Drooling on the Pillow

Friday, May 13, 2005

The Point of the Muff 

Jim, at Parkway Rest Stop, and I, at this here thing you're reading, have each had a few posts recently about a common topic; what happens to a performer when things go wrong? The 'thing' going wrong may be simply a bad performance, an accident, or an entirely outside agency. There are differences between these experiences, but the feeling, I think, is curiously the same. When things go pear shaped while you're performing you're in a uniquely vulnerable position. And it's true whether you're a stand-up, a mime, a polka band or the Royal Shakespeare.

The first time you find yourself suddenly in the weeds -- perhaps you've forgotten a line, or an actor whose entrance is ten minutes away has walked onstage -- everything goes white. It's a massive dose of fight-or-flight adrenaline and the urge for flight is sometimes irresistible.

I was in a play once when a piece of scenery fell revealing the ingénue changing costume behind it. Even with a goodly amount of laughter to give us time to assemble ourselves the guy onstage with me turned and said, in character, "Arthur (my character's name), I have to leave the stage." He turned and walked off the stage out the door and went home. We replaced him the next day.

Fortunately, improvisation (aside from freaks like Robin Williams) is learned. With experience that initial shock of white becomes dimmer and slower and the adrenaline helps rather than hinders thought. You find yourself scrolling through all the possible fixes and escape holes in a matter of seconds.

But doing a play is like time travel. The actor's present, in a sense, is the end of the play, but every night you travel back in time to the beginning and make the journey back to the present. And like anyone who's ever seen a time travel movie, the actor is aware that you have to be careful making changes while you're in the past or the future will be very different. If someone’s skipped ahead a few pages and left out the part about the dead baby, people are going to be wondering why he got shot in the next act.

In those moments when you're deciding what to do about a missed entrance or someone saying a line from the end of the play you have to consider the damage to the narrative line of every option you consider. Robin Williams may be happy (and able) to go from the point of the muff to an entirely new ending, but with the playwright in the audience it's really not an option.

Acting is a difficult job. The craft part, building a character, is a process of careful thought, planning, research, organization, repetition and honest self-evaluation. The artistic part is an entirely different skill set involving fearlessness, imagination and daring. Accountant meets cat burglar. But neither element makes it across the footlights without a third element that I believe is the essence of talent. That is the ability to shut down the ego, become transparent and give yourself unreservedly to the audience.

I was no genius actor. I think I was pretty good and I know I got to that place a number of times. But I've had the experience of being out there, naked as a jaybird, all my defenses willfully stripped away, the spotlight right on my melon. And. No. Idea. What. The. Next. Word. Is.

It’s really an out-of-body experience. You’re floating up there around the fresnels saying ‘C’mon, buddy. You can do it. C’mon.’ But like I say, it's mostly a matter of experience. If you don't have it you're going to crash and burn. If you do no one will ever know there was a glitch.

But what happens if you just suck? It happens. Your dog died, you have the runs, you're hung over, something has temporarily put the role out of reach. The audience hates you. They want you to die. They think you've stolen their money. At the end you get the soft, furry crackle of golf applause. If you're lucky.

In that case it helps to be a bad actor because you're used to it and are probably unaware of the antipathy. If you're just having a bad night, though, it helps if that ego you stripped off to perform is large and healthy when you strap it back on. You take off your makeup thinking about what you did wrong. You consider how to fix it while getting out of your costume. Then you go get a drink thinking 'That audience was a bunch of morons.' It's why survivors in this business tend to have, let's say, a lot of self-confidence.

You see young actors who seem like sure things. Handsome devils with tons of talent, loads of confidence, pockets full of connections. Then they're gone like frogs in a frost. I think it's usually one too many bungee jumps that chases them out. They like the rush, but they thought it was going to be a pretend rush. They don't like being really scared.
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