Jac Alder, the executive producer-director at Theatre Three, says he reads a play every day. This puts him in rare company. If you had 100 Americans over the age of 18 in a room and you asked who had read a play in the last year, only three people, maybe four, would raise their hands, according to a 2004 report by the National Endowment for the Arts. Three or four in 100 sounds wildly optimistic to me.
But acting, that fascinating and always mildly disreputable art, starts with something that I have a hard time imagining when I see the latest digital effects from Hollywood: reading. For an actor—and for the audience—the more live tension there is between a text and a performance, the better. Call it a matter of checks and balances, if you want. For example, the way Richard Hamburger ended his Hamlet in 2003—Fortinbras as a brutal militarist who simply kills the survivors, including Horatio, then piles up all the bodies and burns them—depended on the audience’s expectation of a different ending in the text. I hated it, but only because I had read Hamlet.
Back in November, to take a counter example, a high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Ursuline changed my view of a play I had read many times. One of the characters, Helena, has always struck me as unusually weak and disgraceful for a Shakespearean heroine. When Demetrius tells Helena that he cannot love her, she says:
And even for that do I love thee the more;
I am your spaniel, and Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel; spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave
(Unworthy as I am) to follow you.
The Big Four-Oh
University museums are notorious for exhibiting little more than student and faculty work and perhaps some local fare. Not so the MEADOWS MUSEUM. It stewards one of the grandest and farthest-reaching collections of Spanish art outside of Spain. And for the next 12 months, things will only get better. They’ve begun a celebration of their 40th anniversary that will go through spring 2007. It started with an exhibit of 18th-century tapestries in early fall. During that show, the museum enjoyed the highest attendance it’s had since the new building opened in 2001. Currently the museum is showing an unprecedented exhibit with 80 paintings from 24 painters from more than 40 institutions across the United States and Europe (see Events). It traces Spanish Modernism from the 1860s to the beginning of World War I. In addition, acting director Mark Roglán, the driving force behind these celebratory exhibits, has re-hung the entire museum—complete with new, witty labels. Other exhibits coming up include renowned painter Juan van der Hamen, gorgeous Mayan textiles, medieval and early Renaissance art of Spain, and the Gallego alterpiece. And, come September, the Meadows will host an exhibit that’s pure Dallas: “Balenciaga and His Legacy: Haute Couture from the Texas Fashion Collection.” 5900 Bishop Blvd. 214-768-2516. www.meadowsmuseumdallas.org.
Pathetic. But in this production, a senior Ursuline girl named Rachel Dickey played Helena, and she gave the part such a convincing, tomboyish grace that what I had thought was Helena’s whining self-abasement turned out to be spirited and hilarious. Every phrase (“spurn me, strike me, neglect me, lose me”) was a new rhetorical weapon wittily deployed against Demetrius’ scorn. Her Helena was a strong-willed, comic player in the game instead of the clinging, weepy figure I thought Shakespeare had imagined.
That example says something important about the immediacy and power of what acting can do, the way it can instantly shake off a stale interpretation. Many literature professors, such as Harold Bloom at Yale, subscribe to a view first articulated in the 1800s by essayist Charles Lamb, who wrote about the difference between staging Shakespeare’s plays and reading them. In reading, Lamb says, “by far the greater and better part of our imagination is employed upon the thoughts and internal machinery of the character. But in acting, scenery, dress—the most contemptible things—call upon us to judge of their naturalness.” The idea of staging King Lear, in particular, dismays him: “The Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted.”
Novelist (and playwright) Henry Fielding had a very different perspective. When an excellent actor like the famous David Garrick presents him, “the character shows himself in a stronger and bolder light than he can be described.”
Suppose an actor reads the first soliloquy in Hamlet, for example. The prince has just left his mother, who married Hamlet’s uncle a month after her husband’s death, to Hamlet’s intense disgust.
“O that this too, too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,” Hamlet begins. When my imaginary actor imagines saying the first line, he finds himself glancing at his hands—”this too, too sullied flesh”—thinking of the sex of his mother, from whose body he was born, or the decomposing corpse of his father. He rejects his own flesh in disgust. Maybe he makes some faint, almost unconscious washing gesture, then opens his fingers so they “melt” or “thaw.” As he says the second line, he hears a pun in the odd phrase “a dew,” so he ends that line with a sideways gesture, a slight wave goodbye (“adieu”) to all of it—his dead father, his mother’s unclean marriage, his own life.
That’s what I imagine—two lines (no doubt over-read) of a play that everybody knows. But what about real actors and new plays? Steven Walters, named 2005’s best local actor and playwright by the Dallas Observer, says that when he reads a play, it’s very difficult to see it as a whole.
“I can’t help but begin the development process as I read the play for the first time. Impulses are everything to me,” he says. “I mean, they’re basically all I’ve got, and often my initial impulse occurs immediately upon reading a line for the first time. I hear it in my head, I suppose.”
But that first reading does not necessarily govern what his performance will actually be. “Theater is such an inherently reciprocal and collaborative art form,” Walters says. “It’s a give and take between actors, directors, and designers. A director’s vision can change what I do as an actor just as easily as an acting partner’s intention or series of choices can affect my response. I tend to leave myself open as an actor, so I would say the majority of discoveries I make in my approach to a character tend to happen once I’m on my feet, living in the moment, in the midst of a rehearsal process.”
Matthew Gray, artistic director of Classical Acting Company and the star of last fall’s tour de force, Shakespeare’s Keeper, tries to read plays without first warping them toward a particular interpretation.
“This may mean accepting and understanding the divisive qualities of a character that, if you were playing him, you would have to justify emotionally or intellectually,” he says. “I think you only do yourself a favor if when reading a play for any reason, especially for the first time as an actor, you allow yourself to go along with the story and see the big picture.” But he acknowledges that it’s difficult to do. As an actor, he starts “trying to figure out who the character is and why he would say it like that.”
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Most of the time, audiences can’t judge the performances of actors in plays by comparison to what they have also read, which is too bad. Think of the sheer critical expectation that Tolkien readers brought to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy—but that had all the difficulties of an adaptation. Think how much more intelligently audiences could respond to Peter Nichols’ Joe Egg this month at the Dallas Theater Center, for example, or John Kolvenbach’s On An Average Day at Kitchen Dog, if they could find the plays and read them first.
Obviously, it isn’t necessary. Shakespeare’s first audiences had not read his plays, and often what a play or film will turn out to be can’t be predicted from the text, in any case. I read Regina Taylor’s script for Crowns, and I had no idea of the powerfully moving thing it would become onstage.
Still, the difference between the text and the performance was part of the wonder of it. Sometimes actors clearly exceed a written role. Visiting Mr. Green wasn’t that bad, but it was formulaic enough for critics in New York to dismiss it as “lumpy TV-dinner porridge.” But when the Contemporary Theatre of Dallas produced it in the fall, Jerry Russell took on the role of the old Jewish man who has recently lost his wife with such power and depth that the play exceeded itself. He disappeared into the body and psyche of a man almost two decades older than he was, and there was no residual feeling of ego, no sense of “Look at me: I’m Jerry Russell acting.”
But suppose he had an even better play to work with. Everybody these days seems leery of reading, as though even mentioning the act were mildly obscene, like sex used to be. But what we need in Dallas is an increasing literacy in the audience about what’s out there in American and English theater—and a weariness with everything formulaic. What will really make a difference is when the rest of us start reading and anticipating the same things the actors and directors read.
My suggestion? That theaters start selling the plays as soon as they announce the season and that local bookstores set aside sections that include all the plays in the upcoming year. It doesn’t take much to imagine how that raises the ante.