It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Put Your Head on My Chest, and I’m Mr. Success

Dave Sikula on how to succeed- and feel like you’ve actually succeeded.

Frank has the definition – as you’d expect.

I have a feeling the seams are gonna show on this one, but go with me.

I arrived at rehearsal last Tuesday night just in time to hear part of a discussion about “success” in the theatre, and just what that word might mean. (I also heard my name being bruited about as a hashtag standing in for “not liking things,” but that couldn’t be more false. Why, just last week, I caught Sister Play at the Magic, and loved it. But I digress … )

I believe I’ve mentioned more than once that, at this point in my career, I have a pretty good sense of whether a show I’ve directed or am acting in is any good. (And let me qualify that; once we open and the finished product is in place, I have an idea. Many is the time I’ve come home from rehearsal and said that I have no idea of how it was going to go over – or been sure on the final Monday or Tuesday that we were as doomed as doomed can be, only to have the ship right itself yet again.) I can tell if I’m good or if the show is good, but is it a “success?” Boy, is that a can of worms.

There are just too many definitions for success. Is it financial? Is it a (sincere) standing ovation from the audience? Is it (appropriate) laughter or tears? Is it good reviews? Is it personal satisfaction? Is it knowing you got the most out of all the actors and characters? All of the above? Some of them?

I don’t know. I can be satisfied and delighted with something, but does that equal “success?”

This is the part where it’s going to get sticky. In my last couple of offerings, I’ve talked about the plan by Actor’s Equity to kill Los Angeles’s 99-seat plan. For those who came in late*, in brief, there was a waiver that allowed theatres with 99 seats or fewer to pay union actors less than scale (like, as little as $7 a performance) in order for them to do material that was more challenging or interesting or larger-scale or experimental than work for television or movies. (I also expressed a wish that we had something similar in the Bay Area – not because I think actors shouldn’t be paid, but because I think they should be able to work on whatever they want wherever they want.)

Equity members down there voted on whether they wanted to keep the waiver plan in place (with changes) or scrap it all together. By a 2-to-1 margin, they voted in favor of keeping the plan. It was strictly an advisory vote, so Equity’s New York offices announced Tuesday (as expected) that they’d be scrapping the plan and, basically, putting dozens of successful companies out of business and preventing the very actors they were claiming to protect from working. At least one company, the Long Beach Playhouse (worked there; did two good shows, two okay shows, and one that was one of the worst theatrical experiences of my life), announced immediately that they were going strictly non-Equity, and I heard of at least three cases where actors were literally physically prevented from auditioning for shows.

The Long Beach Playhouse = in business since 1929.

The Long Beach Playhouse = in business since 1929.

Okay, what does all this have to do with “success?” A lot, I think. Consider the sides. The theatres in question? Mostly “successful” both artistically and financially. The way the vote went? “Successfully” for the actors. Equity’s take on what they’ve done? A “success” for themselves and their members. And yet, all three of them can be seen in just the opposite way. Those theatres? Well, not everything they did worked. (I mean, no theatre hits it out of the park every time. If they did, they’d have a formula that every other theatre would copy.) The vote? Well, about half of the 6,000 (yes, six thousand) Equity members in Los Angeles didn’t even vote, and Equity “lost” the vote. Where’s the success there? And Equity’s plan to kill the theatres is seen as a strong loss by the dissenters (my Facebook feed has been afire with outrage all day). Three events. Three successes. Three failures.

Getting back to the inciting incident (remember my walking into rehearsal way back up at the top of the page?), I was reminded of another conversation I’d walked in on, discussing a recent production some of us had seen. Some (like me) had liked it, others didn’t, though each side could understand the logic of the other. Was the production a “success?” It certainly was for me in that it succeeded (that word!) in illuminating the story and text it was trying to convey in an entertaining way. For others, it was a failure because the very nature of its story and text were fatally flawed. One production. One success. One failure.

