Monday, April 16, 2007
Scraps of distraction: Part 3
In order to even begin to take on The Theatre, you need to believe yourself to be endowed with the greatest and most dazzling array of capabilities and understanding. It's a marvellous conceit. Time and timing, space, reason, science, poetry, mathematics, fantasy, chemistry, reality, character, purpose, illusion, angles, shapes, psychology, darkness, light, half-light, habits, shade, patterns, distance, sound, beats, silence, phrasing, pace, tempo, relationships, juxtaposition, the myriad beginnings, middles, and ends, punctuation, breath, vowels, consonants, entire sentences, past, present, future, archetype, stereotype, cliché, conversation, dialogue, monologue, duologue, design, technique, swoops, drops, holds, tastes - and silent stillness, the master of all. Each and every seen and unseen element of a work in the theatre combines to power the communication of a single, precious moment. The honour the theatre provides for us is the opportunity to luxuriate in a shared moment of creation. Of our making. More than one would be implausible ... greedy ... not to mention impossible. More than you could possibly hope for. But it's what you aim for. The power to change lives. To change minds. To challenge. To teach. To entertain. To undeniably Be. Exist.
It's a fair exchange. The nights when the performances of this play were well-received were thrilling and life-enhancing. It should be against the law to feel this enriched and enlivened by what you have achieved. The conversations with audience members at the bar afterwards, if I had been at the performance or had dropped in for a peek and a free drink afterwards, were almost always fascinating. But compliments have always been impossible for me to accept. They still are. I never know how to process them.
But who did I think I was fooling? By the time Tunnels ... closed, I would be so roundly changed and profoundly defeated that the direction of my life would be changed forever.
The play is barely breathing. Helen quietly suggests that the "Top and Tail" is actually my new best friend - especially given the fact that the actors are now suddenly wholly suspicious. She gives me a impromptu lesson in shaving. Time. Good Stage Managers are actually the unsung heroines of great theatre. They are mostly women. With good reason. And whenever I work in the theatre, they always are - and always will be. I'm not sure I will ever fully understand why.
We disagree on a tense, ego-challenging detail: precisely how much shorter do I want it to be.
It's a magnificent question. A true mark of her genius. But it is a question I am unable to answer. I am not experienced enough in making theatre and I am still too attached to this thing that is lying, comatose and bleeding, on the greyest of black decks at my feet. The two Geoffreys are are fighting for perspective. Geoffrey The Director wants to keep directing a shorter version, while Geoffrey The Playwright just wants the best view from the best seats. And to get to the foyer bar sooner.
And for a fleeting moment my greatest ally considers abandoning me to my destiny. It's one thing to own your skills and imagination, it's another thing altogether to know how to prove them. And from this moment, our relationship begins to unravel. I have 'handed it over' to her, but I'm still in the way ... fussing around over the fall of the fabric. It's a masterful art, the balancing act of the transition of power in the theatre. Helen - had she held the total (as opposed to to the sub-total) sum of power and influence that was due her - could have saved me in ways I, only now, comprehend. And not even fully. We respect, and need, each other too much. This monstrously passionate play defies and devours our creative intellect and all our previous experience. Her way would be to force Tim to his dressing room wall with an elbow pressed tightly against his throat. Then, she would instruct him, almost cursorily, that there would be no point in him trying to deliver the monologue because the production would have moved on without him. She would ensure that he: a) vanished from sight in the blackout; b) drowned in the music cue; and/or c) was physically moved out of the way by the scene change she would not even bother telling him was now going to be take place around, and instead of, him. Or all three. And if not, a replacement actor can be at the theatre within fifteen minutes. A list of replacements is being drawn up as we speak ... and I can look at it at any time. I think she is joking ... until after we close, when she tucks the list inside her thank you card.
And I have dealt with recalcitrant actors very differently since. Partly to honour Helen, partly myself, but mostly to honour them. Actors become blind to the consequences of their actions. Everything is mapped out for them ... everything they say, think, feel, and do. They adopt. It is never a child of their own. The art of acting is, after all, the art of creative lying. It's why there is so rarely truth in it ... and it is why, when watching truly great actors like Sean Penn, the fact that they have made such unquestionable truth from such obvious deceit is mind-altering.
But loyalty is the Queen of The Whores in the theatre - and when a production is transitioning from rehearsal to sell-out previews in London, there's no knowing who'll swallow.
It will of course, in time, be me.
And, not for the first or last time, this work of mine defeats me.
Helen goes about her business and I suddenly feel like a paedophile in a playground. Watched. The first indiscretion will result in my banishment. Until Anna Scheer, the only Australian in the cast, braves the intimate distance between me and the not even one-year-old object of my affection. (Anna has since gone on to a career in performance art in Berlin. I hope, more than anything, that one day I can meet her again and talk. She was a wonderful, intuitive energy. And she didn't give a fuck about the length of anything.) She kept a barely respectable distance, but told me that there was still much work to be done. That 'length' was a purely subjective consideration. That my play was steadfastly refusing to run to somebody else's schedule. That good storytelling takes time.
And Helen called the Act One beginners to the stage.
