I think of Joanne as my second acting teacher. Skip, the first. Really, though, she co-taught that first class – Shakespeare – right along with him. That first class about acting that changed the course of my life in inexplicable and lasting ways; lessons that go on informing what moves me, and orienting me in the presence of critical decision points all these years later. When not knowing is an insufficient alternative, the choice that gets made might, if we could trace such things, very well wind back through relationships and neurons and labyrinths of previous choices, back and back to adolescent experiences during six short weeks in summer of 1988.
Skip enjoys pride of place in my memory because his teachings were overt. The exercises and explanations spoke largely to who we were already. He knew how to have fun while imparting knowledge to us. His teaching felt seamless; a natural extension of our identities. Joanne, however, aimed her work at who we were expected to become. Namely, self-directed performers responsible for our own growth on stage and, more, our meaningful communion with others. She wasn't about fun, and we were all terrified of her because of it. Learning from her felt like work. She generated within each of us something akin to the trying relationship that a reptile might feel for its body as it sheds dry, clinging, catching skin.
Part of the resistance surely was that her activities felt obscure; minimally connected to playing a character. What I know now is that she was encouraging us to engage something far more complicated than a fictional being. Joanne was getting each of us to grapple with a self: the deep core and wellspring beneath truly purposeful acting. She was trying to show us how to pose useful questions, and to creatively provoke our hearts and minds.
So there we all stood one warm afternoon, in a circle in a darkened classroom. The chair-desks used as a matter of course for conventional classes during the school year now all shoved and stacked at the margins. The only light coming from the sun, but filtered through a canopy of leaves and then diminished by tinted windows before reaching our strange ceremony. We were supposed to keep our eyes shut. Nobody was doing that very well, thanks to equal parts defiance and boredom. Whalesong echoed as clearly as it could from two meager speakers attached to a boom-box at the periphery. Besides not peeking, our objective was to join the haunting echolocation with the hum of our own voices. We weren't charged with anything as complicated as matching pitch or following rhythm. “Just sing with them.”
I don't know how I slipped from trying to conform to my peers' mockery of the moment, to keeping my eyes persistently shut. I'm not sure in what second my jaw dropped and allowed breath to carry my voice unhindered into the space. But at some moment I joined, and the floor and the walls and buildings around the walls and the few young years that accident upon accidental happening brought me to this place and nothing short of time itself…it all bent and then gave way. And maybe I breathed for the first time since I'd stopped breathing, as humans do when they acquire language. Now I had breath and a language both. I took the one in deeply and let the other out readily, without suppressing – without forcing – either direction.
As my heart rose up, my body stumbled with wooziness. I puzzled at my clammy palms and humid brow; my arteries pumping forcefully into my ears. Yet my eyes remained dark and my voice available up above, until the moment that my legs began to crumple down below. Destined for the cool floor. But I didn't hit the floor. Joanne, who in my recollection could have been doing nothing other than anticipating my collapse, caught me. She pressed a bottle of water into my hand and, whispering so as not to contradict the whalesong, instructed me to sit and drink.
Thereafter, when my teenage cohorts complained about the worthlessness of Joanne's time with us, I said nothing. Skip charmed me with his endless passion. But Joanne earned my respect with her conviction. Although I think of the former first when thinking about my life with in theatre, in truth they are together my first teacher.
Yesterday, speaking in regard to a meeting on the Syrian catastrophe, Hillary Clinton expressed reluctance to the possible inclusion of Iranian diplomats. While doing so, she used phrases like ‘stage managed’ to refer to ostensibly deceptive actions of the Iranian government, and ‘bad actors’ synonymously with that government’s officials. ‘Bad actor’, in particular, is a phrase I hear used frequently these days to qualify people and entities as morally suspect, based on their activities in a given sphere. Investment firms that got rich betting on the failure of the housing market have been named bad actors in retrospect. The FBI has stated that it would like the ability in the social networking universe to “geospatially locate bad actors or groups and analyze their movements, vulnerabilities, limitations, and possible adverse actions.” The Washington Times recently ran an op-ed in which the author urges Congress to get “bad actors out of missile defense.”
It is without possibility that Secretary Clinton, or any of these sources, intended to disparage theatre making and the artists who do it. In fact, ‘actor’ is probably being used in such instances just to mean a participant in a series of processes. But ‘actor’ is also generally accepted as a person who behaves disingenuously, and ‘theatrical’ often points to activity considered inauthentic. It’s unfortunate that the vocabulary of theatre has been so readily appropriated, euphemistically, to suggest moral decrepitude in many scenarios.
Yes, actors at work may not be who they seem to be. Theatrical creations do in fact traffic in illusion to generate their realities (or is it the other way around?). The people involved expend exceptional degrees of energy to convince you that things may not be the way you assume they are. Yet I draw a line between the iniquity of lying and the promise of coming at the truth tangentially. There are many ways to strike at truth, which is rarely one thing. Actors, bad and good, invite us to locate truth in uncharted regions of the heart and mind. Theatre workers enable our imaginations to touch alternative heavens and relationships and moral codes. This is not the same thing as lying. Nor should it be equated with facilitating massacres, ruining economies, or annihilating lives. In fact, theatrical forays into existences resembling our own often portend against these destructive events. Our leaders and representatives would do well to make this distinction.
Today I began re-reading Maurice Kurtz’s biography of Jacques Copeau. Within seven pages I was reminded of why Copeau is such a hero to me. He dedicated his life to a theatre of integrity, and he forged numerous paths in an effort to materialize his ideal. As a critic, and a critic of the critics, he insisted fiercely upon theatre production that put human interests above commercial ones. Not that money wasn’t important. His family’s intimate relationship to labor taught him the value of a centime. Yet Copeau remained steadfast in his conviction that financial reward should be a happy accident of, rather than the motivation behind, the production of good and purposeful art. He edited the writing of others with the same vivacity and honest care that he applied to his own work. He opened Le Theatre du Vieux-Colombier as an article of faith in the power of theatre to transfix attention and transform lives. Finally, he retreated to rural France with a group of teachers and actors to imagine a form of performance that would be both new and old at once. Each of these endeavors reverberated in its own particular circle of society and art, such that no area in which Copeau’s brave attention lingered would ever again be the same. As Albert Camus remarked, “In the history of the French theater, there are two periods: before Copeau and after Copeau.” His legacy beyond France is deep and broad. Yet in his own time, Copeau’s achievements were perceived as mediocre at best. He remained undaunted. His heart beat with a level of courage that doubt typically erodes in most of us.
Is it already too late for theatre’s authentic investigations when it becomes about box office returns? Is artistic innovation stymied or propelled by financial gain? Can we satisfy patrons hungry for value at the same time that we feed those who need their souls nourished? And what about what the performing artist needs from the transaction? Is it possible to entertain and feel personally fulfilled at once? These are basic questions, though the contradictions inherent in answering them imbue them with the power of mystery. Maybe it’s as simple as: what is most important? And, eminently more complex, can you live with the consequences of making that choice, whatever they may be? Boldly open a restaurant to cook for others, but accept that you may go hungry yourself sometimes. Plant rows of grape vines, and be ready to live through the rainy season in a tent until their fruit is ripe enough to press into wine for all. Greet strangers with an open heart, and know that many of them will rebuff your attempt. For goodness sake, dance in the streets and let them all laugh with you. Some will certainly join your reveling. Is there enough goodwill in the world to support such personal and public adventures? Copeau knew that there always would be.