To bring all of this up to the present, the rehearsal I was at was for Grey Gardens. It’s a musical. A very good one. (One might even call it “successful,” if one were so inclined.) It ran on Broadway for “only” seven months, so one could term it either a success or not. (And, no; I’m not being paid each time I use the word “success” … ) I think this production will be a very good one. The cast is marvelous (I exempt myself from this assessment) and we’re having a great time even though we’ve barely started. There are two things to discuss here, though. The first – and more germane – is whether it’ll be a success. I believe it will work artistically and will sell very well (get your tickets now!), so from those standpoints, it was be a success. Though for all of that, I have no doubt that there will be people who see it and think it’s putrid and the worst thing they’ve ever seen. They’ll storm out at intermission, angry at having that hour of their life eradicated. No success there – unless there’s a perverse success in not succeeding …

But on a personal level, I’ll be dealing with not just my usual struggle with lines (though these are – knock wood – coming reasonably easily), but I’ll need to add music, lyrics, and choreography to the mix, and other assessments will come into play. Will I move (I won’t say dance) as directed? Will I get those damn harmonies? Will I get the lyrics right? For my purposes, doing those will constitute success. Will I be good while doing it? I’ll do as well as I can and then judge whether I think the results are good. As with the rest of the production, I know there will be people who will roll their eyes and shake their heads at how inept I am.

So, what’s the upshot? That there’s no such thing as artistic success. It’s too objective and personal. I can be satisfied or happy (or neither) about whether I think I’ve met my personal goals for the role and my place in the show. Whether that’s a success or a failure will be in the eye of the beholder.

(*Completely, and literally, parenthetically, in the late ‘90s, I directed a production of The Night Boat. It was an okay production of a not-very-good 1920 musical. About 20 minutes into the show, three women called the “Plot Demonstrators” came out and did a number titled “For Those Who Came in Late,” which recapped the plot to that moment. About 20 minutes before the end of the show, they came out again to tell how it all ended, so that people who had to catch trains would know how things turned out [spoiler alert: happily]. It was that kind of show … )

"The Night Boat's" original production. That kind of show.

“The Night Boat’s” original production. That kind of show.

Working Title: Seasonal Bird(man): Or the Unexpected Virtue of Complex Entertainment

This week Will Leschber gets meta.

Winter is upon us and the end of the year almost proves a curious time. Dense with transition, this final month of the year somehow seamlessly fuses welcomed endings, the promise of new beginnings, outward reflection, routine introspection, feelings of seasonal loneliness, the joy of drawing close to one’s family, cold winter winds, warm gifts of friendship, thoughts of all that has come and gone, and all that lies ahead. The past and the future seem alight with the kinetic energy of being so close to one another. Everyone individually knows the contrasting tones and their own personal ingredients that fall into and color the holidays. It runs the spectrum. Depending on who you ask holiday feelings can run from celebratory to brooding. While a simple, straightforward, feel-good Christmas film or seasonal play can be satisfying for this time of year (Love, Actually always hits the spot for me around Christmas), I also appreciate something a bit more varied with complexity and frayed edges. Maybe some seasonal Birdman is on the menu.

birdman_San_Francisco

“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?”

“I did.”

“And what did you want?”

“To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloverd on the earth”

~Raymond Carver

(This opens the film, misspellings and all)

If you are looking for a sweet-spot of entertainment that melds the space between film and theatre, Birdman is it. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance wistfully unfolds a tale of a washed up former blockbuster star, played by Michael Keaton, and the days leading up to his Broadway debut. Keaton’s character, who blazed across the marquee two decades ago in three mega-hit Birdman films, now find his star faded and wants to do some creative work of significance. Sounds familiar… Batman 1989, anyone? Yeah, it’s meta. The films throws around ideas inherent to creative professions: permanence vs transitory, popularity vs prestige, creativity vs madness, family vs individual, Broadway vs Hollywood, film vs theatre, success vs validation, true art vs zeitgeist, old vs new, importance vs the creative human condition. Everything is at odds, bumping up against one another, pushing for priority. The filmmakers sprinkle on magical realism blurring the lines between what is real and what is imagined.