Tim's little revolution has broadsided the ensemble and damaged it in ways I was not even aware of. They knew I wasn't happy and yet, it was only me they lived to please. It was only me who would take them with me when my play transferred to the West End as it was hotly tipped to do.
And they started walking into the furniture - AS it was being brought on stage. They didn't even have the good grace to wait until it was there.
A note was whisked into the theatre: would I do a publicity call this afternoon in the foyer and a photo out the front? No, I wouldn't. Buy another ad instead. They used to mean the same thing to me.
The "Top and Tails" eventually ended and Helen called another in fifteen minutes. I asked her how long I had before I no longer had the option of canceling this evening's preview. Given the fact that she ignored me, I assumed that she didn't think it was an option.
Tim was like the leper in a beauty pageant and the fat, ugly, tiny-dicked queen in a porn film all rolled into one. Robert (who was playing Piotr) couldn't look at him ... which was incredibly useful for an hour of the time they spent on stage together, but entirely and utterly inappropriate for the other two and half hours of stage time they shared. He had committed the cardinal sin of an ensemble: putting his own selfish, ego-centric opinions and vanity ahead of the needs of the group. He had betrayed himself, them, and me ... but ultimately 'us'. I thought momentarily about replacing him. It was, in retrospect, the only thing to have done. A new actor would have had the rest of the week to learn the shortened version of the role and, in the meantime, his isolation from the ensemble would suit the character perfectly. And I could have had the pick of the crop. This play, after all, was transferring to the West End. Sonia, unbeknownst to me, already had her lawyers drawing up the contracts.
But there was something about Tim's performance - like everyone's performance - that I truly, truly adored. We had travelled a long and incredibly difficult road together. I had cast him, from the nearly 200 actors who turned up to audition. The first time he had to strip in the rehearsal room was so painful and confronting for him that I still remember the look on his face as he demanded I order him to disrobe. It was like he was peeling off a layer of skin and I was astonished by - and grateful for - his vulnerability to the work (and to me) more than anything else. The scene was never rehearsed again. He was rivetting in it. (One night during the season, under the covers with Robert, he would not be able to contain an erection and, by midday the following day, we would be dealing with the first major legal challenge to the season - a 'Closing Order'. Ironic, really, in the country responsible for Fred and Rosemary West ... not to mention Myra Hindley.) And with only one or two exceptions, I despise the English to this day.
The Previews were, however, fantastic and the audience exit polls were incredibly positive. I poured over the feedback every night ... into the early hours of the morning. The red and black costumes (except for Antonina's asylum 'dress'): superb. Yvonne Kower's artful and inspired freeze-frame choreography for the opening party scene - where Antonina and Piotr's marriage collapses: brilliant. Much of the work was amazing ... yes, it was long ... but that was fine. It was getting shorter and faster. Security and confidence were nestling in amongst the fear and apprehension. There had not been one, single walk-out. The audiences were staying the distance.
As I heard the thunderous conclusion of Swan Lake followed by the rapturous applause following the end of the final preview, I slipped - pissed - from my bar stool upstairs and walked, haltingly, down the stairs to the foyer. The applause was still going ... my retarded child was being sent off into his season with great enthusiasm. It is apparently a theatre tradition in countries where theatre actually really matters. The final preview audience know they are witnessing a work in a state in which it will never exist again. A pen and ink study of the huge, sweeping canvas it is to become.
I stand and watch as the audience file out to a quiet and reflective section of the maestro's Piano Concerto No.1. Many are in tears. Most are fatigued. An elderly woman is the last to leave by a good fifteen minutes. I hope she hasn't died in her chair from boredom, but she stands slowly and reluctantly walks out of the auditorium. She stands at the door - moved beyond measure. I am concerned she is going to collapse. I glance nervously at one of the front of house staff who immediately comes over and supports her arm.
"Where is the writer?" she asks.
I am inclined - almost instinctively - to deny my role in the fiasco. Maybe she hated it so much that she wants to hit me ... and the front of house staff are trained to not identify anyone associated with the production without that person's consent.
"He's upstairs", I say.
The woman glances at the stairs and contemplates taking them on, but thinks better of it.
"His great, great suffering."
"Whose? The writer's?" I ask.
"No, you fool. The Maestro's! This writer ... the play ... has captured the weight ... the truth of his pain and suffering which was his music. His greatness."
"It's three hours! Don't you think it's a bit too long?" I ask.
"Pffft!" she discards, with tired contempt. "Of course not! What a ridiculous thing to say! You don't know what you're talking about. The time it takes is the time it needs to tell the story of such great pain and accomplishment. I hope you never have to suffer to the extent he did."
And with that, my Muse is supported out the door and into her waiting taxi.
"Suffer"? You ain't seen nothing yet old girl! But in the meantime, I bound up the stairs to the packed theatre bar to a spontaneous, heart-felt round of applause. I am touched, hugged, kissed and cajoled. The actors gradually appear and there is a great sense of unity, hope, expectation and a dream-like air of a monumental success.
Tomorrow, there is our sold out black-tie Opening Night. There will be flowers and telegrams.
And in the days that are to follow, the slaughter of the innocence.
Image: The Suffering, from the 'XBox' image library.