Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Interview, Part 3

TQ: Where did you attend college?

ME: I went to the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Now it's called the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I may have wanted to go to a professional theatre school or some other college with a reputation, there was no money or means to get my hands on either of those, so I woke up early each morning and caught a little yellow school bus that carried us locals down the road (Highway 90) from Crowley through Rayne, then Scott and, finally, to the campus where we all dispersed until late afternoon, when we would all reassemble for the trek back to our little towns. Except, of course, for me when I was in a play and had to rehearse at night. Then I would catch a Greyhound bus back to Crowley where my my dad would meet me at the station and sometimes come up onto the bus to wake me up and carry me home.

TQ: Those were the good old days ...

ME: They were miserable. I never got enough sleep. I did manage to get my studying in on the buss though. I was always able to do that, shut out the outside noise and concentrate. Not anymore. I get distracted now.

TQ: What was the theatre program like?

ME: I didn't like it at the time. I wanted to fill my head with art and theory and process. I wanted an esoteric high. Instead, we were constantly being taught how to enter and exit, how to project our voices, how to walk and stand and sit in a chair. None of which you do onstage the same way you would do it in your own bedroom. Thank God for the campus library. I continued to read a lot and got my highs in the stacks.

TQ: Sounds like a smothering experience. How did you cope?

ME: Looking back on it now, I think it was the best kind of education I could have gotten. The kind of education that seems to be missing nowadays. (I sound like an old fart. Have I become an old fart?) Remember I could still run to the library and get high whenever I felt like I was suffocating. The fact is, everybody needs discipline. Everyone needs a grounding in technique. You've got to know how to properly do something. You can't paint unless you know how to hold a brush and pass it over a canvas. Try it. It's not as easy as it sounds. You can't dance Giselle if you haven't spent the better part of your life in ballet class. I go to plays today, and what I see onstage is formless. What I should be hearing is inaudible - or incomprehensible because the actors have never made friends with their consonants. Believing you can empathize with a role does not make you able to communicate it to an audience. I don't know what it is that's kept me from yelling, "Sing out, Louise," in the middle of a performance. That's typically the kind of thing I would do.

TQ: You'd find yourself canned.

ME: I'd probably get a round of applause. You'd be surprised how often people will remark after a performance, "I couldn't make out half of what they were saying;" or how rarely they will say, "I could hear every word." They say it with a sense of wonder, like it's something odd. Well, it shouldn't be. Anyway, my college experience was drudgery. Which was what I needed. Art takes time, and that's something the young don't have.

TQ: That's very perceptive.

ME: Really?

TQ: Yes. Yes, it is. What were some of the plays you did in college?

ME: The first play I got into was Mother Courage and Her Children. I played Eilif. Brecht. Can you imagine? Our first blocking rehearsal, our director, who would become the head of the department a year later, told me to enter from stage right and cross to Courage. I asked him something really stupid like, "What's my motivation?" And he started screaming at me that my motivation was to do whatever the hell he told me to do, goddammit! I never opened my mouth in rehearsal again. I learned to figure those things out for myself (a good lesson for a future director: know motivations and be willing to listen to your actors). I was lucky, though, because most of the cast were upperclassmen who'd already asked their stupid questions before I'd asked mine and had gotten the same kind of response. So they took me under their wings and looked out for me after that. But I never auditioned for any other play directed by this guy.

TQ: Sad ...

ME: No, funny. I mean, how more stereotypical and stupid could I have been? But it happened, and it passed. The next play I remember doing was Royal Gambit, a play of ideas using Henry VIII and his wives as metaphors - or something like that. The main reason I remember it was because there was a senior theatre major at USL who was fat and had grown a beard to make him look like he was Henry. Everyone assumed the part was his, but I auditioned for it and got it. I reveled in winning it. I was a blockhead of insensitivity. I think these were the only two plays I did as a Freshman. I became choosy. I didn't live to be in every play. I saw classmates jump at every chance to get up onstage, but I was different. I thought that was kind of unnatural. Between classes and rehearsals, there was little time for anything else, like living a life. I remember thinking how some of the people who jumped from show to show didn't seem to be developing depth but were, rather, developing shtick. You see this all the time. Ready-made performances. It's easier than starting at the beginning.