Birdman_B&W

Furthermore the remarkable cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki presents the film, even though it takes place over a few days, as a seemingly unbroken shot. There are no obvious cuts. This fluidity of visual presentation supplants the idea of division, and instills a unity throughout the film. This technique implies to the audience that everything is connected and fluidly runs together as one. It’s a beautiful way to juxtapose the contrast between the idea of difference and unity that the film is interested in. The space between the boards of Broadway and the film stock of Hollywood is not as vast as we would think. Birdman suggest they are part of the same tangential life that we experience as human creators. It’s a trip. It’s also entertaining as hell.

birdman_poster

This is all heady, conceptual bullcrap that I’m spouting, but regardless of if you are looking to muse over the meanings or just be entertained by the ride of great filmmakers and excellent actors, then treat yourself. Yes, this may not feel like holiday fare film. It isn’t a Christmas classic, but Birdman might have more in common with It’s a Wonderful Life than you think. See it. And get your spectrum mashup of experiences with a little levitation and gun play to top it off. It’s always a good season for that.

In For a Penny: Label-mates

Charles Lewis III, breaking his own format.

“I wonder if anyone ever notices the cross and Virgin Mary in my hand?”

“I wonder if anyone ever notices the cross and Virgin Mary in my hand?”

“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
– Toni Morrison, Beloved

This is about race. You don’t wanna read about it, click on something else. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

In all my years working with the SF Olympians Festival, I can’t recall a year where there were so many divisive; plays that made the audience grateful for the imaginative power of theatre alongside many plays in which the audience felt their lives ending by the minute. I didn’t catch every single play this year, but if there’s one that still positively resonates with me weeks later, it’s Half-Breed, Veronica Tjioe’s one-act based on the myth of the Minotaur. It’s about a mixed-race (half-Asian/half-White) woman coming to terms with her ethnic identity after a none-too-pleasant encounter with her White father.

Lots of thoughts went through my head watching this reading. It reminded me of my own Olympians one-act from Year 3 (also centered around a mixed-race individual coping with his identity). It reminded me of how some of the best works in the festival can be ones that eschew the grandiose nature of the original myth for more intimate character studies. Most of all, it reminded me a lot of bullshit questions I’ve gotten all my life, like “What do you call yourself?” It’s never enough to just exist, some people need to have some frame of reference (read: “stereotype”) in which to fit you; otherwise you don’t exist.

I’ve never been too keen on the term “African-American”. I was an ‘80s kid/‘90s teen, so I was around when the term first came into vogue. It’s always struck me as too clinical and too broad to describe me. It’s a term that describes nationality in such a way as to avoid specific ethnic phrasing. Charlize Theron was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and later became a citizen of the United States – that is an African-American. I’m a Black man. That’s the way I’d be described in almost any other country in the world, so that’s the way I’ll describe myself in my home country. I was born in San Francisco, raised both there and Daly City. I grew up around a lot of Filipinos and a great many of them described themselves as “Pacific Islander” – a term the US Census uses for those of Hawai’ian/Samoan origin. My category isn’t as complex: Black American – end of story.

And I get that there’s a lot of – a Chimamanda Adichie recently called it – “baggage” associated with that term. It’s stifling. It’s myopic. It suggests that a particularly diverse group of people are capable of only one type of representation. As a performing artist, I’ve learned that such terms give audience members, critics, and whomever an easy frame of reference for what they’re about to see. At the same time I hate the idea of being handcuffed to any one particular performance category – especially “Black theatre”. I’m not the first person on this site to mention that this sort of specific theatre (Gay theatre, Asian theatre, women’s theatre, etc.) tends to be pretty damn awful, and Black theatre is no exception. Black theatre usually consists of over-the-top, stereotypical performances of plays that fall into one of two categories (broad comedy or overwrought drama – both usually ending with some awkward mention of Christianity) and spend their entire running time reminding the audience of what they already knew: that there are a bunch of Black people on stage. Film-maker Gina Prince-Bythewood recently told NPR that she’d love to eliminate the term “Black film” if she could. I get where she’s coming from.

It’s one of the reasons I’m also a writer and director in addition to being an actor. I don’t know what’s worse: terrible Black characters written by other Black people or terrible Black characters written by non-Black people. I’ve mentioned on this site before that one of the worst scripts I’ve ever auditioned for was one in which the sole Black character was so cringe-inducingly “perfect” that he lacked any sense of realism. The writer – a White woman – had clearly gone so out of her way to make him politically correct that she didn’t bother to give him a personality; he was just a list of statistics and accomplishments dumped into a Black man’s body. That’s just as bad as if he’d been the worst Stepin Fechit or gangsta caricature because you’re still thinking of them as a category, not as a person.

