Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Behind the Mic...In Front of the Stage

By Ed Simone, Classical 94.5 WNED program host

Right now, I’m directing my students in a production of Lisa Dillman’s “The Walls.” This play is a challenging piece
for students. It revolves around a young writer, Carrie, researching the lives of women who were institutionalized for “hysteria” in the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries. Carrie has her own psychological difficulties, and as her life and the lives of her subjects intersect, the play becomes a tangle of conflicting emotions and desires. Helping my student actors navigate these treacherous waters is what keeps me going as an artist-educator. Watching them make discoveries in rehearsal and performance is a gift. And they do make discoveries---about themselves, about our humanity, about the process of acting. I came to directing through the process of an actor myself. I started acting when I was around ten or twelve. I can’t recall exactly; but my first time on a stage was in a Halloween comedy sketch. The television show “The Addams Family” was popular then and I was playing Gomez Addams. I’ve always had an ear for intonation and rhythm in speech, so behind my burnt cork moustache and thrift store pin stripe suit, I was doing what was, for a ten or twelve year old at least, a really spot-on John Astin. What I remember most about the experience is the feeling I had when a bit of comic dialogue landed particularly well and sparked a reaction from the audience. It wasn’t gratification exactly, it was more like an overwhelming sense of absolute security. I felt, for an instant, like I was perfectly at home in myself. As though all the pieces of me, pieces that frequently felt jumbled or disconnected, came together and fit just right---a whole and better me. I told this story to John Astin himself many years later. We were touring “A Christmas Carol” and John was our Scrooge. A bunch of us actors were sitting about gabbing after a performance, and John asked what our first experiences on stage had been. I said “Playing you, John.” And told him the story. He laughed a good laugh but then said “That is exactly how it feels, though, isn’t it?”

Over time, I’ve discovered that a very few other circumstances can prompt that wonderful feeling of rightness, of being completely home inside myself. Broadcasting classical music is one. Sharing the music I’ve loved and the artists I admire with just one listener---for that is all I ever envision as I stand before the microphone. Just one listener. Peter Goldsmith taught me that. It gives me a marvelous sense of being whole. Isn’t it surprising? That a seemingly perfect sense of one’s own completeness can be realized by sharing something so intensely personal? “Well,” says Captain Reynaud, “maybe not so surprising.” What all this leads to, of course, are questions.

Does a realization of completeness in me prompt a similar reaction in you---the listener, the audience? Is that why we listen? Is that why we go to the theater? I hope so. Watching my students rehearsing I look for that realization in them. Am I seeing it happening in an intense instant in the eyes, in the relaxation of a hand? In a more open breath or a deeper reaction? I can’t really be certain about it. I can only go on the evidence of a character growing in complexity, of an actor reaching new depths of feeling, of resonance. One thing is certain. I can’t really tell them how to get there. Although the feeling may be shared, the journey to it, I believe, is unique to each of us. The playwright has given my student actors a set of stories, arcs of action and character. As a director, I encourage them to find their own stories, I adjust stage, time and space to give them emotional opportunity and physical vitality. I help circumstances happen, and let them discover.

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