
I learned a lot from Hillary Mazer, a theater veteran, who looked very familiar to me...I supposed I had seen her in other plays, and in fact, I had, but as it turned out, we'd both met about nine years earlier when she was a field producer for DISCOVERY HEALTH and had worked with me at Mercy Medical Center (my day job!) on the "Special Delivery" newborns series. Sorry, that's my third digression...
One thing I learned was a bit of the theater world lingo which, sadly, I did not know and felt afterwards that I should. Take "blocking" for instance, which has nothing to do with football or psychological denial. "Blocking" refers to where you are on stage. Actors need to know where they are and where they are moving to as they deliver their lines. You don't want to be turned around with your back to the audience speaking to your fellow actors, for instance.
Then there were the phrases "on book" and "off book." The "book" in question, is the script. Generally, I learned, you're "on book" during rehearsals because chances are you haven't yet memorized all of your lines. You should be "off book" by the end of rehearsals and definitely during the performances, though I always kept my scripts nearby, as sort of talisman to prevent any memory lapses.
Which leads me to another thing I learned...People WILL forget the occasional word or two or line or two...and those people will, and did, include me! What I discovered, as Hillary noted, was that "family of actors" concept...In a family, if someone falls, you pick them up...and you keep going. When errors took place, I found I was able to help out my fellow actors and they were there for me when I stumbled. The world did not end, the curtain did not fall mid-sentence and at no point were rotten vegetables thrown at us. I learned that you can and will survive the occasional on stage slip.
We opened on April 15th and 10 performances later, our run closed yesterday afternoon. I found the experience exhilarating, entertaining, exciting, educational, and a lot of other words that start with "e," no doubt.
I won't say that my efforts to "turn the tables," switching from critic-er to critic-ee, gave me a new-found appreciation of how hard actors work or how much effort goes into a production, as I've always been aware of that. How can I know this without the experience? Well, as I told my first girlfriend of several eons ago when I was just a babe-in-the-woods, "I'm intelligent."
But it doesn't hurt to have had the experience. It is, indeed, it's a tremendous effort, with people both on stage and behind it spending enormous time, energy, and resources to make the production work and work well. I imagine, being intelligent, that this experience will indeed make me a better reviewer, but one thing has not changed.
I can recall on this site an actor who had posted his disappointment that I had not mentioned every actor in one of my reviews. My response to this was, that's not my responsibility. My duty is forever first and foremost to the theater patron who has but two questions in mind-is this show worth my TIME and is it worth my MONEY.
As a critic, my job is not to be a kind of ad hoc publicist for the actors...or the playwright, the director, the theater itself for that matter. That being said, I do strive to recognize those actors whose performances seemed particularly noteworthy...not just in my opinion, but in that of the audience which I attempt to gauge with every show I attend.
My experience with "10x10" does serve to make me all the more sensitive to and cognizant of what goes into a play, what it is like to swallow fear and put one's self "out there" for all to see, reveling in this adult-yet-childlike activity (there's a reason it's called a "play" afterall), doing one's damndest to entertain.
PHOTO CAPTION: I take an I-phone photo in the FPCT dressing room with "Rachel Carson" co-star, Felix Smolen.