And God forbid you actually bring that up in conversation with a non-Black theatre professional. Even here in the “Liberal Utopia” of the Bay Area there can be some ass-backwards thinking (and speaking) in regards to race. After all, this is the epicenter of post-racial America under a Black president, where everyone is judged purely on their merits and the people who live here “can’t see race” (a claim that science has conclusively proven to be absolute bullshit. It sucks that I almost never get cast in shows with primarily Black casts (and the last time I was, the idiot director fired me anyway), but it’s equally frustrating that White directors and producers are clearly thinking “Where can we put the Black guy?” whenever I actually am cast. I’ve never gotten a romantic lead, if I’ve gotten a lead at all. I’m usually cast as someone’s father or other asexual authority figure. Having been on both sides of the audition table, I know that there are a million other mitigating factors contributing to such decisions. Still, it’s annoying to be thought of only as a Prospero or a MacDuff, but never as a Romeo or a Bassanio.

Still, when Norm Lewis can headline roles like Javert in Les Misérables and the eponymous Phantom of the Opera, then I think there just might be hope for me yet.

“My audition for Equus didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped.”

“My audition for Equus didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped.”

I understand the need for labels in both a practical and professional sense. Not only do I gravitate more towards the term “Black” because I feel it accurately describes me, but categorically it’s simple and direct enough that I’d like to think an intelligent person can give it the slightest glance and move on from it without being dismissive. I don’t prefer the term “African-American”, but I’m not offended by it either. I don’t equate it with the horrible epithets I could be (and have been) called. In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, actress Raven-Symoné put a lot of emphasis on the fact that she didn’t want to be labeled as “African-American” or “Gay”. I don’t know what the reaction was amongst the LGBT community, but Black people were pissed. Really pissed.

On the one hand, I get what she means about not wanting to be held back by any particular label. On the other hand, comments like this by her and Pharrell Williams (who recently dubbed himself – I shit you not “The New Black”) don’t suggest an evolved sense of thinking so much as a sense of superiority. These are the comments from people who have achieved enough money and fame that they can separate themselves from problems of people who look like them, but don’t have the money to make said problems disappear. That’s not the same as Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining why he’s not an atheist [/LINK]. This is a look into the thought processes of people who truly think the rules of the world don’t apply to them, and that’s dangerous thinking.

In fact, it can be outright deadly. As I write this entry – which I’d written, finished, and then re-written several times over now – we find ourselves in the aftermath of a legal decision that essentially regarded the life of a Black American as worthless. This is the second such decision in the past two weeks and the umpteenth one of my entire lifetime. As someone who regularly reads classical Greek and Shakespearean prose only to be “shaken-down” by the SF or Oakland police departments that same night, I can’t afford to forget lessons like that. Raven and Pharrell live in a world where racial profiling is unthinkable. For those of us not blessed with such ignorance, their dismissal is insulting, to say the least.

When I finally decided to become a regular columnist for this site, one thing holding me back was the thought that I’d be “the Black writer”. But I’m gonna be that no matter what I write, so I took on the role knowing that if my opinion on any theatre topic is shaped by the knowledge of me being a Black man, so be it. When I started writing today’s piece, it was supposed to be the entry that ran last time. As I mentioned in that entry, Allison’s piece had me in a contemplative mood and I felt more comfortable commenting on that. But I also didn’t want to let loose the angry stream-of-consciousness version of this entry which I was originally writing. In the time between then and now, the policemen who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner have gotten off and I’m starting wish I’d gone with my original version of this entry.

As I said above, I wound up rewriting this entry quite a few times before sending it in. I didn’t want it too sound too angry, because an “angry Black guy’s” opinion can be easily dismissed, but I wanted the seriousness to be felt in every word. I wanted a bit of levity to shine through, but I didn’t for one minute want the reader to think I was just trying to put a happy spin on a topic that doesn’t get enough attention. I wanted it to cover as much as possible without being a long-winded screed throwing in everything including the kitchen sink. Most of all, I wanted it to reflect the broad scope of my column and the specific goal of this entire website: theatre.