TQ: What do you mean by "starting at the beginning?"

ME: I mean starting blank. Putting aside things you've done in past performances and starting over from scratch. Each role becomes a new life that develops the way we do as we grow. You start off being conscious of sitting in a playpen, let's say. You look out at all the strange things around you. What can those things be for and what do they mean? The urge for adventure becomes an irresistible force, and you start to crawl, then walk. Falling doesn't stop you. Knocks on the head - that hurt - don't stop you. You start a role from a passive place. Maybe it's like observing nature. You don't impose yourself on it, you let it happen while you observe it, you make assessments, and you learn from that. That enough metaphor for you? I didn't do a lot of plays in college, but I did the good ones. That was where I realized I had a capacity for learning and the ability to absorb what I had learned and make it a part of who and what I was. Two different things, the first one useful, the second one an uncommon gift.

9 comments:

  1. When I stand up to read poetry at the Maple Leaf with it's cranky microphone, I never bother with it. I just stand and speak to the space. (It's not a very big space). I could probably carry the Goldmine without a microphone. I'm anxious to get by the reading/performance event in the "amphitheater" (the stops) across from Jackson Square to test myself against the drunks and traffic and flatulent mules Sometimes I mention that my sister took elocution lessons from a certain Thelma Toole. (You might have heard of her son).

    I remember taking my children to kiddie shows when they were small and cringing and the collapse of the performance when the lavaliers went south. I can't speak to stage presence as I know nothing about that, but if you're going to stand up in front of people and speak the author's words, by god you ought to know how to be heard in the rafters without rattling the earrings of the people in the front row and clear as a bell.

    We are both old farts. We remember the good old days. Worse for them as isn't and don't.

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  2. The amphitheater should be a rousing experience. Just remember your consonants and speak the phrases and the important words with tiny little beats of silences in between that carry your thoughts forward, like music.

    As for "presence," every bear has presence when he raises himself up on his hind legs and stands there in front of you. There's "presence" for you: foursquare and on two feet.

    The secret of art is in what you leave out.

    Just speaking as one old fart to another ;-)

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  3. 1. I love how you take whatever is, in this case the very process-driven approach of your college theater program, and then find the lesson and the gift.

    2. I am so powerfully moved by the image of your father coming onto the bus to get his sleeping college boy and take him home.

    Glad you're in my life now. 

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  4. Thank you for being a reader who can understand what I'm trying to say.

    The "learning gene" just seemed to be something I had. When I discovered that I could fly from one subject  of the Dewey-Decimal System to another like a flying squirrel glides from tree to tree, I just went with it.  The "gift" of eating the knowledge I found and digesting it probably came from my Catholic education. (Has anyone NOT cursed their Catholic education?) God bless metaphor!

    And I'm glad you're in my life, too.

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  5. Good advice. Thanks. And a brilliant way to tell your story, compared to the Odd and elliptic thing I do over on Toulouse Street.

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  6. Thanks. I learned to write (if you can call it writing) by taking down employment-separation statements while working at the unemployment office. You had to get the facts, just the facts, and put them down so that anybody who came along later to read them would know what was what. (And, yes, they stood a chance of being graded - there was some kind of national/Federal system in place to audit that stuff!)

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  7. Oops! My Dad! God knows where I might have ended up if he hadn't shaken me awake and dragged me off those Greyhounds. Those buses were westward bound. I might have ended up in West Texas!!!

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  8. Crowley, the font of all recent fast talking politicians (and who knew there was a John Breaux Library at NOCCA? But I hear his son played a mean guitar).

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