We are artists: we comment on the world in a way that makes sense to us in the hopes of connecting with someone who feels the same way. Do we simplify, exploit, filter, and manipulate in the hopes of getting our point across? Abso-fucking-lutely. That’s the great paradox of what we do: when we do it right, our simplified material will leave you with a complex emotional response. It might make you happy, it make you angry; but the point is that we were afforded this opportunity and this forum to make our voices heard and you chose to listen, so the least we can do is make it count. As much as I abhor the broad stereotypes that tend to pop up in a lot of Black theatre, I take a lot of comfort in the knowledge that a topic like this would most likely be able to find a home there. From Lorraine Hansberry to Lynn Nottage, no one reflects us as well as we do.

As an artist, I’ve learned that the only thing worse that the labels put on you is when you fall into the trap of letting those labels define you and everything you do. Very little of the theatre work I’ve done in recent years would easily fall into the category of “Black theatre”, but there is a self-assured Black man behind each and every one. I’d never let my race be the sole defining factor of my work, but I won’t shy away from a piece where it’s vital to the outcome (I’ve recently started writing a full-length in which race plays a considerable role with the characters). Most of all I’ve made a certain amount of peace with labels others use for me – whether I like them or not – because I know that it’s based on their frame of reference, not mine.

Besides, if there’s one thing the world is starting to get wind of, it’s that “African-American” isn’t the worst label that could be placed on someone like me.

Photo by Pamela Moore

Photo by Pamela Moore

Charles Lewis is a celebrity look-alike. He’s often been told he “fit(s) the description of a suspect”.

Working Title: Goodbye Philip Seymour Hoffman

Will Leschber pens the blog’s first “in memoriam” with this week’s Working Title.

What is clear is that we, collectively, have lost something of great value. To the masses he was a high quality addition to franchise films (The Hunger Games, Mission Impossible III). To the frequent film fans he was someone with a ridiculous high bar for quality (The Master, Doubt, Synecdoche New York, Charlie Wilson’s War, Capote, Punch-Drunk Love, Almost Famous, Magnolia, the list is long…). To those who saw him live on stage, he provided unforgettable volatility and startling emotional immediacy (2000 revival of Sam Shepard’s True West, 2012 Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman). To his friends and family, he was their beloved Phil. I’m sure he was also many more things to many more people. You know of whom I speak: Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He crossed from screen to stage and back again with ease. The caliber of his craft was rarely in question, however it was a quality of uncommon humanity that all of his characters inhabited that made his work hit even closer. This loss within the acting community will stay longer that most, I feel. There is something more personally affecting about Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The New York Times film critic, A.O. Scott, said it well when he said, “He may have specialized in unhappiness, but you were always glad to see him.”

philip-seymour-hoffman_Image_1

As I look back on major periods within my creative development and personal history, PSH was always there in some capacity informing the fringes of my creative life. I caught the theatre bug in high school like most of my close friends.On multiple occasions I, and a friend or two, would ditch school to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. We must have done it three or four times. When I felt like taking a rebellious break from sixth period Government class, Hoffman’s endearing Phil Parma was there to reunite the estranged, misogynist men played by Jason Robards and Tom Cruise. My 17 year old self was entranced. PSH himself was quoted as saying, “I think Magnolia (1999) is one of the best films I’ve ever seen and I can say that straight and out and anybody that disagrees with me I’ll fight you to the death. I just think it is one of the greatest films I’ve ever been in and ever seen.” (IMDB) His phone call in the film attempting to find that long lost son taps the first crack in how that film breaks your heart.

In college, the first go round at least, I was pursuing a theatre degree in performance. One of the first scenes I worked on in Acting II was a piece from True West. My scene partner told me that these roles were played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly the year before . To further make me feel out of my depth, he then said, “Yeah, they would switch roles every other night.” Inspiring. To toggle between vastly different characters with ease struck me with awe. PSH’s whole career is characterized with vast divergence of created individuals. We all wanted to be that good.

A few years later when I had left said college unfinished, I moved back home to Phoenix. Life having taken some unfriendly turns, I was working my way through depression. I had thrown away my academic scholarship, I no longer knew my purpose and my sense of self identity was blurring. I wouldn’t say it out loud but I was scared. I just felt so lost. I knew it still loved movies. They were a constant. Why not go see the new independent PSH film, Love Liza. For the few who saw this, you’ll know its not light viewing. I was in a dark period and PSH’s character in this film likewise was so. A.O. Scott in his article “An Actor Whose Unhappiness Brought Joy” remarked, “Hoffman’s characters exist, more often than not, in a state of ethical and existential torment. They are stuck on the battleground where pride and conscience contend with base and ugly instincts.” For those in low places of self doubt and self loathing, often PSH provided humanity and catharsis in a way that allowed audiences to feel akin to a fellow lonely soul.

Hoffman_NY_Times

In 2012, when in a much healthier place, I took a trip to New York with my then girlfriend, now fiancée. As a college graduation present (yes, I took a long road to finish but eventually I got there), I was given two tickets to see the Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman. Upon arrival at the theatre, we were told that the tickets were for handicapped patrons and if we did not have someone in our party who fit that description we would have to pay an up-charge. Thank you very much StubHub. We had come all the way to see PSH’s Willy Lowman and Andrew Garfield (of Spiderman fame) in a show that we loved directed by Mike Nichols! Of course we would fork over the extra money. Geez. In the end those tickets were by far the most expensive I’ve had (upward of $700 all total) but the show was invaluable. The production remains to this day as one of my favorite theatre experiences. The play which I had seen and read many times before, simply cut deeper. For that experience, I am grateful.

Though I did not know him personally, his accessibility on stage and on screen made me feel like I did. My connection to the work of Philip Seymour Hoffman, like many of my friends, and I would venture most people who saw his work, is personal. He let us in. He allowed us access to the terrible sadness and fleeting joys in ourselves. Again I think A.O. Scott said it wonderfully when he said, “He did not care if we liked any of these sad specimens. The point was to make us believe them and to recognize in them — in him — a truth about ourselves that we might otherwise have preferred to avoid. He had a rare ability to illuminate the varieties of human ugliness. No one ever did it so beautifully.”

You will be deeply missed. Goodbye.

Sources

Scott, A.O. “An Actor Whose Unhappiness Brought Joy.”New York Times. 03 Feb 2014: Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

Inez Van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin, .Philip Seymour Hoffman. N.d. Photograph. New York Times, NY. Web. 4 Feb 2014.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Ritual Business

Dave Sikula writes us from New York, on Shakespeare, Broadway, and ritual.

Did you ever have something you were really looking forward to, and when it finally came, not only were your high expectations met, and wildly exceeded? Well, I had one of those afternoons.

I write this sitting in my hotel room in sunny New York (no kidding on that, either; in spite of the snow yesterday and the current temperature of 34 degrees, it’s supposed to get into the high 60s – if not 70s – this Sunday), having just returned from seeing Mark Rylance and the rest of the Globe company perform “Twelfe Night” (sic). The misspelling is part of the conceit of doing the show strictly in period. That is to say, authentically period costumes (no materials or conveniences that weren’t available in the 17th century – including [or not including, to be more accurate] zippers or Velcro; it’s all hand-stitched materials held together with buttons, straps, or ties); authentic period musical instruments (according to the program notes, these are the first shows in Broadway history to use authentic period instruments); no “artificial” stage lighting (they do use a general stage wash of lights, but there are no apparent cues from the time the audience arrives until they leave*, and real beeswax candles – which kept dripping onto the stage during the performance; I thought it was amazing nothing hit the actors); audience members in on-stage boxes; and men (or boys) playing all the roles.

I had heard that the pre-show was worth watching, and indeed it is. The actors (or most of them) are all over the stage before the show, being helped into their costumes (which seems no mean feat, given their complicated nature), talking to people in the front or in the boxes, warming up (Rylance was doing something that involved shaking his hands and moving his arms around – all while his dresser was adjusting his gown and undergarments [he plays Olivia in “Twelfe Night” and the title role in “Richard III”]), and generally being themselves. (In the evening performance, Angus Wright, who doubles as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the Earl of Buckingham, was talking to a couple in front of me about the inscription on his garter.) As far as I could tell, there was no pretense at them acting in character as 17th century actors (thank the gods), but were just being themselves, squeezing themselves into these clothes.

A few minutes before curtain – precisely at 2:00**, I was delighted to note – some costumed stagehands came out, and the candelabra chandeliers were lowered. The stagehands went to an upstage candelabrum at lit tapers which were used to light the other candelabra, which were flown back up once everything had been ignited.

I was sure how the performance would actually start. I imagined they might pound the stage to get our attention (which was concentrated on the stage, anyway). Even though that’s a French thing, I thought it might feel “period.” I even wondered if they’d “fire” a cannon, as they did in ye olde days of Ye Globe. But no, the houselights dimmed and they just started***. (Side note #1: In all of the three shows I’ve seen so far, there hasn’t been either one “shut off your cell phone” announcement [though there is a great running gag about it in the marvelously entertaining “Murder for Two”] – and I’ve only heard one ringing vaguely. Have audiences finally been trained?****)

In the middle of experiencing the whole thing, I was struck with how ritualistic it all was. This goes along with my column from last time. Not only have all these people agreed to meet in the same place at the same time, but in this case, the ritual was really driven home. We all had jobs to do this afternoon. The audience was there to listen and react – and, in some cases, to participate. The dressers were there to help the illusion. The stagehands were there to light the candles. The actors were there to tell the story.

But there was something almost ceremonial about it. Konstantin Treplyev in “The Sea Gull” disparages the theatre his mother performs in by saying “these High Priests of Sacred Art represent the way people are supposed to eat, drink, love, walk; wear their jackets.” But in this case, it really did feel like we were a congregation watching priests don their vestments, light the candles, and deliver a prepared text that would entertain us and illuminate what it means to be human in the 1600s. (That the message is still relevant in the 2000s is both a tribute to Shakespeare’s understanding of human psychology and that that psychology hasn’t really changed much in 400 years.) All in all, the afternoon was electrifying; funny, melancholy, and human.

I have to leave in a few minutes for “The Tragedie of King Richard the Third” (I don’t want to miss the next robing ceremonies), and am looking forward to it greatly. I’ll have more thoughts about all of it when I return in a few hours.

Just back – well, just back after a late night supper – and it “Richard” was just as good as “Twelfe Night.”

The thing I meant to mention earlier (and forgot) was the presentational nature of the day. That, as part of the story-telling ritual – and Shakespeare’s dramaturgy – there was no doubt that the plays were being presented for the benefit, and participation, of the audience. Rylance’s Richard was an interesting approach to the character. Giggly, almost seeming stupid (though ruthlessly intelligent underneath), and really seeking the approval of the audience in everything. For example, there were a lot of entrances and exits through the audience, up and down stairs at the downstage corners of the playing area, and Richard/Rylance came down the stairs, and without breaking stride, shook the hand of the guy next to me (it went unnoticed by virtually everyone, I’m sure) in a classic politician’s move. The actors in both plays interacted with the audience members in the onstage boxes, and in the scene (Act III, scene vii) where Richard appears with two clergymen in order to seem pious to the crowd, his henchmen made sure – through gestures and expressions that were simultaneously cheerleaderish and threatening – that all the audience shouted, “Long live Richard! England’s worthy king!” Something remarkable about Rylance is that he has the amazing knack of seeming to pull blank verse out of the air. That is to say, to seem to discover the speech even as he’s saying it; adding pauses and non-verbal interjections that make it all seem spontaneous. It really is a pair of marvelous performances; fully rounded and invested, completely different, but wholly original.

At the end of “Richard,” I joined in the standing ovation, not so much to honor the emotional values of the play – even though it was probably the clearest and most entertaining “Richard III” that I’ve seen and certainly the funniest overall “Twelfth Night,” it was not the best Shakespeare (though it’s way, way up there) – but to honor the effort and accomplishment; the thought and care that’s gone into the whole thing. It’s a huge undertaking and I felt it deserved the kudos. (Side note #2: Just for the record, as much as I loved both “Murder for Two” and “The Glass Menagerie” earlier in the week, I didn’t stand for either of those. In the latter, I was conspicuous by my remaining seated.) (Side note #3: As much as I enjoyed the “Twelfth Night,” I was constantly reminded of Benjamin Stewart, one of the best actors I ever worked with and who passed away earlier this year. His Lord Capulet is the gold standard, and his Toby Belch was phenomenal. I never saw him give less than a stellar performance.)

To return to my theme, though, I was more aware of the ritualistic aspects of the performance tonight – if only because a) I had just written the first part of this post, and b) I was looking for it. It was a bit of a paradigm shift for me; to really be aware of what we all agree to do when we participate in a play (in whatever role; audience, actor, writer, director, designer, technician). We all have assigned roles and parts to play in the process, and from here on in, I’m going to be much more aware of the part I’m fulfilling in the ritual.

(*There were at least a couple of light cues in “Richard;” it was noticeable in the evening scenes before the Battle of Bosworth Field when it grew dark, reflecting both the time of day and Richard’s mood.)

(**The evening performance also started precisely on time; at 8:00.)

(***There was a trumpet blare in “Richard” that started things off.)

(****I had my cell phone out during Intermission, and just before the second act started, an usher came by and told me to shut it off, so I guess they’ve gotten much better at policing these things.)

Falling With Style: Broadway, On and Off

Helen Laroche comes at you, live from New York…

I write to you this week from my Airbnb’d Chelsea apartment. I’d like to tell you that I’m sitting at a pristine desk facing a window, hair disheveled, musing aloud a la Carrie Bradshaw. But the truth is, I’m lying supine on the unmade bed, laptop on my knees a la Hannah Horvath. My husband and I are in town for a few days before we move on to New Jersey for a friend’s wedding. (If we’re lucky, we may even see fellow Theatre Pub writer and my former castmate Eli Diamond while we’re here!)

Like nearly every other theatre person on the planet, I’ve long considered New York to be a theatrical mecca. I incorporated my eventual move to The City into my post-college plans. I fantasized about my eventual life here. I added New York legs to any Eastbound trip and tried to see as many shows as possible. I even had my bachelorette weekend in Manhattan, with my 4 bridesmaids and I huddled into a hostel room for maximum savings. (Somewhere, a picture exists of me — in a “Bachelorette” sash — and my bridesmaids kicklining in Times Square. And I believe that this was before they turned Times Square into a pedestrian area, so it was extra annoying.)

So here I am, back in the city I’ve dreamed of for so long. And it’s not what I want it to be. Like every other crush I’ve ever had, the fantasy I made up for myself leaves no breathing room for the real thing.

First of all, there was the guardedness of the people around me that felt like a punch to the gut. Remember that Baz Luhrmann song “Always Wear Sunscreen”? One of the lines was “Live in New York, but leave before it makes you too hard. Live in Northern California, but leave before it makes you too soft.” I think I’ve gone really soft. I’ve gotten used to keeping my head up, making eye contact with other people, smiling and making some semblance of a connection, a sharing of energy, with strangers. (And, yes, even thinking the phrase “sharing of energy” is a sign of that NorCal softness at work.) The blockage I got from other people in the first few hours of walking around was noticeable. It wasn’t big, and it wasn’t from everyone, but it put me in a sour mood that I ended up directing at my poor husband.

Second of all, a realization that’s been dawning on me for some time now: Broadway, at least vision of Broadway I have in my head as a shining pinnacle of theatre, does not exist. Maybe it did when I was a kid, when I first built that seed of a dream in my head. Maybe it never existed. But my love for creation, for telling new stories, is greater than my love for telling bombastic, high-budget ones. And in light of that, I think I’ll always be a workshop and black box girl.

I have an aversion to things so overly polished that they’ve lost the crags and spots that make them relatable (I’ve always thought this was a backlash to my LA upbringing). I feel foolish saying this, but I never fully allowed myself to apply this aversion to my dream of Broadway. As with all childhood dreams, it’s surprisingly emotional to see this one laid to rest.

But maybe there’s still hope in Off-Broadway.

Helen Laroche is a Bay Area actor and singer. She can make you a 5 shot venti soy half-caf no whip salted caramel mocha. Learn about upcoming performance dates at http://www.helenlaroche.com.